All posts by Jeff Kordik


When we think of wine in the U.S., the names of grapes generally come to mind, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. In France, home to many of the grapes grown in the U.S., there is more of a geographical orientation with most wines being named for the region where the grapes are grown.

Consider Bordeaux, one of the world’s oldest and most legendary wine producing regions, highlighted in magenta on the map. There are five Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In France, a Bordeaux wine is usually a combination of the two or more of these five grapes. This blending practice is occasionally used in the U.S. as well: if you stick to only the five Bordeaux grapes and pay a fee to the Meritage Society, you can label your wine a Meritage. Which, when pronounced correctly, rhymes with “heritage”.

Sterling Central Coast Meritage
Sterling Meritage containing all five Bordeaux grapes

More often, Bordeaux grapes are used in the U.S. to produce single varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In practice, even if the wine label lists just one grape, it’s common to blend in something else for smoothness or character. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, frequently contains a bit of Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Under the rules of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a bottle of wine can be called a varietal if it contains at least 75% of the grape listed on the label. If the primary grape constitutes less than 75% of the wine, you must call it a Meritage, a Red Blend or a Red Table Wine.

Pictured below are wines featuring four of the Bordeaux grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Not represented is Petit Verdot, which is rarely bottled as a single varietal, but instead is blended with other varietals to enhance the color and add tannins that improve aging.

Four Bordeaux wines

Of the four popular Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon gets the most respect. Most Cabs are big, complex wines made for drinkers with an evolved palate and they can command some of the highest prices in the wine world. If you win the lottery, consider seeking out a Screaming Eagle or a Colgin Cabernet. Think I’m joking? I recently saw a 2009 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon listed at $2095. Not for a case, not for a Jeroboam, the seller is asking $2095 for a single 750 ml bottle. If that seems a little over the top, but you want a reliably great Cab for a special occasion, consider Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley Cabernet, Sebastiani Cherryblock or something from Napa’s Stags Leap District. Better yet, go French and try a Premier Cru like Chateau Margaux or Chateau Lafite.

Merlot, on the other hand, has a reputation among critics for being a “beginner’s wine” with many producers avoiding bold flavors and tannins that might be off putting to someone unaccustomed to red wine. Paul Giamatti’s rant about his disdain for Merlot in the film Sideways didn’t help the grapes reputation, either. But in some cases, this reputation of mediocrity is undeserved. The Robert Sinskey Carneros Merlot seen in the photo is a fabulous wine, with complex flavors, a great balance and a beautiful finish.

Malbec has become popular in the U.S. in recent years, mostly owing to a dearth of excellent and affordable imports from the Mendoza region of Argentina. Cabernet Franc, like Petit Verdot, appears more often in blends than as a single varietal, but if you see a Cab Franc on the tasting menu at a winery give it go; it can be a real treat.

Stay tuned for our next post where we explore the wines of Burgundy.

Half Moon Bay

It’s November. On the California coast that means two things: the start of the winter rain and crab season. This time of year the Pacific Coast and the San Francisco Bay are teaming with fresh Dungeness crab, the sweetest seafood on Earth. And what better way to start crab season than a trip to Half Moon Bay, where nearly every fishing boat in the harbor is loaded with crab traps.

The drive up the coast to Half Moon Bay is gorgeous, with breaking waves, dramatic cliffs and blue waters dotted with kite surfers.

First stop is Davenport, for brunch at the Whale City Bakery. A few doors down is the Bonny Doon Winery tasting room, but let’s save that, and colorful owner Randall Graham, for another column. Instead, we headed further up the coast and made a quick jog inland to visit Pescadero, home of Santa Arcangeli Winery. The tasting room is modest, but the Santa Cruz Mountain wines are delectable. Be sure to try the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. And don’t leave town without a stop at the vintage Pescadero Country Store for some fresh artichoke bread.


