What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

Sunday, 09 November 2014 10:17

November 7, 2014 Wine Pick of the Week

Nello Olivo Sagrantino Picmonkey

2011 Sagrantino


Nello Olivo

El Dorado County

Alcohol: 13.5%

Suggested Retail: $100


“To our knowledge, Rancho Olivo Vineyards in El Dorado County is one of (at most) a handlful of California growers of the Sagarantino grape variety, which is native to the north of Italy. Nello Olivo of the eponymously-named winery traces his ancestral roots to Montefalco in Umbria and believes that the Sagrantino grape will do as well in El Dorado County as it does there.

“The 2011 Nello Olivo Sagrantino is deep, dark and full of intensity, though such qualities do not come from its alcoholic content, which the label defines as just 13.5%. We find black plum, blackberry fruit and lots of tannin in this wine. There's also some earthiness in the background—maybe a little like the famed 'Rutherford Dust,' though less obvious. Taste California Travel has limited experience with this variety, but Nello Olivo's 2011 Sagrantino tastes like it will still be maturing a couple of decades from now. The wine is almost absurdly expensive—even by Italian, as well as Californian, standards—and consumers can find plenty of concentration and power in wines priced way less, but Nello has near exclusivity with his California-grown edition of this variety and scarcity often determines price.”

Food Affinity: “Needs strongly flavored dishes. High quality cured meats. Dishes incorporating black truffles. T-bones or shoulder lamb chops grilled over grapevine prunings or mesquite.”

Sunday, 28 September 2014 01:06

September 26, 2014 Beer Pick of the Week

Dead Canary pint Picmonkey

Dead Canary


Ol' Republic Brewery

Nevada City, California

Style: Dortmunder Export

Alcohol: 4.5%

IBUs: Unknown

Serving Style: Kegs

Availability: Year around in Nevada City/Grass Valley area and in much of Northern Californa


Appearance:  “Extremely clear. Golden.”

Aroma:  “Nice sweet aroma.”

Taste:  “Amazing and refreshing. Very well balanced. One of my favorite beers that I've had this year.

Food Affinity:  “White fish—maybe bass. Mediterranean dishes. Thai food. Sushi.”

Christopher Fairman Sept 27 2014 Picmonkey


Reviewer Christopher Fairman is sure no canaries were harmed in the production of this beer

Friday, 19 September 2014 14:05

Castile in California's Foothills

by Dan Clarke

Vina Castellano Cave Entrance PicmonkeyVina Castellano tasting cave lies behind the doors

Teena Wilkins says her late father, Gabe Mendez, was known as “Dr. Dirt.” Forty-five years ago he was operating a successful earth-moving and excavating business in Southern California, but wanted a less congested environment for his family—somewhere with fresh air and room for a few animals. When he bought 60-acres northwest of Auburn there were no wineries in Placer County and few, if any, vineyards. Nevertheless, Mendez thought his Northern California property resembled the homeland of his ancestors and had agricultural potential.

Nearly 20 years ago Teena and her husband returned to California. They had been working in Florida; she in public relations and Craig in construction management. Gabe's business had made him successful, but it had kept him too busy to seriously consider developing his own property. At a family dinner, Teena heard her father mention that he might have enjoyed living the life of a farmer—perhaps working with wine grapes or olive trees. Teena was intrigued. She soon called UC Davis to see what she could learn about grapegrowing and winemaking.

Teena Wilkins' mother was of Irish and American Indian ancestry—not much wine tradition there, but her father's parents had emigrated from Ribeiro del Duero in Spain. Wine was a part of everyday life in Teena's childhood, served in moderation with most meals and not just on special occasions. “My abuelita (grandmother) made 200-gallons of wine each year, but was using Mission grapes,” Teena recalls. “After moving to Northern California she found better grapes were available to her here.”

Vina Castellano Teena in Cave PicmonkeyTeena explains cave tasting environment

When the decision was eventually made to put in a vineyard about 15 years ago, Dr. Dirt “ripped and cross-ripped” the land in preparation for planting, says his daughter. He also excavated a cave which was originally used for barrel aging and later put to use as a unique tasting venue.

To acknowledge the family's Castilian heritage the new wine estate was named Vina Castellano. Both Teena and her father Gabe felt their Auburn property had a terroir similar to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions and that they could grow the Spanish grape varieties planted there so Tempranillo was included among the varieties planted. “Fifteen years ago nobody had heard of Tempranillo,” recalls Wilkins, who nevertheless planted the Spanish grape. The family's early vineyard consultants had connections to the well-established Clos du Val. That French-owned winery was making mostly Bordeaux-styled wines from Napa Valley grapes. A Gallic influence was felt at Vina Castellano. “We really had more of a Rhône program the first couple of years,” she explains, adding that in addition to the Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache and Mouvèdre were also planted.

