Cuban somms taste Klinker Brick

Cuban wine afficianados, mostly sommeliers, have toured some of California’s prime wine regions this week, tasting, evaluating and gaining knowledge to take back to their island country. It seems the channels of commerce are opening between the U.S. and Cuba, and the wine industry stands to benefit. The prospect of a new market opening for California wineries is enticing. Below is a link to articles from the Press Democrat about the visit, dubbed the Cuban Sommelier Summit. You’ll notice Lodi’s Klinker Brick 2012 Old Ghost Zinfandel is one of the wines the Cuban experts tasted. Here is the link:

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Wine speak with Chad Joseph

Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph is about as cool as they come. Talented. Knowledgable.

He works with Harney Lane, Maley Brothers and Dancing Coyote in Lodi. Joseph is one of six Lodi winemakers who took on the ambitious Lodi Native project, in which specific protocols were followed in creating six distinctly different Zinfandels from selected single vineyards that showcase the Lodi appelation. Below is a link to a video where Joseph speaks about the project and the wines. He said plans are in the works to continue the Lodi Native project.

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Tempered by Tempranillo

Sunday night. The weekend was winding down. I had one last chance to enjoy a glass of wine before hitting the hay, waking up and facing another week of work. So there was some pressure behind my selection. Given the stakes, the wine had to be satisfying. I wasn’t going to pair it with food, so it had to be good on its own. I was in the mood for red, something bold. The choice?

2010 Harney Lane Lodi Tempranillo ($25 suggested retail): Harney Lane’s version of a Spanish varietal that pairs so well with a variety of food is spicy on the nose, medium-bodied with classic cherry and ripe plum flavors. I craved a chunk of Manchego cheese or pasta with red sauce or roasted sausages, but having none of them, I just enjoyed sipping this Tempranillo and thinking of all of the good people I’ve met over the years at Harney Lane, who truly treat grape growing, wine making, stewardship and hospitality like an artform.

Wine notes:

ABV: 15.%

Aging: 19 months new oak

Harvest date: Sept. 20, 2010

Bottling date: July 6, 2012

Release date: Jan. 19, 2013

Production: 719 cases

Awards: Silver medal 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition


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Wine and sports

Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson was exposed to Napa early in his NFL career during summer training camps, which were and still are held behind the Napa Marriott just off Highway 29. He grew to appreciate wine and now has his own label, Twenty-Four by Charles Woodson. Woodson wears the No. 24 on the football field.

Woodson isn’t the only athlete or sports figure in the wine business. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, former race car driver Mario Andretti, former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, NFL Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Joe Montana and Dan Marino, golfers Ernie Els, Mike Weir, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer and Nick Faldo, former 49ers executive Carmen Policy, former figure skater Peggy Fleming, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, San Diego Chargers owner Alex G. Spanos, and former NFL coach Dick Vermeil are in the biz, too.

I tried some wines from Twenty-Four by Charles Woodson at the Haggin Museum in Stockton when it hosted the reception for its NFL and the Armed Forces exhibit. I remember the Cabernet Sauvignon to be quite representative of Napa with big flavors. Well, Twenty-Four by Charles Woodson has released its 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($20).

Tasting notes:

The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc opens with a beautiful blend of lemon zest, apricot and honeysuckle scents.  Citrus flavors highlight ruby red grapefruit and mix with hints of lemongrass on the palate.  The round mouthfeel finishes with a bright, crisp acidity that makes for a truly refreshing and engaging wine.

Vintage Notes:

Described throughout the industry as early, even, and excellent, the 2013 growing season made our jobs as winemakers easy.  It was a dry spring with warm temperatures that brought on the early bud break that had us all on pins and needles, fearing a late rainy season that never came.  Instead, we watched the canopies grow and berries form under sunny skies.  Summer temperatures remained mostly steady, seeing only one heat spike halfway through, allowing the fruit to ripen gracefully.  Harvest began two weeks earlier than average, prompting our Sauvignon Blanc grapes to be picked on August 17th at the perfect ripeness and in ideal form. 

For more on Twenty-Four by Charles Woodson, visit

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A House Grows in Paso

Our quick tour of Paso Robles concludes with a visit to Clayhouse Estate’s tasting room at 849 13th Street, just a door from Pianetta, which was reviewed in my previous post.