Continuing north on Highway 1, we soon reached our destination. Half Moon Bay is home to just two wineries, La Nebbia and Barterra. La Nebbia is a few miles inland on Highway 91, surrounded by excellent nurseries. Also on 91 is Spanish Town, which features a collection of life sized steel dinosaurs and a vast collection of statuary. If you’re short of time, I’d recommend stopping at Spanish Town and skipping La Nebbia altogether. Either way, be prepared to make a dangerous left turn back onto Highway 91.

Spanish Town Dinosaurs

Barterra Winery is in downtown Half Moon Bay on Main Street, situated among boutique shops and fine restaurants. Be sure to park the car and walk around. The day we visited Barterra the tasting room was staffed by owner Mary Colucci and her winemaker husband Bart, a charming elderly couple who have probably forgotten more about wine than most of us will ever know. Their 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition, as did their 2009 Delmar Vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet. Be forewarned: you might like the Cab enough to pay the $125 list price.


Half Moon Bay is host to many beautiful waterfront hotels. If you’re feeling flush, try the Ritz Carlton situated on a cliff top with views to die for (which you may well do when see your credit card bill). For anyone on a budget (or saving up for the fabulous Barterra Cab), I recommend the Beach House, Oceano, or the Inn at Mavericks. All have ocean and harbor views and are walking distance from excellent dining. We opted for the Inn at Maverick’s, a cozy six room inn named after the world famous surfing spot located nearby. Bring your camera: the views are astounding. Within a short walk is Mezzaluna, an Italian restaurant frequented by locals. Just a block further, at the harbor is the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, voted one of America’s best beach bars. I recommend the Princeton-by-the-Sea IPA or the Maverick’s Big Break Ale. Better yet, have a flight and see what you like best. And the Cochinita Pibil sliders are crazy good. Cochinita Pibil is a close cousin to carnitas, my favorite thing to make with pork shoulder. The seasonings are similar (citrus, cumin and chili peppers), but Cochinita is lightly smoked then slow roasted in a banana leaf.

And don’t leave town without a stop at Sam’s Chowder House for some clam chowder or a fresh shrimp and Dungeness Louie salad (be sure to go early or make a reservation). I’m ready to go back already.

Inn at Mavericks- Night_1038

Jeroboam Nebuchadnezzar

Jeroboam was a bull frog
Was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine

Stop the presses! The subject of the 1970’s Three Dog Night song Joy to the World was Jeremiah. Jeroboam is the name of a particular size of wine bottle. Actually, two sizes. But let’s start from the beginning.

Most wine is sold in standard 750 milliliter bottles. There are twelve bottles in a case and a standard sized oak barrel typically yields around 300 bottles. But the 750 isn’t the only game in town. Pictured below, on the right, is a 750 ml bottle of one of my favorites: Alfaro Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir. The bottle in the center is a magnum: 1.5 liters, the equivalent of two standard bottles.

On the left is a 375 ml half bottle of estate Pinot. Don’t call it a split – that term is reserved for 187 ml bottles, which are usually found housing sparkling wines. The half bottle is a convenient size to share with another person at dinner or a picnic without worrying about what to do with leftovers.

The smallest bottle of good wine I’ve had in my possession is the diminutive 100 ml bottle of Leticia Vineyards Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir shown below, on the left. Next to that, for reference, is a standard-sized bottle of Leticia Pinot.

The real fun for most oenophiles is in the big bottles. To paraphrase Virginia Madsen’s memorable line from the film Sideways, anytime you open a magnum is sure to be a special occasion. Large format bottles also last longer in your cellar, and putting a few on a display rack can really spice up the place. But if a mere magnum is not enough, you should proceed to the double magnum, or Jeroboam, the equivalent of four bottles in one.

By convention, at least in France, it is also permissible to call a 4.5 liter bottle of Bordeaux a Jeroboam. Next up, at six liters, the equivalent of eight ordinary bottles, is the Imperial, also known as the Methuselah. Impressive as that may be, a Methuselah is dwarfed by the extremely rare, 12 liter Nebuchadnezzar. If you have it on your bucket list to own, or at least see up close, a Nebuchadnezzar, I can recommend two establishments that have one on display. The Stephen & Walker tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue is just down the street from Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar. Or you can take the self guided tour at St. Supery in Napa where they have a full range of large format bottles of excellent Napa Cabernet on display upstairs.


