Sherry baby

Sherry has long been a staple in Europe. But in this country, the fortified wine always seems to be the next big trend only never to establish a foothold. Sherry is not for everyone. The alcohol tends to be higher than table wine, and the aromas and flavors can be intense and off-putting to some, yet exhilarating to others.

Some regard sherry as nothing more than a cooking wine most have buried in the back of the cupboard or something so sweet, it could peel the enamel off your teeth. But it might surprise you to know sherry is made in a variety of styles — from bone dry to sticky sweet — and can be ideal before, during or after a meal, or as a star cocktail ingredient, depending on the style.

Sherry is made predominantly from white Palomino grapes and fortified with neutral grape spirits to boost the alcohol and stop the fermentation process. Sherries are aged in barrels using the solera system, where older wine is blended with newer wine. This method grew out of necessity when sailors needed a way to prevent their wine from spoiling during long oceanic voyages, thus sherry’s enduring popularity in European seafaring countries, such as Portgual, Spain, France and England.

Some of the more popular styles are Fino sherry, which is light in color and dry on the palate; Amontillado, which starts as a Fino but is darker due to exposure to oxygen; Oloroso, which has complex characteristics and is darker than Amontillado; and Pedro Ximenez, a sweet, dessert wine made from dried grapes.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I shared three samples of sherry from the esteemed Gonzalez Byass Familia de Vino in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, founded in 1835, with Paul Marsh’s Sommelier Bootcamp class at his wine bar and restaurant, Mile Wine Company in Stockton. Seven of us took part in the tasting, and those who hadn’t tried sherry seemed to gain an appreciation for one of the world’s classic styles of wine.

Here is what we tried:

• Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry ($25): Pale gold color with pronounced aromas of green apple, caramel and felt-tip marker. The palate is dry with flavors of green apple peel, salted caramel, almonds and a hint of asparagus. The wine spends a minimum of four years in American oak barrels following traditional solera system. The acid (pH 3) is high and the alcohol (15 percent) is medium-high with pronounced flavor intensity, light body and medium finish. Finos are aged under a protective, yeast-like layer of flor, which inhibits exposure to oxygen, making for a lighter, drier style. Serve chilled (40-50 degrees) with olives, Spanish tapas, sushi or salty cheeses, such as manchego or parmigiano-reggiano. Finos also are great in cocktails. Try mixing orange juice, vodka and Fino for a refreshing, spring-summer or brunch time refresher.

• Gonzalez Byass “Leonor” Palo Cortado Sherry ($25): Beautiful amber color at the core with an orange rim. Spectacular, pronounced, complex nose of roasted pecans, toffee, hazelnuts, French toast, brown sugar, vanilla and butter. One taster said it smelled like “the inside of Tootsie Pop.” A lot going on with this wine, which is similar in its flavor profile to Oloroso. High acid (pH 3.1) and high alcohol (20 percent), medium body, long finish. Spent 12 years in oak barrels following traditional solera system. Serve lightly chilled (50 degrees) with game, red meats or pecan pie.

• Gonzales Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Sherry ($25): Made from 100 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes that are dried to evaporate the water and intensify the sugar. Deep-mahogany color with aromas of raisins, stewed prunes, Fig Newtons, hazelnuts, toffee, smoke and wood. The flavors match the aromas in intensity and complexity. The acid is medium (pH 4.6) and the alcohol is medium-high (15 percent). Aged nine years following the traditional solera system. Best served chilled as an after-dinner drink, or with dark chocolate or ice cream.

Sherry is one of the world’s most enduring styles of wine. It’s different than Port. It’s different than most table wines. And different can be good.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Oodles to do at Tudal

Tudal Winery's fruit, vegetable and herb garden.

Get out of the traffic and step back in time at Tudal Winery.

Set off Big Tree Road in north St. Helena along the Napa River, Tudal Winery is what Napa used to be when the industry was in its infancy and rustic wineries dotted the valley.

Sit and relax on the patio and gaze at the surrounding trees and vineyards, play a game of bocce and pick vegetables and herbs from the garden while sipping Tudal’s variety of wines.

Tudal Winery owner John Tudal, right, taking a break from working on his property.

Owner John Tudal (pronounced Two-Doll) and his friendly, attentive staff, including Alyse and Amanda in the tasting room, encourage visitors to explore the property, which opened in 1974 and is an homage to the Cerrutti family and its agricultural heritage dating to the early 1900s. George “Baci” Cerrutti started it all when he emigrated from Genoa, Italy, and set up a produce business in Alameda. Arnold Tudal married into the family and his son, John, carries on a tradition of hospitality and wine so fine, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio was a regular visitor.

