Waterbrook 2013 Reserve Chardonnay – Columbia Valley

After a glorious three week’s wine tasting in some of France’s most famous wine regions, we are now back in the US attending a travel writer’s workshop. Housed in a hotel just outside of Seattle for this conference, it just makes sense that we need to blog a Washington State chardonnay.

I don’t know Washington State wines well so we took a gamble when we visited a wine shop yesterday.

We are tasting a Waterbrook 2013 Reserve chardonnay from Columbia Valley. This is one of Walla Walla’s founding wineries, started in 1984. The nose opens with aromas of pear and vanilla spice. The mouthfeel is soft and round with a smooth finish. The color is pale gold, clean and shiny. It’s nicely balanced with tropical notes, hints of toasted almonds and tastes very similar to the California chardonnays from wine regions like Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and Yolo County’s Delta and Dunnigan Hills that I love so much.

13.9% in alcohol, cost is $14.99. I’m really enjoying this wine and can’t wait to try more from Washington. In fact, we may just have to come back for a wine tasting trip in the near future…

Wine Tasting on a Rhone River Cruise with Petaluma Gap Winemakers

Cruising down the Rhone River on a wine themed river cruise was a great way to see the South of France and taste the wines of Provence. But we were even more fortunate to be sailing on a wine-themed cruise sponsored by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance out of Sonoma County.

To promote its efforts to become their own designated appellation and raise a little money, the Alliance sponsored the cruise and sent along several cases of wine supplied by 12 wineries from within Petaluma Gap. The Alliance also sent four winemakers to represent the Gap, educate guests on the ship, conduct wine tasting sessions, and host winemaker dinners.

Lucky me, one of the first wine tastings featured four chardonnays from the region.

Pellet Estate 2015 Un-oaked, Sun Chase Vineyard

First on the tasting menu was a Pellet Estate 2015 chardonnay, unoaked from the Sun Chase Vineyard.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know that I lean towards chardonnays that are barrel fermented. But, I’ve tasted a few unoaked versions lately that have opened my eyes and palate a bit. The beauty of the unoaked chardonnay is the flavor of the fruit comes through and this Pellet Estate is no exception. Aged 8 months in stainless steel, the wine was clear and shiny with lemon yellow hues. The nose offered hints of pear, apple and pineapple aromas. The high fruit flavors of citrus, apple and pineapple were layered with a hint of almond and melon. It finished with depth and complexity. Alcohol is 14.5%. The wine retails for $36 at the winery.

Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay Sun Chase Vineyard

Next, we tasted the Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay, also from the Sun Chase Vineyard. This turned out to be my favorite. I was very pleased and surprised when a bottle of this showed up in our cabin later, thanks to the generosity of the winemakers.

This is Agnitio’s first vintage of Sun Chase Chardonnay. 100% fermented in oak barrels, this wine displayed the luscious Sonoma County chardonnay flavors that I love. The nose expressed aromas of lemon, white flowers, and pear and vanilla. A wine more full bodied than the Pellet, the mouthfeel had depth and complexity. There was some minerality in the flavor, layered with pear, vanilla and a hint of butterscotch. Alcohol is 14.1% and the wine sells for $40 at the winery.

Pfendler Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay

Pfendler is a small production winery that only has three wines in its current release, producing just 400 cases of this chardonnay.

Aged 10 months in French oak, the Pfendler was a beautiful wine with aromas of honeysuckle, apple, spice and lemon crème. The mouthfeel was lush and the color bright golden straw. The wine was layered with flavors of lychee, pear and a touch of minerality. Alcohol is 14.1% and it retails for $8 at the winery.

Rodney Strong 2014 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast

Rodney Strong makes several different chardonnays and is one of my favorite Sonoma County wineries.

Barrel fermented in new French oak, the wine had aromas of toasty vanilla, apple and pear. The mouthfeel was rich and creamy, with flavors of pear, pineapple and a touch of spice. This was my second favorite in the tasting. 14.0% in alcohol, the wine retails for $25 at the winery.

Monte Vallon 2014 Pays D’Oc Chardonnay

From the South of France, “this exuberant Chardonnay has a pronounced buttery-vanilla bouquet with deep, intense, rich fruit on the palate.” Or, so says the description on the wine label. Sounds like the perfect chardonnay for me!

