Tuesday, July 15, 2008

California Wine Tour Day 4 - Sonoma County

We had an early afternoon appointment at Ridge Vineyards - Lytton Springs so we headed north on State Road 128 crossing back into Sonoma County and traveling through some of the nicest countryside we had seen: the Knight and Alexander Valleys. Don’t miss this drive – its one of the best in the area. We arrived and were greeted by David Gates, the winery’s vineyard manager since 1989. Most of Ridge’s operation is located in Cupertino – near San Jose – but in the early 1990’s they purchased the Lytton Springs vineyards after purchasing its zinfandel since 1972. They eventually built a tasting room to take advantage of Sonoma tourism. Today the vineyard contains primarily Zinfandel with smaller amounts of Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro – which we learned is an alias for Mourvèdre, and Grenache.

Ridge Vineyards is also included in the Paul Lukacs book, "The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages", for its Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine also participated in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting and for the 30th Anniversary of the event, it was select tops overall from a panel of American and British officials. Obviously it ages well. Unfortunately the winery was not pouring this wine, no need to waste a wine with a $175 price tag. Mr. Gates also explained that many wines are not poured in tasting rooms because not only do wineries lose by not gaining the income from wine poured for free, but that they also have to pay taxes to the federal government for each bottled wine – regardless whether the bottle is sold or poured at the tasting room. That is one reason that has increased the use and price in tasting fees as wineries attempt to recoup the taxes paid to Uncle Sam.

While reviewing their tasting sheet the immediate benefit that we noticed was that the tasting offered a good sample of wines from various California appellations as single site wines. Besides Lytton Springs and the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ridge owns vineyards in Geyersville, Paso Robles, Pagani Ranch (Sonoma Valley), and York Creek (Spring Mountain – Napa County). We started with the 2006 Chardonnay Mikulaco – from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We really like this wine – Chardonnay flavors throughout – and one of the most affordable at $25. The next was also a Santa Cruz Mountains wine, the 2005 Estate Cab – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This is another wine they recommend aging – but after already aged 21 months in American Oak – it’s ready now. It has a strong fruit flavor and a smooth finish for a wine aged that long in oak. We moved next to several Zinfandel wines, starting with the 2005 Lytton Springs, a blend of Zinfandel (77%), Petite Sirah (17%), and Carignane (6%). This composition of grapes has become somewhat of an industry standard for Zinfandel based wines and for good reason. The blend produces excellent wines and the Lytton Springs is no exception. At the same time this wine is full bodied, yet fruity and smooth. At $35, we wish it would only fit our daily budget. The same could be said for their 2006 Geyserville a similar blend with only different percentages of the same grapes, plus a little Mataro. The wine spends 14 month in the barrel and feels a little stronger than the Lytton Springs. Still, it’s very smooth. The 2006 Zinfandel Paso Robles is a 100% varietal that is aged 13 months in the barrel. The wine is slightly spicier than its brethren, but possesses a strong cherry flavor. Another 100% varietal was the 2006 Carignane Buchignani Ranch. This is the first 100% Carignane that we have tasted and we were immediately impressed and at $24 this wine is more affordable than the Zinfandel. Its fruity and young – let it sit awhile after opening. The final wine we tasted was the 2005 Syrah Lytton West - a red wine that includes 6% Viognier. The Syrah was aged 21 months so it’s a strong wine – I guess the Viognier adds to the aroma and maybe contributes to the spicy finish. This wine is very drinkable now – and would love to pair with food.

After our tasting, David took us on a vineyard tour where he showed us the various zinfandel and petite sirah plantings. That day he was also overseeing new plantings of vines in another part of the vineyard, which he had to return to. In parting he suggested that we visit Bella Vineyard’s wine cave so off we went.