Tempranillo, for all its popularity in Spain, accounts for only 1,000 acres in today's California and there was considerably when Vina Castellano planted it 15 years ago. Other wineries here have begun making Tempranillo, but even now relatively few American consumers are familiar with it.

In time, Vina Castellano began budding over Cabernet Franc and Syrah to Grenache and Mouvèdre. The latter two grapes are well-known in the Rhône Valley of France, but the same varieties are called Garanacha and Monastrell when grown in Spain. Further, these latter two grapes are often blended with Tempranillo. Redefined, those varieties stayed and the Spanish personality of the Vina Castellano estate was further amplified. As a fledgling operation, “we were coming into a market where we had no credibility and no traffic,” says Wilkins. “We heard from the beginning that we were going to have to be unique to give people a reason to want to visit the winery. Why try to do Bordeaux varieties when the best in the world are being made two hours away in a far different climate?”

Vina Castellano Teena Victor Derek PicmonkeyTeena, Victor and Derek at onset of 2014 harvest

As a small winery, Vina Castellano sells most of its wines from the tasting room. Teena's mother, Carolyn Mendez, pointed out that many of their visitors might not be red wine drinkers and that creating a white wine was in order. “I loved Albariño,” comments Teena, and that Galician grape would certainly fit with the Spanish profile, but Derek Irwin, her vineyard consultant and Spanish variety specialist, suggested they introduce Verdejo, a lesser-known Spanish white grape that Teena says has a flavor profile right between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Vedejo is another wine that helps differentiate her winery, feels Teena, who calls it an “educating wine,” allowing her to help consumers “to step out of the box.”

Perhaps Vina Castellano chose to specialize in Spanish grape varieties primarily because of the family heritage, but the results seem to justify the decision from a grower's perspective, too. In addition to their Tempranillo bottling, the winery has produced wines dubbed “Abuelita” and “Abuelito” in honor of Teena's grandmother and grandfather. The former is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Garanacha, and Syrah. Comprised of Tempranillo, Garanacha and Monistrell, the Abuelito garnered a Double Gold at the 2014 California State Fair Wine Judging. It also was deemed the Best of Region for the Sierra Foothills and honored as the Best Other Red Blend in all of California.

Gabe Mendez succumbed to prostate cancer in 2011. While he wasn't a lifelong farmer, he took an active role in the operation of Vina Castellano, frequently traveling to Spain to compare notes with vineyard owners there. His daughter Teena runs things now, with invaluable help from Derek Irwin and Victor Brambila, the vineyard manager and cellar master. Teena's husband Craig has a full-time job with DTR Construction, she says, but he and their two sons play the “weekend warrior” role with both vineyard and winery chores.

How would Gabe Mendez have felt about the realization of the vineyard and winery he inspired? His daughter comments that she thinks he felt “it was a dream realized, maybe more than he expected. I think he was gratified that he had provided opportunity for his family.”

Editor's note: Vina Castellano is one of 20 wineries in the fast-developing Placer County wine region. You can find links to the websites of all these wineries, as well as links to hundreds of nearby Lodging and Dining options in the Gold Country listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Sunday, 10 August 2014 11:35

August 8, 2014 Beer Pick of the Week

Ol Republic Beer Glass Picmonkey

Helles Lager


ol' Republic Brewery

Nevada City, California

Style: German lager

Alcohol: 5.3%

IBUs: 22

Serving style: Kegs, growlers at the brewery

Availability: Year-round in much of Northern California


Appearance:  “Clear and golden.”

Aroma:  “Some malt.”

Taste:  “Bright (helles), crisp with some malt showing, yet not overpowering. Nice finish. Refreshing as a beer should be on a warm summer day, but enough different so you know that you're not just re-hydrating.”

Food Affinity:  “Grilled fare—chicken thighs, large shrimp marinated in rosemary vinaigrette, lighter fresh sausages such as Bockwurst.


DanClarke Good Mug Shot Picmonkey



Reviewer Dan Clarke says this beer reminded him of a biergarten in Nuremberg



High Noon poster

TASTE News Service July 16, 2014 - It's Lights, Camera, Action for Yosemite Gold Country/Tuolumne County, California. Over half of Yosemite National Park is located in Tuolumne County, which is located two and a half hours east of San Francisco and two hours south of Sacramento. In addition to Yosemite, Tuolumne County is home to Gold Rush towns, two state parks, eclectic shopping, wine tasting, fun dining, four-season recreation, scenic vistas and a variety of excellent lodging opportunities. All these amenities have helped shape Tuolumne County's rich film history and make it a great destination for current film projects.