Tudal produces about 1,000 cases per year, offering several varietials and blends, including a dynamite Carneros Pinot Noir. But Cabernet Sauvignon is king with grapes from its estate and sources in Napa and Sonoma.

Here are just some of their offerings:

2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($115): The flagship wine is an estate blend from the nine-year-old Napa River block and 35-year-old Old Vine block. Complex, rich, full-bodied.

2012 Baci’s Bin 32 Napa Valley ($24): This Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is a nod to a family four generations strong in the agriculture and wine-making businesses. Rich blackberry and cherry jam flavors, medium tannin and medium acid. Pairs with red sauces and braised meats.

2011 Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65): Sourced from a 1.8-acre vineyard in the Oak Knoll District in Napa, this opulent wine delivers spices and rich, blackberry flavors. Aged in 80-percent French and 20-percent American oak, there is substantial backbone here, making it suitable to age eight to 10 years.

2011 Gibson Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42): Burgundian in style, meaning it’s soft and nunanced with earthy characteristics. The nose offers a hint of licorice and tell-tale ripe red cherries with a wet forest floor component in the background. Would pair well with duck or pork chops.

Tudal Winery's estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

2012 Tractor Shed Red ($15): Named for the 1947 Massey-Harris red tractor Arnold Cerrutti used to work the fields. The tractor sits on display in front of Tudal’s tasting room. Fun to drink by itself or with hamburgers and pizza.

2014 MerBlanc Rose ($15): A woman with a mischievous grin wearing sunglasses and looking ready for the beach stares from the label of this pale-salmon colored wine brimming with aromas of grapefruit zest and white peach juice. Would really refresh on a hot day.

In 2011, Cerrutti Cellars and Tasting Room opened in Oakland’s Jack London Square a stone’s throw from the century-old Produce Market, where George, Arnold and John sold their produce. Inside what was a cold-storage building for the Armour Food Company, Cerrutti Cellars and Tasting Room is one of, at last check, 22 urban wineries in the East Bay, an area experiencing an explosing of such establishments.

If you go:

Tudal Winery

1015 Big Tree Road

St. Helena, CA 94574

(707) 963-3947

Hours: Wed.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Cerrutti Cellars and Tasting Room

100 Webster Street, Suite 100

Oakland, CA 94607

(510) 550-2900

Hours: Sat.-Sun., 12:30-5:30 p.m.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Area wines shine at CWA

Area wineries fared well at the recent Consumer Wine Awards in Sacramento.

D’Art’s 2012 Zinfandel ($24) was awarded Best of Class and Best of Show Red with 94 points, and was one of 10 platinum-award winners among 490 wines from nine states that were submitted.

The 2012 3 Girls Cabernet Sauvignon from Lodi ($13.99) received Best of Class. Macchia of Lodi received 94 points and a platinum award for its 2013 “Ambitious” Zinfandel ($18), and its 2013 “Dubious” Petite Sirah ($24) received a gold medal with 93 points.

Lewis Grace’s 2012 Barbera from Amador County ($27) received Best of Class, and Ripken’s 2008 Souzao/Touriga National from Lodi ($20) was a platinum-award winner with 96 points in the vintage dated fortified wine category.

For the second year in a row, I was fortunate to be one of 144 evaluators who spent a couple hours on April 11 at the McClellan Conference Center tasting wine for this event that strives to be unpretentious. The whole point of the competition is to remove the snobbery in wine evaluation. Tasters are not industry professionals, just ordinary people who enjoy wine and know what they like. The instructions were clear: Taste the wine and determine whether you’d buy it at your local market.

Each evaluator blind tasted up to 27 samples from a specific varietal or category, and assigned each a point value on a scale from 0 (don’t like it at all) to 7 (best wine ever). No one sat next to someone tasting the same wines. The only information provided on our scoring sheets was the number assigned to the sample, its price category ($12 under, $12-$35, $35 and over) and the amount of residual sugar. Evaluators were allowed to see what they tasted at the after party at the nearby Lion’s Gate Hotel.

For the second year in a row, I tasted Pinot Noir, my favorite varietal. The styles ranged from fruit driven to earthy. These were my favorites.

