Monthly Archives: June 2009

A sparkling flight

One of the more impress front doors in Napa.

One of the more impressive front doors in Napa.

Sometimes you just don’t appreciate a place because you see it damn near every day. Growing up in Sonoma but having close ties in Napa I would drive by the Domaine Carneros winery on an almost daily basis. I watched it get built when I was a small child and I noticed every little change in the landscaping or exterior of the French style chateux. Some days, as I made the run over from Sonoma to Napa, or vice versa, I would see this place three or four times a day.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a beautiful, stylish winery, but to be honest its “in your face” location right on Highway 121 and the countless tour buses I would see in its parking lot always gave me the impression it was a tourist trap. Then a few years ago while picking out a sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve I snagged a bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut for a steal at Safeway. Later that evening I was struck by the sophistication and elegance of the wine as well as its reasonable price. I also noticed that the label read “Domaine Carneros by Taittinger,” and before then I had no idea that this Carneros winery was owned by one of the premier French Champagne houses.

Christine and I found ourselves with some time on the recent Sunday afternoon and decided we should pay this winery in our backyard a visit. We were in Napa for the weekend and Domaine Carneros is about a five minute drive from the cottage. Walking up the 80 odd steps from the parking lot, I paused at a plaque that informed me the chateaux design is based upon a 17th century abbey press that is now the country home of the Taittinger family. After we made our way to the summit, Christine and I were greeted by a friendly host who informed us tastings were offered by table service and we were welcome to sit inside or on the expansive patio.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

I was a little disappointed  by the main lobby. After the magnificent entrance, I found it to be rather small and uninspiring, but I reminded myself this is a working winery and not a real chateaux. There is also a tour that Christine and I missed and that could very well offer peeks into Domaine’s hidden elegance.

The patio is a real stunner. Even though the temperature was pushing 96 degrees, Christine and I opted for a shady table on the patio. Table service wine tasting was new for me. We were presented with a menu that offered a selection of the sparkling flight or a red wine flight featuring Domaine’s well regarded Pinot Noirs. We opted for the sparkling flight that included the Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brut Rosé. I was familiar with the Brut and enjoyed it as much as I had in the past. The Blanc de Blancs I found to be bit yeasty and heavy, yet this could be because it was paired in the middle with the other wines. The Brut Rosé was simply delicious. I do think the hot weather had something to do with it, but this was a wine that was just well made, exhibiting notes of strawberry and peach but with a minerality in the finish that is emblematic of wines from the Carneros region. Christine and I opted for a glass of the Rosé after our flight and Christine flirted with the idea of purchasing a bottle but we knew we’d probably be back soon.

The main lobby.

The main lobby.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

A wind machine at sunset.

A wind machine at sunset.

Sparkling cocktails

Roman Candle

I recently received some interesting e-mails about cocktails made with sparking wine. I’ve always enjoyed my sparkling wine straight up, but I bet these drinks would add a little pep to a party. (The ladies especially would probably drink these with gusto.)

The last time I experimented with a wine cocktail was after a round of golf with trouble makers Bennie and John. I mixed some Syrah Rosé with vodka and club soda and served it on the rocks, and the result was terrible. John poured his out, and Bennie and I grimaced through ours before quickly switching to Irish Whiskey and beers.

These cocktail recipes are heavy on the fresh fruit and sound good although I can’t say that from experience. I’ve included the brand names of the sparking wines in the provided recipes but I’m sure anything dry and bubbly would work.


In a tall flute add:
4 ounces Korbel Brut (a sparkler for your Independence Day entertaining)
1 ounce Tuaca Italian liqueur (the Italian heritage lends itself to the cocktail’s name)
Garnish with dried cranberries

The cranberries move up and down the flute continuously.


Description: A light and refreshing blend of seasonal fruit, lemon & lime and Barefoot Bubbly.
Glassware: Pint glass
Garnish: Mint leaf

1 strawberry, hulled and sliced
4 grapes, cut in half
3 orange slices
4-5 mint leaves
3 oz sour mix
3 oz Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee

Combine fruit and sour mix in a pint glass with ice.  Shake well and top off with Barefoot Bubbly. Serve with straw.  Serves 1.

