Taste is all in the family

The Family Winemakers of California held their 25th annual tasting on Aug. 16 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the site of their first tasting back when Pete Wilson was governor and gas was $1.12 a gallon.

More than 100 wineries, boutique-sized for the most part and focused in the San Francisco Bay Area, offered various varieties and vintages for media, trade and consumers. The Family Winemakers of California is a political and policy voice for small, family-owned wineries. The group lobbied water issues, fees and taxes, warning labels, farmer’s market tastings and farming regulations this past year at the State Capitol and regulatory agencies.

Check out some of the especially good wines. Best chance to grab a bottle or case is through the winery’s website.

Carlisle 2012 “The Derivative” White Wine ($34)

This blend of Sonoma Valley Semillon from Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley Muscadelle from Pagani Ranch and Russian River Palomino from Saitone Ranch has richness up front that yields to its medium-high acidity for a refreshing finish. Information: CarlisleWinery.com.

Chateau Montelena 2014 Potter Valley Riesling ($25)

The winery made famous when its Chardonnay beat the competition at the 1976 Paris Tasting also makes a darn good Riesling with fruit from Potter Valley northeast of Ukiah. Its acidic pop turns into a light mouthful of spice, apricots and pineapple. Chateau Montelena can be found at fine wine stores. Information: Montelena.com.

Jones Family Vineyards 2012 “The Sisters” Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)

Complex with layers and layers of aroma melting into a flavor profile of cloves, jasmine, leather and eucalyptus. Exceptional depth and sophistication. Real show-stopper from Calistoga. Information: JonesWine.com.

Wallis Family Estate 2012 “Little Sister” Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)

Thomas Rivers Brown is quite the winemaker. He crafts Wallis’ exceptional lineup of Cabs and those of the aforementioned Jones Family Vineyards. “Little Sister” is a blend of 95 percent Cab, and 2.5 percent each Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc from Diamond Mountain Road. This is a balanced giant. Information: WallisEstate.com.

Silver Wines 2010 Pinot Noir Coteau Palmer ($45)

Owner and winemaker Benjamin Silver left Zaca Mesa in 2000 to start his own label in Santa Barbara. His Pinot has earthy aromas and red fruit flavors. He also makes interesting Chardonnay, Sangiovese and Syrah from noted sources in the Santa Barbara area. Information: SilverWines.com.

Laird Family Estate 2013 Cold Creek Ranch Chardonnay ($30)

The wine grape source for some of Napa’s biggest players, Laird holds onto a small percentage of its best fruit for its label. The Chardonnay is exceptional. Eleven months in French oak, with 50 percent MLF. Creamy, but not a butterball. There’s enough acid there to balance it out. Information: LairdFamilyEstate.

Most of these wines are not easy to find, but are worth the search.

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Yield light but quality is there

Winemakers literally are enjoying the fruits of their labor.

The wine grape harvest has started in Lodi and throughout the state, perhaps a few weeks earlier than what might be considered normal. Good growing conditions helped get things rolling, giving way to some rain and even hail in the late spring. The result, according to Mokelumne Glen Vineyard manager Brett Koth, is lower yield but really nice quality.

“I would have to say it must be something with the drought, water, something like that,” Koth said when asked what might have contributed to the light yield. “I know here around Lodi, we had and some other spots had some hail damage. I’m hearing all over, not just here but in Napa and Sonoma, especially their white grapes are down 10 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent even.”

Last Friday, Markus Niggli, winemaker for Borra Vineyards in Lodi and his own label, Markus Wine Company, harvested some of Koth’s Kerner grapes, a German varietal he will blend with Riesling and Bacchus for Markus’ Artist Series Kerner Blend. Soon, Niggli will pick Koth’s Gewurztraminer to blend with Viognier for Borra’s White Fusion.

Niggli, who was born in Switzerland and has traveled the world on his wine journey, has seen his star rise by introducing unique wines made from grapes unfamiliar to many in this country.