In the $12-$35 category: 2010 Ripken Vineyards from Lodi ($25). For the second year in a row, I rated Ripken high, giving it seven points. It received 84 points for a bronze, but what do the other evaluators know.

In the $35 and over category: 2012 Silver Mountain Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands ($40). It was awarded Best of Class and received a gold medal with 92 points. I gave it a seven, and the other evaluators seemed to agree with me on this one.

Check out for more information and consider signing up to be a volunteer or evaluator next year. If you like evaluating wine, you’re exactly the kind of person they are looking for.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mark the Maverick

Lincoln High graduate Mark Matheson could be making wine in California.

But that would be too easy.

Former Stockton resident and 1981 Lincoln High graduate Mark Matheson owns a winery in Rio Rancho, N.M.

The former Stockton resident enjoys a challenge, so more than 20 years ago he took his considerable talents, honed at Delta College and UC Davis, to the high desert of New Mexico, where he has crafted beer for several companies over the years and made wine under his Matheson Winery label since 2006.

“Who goes to Davis and then goes to New Mexico?” the 52-year-old husband and father of two grown children said. “Nobody does that. All of my classmates are in Napa or San Luis Obispo.”

Which is precisely why Matheson craved to carve his own path.

“California has been so established,” Matheson said. “I wanted a new kind of pioneering territory.”

Just call him Mark the Maverick.

It might surprise you to know New Mexico is the oldest grape growing region in the country, dating to 1629. But its once thriving winemaking industry dropped under prohibition and repeated flooding of the Rio Grande River. Today, there are only about 42 wineries in New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, compared to close to 4,000 in California, according to the California Wine Institute.

New Mexico receives almost zero recognition as a winery destination. But Matheson would like to change wine lovers’ perceptions about his adopted state one bottle at a time. His award-winning wines are sold online and from his tasting room located in a strip mall along Highway 528 in Rio Ranch, N.M.

Matheson sources 100 percent New Mexico fruit and crafts Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, red blends and sweet wines. His annual production fluctuates, but usually reaches about 500 cases.

New Mexico’s soil generally is sandy, creating wine grapes high in acid and high in pH. The vines begin to shut down in mid-September, when the fruit for reds generally reaches its sweet spot of 24 brix (sugar level) and pH 4. The higher pH means the wines tend to be lighter in color, and the high acidity keeps the alcohol in check.  

Matheson’s 2013 Cabernet Franc ($20) has a red-brown color with medium aroma intensity of red fruit, dark plums and spices, such as black pepper and cloves, with a hint of tobacco. The palate is dry with medium acid, medium tannin and medium-minus alcohol (12.5 percent) with medium flavor intensity of blackberries, dark plums and a slight smokiness. It’s developing and is suitable to drink now or put away for 3 to 5 years.

Matheson’s 2014 Chardonnay ($16) is pale lemon in color with medium-minus aroma intensity of citrus fruit, like lemons, lemon peel and grapefruit peel. The palate is dry with high acid, medium-minus alcohol (12.5 percent), and medium-minus flavor intensity of citrus with a pleasing toasty bread flavor. The wine sits on its lees (dead yeast cells) for four months to add body and ages solely in stainless steel to preserve the crisp acidity. This wine is developing and suitable to drink now.

Matheson also is a partner at Kaktus Brewing Company in Rio Ranch and a winemaking and brewing consultant.

Matheson is committed to making wines true to New Mexico.

“I like the New Mexico style,” Matheson said. “The climate really kind of dictates what the wines taste like.”

Matheson Winery

103 Rio Ranch Drive

Rio Ranch, N.M. 87124

(505) 350-6557

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Proud Heritage

Lodi farmer and wine maker Tom Hoffman, owner of Heritage Oak Winery in Acampo, stands inside his barrel room.

When Tom Hoffman decided to give up teaching and devoted his full-time attention to his family’s farming business, he became a student.

Hoffman’s parents had made wine while he was in college, so they had the equipment needed for wine production along with farming implements used for growing grapes, cherries and peaches. They raised hogs, too, until the mid-1980s, but Hoffman was interested in winemaking.

“We had the equipment and the grapes and so I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to do this,’” Hoffman said. “So, that’s how I started.”

Hoffman continued to learn, aligning himself with other wine makers and growers in Lodi, like David Lucas (Lucas Family Winery) and Michael and David Phillips (Michael and David Winery), and was among the first members of the Lodi Amateur Vintners Association, which invited speakers to share their knowledge.

