Hawaii Meets Napa Valley at Tedeschi Winery

I first met Emilio Tedeschi as a wine MBA student in a class I was teaching at Sonoma State University. When he introduced himself, he said he was born in Hawaii, but was planning on taking over the family wine business in Napa Valley called Tedeschi Family Winery. At the time I thought this was rather unusual, until I recently visited Emilio at his boutique 2000-case winery near the town of Calistoga – and learned the rest of the story.

Entrance to Tedeschi Winery in Napa Valley

Arriving at Tedeschi Winery

Since this visit occurred during COVID-19, my friend Charlie and I made an advance appointment, and arrived in separate cars. The entrance to the winery looks like a Hollywood movie set with stone gate pillars and lush palm trees lining a gravel driveway. Once through the gate and around a curve, I saw a verdant green vineyards spreading out in front of me and a small parking lot. Off to the left was a welcoming outdoor patio with tables, chairs, sun umbrellas, and tall bamboo trees growing from wine barrels. Behind this was a small tasteful winery with stainless steel tanks and a wine tasting bar.

Relaxing Wine-Tasting Patio at Tedeschi Winery

Wine Picnic on the Patio

Donning my mask, I entered the patio and was greeted by Emilio with a virtual hug. He invited me to a long picnic table in a back patio where I met his father, Emil, his brother Mario and his aunt, Frances. Charlie had arrived before me, bearing a picnic basket and was laying out a beautiful spread of smoked salmon, green salad, turkey rolls, fresh fruit and appetizers on the long table. Ah, I thought, another wonderful day in California Wine Country – this is why I live here!

Lunch with Charlie (in mask), Emil (center) and Emilio (right)

Tasting of Six Tedeschi Wines

Over the course of our lunch we tried six different delicious Tedeschi Wines available online HERE:

  • 2019 Tedeschi Rosé of Valdiguie – explosive ripe berries, watermelon and crisp refreshing finish.  Made from the rare Valdiguie grape from the south of France.
  • 2018 Tedeschi Sauvignon Blanc – ripe melon and grapefruit with soft rounded palate.
  • 2018 Tedeschi Viognier – classic honey and peach notes with tantalizing fresh acid finish. Aged 8 months on neutral oak. Very well made.
  • 2019 Tedeschi Napa Gamay (Valdiguie) – like sipping on a bowl of fresh mixed berries. Delicious light red summer wine. Can also be served chilled. Also called “Napa Gamay.”
  • 2015 Tedeschi Merlot – classic merlot with red plum, spice and cedar. Well-balanced. It’s hard to find such well-made moderate alcohol merlots like this anymore.
  • 2014 Tedeschi Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc –orange blossom nose with rich honey and peach on palate. Long sweet finish. Perfect dessert wine.

Tasting with Winemaker Emilio Tedeschi at Tedeschi Winery

The Hawaiian Connection – the Rest of the Story

Over lunch I learned the “rest of the story” about the Hawaiian connection. Apparently Emilio’s father, Emil was born in Calistoga and raised in Napa Valley. He was the third generation of an Italian family that had immigrated to the US from Italy in 1919. In the 1950’s Emil’s father purchased the land on which the winery is currently located. Over the years they planted vineyards, fruit trees, vegetables, and built several family homes.

But Emil got itchy feet after high school and decided to travel the world. He became enchanted with Asia, where he met Emilio’s mother, and eventually settled on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. Here, in 1974, he co-founded a new vineyard and winery, Tedeschi Vineyards on the lower hillside of the Haleakalā Volcano. Over the years, it drew thousands of tourists to taste wine made with grapes and pineapples on Maui. However, the lure of Napa Valley and family called Emil back to California. So, he sold his share in the winery (now renamed Maui Wines), and returned to help run the family wine business.

Tedeschi Winery with Bamboo Growing in Wine Barrels

A Hint of Hawaii Lingers

After so many years in Hawaii, it is only natural that a hint of the tropic may still linger in this quiet corner of Napa Valley. I found it in the brightly colored flowers on the property, green palm trees and whispering bamboos planted in wine barrels so their roots do not run wild. It is also in the peaceful setting of the winery surrounded by vineyards where you can relax in a chair, listen to bird song, and sip delicious Napa wine. Since Hawaii and Napa Valley are two of my favorite places on earth, I was quite pleased to see this connection, and enjoy the wines of Tedeschi.

The Tedeschi Family. Photo Credit: Tedeschi Winery

Bubbles, Swords and Potato Chips at Breathless Winery

Do you enjoy sparkling wine? If so, consider scheduling a visit to Breathless Winery in Sonoma County, California. As part of our continuing series on supporting local wineries during COVID by scheduling safe visits to winery tasting rooms, a small group of us ventured to the town of Healdsburg where Breathless is located. There we were greeted with a flutes of delicious bubbly wine, potato chip appetizers and a saboring demonstration with a sword.