“Being in the front and showcasing what this region can do, we’re not just filler product anymore,” he said. “We are much more than that, pushing in that hard direction of these unique varietals, pushing forward.”

Niggli likes picking certain grape varietals early to keep the acid high, making for a crisp, refreshing style of wine.

While Niggli and his crew were busy at Mokelumne Glen, not more than a few miles away, Harney Lane’s Kyle Lerner was harvesting chardonnay on his property in Lodi. After they were picked, the grapes were immediately pressed and the juice went into tanks to cold settle for 36 hours, allowing the solids to fall to the bottom, leaving a clear juice. The juice currently is in barrels fermenting — 35 to 40 percent in new French oak, the remainder in neutral French oak.

“The ageability in wood versus stainless steel is entirely different because you still have that oxygen transfer through the wood and there’s something magical that happens in that barrel that you can’t duplicate in a stainless steel tank or anything else,” Lerner said.

Once fermented, the wine rests on its dead yeast cells, which are stirred occasionally to add depth, complexity and creaminess. About half of the wine undergoes secondary malolactic fermentation, giving it a buttery flavor, then that’s blended with the wine that did not undergo MLF, so as to balance the final product. The wine will go into bottles and likely be released about a year from now.

“Chardonnay is a winemaker’s wine,” Lerner said. “Chardonnay’s pretty non-descript, so what makes Chardonnay is really what happens in the winery for the most part.”

Now that the growers have done their job, the winemakers are starting their magic show right about now.


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Winemakers thinking outside the box

Winemakers Daniel Fishman and Drew Huffine were roused from sleep at about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

They drove for several hours, one in a flatbed truck, from their respective homes to Lodi. Their mission was to collect about 2 1/2 tons total of Austrian grape varietals Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch from the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard in Lodi, owned and managed by the Koth family.

Why go to such lengths for a relatively small payload of “niche” winegrapes?

“The other stuff has been done,” said Fishman, winemaker for Hatton Daniels in Santa Rosa. “I really like Austrian wines, so when we found this vineyard, it was pretty cool that they have some of this here.”

Fishman and Huffine, who makes wines for R2 and his Trail Marker label, learned about Mokeulumne Glen last year through an online ad.

“We make similar styles of wine, so we’re always on the lookout for interesting things,” Huffine said. “I looked (at the ad) and saw Zweigelt. … Zweigelt in Lodi!”

Fishman placed the order with Brett Koth sight-unseen.

“I called Brett and he said, ‘Do you want to come and look at it?” Fishman said. “And I said, ‘I don’t have time. I’ll just take it.’ And then we got here and it tasted better than I was hoping.”

Fishman and Huffine both made about 35 cases of each varietal last year and will make about the same amount this year, though the Blaufrankisch is a little heavier this year and might yield more juice. This is not a moneymaking venture for these guys. But they dig being two of the few winemakers in North America crafting Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch. Koth said Mokelumne Glen is the only vineyard in California growing Zweigelt, and one of just a few in the country growing Blaufrankisch.

“For so many of us, what’s fun about these grapes is they’re sort of uncharted territory,” Huffine said. “We don’t have a lot of wine making tradition here anyway, but that said, even making Cab in Napa for 100 years and Pinot in Sonoma for 50, there are ways to do things. You can veer from those, but you are very conscious of doing that. And what’s fun about working with a vineyard like this, working with the Koth’s, working with Zweigelt, is there isn’t a way to do it. There isn’t a way this wine is supposed to be made, a way this wine is supposed to taste. Rather, we just have a great opportunity to just try it. That’s what I really love about Zweigelt and this site.”

The Zweigelt harvested Friday was at about 20-21 brix.

“What’s cool about the Zweigelt is it really seems to keep its acidity out here, even though we are picking early,” Fishman said. “And it has enough fruit, even at that low alcohol level.”

Huffine said he intends to follow the same vinification process this year as last year: four-day cold soak, completely native fermentation with no additions — not even yeast, with daily pumpovers, pressed immediately at dryness and straight into barrels, where malolactic fermentation will begin naturally, and an addition of sulfur at the end. The result will be easy-to-drink red wines with light body, light tannin and high acid that are great with food.

