All posts by Jeff Kordik

Tools of the Trade

Let’s say you’ve followed the sage advice of these columns, visited one of the many fine wineries featured herein and brought home a bottle of something special. Now what? First, you need to get the bottle open. While a few reputable wineries are using screw caps, most good wines still require a corkscrew.

My favorite is the classic stainless steel waiter’s corkscrew, also known as a wine key, shown at the bottom of the photo. It’s an effective and long lasting tool, with a sharp, durable screw and a fold out blade for foil cutting. It’s also lightweight and compact enough for travel. Because the blade is less than six centimeters long, it qualifies under the newly proposed TSA rules for carryon baggage.

The TSA used to confiscate corkscrews at security checkpoints, which were later sold in small lots on eBay. My wife has exploited this situation to acquire a fine collection. The shark-shaped corkscrew in the middle was liberated from a passenger returning from the Georgia Aquarium: the dorsal fin swings out to serve as a foil cutter. Feel free to hum the theme from Jaws while you open a bottle; we all know about the bond between wine and cinema.

On the left is another wine key, this one with a safer and more convenient foil cutter. This is the style preferred by many tasting room associates (aka “pour people”), who open many more bottles than us mortals.

Featured at the top of the photo is the “winged corkscrew” with two levers, or “wings” that extend as the screw is driven into the cork. This device is a bit bulky, but useful for anyone who doesn’t have the hand and wrist strength to wield a traditional wine key. The built-in beer bottle opener is a plus, but most “waiter style” keys can also remove bottle caps.

We complete our tour of openers with the ah-so, the device on the right with two thin, rigid steel blades that are designed to slide down opposite sides of the cork. With a gentle twist and pull, the cork is free and unharmed. The ah-so is highly recommended for older bottles of wine whose corks may disintegrate when a screw is driven down their center. The ah-so does require a bit of practice, lest the prongs simply force the cork further into the bottle.

If you want to see a vast collection of wine openers, pay a visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. Shown below is a sampling of their enormous display.

Now that we’ve mastered the task of bottle opening, we’ll need something to drink from.

Shown below are four wine glasses from Riedel, the venerable German glass maker. In a tasting room you would invariably start on the left with a white wine, but I’m going to break with convention. The style of glass is more important to the enjoyment of big red wines, so we’ll start on the right with a glass “optimized by German engineering” for Burgundian wines (think Pinot Noir). The shape is designed to direct the wine to the part of your tongue featuring the optimal taste buds for the enjoyment of Pinot. (I am not making this up!) Should we call it The Ultimate Drinking Machine? This glass allows your nose to get into the bowl where you can fully enjoy the tremendous “nose” that accompanies a good red. It also allows the wine to breathe better so that you can enjoy every nuance of its complexity sooner, making a good red wine more enjoyable.

Next to the Burgundian is the Riedel Bordeaux (that’s Cabernet and Merlot to you and me). This is another fine glass worthy of investment, but if you’re on a budget you don’t need the Burgundian and the Bordeaux; either will suffice.

The glass to the left of the Bordeaux is made for Chardonnay, directing the wine to a different area of your tongue. Whites don’t taste any better to me in this glass than they do in the ”giveaway” winery logo glasses, so unless you’re entertaining the boss or your rich uncle, you might want to skip the deluxe Chardonnay stemware.

The leftmost glass is a stemless style intended for whites. It’s compact, modern and less likely to be knocked over. There is also a stemless red version, but the bowl is so large as to be difficult to grip for non-NBA stars.

If you don’t finish your bottle, you’ll likely want to save it for the next day. If the cork didn’t expand too much when it came out of the bottle, you can always shove it back in. The boss will be impressed. Or you can use this opportunity to purchase yet more gadgetry for your favorite hobby. Stoppers come in so many shapes and sizes that there is surely one for every occasion and taste. Shown below is a sampling of our collection. My personal favorite: the black one second from the right. It seals nicely, is easy to clean and is compact enough at I don’t fear running out of headroom when putting an open bottle of Chardonnay back in the fridge.

If you’re wondering where to purchase a good corkscrew or other tool of the trade (other than eBay) I recommend Wine Enthusiast for internet sales, or a BevMo retail store. Winery gift shops often have nice items as well that can double as a souvenirs of your trip. Just check with the TSA before heading through security or my wife may end up with your new corkscrew.

Next month we’re vacationing in Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and the Santa Ynez Valley, so please check back for more wine fun. 