Hoffman started small, making wine in the basement of his home. Slowly but surely, he grew more confident. Production increased and in 2007, he and his wife Carmela opened Heritage Oak Winery on the family’s sprawling acreage along the Mokelumne River in Acampo. The name of the winery refers to an ancient oak tree that shades the winery and the heritage of a family that has worked and lived on its land for more than 150 years.

Heritage Oak Winery is a feast for the senses. Much of the property is open and accessible to visitors. Hikers can explore a trail through a Riparian forest along the river to a beach and enjoy a picnic or kick back and relax to the sound of the water and singing birds. An old barn and tractor stand outside the winery. Another barn houses the barrel and tasting rooms.

And the wine, of course, is a sensation for the eyes, nose and taste buds.

Tom Hoffman, owner of Heritage Oak Winery in Acampo, sniffs a sample of one of his red wines inside the tasting room.

Hoffman has released his first Chenin Blanc ($18) with fruit from Clarksburg. Pale lemon color, medium-plus acidity with citrus fruit flavors and a medium finish. Heritage Oak’s best-selling wine, its estate Sauvignon Blanc ($18), also is pale lemon in color with medium aroma intensity, medium-plus acid with green apple flavors leading to grassy notes and a medium finish.

Hoffman also makes Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and several styles of Zinfandel, his favorite variety.

“I always say that (Zinfandel’s) great to grow and make wine out of because it responds so well to what you do in the vineyard,” Hoffman said. “You can change the wine by just tweaking a little bit in the field and you can change the wine by doing something here, whether it’s picking a little late or getting it some new barrels or giving it no barrels. All of it makes a big difference in the wine.”

Hoffman’s favorite Heritage Oak Zinfandel is the Block 14 ($24), with fruit from a 14-acre block on his property.

“My favorite style of Zinfandel is medium maturity on the fruit so you don’t have the high alcohol but you have maturity, and then neutral barrels in the cellar so the oak isn’t overpowering,” Hoffman said. “And that’s my Block 14.”

Block 14 is dry farmed, so the water set in the ground pre-bloom sustains the vines. About half the fruit is thinned, so as not to overstress the vines. The wine is light ruby in color with blueberries and chocolate on the nose. The blue fruit, strawberries and chocolate are evident on the palate. The medium acid and medium tannin are integrated and lead to a medium-plus finish. It’s an elegant Zinfandel.

Heritage Oak is well worth a visit to the outskirts of Lodi. It’s more than a winery. It’s an experience.

Heritage Oak Winery

10112 E. Woodbridge Rd.

Acampo, CA.

(209) 986-2763

Tasting: Monday-Friday, 2 p.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Caparoso brings global perspective to Lodi

Randy Caparoso considers himself a Lodi outsider.

But the accomplished restaurateur, award-winning wine professional, writer and editor, who has called Lodi home only since 2010, is an insider when it comes to the area’s wine scene.

 The 58-year-old native of Hawaii probably could live and work in any wine region in the world, but he’s fallen hard for Lodi, which he believes is a well-kept secret worth sharing.

Randy Caparoso has decades of experience in the restaurant and wine industries that he has brought to Lodi as a writer and ambassador for the Lodi Wine Grape Commission.

Caparoso’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lodi eclipses many with generations invested in the area. In 2002, Caparoso said he “got turned around” and realized Lodi’s possibilities while judging the Jerry D. Mead New World Wine Competition in Claremont, where thousands of wines are blind-tasted by a panel of noted wine professionals and journalists. Caparoso and an ample majority of the judges were impressed by a Syrah and awarded it best in show. Turns out the wine came from Delicato Family Vineyards in Manteca and retailed at the time for about $10.

“When the judges like me saw that, it was very interesting,” Caparoso said. “Hey, good wine is good wine.”

Some years earlier, Caparoso became acquainted with Mark Chandler, then the executive director of the Lodi Wine Grape Commission. Chandler invited Caparoso to visit Lodi. In time, Caparoso made several visits and grew more entrenched in the area.

“I started coming out to Lodi and I loved it,” Caparoso said. “Mark showed me all of the vineyards and all of the primary people here.”

Caparoso studied Western Philosophy at the University of Hawaii between 1974-78 and developed his wine acumen as a server and later as the sommelier at the Cavalier restaurant in Honolulu. In 1988, he partnered with Asian-fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi and helped open 28 Roy’s restaurants around the world. Caparoso also ran Roy’s wine program and earned “Wine Marketer of the Year” by Restaurant Wine magazine in 1994 and 1999. In 1998, he was named “Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year” by Sante magazine.