The tasting room is modern inside and our pourer had amazing energy and knowledge, which made our experience that much better. Clayhouse owns 1,400 acres of wine grapes and 400 acres of table grapes, the Red Cedar Vineyard, which is marked by a metal sculpture of a grape cluster on Highway 46.

The tasting fee is only $5 and waived with any wine bottle purchase.

I first tasted Clayhouse Cabernet Sauvignon at Mile Wine Company in Stockton, so I was familiar with the brand and anxious to see what else it had to offer. These are the wines we tried:

Clayhouse makes some intense reds.

2012 Estate Grenache Blanc/Viognier ($23): Citrus bursts on the nose with flavors of marzipan and lemon, mango and lychee, soft texture, pairs with Indian or Southeast Asian food. My rating 87/100

2011 Estate Syrah ($35): 97 percent Syrah and 3 percent Petite Sirah, fruit forward, raspberry, medium body, soft tannins, hint of vanilla, juicy red fruit flavors. Pairs with lamb or barbecued chicken. 92/100

2011 Estate Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon ($35): 76 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 3 percent Syrah and 1 percent Tannat. Definite tobacco leaf aspect to the nose, clove, leather, cedar cigar box, long finish. 90/100

2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($35): Hand-picked and de-stemmed by hand, berry sorted with no crush, 20 months in new French oak, final blend added 6 percent Petite Verdot to deepen the color and flavors. Ripe black cherry, cedar, vanilla bean, toasty, mellow tannins and great acidity. 88/100

2011 Estate “Show Pony” Petite Sirah ($40): New release from Clayhouse’s 43-year-old vines, some of the oldest in the county, 100 percent hand-picked and aged 20 months in new French oak. Big mouthfeel, blueberries, black pepper, vanilla, rich, full-bodied. Definitely could lay this one down, though it drinks well now. 91/100

2011 All Blacks Red Wine (yet to be released): Tannat takes center stage here as 45 percent of the blend with 41 percent Petite Sirah, 5 percent Petite Verdot, 5 percent Malbec and 4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 11 cases produced. Big, velvety, bombastic. 94/100.

Paso Robles is a great stop for wine enthusiasts and anyone looking for a quaint spot to relax.    




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Downtown Paso: Unspoiled delights

Paso Robles was named Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year in 2013. It’s easy to see why. The scenery is magnificent as you come into town, the vineyards on both sides of Highway 46 are resplendent with color. But the major point of appeal for my wife and I during our recent, but all too brief, visit to the area was the relatively unspoiled scene in the downtown area, which has an old-west and Spanish mission feel to it.

If you’ve been to downtown Lodi and said to yourself, “Hey, that was fun,” you probably would like downtown Paso Robles. Like downtown Lodi, downtown Paso Robles has several tasting rooms, restaurants, shops and bars. And like downtown Lodi, downtown Paso Robles isn’t a madhouse, like Napa usually is, and the opportunity to casually speak with the pourers  is much more likely there than in Napa. Plus, the tasting fees at Paso Robles wineries tend to be reasonable, in the $5-$8 range, and usually are waived with the purchase of a bottle of wine. Try finding that in Napa. Man, I LOVE me some Chimney Rock, but $35 or $45 to taste?

Pianetta Winery (829 13th Street)

My first exposure to Pianetta was at the Taste of Monterey in Cannery Row a few years back. I remember liking one of the blends and took home a bottle, consuming its contents shortly thereafter. Pianetta has a nice lineup of Italian and Rhone varietals. It’s a boutique winery that makes about 3,000 cases per year, depending on the yield, and almost all of it is sold through the wine club, which has 700 members.

The winery is 14 miles from downtown Paso Robles on the border with Monterey County and much of Pianetta’s fruit is sourced from Monterey County. In general, Pianetta wines are full of fruit  with a nice balance of acid. They are approachable, and my wife likes them because they are lighter in style than big reds from Lodi and Napa, though I enjoy those big Napa and Lodi reds immensely.

Tuscan Nights and Cabernet Sauvignon from Pianetta Winery.

Here is what we sampled at Pianetta:

2013 Nonna’s Vino Rosato ($18 retail/$14.40 club)

A new-release dry rose blend of 55% Syrah, 45% Cabernet. A bit more to it than some roses. A little darker in color. Might go well with Thanksgiving dinner or roasted pork. Has some heartiness to it, but still crisp with strawberry and peach on the nose. Great summertime wine. 100 cases produced. My rating 86/100.