Soquel Vineyards

If you’re not busy on a weekend afternoon and feel like taking a drive into the Santa Cruz Mountains, Soquel Vineyards is a great destination. They’re above Soquel Village, on Glen Haven Road next to Camp Kennolyn, and were founded by twin brothers Peter and Paul Bargetto and their friend Jon Morgan. The Bargetto name has long been synonymous with winemaking in the Santa Cruz area.

The estate is about ten minutes from Soquel Village and it’s a leisurely drive. I think you’ll find that the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are worth the drive alone, but if that doesn’t do it for you the views are sure to amaze whether you have a clear view of the Monterey Bay or the romantic visage of fog slowly rolling up the hill.

One of the stars of the tasting menu is the Partner’s Reserve Pinot, which is a blend of 16 clones from four vineyards. The 2010 vintage of this magnificent wine won the gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Soquel Vineyards also makes a superbly nuanced Lester Pinot; regular readers know my fondness for the Lester fruit. I also love cabs, and the Bald Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon does not disappoint.

Being of Italian heritage (Peter speaks the language fluently and often visits “the old country”) the brothers always have some Sangiovese on hand. Peter might even be coaxed into offering you a barrel sample, while answering any questions you have about the winemaking process.

The boys don’t get to have all the winemaking fun at Soquel, as they are joined by talented and adorkable assistant winemaker Olivia Tuetschel, also a frequent presence in the tasting room.

Chardonnays are a specialty at Soquel Vineyards and O’s Chardonnay, made by Olivia, is a great one. I was lucky enough to participate in the “Boy’s versus Girl’s Chardonnay Taste Off” in the barrel room when the wines were just about ready for bottling and I can conclusively state that all the winemakers are on top of their game at Soquel.

Like every Italian-American family I know, the Bargetto’s love cooking. I can remember falling in love with this place the first time I visited, as no sooner had I taken my first taste of delicious Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay than Paul Bargetto approached with wood fired pizza, hot out of the oven.

Paul is always experimenting with the pizza recipes, so visiting can be a new experience every time. And the cuisine isn’t always limited to pizza. One of the best winery snacks I’ve had in recent memory was pomegranate pear mandarin pizza and sushi. You can’t get that kind of experience just anywhere.

I’ve enjoyed the great wines, gourmet food and genuine hospitality at Soquel Vineyards many times and I’ve always had a great time. I highly recommend taking a trip up there.

Send in the Clones

If you enjoy Pinot Noir, at some point you’ve probably encountered the word “clone”, as in “This wine is crafted from Djion clone 115”. A clone not actually the result of a test tube experiment, and it’s certainly not any kind of genetically modified organism, or GMO. Pinot clones are simply grape vines grown from cuttings of the best Pinot vines from renowned vineyards, or their descendents. Most clones grown in Oregon and California were cloned from French Burgundian stock. Many of the most common clones originated in Dijon, hence the term “Dijon Clone”.

I’ve frequently written about the unique characteristics of single vineyard wines. Clones add another dimension to terroir, which is the concept that a wine’s flavor is influenced to a large degree by the place in which it is grown: soil, water, elevation, slope, and temperature all play a role. In the nature versus nurture debate, terroir is the nurture while the clone is the nature. Combinations of the two are nearly infinite, making for the abundant variety of flavors that are central to wine tasting adventures. Big vintners mix grapes of different vineyards and clones in giant vats, averaging out all the individual characteristics. Smaller, artisanal winemakers do a much better job of preserving the uniqueness of the grape, bringing the terroir and the clone to your palate.

My friend Craig Handley of Pleasant Valley Vines is one of several winemakers who purchase special Pinot fruit from local grower Lester Family Vineyards. In 2008, Craig selected grapes from two blocks of the Lester Vineyard, one planted in Dijon 115 clones and the other utilizing 667’s. He fermented, barreled and bottled the clones separately, making two excellent wines with subtly different overtones.

Another popular clone, and a favorite of mine, is 777, as witnessed by two single vineyard, single clone “triple sevens” I found in my cellar while “researching” this column. Heart O’ the Mountain is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the old Alfred Hitchcock Estate. Readers who know my love of wine and film should not be surprised if we return to Heart O’ the Mountain in a future column.

Other popular clones are 114, 828, Pommard, Swan and Pisoni. The Pisoni clone was brought to the U.S. from a legendary French vineyard in a suitcase by Gary Pisoni of Garys’ vineyard fame, though there are rumors that he smuggled it in an undergarment. Gary’s Vineyard is planted in Pisoni and Swan clones; Swan is rumored to be another “suitcase clone”, but no one is certain how it came to be planted in Swan’s Russian River Valley vineyard. Joseph Swan did little to discourage rumors of his clone’s origin, adding to the mystique.