In 2001, Caparoso left Roy’s as an active partner and went into the winemaking business. He produced three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for his own label. Caparoso had developed such an affinity for Lodi-area fruit that he purchased Syrah grapes from Delicato to add some life to what he said was his “boring” Cabernet Sauvignon.

The blend “was delicious,” Caparoso said. “I lost money doing it. It was not a labor of love. It was a labor of loss, so I have smartly retreated from that business.”

After leaving the winemarking business, Caparoso concentrated on restaurant consulting. In 2008, when the real estate and stock markets collapsed, restaurant consultants were not in high demand, so Caparoso turned his full-time attention to wine writing.

In 2010, Chandler invited Caparoso to move from Southern California to Lodi and write and handle social media for the grape commission’s website,

“I told Mark I’m not going to be a shill and he said, ‘Fine. Write about anything you want,’” Caparoso said.

Caparoso continues to write for the website under current executive director, Camron King.

“He has a fantastic background,” King said. “He has a lot of experience and a lot of passion for this region. He knows the ins and outs of this region and the wine world in general. He has just a phenomenal wealth of knowledge.”

Caparoso believes Lodi should celebrate its sense of place much like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and Sonoma — areas wine lovers and media consider to be of the highest quality.

“Lodi’s issue is it doesn’t get much respect,” Caparoso said. “It’s a Rodney Dangerfield. Most people think Lodi is a bad place to grow grapes.”

Caparoso said Lodi produces as many, if not more, grape varieties than any region in the world. But Lodi’s reputation for supplying bulk-wine still exists. To help improve Lodi’s image, Caparoso proposed the Lodi Native project to six winemakers who agreed to produce a single-vineyard Zinfandel under a strict protocol of non-intervention in an effort to express the vineyard, not the varietal or the winery’s brand. The rules included using only native yeast with no oak dust, no acidification or deacidification, and no malolactic fermentation.

“So I said, ‘We have to totally throw this whole idea of making a commercial wine where it’s all about your brands and individual styles,’” Caparoso said, paraphrasing his pitch to the winemakers. “’Let’s all work together to establish the place, and so therefore, let’s set up rules in which we’re going to pick the grapes and make the wine that would maximize the taste of the vineyard.’”

The Lodi Native wines, made from the 2012 vintage, exhibit distinct characteristics that reflect their place of origin. For example, the Zinfandels from vineyards on the west side of the Lodi American Viticultural Area: the Wegat Vineyard by Chad Joseph for Maley Brothers, the Soucie Vineyard by Layne Montgomery of M2 Wines, and the Trulux Vineyard made by Michael McCay of McCay Cellars, deliver more earthy qualities than those from the east side, which tend to be more fruit-forward: Century Block by Ryan Sherman for Fields Family Wines and Noma Ranch made by Tim Holdener for Macchia Wines. In central/east Lodi, the Lodi Native wine from Marian’s Vineyard made by Stuart Spencer of St. Amant Winery had fruity and earthy characteristics.

Generally, the project proved its point and was well-received by the media and consumers. Plans are in the works to continue the project.

Caparoso covers the west coast and is editor-at-large for The Somm Journal. He’s also the contributing editor for Tasting Panel magazine, and shows off Lodi to visiting wine professionals and journalists.

“I tell people Lodi is special, as special as any place in my mind,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting things. Just here, there are a lot of treasures. I love it.”

At the risk of offending some of his Lodi friends, Caparoso’s favorite wines include:

“I like Harney Lane’s Zinfandel because half of it is made from Primitivo and I happen to like that grape. Primitivo makes this nice, light style of Zinfandel.

“I’m crazy about just about anything Borra makes, especially, they make a Heritage Red. That’s one of the first wines I tasted when I first got here in 2010. They called it a field blend. It’s just grapes that they pick all at one time made from Carignan and Barbera and a little Petite Sirah and a little Alicante Bouchet and some Zinfandel. They just pick grapes around the winery all in one day and I tasted it and that wine had a real sense of place. It tasted like the place. There’s no wine exactly like it in the whole world.