We are about to head to the South of France for a long-awaited wine cruise through the Rhone Valley. What’s interesting about this cruise is it is sponsored by Petaluma Gap Association out of Sonoma County and they’ll be bringing along several cases of Sonoma chardonnay. So, we’ll get to taste Sonoma chardonnay alongside French chardonnay. What more could a girl ask for! 

To wet our whistles and prepare for this glorious trip, we are tasting the 2014 Monte Vallon Chardonnay purchased at our local Nugget Supermarket.

This wine does indeed display a buttery, vanilla nose with slight toasty oak notes and a hint of caramel. I love the bouquet. It displays a bright golden color and the alcohol volume is 13.5%. The mouthfeel is textured and creamy. The flavors are pear and peach with a pineapple finish.  It is a full bodied, Languedoc styled white wine representative of the south of France.

Can’t wait to taste more French chardonnays. I’ll be blogging along the way, so stay tuned for more wine and more adventures!

Park the Car and Wine Taste in Small Town Sonoma

With 425 wineries spread throughout 17 different viticulture areas in Sonoma County, it would take even the most dedicated wine lover months to properly sample all of the wines this Northern California wine growing region has to offer.

On our fourth trip back to Sonoma, still in search of that perfect chardonnay, we decided to park the car, stay for two nights and wine taste in the small town of Sonoma. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County, the town of Sonoma is not too far from the Napa wine region.

While not as large or commercial or touristy as Healdsburg, Sonoma now has over 25 wine tasting rooms in and around the Mexican era plaza in the heart of the town. Many of the wine tasting rooms we visited or peeked into had living room style or lounge seating and bar stools or seats at the wine tasting counter. What a refreshing change from the usual “belly up to the bar” in a crowded wine tasting room!

With so many to choose from, we started at the Lake Sonoma tasting room at 134 Church Street. Fortunately for us, we visited on a rainy day in January in the middle of the week. As the only guests there, we had the full attention of the wine server and enjoyed several tastings. But, we’re talking about chardonnay here, so be sure to sample their 2014 chardonnay out of the Russian River.

Next, we headed to the Ledson Hotel, on 1st Street East, for wine tasting in the lobby of this historic hotel, offering wines from Ledson and Zina Hyde. A little pricey for my pocketbook, but do try the Ledson 2014 Russian River Chardonnay and the Zina Hyde 2014 Anderson Valley Chardonnay Reserve.

We also spent some time at Passagio, 25 East Napa Street, known as the “White House” for all of the whites that their winemaker produces. They specialize in small, handcrafted wines made in fruit forward style. Their 2014 chardonnay was an unoaked style, not normally my favorite, but because the true flavor of the chardonnay grape comes out in this one, I did enjoy it.

Next door to Passagio is Two Amigos Wines. We sampled two chardonnays here, upon the recommendation of the wine server at Passagio. We tasted a barrel fermented chardonnay and an unoaked chardonnay. My tasting partner prefers unoaked and I prefer oaked, so we bought them both!

So now I’ve given you a sampling of wine tasting rooms and a reason to park, stay and wine taste in Sonoma. But, you’re going to need some recommendations for places to stay and eat.

Restaurants

For lunch try the Sonoma Cheese Factory on Spain Street for authentic barbeque. The pulled pork sandwich caught our attention and was just as delicious to eat as it looked on the plate. Sonoma Cheese Factory also offers wine tasting. Enjoy a sampling of wines or a glass of wine with your lunch. Also, a gourmet store, this place is perfect for putting together a picnic lunch.

Mary’s Pizza Shack at 8 West Spain street, a chain restaurant in Northern California, might not be your top choice in this town full of gourmet restaurants. But the fire on the patio drew us in on a cold, rainy day and I’m glad we stopped by. The menu is full of Italian and comfort food options, but the wedge salad was one of the best I’ve ever tried.

For dinner, dine on gourmet Portuguese cuisine at La Salette, 452 First Street East. Opt for the wine pairing that is offered with the dining choices. Generous pours, perfectly paired with the appetizers, entrees and dessert, allows you to sample more Sonoma County wine and makes for an extra special dining experience.  I do recommend making reservations in advance.