Three Sisters and Penny the Wine Maker – Photo Credit: Breathless Wines

Breathless Awarding Winning Wines Famous Even in France

I first heard of Breathless several years ago when the 2012 Breathless Brut won the top Sweepstakes Award in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair as well as several other competitions, where I was doing blind wine judging. This was quite amazing, because the winery had just opened in 2011, and their first vintage was already stealing all of the awards. They have continued this winning streak, winning 13 medals and Best of Show with their most recent releases in 2019.

Even more surprising is when I mentioned Breathless Wines to some winemakers in France, and they said that most of the wine industry in France knew Breathless very well, and were especially impressed with the three sisters, Sharon, Rebecca and Cynthia, who started the winery and their famous winemaker, Penny Gadd-Coster. Penny has long been known as a super star in the California wine industry. With more than 30 years of winemaking experience, including stints at Jordan, J Winery, Forenzo Vineyards, and Rack & Riddle, where Breathless is located, Penny was rightly named “Winemaker of the Year” for Napa, Sonoma, and the greater Bay Area by the North Bay Business Journal.

Not a Chateau – Housed in Industrial Warehouse

Wearing masks, we arrived at Breathless Wines for our 11am appointment, and were greeted by Sharon Cohn, whose business card reads, “Sister 1 of 3.” The winery tasting room is a small cozy building nestled next to a large industrial complex of three huge warehouse buildings that house Rack & Riddle – the famous custom crush business that makes sparkling and still wine for many wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Indeed, all of the Breathless wines are made here as well.

What makes a visit to Breathless so enticing is not only the wine, but the beautiful outdoor garden with shaded tables, beautiful flowering shrubs and tall fir trees that spread out from the tasting room. This is also ideal for COVID outdoor tastings, as the seating areas are more than 6 feet apart.

Wearing a mask, Sharon invited us to take a seat in a large gazebo in the center of the garden. We were pleased to see a small welcome sign for our group, along with crystal Champagne flutes, small bowls of potato chips (one of the best pairings with all types of wine due to the salt and crunch), and a bottle of Breathless Brut chilling in a silver ice bucket.

The Story of Breathless and Its Beautiful “Lady on a Flying Cork” Label

As we sipped the beautiful Brut sparkling wine and nibbled on potato chips, Sharon told us the story of Breathless Winery. She and her other two sisters, Rebecca and Cynthia, decided to start the winery to honor their mother who had passed away from Alpha-1, a disease that makes it hard to breathe. This was also an inspiration for the name “Breathless,” along with its double mean of something so beautiful it leaves you breathless. Today they donate money from wine sales each year to Alpha-1 Foundation, as well as other non-profits.

All three sisters have impressive backgrounds in finance, business strategy, hospitality and wine, so starting the winery was based on passion for wine and family. They decided to focus on sparkling wine, made in the traditional “methode Champenoise,” where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing delicate bubbles and fresh exciting wines to celebrate life.

Sharon described how they decided to use the “Lady on a Flying Cork” from a 1920’s Champagne poster for their label. “We were working with a graphic designer who told us we should put a picture of our “chateau” on the label, but we laughed because we make our wine in this warehouse.” She gestured to the large aluminum sided building behind her. “However, we found this great old poster of the lady on the flying cork and decided to use this. We pay a royalty to the artist for every bottle sold.” See Breathless Wines Video below portraying “Lady on a Flying Cork.”

A Tasting of 5 Breathless Sparkling Wines with a Sword Demonstration

In total, we tasted five Breathless Sparkling wines, each made in the traditional method with aging 2 to 3 years in bottle as non-vintage wines. They all had very distinctive personalities, and are available for online purchase HERE:

  • Breathless Brut – 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, inviting red cherry notes with lemon zest and tiny bubbles. Received 98 points in the 2019 Harvest Challenge ($27)
  • Breathless Blanc de Blanc – 100% Chardonnay, fresh pear and lemon with hints of toast and minerality; great complexity, with a zippy refreshing finish. ($34)
  • Breathless Rosé – 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay, fruit forward and voluptuous with ripe cherry cordial notes, and hint of sweetness on the finish. ($33)
  • Breathless Blanc de Noir – 93% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier, sophisticated and complex with toasty brioche and lemon brulee notes – delicious! Sweepstakes Wine at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. ($32)
  • Breathless Moscato – 98% Muscat Canelli, 2% Chardonnay, perfumed floral nose of honeysuckle with spice and honeydew notes on palate with slightly sweet finish. A perfect brunch or appetizer wine. ($29)

When we arrived at the Blanc de Noirs, Sharon invited one of us to “sabor” the bottle with a sword. This is an ancient tradition from Europe of breaking a Champagne bottle using a saber (sword). It was popularized by Napoleon’s cavalries to celebrate a victory. The French term is “sabrage.” Since I had already done this several times in the past, I encouraged Fiona to try it. Sharon showed her what to do, and after donning gloves and eye glasses for protection, Fiona deftly sabored the bottle and then poured it in our glasses.  She describe the whole exciting experience HERE.