Tuolumne County is a magnet for film enthusiasts. Over 300 feature films, television show and commercials have been made here. As early as 1919, filmmakers recognized the area as a valuable and convenient source of locations rich in diverse natural features and vintage architectural styles. They discovered that almost any type of scenery in the United States and beyond could be duplicated in Tuolumne County.

Movies and TV shows filmed here include: High Noon (Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper), Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza and Highway to Heaven (Michael Landon), The Red Pony (Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara), The Great Race (Jack Lemmon), Big Valley (Barbara Stanwyck), Lassie (June Lockhart), Rawhide and Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) and Back to the Future III (Michael J. Fox).

Railtown 1897 PicmonkeyRailtown 1897, "The Movie Railroad" Photo by Kevin ZimmermanOne of the most popular filming locations, especially for westerns, is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which is also known as “The Movie Railroad.” The State Park is home to one of the most photographed locomotives in the world, Sierra #3. Perhaps the most famous scene was pushing a DeLorean time machine down the tracks in Back to the Future III. Visitors to the park can view movie memorabilia and photos and see Sierra #3 up close and personal.

Another very popular location for filming is Columbia State Historic Park. Add a little dirt to the streets of this authentic gold rush town and it is suddenly transformed back to the 1800's. Meticulously preserved buildings have led Columbia to doubling as many cities of the 1800s era including New York and Chicago. In the television series, Little House on the Prairie, the town became Sleepy Eye, Minnesota and in the classic western, High Noon, it was known as Hadleyville. The Wilson-McConneell House in Columbia is where Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tries to recruit Sam Fuller (Henry Morgan, aka Colonel Sherman Potter in M*A*S*H*).

There are additional filming locations throughout the County and the Tuolumne County Film Map helps visitors to find those locations and take a step with the stars. The Movie Map is available at both Visitor Center locations: Sonora and Chinese Camp.

Tuolumne County also boasts two film festivals: The ITSA Film Festival which takes place in November and is one of the hottest short film festivals in central California. Festival goers can attend panels and workshops, watch films and meet industry professionals in historic downtown Sonora venues. Film Fest Twain Harte takes place over Labor Day Weekend and focuses on western-inspired productions.

Robt Morse with wine thief PicmonkeyRob draws a barrel sample

by Dan Clarke

Robert Morse has been growing good grapes. With a lighter crop load he figures he can produce really extraordinary grapes and elevate his wines to reserve quality. It's the only way he can compete successfully with larger operations at lower elevations, he explains.

Fifteen years ago Morse purchased 80 acres of land he believed could produce quality wine. His Il Gioiello property is in Amador County at 2200-feet elevation and very near to the El Dorado County line. There he grows most of the grapes for both the Morse Wines and Il Gioiello labels. He is surrounded by the Fiddletown, Fairplay and Shenandoah Valley AVAs. “Soil-wise we're more like Fairplay,” says Morse. “Weather-wise we're more like Fiddletown.” In explaining the soils on his property, he echoes the words of Anne Kraemer of Shake Ridge Vineyards, who said this part of Amador County is “geologic chaos.” Sierra Series II Loam might be the most identifiable component, but Morse adds that his vineyards include “soapstone, shales, schist and more of a volcanic soil where the Cabernet Franc is planted.”

Robert Morse grew up the son of a fireman in Moraga, California. His ancestry is German and Scottish, but Morse explains that his pals next door were Italian and that their parents kept two jugs in their refrigerator. One was Kool-Aid, the other presumably red wine. It is possible he quenched his thirst with the latter. In any case, the young Morse developed an early appreciation of wine and food. During college he worked in restaurant kitchens and after graduating from the University of Oregon he became a home winemaker. Working as an executive in the semiconductor industry (Intel, Integrated Device Technology and Cypress Semiconductor) led to travel opportunities. Some of these were necessitated by job assignments. In Livermore and later in Monterey County, he was able to pursue his wine-making hobby while meeting growers in those areas. Along the way he even planted some small vineyards of his own.

As his passion developed for all things food and wine, he traveled frequently on his own and found Italy and the south of France particularly intriguing. “When I was 39-years old, I was deciding what I wanted to do with (the rest of) my life,” Morse explains. “It had to have to do with wine.” He says he took some wine-related classes at UC Davis and “read everything I could get my hands on.” Napa and Sonoma were becoming more devoted to specializing in just four varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He had made those wines as a hobbyist and considering continuing in that direction. “But I decided I didn't want to do those (varietals) anymore,” he says. For someone who wanted to pursue the Italian and Rhône Valley varieties he'd grown fond of there seemed to be only two options: Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills. Morse says he eliminated Paso Robles, “because I don't like the wind and I don't like barren, rolling hills.”