Sonoma Grille, at 165 W. Napa Street, frequented by locals and tourists alike, was packed on this cold, rainy night in the middle of the week in the middle of January. Thinking that was a good sign, we stopped in there for dinner on our second night. Seafood and steak are both great options at this place. The fact that our server from the Lake Sonoma wine tasting room earlier that day was there for dinner that evening just confirmed our guess about the quality of the food and dining experience.

The Girl and a Fig at 362 West Napa Street, is famous for its gourmet food. Alas, they were closed the two days we were there. Apparently there is a ritual in Sonoma for restaurants and hotels to close sometime in January each year for a deep cleaning. But, we’ll hit it next time.

Hotels

For overnight stays, there are plenty of hotels on the Plaza or within nearby walking distance including Sonoma Hotel, Ledson Hotel, MacArthur Place and the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn.

So park your car, taste on foot and wander through the historic trappings of small town Sonoma and enjoy some of the best that Sonoma County wine regions have to offer.

Chardonnay from Argentina’s Mendoza Wine Region

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Our recent visit to the Mendoza wine region in Argentina left me wanting for more of the delicious wine from this sun-kissed part of the world. Fortunately for me, just about the time we arrived home, Wine.com decided to hold a sale on several Argentinian and Chilean wines (Yes, we stopped on the other side of the Andes, too, to sample the wines of Valle del Maipo).

I ordered a variety of chardonnays to be delivered. Today we are tasting the 2014 Alamos Chardonnay and the Tilia Chardonnay from Mendoza.

Alamos Chardonnay Mendoza 2014

This wine has a brilliant, light yellow color. Enjoy hints of vanilla in the nose, followed by tastes of stone fruit and ripe apple, layered with vanilla. It is well-balanced and full-flavored, very much to my liking. It also has a lovely finish that lingers on my palate. The wine sold for $9.99 on Wine.com.

Cultivated by the Catena family for over 100 years, Alamos vineyards lie in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

This wine pairs nicely with roasted chicken or pasta dishes with a cream sauce. We also sampled it with a soft brie cheese and found the pairing to be delightful.

Tilia Chardonnay Mendoza 2014

This wine has slight hints of toasted oak and vanilla in the nose. The wine itself, however displays a ripe citrus flavor. The color is also a brilliant, light yellow like the Alamos. The Tilia is well-balanced, lighter bodied than the Alamos, with a clean, refreshing finish. We purchased it for $10.99 from Wine.com.

Tilia is sourced from sustainably farmed vineyards in the Eastern and Southern regions of Mendoza. Pair with a mild white cheese or grilled chicken or grilled vegetables.

Of the two wines, I found the Alamos to be more to my liking. I lean towards the fuller-flavored, fuller-bodied chardonnays.  And for the price, I could see myself stocking up on some more Alamos Chardonnay.

Sonoma County Wine Region – Keller Estate

Last on our tour through Sonoma County and the search for exceptional wine tasting experiences was Keller Estate. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County off Lakeville Highway, this Petaluma Gap winery is open by appointment only (although a quick phone call ahead usually gets you in right away, 707.765.2117). When you arrive, expect to be seated, not ushered up to a crowded winetasting counter. The feel here is luxurious and the pace of wine tasting is leisurely. Knowledgeable wine servers share information about the winery and serve popcorn popped in the winery’s estate produced olive oil, with a side of olive oil for dipping. While this might seem like an unusual pairing for wine tasting, the olive oil is quite delicious and the popcorn and olive oil flavors don’t detract from the wines.

Our first visit to Keller was exactly this kind of experience. 90 minutes tasting four wines in the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards and learning about the chardonnays, pinots and the Rotie being poured that day. But our return visit was so amazingly over the top and indulgent that I would happily repeat the experience. Called their Serenity and Wine Brunch, this is a three course, gourmet feast paired with estate wines. For $65 per person or $50 for club members, this is an excellent way to sample the Keller wines.

Brunch is served on the Vineyard Terrace with sweeping views of the vineyards, olive groves and Mt. Tamalpais. Seating is family style at a long, elegantly set table. Be prepared to get to know your table mates as the wine is poured. And, servings are generous! We started with a crisp, dry rose, worked our way through three different chardonnays, sampled a couple of pinot noirs, the Rotie and ended with a sparkling wine.

