A Visit to the Legendary Eisele Vineyards of Napa Valley

Established in the 1880’s, Eisele Vineyards, nestled in a special corner of Napa Valley is only 38 acres in size. This small size, along with a prestigious history of producing some of the highest quality wines in the valley over many years and multiple owners, has propelled it to the top echelon of Napa Valley vineyards, and is rightly referred to as a “Grand Cru” vineyard by some professionals.

Famous Eisele Vineyard of Napa Valley, California

I had a chance to visit this “sacred vineyard” for the first time in August 2020, under strict COVID safety procedures, and meet with Estate Director, Antoine Donnedieu de Vabres. This was a special visit, as the estate is closed to tourists, and only trade professionals and customers on the allocated wine list are allowed an appointment.

Arriving at Eisele Vineyards

It was a bright summer day and I enjoyed driving along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, until I came to the small turnoff onto Pickett Road heading East towards the Vaca Range. It is an easy turn to miss, because the only sign point is a large tree at the cross-section. This is a more remote part of Napa Valley, covered in vineyards with small houses hidden in the hills. The entrance to Eisele is also easy to miss, because like many luxury wine estates, there is no sign. However, stopping at the simple wooden gate flanked by rock walls on both sides, I finally spotted a very discrete sign etched into a stone, stating “Eisele Vineyard.”

Entrance to Eisele Vineyard

After pressing the button on the code box, the gate slowly swung open and I drove along a gravel road that was lined by pale green olive trees. Off to the left I saw glimpses of the vineyard, and then shortly thereafter, came to a group of buildings that included several large wooden barns and a beautiful white wooden manor house with white pillars lining a large wrap around porch.  I was impressed to see that they had three flags flapping in the breeze to celebrate the heritage of the estate – the American, Mexican, and French flags.

Manor House at Eisele Vineyard Estate. Photo Credit: NapaWineProject

As soon as I parked under a shady tree, I saw Antoine descend the stairs from the manor house. He is a tall slim Frenchman with a warm personality and impeccable manners. He welcomed me and my companions to the estate, explained the COVID safety regulations, and invited us inside the house where a glass of chilled Eisele Vineyard 2018 Sauvignon Blanc was waiting for us. Once seated comfortably in a large living room with a view of the vineyards, he regaled us with a brief history of the estate and an explanation of the vineyard terroir.

American, French and Spanish Flags at Eisele Vineyard

A Brief History of Eisele Vineyards

Originally planted to Zinfandel and Riesling grape vines in the 1880’s, the vineyard was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1964 and renamed Eisele Vineyard when Milton and Barbara Eisele purchased it in 1969 as a retirement property. Through hard work and excellent marketing skills they sold the Eisele grapes to famous winemakers such as Paul Draper and Joseph Phelps, who crafted the harvest into award winning wines. Then in 1990, another retirement couple, Bart and Daphne Araujo, purchased the property and eventually replanted the vineyard according to organic and biodynamic farming principles.  Maintaining the name Eisele Vineyard, they set up a winery in the old barn and named their wine brand “Arauajo Estate.” Then ensued three decades of exceptional winemaking that propelled both the name Eisele and Araujo to first, cult, and then luxury wine status.

Fast forward to 2012 when Artemis Domains, a French based firm that focuses on developing a portfolio of luxury wineries, purchased the estate and changed the name from Araujo to Eisele, in honor of the famous vineyard. Thus, Eisele in Napa Valley, became the first American winery to join Artemis’s portfolio of such rare name as Chateau Latour and Chateau Siaurac in Bordeaux, Clos de Tart and Domaine de Eugenie in Burgundy and Chateau Grillet in the Rhone.

Poetically Named Vineyard Blocks. Photo Credit: Eiselevineyard.com

Terroir and Grapes of Eisele Vineyard

Before inviting us to don sun hats and follow him to the vineyard, Antoine first showed us a large map of the vineyard blocks. Each had been renamed from the traditional American names, such as Block A and Block B, to poetic names, such as Jardin, Olivos Viejos and Paloma. He pointed to the small streams that run through the blocks, flowing down from the mountains that flank both sides of the vineyard, providing the deep river bed soil.

“The deepest soil is in the heart of the streams,” explained Antoine. “The soil is volcanic with two alluvial fans, as well as some clay.”

He explained that the vineyard is divided into two zones, with the west side blocks on the left side of Simmons Creek providing the highest quality grapes, or “grand cru” blocks, and the east side blocks lining the smaller creek as the “premier cru” blocks. The estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the “grand cru” blocks, and the second wine, called Altagarcia, comes primarily from the “premier cru” blocks.