Fishman and Huffine credit the Koth’s for producing quality fruit on their 14 planted acres, where more than 50 German and Austrian varietals are growing along the Mokelumne River.

“These guys pay so much attention to the small blocks,” Fishman said. “That makes a pretty big difference.”



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The nose knows

Among the more fun aspects of wine is the aroma.

Certain scents can take us back to a time and a place in our lives.

During a recent Sommelier Boot Camp class at Mile Wine Co. in Stockton, one of the participants smiled as he pulled a glass away from his face containing a white wine that I brought — the 2014 Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Valle Isarco DOC Gruner Veltliner.

“It’s 10 o’clock on a June morning and we’re about to watch ‘Perry Mason’ at my grandma’s house,” he said. “This reminds me of my grandma’s house — mothballs and cedar.”

Though no one else said they had been transported to their grandmother’s couch after sniffing, some believed the aroma reminded them of an old lady’s closet — cardigan and macrame. Maybe the power of suggestion was at play. For me, the aroma sent me back to elementary school playing on the blacktop with one of those big, red, rubber kickballs. Some smiled and humored me with a nod, while others rolled their eyes like I was nuts. But that’s what aromas and smells can do — conjure memories.

Gruner Veltliner is one of those varietals that can conjure memories. It’s fun and uncomplicated, yet interesting, and has fast become one of my summertime favorites.

Does Gruner Veltliner really smell like mothballs and kickballs? Not literally. And it definitely doesn’t taste like those items. Gruner Veltliner is versatile and food friendly. It goes well with cheese, such as chevre; fleshy fish, like bass, cod or salmon and all shellfish, especially oysters.

The 2014 Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Valle Isarco DOC Gruner Veltliner ($19) is a fine example. Pale-gold in color, dry, light-bodied, bright with acidity and tart citrus and melon flavors. It has fairly intense mineral, fescue and green herb notes with a petillant texture and medium alcohol (13.8 percent ABV). If you haven’t tried Gruner Veltliner, it’s closer to Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay, but it isn’t exactly like either of them.

Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine region known for growing some of the world’s best Pinot Grigio. We also sampled the 2014 Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Valle Isarco DOC Pinot Grigio ($19). The aroma took me to a beach dampened by morning fog. The color is pale lemon, the nose and palate are a little richer and more complex than the Gruner Veltliner, which spends six months in stainless steel tanks. The Pinot Grigio was 2/3 fermented and stored in stainless steel tanks, and 1/3 fermented and stored in oak casks over six months. The nose is of toast, caramel, crabapple, melon rind and citrus. The palate is dry, the acid is medium-high with medium flavor intensity, and medium alcohol (13 percent ABV). It has cool climate characteristics, as far as the brighter-side-of-citrus flavors go, and pairs well with fennel and orange salad, grilled sea bass, and poultry.

When it comes to memories, follow your nose.

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Life flows downstream at Upstream Wines

Friend or foe, guests at the Watts’ home in Lodi were guaranteed a good time.

At least, that was the family’s hope.

Their tradition of hospitality lives today, though an invitation to drop by isn’t necessary.

The home where third generation grower Craig Watts grew up has been transformed into an art gallery and tasting room, providing a true feast for the senses.

At Upstream Wines at Watts Winery at 17036 North Locust Tree Road just south of Highway 12, visitors can stroll the grounds or gaze at the work of resident artist Joe Lee and other artists. What once was the Watts’ living room and kitchen now is the tasting room, accented by a black baby grand piano, the very one Watts learned to play on, and one of six in his collection.

Craig and his wife, Sheri Watts, owners of the winery, operated a tasting room at Vino Piazza from 1999-2011, then converted their home into a hospitality hub, and moved to Walnut Grove. Now, visitors can feel at home in their former home.

