Monthly Archives: April 2009

Goodbye San Diego. Hello, Los Angeles!

San Diego ShoreLast week I set out from Annie and Simon’s house to see the Arizona wine country before heading over to San Diego.  When I first left St. Louis these stops were not on the itinerary, but the first week on the road had instilled a more leisurely mindset that continued through the second.

On the way into San Diego, I spent my first night sleeping in the car at a rest area.  This will take some getting used to.  My second night was at a campground on a beach north of the city.  It was pleasant, but not worth the $35 per night price tag.  The last night I met up with Doug to share his room US Grant Hotel, which made up for having to sleep in the car two nights before.

I could tell that San Diego is normally a beautiful town, but the weather did not cooperate with me much on my visit, save for a sunny afternoon on the cliffs just south of the pier.  Most of my time was spent in Ocean Beach, a surfing community to the northwest of downtown.  On the last day in town I traveled to the eastern hills to check out the relatively new Ramona Valley AVA.

Los AngelesI brought Doug from the conference back to his home in Los Angeles.  This is my first L.A. experience.  It had never been high on my list of places to visit, and I was sure that I was going to hate it when I got here.  Thus far I love it.  The weather is always sunny and at a temperature comfortable enough to wear a jacket, but you don’t have to.  It begs you to get outside.  I have been hiking at Runyon Canyon Park in West Hollywood, which provides great views of the city.  Healthy food is more accessible than junk food.  The traffic is horrifying, but I can avoid it.  AND the radio stations here are actually worth listening to!

The vast number of people allows for a comfortable anonymity similar to New York or Chicago, but people here smile and are open to making conversation.  Everyone is from someplace else.  The only two natives I met in San Diego were the guy who brought my bags to my hotel room and the guy who cleaned my windshield at the gas station.  I have yet to meet an L.A. local.

Macaroon StoreWe checked out the Beverly Hills shopping scene.  They have a store that exclusively sells macaroons.  So dangerous, but so delicious.  These were almost as good as those I became addicted to at the Loire Valley chateau.

Wine MerchantThe Beverly Hills wine scene did not disappoint, with their own version of The Wine Merchant demonstrating how to cater to the cost-no-object rich.  The selection consisted of the greatest names in wine and included the world’s most expensive bottle.  Mouton JeroboamThe Jeroboam (Three-Liter Bottle) of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was thought to be destroyed in World War II, only to be unearthed in Ethiopia in the early 1970s.  A gift from Phillipe Rothschild to Wine Merchant owner Dennis Overstreet.

Doug and Pam are providing me with a base for conducting operations in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties over the next few weeks.  Up to now, my path has led through the obscure vineyard land of the southwest.  As I prepare for the next leg, I am excited to see the homes of the wines I have been drinking and selling for the past five years.

For more photos from my second week on the road, click here.

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Wine Bloggers’ Conference

2009wbclogosmall1I will be participating in the 2009 Wine Bloggers’ Conference being held in Napa and Sonoma this July.  I am looking forward to meeting other wine writers and the live blogging sessions, the debates on rating systems and the winery tours.  I just signed up last week so I’m sure that spots are available.

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Ramona Valley AVA

Ramona ValleyThe Ramona Valley is 45 minutes northeast of San Diego, just past the first coastal mountain range.  Cool, moist air from the Pacific twenty-five miles to the west mingles with the arid air from the Colorado Desert twenty-five miles to the east.  During the October wildfire season, the Santa Ana winds tear through as they bring hot, dry air out to sea.  It sees an average of 16.5 inches of rain per year, barely half as much as Sonoita in the Arizona mountains.

The region, which gained AVA status in 2006, is home to twelve wineries, though one was in the process of bankruptcy when I visited.  There are no tasting rooms in Ramona that I know of.  According to local sources, a tasting room on the premises requires an operating license that comes with the price tag of $250,000, which I find hard to believe, but the lack of tasting rooms and wineries in general serves as convincing evidence.  The wildfires of 2003 and 2007 damaged some vineyards and contributed to a lack of development in the region.  The primary grapes are originally from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.