The grapes are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, but they also grow Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and a small amount of Syrah. For the white wine, they grow Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc Musque grapes. When they create the “grand vin,” they harvest and ferment 40 different wine lots from different parts of the vineyard, and then decide which lots should go into the final blend.

A Walk Through the Vineyard and Caves

Antoine led us through French sliding doors, past a swimming pool, and into the vineyard. On the way we passed some workers cleaning picking bins to get ready for an early harvest. Antoine said they kept the original crew of employees, and pay them as year-round full-time workers. They also promoted Victor Hernandez, one of the most senior workers, to Vineyard Manager.

“The employees are crucial to the high quality of this vineyard,” explained Antoine. “They know every vine intimately and farm them like a bonsai tree. The only changes we made when we arrived was to ask them to harvest slower and to use scissors instead of a knife. My wife, the winemaker here, speaks five languages fluently and therefore can easily speak to the workers in Spanish.”

As we approached the vineyard, we could see how perfectly it was manicured, with each vine appearing balanced and healthy – most likely due to biodynamic farming methods. The spacing is 7×4 feet, and the soil beneath the vines is filled with small river rocks, allowing for excellent drainage. Antoine explained that the Cabernet Sauvignon was primarily the “Eisele clone,” which had developed here over the years. Interestingly each row was wrapped with canvas along the fruiting zone to protect the grapes from sunburn.

“Despite the warm sunny day,” Antoine stated, “we always get a nice breeze in the afternoon. In this part of the valley, it also gets quite cold in the evenings, and we are known to have some coolest temperatures in all of Napa Valley at night time.”

Next we peeked into a long cool cave going deep into a hillside. Antoine explained that first year barrels lined the right side of the wall, and second year barrels were on the left side. Given that Eisele only produces around 5,000 cases each year, there was plenty of barrel room in the long cave. The wines are aged a total of 20 months before bottling.

Antoine then pointed to the large wooden barn buildings, explaining that that was where the wine was made, but that we were not allowed to enter due to COVID regulations.

A Vertical Tasting of Five Years of Eisele Wines

Back in the air-conditioned manor house, a long dining room table was organized with three place settings, six-feet apart. Each setting held 5 elegant wine glasses, filled with glowing red wine. In the middle of the table, taking pride of center, were five bottles of Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a vertical of 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, with an average price of around $500 per bottle. These were the five wines produced by the Artemis Group since purchasing the estate in 2012.

Vertical Tasting of Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

We felt very honored and spoiled to be allowed to taste these wines. Antoine relaxed back and his seat and encouraged us to taste through the flight, answering questions about each wine.  It was a very special experience. Following are my brief tasting notes:

  • Eisele Vineyard 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon – 100% Cabernet. Dark glowing ruby color, nose of forest floor and cassis, following through on palate with notes of dark chocolate, tar and spice. Structured fine-grained tannins and very long finish. An imposing wine. 96 points
  • Eisele Vineyard 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – 90% cab and 10% Petit Verdot, opulent ripe raspberry and red plum, spice, cocoa, elegant fruit purity with velvety texture and long decadent finish. Not as complex as 2013, but highly approachable and a huge crowd pleaser. 94 points
  • Eisele Vineyard 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon  100% cab.  Earthy nose with black licorice, black plum, tar and dark chocolate. Massive structured tannins, tightly wound now. From last vintage in 3-year drought, and showing highly concentrated fruit. 95 points
  • Eisele Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon 100% cab. An exquisite wine with perfect balance and harmony of raspberry and boysenberry fruit with well-integrated toasty oak, fine grained velvety tannins with very long finish. Hints of rhubarb, cocoa, cedar and forest floor. Magnificent and explosive on the pallet. Everything that is best about Napa Valley. 100 points
  • Eisele Vineyard 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon 100% cab. Tightly wound with notes of black plum, earth, white pepper and pencil lead. Firm structured tannins with long complex finish. Very young at this point, but with good potential for aging. 95 points.

Antoine explained that the winemaking regime for all of the cabs included fermentation in both stainless steel and cement vessels. He said the cement provided a rounder mouthfeel to the wines. After around 20 days of total fermentation, with gentle pumpovers, they transfer to barrel for 20 months, only racking one time. They prefer to conduct ML in tank, rather than barrel. They blend in February, analyzing which of around 40 lots should go into the final blend.