While driving to Bella Vineyards we got our first look at Dry Creek Valley and its narrow roads, hilly terrain, and vineyards throughout. A great area to bike. We knew nothing about our destination, except for oral directions. Afterward we learned that during the 1990s, Scott and Lynn Adams toured the wine country frequently, got married in the area, and eventually, partnering with family members, purchased the current estate in 1999. The couple quickly began immersed themselves in vineyard management and wine making and after almost 5 years – the winery was operational. The tasting room resides in a cave, excavated in 2003, carved into one of the rolling hills on the estate.

When we arrived we found a very popular winery – perhaps the most crowded tasting room to date - and several interesting red wines. It finally dawned on us that white wines were definitely in short supply in Sonoma County and Bella was not alone in producing only red wines. We first tried the 2006 Dry Creek Zinfandel; a wine with black cherry flavors. We experienced firsthand how the same grapes grown in different vineyards helps create dissimilar wines. For the next wine was the estate vineyard’s 2006 Lily Hill Zinfandel from 90 year old vines located above the cave. This wine tasted of blackberries, was more fruit forward with an especially smooth finish. This was our favorite of the day – we could have easily sat on the hillside, or in the cave, and finished off one of these bottles. While the first two wines were fruit forward, the second two were earthier. The 2006 Sonoma County Syrah is produced from grapes from the Lily Hill estate and Sonoma Coast vineyards. It had the most distinct nose of all the wines with a strong full bodied flavor and spicy finish. The 2006 Lily Hill Petite Sirah had more of a plum flavor with a peppery finish. It was nice to be able to taste another 100% Petite Sirah since Foppiano Vineyards and we will be searching for this varietal back east. The final wine was the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel. This was our second dessert wine on the trip – we figured that late harvest wines are scarce since the grapes were just too valuable to let sit on the vines. This one had a cherry flavor, and was sweet – not gritty, just sweet. Maybe this sweetness was our perception from just drinking several dry full bodied reds – we are not sure. In any case – this is a winery to visit. And in the meantime, search for their 2006 Lily Hill Zinfandel.

Since we enjoyed the drive through Alexander Valley, we decided to return to Napa via that route and if possible visit another winery. We had previously spotted White Oak Vineyards & Winery and its Mediterranean-style buildings and arrived just minutes before closing. The tasting room employees merrily greeted us and as we tasted the wines, we learned more about the winery’s history. After a career as a building contractor and salmon fisherman, Bill Myers relocated to Healdsburg in the 1970’s. He purchased a vineyard from proceeds from selling his fishing boat and purchased a vineyard in the Alexander Valley. Winemaking soon followed. Over time he gained a reputation for producing quality Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. In 1997 he expanded his vineyard capability by aligning with Burdell Properties, who purchased vineyards in Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley. A little later the existing tasting room was built, surrounded by seventeen acres of Zinfandel vines first planted approximately eighty years ago.

Although we were hoping to try an Alexander Valley supplied wine, we started out our tasting with two Russian River Valley whites, their Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Finally, some white wine. The Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc is now the winery’s signature wine; it is a refreshing wine with nice acidity and citrus flavors. This is your wine for a hot afternoon. And priced at $16 well within our budget. The Chardonnay has more of an apple flavor with a slight oaky finish. This is a good wine – it should fare well alone or with a meal. The first round of reds were big wines from Napa Valley grown grapes: a Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were all very good, but we preferred the Merlot above the others. It had a cherry-chocolate flavor and a tail that lasted through the next sip. And at $24 it is very reasonably priced – maybe the best bargain in the area. Since we were hoping to taste an Alexander Valley wine, our courteous reps poured us samples of the 2005 Estate Zinfandel and the 2004 Estate Reserve. BTW, this is a very relaxed group. They came out to play with our son and were overjoyed when a couple strolled in with their two small dogs. Getting back to wine, the Estate Zinfandel was very smooth – slightly spicy – but smooth. Although it had a full-bodied fruit flavor it was also a bit earthy; another great Zinfandel. White Oak Vineyards & Winery was a great final stop for the day. Great wines, good company, and a fountain to play in.

See the Compass Tours section at Wine-Compass.com for pictures.

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