Robt Morse kneeling with vine PicmonkeyChecking drip irrigation

With fond memories of childhood trips to Calaveras County, he found a similarity in the more northly growing regions of Amador and El Dorado. And, these areas in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas were showing potential for top-quality winegrowing. However, Morse found the Foothill wine quality to be spotty. “Reasonably capitalized operations that were not overreaching generally made good wine. Under capitalized wineries made (inferior) wine,” he explains. Two people in Amador County who were making wine of a style Morse liked were Jim Gullet of Vino Noceto and Bill Easton of Terre Rouge. He remembers touring his property with Gullet before starting to plant. “What (wine) do you really want to make well?” he recalls Gullet asking him. “World-class Petite Sirah,” came his response. “Well, plant on the hill right over there,” said the Vino Noceto proprietor. Morse dutifully did as told. That decision seemed validated in 2012 when the Orange County Fair and Orange County Wine Society presented Morse their “highest possible award” for his 2008 Evans Hill Vineyard Petite Sirah.

It's not just Petite Sirah that Morse put in. Currently he grows 13 varietals, three of which have two different clones. In all there are 16 vineyards on the 20-acres of land planted thus far. Nearly all of these varieties are reds, save for one Rhône white (Viognier). Others with French heritage include Syrah, Mouvèdre and Grenache.

Italian varietals on the property include Barbera, Aglianico, Sangiovese (Brunello and Romagnolo clones), Montepulciano and Primitivo.

Also planted are Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel, that most Californian of grapes that is a staple in these Foothills. The Zin cuttings were taken from Sonoma's famed Monte Rosso Vineyard. Morse also makes a Muscat Blanc from grapes grown on a neighboring property and sources Merlot from Livermore.

Robt Morse with OC award PicmonkeyWith Orange County's "highest possible award"

Though being acknowledged for producing good quality (Wine Spectator noted a very high ratio of scores to price), Morse was not satisfied. “It's the semiconductor environment,” he says. “Never stand still—always be improving.” In 2011 he began dropping fruit in his Mouvèdre, Petite Sirah and Syrah vineyards. Reducing crop levels from five tons per acres to two or two-and-a-half tons per acre made a big difference in wine quality. The following year he similarly reduced crop for his Zinfandel and Barbera. “The dropping of fruit was the renaissance for us,” he says. “It took us seven years (of harvests) to figure it out.” Both that lowering of the crop level and spending a lot on cooperage are key. In a perfect world Morse would age his wines only French oak, but he has evolved a cost-effective alternative by moving to extra fine-grained oak barrels from Missouri. These provide the subtle and nuanced influences of French oak at a reasonable cost.

For 12 years Robert Morse played the dual roles of vineyard owner/winemaker and semiconductor industry executive. Three years ago he decided to devote all his time to his vineyards and winery. After a man walks away from a well-paying industry, he usually has some reflections on how to make the most of his new life. One of the ways is to use his work to help causes he deems worthy. The “HorsePlay” project is a step in that direction. It's a special bottling of wine—a blend of his estate Mouvèdre, Montepulcianno and Barbera. Proceeds from the sale of HorsePlay benefit Return to Freedom, a 300-acre sanctuary for wild horses and burros on the Central Coast. Morse was an accomplished junior golfer and would like to eventually create something similar to HorsePlay to help introduce the game of golf to youngsters whose circumstances wouldn't otherwise allow their participation.

There's another Morse who may eventually join the operation. Robert's son, Evan Scott Morse, just graduated high school in the Bay Area. A proud dad believes the well-spoken young man might have a future as a writer. That his son is already enrolled in two fall semester viticulture classes at Las Positas Community College in Livermore is also a source of pride. Evan's plan is to complete a four-year degree in Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State before working with his father at Il Gioiello. He'll be joining an operation that seems bound for success. The latest evidence that Il Gioiello is on the right path is the Best of Show accolade at the 26th District Fair Judging held at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth on June 7th. The competition judges wines from grapes grown not just in Amador County, but the entire Sierra Foothills. Robert Morse says that the winning 2011 Mouvèdre is the first example of a wine made after his move to rigorous thinning and a higher percentage of new oak. “I was feeling good about it and had good comments from others in the industry,” he said when hearing the news. “This is wonderful.”

Editor's note: Check out the Resource Directory of Taste California Travel if you're thinking of visiting this beautiful part of California. In the Gold Country listings you'll find links to the websites of all the wineries, as well as links to Lodging and Dining options.

Doris Tea Cottage Pet-Friendly Patio Picmonkey Welcome to Dori's Tea Cottage

TASTE News Service June 24, 2014 - Dogs and their humans will have a great time experiencing Tuolumne County, also known as Yosemite Gold Country. Whether hiking an urban trail or taking a ride on a stagecoach, dogs definitely dig it here. Yosemite Gold Country embraces the northern half of Yosemite National Park and some of the best preserved old west towns in the US from the 1849 California Gold Rush. Located 2 ½ hours east of the San Francisco Bay Area and 2 hours southeast of Sacramento, the area offers visitors a fun variety of things to see and do with your dog.