“Almost any red wine that comes from the Bechthold vineyard. And there you’re talking about multiple producers, not a lot, but there are several both in and outside of Lodi, producing these fantastic wines from this vineyard that has survived since 1886. … By and large everyone makes a wine that’s pretty much natural, not a lot of new oak, so you can really taste the place. Now it stands as one of California’s most unique wines. It’s fantastic wine (made from the Cinsault grape). It tastes like strawberry-rhubarb pie. It’s just delicious, sort of plush, lush sort of flavor. There’s a little bit of earthiness, not too much. It’s mostly fruit-driven; it’s very soft.

“I like all of these wines from Lodi.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Need somm help?

If you’ve made lucrative career choices, inherited a large sum of money or have a rich uncle, check out Spruce Restaurant in San Francisco.

Spruce Restaurant on Sacramento Street in the Presidio Heights neighborhood in San Francisco has delicious California-American cuisine, an attentive staff and a top-notch wine list. (photo by Ed Anderson)

Spruce has incredible California-inspired American cuisine from chef Mark Sullivan and a remarkable wine list under the direction of lead sommelier Lauren Kemp, with 2,900 selections from around the world.

It is the “War and Peace” of wine lists.

During a recent visit to Spruce (thanks to my rich uncle) on Sacramento Street in the Presidio Heights neighborhood, I was handed the Tolstoy-like masterpiece of a wine list and presented with the task of  selecting some wine to pair with the meals for our party of six. After thumbing awkwardly through page after page of single-spaced text for a few minutes, my rich uncle’s rich partner snatched the folder from my hands and summoned our server, Melissa Boardman. Smart move. Had he not taken charge, we still would be seated at the restaurant.

Knowledgable servers, like Melissa, and sommeliers, trained wine professionals, are intimately familiar with the wine list because they likely created or helped create it.  They know where the wines are made, the best vintages, the vineyard’s terroir, the vinification practices, how to pair wine with food and other useful information. The good ones are personable and put diners at ease when perusing a wine list, even one as impressive as Spruce’s, which has received Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence.” They want nothing more than to create a memorable experience. 

Spruce's kitchen can be viewed through a large window inside the restaurant.

Melissa listened intently as our take-charge diner mentioned the dishes our party was thinking of ordering. He gave her a price range and described our style preferences. She left the table to contemplate the parameters and returned after a few minutes.

Melissa recommended the 2012 Hendry Vineyard Napa Valley Chardonnay, and Northern Rhone Syrahs from St-Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. We ordered the Hendry and the Crozes Hermitage, which promised to be bigger and earthier than the St-Joseph. (Syrah is the only red varietal allowed for AOC wines from the Northern Rhone).

The Hendry Chardonnay had flavors of summer fruit, like nectarines, and was crisp and lively. It went well with my salad of young lettuces, walnuts, fine herbs, Meyer lemon, and goat cheese tart with honey gelee.

The 2012 Alain Graillot, La Guiraude from Crozes Hermitage had a pungent, funky nose of damp forest floor, black raspberry and black pepper, with red and dark berry flavors and red licorice that led to a long finish. It paired perfectly with chef Sullivan’s housemade tagliatelle and ragu of braised rabbit, mushrooms a la Grecque and pine nuts.

To go with an assortment of desserts, we each had a splash of Tokaji Aszu, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj-Hegyalia 2008 – the sweet wine from Hungary made from grapes, mainly Fermunt, affected by noble rot, which concentrates the sugar and acid.

Melissa helped make our dining experience one to remember, as did the entire staff at Spruce. And to think what might have happened had that list remained in my hands … 



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A grape grows in winter

All year, there is work to be done in the vineyard.

The short structures sticking from the cordon are spurs, which contain the buds that will grow the shoots, leaves and berries from the vine this year.

Right now, the vines neatly arranged in rows supported by trellises or standing alone in their gnarly-head state are stripped of their leaves and fruit, standing dormant, catching some much-needed rest after a year’s work producing their bounty, then withstanding the harvest.

In the winter, wine grape growers prune their vines to train them for the coming year. There are a number of reasons why this practice is necessary, including regulating the number and positions of shoots on a vine, and cluster number and size. During pruning, buds that would otherwise become new shoots are removed to concentrate growth into the remaining shoots and clusters. By consistently limiting the number of shoots and leaves by dormant pruning, the grower is also working to produce the maximum crop without delaying maturity.