Meeting with the Famous Breathless Winemaker – Penny Gadd-Coster

We were honored when Penny Gadd-Coster, the award winning winemaker of Breathless Wines and Director of Winemaking for Rack & Riddle, stopped by our table to chat with us for a few minutes. Penny explained that they make around 20,000 cases of Breathless sparkling wine each year, and that is it sold and shipped to more than 25 states. She also described the impressive size of Rack & Riddle, which produces around 1.7 million cases of sparking and still wine for many different wineries. With more than 70 employees and two locations, Penny has a huge winemaking empire to oversee. However, her true love is making sparkling wine, and the exquisite taste of Breathless wines is a true tribute to her skill and artistry as a world-class winemaker.

Scheduling a Tasting and/or Sabrage Experience at Breathless Wines

If you are in interested in scheduling a COVID safe visit to Breathless, it is easy to reserve your spot online HERE.  A tasting of four sparkling wines is only $16 per person, and the “Sabrage” sword experience with tasting is $69.

Fiona and I toasting with Breathless Blanc de Noir from Sabor

A Visit to the Legendary Littorai Winery on the Wild Sonoma Coast

For years I have heard tales of the exquisite taste of Littorai wine, and on a few special occasions, I was actually able to taste a bottle at a wine dinner or tasting event. Known for pinot noir made in a very natural style with lower alcohol levels and a clear reflection of coastal vineyards, the wines are probably one of the closest expressions in California to a pinot noir from Burgundy.

Therefore, when the chance arose to visit the small by-appointment-winery, I jumped at the opportunity. Convincing two friends, Charlie and Lupe, to join me, wasn’t difficult, so we donned our COVID masks and drove in a convoy to this hard to find winery, located in the hills above the town of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, California.

Arriving at Littorai Winery

After passing through a residential area, we turned up a dirt lane, and encountered a wire gate requiring an entry code. We entered the code and continued to drive for a short way on the dirt road until we saw a non-descript looking building covered with green ivy and surrounded by vineyards. The fact that there was no sign with the name of Littorai Winery was similar to other famous unmarked wineries in Burgundy.

We were greeted by Robin, Estate Educator, wearing a mask. He invited us to use the hand-sanitizer sitting on top of a wine barrel on the front porch, and then beckoned for us to follow him around the corner to a beautiful shaded patio overlooking the vineyard. A table with benches was set with wine bottles and glasses for our tasting. Once we were all comfortably seated 6-feet apart, Robin told us the story of Littorai.

Ted Lemon, Founder and Winemaker for Littorai – “The Coast”

Ted Lemon is a legendary winemaker in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa counties, whom I had met on several prior occasions. He was on vacation that week, but Robin did a great job of explaining how he had grown up in New York, studied French Literature at Brown University, but then got the wine bug and moved to France to study winemaking at University of Dijon. After graduating, he worked as an apprentice winemaker for several years at different domains in Burgundy, including the famous Roumier and Dujac.

Returning to the US in 1985, he worked in Napa Valley until 1992 when he and his wife Heidi  decided to start their own winery, and craft Burgundian style pinot noir and chardonnay wines. After some research, they identified the cool coastal climate of the Sonoma and Mendocino coast as the perfect location to find the type of high-quality pinot noir vineyards he was seeking. Therefore, he named his wine brand, “Littorai,”  which derives its meaning from “the Coast” in Latin.

Over the ensuring years, they, saved money to purchase these special coastal grapes to make their wines. In the beginning they did not have enough money to build a winery, so they made the wine in Napa Valley. However, as the reputation of Ted’s unique wines grew, they eventually saved enough money to build the small winery overlooking one of his favorite vineyards, called Pivot.

A Tasting of Six Littorai Wines

Robin invited us to pour a small taste of each wine into the set of six wine glasses placed in front of each of us. Due to COVID, he explained, it was better for us to pour the wine from the individual carafes placed in front of each of the six bottles. As we tasted through the wines, Robin explained Ted’s philosophy of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which focused on protecting the environment and making the wine in a very natural fashion with native yeast. In this way, the “taste of the land – terroir” could shine through in each wine. We tasted:

  • 2018 Chenin Blanc, Haven Vineyard, Sonoma ($80) -notes of lemon drop, honey and crisp acidity with very long finish. Refreshing.
  • 2018 Chardonnay, Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma ($90)- classic apple and lemon nose with mouthwatering natural acidity.  “Converts chardonnay skeptics.”
  • 2017 Pinot Noir, Pivot Vineyard, Sonoma ($90) – nose of roses and raspberries followed through on palate with spice, toast and great texture – orgasmic wine.
  • 2017 Pinot Noir, One Acre Vineyard, Mendocino ($95) – black cherry, pepper and graphite with more structured tannins – masculine pinot.
  • 2017 Pinot Noir, Haven Vineyard , Sonoma ($95) – rich, raspberry and red plum, concentrated with velvety tannins – long, lovely and satisfying.
  • 2013 Pinot Noir, Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma ($140, avail only at winery) – complex notes of white pepper, anise and mint wrapped up in warm vanilla and red plum with furry velvety tannins – lots of personality

The whole tasting experience was delightful, and Charlie, who was from Napa Valley, exclaimed that he had never tasted such exquisite pinot noirs from California before. They were “brimming with personality and clear expression of terroir from special coast vineyards.” While Charlie was talking, the Littorai cat came to sit next to him, clearly entranced by his viewpoint.