Now that we’re on the subject of Bordeaux, we offer for your consideration a modest collection of Bordeaux style bottles: a standard 750 ml on the left, magnum on the right, and a Jeroboam anchoring the line at center.

This particular Jeroboam is covered in colorful writing because it was a gift from Applied Motion Products to wine connoisseur James Chang, the president of our parent company, Shanghai Moons’. Local vintner Alfaro Family Vineyards hosted a special reception for Applied Motion and Moons’ managers last January, but James was out of the country. When he visited in August, we brought Alfaro to him in the form of a Jeroboam of Billy K Merlot, signed by the Applied Motion crew. He seems to like it.




Dry Creek Valley

If you seek unique wines, food and lodging, Sonoma County is a great place to visit. It’s vast, stretching from Napa County on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. It’s bordered by Marin County and the San Pablo Bay on the south and Mendocino on the north. Within these generous confines you’ll find some great towns like Sonoma and Healdsburg where you can stay near, or on, the town square, park the car and explore on foot. If you’re looking for a charming little oceanside town, you might like Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his first fright flick The Birds. We recently stayed in all three places and brought home some great wine, lasting memories and a few photos should the memories ever need a refresh.

Sonoma County is also home to many wine growing appellations, some of which you may know: Los Carneros, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. Since soil type and climate influence which grape varietals grow best, most appellations develop a specialty. The cooler climates of Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley are ideal for world-class Chardonnay, Russian River Valley is all about Pinot Noir, and Alexander Valley gets warm enough to produce noble Cabernet Sauvignon.

Let’s add one more appellation to the list: Dry Creek Valley, which extends northwest from Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road. This valley’s soil and microclimate have proven most suitable to Zinfandel, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc. But if you’re expecting the dark, jammy Zins of Paso Robles or Lodi, you might be pleasantly surprised by the lighter body and silky mouth feel of a Dry Creek Zin.

Since Dry Creek is a tributary of the Russian River, we were not surprised to find several excellent Pinot Noirs. Our first stop was Papapietro Perry, who source Pinot grapes from Peters Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. Winemakers Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry started in a garage back in the 1980’s when Ben’s beard was still black. They’ve come a long way, and the craftsmanship still shows. We arrived early, just in time to see a delivery of new French oak barrels. The six barrels in this photo cost Ben and Bruce over $7000 and will yield around 1800 bottles of wine.

Located across the parking lot from Papapietro Perry is Kokomo Winery, named for owner and winemaker Erik Miller’s home town in Indiana. If you’ve heard of Kokomo, it is most likely because the city has been famously making auto parts for decades. They even cast engine blocks for Maserati. Kokomo Winery also uses Peters fruit (grower Randy Peters is a partner) to produce some extraordinary and affordable Pinot Noir. The Sauvignon Blanc was also exceptional. We found the tasting room to be friendly and unpretentious. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying many tasting rooms, large and small, upscale, downscale and everything in between, but there’s always something appealing about tasting wine in the barrel room.

Continuing north on Dry Creek Road, we made our way to Fritz Underground Winery. The name sounds like something out of Prohibition, but stems from the fact that Fritz Underground is literally under the ground. Like Artesa Winery, which was featured in our Los Carneros column, Jay Arthur Fritz built a multistory reinforced concrete structure on a hilltop and buried it. Planet Earth keeps the internal temperature optimal for fermenting and aging wine. Even though Fritz built the place back in the 1970’s, his reduced “carbon footprint” and low power bill have proven visionary. If we had approached Fritz unaware of the construction, we might have asked “where the heck is the place?”

In keeping with the Dry Creek terroir, Fritz makes estate Cabernet, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, plus a lovely Russian River Valley Pinot employing Pommard, 113 and 115 clones. Yum!