The numbered Dijon clones aren’t surrounded by as much mystery as their suitcase travelling cousins, but they are widely planted and make excellent wine. Most of the numbered clones were developed at the University of Dijon by Dr. Raymond Bernard in the 1960’s, so all pinot lovers owe the good doctor a debt of gratitude. For those wondering about the origin or meaning of the numbers, they serve only to distinguish one clone from another.

In honor of Dr. Bernard, we’ll close with label shots of a lovely Blackstone 828 from the Sonoma Coast, and one of my favorite clonal blends, the Morgan 12 Clones, sourced mainly from their Double L Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Of the thousands of wines tasted by Wine Spectator magazine in 2012, the Morgan 12 Clones was ranked in the top 100.

The Crush

I once heard a policeman say his job was 90% boredom punctuated by 10% terror. The work of anyone who grows and produces their own wine is markedly similar, except the grapes don’t shoot at you. A vastly disproportionate amount of a winemaker’s annual workload is devoted to a flurry of activities in the weeks between the ripening of the grapes and the end of fermentation, collectively known as “the crush”. Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the crush usually begins in late September or October.

Everything must be done quickly and carefully, as any mistake or delay in the process can result in bad wine, or even vinegar. Mother Nature gives us grapes, but she seeks to destroy our winemaking efforts in many other ways, including but not limited to mold, bacteria, fruit flies, not enough oxygen or too much oxygen. Now back to the good stuff.

When each block of a vineyard achieves the perfect degree of ripeness, as judged mostly by the sugar content, or Brix, the grapes are harvested. Workers handpick the fruit, often working under Klieg lights in the cool morning hours before dawn. The cooler the grapes are when picked and crushed, the better chance you’ll have to make great wine from them.

Pinot Noir Grapes, Grape Harvest

By ten o’clock in the morning, the bins of grapes from today’s block are picked and ready to move to the crusher/de-stemmer, which will separate the stems, the skins and the juice. The stems are discarded. For red wines, the skins and juice are placed in fermentation bins where yeast is added. White wines are fermented with little or no contact with the skins, while pink wines stay in contact with the skins for a day or two. By the end of the day, primary fermentation, the process in which yeast convert sugar and oxygen to alcohol, begins.

The skins eventually float to the top of the bin and cut off the supply of oxygen to the yeast, so each bin much be “punched down” twice a day throughout the primary fermentation, which takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on temperature and other variables.

Meanwhile, the grapes picked on earlier days will be in different stages of the process, so in addition to picking, crushing and fermenting, during the crush there is always “racking” to be done – moving wine from bins to tanks to barrels. As I’ve no doubt mentioned in the past, some winemakers arrange the fermentation tanks to be up hill from the barrels, and the crush pad uphill from the tanks, so that the delicate juices never have to be pumped. I stopped by Alfaro one afternoon and observed Richard using a makeshift gravity feed system: there he was, standing atop a tank holding a hose connected to a bin that he had positioned above himself on a tall forklift.

This is an exciting time to visit a winery if they’ll have you. Some are closed to the public during the crush but stop by if you can and you’ll see a flurry of activity and hear some amazing stories.

Stags Leap District

As readers of the Wine and the Movies column may recall, it was the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition that put Napa Valley on the world stage. And it wasn’t just for the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay featured in Bottle Shock, but also for a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Stags Leap District, which runs along the Silverado Trail between Napa and Yountville. This unique terroir produces fruit with a unique softness and intensity, and local winemakers know how to transform that into a great wine.

After a couple of fun days in Healdsburg, we decided to drive through the Alexander and Knights Valleys, both highly respectable Cabernet growing appellations, and get a room at the historic Napa River Inn. The River Inn is a converted mill and warehouse located in downtown Napa. It’s a nice hotel and a great location for exploring the riverfront and downtown areas.

The next day, we took a drive up to Robert Sinskey, at the north end of the Stags Leap District. Sinskey has vineyards at the winery and in Los Carneros, and a few years ago produced the best Merlot I’ve ever tasted. The tasting room boasts fine craftsmanship and a soaring ceiling, and you can count on experiencing a variety of perfectly crafted wines and some of the best food pairings in the valley. It’s also a nice place to picnic, with bucolic vineyard views. In addition to the truly great Merlot, the Three Amigos Vineyard Pinot is always a treat, and you shouldn’t go to Stags Leap without trying some estate cabs.