2011 Sangiovese ($29/$23.20)

 This is the one I kept going back to, as it had an infectious fruit quality with refreshing acidity that I found to be irresistible. Pairs with pizza, red sauces and soft cheeses. Gold medal and 90 points at the 2013 BTI World Wine Championship, and silver medal winner at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. 431 cases produced. 91/100.

2011 Tuscan Nights ($40/$32)

This “Super Tuscan” blend of 72% Cabernet, 25% Sangiovese and 3% Petite Sirah is rustic and velvety with sweet smoke, sour cherries, lots of fruit, soft tannins. This one spoke to me. 112 cases produced. 92/100.

2011 Estate Cabernet ($32/$25.60)

Ok, I’m just going to come out and say it: Sorry, but I’m not big on Paso Robles Cabernets. They lack the oomph I enjoy so much. My wife likes Paso Robles Cabernets more than Napa Cabs, proving the addage “to each his own.” This is the 10th anniversary of Pianetta’s first release of Estate Cabernet. It’s fruit forward and delicate. Gold medal and 93 points at the 2013 BTI World Wine Championship. So what the heck do I know? Give it a try. 410 cases produced. 85/100.

2012 Petite Sirah ($32/$25.60)

I picked up floral notes, lavender on the nose; potpourri, in the floral sense, not sweet. Surprising. 422 cases produced. 88/100.

2012 Barbera ($30)

Bottled in May, this brand-new release has some growing to do. Its nose was tight, but in time this will be dynamite. Rich with mature red fruit. Again, just a baby. 85/100.

2012 Red Jug Wine ($24)

A delicious “everything but the kitchen sink” red wine blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Opened a bottle this week, had a glass, put the stopper back in the neck and let it sit. Poured a glass the next day and it had opened up big time. Can’t wait to see how it tastes when I get off work tonight. Don’t let the clear-glass demijohn fool you. This ain’t no ordinary jug wine. This is terrific. Pianetta also makes a Pink Jug Wine. 86/100.

 Next stop on our tour of downtown Paso Robles: Clayhouse.

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Passing through Paso

Just a tiny section of the scenery in Paso Robles

My wife and I stopped in Paso Robles on our way to San Luis Obispo for a friend’s 50th birthday  over the Fouth of July weekend.

I had driven several times through Paso on my way to SLO and Santa Barbara when I was the Pacific athletics beat reporter for The Record, but I had never stopped to sample the area’s wineries. So, Christiane and I were excited to make a few stops in our limited time and are glad we did.

As you travel into Paso, thousands of acres of vineyards are visible on both sides of Highway 46, planted on flat ground, rolling hills and inside shallow canyons,  their leaves beaming a bright green this time of the year. The area’s climate and soil are conducive to growing Zinfandel and Rhone varietals, but you’ll also find Italian varietals, such as Sangiovese and Barbera, and even Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot. Seemingly almost anything, except Pinot Noir and Riesling, can handle the warm days and cool nights. And the winemakers aren’t afraid to buck trends and convention, coming up with “crazy blends” that put a unique stamp on Paso Robles. 

Our first stop was Eberle Winery (Highway 46). Gary Eberle founded the winery in 1979 and has been the unofficial wine ambassador of Paso Robles for decades. His is one of the few tasting rooms we’ve encountered that doesn’t charge a tasting  fee — five samples for no charge or you can taste Eberle’s reserve wines for a nominal fee.


The spectacular view from the patio at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles.

The tasting room sits atop a hill that overlooks hundreds of acres of rolling hills with rows of vines soaking up the sunshine. A large iron sculpture of a wild boar greets you atop the driveway after you’ve passed the winery’s cave. Another iron boar sculpture, fashioned into a fountain, stands near the entrance. Next to the door is a sign that reads: “The difference between wine and children is you can sit down and reason with a bottle of Cabernet” — Gary Eberle. And there grabbing a quick nap in the sunshine beneath his quote was Gary Eberle himself. He opened his eyes and said hello as we walked into his tasting room.