“(Pruning) enables us to produce these amazing wines at Harney Lane,” said Kyle Lerner, owner of Harney Lane Winery in Lodi, as he pruned a Primitivo vineyard on his property. “So, what I’m doing here is, this is actually a cane that grew last year. Each one of these nodes had leaves on them and coming all the way back you can see what we call a skeleton. This is where the fruit actually was growing on these canes this past year.”

Workers tend to a vineyard off Davis Road in Lodi.

The grower must strike a balance between vegetative growth and fruiting. The goal is for the vine to focus its energy on growing the grape. Lerner prunes each cane and leaves one or two buds. This structure is called a spur. The cordon, or arm of the vine, will have about seven spurs on either side of the trunk. The buds contain in miniature all of the structures the vine will produce in the coming year — the shoots, the leaves and the fruit clusters.

“What that gives us is just enough fruit that ripens fully with a canopy that grows at about five feet,” Lerner said. “You can see the canes as they stretch out there, about five feet of canes out there. And that’s what makes our delicious Primitivo wine.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lodi Native a winner

George Herron, owner of Fine Wines of Stockton and a former Record wine columnist, prepares to pour another wine from the Lodi Native project that tasters at his store recently enjoyed.

An idea proposed by Lodi sommelier Randy Caparoso and implemented by six brave winegrowers resulted in the Lodi Native project – a collection of six, single-vineyard, old-vine Zinfandels from the 2012 vintage and all from Lodi’s Mokelumne River American Viticultural Area.

The winegrowers involved in the project were Maley Brothers Vineyards, M2 Wines, McCay Cellars, St. Amant Winery, Fields Family Vineyards and Macchia Wines.

The winegrowers were brave, in that, they agreed to follow a strict protocol of minimal intervention in crafting this special set of wines, including no use of new oak, only native yeast in the fermentation process, no acidification or de-acidification, no water addition or de-alcoholizing measures, no tannin additions, no malolactic fermentation, no mega-purple or other concentrate products, no filtering or fining and no must concentration.

“These are naked wines,” said Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph, who crafted the Lodi Native wine from Maley Brothers Vineyards. “Everything you’re seeing coming out of this wine is coming from this vineyard.”

The focus of the Lodi Native project was to showcase the vineyards, not the varietal or the brand. The flavor and aroma profiles were strikingly different and truly represented where the grapes were grown – the type of soil and climatic conditions, factors the French call ”terroir.”

Joseph spoke to a group of 16 tasters recently about the Lodi Native project at Fine Wines of Stockton, owned by Gail and George Herron. The tasters sampled and rated five of the six Lodi Native wines. Joseph’s Maley Brothers Vineyards’ Lodi Native wine from the Wegat Vineyard on the west side of the Mokelumne River AVA was not included in the blind tasting, so as not to compromise the presentation. But it will be evaluated in a future blog.

Chad Joseph is a busy man as the winemaker for six Lodi wineries, yet he generously gave his time to speak about the Lodi Native project to a group of tasters recently at Fine Wines of Stockton.

As always, Joseph was generous with his time and knowledge, and answered all of our questions. He’s a fine ambassador of Lodi wine.

In general, the tasters found the Lodi Native project a rousing success. The wines were delicate, not jammy or overly high in alcohol, and the acids and tannin were in balance with the fruit  aromas and flavors.

Unfortunately, one of the wines, from the Noma Ranch on the east side of the Mokelumne River AVA and made by Macchia, had been affected by a creased cork, which left an oxidized taste and aroma. By no means did it reflect the efforts of the winemaker or the quality of Macchia’s wines, which are a personal favorite. 

M2 Wine’s entrant was one of the group’s favorites. Sourced from the Soucie Vineyard on the west side, it was lighter in color and body, with red fruit and loamy accents on the nose, medium acidity and tannin, a bit of sweetness and a medium-long finish. A delicious, well-balanced wine.

Fields Family Winery’s Lodi Native Zinfandel from the Century Block vineyard on the east side of the AVA  had juicy blue and red fruit flavors and good structure from its firm tannins.

McCay Cellars’ wine from the Trulux Vineyard had the characteristics of the west side and was my favorite with its earthy, loamy, mushroomy nose and juicy red and dark plum flavors.

And St. Amant Winery’s Zinfandel from Marian’s Vineyard on the central/east side of the Mokelumne River AVA was a stunner with concentrated red and blue fruit flavors and a tart finish.