In search of more great estate cabs, we proceeded to Cliff Lede, on Yountville Cross Road, where cab is king. In keeping with the old adage “How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a big one,” Cliff Lede and his brother made their fortune building Ledcor, one of Canada’s premier construction companies. Along the way, Cliff had the foresight to buy land in Napa, which is probably now worth a fortune itself. We happened to pull into the parking lot at the same time as Tom Roseller, a senior consultant who advises clients on custom wine production.

Tom also trains the staff, but had enough time this day to afford an interested listener an extensive dissertation on the myriad details involved in producing some of world’s great Cabernets. We sampled anything and everything he could find, including a couple things from the backroom that Tom poured while discretely muttering “contraband”. As an avid wine tourist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I must close by offering an apology to any reader of the Healdsburg column who rented My Favorite Year and wondered why there was no Russell Crowe and no vineyard. The correct title is A Good Year.


When visiting California wine country, many people prefer exploring Sonoma County, which has excellent wineries and is less crowded and more laid back than its more famous neighbor Napa. Of course if you really want laid back, you need to come to Santa Cruz, but that’s another story.

The best towns for a base of operations in Sonoma County are Sonoma and Healdsburg. They each have a town square or plaza, surrounded by restaurants, boutique inns and shops, and tasting rooms. On a recent visit to Healdsburg, we found ourselves staying at the H2 hotel, just a block off the Plaza. It’s a modern, sustainable affair, with bamboo flooring, recycled steel and an undulating, living roof. The café, Spoonbar, opens onto the sidewalk so you can eat al fresco, and the food is extraordinary. In the same space is the “Receptobar”, where you can check in, get a drink, make a dinner reservation, borrow a bike to ride around town or a DVD to play on the flat screen in your room. We watched My Favorite Year in which Russell Crowe plays a ruthless stock trader who inherits his uncle’s French vineyard where he had spent summers as a boy. See it.

Next door to the H2 is the La Crema tasting room, featuring some of my favorite Sonoma County Pinots and Chardonnays and a friendly, young tasting room staff. Venturing further down Healdsburg Avenue, you’ll find the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, Murphy-Goode and Kendall-Jackson tasting rooms, and the Bear Republic Brewery, all highly recommended. Just past the plaza is Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar. If you are only able to do one thing in Healdsburg, this has to be it. You can sit at Willi’s bar and order individual oysters from all over the world, along with numerous tapas style delicacies. We like to dine on the patio on calamari and ahi.

Healdsburg wouldn’t be complete without getting in the car and venturing out from downtown. To the south, you’ll find Rodney Strong. I always like to visit at least one place whose wines I can find at home, and I always enjoy their Chardonnays and Cabernets.

If you are a movie buff, consider driving north from Healdsburg where you can visit the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, a gorgeous estate that was once called Sovereign. The movie memorabilia that used to be on display at Coppola’s Inglenook estate in Napa is now here, including five Oscar statues. Coppola’s wines are always excellent, so we didn’t leave empty handed.

On the way back to Healdsburg, you might enjoy stopping at Trentadue. We found the staff friendly and the wines well made. The winner was the Chocolate Amore desert wine, and I don’t normally go in for port. While at Trentadue, you may be able to pick up a bottle etched with the logo of your alma mater, unless you’re a Banana Slug or Gaucho fan.

Closer to downtown Healdsburg is Seghesio, who have a large, Mediterranean style tasting room with glass windows behind the bar providing a view of the barrel room. The variety and quality of the wines were much to our liking and the pour girl was unusually knowledgeable.

After two fine days in and about Healdsburg, our Wine Country adventure continued with a drive through the Alexander and Knights valleys to Napa. Please stay tuned.


The Startup

Four years ago, Mica Raas’ team of six winemakers was producing 2.4 million gallons of wine per year at one of California’s large contract wine manufacturers. Since 2009, he’s been making 1000 times less, having started his own winery, Mica Cellars, in a Watsonville warehouse. He did this for the same reasons that Applied Motion was founded in 1978: to create and market products that embody his own vision, design and craftsmanship.

Mica Cellars shares a space called Winemakers Studio on Hanger Way, near the Watsonville Municipal Airport. It’s just up the street from one of our contract assemblers. You would never guess from the industrial surroundings that Mica and fellow tenant Roudon Smith are producing excellent, hand crafted wines on site.