We finished our week with an overnight in Bodega Bay, where we had some wonderful, fresh seafood at Tide’s Wharf and enjoyed some photo walks through the small town and along the coast. With that, we close with a gratuitous bird shot.












Livermore, California, located on the far eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, is known in scientific circles for the famed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where controlled nuclear fusion was recently achieved after a 40 year effort. But Livermore came into its own in the mid 1800’s as a railroad town. The Western Pacific rail line that connected the Bay Area to the transcontinental railroad passed through the Livermore Valley and over Altamont Pass on the way to Sacramento. Altamont Pass is best known these days as the home of America’s oldest wind farm.

I was surprised to learn that Livermore has a long and colorful wine history. Many wine enthusiasts are familiar with story of the 1975 Judgment of Paris, a French wine competition that made Napa wines famous and respected when Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars took first place in their respective categories. Less known is that Charles Wetmore, who had been growing French varietals in the gravelly soils of the Livermore Valley, entered the Paris Exposition of 1889 and won several gold medals. It is reported that Wetmore’s Cabernet stock was imported from the famed Chateau Margaux vineyards in Bordeaux, France. These vines eventually became the source for the popular Cabernet clones 7, 8 and 11.

Livermore has been producing excellent wines since, save for a brief hiatus during prohibition. James Concannon and the Wente family have been keeping the flame lit since the turn of the 20th century. Despite the early Cabernet fame, Livermore now specializes in Petit Sirah and Chardonnay.

Following our standard formula of visiting at least one large and widely distributed winery followed by several small, artisanal ones, we started our journey at Concannon.

Concannon has a large tasting room with a vintage tin ceiling and plenty of space for guests. Across the courtyard, you’ll find another large room dedicated to club members. There’s also a large lawn that’s popular with picnickers. We found Concannon’s service and wine to be first rate, and brought home a lovely Livermore Valley Merlot and a Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir.

We left Concannon and proceeded east on Tesla Road (named for the same inventor as the electric car company) to Greenville Road, where we found a collection of smaller wineries. Our first stop was 3 Steves Winery which we chose for no other reason than one of the three Steves is a friend of a friend. As the name implies, the winery is owned by three guys named Steve, who have nicknames printed on their business cards so you can tell them apart. Our friends’ friend Steve Ziganti is named “Gray Beard” for his full salt and pepper beard. The others are “Vertically Challenged” Steve (the other two are taller) and “He Really Exists” Steve who is less often seen at the winery than his partners.

3 Steves specializes in locally grown Chardonnay and Cabernet, but the star of our visit to their intimate tasting room was a bottle fermented brut sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The remaining stop was McGrail Vineyards, also on Greenville Road. McGrail has a large and lively tasting room and a sprawling lawn with valley views. The specialties are Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petit Sirah, of course, because this is Livermore. All the wines are skillfully crafted, but I especially enjoyed the estate Cabernet, with grapes sourced from McGrail’s own 16 acre hillside vineyard, stocked with prized Clone 8 vines.

If you happen to be in the East Bay and want to try something different, with historical relevance, I recommend packing a picnic and heading to Livermore.


If you’ve ordered wine in a fine restaurant, you may have interacted with the resident sommelier. In addition to employing their vast knowledge of all things wine to help their customers choose a great wine for the occasion, sommeliers typically hand pick the wine menu for the restaurant, manage the cellar and train the wait staff on wine related matters. Only recently have they begun to share the same status as celebrity chefs.

Becoming a sommelier is a serious undertaking. Structurally, it is similar to many trades where you attend school then take a certification exam for each level of expertise. It is generally accepted that there are four levels of sommelier-dom: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. At every level, students are instructed and tested in three categories: wine theory, tasting, and service. You must exhaustively study the history of wine, and you must to be able to identify by smell and taste any wine’s varietal and country of origin. And the service part: you must be able to defuse difficult customers.