To make it easy to plan travel with pets, the Yosemite Gold Country Vacation Planner in print and online indicates every pet-friendly establishment in the area including venues that allow pets. Look for the picture of the “paw” in the listing description to find pet-friendly establishments.

Dogs can ride on the stagecoach in Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia is the best preserved gold-rush era town in California as the entire town is a state park. Dogs on a leash are welcome throughout the Park. At Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, well-behaved dogs can ride the train. Known as “The Movie Railroad”, Railtown and its trains have been in nearly 300 films, commercials and television productions.

Hotels throughout the region that welcome pets range from historic inns such as the Hotel Charlotte and the Groveland Hotel just outside Yosemite National Park in the quaint town of Groveland. Additionally, Dori's Tea Cottage in downtown Groveland offers a special spot for pooches on their patio. From the beautiful McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast Inn to traditional hotels such as the Best Western Sonora Oaks or the iconic Long Barn Lodge with its ice skating rink, most lodgings offer pet-friendly options.

Sabrina on the Dragoon Gulch Train PicmonkeySabrina heads up the Dragoon Gulch Trail Most of the restaurants with outdoor dining areas also welcome pets on a leash including Cover's Apple Ranch, the El Jardin restaurants in Sonora and Columbia and the historic 1859 National Hotel in Jamestown. Area wineries also allow them in outdoor areas and Twisted Oak Winery even allows well-behaved dogs inside.

Hiking areas throughout the region welcome leashed dogs on public trails including beautiful Pinecrest Lake and the wonderful urban trail, Dragoon Gulch, which is located right in the heart of Sonora, the largest city in the area. In many areas dogs can enjoy the water whether taking a swim or riding across a pristine alpine lake in a canoe.

The list of pet-friendly businesses and locations continues to expand as two-legged and four-legged visitors are welcome throughout the area.

Tuolumne County is located in California's Gold Country and High Sierra regions. 58% of Yosemite National Park lies within the borders of Tuolumne County. Two State Historic Parks – Columbia and Railtown 1897 greet visitors year-round. Just a two hour drive south of Sacramento, east of San Francisco and north of Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne County is easily accessible from all points on the compass. More information can be had at www.yosemitegoldcountry.com.

Editor's note: If you're planning on visiting this beautiful part of California, you may want to check out the Gold Country and High Sierra sections of Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of many Lodging and Dining options.

Saturday, 21 June 2014 13:17

Barbera Fans Gather at Cooper Ranch

Bella Luna Table at Barbera Fest 2014 PicmonkeyLadies at right poured from the Bella Luna table

by Jen and Gary Sleppy

We enjoy Barberas and know them to be food-friendly wines. Over the years we've encountered this variety mostly one bottle at a time. At Saturday's fourth annual Barbera Festival in Amador County we had opportunity to taste examples from 74 California wineries, as well as a few from Italian producers. Of course, trying to sample all of these in one afternoon would difficult, if not impossible.

The Barbera grape is native to the Piedmont of northwestern Italy, but it's been grown in California since the 1880s. Its wine exhibits flavors ranging from bright red fruits like cherries and raspberries to darker fruits such as blueberries and blackberries. Not excessively tannic, Barbera is very appealing in its youth and doesn't require long aging, though examples from older vintages are said to be surprisingly attractive.

Site of the Barbera Festival is the Cooper Ranch on Shenandoah School Road just a little east of the town of Plymouth. Even though the event is held outdoors, admission is limited and each year the event sells out weeks in advance. Parking is easy and wineries poured from tables located under walnut trees so the crowd was spread out and tasters could enjoy wines in the shade on this warm afternoon. Our visit wasn't anything like the mob scenes we've encountered at some other tastings. Things seemed well-organized. People working on the day (we presume many of them were volunteers) were friendly and helpful.

Though the festival is held in Amador, vintners from other parts of the state also brought Barberas from their own regions. As Sacramentans, we're been fairly familiar with the nearby Sierra Foothills, so we looked forward to trying the efforts of more distant wineries. In all we tasted about 30-35 wines. Our favorite this day was the 2011 Barbera from Bella Luna Winery in the Paso Robles area of California's Central Coast. We thought it had an intriguing “earthy” quality and bright, but not excessive, acidity.

Many of the wineries in the area have planted Barbera vines with “the Cooper clone” which traces its history to the vineyards surrounding the festival grounds. The resultant grapes are thicker skinned and more heat-tolerant. They produce wines that are deep, juicy and tend to show big blueberry flavors. A wine we particularly liked was from nearby Helwig Winery, whose 2012 Barbera was a blend of fruit sourced from the Cooper Vineyard and also from their own estate vineyard. Its flavors were rich and showed good acid. We found it “filling,” and very satisfying.