Lodi Native wines are sold out at the Lodi Wine and Visitors Center, though some of the individual wineries may have a few bottles remaining. But don’t despair. Joseph said the Lodi Native project will continue from the 2013 vintage. More winegrowers have accepted the challenge and will be involved.

“We have new winemakers coming on,” Joseph said. “We’re trying to keep it as pure a project as possible. It’s challenging making natural wines.”

But the results are so worth it.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Day trip on the Delta

Recently, my wife and I had the day off and decided to take a drive.


The tiny town of Locke.

With no particular place to go, we ventured north out of Stockton on Interstate 5, took the Walnut Grove exit and headed west to the historic town of Locke for a late lunch at Al the Wops. The iconic watering hole and restaurant, a favorite among locals, bikers and tourists, is the definition of a dive and proud of it. Cold beer, stiff drinks, cheeseburgers, and grilled steaks with an optional smooth Jiff peanut butter slather, are presented sans frills but with plenty of personality: Kitchy signs, bras hanging from the antlers of a stuffed deer head overlooking the bar, dollar bills pinned to the ceiling, a blaring juke box, the continuous thud of dice cups being pounded onto the bar and plenty of laughter.

Locke pretty much looks the same now as it did when Chinese residents built it in 1915. Its narrow main street lined with wooden, two-story structures is a step back in time.

From Al’s, we headed north to Clarksburg to the Old Sugar Mill. This popular wedding and party destination is home to 11 winery tasting rooms.

We had just enough time for a quick visit inside the Due Vigne di Famiglia tasting room. The winery was started by two firefighters who share a passion for wine — Ken Musso and Ron Houle. The family-run operation produces small lots (100 cases or less) with fruit sourced from El Dorado County and Napa Valley. The $5 tasting fee is waived with the purchase of a bottle and they have a wine club. Jeremy, the tasting room manager, took good care of us and we especially enjoyed these wines:

2013 Sauvignon Blanc — Russian River ($22)

Partially barrell fermented, juicy and fun with stone fruit and tropical fruit flavors as well as hints of coconut and Meyer lemon with an undercurrent of minerality.  Best served cold.  The aroma and flavor profiles impart grassy notes and green bell pepper as the wine warms in the glass. Would be great to take to a Dungeness crab feed.

Rosso ($16)

In Italy, wine is a condiment. Due Vigne’s Rosso is similar in style to what you might find on a typical dinner table in Piemonte. Deliciously approachable blend dominated by Dolcetto from the 2011 and 2012 vintages, with 10 percent Sangiovese and a hint of Merlot sourced from El Dorado County. Pairs with red sauce, cacciatore and savory stews, or hang onto it and break it out at a barbecue this summer.

2012  Merlot – Stag’s Leap District – Napa Valley ($45)

Big in every way, this Merlot from the famed Stag’s Leap AVA just east of the Silverado Trail has a deep garnet color, intense aromas, and rich cherry, black plum and blackberry flavors with toasty caramel notes. Take the Nestea plunge with this monster now or perhaps better yet, tame this beast in the cellar for a decade.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Viscusi Vineyard – Napa Valley ($45)

This traditional Bordeaux blend (85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, 5 percent Cabernet Franc) from the Viscusi Vineyard on the Silverado Trail just north of Napa is complex with flavors of blackberries and currants. Each varietal was co-fermented and aged in 50 percent new, tight-grained French Oak barrels, giving the wine a sophisticated, rounded mouthfeel.

We also sampled some soon-to-be-released wines, including Due Vigne’s 2014 Barbera and 2014 Dolcetto. Alas, they were out of Nebbiolo. All 70 cases were gobbled up by their wine club members.

The view of the setting sun from the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg.

We had a great time, and as the sun began to disappear on the horizon, we made our way out of the Old Sugar Mill. We got a late start on the day, so we only had time to visit Due Vigne, but we hope to return and try the other tasting rooms at the Old Sugar Mill: Todd Taylor, Clarksburg Wine Company, Carvalho Family Winery, Rendez-vous Winery, Three Wine Company, Heringer Estates, Elevation Ten, Perry Creek, Merlo Family Vineyards and Draconis.


Al the Wops

13936 Main St.

Locke, CA 95690

Phone: (916) 776-1800


Due Vigne di Famiglia

At the Old Sugar Mill

Phone: 916-744-1498


Old Sugar Mill

35265 Willow Ave.

Clarksburg, CA 95612

Phone: (916) 744-1615








Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
    • Blog Authors

      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.
  • Categories

  • Archives