“We needed more space, so we moved over here,” Sheri Watts said. “This is the family property. My husband grew up in this house. When you came into this house, you always had a good time.”

Voices and laughter faintly could be heard as Lee gave us a tour of the garage turned art gallery. He and bottler Mike Tarnowski resurfaced the garage floor and installed ceiling fans, lighting, French doors, and retractable floor-to-ceiling windows that allow the cooling breeze to blow inside.

Lee couldn’t have been more gracious as he showed off his paintings, some commissioned by professional athletes and coaches, including Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, as well as portraits depicting old Lodi, jazz musicians, and scenes from rural San Joaquin Valley.

“I try to get more agriculture in here,” said Lee, who grew up in Linden, but has called Lodi home the past 35 years. “I’m trying to get San Joaquin agriculture and farm life because there is so much of it.”

The voices and laughter grew louder as we walked past the tasting room, and entered another room, where other artists’ work is displayed. Then, we moved to the tasting room with its raised center island, where Sheri and staffers Shannon Clarke and Kenny Martin offered samples of Watts’ eclectic collection of fine wines, all from estate fruit grown in Lodi and Clements Hills.

Particularly pleasing was the Watts Chardonnay made in stainless steel with scant creaminess from malolactic fermentation, and bright acidity.

It isn’t every day you can try Montepulciano in Lodi, but the Italian varietal in all of its cherry, blackberry and black olive splendor is available at Watts, as well as Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, dessert wines made from late harvest Zinfandel and the Portuguese varietal, Souzao, and of course, Zinfandel.

“We jumped in with two feet, not knowing what we were doing,” Sheri Watts said. “We’ve drowned a few times, but we’ve survived.”

Go to Upstream Wines at Watts Winery and see what all the fun is about.

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Variety spices life at Mokelumne Glen

LODI —  Brett Koth stands in his family’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyard and tells the story of how it all started.

How his dad, Bob, got hooked on German wines some 25 years ago while visiting his daughter, Ann-Marie, who was studying in Mainz, Germany, on a Fulbright scholarship. How Bob came home, pulled his tokay vines and started planting Riesling, Dornfelder, Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and dozens of other German and Austrian varietals on his property near the Mokelumne River.

What the Koths have wrought is perhaps the most eclectic collection of German grapes growing anywhere outside the Rhineland.

“It’s been said Bob was crazy to start doing this,” said family matriarch Mary Lou Koth after spending a warm summer morning trimming Gewurtztramier vines with Ann-Marie and her boyfriend. “Maybe he was.”

Crazy successful.

More than 50 varietals, including eight grown in commercial quantities, ranging from big, red Dornfelder to light-bodied, mineral-driven Kerner, call the Koths’ rolling 28 acres, of which 14 are planted, home. And there’s solid demand for their bounty. Borra and M2 in Lodi, Hatton Daniels in Santa Rosa, Ramey in Healdsburg, Holman Cellars and POE in Napa, and Forlorn Hope in Murphy’s are doing cool stuff with the Koth’s fruit.

And to think the madness started when a curious father had dinner with his ambitious daughter thousands of miles from home.

“I didn’t realize this one trip to this one restaurant was going to change everything,” said Ann-Marie, who’s a teacher, just like her parents were. “He had a stereotype of the very schlocky, very sweet Rieslings — California Kool-Aid. And he sipped it and it had a very different taste.

“So, that changed everything. I didn’t realze what I was doing.”

Lodi’s Mediterranean climate — warm days giving to mild nights with breezes off the San Joaquin Delta — and sandy loam soil are good conditions for growing all sorts of grapes, including varieties from one of the world’s coldest wine regions. Where some German varietals struggle to ripen in their homeland and other places where they’re grown, Lodi has the warmth to get the job done. And the loamy soil over crushed granite in the Mokelumne sub-AVA provides pleasing mineral components to their flavors.

Much of what is planted at Mokelumne Glen is experimental. Right now, rows and rows of this and that are growing in an area Brett, who oversees much of the operation, calls the German collection: Affenhelter, Blauer Portugieser, Fruhburgunder, Regent, Rothberger, Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), Albalonga, Bacchus, Faber, Forta, and many others.