Barbera Fest 2014 Crowd Shot PicmonkeyWalnut orchard provided shady settingThere was a booth pouring several examples of Italian Barbera. These showed bright fruit and had the acidity that makes for a wine that will be good served with food. Some of the wines we encountered Saturday from the California producers also exhibited these qualities, but some did not. One Amador example was way too alcoholic and lost the charm of this variety. Others may not have had excessive alcohol, but produced wines in a big, ripe style that seemed inconsistent with the bright personality that we think is the hallmark of good Barbera (or at least the Barberas we like).

Fleur De Lys Winery from the Fairplay area (southern El Dorado County) poured a 2008 vintage that was well-blanced and showed good acidity that we really liked. Apparently, they make Barbera on an intermittent basis and suggested they'd soon release their 2011 vintage. Karmere Vineyards and Winery is just up the road from the Cooper Ranch and they described their 2010 “Julie Ann” Barbera as being in the “Asti style.” It was still a little green and tannic, but showed a complexity with leathery notes and a somewhat oily texture. Westwood Family Cellars grows grapes in Placer County and offered three vintages. The 2009 showed bright, black cherry fruit, yet had a delicate, soft finish. Fruit in the 2010 seemed more like black currants and the 2011 had some cola-like aspects when we tasted it. Wilderotter is another Shenandoah Valley winery, whose wine we thought worthwhile. Their 2011 estate Barbera was full of bright cherry flavors and was right in the style we prefer.

While we made a diligent effort to try a wide variety of the Barberas being poured at the festival, the reality is that we got to fewer than half of them. Probably there would be some others that we would have also liked. Other tasters might have found a whole different list of favorites. As with most grape varieties, there is no "one style that fits all" for Barbera.

If you go:  Since the event sells out early, getting tickets ahead of time is a must (www.barberafestival.com). There's some live music, but it's mostly for the background. People come for more for the experience of tasting a wide variety Barbera styles. Food is available from several vendors, though at additional cost. We enjoyed a golden beet salad from Andrae's Bakery and were intrigued by the “Duck Dog” offered by Taste Restaurant. We settled on Taste's Salmon Niçoise, another salad but a good choice on a warm day. Seating is limited. We took a couple of breaks sitting on the lawn, but we noticed some people had brought their own folding chairs. If next June is a little long to wait to taste Barberas, many of the wineries in Amador and El Dorado Counties would be happy to pour examples in their tasting rooms. Links to the websites of those wineries, as well as links to Lodging and Dining options, can be found in the Gold Country listings of Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Duck Rillettes with glasses PicmonkeyDuck rillettes with several wines

by Dan Clarke

Barbera is finally getting its due. Though its ancestral home is northern Italy, the grape has been grown in California since the 19th Century. It hasn't enjoyed the prestige and popularity of other red wines produced here, but what's happening in Amador County is beginning to change that.

This foothill wine region 40 miles east of Sacramento has long enjoyed a reputation for quality Zinfandel. In more recent years it has also been garnering notice for wines made from grapes native to France's Rhone Valley. And now the focus shifts to another worthy wine variety.

Saturday marked the fourth annual Barbera Festival. Wineries from all over the state came to Amador County's Shenandoah Valley to pour their Barberas. Tickets were priced at $50 and the event sold out months in adcance. Is the festival acknowledging the surging popularity of this variety or creating it? Probably it's a bit of both.

Montevina and Terra d'Oro chose to celebrate their anniversary a couple of days before this year's festival at Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, where Darrell Corti led a retrospective tasting of their 1980 through 2012 Barberas.

Plymouth is more hamlet than metropolis, but it's the closest town to the Shenandoah Valley and most of the wineries in the county. And, it has an extraordinary restaurant. Our evening began with a reception in the park across the street from Taste. There we sampled the current vintage of Terra d'Oro Barbera (2012) before adjourning to the restaurant for subsequent courses.

Jeff Meyers at Barbera Dinner PicmonkeyJeff Meyers

Actually, Terra d'Oro and Montevina wines are both products from the same winery. Montevina was established in Amador's Shenandoah Valley over 40 years ago and added the Terra d'Oro line in 1993. Since 1988 the Montevina property and both labels have been owned by Trinchero Family Estates. Cary Gott made the first wines at Montevina, but Jeff Meyers began his own winemaking career there in 1981 and never left. He now carries the title of Vice President and General Manager and his influence is still felt, though Chris Leamy has been the winemaker of record since the 2003 vintage. Darrell Corti commented such continuity is unusual. “Winemakers are like chefs,” he said. “They're vagrants.”