Glowing Ruby Color of Eisele Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

Eisele Vineyard 2018 Sauvignon Blanc – Intriguing floral and mineral nose with explosive citrus and grassy notes on palate with some wet stone. Mouthwatering acidity with a hint of creaminess. Very complex and long. Aged 12 months on the lees, with 15 to 20% new French oak, along with some stainless and cement eggs and some oak.  Grapes harvested at 23 Brix. Good aging potential. 93 points.

Optimistic About the Future – Not in a Rush

Towards the end of the tasting, we discussed the marketing and future business strategy. Antoine explained that Artemis inherited the list of allocated Araujo customers and that most of them “have stayed with us.” Currently they sell around 50% of the wine direct to consumer (DTC), with a waitlist of around 2 years.  Allocated customers are allowed two visits per year, and annual allocation is three bottles each of Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon and Altagarcia (around $130 per bottle). The remainder of the wine is sold via distribution to high-end wine shops and fine dining establishments – though on-premise sales have flattened due to COVID. On the bright side, Antoine said that DTC and off-premise sales have increased.

“Here at Eisele Vineyards,” said Antoine, “we are focusing on allowing the vineyard to be our teacher. It is already in balance, and we are not in a rush. Our philosophy is to leave the vineyard better than we found it. This place has a special signature, and we want to let the personality of the place come through.”

As we concluded our visit and thanked Antoine profusely for his incredible hospitality, he left us with one more insightful observation:

“Vineyards can change hands many times, but it is the terroir that lasts. Just look at Clos de Tart in Burgundy – it has had four different owners in 900 years, and yet it endures. Here at Eisele, the vineyard is only 140 years old…. We are optimistic about the future.”

A Memorable Tasting of Eisele Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

A Gourmet Wine Picnic Lunch at Swanson Vineyards on a Toasty Day

We scheduled our COVID safe visit to Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley on a clear sunny day with temperatures hovering around the 100 degree mark. When we booked the Gourmet Picnic wine-tasting experience online, we didn’t know the heat would be so intense, but with the beautiful shade trees casting dappled patterns over the French style garden, complete with pea gravel and padded chairs, it turned out to be a lovely meal.

slider1-courtyardfrompath

Whimsical French Garden at Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley

Friends Rave About Swanson Vineyards

For years I’ve had different sets of friends tell me how wonderful a visit to Swanson is with its delicious Napa wines, French Décor, huge garden and famous red salon. Indeed, Swanson was one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to establish the “sit-down winetasting experience,” which has now been adopted by most every winery in the valley.

Swanson was founded in 1985 by Clarke Swanson, the grandson of the founder of Swanson TV Dinners. Clarke’s wife Elizabeth, who had a great love for France, decided to model the gardens and winery after a Parisian salon of the mid 1800’s. Clarke hired famous consultant, Andre Tchelistceff, to assist with winemaking, and Andre encouraged him to focus on Merlot.

Today, Swanson is still well-known for its excellent Merlot wines that are a great value at only $32 per bottle for the Napa Valley Merlot and $65 for the Salon Merlot. Of course, they also produce high quality cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese, rose, pinot grigio, and other varietals. Marco Cappelli, a protégé of Andre, was Swanson’s winemaker for the first 17 years. Today the wines are crafted by Robin Akhurst, who became head winemaker in 2015.

Welcomed to Swanson by Nancy and Sarah

Use GPS to Find Swanson Winery in Napa Valley

I made sure to use my GPS to find Swanson Winery, because even though it is right off Highway 29 in Napa Valley, just after Robert Mondavi Winery and on the same side of the road, there is no sign for Swanson. In this way, they are known as an “under the radar” winery, which you need to “be in the know to find.”

Crossing the railroad track and driving down a narrow paved road with vineyards on both sides, I came to the Swanson entrance and a large sign overlooking a riotous garden of brightly colored flavors. Parking in a shaded parking lot, I donned my COVID mask and approached a welcome table where I was greeted by Nancy Richardson, Salonniere. She said a cheerful hello behind her mask, offered me some hand-sanitizer, and then escorted me to a table in the garden. Charlie arrived a few minutes later, and we sat down to a delightful wine lunch.

IMG_4626

The Gardens at Swanson Vineyards

Gourmet Picnic Wine Lunch at Swanson

Since its lovely indoor Salon wine and food pairing was put on hold due to COVID, Swanson cleverly created an outdoor experience in their garden. For $75 per person ($150 per couple), visitors have the option of 5 gourmet menus paired with 4 Swanson wines. Even better, you can customize the wines for your own palate, as they create new printed wine-tasting menus each day. If you’re not that hungry, Swanson offers a tasting of 4 of their wines for only $40, and you can still relax in the whimsical garden patio in one of the many cozy settees or tables, with generous spacing and dream away the afternoon.