Inside is an enclosed tank room and the usual winery happy-crappy to purchase. Above the wine bar are dozens of ribbons and other awards Eberle has won over the years, and a framed Penn State football jersey, as Eberle grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Penn State on a football scholarship.

Christiane and I opted to taste five different wines each to get a broader sense of Eberle’s portfolio. It should be noted that Eberle prides itself on using only Estate fruit or fruit sourced from the Paso Robles appelation:

2013 Chardonnay Estate ($22 retail, $17.60 wine club): Flavors of green apple, citrus and pineapple with a hint of toasted oak on the finish. My rating: 86/100

2012 Cotes-du-Robles Blanc ($24/$19.20): This blend of 57% Grenache Blanc, 39%Roussanne and 4% Viognier offers citrus and herbaceous notes from the Grenache Blanc with honeysuckle and apricot from the Viognier. 88/100

2013 Syrah Rose ($18/$14.40): Strawberry color, refreshing acidity with a hint of spice. Would pair well with Thai food. 82/100

2011 Sangiovese ($24/$19.20): Medium-bodied, cherry cola, licorice. 88/100

NV Full Boar Red ($20/$16): A table wine with light acidity and tannin. The name “Full Boar” suggested in my mind something robust. I found it approachable and light, a nice everyday red. 85/100

2010 Cotes-du-Robles Rouge ($22/$17.60): A blend of 23% Mouvedre, 23% Syrah, 43% Grenache and 11% Durif, which is the main grape known as Petite Sirah in the U.S. and Israel. Strawberries, blackberries, hint of toasted oak, chalky tannins. 88/100

2011 Zinfandel ($28/$22.40):  A new release that probably would suit the palate of someone who doesn’t like jammy, fruit-bomb zins. This has a tight nose but the flavor is there, plums, berries, a speck of black pepper. 84/100

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah ($29/$23.20): This 50/50 blend has aromas of leather, clove and raspberries, with chocolate and cherries on the mid-palate and nice, long finish. Our server’s favorite wine. 90/100

2009 Reserve Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($75/$60): A new release and 15th reserve in Eberle’s 35 years in winemaking. 88/100

2013 Muscat Canelli ($15/$12): Semi-sweet and crisp with orange rind and ripe melons with hints of vanilla and guava. Refreshing. 86/100 

Next, our tour of Paso Robles continues with a stop in downtown, where we visited the tasing room of  Pianetta Winery.







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Highs with Merlot

What “Sideways” did for Merlot, Brad Pitt has done for rose, in reverse, proving how seemingly easily swayed the public can be when it comes to wine. In “Sideways,” actor Paul Giamatti’s character slams Merlot in a memorable scene, and sales of the varietal plummeted. Pitt bought a vineyard in France and  started cranking out rose. He’s pictured on the cover of a respected wine magazine, and blush is all the rage.

Well, through the years, “Sideways” or not, Merlot has been one of my favorites. It’s food friendly. It generally has less tannin than some reds. It can be fruit forward and succulent.

The six Merlots at last week's tasting at Fine Wines in Stockton

So, it was with great anticipation that I attended last week’s Merlot tasting at Fine Wines in Lincoln Center. There were six Merlots in a blind tasting with 12 attending the affair. Good time had by all.

First, some interesting fun facts about Merlot:

* Merlot is the most widley planted grape in Bordeaux. More than 50 percent of the grape vines in Bordeaux are Merlot. The total population of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux is 28 percent.

* But most Merlots from Bordeaux are not 100 percent Merlot. Petrus is the only 100 percent Merlot from the Pomerol appellation in Bordeaux.

* Many of the inexpensive wines from Bordeaux count on a lot of Merlot in that wine. It’s fruity and has structure without a lot of tannin.

* Merlot used to be a major player as a blending grape back in the old days. It expands the flavor in Cabernet Sauvignon. It fills the gap between Cabernet Sauvignon’s pronouned beginning and ending on the nose and in the mouth.

* Merlot buds early, so it’s an insurance policy for grape growers, though it’s susceptible to frost because it buds early.

* Merlot is the third-most planted grape in the world behind Carignane and Grenache, and it’s grown mainly in California, France, Washington, South Africa, Argentina and Australia.

Now, back to the tasting. Each wine was blind-tasted, evaluated and scored.