Montevina Barberas from the 1980 and 1990 vintages were poured with Chef Mark Berkner's first course, a roasted beet salad with sage, tat soi and hazelnut. The '80 Montevina Special Selection Barbera was a Cary Gott wine. The '90 Montevina was made by Jeff Meyers. While our tasting was not a contest, it was inevitable that we would prefer some wines over others. At my table several liked the '80. In the mid-1980s I spent a lot of time in this region when I was developing The Foothill Wine Press and am sure I would have tasted and enjoyed the 1980 vintage in that era. But not tonight. Though both wines were still drinkable, I much preferred the younger one. Darrell said “It's difficult to criticize an old wine for being old,” and I agree but thought the '90 was entirely more pleasant

Three vintages of Terra d'Oro Barbera ('93, '97, '99) were paired with duck rilettes served with dried local cherries. All three wines showed a little sediment by the time the glasses were removed, but they seemed remarkably vital otherwise. The '97 stood out immediately. It seemed lush—maybe even voluptuous. The '99 was subtler, but seemed full of promise as it opened up a bit. California's 1997 grape harvest was very big one, but also of excellent quality. Asked about the alcohol level in the '97, Jeff said it was really high—probably a bit over 15%. The wine was big and showy . . . and way better than I would have thought a 15% alcohol wine would be 17 years on. Had we not been moving on to subsequent courses and vintages—a surfeit of riches—I would have loved to spend more time with the '99.

Lamb Meatball at Barbera DinnerLamb meatball - simple, yet exquisite

Two examples of the 1998 vintage were served with the next course, a single lamb meatball, served on local white polenta with tomato cumin. Both these wines were Barbera, but bearing different labels and made in different styles. Jeff Meyers recalled that in California the 1998 vintage was the coldest (and wettest) in 30 years. “The '98s were panned by a lot of people,” he said, explaining that vintners in many parts of the state opted to pick early. “But we picked five weeks late this vintage. We let it get ripe. We waited and got the benefit of five extra weeks of 'hang-time'.”

The Montevina, poured from a 750ml bottle, was somewhat lighter bodied, but showed bright fruit characteristics. The Terra d'Oro, poured from a magnum, seemed darker, riper and richer and had been more aggressively oaked. Both were made from the same vineyards on a property just a few miles northeast of the restaurant. And both were splendid wines. Darrell likened the Terra d'Oro to a “minor Burgundy,” adding that it “smelled a little like a mature Pinot Noir.” The accompanying lamb meatball dish was the kind of rare experience that makes one very thankful he chose to be a wine and food writer.

Chris Leamy and Darrell Corti  PicmonkeyChris Leamy and Darrell Corti

The first two of the evening's wines made by Chris Leamy were the 2003 Montevina and 2003 Terra d'Oro. “We kept loving (the vintage) as we bottled it,” remembered Chris. “For some reason this vintage is aging superbly. It's all about balance.” The Montevina seemed more focused on the ripe, fresh cherry-like fruit; the Terra d'Oro was deeper, darker and richer.” They were paired with braised goat, served with mushroom, black truffle and a mirepoix gateau. If it is possible for each of two very different styles to go perfectly with a food course, then this would have been that time.

These wines from the 2003 vintage were still so young and vibrant, yet they were 11 years old. It was a congenial group of tasters/diners and by this time in the evening opinions were flowing from us, as well as from Darrell and our two winemakers. Picking up on a wine-ageing comment voiced from a table behind me, Chris opined, “I think well-made Barbera is going to age much better than any California Cabernet Sauvignon.” Clarifying that California Cabs racking up high scores on release, but stumbling badly after three years were what he meant, Chris heard murmurs of agreement from some. This Cabernet issue could have become an interesting tangent, but we had more Barbera to consider.

Two more wines from the same vintage made their appearance when 2007 Montevina and Terra d'Oro were poured with local strawberries served with crystalized fennel, honey and goat cheese. Once again, the Montevina wine showcased fresh, ripe fruit; its Terra d'Oro counterpart was deeper and richer tasting. Chris told us that the Montevina wine was finished with a screw cap, rather than the traditional cork and that he preferred it with the strawberry course. Me, too.

Mark Berkner at Barbera DinnerChef Mark Berkner

Chris suggested—perhaps only half-jokingly—that he'd like to see all of us again in 2024 so that we could re-taste this screw-topped '07 Montevina a decade later. Getting into the spirit, Jeff suggested a reprise next year. The evening had been instructive—we'd been tasting history and getting a rare insight into how one winery had evolved their treatment of a single grape variety. Counting the crostini served at the reception in the park, there were seven courses created by the Mark Berkner to pair with these wines. A tasting menu of small plates served with several wine courses is not all that unusual, but one designed to complement 11 variations on the same varietal theme is rare. The food was superb. Actually, there was one last pairing on the evening. Mark's menu concluded with poached apricots served with biscotti made with local almonds. This accompanied the 2013 Terra d'Oro Moscato, which Chris quipped “is our white Barbera.”