Meals are catered by Tre Posti, with the following choices:

  • Wild King Salmon
  • BBQ Spiced Pork Tenderloin
  • Grilled Filet Mignon
  • Poached & Chilled Shrimp
  • Beyond Sausages (only $70 pp)

Charlie and I ordered the Grilled Filet Mignon with salad and roasted vegetables. It was paired with the following wines, and for me this combination worked the best:

Classic Caesar Salad

with chopped baby hearts of romaine, garlic croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano

Swanson 2019 Pinot Grigio

 

Simply Roasted Seasonal Vegetables

With sea salt and napa Valley olive oil

Swanson 2017 Pinot Noir

 

Grilled Filet Mignon

With horseradish cream sauce

Swanson 2016 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Swanson 2015 Petite Sirah

Dessert was a tiny taste of the rare Swanson Angelica wine, which is made from 120 year Mission vines in the Sierra Foothills. It is a sinfully delicious sweet white wine, brimming with apricot and honey notes.  Only made in certain years, anyone who joins the Wine Club is offered a special sample to take home.

During the relaxed 90-minute lunch, Nancy would stop occasionally to describe the wines to us and answer questions. Later Sarah Dennis, Tasting Room Manager, came to greet us, and we felt very spoiled with all of the positive attention. Later they brought us the Swanson Coloring sheet and a box of colored pencils so we could linger longer and relax into an almost meditative state of coloring as we enjoyed our wine and the beautiful garden.

An Alice in Wonderland Afternoon

My experience at Swanson was very relaxing. I felt a little as if I’d wandered into a fairytale setting, because the gardens were filled with towering sunflowers and giant dahlias that made me feel I had shrunk to a miniature size. Then wandering into the red salon room with its magnificent fireplace and inlaid octagon table, as well as the French bistro Sip Shoppe with its stripped walls felt like I had stepped into a Hollywood movie set of Paris. It is not the normal modern tasting room that you usually find in Napa Valley – instead it is a dreamy place, hidden down a side road off Highway 29, that you have to make an effort to find. It is worth the effort.

FullSizeRender

Taking Photos of Swanson Vineyards Wines

Two New Napa Wineries Created by Same Family – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix

The name “Araujo” is quite famous in Napa Valley, as Bart and Daphne Araujo ran their namesake winery for 24 years, crafting a string of some of the most highly rated Napa Cabs from the legendary Eisele Vineyard. But with an offer “that came out of the blue” from the Artemis Group to purchase Araujo Estate in 2013, they decided the timing was right to move onto another “project.”

Fast forward to 2020 with a brand new winery at Wheeler Farms, a private custom-crush facility located in St. Helena, where the Araujo’s, along with daughter Jaime, have created two new compelling winery projects – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix. Today they both have five vintages to their credit, and the wines are showing clear and delicious differences in style and personality.

Jaime Araujo conducting elegant tasting with COVID mask

Arriving at Wheeler Farms to Taste Accendo and Trois Noix Wines

We scheduled an appointment to taste wines from both Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix at 10:30 on a Friday morning as part of our series on safe COVID visits to Napa/Sonoma tasting rooms. After punching in the gate code I received with the email confirmation, I drove into a beautiful garden with flowering shrubs, vegetable boxes and leafy green trees. Rising up behind it all was an impressive two-story brown barn-like structure, which I learned was a state-of-the-art winery. Off to the left was an old historic house that was part of the original Wheeler Farms established in the 1800’s.

Even before I parked my car, two people wearing COVID masks approached to welcome me. One turned out to be the charming, Jaime Araujo, founder of Trois Noix and partner with her parents in establishing Accendo Cellars, and the other was Brand Ambassador, Mathew, who held a tray with a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne. A very nice welcome indeed!

Wheeler Farms Winery and Organic Gardens

A Mini-Tour of the Estate

A few minutes later my friend Charlie arrived, and with his glass of welcome Champagne in hand, Jaime invited us to peak into the winery.  Due to COVID safety regulations, visitors are not allowed to enter a winery, but we could stand at the door and gaze at the equipment. It was mind-boggling – and I have seen many wineries around the world. I told Jaime that this looked like a “Cathedral to Winemaking.” It had specially designed stainless-steel tanks, each with their own pump. There was a huge Bucher press, and an optical sorter – all “toys” that any winemaker would dream to have. Indeed, the winemaking facility attracts a number of highly talented winemakers.