What I’m drinking …

The new White X white blend from X Winery.

The new White X white blend from X Winery.

A little sweetness every now and then, it ain’t a bad thing.

Now, for full disclosure I should say that X Winery is where Christine works, but that has not infringed upon my objectivity as a journalist. I’ve been enjoying X’s new white blend, appropriately called White X. This is a novel blend of mostly sauvy b with some Chardonnay and Muscat Blanc and a touch of Roussanne. The Muscat and Roussanne give the wine some sweetness that never gets cloying or overpowering. I usually avoid anything sweet like the plague but I honestly find the White X to be a refreshing and enjoyable summer sipper. The wine has a subtle, floral aroma that’s backed with rich buttery fruit flavors.

This wine would be a great conversation starter at a summer barbecue, and it’s something that people new to wine would enjoy and find easy to appreciate.

CoCo enjoyed the White X but said blending Sauvignon Blanc with Chardonnay made him nervous.

Bear River

CoCo checks the water before jumping in

CoCo checks the water before jumping in

The return of warm weather with the start of summer reminded me of one of the best little day trips me and the team took last summer. We drove up to Bear River reservoir in the foothills off Highway 88 in the El Dorado National Forest.

A colleague of mine had tipped me to the lake, which is one of her favorite spots to take her kayak. When we arrived I quickly could see why. The water is clean, blue and refreshing. The shore is littered with huge boulders that jut out into the lake and make perfect diving platforms. It was like a little Tahoe and Christine, CoCo and I had our own little beach to ourselves for the entire day. There is a rustic resort at the lake with cabins, RV parking and boat rentals.

When we went up to the lake it was just after all the major forest fires of last year had abated so the skies were still a little hazy but much clearer. It was a wonderful day, a simple day trip that is one of my best memories of last summer. Actually, earlier this week I thought about playing hooky from work and running back up to the lake with the dog. (Of course I didn’t! C’mon now!)

The one downside was that this was when Christine and I discovered that CoCo does not like it when we go swimming. Whenever I would jump into the water with him, he’d make a bee line toward me and start to whimper and scratch and snap at me until I swam back to the shore. Let me tell you, swimming with a 100 pound lab that’s snapping and scratching at you is not fun. It’s like being attacked by a hairy, midget shark. I guess it’s his little way of trying to protect me from drowning. I’d appreciate any suggestions on getting a dog over his water fears. He loves the water, he just freaks out when Christine and I go swimming.


What I’m drinking …

It's like candy!

It's like candy!

An authentic German Hefeweizen like Paulaner’s has an irresistible structure and balance. This is not just a beer, but a well designed beer. And not just well designed, but structured in such a way it’s as if you just couldn’t think of a better way to blend the components of water, malt and hops. This beer is truly soft; the ample carbonation isn’t fizzy but instead falls on the beer in silky layers. The beer has  strong notes of banana but those disappear in the finish, which is only marked by the malt and hops.

When I’m drinking an American hefie I’ll usually dunk a slice of lemon in it, but that would be too much acidity for this beer. American beer is light years beyond what it once was, but there are a few types of beer that domestic brewers have not been able to improve or at least emulate and one of those is the German Hefeweizen.

Wine tasting by bicycle

Lodi Lake

With the last of Lodi’s wonderful spring weather upon us this past weekend (it’s expected to be 96 by Friday), Christine and I decided we needed to do something outside. We hopped on our Electra cruiser bikes and pedaled over to Lodi Lake to check out the boat rentals. Our plan was to rent a two person kyack and paddle up the Mokelumne River that feeds into the lake, which is an impoundment. The river’s current is never that strong around the lake so it’s an easy two or three hour trip. Unfortunately, the city owns the boats and its rental policy forbids you from taking a boat outside of the lake. So while that plan may have been stymied we still enjoyed sitting on the bank of the lake for a few minutes discussing our next step.