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We even received a special treat at the end. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees that weekend, Brian, our host, had set up the wine cave earlier in case we needed to sit inside. While we did enjoy most of our meal on the vineyard terrace, Brian kindly invited us back to the cave to cap off the afternoon with dessert and sparkling wine. We parted ways with our new found friends, purchased some favorite wines, then set off on the road wondering how we were ever going to just be able to walk into an ordinary wine tasting room again and belly up to that crowded bar!

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So there, dear readers, is the last of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It gave us unique and up close opportunities to learn more about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills. Impress your friends or impress your date. Guaranteed that any one of these five experiences will do the trick!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Rodney Strong

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Rodney Strong is a striking and dramatic winery. Upon arrival you might quickly draw the conclusion that this is one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging $20 per tasting and drawing throngs of wine lovers to its tasting room. But it’s not; in fact Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine but a visit there provides so much more. During the summer time, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and wine and food pairings on the terrace. It was the latter that brought us back to Rodney Strong for another exceptional wine tasting experience.

On this particular trip to Sonoma, we were seeking “exceptional” wine tasting experiences. We first got the idea when we visited Rodney Strong last fall. By exceptional, I mean we are seeking either a beautiful setting, or a leisurely seated wine tasting experience, or a gourmet food and wine pairing, or an otherwise unique and special wine tasting experience.

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For $55.00 per person, the winery offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we were offered an envelope with cards describing the menu of soon-to-come food delights and winemakers notes for each of the wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general expert of our favorite drink, wine.

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Rodney Strong did not disappoint. Nearly two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were feeling thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the wines that are produced in Sonoma County and thoroughly impressed with the Rodney Strong staff that made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch.

Call ahead and reserve a time for your own exceptional wine tasting experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the old process of standing in a crowded wine tasting room, elbowing your way to the wine counter.

Sonoma County Wine Region – Sbragia

Next stop on the tour was Sbragia Winery, north of Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road.  We visited this place last October and had an exceptional wine tasting experience then.  The view is beautiful, too, so we decided to add this to our list of wineries to visit on this trip in search of unique wine experiences.   Sbragia offers a variety of different options including tasting on the terrace with a charcuterie and cheese plate for $30, a chocolate and wine pairing for $30 per person or $15 for wine club members, or a sensory tasting for $50 per person or $20 for wine club members. The winery will also conduct customized tastings such as a compare and contrast of one varietal (a chardonnay to chardonnay or vintage to vintage), with advanced notice.

We called ahead and signed up for the sensory tasting.  Wow!  What an experience!  Arriving early, we got a lot of good photos from the spacious deck overlooking Dry Creek Valley while we waited for our tasting to begin.  Our host was Andrew McPherson.  A wine collector for 20 years now working in the wine industry, this man was a wealth of knowledge.  Andrew reserved the library for this special tasting, and supplied us with a generous and sumptuous charcuterie board.  The sensory tasting is almost a sommelier like experience where visitors get to learn what aromatics are using the La Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit, along with tasting five different Sbragia wines. The kit contains 54 little jars of different aromas.  We used ten, two per tasting, for this exercise.

We started with a sauvignon blanc, then a chardonnay, before working our way into the reds.  The way the sensory tasting works is you start smelling and tasting the wine to try and detect the different characteristics.  Then Andrew would hand us two different vials and ask us to guess what the smells were from.  He also supplied us with a wine aroma wheel that separates the fruits in white wine to fruits in red wine, floral scents and flavors, vegetal, oak aging characterics and even off odors that sometimes show up in a bad wine or a wine with a bad cork.

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Each time we tasted, sniffed, and wrote down our guesses.  Then Andrew would tell us what the actual scent was and let us smell the vial again.  It was pretty laughable how many times we got it wrong but the experience was an important step for us in helping develop our palates.  After two and a half hours and a sampling of some of Sbragia’s other reserve wines, we were done!  Thankfully, this was the only appointment we scheduled for the day.  Because there were only the two of us with Andrew, we really got a crash course on wine tasting.  But, I would definitely go back again with friends and do it all over again.

For those of you looking to teach yourself at home, you can actually buy the kit for $399 at winearomas.com. This is often a required kit for enology students at UC Davis.  You know how students sell their text books back at the end of the semester to get some money back?  I think I’ll head over to the UC Davis book store and see if I can’t pick up a used aroma kit sold back by a recent, broke graduate.  Who knows?  Maybe next time I’ll get more than two out of ten right!