Charlie tasting pinot noir with the friendly Littorai cat

When Your Trip to Paris is Cancelled….. Consider Jordan Winery

My friend Lupe and I were scheduled to fly to Paris on July 1 and return on the 15th, but alas, like most travel this year, the trip was cancelled due to COVID.  Though we were happy to do our part and stay home to keep ourselves and others safe, we thought longingly of the lost chance to linger at a Paris café, drinking wine and enjoying delicious French food.

Then enter Jordan Winery and their new “Paris on the Terrace” lunch and wine-tasting. When we heard of this opportunity, we immediately reserved a table for their 11am to 1pm time slot –  they also offer a similar experience from 2 – 4pm. In order to be more festive, we dressed in long flowing summer dresses and brought sun hats for the outdoor experience.

Attending “Paris on the Terrace” Wine Lunch at Jordan Winery

Arriving at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California

We wore face masks in the car on the drive to Jordan Winery, located in Northern Sonoma County outside the town of Healdsburg. When we entered the large impressive stucco gates and drove along the winding road with sprawling California oak trees decorating the golden-grass hills, my friend Lupe gasped at the magnificent of it. “I have never visited here before,” she said. “This is amazing.”

“What until you see the Jordan Chateau,” I responded.

Soon enough, the large ivy-covered yellow-stone chateau appeared at the crest of a hill. Built in 1976, the chateau houses the winery, tasting room, and administrative offices.  But due to COVID, we would not be entering the building. Instead we would spend a delightful afternoon on the large terraces surrounding the chateau, each set with small white marble bistro tables with wicker-chairs imported from France. Large oak trees and café umbrellas provided inviting sun-dappled shade around the tables.

We checked in for our reservation at an outdoor booth, with all employees wearing face-masks, and communicating welcome smiles with their eyes. We were escorted to our table on the far terrace, where we had a great view of the organic gardens and vineyards beyond.

Jordan Winery, Sonoma County, California

Food and Wine Pairing at Paris on the Terrace

Almost immediately upon sitting at our table, we were greeted by a hostess who served us a gently bubbling glass of Champagne, from Jordan’s partnership with AR Lenoble in France, and called Jordan Cuvee. It was crisp and delicious, and a great way to start our Paris feast. As we relaxed in our chairs, we heard the strains of happy French café music drifting across the terrace.

Serving Jordan Cuvee Champagne

Over the next two hours, we were entranced with the delicious and artistic four-course meal that arrived at our table, along with matching wines for each course.

1st Course with Jordan Cuvee Champagne

Jordan Garden Crudité, made of pickled vegetables from Jordan’s organic gardens and garnished with edible rose petals

Jordan Garden Green Salad with fresh lemon and peppercorn vinaigrette, garnished with edible violas.

Baked Black Olive Bread fresh from the wood burning oven – we could see the flames and the chef remove the bread from the oven just before it was served to us!

Served with 2019 Jordan Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil for dipping

2nd Course with 2018 Jordan Chardonnay from Russian River AVA

Changes daily, but we were served:

Salmon Rillette with fresh dill and fennel from Jordan’s organic gardens

Side of Shaved Carrots Salad with puréed Raspberry sauce

3rd Course with 2010 Jordan Library Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Charcuterie with three meats – one made from Jordan cabernet sauvignon, and duck confit

Two cheeses, cornichons, Dijon mustard and fruit preserves

House-marinated olives and spiced nuts

Photo Credit: C. Johnson

4th Course with 2016 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon

Dessert – White Chocolate Mousse with crumble and raspberry sauce, garnished with edible pansy

(Note: I wasn’t sure this pairing would work, but the bright fruit of the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon actually accentuated the raspberry flavors in the mouse and berry sauce.)

Chef Customizes to Visitor Palate

Executive Chef Todd Knoll, formerly with the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton, can accommodate special dietary requests with 48 hours advance notice. This was fortunate for Lupe, because she is gluten-free, but he was easily able to substitute other items to suit her palate. Sadly, she missed out on the incredible olive bread fresh from the oven.

Enchanted by the Beauty and Taste of Courses

I must admit that the attractiveness of the dishes, with the fresh vegetables and herbs, picked that morning from the winery gardens, as well as the adornment with flowers, completely enchanted me. I was not expecting such exquisite beauty and taste, and found it to approach the level of a one-star Michelin restaurant.  The service was also equal to one-star, with the masked servers appearing right on time to pour wine, deliver the dishes, and then describe each course in detail.  I was in heaven!  We relaxed back into our seats, listening to the music, and admitting that it felt like we were in France, even though it was beautiful Sonoma County.

Relaxing at Jordan Winery. Photo Credit: C. Johnson

When Crisis Spawns Innovation

Towards the end of our meal, Claire Smith, Guest Services Manager, approached our table to serve the last wine. She inquired about our experience, and we spoke rapturously about how much we were enjoying everything. I then asked her how they came up with the concept, and her reply was inspiring.