The Master certification is governed worldwide by the Court of Master Sommeliers, while the lower three levels are governed by different organizations depending on country. In the U.S., sommelier certification is provided by the North American Sommelier Association. Yes, their initials spell NASA. Is it just a coincidence that the Culinary Institute of America has the initials CIA? What is it about food and beverage organizations sharing government acronyms?

Pictured below is the 2014 graduating sommelier class from the International Culinary Center in Silicon Valley. These students have two weeks after graduation to prepare for the Certified Sommelier Exam.

If you enjoy wine themed movies, then you might recognize instructor Ian Cauble on the far right. Cauble starred in the documentary film Somm, which tells the story of a group of young people preparing for the grueling Master Sommelier exam, which Forbes Magazine termed “the world’s toughest test”. Cauble and Alan Murray (far left) are among the elite group of just 214 Master Sommeliers in existence. Even though Australia has many renowned wineries, Murray is the only Aussie to become a Master Sommelier.

The film Somm is well worth watching if you have any interest in wine. It’s beautifully photographed, informative and suspenseful and the scenes are separated by entertaining shots of wine glasses being destroyed in creative ways. You’ll be amazed at not only the vast knowledge of professional sommeliers, but their ability to recognize and describe every nuance of the aroma and flavor of a glass of wine. In one scene, one the students insists that the varietals in his blind tasting are out of order. The Master Sommelier Instructor merely smells the wine in the one of the glasses and states with authority “they are in the correct order”.

Sommelier Graduates, International Culinary CenterIt is a noble, challenging and rewarding profession that was brought to my attention when I attended the Somm film premier at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz.

Now all things sommelier have been brought closer to home; my stepdaughter Jillian Ritter is one of the aforementioned International Culinary Center graduates (pictured at right at graduation with two classmates).

During her studies, a considerable number of wines were “examined” at our kitchen table. Let’s all wish Jill good luck on her exam. [Update: Jill passed and is now a Level 2 Certified Sommelier.]

Stay tuned for an upcoming trip to one of the oldest wine growing regions of California, the Livermore Valley.

Carmel Valley

As the Super Bowl approaches I find myself thinking of the “Rotation”, the three locales where most Super Bowls are played. Miami, New Orleans and Southern California have mild winter weather, excellent accommodations and each is a popular place to visit. But for variety, the NFL sometimes chooses to host the game somewhere else entirely: like New Jersey.

If my weekend getaway wine tasting rotation is Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles then what’s my New Jersey? I’m still not sure, but my Tampa (host to four Super Bowls) is Carmel Valley. It is uncharacteristically sunny for being so close to notoriously foggy Monterey, has several great places to stay, and is always fun to visit. This coastal valley is also a scenic gem.

Carmel Valley Village, located about six miles from Highway 1, is now home to more than 30 tasting rooms. My favorite first stop is Bernardus. The building is not fancy and the tasting room, while of decent size, has a low ceiling and casual ambience. Belly up to the bar and you will invariably be greeted by a knowledgeable, gregarious and generous pour person. Bernardus crafts fine single vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the best local vineyards, including Rosella’s, Sierra Mar, Ingrid’s, Tondre, Garys’ and Pisoni. (Would you like one Gary or two with that?). But don’t be distracted by Bernardus’ focus on Pinot and Chardonnay; if they offer you a taste of a Cabernet, or their estate grown flagship, a red blend called Marinus, do yourself a favor and kindly accept. We’ve had the great fortune of trying many stately Napa cabs, but my wife considers the Bernardus Ocean Block Cabernet to be the best she’s ever tasted.

Many of the grapes used at Bernardus are grown in the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands, but Ingrid’s Vineyard is in the valley, surrounding Bernardus Lodge. If you’re looking for a top end place to stay in the valley, Bernardus Lodge, located about two miles from the village, is highly recommended. If you’re on a budget, watch for the specials at Quail Lodge where you can secure excellent accommodations at bargain prices. Bring your putter if you do; the lodge has many excellent putting greens located on the lush grounds that surround the lodge. Or bring all your sticks and take in 18 holes right on the property.