Mica Raas Winemaker
Winemaker Mica Raas

He’s making around 1000 cases per year with carefully selected, purchased fruit and French oak barrels. The barrel room is a typical industrial warehouse with roll up doors, but is well insulated and filled with racks of oak barrels, fermentation tanks, and the usual pumps and hoses. At Mica’s previous job, they pumped the wine out of the tanks with 6 inch hoses and 10 HP pumps. You won’t see that at the artisanal wineries you’ve read about in these columns. Some even arrange their equipment so that the wine can be “gravity fed” instead of pumped. Peter Bargetto, a partner in Soquel Vineyards, tells me that his small, cavitation-free Italian pumps are just as good to the wine as letting it flow downhill.

Many of my favorite wines are single vineyard. They have a distinctive flavor, traceable to a particular spot on Earth, and the label bears this out. Instead of “California”, a single vineyard label might read “Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands”. The Mica Cellars 2010 Pinot Noir offers engineer-like precision in “Smith Road Vineyards, Rows 2-5, Santa Cruz Mountains”.

My wife and I have been to visit several times and we always take home a bottle of Pinot Noir, and sometimes Cabernet Franc. Franc is a close cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon and is usually grown so it can be blended with other Bordeaux varietals. But a well made, single vineyard Cabernet Franc is a treat. Mica Cellars also mixes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes before fermentation in what is called a “field blend”. The tannins combine chemically during fermentation, producing flavors that are not possible if the blending occurs later in the process.

Having helped start something from nothing myself, I can only wish Mica Raas the best of luck with his venture. He’s off to a great start. If you get a chance, stop by 18 Hanger Way on a Saturday afternoon, and treat yourself to a taste of some very enjoyable wine.

South of the Border

As our cruise ship pulled into port at Ensenada, Mexico, we decided to bypass the popular La Bufadora & Shopping Excursion and board an air conditioned tour bus bound for the Calafia Valley, to see the vineyards of Old Mexico. As luck would have it, our dinner mates Tim and Eva decided to join us. It never hurts to have a judge in tow when you’re out and about in Mexico, even if his jurisdiction is Tucson, Arizona.

Jeff Kordik, LA Cetto winery Mexico

Calafia is about 20 minutes from the coast; the ride was scenic and charming on a typical sunny, dry Baja day. Our first stop was L.A. Cetto, founded by Don Angelo Cetto, who emigrated from Italy in the 1920’s. The winery is named after his son, Luis Agustin. I can say with certainly that it’s the only vineyard I’ve seen planted around a bull fighting ring. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised after visiting Howard Hughes’ flying behemoth The Spruce Goose, which is also surrounded by a vineyard. But if you’ve been paying attention, you already knew that (hint: Jeff’s Wining Again, Sept 2011).

Our guide Tomas showed us around the grounds and the production facility. Judging from the size of the barrel room, I’d guess L.A. Cetto is producing about 10,000 cases per year.

Back in the tasting room, we tried several whites, including Chenin Blanc (not a fan), Blanc de Blancs, and a decent Chardonnay. We also sampled the Italian reds Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, accompanied by excellent local, fresh bread. I am known to seek out good Sangiovese whenever possible, but this particular day I would be unsuccessful.

Our second stop was Casa Pedro Domecq, founded in Spain by an Irishman named Patrick Murphy. While not fluent in Spanish, I’m fairly certain that Pedro Domecq is not a literal translation of Patrick Murphy.

Domecq is an eclectic blend of new and old worlds, and a worthy wine destination. Beneath the modern tasting room with stunning vineyard and mountain views lie a series of tunnels used to age the wine. If they offer you a tour, take it. In addition to housing thousands of barrels and bottles, the caves also serve as an informal “museum” of antique wine making equipment that Pedro Domecq no longer uses but has preserved for posterity.

While lacking a bull fighting ring, the wines were vast improvement over L.A. Cetto. The Cabernet Sauvignon was good enough for us to bring a few bottles back to the boat.

The lesson of Calafia Valley is that grapes are grown and wine is made in many countries and most American states. You don’t have to go to Burgundy or Napa to find someone who makes a good bottle of wine. Adventure awaits wherever you go.

Buen Viaje.

Wine and the Movies

With that title, you might be expecting a story about taking a flask to a theater, or which wine pairs best with Casablanca (Bogart’s characters would likely prefer whiskey or gin). In fact, we’ll be exploring several aspects of the long relationship between wine and filmmaking.

Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola owns two wineries, including the historic Inglenook estate in Napa Valley, which was purchased with the proceeds from The Godfather and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a beautiful chateau to visit and the wines are exemplary. Like most Napa establishments, they focus on Chardonnay and big Cabernets.

The list of current actors who own wineries or vineyards includes Kyle MacLachlan (Pursued by Bear, Washington State), Dan Aykroyd (Aykroyd, Ontario), Antonio Banderas (Anta Banderas, Spain), Emilio Estevez (Casa Dumetz, Malibu) and Fess Parker. Parker’s vineyard in Foxen Canyon, near Santa Barbara, is worth a visit. The Pinot Noir and Syrah are excellent and the tasting room features wine glasses with a coon skin cap etched onto them. For those too young to remember, Fess Parker played Davy Crocket, an early 19th century American wilderness man who wore a raccoon skin cap.

Wine itself can be prominent in film, but sometimes it just drops in for a cameo, as in two of my favorite Roy Scheider films. In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stars as an NYC grad student whose life is consumed by his studies and marathon training. When his worldly brother (Scheider) visits with a great French Bordeaux in hand, he searches the kitchen for wine glasses before settling on two water glasses of questionable cleanliness.

Marathon Man Wine Scene

The tables are turned on Scheider’s character Chief Brody in Jaws, the 1975 Spielberg thriller. This time it is he who disrespects a fine bottle of Burgundy that shark expert Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) has brought for dinner. Brody, severely stressed after losing a second citizen to a shark attack, grabs the freshly opened bottle, fills a tall glass and starts gulping as Hooper attempts to protest “you should really let that breathe”

Wine takes center stage in Sideways, the Alexander Paine comedy about the last romp of a groom and his oenophile buddy who takes him tasting, and adventuring, around Foxen Canyon and the Santa Ynez Valley. They even stop at Fess Parker. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are terrific in this film, so if you haven’t seen it and you like wine and laughs, put it in your Netflix queue.

Another great film that is wholly about wine is Bottle Shock, the story of Chateau Montelena’s improbable victory in the “Judgment of Paris”, a 1976 international wine competition that helped propel Napa to the forefront of the wine universe. Bonus points: it stars Chris Pine, who played young Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

There is much more to this story than we can fit in these pages, so you’ll have to continue the journey through wine and film on your own. Bon voyage.

Barrel Tasting

Those who like wine tasting are accustomed to the routine: six or eight bottles are lined up on a counter; the tasting room associate (aka pour person) explains a bit about each wine as you’re sampling. The wines you taste are available for purchase and are often sold in stores and restaurants. The winemaker, on the other hand, has a different experience. After the wine has gone into the barrel (or a stainless steel vat if it is to be “unoaked”) the progress is gauged by taking barrel samples. There’s simply no other way to know how the wine is progressing and when it has aged enough to bottle.

Occasionally, a winemaker will invite a few friends and customers to stop by for barrel tasting, as did Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Vineyards on October 30. Upon arrival, I bypassed the other guests, who were “bottle tasting” and grazing on Corralitos Market venison sausages, and snuck into the barrel room. Frequent readers of this column know that this is my way of getting some good photos and a little inside information. As luck would have it, Jim was drawing a liter of his best estate Pinot Noir from a French oak barrel.

When a winemaker is drawing a sample for himself, he normally employs a long glass tube with a rubber bulb at the end that resembles an oversized turkey baster. When you need enough for guests, you siphon the wine into a flask using a long, clear tube. The apparatus resembles something college kids might use at a party; at least that’s what I’ve heard.

Barrel tasting gives you a good idea what the wine will taste like after the aging process is complete, but also provides the experience of tasting something a bit “unfinished”. Windy Oaks produces exemplary estate Pinot Noirs, and I’m pleased to report that this one is coming along nicely.

If you visit Windy Oaks, be sure to take a walk through the vineyards to the top of the hill where you’ll enjoy a commanding view of the Monterey Bay. It’s the next best thing to Dijon, and a lot closer. If you come in October, the vines may even be sporting Halloween outfits.

That’s netting, of course, to keep the birds from stealing the fruit. If you’re thinking that the harvest should have been in September or early October, you are correct. Because we had a cool, foggy summer in 2011, the Chardonnay grapes were still on the vines. Jim assured me that these are the last unpicked Chardonnay grapes in California.

If you get a chance to do some barrel tasting, I highly recommend it for the “inside experience” it provides. And if the opportunity is accompanied by a trek through the vineyard and a hilltop view, it will be a memorable experience.