“Our hospitality team was actually sitting here on this terrace several months ago, all wearing our masks and sitting 6-feet apart, because we couldn’t have our staff meetings indoors anymore. We were brainstorming what we could do to encourage visitors to come back to the winery when we were allowed to open up again. Then all of a sudden, the idea came to us – we could host a lunch and wine pairing on this very terrace.  As we continued to brainstorm, discussing food, our organic garden, our Champagne and wines, the name emerged quite suddenly – “Paris on the Terrace.”  And this is the result of that team brainstorm session.  Enjoy!”

Paris on the Terrace Wine Lunch at Jordan Winery. Photo Credit: C. Johnson

Bartholomew Estate Winery: Home to History and Hiking

In my new goal to visit at least one new Napa/Sonoma winery each week to support them in reopening during the COVID19 crisis, I booked an appointment to visit Bartholomew Estate in the hills outside the town of Sonoma.  Though I had always meant to visit someday, this seemed to be a great time to do so. The winery is known not only for its elegant wines, but also for being one of the oldest in the state of California. Many people are also attracted to the estate for its numerous hiking trails that wind across the 375 acre property.

Bartholomew Estate. Photo Credit: Hike the Wine

History and Hiking

The property on which Bartholomew Estates is located is the original home of Count Haraszthy, founder of Buena Vista Winery, located next door. Haraszthy established Buena Vista in 1857 and built a beautiful villa. In 1943 the property was purchased by Frank and Antonia Bartholomew. In order to honor the history of the estate, Antonia built a replica of the Haraszthy Villa in the early 1990s in the last years of her life, because the original had burned in the late 1870s.

The Bartholomew’s also established a trust to protect and preserve 375 acres of the property, and give it as a gift to the community with the provision that it be kept in a natural state. Therefore, it is filled with majestic old oak trees, rolling hills, and a stream. Highlights of the park including many beautiful hiking trails and relaxing picnic grounds, which are free of charge to the public. Bartholomew Estate Winery is nestled in the middle of the Park, making it a perfect destination for hikers, picnickers and wine lovers. In fact, its hiking trails are so unique that it is recommended by “Hike the Wine.”

Hiking Trails at Bartholomew Park. Map Credit: BartholomewPark.org

A Relaxing Tasting on Oak Knoll Overlooking the Vineyards

We drove to Bartholomew Estate Winery along a narrow road flanked by tall trees before opening up to vineyards on both sides. Then at a curve in the road, a majestic wooden mansion appeared. It was painted in a warm cream color with two-story wooden pillars gracing the front. Once we parked and read the plaque, we realized this was the restored home of County Haraszthy.

The winery tasting room is behind the mansion in an old stucco building referred to as “The Hacienda,” though it was originally built as a hospital. Today it houses the small winery operation, producing 3500 cases, as well as a charming art gallery and the wine tasting and sales room.  Due to COVID all tastings were outside in a large park area called “Oak Knoll.”

Entrance to Oak Knoll Outdoor Tasting with COVID masks

We approached the check-in desk in our masks and were immediately greeted in a friendly fashion, and then escorted to a table for two under a large oak tree and overlooking the vineyards. It was so relaxing to sink down into the chair and look at the view. We ordered the flight of four wines, and enjoyed the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, two 2018 Zinfandels from different vineyard blocks, and the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon.  All wines are grown and made on the Estate’s 22 acres of vineyards, and they were young and fresh, brimming with fruit and elegance.

A Tour of the Cellars with Winemaker Kevin Holt

Though we had booked the basic Oak Knoll tasting, we were thrilled when winemaker, Kevin Holt, strolled up to greet us. He spent some time describing the estate vineyards and explaining how the wines were made, before inviting us to tour the cellar. Putting our masks back on, we followed Kevin to the “Hacienda” and enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the many oak barrels that comprised the aging regime for the wine. Kevin believes in using a combination of both French and American oak in his red wines to give them more jazz and personality.

Barrel Room at Bartholomew Estate Winery, Sonoma County, CA

We Will Be Back!

After my first visit to Bartholomew Estate and Park, I know I will definitely be back.  It seems the perfect place to enjoy a morning hike, following by a wine tasting under the oaks, and then a relaxing picnic lunch on the lawn – perhaps even a nap, afterwards…..

A Culinary Tour of Hanoi, Vietnam

In July of 2015 we embarked on a two week culinary tour of Vietnam. The first three days were spent in Hanoi and Halong Bay, which is a short drive from Hanoi.  Of all of the places we visited in Vietnam, Hanoi seemed the most colorful and authentic to me, with bustling streets filled with people selling colorful fruit, vegetables and flowers, as well as many bicycles and motor bikes.  We stayed in the Tirant Hotel in the heart of downtown, so we awoke to the bustle of street life right under our windows.