If you get hungry, you won’t regret walking across the street to Baja Cantina and Grill, where you can enjoy excellent, original Mexican recipes and refreshments. Monday night is my favorite when they specialize in American style barbeque.

A visit to Carmel Valley Village wouldn’t be complete without stopping in at Talbott Vineyards on Pilot Road, just off Carmel Valley Road.

The first thing you’ll notice when you enter is owner Robb Talbott’s motorcycle collection. Restoring classic bikes is one of Talbott’s many pursuits. Another is growing amazing grapes, both at his Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands and Diamond T on a mountaintop near Carmel Valley. Like Bernardus, Talbott primarily features locally grown Pinots and Chardonnays. The selection and quality is outstanding and I was impressed by our pour person’s breadth of knowledge. Talbott wines are fairly widely distributed, so you might be able to find a Kali Hart or Logan Pinot or Chardonnay at a store near you. If not, you’ll just have to visit.

Los Carneros

When people refer to California Wine Country, they usually mean the many fine wine grape growing appellations of Napa and Sonoma counties: Stag’s Leap, Oak Knoll, Howell Mountain, Alexander Valley, Russian River and many more. Only one growing region spans the two famed counties: Los Carneros. In fact, it’s hard to get to Sonoma or Napa without passing through Los Carneros: on the east side Napa is just to the north, and the west side Sonoma is to the north. Los Carneros is bordered by the San Pablo Bay on the south, which provides the same maritime climate influence that helps grow great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, much like the Monterey Bay and the Santa Ynez Valley.

If you head to Sonoma via San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, taking the 101 Freeway to Highway 37, you’ll find two of my favorite West Carneros wineries: Gloria Ferrer and Cline Cellars. Gloria Ferrer is a stately complex, built on a hill and accessed by a long staircase leading up from the parking lot. The view from the deck justifies the effort you’ll put into the climb.

Gloria and her husband José knock out some excellent and relatively affordable Chardonnay, Pinot, and sparkling wines (that’s Champagne to you, but if I say it I’ll get in trouble with the French). Gloria doesn’t do a traditional “line up the bottles” tasting, instead providing à la carte wait service on the deck and a complementary glass of bubbly. I usually opt for the flight of Pinot and am never disappointed by the view, the service or the wine.


On the north side of Highway 37 you’ll find Cline Cellars, a small, low key operation specializing in Rhone varietals like Mourvèdre, Roussanne and Carignane as well as more popular wines like Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier and a cool climate Pinot Noir. The tasting room staff at Cline is always friendly, generous and knowledgeable. The tasting room is in an old farmhouse with a wraparound porch and not a hint of pretense. Out back you’ll find a large pond stocked with fish and turtles. It’s a great location for a picnic, so bring some sandwiches.

Like many family wineries, Cline keeps an old truck parked out front, in this case a red one. Years ago Cline started a second label which uses this same red truck as its namesake and label art. You can still buy Red Truck wine just about anywhere, but Cline sold the brand after it grew into a much bigger business than they wish to run. The truck is still there.

If you’re heading to Napa, a popular approach is to take the 880 through the East Bay until it merges into Interstate 80 near Oakland. Be sure to take 80 East, even though the signs say Sacramento. 80 West would take you over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. The views are astounding as you cross the San Francisco Bay and approach the city, but save that for an actual visit to SF. Continuing on 80 East takes you past Berkeley and on to Highway 37 at Vallejo, home to a Six Flags amusement park with massive steel rollercoasters and a zoo. This is the same 37 that you take on the East side to get to Sonoma. It traverses all of Los Carneros, and thus ends our geography lesson for today.

A great choice for a Napa trip is a visit to the aptly named Artesa. The building lies atop a high hill with stunning views and magnificent artwork, inside and out.To conserve energy and blend in with the surroundings, the entire building is buried underground save a couple corners peeking out of the hillside. Be sure to bring a camera so you can show the sculptures and views to the folks back home.