 

 

 

Sonoma County Wine Region – La Crema Winery

Next stop on our trip was La Crema wine tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.  This is a spacious and well appointed tasting room.  You’ve read my blogs about the various La Crema chardonnays so you already know that I’m partial to them.  But visiting the wine tasting room is always a treat, especially if you are a wine club member.

The very first time that Gary and I visited La Crema in October 2015, I was duly impressed with the royal treatment.  Upon arrival, Gary mentioned that I write a chardonnay blog and was looking for the perfect chardonnay.  Lisa, the wine tasting room lead, quickly took over and lined up a side by side tasting of every chardonnay they had open that day.  My favorites were the 2012 Nine Barrel, the 2013 Russian River Valley, and the 2012 Arroyo Seco chardonnays.  We joined the wine club that day and went home with too many bottles to count!

The next time we returned in March of this year, as wine club members, we were escorted to the members only lounge in the back of the tasting room, and invited to sit down in the comfortable living room style seating.  The convivial Shelby served us several of their premium wines, while expertly describing the origin of each one.

And on this trip, we were lucky enough to meet up with Lisa again.  Well, actually, I called the winery ahead of time and made an appointment for a special tasting of the 9 Barrel Wines, La Crema’s top of the line series of wines, and thankfully Lisa took the call. I’m now the editor of the Sacramento Lifestyle Magazine, so I was on a mission to write an article on exceptional wineries and wine tasting experiences.  But my “secret mission” was to taste the best of La Crema’s chardonnays again.

Upon arrival, Lisa hugged us both and led us back to the special “9 Barrel Library Room.”  I have to admit, I’ve never been greeted in such a friendly manner by a wine server before.  But, what the heck, this is part of the experience.  La Crema staff take great pride in not only being knowledgeable about their wine, but by being super hospitable as well.  They are all eager to ensure that their guests have an excellent experience.

The 9 Barrel wine tasting showcases the best of the winemaker and the best of the La Crema wines.  To create these magic potions, the winemaker selects the best from nine different barrels to blend together the perfect wines.  This is not a blend of varietals, but rather the best of the Russian River Valley chardonnays and pinot noirs.  In addition, we were able to taste some of the other premium wines including the Saralee chardonnay, made from grapes that come from the highly prized Saralee vineyards, a place famous in Sonoma County.  Lisa says “Happy grapes come from that vineyard.”

La Crema is now in the process of building a beautiful new wine tasting room in the heart of the Russian River Valley, a short distance from Healdsburg.  When I know more, I’ll share the news on my blog.  I can’t wait until opening day!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Chalk Hill Winery

I promised to blog on our trip through the Sonoma County wine region and what a trip it has been so far!  We are always searching for the perfect chardonnay, but on this trip we are also gathering material for an article on exceptional wineries and wine tasting experiences.

We started our day with a return to Chalk Hill Winery, just outside of Windsor, in a beautiful hilltop setting.  The lovely Hannah provided us with two tastings on the patio overlooking the pond and grape fields below, then drove us around the property for a tour of the pavilion, horse stables, owner’s house, and of course, many of the grape fields.

We returned to the bucolic and shaded patio for our final two tastings. Hannah invited us to join them for their “White Party” up at the pavilion on Saturday.  I love a party and I love this winery so it was pretty tempting to say “yes” but we have a pretty busy schedule already that day.  I do love the Chalk Hill Estate chardonnay, so we couldn’t leave without purchasing at least one bottle.

For a picnic, we hopped across Chalk Hill Road to Chalk Hill Winery’s sister winery, Roth.  This is a new facility, only about two years old, with lots of comfortable seating on their patio in the front of the winery. Amanda served us from their tasting menu while we dined on our lunch. Roth also has food for sale if you prefer.  It is a “deconstructed sandwich” in a picnic basket.  You choose the meat and cheese, and they include the veggies and bread for you to put together your lunch.

We didn’t have time to visit their wine cave, but will make sure to stop by again when we return to Chalk Hill.  One more note about Roth: their wine prices were half the cost of what we normally see in Sonoma, so they get extra points for that!