Lady selling fruit in the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam

Cooking School at Hanoi Cooking Center

We attended a half day cooking school with a young charming chef.  It started with a tour through the market where he purchased all of the ingredients we needed to prepare our meal. The sights, sounds, and smells of the market were amazing (see video at each of blog for more details). Upon returning to the cooking school, he gave each of us an apron and a glass of wine white made in Vietnam from Vang Dalat Winery. Then we learned out to make fresh spring rolls and green papaya salad with shrimp from scratch. When we were finished cooking, we got to enjoy the meal for lunch.

Our chef showing us edible silkworms at the Hanoi open air market

Temples and Street Food Tour of Hanoi

After lunch we visited several temples and important sites in the city, and learned about the history of Vietnam and the role of Ho Chi Minh.  That evening our guide took us on a street food tour of Hanoi, which was very fascinating. We tried many different types of food from street vendors, and finally ate in a small crowded café perching on tiny plastic seats. We ended the evening with beer that only costs .29 cents per glass!

Eating street food on tiny plastic chairs in Hanoi

An Overnight Boat Trip to Halong Bay

The next day we drove about an hour to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site of hundreds of tall granite rocks protruding from the bay, and creating impossibly beautiful scenery with amazing sunsets. Since we were the only four people who had signed up for the tour, we had the large boat to ourselves, with a crew of 5 people to show us to our rooms onboard and cook all of the meals. We felt very spoiled. They took us to many locations on the bay, including a great swimming spot, kayaking through openings in the rock, and climbing through beautiful caves. The best part was dinner, wine, and a glorious pink sunset.

The beauty of Halong Bay, Vietnam

Video of Our Adventures in Hanoi and Halong Bay

Below is a 3:24 minute of our adventures. You can see many more food photos, as well as special sites of Hanoi and Halong Bay. Enjoy!

Napa Valley Winemaker Conquers Coombsville AVA

In my quest to support local wineries during the COVID19 pandemic and demonstrate the safety procedures they are using, I reached out to one of my former students, Marbue Marke, who has been making wine in California for more than 20 years now. He has an impeccable winemaking background, with a B.S. from UC-Davis in winemaking, an MBA from Sonoma State University, and winemaking stents at Jordan, Gallo, Benziger, Cosentino, and Caldwell Vineyard in Napa Valley. Several years ago, he started his own successful firm called Marbue Consulting (Marbue.com), and now crafts wines for several small prestigious brands in Napa Valley.

Marbue Marke, Consulting Winemaker in Napa Valley

Italics Winery in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley

One of Marbue’s clients is Italics Winegrowers, located southeast of the town of Napa in the rolling hills of one of Napa’s newest AVAs (appellations), known for its cooler climate and well-balanced acid-driven cabernet sauvignon wines. I had never been to Italics Winery, and was impressed with the large arch over the entrance and then a set of gates requiring an entry code. Once through the gate, I drove along a winding road through the vineyards and past a golf course, until, eventually, I reached the tasting room and caves at the top of a hill.

Marbue met us, wearing his mask, and we spent some time outside observing the vineyards. Marbue, who holds the title of Director of Winegrowing at Italics, explained that they had 34.5. planted acres, with 70% composed of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux red blends. Sustainable farming methods are employed, including use of recycled water in the vineyards and solar panels for the winery.

Marbue with Mask in Italics Caves

We were impressed with the extensive underground cellars, complete with expensive French oak barrels and private tasting nooks. Marbue led us to a room at the far back, and we caught our breath at the beauty of the chandelier arching over a long wooden table spread with food and wine glasses. The decanted wines for our tasting were arranged on a long table to the right.

Marbue started the tasting with some older vintages from different client wineries, and then we focused on Italics wines matched to different gourmet food pairings:

  • 2019 Italics Rosé, 100% Malbec paired with turnip soup
  • 2017 Italics Placemark Red Blend, paired with duck rillete and black garlic crostini
  • 2017 Italics Weapon X Cabernet Sauvignon paired with beef braciola with arugula pesto and parmesan
  • 2018 Italics Cabernet Sauvignon paired with smoked cocoa beef brisket with honey verjus glaze

Marbue’s Winemaking Philosophy – Elegance and Balance Start in the Vineyard

As someone who has produced many 90+ wines over the years, Marbue can easily pivot to create different styles of Napa Valley cabernet based wines, ranging from big, masculine powerful wines to those with more finesse. Lately, Marbue has gravitated to wine styles that are more balanced, yet filled with grace, elegance, and a long concentrated finish. He believes that this has to do with having control over how the vineyard is farmed. “It is one thing to get a score,” says Marbue. “It is quite another to design a program that reflects the uniqueness of the vineyard and the people who steward it. Truly authentic wines reflect both.”

Discussing “Black Lives Matter

Obviously the topic of “Black Lives Matter,” came up during the tasting, because of the recent events in the news. Since Marbue was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, he doesn’t believe he can comment on the experience of African-Americans born in the USA. “I had heard about racism in America before I arrived,” said Marbue, “but being from Africa I have experienced it differently than black Americans who grew up here. Is there racism in America? Yes, there is, but many people don’t want to admit it.”