The wine and service at Artesa were great and we felt unrushed in the spacious tasting room and adjoining deck despite the brisk business that takes place on a typical weekend.

Wishing to juxtapose the somewhat over-the-top experience that is Artesa, we decided to seek out something low key. My wife had heard good things about Saintsbury, so we looked them up from the parking lot. Smartphones and Google Maps can really be handy on a wine adventure. Saintsbury’s website said they were open by appointment only, so we opted to be sophomoric and call for an appointment in five minutes. They were gracious and accommodating.

Saintsbury specializes in the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs one would expect from the Carneros terroir and they get everything right. There is no tasting room or bar; you can choose to be served at a table under the trees or you can congregate on the rustic porch. There is no wrong choice; we chose the tables and while there were no commanding views of Los Carneros or the San Pablo Bay, we did get to watch the winemakers bottling.

It’s always a treat to mix the grandiose with the nonchalant. Wine adventures are as much about the ambiance of the places you visit and the stories of the people you meet as they are about trying new wines.

Thanks for tagging along with us on another trip. 

Pismo Paso

I’ve driven the 101 Freeway to Southern California countless times while visiting friends, taking business trips, and as a student at UC Santa Barbara. Every time I passed Pismo Beach I promised myself to one day stop and check it out – maybe even spend the night at one of the many beachfront hotels.

Last June we were on our way back from a Sideways tour and decided to take the plunge. But not before visiting another Highway 101 landmark, Laetitia Vineyards. I’ve been a fan of their excellent Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir for years and was determined to see the place and try their best stuff. This particular weekend proved fortuitous as we arrived to find the scenic estate festooned for a wine club event. Since my wife works in the industry, they welcomed us to come in, have a look around, and try everything. I am now aware that in addition to the expected high caliber Pinots and Chardonnays, Laetitia makes outstanding Cabernet. Bravo!

Wineries are always looking for ways to keep the barrel room at the perfect temperature so the wines can age properly without sending all the profit margin to the local electric and gas utility. Many use caves, but if you examine the photo below left, you may notice that the production facility is buried. Be careful parking or you could end up on the roof.

On the right is a large hydraulic grape press, many years old but still operational. As a motion control guy, I’m always on the lookout for anything that moves.

The drive from Laetitia to Pismo Beach is short and scenic. We arrived just past noon and headed toward the wharf, snagging the first available parking spot. Pismo on a summer weekend can be crowded and touristy, which helps explain why I had never stopped before. But this day we were determined to wait in line at the Splash Café as long as necessary for a bowl of their legendary clam chowder. Splash is located at a busy intersection near the wharf where most passersby are on foot, bicycle, motorcycle or leash. The awesome people watching and photo ops made the 45 minute wait go fast. If it hadn’t, it still would have been worth it. I’ve been a chowder head since childhood and I even like to think mine’s pretty good (secret ingredient: homemade Dungeness crab stock) but I’ve had nothing to rival Splash Café.

To get a full dose of Pismo we decided to have dinner and spend the night. You’d be hard pressed to find better lodging than the Kon Tiki Inn. It’s right on the beach, a comfortable walk from the wharf and numerous shops and restaurants, and has amazing views of the beach and Pacific Ocean. The guys at the front desk call it “Hawaii without the flight”. My wife always rolls her eyes when I pull a tripod out of my suitcase, but with a view like this, you just might want a shot you blow up to the size a wall so your man cave can be “Hawaii without the flight.”

The Kon Tiki has a restaurant called Steamers with the same commanding view of the Pacific you enjoy from your room, but by evening we were looking for an excuse to take a walk through some of Pismo’s many charming neighborhoods and soon found ourselves at The Cracked Crab on Price Street. Wow. They have great service, amazing fresh seafood and a nice wine selection. And the wall art includes beach themed watercolors by UCSB art professor Hank Pitcher. By strange coincidence, so does my man cave.