Brett said his dad always has been a tinkerer.

“He started out with, ‘OK, I want to get as many as I can and put in small amounts and then start experimenting,’ ” said Brett, paraphrasing his dad, who was busy working in the vineyard on his riding mower during my visit. “OK, these work. Let’s start planting more of these.”

Here are the characteristic qualities of some German varietals, should they cross your path:

• Zweigelt: A higher-acid red wine that has a bright cherry and red fruit quality.

• Blaufrankisch: The result of pairing Zweigelt with St. Laurent. Similar body and flavor profile as Zweigelt.

• Dornfelder: Big red wine with blackberry, plum and dark fruit flavors.

• Kerner: White wine whose parents are Riesling, a white grape, and Trollinger, a red grape. It’s an approachable, everyday Riesling.

The Koths had their own wine label, Mokelumne Glen, from 1998-2010, but have been concentrating solely on growing and supplying grapes of a different stripe to winemakers who are thinking outside the box.

“Probably I started a little on the slower side. Wasn’t sure about it,” Brett said about the transition to German varietals. “Now, I wouldn’t want to do any of the other ones.”


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High school students cause Bottle Shock

The makers of the Best of Show Red at the Bottle Shock Open last month in Lodi have not had the pleasure of tasting their work.


They aren’t old enough yet.

But when each member of the 2014-15 Future Farmers of America viticulture class at Pitman High in Turlock turns 21, legal drinking age, he or she will have a bottle of their award-winning 2014 syrah waiting with their name on it.

With fruit sourced from Charlie and Mamie Starr and advice from the Lodi Amateur Vintners Association, the students crafted a wine that topped hundreds of entrants in the second rendition of a competition celebrating the home wine maker. The judging took place last month at the Lodi Grape Festival grounds. Some of the winning wines were available for tasting at the awards party on July 13 at Wine and Roses in Lodi.

Krista Vannest, who teaches the Future Farmers of America viticulture class at Pitman High, said her principal had heard of a winemaking program at St. Helena High in the Napa Valley and decided he wanted Pitman to offer a similar class. So, the students created a vineyard about three years ago behind the baseball field on campus and planted cabernet sauvignon.

In a couple years, if all goes well, their cabernet might be ready for harvest and they can make wine with it. The class has used fruit that has been donated to them, while their cabernet vineyard matures. Last year, the students made one barrel of wine and didn’t enter the Bottle Shock Open. This year, the students made two barrels with syrah grapes donated by the Starrs, who have been growing grapes in Acampo for years. The students harvested the grapes with Charlie driving his tractor alongside, showing them which bunches to pick.

“The students do all of the harvest, they do all of the primary fermentation, the punch downs, the testing for sugar,” Vannest said. “We graph out the brix as they change and convert, and as soon as we are out of sugars, we do our press and it’s driven off campus that exact day.”

It’s against the law for alcoholic beverages to be on a high school campus. So John Bischoff, a home winemaker and co-founder of LAVA, stored the students’ wine at his cellar and tested it along with his wine. (By the way, Bischoff took home gold for his meritage blend of Bordeaux varietals, three silvers and one bronze award at this year’s Bottle Shock).

Bischoff mentored the students and encouraged them to enter their syrah in this year’s contest. Pitman FFA not only took home Best of Show Red, but also Best First Time Winemaker. The winners in every category received a beautiful mosaic made by area artists.

“They did very well,” Bischoff said. “They have some good students in that group.”

The Bottle Shock Open began two years ago when other home winemaking competitions funded by city governments were axed by budget cuts. The Bottle Shock Open gives amateur wine makers the opportunity to learn from LAVA members and have their wines evaluated by experts who provide them with feedback.

“It was a fun competition,” said Todd Hafner, a geologist and wine enthusiast, who judged the Bottle Shock Open this year. “You get all kinds of wines. It’s really interesting because you get to experience flaws you don’t normally get when you buy commercial wine. But on the other hand, there were some fantastic wines that were commercial quality.”