Darrell Corti could accurately be described as a Sacramento grocer and wine merchant, but that definition is woefully incomplete. Darrell has an international reputation and knows the major players. And they know him. During our evening at Taste, he related an anecdote about Piero Antinori's visit to California in 1976. Antinori, whose family has been in the wine business for eight centuries, had come to check out California and had asked Darrell to show him around. They visited wineries in Monterey, Napa and Sonoma Counties. Approaching the end of their tour, the group went to dinner at the Mark West Springs Inn. After arriving at the restaurant Darrell remembered he had a bottle of wine in the trunk of his car—a 1974 Barbera from Montevina, the very first vintage from the vines planted three years earlier. "I asked if they would like to taste it, since I had been given it the Sunday before by Cary Gott who had just bottled it," he recalled.  "Of course they would like to taste it. Both Tachis and Piero liked the wine, said it was good and Tachis in particular liked the double course of frog's legs he enjoyed.

"The next morning when I called to pick them up, Piero came down first from the hotel and said that Tachis was out of sorts. I asked why. He seemed to enjoy himself, the dinner, the wines. Piero said: 'After you left last night, Tachis told me he had expected to come to California and taste cabernets better than ours (in Italy.) He did not expect to taste better Barbera.' "

A few days after the dinner, Darrel gave us a bit more background on the Antinori visit and on Dr. Tachis. "Giacomo Tachis is probably Italy's most important winemaker of the 20th century," said Corti. "He is Piemontese and his family used to send him wine from Piemonte. I consider him the Patron of Barbera in Amador because of his reaction to the 1974 Barbera from Montevina. It gave credence to the quality of Amador Barbera. In those days in the 1970s, Barbera in Italy was a sea of thin, high acid, pretty nasty wine, which mainly was due to over produced vineyards and fit only for distillation, which is what happened to the majority of the production. Tachis's reaction was a reference to this fact. He and Piero Antinori were the first Italians to taste Amador Barbera, now forty years ago."

Editor's note: Those planning to visit Amador wine country should check out the Gold Country listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. They're a great source of links to the websites of Wineries, as well as Lodging and Dining options.

Monday, 09 June 2014 17:03

Mouvèdre Takes Best of Show at Amador


Robt Morse with wine thief PicmonkeyRobert Morse draws a barrel sample of his 2013 ZinfandelTASTE News Service June 9, 2014 – Amador County may be known for its Zinfandel, but it was a Mouvèdre, that took top honors at the Amador County Fair judging on Saturday. When notified that the 2011 Morse Wines Mouvèdre was named Best of Show, winemaker Robert Morse said, “This is wonderful. I was feeling good about (this wine) and have had good comments from others in the industry.” Morse produces wines from a diverse array of grape varietals under both the Morse Wines and Il Gioiello labels. Most of these are estate grown on his Il Gioiello property at 2200-foot elevation in Amador County.

The Morse Wines Mouvèdre was from the 2011 vintage, the first harvest after the owner chose to reduce crop levels to two to two-and-a-half tons of fruit per acre and begin a more an aggressive oak aging program. Both steps were expensive, but the results seem to have justified the decision.

Entries for this competition are not limited to just Amador County. Wines made from any Sierra Foothill grapes, wherever they may be vinified, are eligible to participate. Another Rhône variety wine amplified the Gallic flavor of this year's competition as a non-vintage Viognier from El Dorado County's Saluti Cellars was deemed Best White Wine. Best Dessert Wine of the contest was the 2013 “Impetuous,” a late-harvest Viognier from Tumbas Vineyard made by Scott Mahon of Legendre Cellars in Amador. Best Blush Wine was the 2013 Rose Blend from Helwig Vineyards and Winery, also an Amador entity.

Amador Judging  June 7 2014 PicmonkeyAmador judges includedTed Rieger (at left) of Vineyard and Winery Management magazine

In a contest within the contest, there were several awards for specific Amador-only categories. In this section the Best Amador Zinfandel was a 2011 effort from Drytown Cellars. A Viognier from Karmere Winery was chosen Best Amador Rhône, Best Amador Italian was the 2012 Feist Barbera and Best Amador Iberian was the 2013 Verdelho (a white grape native to Portugal), also made by Drytown Cellars.

Editor's note: Wineries in the Sierra Foothills tend to be small and offer a very personal experience for their visitors. If you're considering learning more about this colorful wine region, check out the Gold Country listings in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links not only to the websites of all the wineries, but also links to many Lodging and Dining options.   

Page 4 of 7

Copyright © 2005 - 2017. Taste California Travel. All rights reserved. | Phoenix Website Design by CitrusKiwi