After a wonderful day and night in Pismo, we drove north to Paso Robles. We’ve been to Paso many times searching out wineries new and old and usually make our base of operations one of the hotels near the intersection of the 101 Freeway and Highway 46. This time we were meeting friends and opted to lodge in downtown Paso at the historic Paso Robles Inn, where you can park the car and walk. The Paso Robles Inn sits at one end of a downtown park that’s surrounded by half a dozen tasting rooms, plus restaurants, shops and a movie theater. The tree lined streets and vintage brick buildings provide an excellent backdrop for a casual adventure.

Of the many tasting rooms, I found Parrish Family Vineyard to be the standout. The tasting staff was knowledgeable and entertaining, Parrish produces excellent fruit forward wines, and they do a wine and cheese pairing featuring boutique cheeses from local Paso favorite Vivant Fine Cheese.

Thanks for joining us on another wine adventure. Next time we’ll visit the legendary Los Carneros appellation.

Fess Up

If you are a California wine aficionado, you may have been tempted to recreate some of Jack and Miles’ adventures from Sideways, the film about two bachelors having a last romp in Central California wine country before one of them gets married. I’m already married, so my recent Sideways tour did not include a naked tow truck driver nor Sandra Oh in any compromising positions. Nonetheless, we managed to have a great time and enjoy some wonderful wine and food.

The keys to a successful Sideways recreation are: an aspiring writer (check), a love of Pinot Noir (check) and a motel room to serve as home base (check). In our case, the motel was in the lovely Danish village of Solvang, located near the 101 freeway at the southern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Solvang is a fun town to explore on foot, with block after block of Danish architecture, excellent bakeries, decent restaurants, numerous gift shops and a good brew pub. Most of the architecture in California is either Spanish colonial, midcentury modern or ranch house; sometimes you get an urge to see something completely different, and Solvang is all that. It also features a handful of tasting rooms. We found the Las Vegas themed Sort This Out Cellars to be a fun respite from the faux-Danish kitsch. They also feature an Elvira series, styled for the horror film hostess. The 2008 Elvira Macabrenet was good enough to bring a bottle home for Halloween.

To find the truly great wines of the Santa Ynez Valley, head north out of Solvang on Alamo Pintado Road, past the miniature horse ranch, to Los Olivos, a quiet little town where you can see folks kicking back in front of the General Store and be serenaded by a backyard musician.

If you’re hungry, you can get a great burger at Sides Hardware and Shoes. Or you can taste wine next door at Presqu’ile and have them bring over the burger. There are more than fifty tasting rooms in Los Olivos, most within a couple blocks of the General Store, so park the car and walk. I’d recommend lunch and a couple tastings in Los Olivos, followed by a drive northeast on Foxen Canyon Road. There you will find not just tasting rooms, but actual wineries, including some of my favorites.

Koehler is an excellent first stop, with gorgeous vineyards, quality estate wines and a fun tasting room staff. Koehler makes a tasty Santa Rita Hills Pinot, excellent full bodied cabs, and a nice estate Sangiovese.

The “star” of Foxen Canyon is Fess Parker. For those too young to know, Parker was the star of TV’s Davy Crocket where he played the legendary frontiersman. He later made a fortune in the hospitality and wine industries of the Santa Barbara area. Not surprisingly, his winery resembles a modern version of the frontier cabins that made Parker famous.

The grounds and the tasting room are spacious and comfortable, and the staff is first rate. Parker’s son Eli is the head winemaker and takes full advantage of the local climate’s ability to produce extraordinary Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit. In addition to the many great estate wines, Parker produces a Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot that is everything a great wine should be.

Are my eyes deceiving me, or did someone plant a bottle of Alfaro Family wine in the tasting room display? Who would perform such a sophomoric stunt? Well, it was a Sideways tour, and we were at Fess Parker, so a little horseplay might have seemed appropriate.

Thanks for joining us on another wine adventure. Next time we’ll visit Paso Robles and Pismo Beach.