Marbue describes a situation where he interviewed with a company in the South and on the way to the interview, his black taxi driver warned him that he wouldn’t be able to buy a house or join a gym in certain parts of the city because he was black. “It was then that I decided to focus my career in California,” states Marbue, “because it is a more liberal state regarding racism, even though it is still here.”

On the positive side, Marbue admits that having the professional degree and experience of a Napa Valley winemaker has its benefits. He described a time when he visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux with John Caldwell and a few other colleagues. “At Chateau Margaux, when they learned I was a trained winemaker, I was the only one from our group that was allowed on the floor of the winemaking facility. So being a winemaker, regardless of the color of your skin, does have its privileges on some occasions.”

Highlights of the Tasting

Though we tasted many excellent wines during the tasting, several stand-outs for me were:

2009 Marston Family Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – showing black plum, spice, oregano and earthy forest floor notes, this wine sang with elegance and complexity. Crafted in a lighter style, it harkened back to the early years in Napa Valley, when the Judgement of Paris was won.

2013 Caldwell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville – opulent and perfumed nose of blackberry and violets, this wine exhibited the plush velvety tannins for which Napa Valley is known around the world. Yet, it also showed grace and elegance with well- integrated oak and a long concentrated finish.

2017 Italics Placemark Red Wine Coombsvilleblended in 2018 when Marbue first started working with Italics, this wine spoke clearly of the cooler climate of Coombsville and the rich complexity that can be achieved by a master blender. Comprised of 43% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, and 14% petit verdot, it exhibited classic cassis, spice and peppercorn with refreshing acidity, great balance, and a long elegant finish.

2018 Italics Cabernet Franc Coombsville – with a heady nose of raspberry and violets, I could have just enjoyed smelling this wine all day. Vibrant with red plum, cocoa and tobacco notes, this graceful and seamless wine seduced with fine-grained tannins and a long elegant finish.

6- Foot Wine & Food Pairing at Italics Winery in Napa Valley

A Place in Napa Where They Make Wine the Old-Fashioned Way: Charter Oak

I have lived for 20 years now in Napa/Sonoma wine country and still have not been able to visit the more than 1000 wineries that are located in this world famous wine region. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the nation, I have decided to venture out to the wineries that are open and try to support them as a local tourist. I am not the only one doing this, as many of the tasting rooms are now booked weeks in advance by locals. Due to the pandemic, you must make an appointment to visit, and the tasting rooms are following all of the safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask and sit 6 feet apart.

Charter Oak Winery. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

So, this past Friday, I visited 3 wineries in Napa that were new to me, with my friend Charlie Johnson. Please keep in mind that over the years, I have probably visited more than 200 Napa/Sonoma wineries, but never before have I encountered an old fashioned commercial winery like Charter Oak Winery. Located in the town of St. Helena, it is in a small house tucked away down a side street. I was surprised to find that it is not only a small gem of a winery, but also the home of internationally acclaimed artist, Layla Fanucci, who began her art career in that very house 20 years ago when she retired as a local music teacher.

Layla with her paintings & Liz standing near Layla’s larger canvases

The Chateau Wineries of Napa Valley

It’s not that I don’t like visiting the very famous old wineries of Napa Valley, such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena; or some of the newer landmark wineries with their unique architecture, such as Opus One, Darioush, Sterling, and Castelo di Amorosa, as illustrated below. They are large and exciting to visit with well-crafted high-quality wines, and professional tours. At the same time, I still remember the Napa Valley before the turn of the century (2000), that was more relaxed. This is what I found at Charter Oak Winery – a warm welcome and a tasting in the kitchen at an old wooden table.

Some famous wineries of Napa Valley. Photo credits: wikipedia commons

Charter Creek Winery – Still Making Wine by Hand in Basket Press

Winemaker and owner, Rob Fanucci, inherited Charter Oak and the cute little white house and half acre of vineyards from his grandfather, Guido Raggihaiti, who came from Italy more than 100 years ago. As was the traditional of many Italian families, Guido planted some vines and made wine in his barn, sharing it with family and friends. Now, Rob, does the same, using the same winemaking equipment as his grandfather.

It is rare today to still see a winemaker using an old-fashioned wooden barrel press, because they are a lot of work and require much muscle power.  But not only does Rob honor this ancient technique, he also picks all grapes by hand, used natural yeast, and ferments in large open containers using his grandfather’s wooden paddle to punch down the grape cap three times a day. Once the wine completes fermentation, he performs the pain-staking labor of crushing it in the 100 year old press, and then transfers it by bucket to age in barrel, before bottling unfined and unfiltered one year later.

Rob Making Wine. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

Wine and Art Meld in Layla Fanucci’s City Scape Paintings

When we arrived at Charter Oak, Rob’s wife, Layla Fanucci invited us into the house and led us to the kitchen where we sat at a small oak table for a tasting of four red wines. On the way, we passed her art studio where she creates large oil paintings of “city scapes,” in which she uses a unique technique of painting multiple cities on top of one another. She has been incredibly successful with this technique, and exhibits her paintings in galleries around the world. She also showed us several books that had been written about her and the amazing style of paintings.