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Zwei, Zwei again

It can be a quandary.

It’s hot outside. You’re standing by the grill, ready to throw a big piece of red meat on the grate, and a nice glass of red wine would go perfectly with the meal. The classic pairing might be Syrah or Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon. Nothing against any of them, but those varietals, though great with steaks and roasts, tend to be tannic and “hot,” meaning higher in alcohol — not always great when the mercury is registering 90-plus degrees.

What to do?

Reach for a bottle of Zweigelt.

Never heard of it? Zweigelt is an Austrian grape variety noted for its light tannin, light body, low alcohol, medium acidity and medium flavor intensity of cherries in varying stages of ripeness. It has enough heft to stand up to red meat with enough restraint to take on a slight chill, which makes it delightful on a hot summer day. If you know someone who doesn’t like reds because they’re “too big,” pour them a glass of Zweigelt. They might be surprised.

What is Zweigelt?

Zweigelt is the most widespread red wine grape planted in Austria and was developed in 1922 by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt, who crossed St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch. That’s the wine geeks’ definition. For the rest of us, the definition of Zweigelt is: it’s delicious.

Where to find Zweigelt?

It’s not an easy variety to find at your neighborhood mega mart, but if a cookout is in your immediate future, ask the manager of your favorite wine store.

Which Zweigelt is worth finding?

Zantho from Burgenland — Austria’s warmest wine growing region. Light ruby core with a rose-colored rim, aromas of cherries, cocoa, dried herbs and raspberries. Clean on the palate with medium acidity, spicy notes, blackberries and black licorice. Low alcohol and low tannin with a medium finish.

Besides it being so easy to drink, Zweigelt generally is not expensive. Zantho Zweigelt, for instance, averages about $15 a bottle, according to Snooth.com.

Don’t let the hard-to-pronounce name intimidate you. Zweigelt (TSVYE-gelt) is immensely approachable. Give it a try this summer.

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Pinot Days a must for pinot lovers

For pinot noir enthusiasts, it doesn’t get much better than Pinot Days San Francisco.

The 11th annual fest took place on June 20 at the Metreon’s City View Room, where 95 wineries, most from California, offered their recently released vintages for members of the trade and everyday pinot lovers to taste.

Winemakers, proprietors, and marketing and sales reps were behind the tables pouring, which made for great opportunities to speak with those intimately familiar with their wine.

Pinot’s wide range of styles, from fruit-forward to earthy, was on full display.

Among the highlights:

2013 Sojourn Cellars Gap’s Crown, Sonoma Coast ($59)

Gap’s Crown Vineyard sits high along a steep hillside on rocky soil where the vines are stressed, making for a dense, concentrated, sturdy pinot with earthy flavors, like forest floor and mushrooms. Rated 96 points by Pinot Report, 95 points by Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate, and 94 points by Wine Enthusiast.

2013 Sojourn Sangiacomo, Sonoma Coast ($54)

Sojourn’s ninth vintage from the Sangiacomo Vineyard on the western base of Sonoma Mountain has sweet, red cherry flavors with medium acidity and a silky mouthfeel with a tart finish. Rated 96 points by Pinot Report, 91 points by Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate, and 91 points by Wine Enthusiast.

2012 Pali Wine Company Riviera, Sonoma Coast ($21)

Raspberry, anise, minerality, medium acidity and a slightly tart finish. The Riviera has nice complexity at an attractive price point. Rated 93 points by Pinot Report.

Pali’s 2013 Huntington ($22.50) was ranked 86th on Wine Spectator’s 2014 top 100 list of best wines.

2010 Panthea Siren, Anderson Valley ($28)

Winemaker Kelly Boss and his wife, Jessa, won a silver medal in the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition and the 13th Pinot Noir Shootout. The Siren is a blend of four clones (Pommard, Swan, Dijon and R31) ranging from the warmer Boonville climate to the cooler deep end of the Anderson Valley. Classic cherry on the palate, caramel on the finish.