Eagle's NestThe one establishment I visited was Eagle’s Nest Cottage and Winery.  The operation is a husband and wife team who have planted Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo, Viognier and Zinfandel .  They offer a cottage for two, which is connected to the winery with a beautiful view of the valley below.  Wife Julie manages the cottage and maintains the vineyards; husband Dennis concentrates on new plantings and the winemaking.

One of the perks for those who stay at the cottage are in depth conversation with Dennis on the winemaking process.  The experience provided me with my first barrel tastings, which has been one of the highlights of the trip thus far because it allowed me to taste unfinished wine components that will be blended together.

The difference between free-run juice and press juice is stark.  When the grapes are first put into the press, the weight of grapes on top of one another causes a first wave of juice to flow.  This free-run juice is kept separate from the pressed juice.  Its fermented and aged independently before being blended with the press juice to make the final wine.  The free run Cabernet Sauvignon was light-colored, but it had a very concentrated, complex aroma.  The press juice from the same harvest was dense, dark and tannic, but less complex.

The most exciting wines of the day were the white ports tasted in barrel.  One was made from Viognier, the other from an obscure Rhone grape called Picpoul.  I was more partial to the Viognier, but both were interesting.

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Kief-Joshua Vineyards

homelogoOn my jaunt through the Sonoita AVA in southern Arizona, I came across a budding young winery that shows potential.  I would not normally make that assertion without tasting the produce of the vineyards, but in the case of Kief-Joshua, that is not possible.

Kief Manning planted his first vines on “winery row” in 2005.  It takes three years for the vine to produce a commercial crop, thus the 2008 harvest, which will be released this fall, was the first on the estate.  To sustain themselves on the path toward 100% estate production, the winery purchases grapes and juice from California and Arizona.  They currently feature Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.  New plantings are progressing at an acre per year and the vineyard is expected to fully supply the winery’s grapes within a decade.  He has planted an eclcectic range of ten varieties: Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Reisling, Semillion and Viognier.

Kief has created a sustainable model for his vineyards – foregWinery KJoing the use of pesticides and herbicides.  He was trained in biodynamic viticulture in Australia, and he has adopted many of its principles.  He said he will never be able to put the term “biodynamic” on his labels because his estate cannot produce enough fertilizer for its needs.  Everything on an official biodynamic estate must come from the property.

I have been attracted to the idea of biodynamics because it emphasizes symbiotic relationships as a substitute for chemicals.  In the case of Kief-Joshua, they promote the presence of praying mantis, owls and hawks to control pests.  My favorite animal that they employ are the Baby Doll Sheep.  Full grown these mini-munchers stand two feet tall, too short to reach the grapes, but the perfect height to feed on weeds and grass.

Mini MuncherThe combination of thoughtful viticulture and well made wines (albeit from other sources) promises a bright future for Kief-Joshua.  I will be checking back in with them regularly.

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Sonoita AVA

Sonoita VineyardsWhen I left St. Louis I was intent on tearing my way across the country to hit the classic growing regions north of Los Angeles within five days of my departure.  Thankfully I realized on the road that this is a rare oppotunity to visit the regions that aren’t found on the shelves in Missouri.  Sonoita is near the Mexican border in Arizona, a little less than an hour southeast of Tucson.  For me it was another of the many names I’ve had to memorize over the years without thinking that I may go there one day and enjoy the wines.  There are at least eight producers in the area, but many are not open for tours and tastings during the weekdays.  If you find yourself on the way to Sonoita, I suggest making it a weekend trip.

Arizona seemed to be a curious place to grow grapes, particularly in the southern part of the state (there are some producers in the northern mountains near Sedona, but I did not get the chance to check them out) and as I drove through the sparse Tucson landscape I envisioned extreme viticulture akin to the conditions on Mt. Etna in Sicily.  As the interstate gave way to the two-lane highway, the road began to climb and I was back in mountain scenery as beautiful as I had experienced in New Mexico.  The elevation is responsible for cooler temperatures – mainly 80 degree days in the summer – and sufficient rainfall – an average of 29 inches per year.  Kief Manning of Kief-Joshua Vineyards named frost and hail as the most prominent threats to viticulture and Fran Lightly of Sonoita Vineyards mentioned significant damage to their Cabernet vines by deer feeding on the budding plant in spring.  The deer have good taste.  Sonoita Vineyards now has a seven-foot-tall fence lining their property.

