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!