Christine suggested we hit some local wineries, but ride our bikes rather than drive, and that sounded great to me. If you’re not familiar with cruiser bikes, these are slower, one speed bikes that are akin to older model Schwinns. This type of bike is popular in flat Lodi where there are no hills. We decided our fist stop would be Abundance Vineyards, a new tasting room on Turner Road a few miles west of Lodi. The ride may have been only a few miles, but I felt I was going to be killed about every five minutes. Turner Road has a shoulder of about half a foot and it felt much less as cars sped past us at nearly 60 mph.

Abundance Vineyards‘ tasting room has only been open for a few months but it already is becoming one of the more popular destinations for Lodi wine tourists. Located at 1150 W. Turner Rd., the winery is owned by brothers Ron and Dino Mencarini. The Mencarini family has been farming in Lodi for decades, but only recently decided to go into the wine business for themselves. The winery has an Italian motif with a lovely courtyard and a spacious tasting area. Abundance has a variety of wines, but my favorite was their Merlot, which I found to have a pleasant earthiness and subtle berry flavors. (I’m actually enjoying a glass of the Merlot as I write this.)

After Abundance, we went around the corner to The Lucas Winery at 18189 North Davis Road. Christine and I hadn’t been to Lucas since our very first wine tasting trip in Lodi when we moved here, almost five years ago, and I forgot how much I enjoyed the Lucas tasting room and the wines. Owners David and Heather Pyle Lucas make the most sophisticated and nuanced wines in Lodi. Their Chardonnay is simply outstanding. Christine’s particular favorite is the Zin Blossoms Rosé made of 100 percent Zinfandel. This dry Rosé has wonderful fruit flavors of Zin but retains a crisp body and clean finish that makes it just an excellent wine to drink on a beautiful afternoon. A tasting at Lucas costs $10, which is pricey for Lodi, but it comes with a tour of the winery and a complimentary glass. David Lucas himself makes an effort to add a personal touch and during our visit he took a group of tasters out to his vineyards to discuss how by pulling weak shoots from his vines he is able to maximize the flavors he wants in his grapes. Later, in his barrel room he discussed how he used one type of mites to devour a destructive type of mites as part of his commitment to organic farming.

We purchased a few bottles of wine and were saddling back up on the bikes when David Lucas, who had chatted with us during our visit, came out and warned us not to head back on Turner. “We lose someone on that road every year,” he said. Lucas, an avid biker, suggested another route that would take us winding through the nearby vineyards on aptly named Lucas Road (although I don’t know if that’s any relation to Lucas himself) to Woodbridge Road and back to Lodi.

On our way back into town we stopped at the grocery store and picked up ingredients for dinner. We decided on making a simple goat cheese pizza with sauteed spinach and garlic, carmelized onions and roasted walnuts and it paired wonderfully with a bottle of Zin Blossoms.

Goodbye you screaming, hairy man

It’s interesting how a brand of liquor can hold sentimental value for you.

I recently finished off my last bottle of Demidoff vodka. My father somehow picked up a case of this stuff from one of his many associates in the spirits industry. He’s not a vodka drinker so the case sat in a box in our garage until I discovered it when I was about 19 years old. I “liberated” quite a few of the bottles in my pre 21 years. I recall several parties at which people gave me a hard time for bringing some weird vodka they had never seen before. (But that’s kinda the rule with vodka drinkers isn’t it?  I mean if they’re drinking vodka they obviously aren’t that adventurous.) But even if they gave me a hard time, they didn’t mind taking shots of the stuff.

After I turned 21 I pretty much forgot about the vodka in the garage unless I needed a bottle in a pinch, like when a party started to run dry. Just a few months ago, however, my dad and I were cleaning out the garage and he unloaded the remaining bottles of Demidoff off on me. To be honest when I had them in my own freezer, I went through them a little quicker. I have never seen that brand in any liquor store anywhere. For me it had always been this unique vodka that I could only find in my parents’ garage. Perhaps I’ll never drink it again, but for me, this obscure brand at least had a subtle pull back to my youth.