In my research of the area I looked up Tucson on Wikipedia and found that they have a monsoon season from July until late August and often September.  I have read that southeast Asia would be a wonderful place to grow grapes if it were not for the excessive rain during the harvest.  Rain in the latter part of the growing season often leads to fungal diseases and diluted grape juice.  I was curious if this domestic monsoon had a negative effect on Sonoita.  Kief explained that the rains often provided a respite from late summer heat and that the humidity was a non-issue.  “The humidity levels often drop from 90% to less than 10% in a matter of minutes.”  I’ll be profiling Kief-Joshua in my next post.

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in the area.  It is a lovely property with over 40 acres planted.  I tasted seven wines – four dry and three sweet.  The two dry whites were a Colombard and a Sauvignon Blanc.  Both showed true varietal character, particularly the Sauvignon.  For the reds I enjoyed the proprietary blend called MeCaSa – Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.  It had a very complex nose and was a bit lighter bodied than I would normally expect from this blend, which is not something I’m prone to complain about.  The sweet wines were classic examples of the American style, though one did have a heavy dose of sulphur.  A Cabernet Sauvignon is available, but is not opened for the tastings.  They offer back vintages of the Cab to the 1980’s as well.  Fran has had the 1984 at the last two staff Christmas parties and has been impressed both times.  The current release is $40 and the 1984 is $100.  The lineup proved to me that Sonoita is capable of producing varietally correct wines that would fit right in with other examples from California.

My time in the region was brief, but I came away with a newfound respect for the produce of America’s lesser known wine sources.

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Welcome To Your Office. Can I Take Your Order?

McDonald'sAfter an expedition into Arizona wine country I decided to get an early start on my days in San Diego.  It’s 9PM Pacific and the sun is long gone.  Tonight will probably be my first attempt at seeing how comfortably I can sleep in a driver’s seat that I’ve been sitting in all day.  My grand plan for internet access on the road suffered a small hiccup when I came to find that this McDonald’s charges for Wi-Fi.  Personally I think that internet access should be treated as an inalienable right, second only to life, liberty and water.  It’s only $2.99 for two hours, but that adds up.

Traveler’s Note: When a sign says “Next Services 33 Miles” it doesn’t necessarily mean that those services will still be in business.  The following twenty miles were a bit nerve racking.

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Thank you, Annie and Simon

p4181876Today I depart Carefree, Arizona where I have spent the better part of four days in the vicinity of the swimming pool.  This break has provided a chance to decide how I want to go about this expedition.  I was only able to take this time because of Simon and Annie Lehrer, who have been excellent hosts.  Check out Annie’s website – cheesemongerswife.com

We went to the local wine shop, AZ Wine, on Saturday night for a Bourbon and Barbecue tasting.  It was a great line up.  Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s and Woodford Reserve were the highlights.  I picked up a Marsannay Rosé from Regis Bouvier that was great for the hot tub [I have yet to try a Marsannay Rosé that wasn’t worth the money ($16)], a bottle of Segura Viudas (for $8) and the find of the trip thus far – Domaine de Canton.

p4181875Canton is ginger-flavored and is the sister liqueur to St. Germain, which is rare in Missouri because none of the distributors are representing it as of yet.  Every now and then, we got our hands on St. Germain, which is a slightly sweet, elderflower liqueur, but I had never even seen a picture of the Canton bottle.  I like the St. Germain on its own, on the rocks or in mixed drinks that include some orange liqueur.  The Canton does not do nearly as well by itself.  It is drier than the St. Germain and the ginger lends a spiciness that needs to be tempered.  We started with Canton Royales – four parts Segura Viudas Sparkling Wine and one part Canton.  It helped spread out the flavorful liqueur, but did not provide any extra complexity.  Simon’s concoction added triple sec to the mix which gave it the citrus notes it had needed.

I’m off to Elgin, Arizona in the Sonoita AVA where I’ll be asking, “What’s the deal with your monsoon season?”

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