Wine 1

Tasting notes: Described accurately by some in the group as being generic. Nothing exceptional. Tight nose. Young. No oak. Decent fruit on the palate. No heat. Approachable. Again, nothing grand.

Total score: 1 point.

The wine: 2012 Jade Mountain ($16.50)

53 percent Paso Robles, 38 percent Napa, 9 percent Monterey County

Wine 2

Tasting notes: This was my favorite, though the group didn’t agree with me. I liked the spicy nose, there was more going on here, medium bodied, medium tannins, full of red and dark fruit, detected some vanilla in the flavor suggesting some oak.

Total score: 3 points.

The wine: 2012 Markham ($23)

Wine 3

Tasting notes: Lighter edge, some brown in the color, suggesting age. Blue fruit on the nose, rich and juicy mouthfeel. More drying than the second wine, more tannin, yet lighter body. Someone in the group detetcted cherry pipe tobacco his father used to smoke.

Total score: 7 points (the winner)

The wine: 2011 Duckhorn Napa Valley ($54)

Blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9 percent alcohol.

Wine 4

Tasting notes: Blueberry pie, blue fruit, juicy, a tad sweet, ton of vanilla, plum, not acidic, tannins well integrated. This was my second favorite. This was an interesting wine. I liked it.

Total score: 4 points

The wine: 2010 Toad Hollow Russian River Valley ($18)

Wine 5

Tasting notes: Dark color. some brown in there, big nose, smoke, tobacco. As I swallowed, I sensed it had some age. It just tasted older, can’t really explain it. I tasted the oak in the sense of spice, toast, the acid was strong, the finish was long, bitter dark chocolate, green pepper, heavy body.

Total score: 5 points (second place)

The wine: 2008 Chateau Petit Village Pomerol ($57.40)

13.5 alcohol.

Wine 6

Tasting notes: Nose was tight but it felt like a California Merlot, plum, strawberry, older, mascerated, tannin was big, raspberry, tannin and acid were high, alcohol was drying, long finish.

Total score: 4 points

The wine: 2010 Canoe Ridge Reserve ($27.75)

Not a California Merlot at all. Born on the eastern side of the Horse Haven Hills of the Columbia River Valley in Washington. 14.8 percent alcohol.

Fine Wines of Stockton’s upcoming tastings

6 p.m., 866 W. Benjamin Holt Dr.

July 10, Return of the Reisling ($15)

July 17, Great Wines You’ve Never Heard Of ($10)

July 24, Guess the Price ($10)






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Pinot Days: Rusack

I’m going to get a lot of blogging mileage out of the Pinot Days wine event that I attended on June 21 at the Metreon in San Francisco. About 90 artisan winemakers and people who love what they create crowded into the City View Room to taste remarkable Pinot Noir. I already blogged about one of my favorites – the 2012 FEL Anderson Valley - and here is another personal favorite from that memorable day:

2012 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Pinot Noir ($85)

Aviation attorney Geoff Rusack and his wife, Alison Wrigley (yes, THOSE Wrigley’s of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs baseball stadium fame) wooed eachother on Catalina Island some 30 years ago before they shared their nuptials. So, after making spectacular wines for a couple decades in the Santa Barbara area, when they decided they had too much money, they planted vineyards on Santa Catalina Island. No one before them thought it was a good idea. They were the first. They had a dream. They planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, and in 2011, they released the first vintage from 2009.

The Rusack Santa Catalina Island Pinot Noir amazingly picks up the salty air and earth from where it is grown. Fabulous fruit with this ocean-air, crushed oyster shell, slightly saline undertone. Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing taste experiences I’ve ever had. Pricey because of the outrageous overhead (the cost of transporting the grapes to the mainland, the challenges of growing on an exposed island, the pests involved, etc., etc., etc.)

This wine was so outstanding, I hope to visit Rusack’s tasting room in Solvang over the Fourth of July weekend.

Read more about the Rusack’s story: 



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Wine with chicken

Bill Eyer, who writes the Cuvee Corner Wine blog, suggests trying this recipe for grilled jerk chicken with a zinfandel, like Harney Lane’s Old Vine Zinfandel.

Here is a link to the recipe.

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      Bob Highfill

      Record Sports Editor Bob Highfill is a thoroughly obsessed wine enthusiast and has earned Level I certification with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust 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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