2012 Ram’s Gate, Carneros ($40)

Garnet color, silky mouthfeel from a pinot noir dominated (95 percent) blend from select sites, including their estate vineyard. Dried roses on the nose, fully ripe on the palate with a peppery finish.

2012 Foley JA Ranch, Santa Rita Hills ($55)

Clones 115 and 113 from Foley’s estate have produced a pinot with ripe cranberry, tart cherry, raspberry, floral notes, such as violets, and a cedar component from 100 percent new French oak. More up-front, rich, yet delicate.

2013 Erin E. Wines, Sonoma Coast ($37)

Erin Busch has three kids and a passion for winemaking. Busch worked for other wineries and has branched out, making cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and 50 cases of pinot from the Sonoma State Vineyard in newly founded wine territory between Carneros and the Petaluma Gap. “I’m trying to keep the grassroots thing going,” she said.

2012 Comptche Ridge Vineyards, Mendocino County ($47)

John and Mike Weir have four clones, three of them Dijon, growing on eight acres of land 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean near Boonville. The fruit can hang a long time because of the cooling ocean influence, which also shows itself in the form of a whisp of salinity on the palate, along with earthy flavors.

Pinot Days promises to return next year, so keep it in mind if you love pinot. Information: pinotdays.com.

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Oak Yeah!

LODI — Dan Panella sighed and rolled his eyes.

One of the first efforts from his brand-new Oak Farm Vineyards Winery on DeVries Road, the 2014 Albarino, recently earned Double Gold, Best in Show White and Best in Region White at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in Sacramento.

Garnering such a payload from the oldest wine competition in the country, where more than 2,800 entries from 743 wineries were evaluated by 72 judges on 18 panels, has elicited feelings of pride, validation and even pressure for Panella, whose family has farmed in Lodi since the early 1900s.

“It’s like a band who has a really good album,” said Panella, who plays guitar. “We don’t want to be one-hit wonders.”

That seems hardly possible with winemaker Chad Joseph at the controls. Joseph has crafted award-winning wines for years at several area wineries. His deft touch with fruit sourced from two young, postage stamp-sized vineyards in the Jahant and Alta Mesa sub-appellations in east Lodi — one a Spanish clone, the other a Portuguese clone — produced a lemon-colored Albarino with true varietal character: Damp sea stone minerality, white nectarine, peach, lime zest and crisp acidity. Cold fermented in stainless steel, the wine rested on its lees (dead yeast cells) for a short time before it was bottled in December.

Tasting along the way, Panella and Joseph believed they had something special, a synergy between the clones, working together like a rhythm and lead guitar.

“The style of winemaking is to capture the essence of the grape and the brightness and the fruitiness without losing it by having it age in oak or having it stay too long in the tank,” Joseph said. “We really try to capture that.”

Panella said the Albarino paired well with a mild blue cheese tart he had recently, and that it’s great on its own or with light dishes, such as mild cheeses, fish, chicken and salads.

Not only did the State Fair recognition help validate the significant investment the Panella family made in building its 7,000 square-foot, rustic-chic tasting room and adjoining state-of-the-art crush pad and barrel and tank rooms, it further proved Lodi’s diversity as a fine grape growing and winemaking region.

“We’re starting to evolve into what a lot of people didn’t believe was possible,” Joseph said. “We can do things like cool-climate whites here and when we spend the money on equipment and we spend the money to take our time and do high-end production of those grapes, which a lot of people don’t do, we actually have some of the best grapes in the state of California and the best wines.”

Count Oak Farm’s 2014 Albarino among them.

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      Bob Highfill

      Record Sports Editor Bob Highfill is a wine enthusiast and has earned Level 3 certification with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust of London through the Napa Valley Wine Academy. Bob will share some of his experiences from his travels to Lodi and other prime wine locales in his blog and welcomes your suggestions, reviews and wine speak.
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