Wines we tasted in Kitchen at Charter Oak Winery

As we tasted through the wines, Layla described each one by reading Rob’s poetic descriptions, and it really made the wines come to life. They were primarily red blends, made in the old Italian fashion of field blends, as well as several zinfandels.  All were delicious and would easily pair well with Italian food. Even better, many of the wine bottles were graced by labels depicting some of Layla’s paintings.

Rob and Layla had a video produced that describes the old-fashioned winemaking and her unique painting style. See below:

Magical Backyard with Event Grounds, Vineyard and Guest Houses

After the tasting, Layla encouraged us to wander through her studio and the back garden. We discovered many interesting displays in the garden, as well as an old barn decked out for private events, and several guest cottages for wine club members.  It felt a bit like a magical playground, and gave me a warm feeling to realize that there were still authentic wineries in Napa that make wine the old-fashioned way.

The Amazing Wreath Vines of Santorini, Greece

On my trip to Greece, I was very excited to learn that we would be visiting one of the “wreath vine” vineyards of Santorini, because they are reputed to be some of the oldest grapevines on earth, with roots dating to over 400 years old. The climate of this island is dry and windy, forcing the vines to hug the earth in one of the most unique trellis systems in the world – called the “Kouloura.” With this the vines are pruned in the shape of a wreath, so that the grape bunches inside the wreath are protected from the wind and can reach maturity.


Wreath Vine that Grows in Circle on the Ground in Santorini, Greece

We took a bus outside the main town of Fira, and were invited to go hiking through a vineyard composed of the wreath vines. The landscape was very barren, and it was hard to believe that these flat clusters of leaves and branches on the ground could produce grapes. We learned that after a number of decades, the wreath grows too tall, and is cut off so a new wreath can form. However, the original roots stay in the ground, resulting in grapevines that are hundreds of years old. During our visit, we were able to see one of the vineyard managers show us how to prune a vine.  See video below.

Assyrtiko – the Signature Wine Grape of Santorini

The main grape of Santorini is white and called “Assyrtiko.” It creates a wine that is known for its bracingly high acid, which some call the “White Burgundy of Greece,” and has been produced on the island since early Greek and Roman times. Many of the assyrtiko grapes are grown on the wreath vines, and because of the challenges of growing in this extreme environment, many of the wines are rather expensive and rare. The wines usually taste of bright lemon, hazelnut and a minerally salty note, and pair beautifully with seafood.

Santorini – An Island of Legend and Exquisite Wine

This was my second visit to Santorini, and like the first, I was stunned with the stark beauty of this island. We arrived by boat to see its huge volcanic cliffs soaring high above us, because Santorini is part of a sunken caldera. Originally much larger, the island was destroyed by a volcano that erupted in the 1630’s BC, causing some people to speculate that Santorini is the site of the lost city of Atlantis.

Our bus zig-zagged to the top of the cliff where the town of Fira with its white houses, pink bougainvillea, tiny winding streets, and blue domed churches enchanted everyone. We were able to spend three delightful days here, and tasted wines from many of its nearly 20 wine producers.  Some of the labels of these wineries are illustrated below.



Virtual Wine Tours on the Rise

Though we all enjoy traveling to the wine regions of the world, there are times that physical travel is not possible. Some of this may be due to work or health conflicts, but increasingly there are other issues that cause wine regions to close temporarily. Examples include the COVID pandemic, earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile and Napa; terrorist attacks in France, Spain and Germany, and wildfires and mudslides in California. Given these changing conditions, some wineries have started offering innovative virtual wine tours.

Virtual Tour

360 Virtual Vineyard Tour (Modified Photo Credit: Pxfuel.com)

Three Types of Virtual Wine Tours

With the new virtual wine tours, tourists can tour a winery or wine region virtually by using their computer, tablet or smart phone. This can be accomplished with online videos, 360 photo tours, or 360 videos with VR glasses, and are designed to make the visitor feel as if they are really walking through the winery grounds. Currently there are three types of virtual wine tours offered by some wineries.

Engaging Online Videos showcase the winery and allow visitors to see the entrance to the winery, step into the tasting room, walk through the vineyards, see the cellars, wander the gardens, and see the wines. These can be fun and whimsical, or classy and elegant. Here are two good examples:

360 Photo Tours are simply photos of the estate filmed in a 360 format and then edited so that visitors can click on a link to take them into another room, such as the cellar, the wine library, the vineyard, gardens, etc. It is a technique that is often used by home sales websites, and is less expensive to produce than professional videos. Here is a good example :

360 Video Tours are filmed with a special 360 video camera and professionally edited. Virtual wine tourists are invited to don a pair of VR Glasses, which can be purchased inexpensively online, such as the Google Cardboard headset, so they can experience the 360 video as if they were actually there. Here are two examples:


NOTE: A longer version of this article was originally published at by Wine Industry Advisor at: https://wineindustryadvisor.com/2020/05/28/the-future-of-virtual-wine-tourism