Oh, and the back label had this awesome image:


Grilled meat and plinking

After dinner shooting

The perfect digestif, firearms.

During the past weekend, Christine and I had some friends over at the cottage for dinner. It was a typical, breezy evening in Carneros and we started off with drinks outside on the patio. When our friends Kate and Justin showed up, I should not have been surprised that Justin had brought his .17 rifle along. The sight of a couple of jackrabbits off in the vineyards got him primed for some shooting. I had never shot a .17 before and found it similar to a .22 magnum. His .17 had a smooth lever action and a dialed in scope. I had read quite a bit about the .17’s high velocity and how that translates into accuracy and can attest it’s true. I brought out my Ruger 10/22, a classic albeit a bit boring. We had a good time shooting (and missing) at the rabbits that are really more like vermin than lil johnny cotton tail and then had fun setting up and knocking down some beer cans.

For dinner I grilled up some tri tip and asparagus and Christine made a cilantro rice dish with queso fresco. I tried something new with the tri tip this time, I slow cooked it on a Weber with mesquite wood chips. I’ve never really believed that a handful of wood chips would translate into real smoky flavor but I was wrong. I slow cooked two roasts using indirect heat and sprinkled the water soaked chips on the hot coals. I changed the chips after flipping the meat over, after about 40 minutes of cooking. After about a hour and a half of cooking, the meat had that deep, dark color of barbecue and also a lovely aroma and taste of mesquite smoke. I’m not a complete convert to slow, low and smoky — because gas is just so much easier — but I have to admit that wood chips really do bring the flavor. I’ve got an old Weber at the house in Lodi and I think my next grilling adventure will be slow cooked brisket.

After dinner we did a little more shooting, (Christine even shot a few rounds with the .17) and then played some board games. Now, Bennie had brought over several different bottles of wine from his collection and I was a bit enthusiastic in my approach to tasting as many as possible. Justin and Kate, I swear next time I’ll make it through a round of Cranium, I swear!

The penance for my overindulgence was spending the next morning picking up spent brass with a raging, raging red wine headache.

Ahhh, the good man’s weakness.

Sometime soon, a tour through weed country?

I wrote a story last week about what the future could hold if California decided to legalize weed. Much of the article was based on the thoughts and opinions of Cliff Schaffer, a SoCal weed advocate who believes if the drug were legalized the industry that would spring up to produce marijuana would be something akin to the wine industry. Schaffer actually went so far as to describe a vision in which California is dotted with boutique pot growers each offering their own marijuana that is expressive of the terroir in which it grew.
Most folks probably think that is nonsense. And if your image of a weed smoker is some doped out, long-haired counter culture hippie then you would probably agree. But after living in Northern California and Oregon for my whole life, I have met countless people who smoked regularly and who buck that stereotypical image of a pot head. These people are mature professionals who not only smoke the drug but have a keen sense of appreciation for it too.
Schaffer himself describes the pot stores in his neighborhood as being filled with sophisticated yuppie types who pick their drug based on aroma, taste, appearance and quality of high. Hmmm, aroma, taste and appearance doesn’t that remind you of someone? Yes, the wine drinker.
I’ll never forget something I saw about 10 years ago when I was a teenager and I went to a Blues Traveler concert in Berkeley. As my girlfriend and I were driving to the show, we pulled up to a stoplight and a man in brand new BMW convertible pulled up next to us. I had the windows down and noticed that this guy —who looked like he was some software programmer — was puffing a joint. At the time, weed for me had always been some dark, mysterious drug that spoiled your brain and sapped your ambition. Imagine my shock at seeing some rich dude blazing away in broad daylight while he was driving.
That  experience taught me that weed had a much more diverse audience than what I had always been lead to believe. It also made me realize something else: It’s not going to be the hippie on the corner that legalizes marijuana, it’s going to be the dude in the BMW.

Harvest at Chateau St. Vert Bud

Harvest at Chateau St. Vert Bud