Next Jaime pointed out the organic gardens and described how the fresh produce was incorporated into the food/wine tasting experiences offered at the estate. We walked towards the vineyards surrounding the property, and Jamie explained that they were primarily cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc vines, and that most of the grapes went into the Wheeler Farms wine brand. Currently there are six wineries operating at Wheeler Farms, including Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix.

Wheeler Farms Winemaking Facility

A Tasting of Trois Noix Wines with Founder, Jaime Araujo

After the mini-tour, Jaime led us to a beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards. Laid out on an elegant table under an awning were two place-settings with six wine glasses and a tempting charcuterie platter with local cheeses, estate-made crackers and fresh peach and basil from the garden. We were enchanted at the delightful setting and welcoming hospitality.

Keeping her mask on during the tasting, Jaime described how she started Trois Noix, with her brother. The name means “Three Nuts” in French, and is in honor of their three kids. After working abroad for nearly 20 years, including as a professional actress in London, three years with LVMH in Paris, and CEO/Founder of Terravina, a wine marketing/strategy firm in France, Jaime was finally lured back home to Napa Valley when her parents asked her to help them launch their new winery, Accendo.

“I was very excited to help them,” she says, “but decided I also wanted my own wine project, especially when I realized there was so much good wine available in Napa Valley. Therefore, I established Trois Noix, which is based on an opportunist approach to winemaking.” She explains that, “together with friends in the community, we sleuth out compelling wines and grapes that might overwise go neglected.”

Once she identifies some high-quality Napa grapes and/or wine, Jaime works with top winemakers to craft wines that are approachable, but also with the structure to last. This makes tasting Trois Noix wines a very exciting adventure, because each year turns up new treasures. Indeed, we were very impressed with the three Trois Noix wines that Jaime shared with us:

  • 2018 Trois Noix Sauvignon Blanc – aromatic nose of jasmine and gooseberry with explosive grapefruit on palate combined with minerality and mouth-watering acidity. Very lively and refreshing. Made in a combination of neutral oak and stainless steel with battonage. 92 points, $40
  • 2018 Trois Noix Chardonnay – classic Napa chardonnay with ripe apple, pear, generous toasty oak and lemon-zest acidity. Delicious and approachable. From Oak Knoll AVA. 90 points, $50
  • 2016 Trois Noix Cabernet Sauvignon – a Napa Cab with lots of personality, this wine wakes up the palate with black cherry, chocolate, pepper and tobacco. Enlivening! 92 points, $100

A Tasting of Accendo Cellars Wines

Accendo Cellars is the new passion child of Bart and Daphne Araujo. After spending over two decades crafting masterpiece wines from the Napa “Grand Cru” vineyard of Eisele, this time they decided to focus on the “art of the blend,” according to Jaime Araujo. “Now, for Accendo, we source grapes from five to six of the top “Grand Cru” vineyard sites in Napa Valley, and create a masterful blend. Not only are we sourcing from specific vineyards – all organic or biodynamically farmed – but we are selecting the best blocks within those great vineyards.  Think ‘Burgundy in Napa Valley.’”

They have also assembled an all-star team to help craft their wines, with Steve Matthiasson as viticulturist and Jeff Dawson as biodynamic consultant. They were also able to convince their former winemaking team at Eisele vineyards to assist, including Nigel Kinsman, Francoise Peschon and consulting winemaker, Michel Rolland.

Accendo Wines. Photo Credit: Accendo Cellars

We tasted three Accendo Cellars wines after tasting the three Trois Noix wines, and there was a clear difference in the expression and style of the two wineries:

  • 2018 Accendo Cellars Sauvignon Blanc – made with all three Bordeaux grapes – Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musque and Semillon – this wine is the type I’ve been seeking in Napa Valley for a long time. It is so exciting to find such a delicious well-balanced “Bordeaux Blanc” with enticing floral notes of honeysuckle and exotic pineapple and green apple on the palate, with a hint of minerality. Fermented in new and used French oak barrels, concrete eggs and stainless-steel drums, with some sur lie aging. Elegant, balanced and long. 93 points; $65
  • 2015 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – nose of black cherry, earth and cassis, this is a big powerful Napa Cab made in the last year of the drought, and showing massive structured tannins, in the style of St. Estephe. On the palate dark cocoa, cedar, and cranberry. Aged 21 months in French oak, and will continue to evolve in the bottle for many years. 96 points, $360
  • 2016 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – perfumed nose of violets and blackberries, this is a magnificent wine with incredible balance, harmony and length. The palate shows complex spice, cassis, leather and black liquorish with fine-grained velvety tannins. It has both elegance, freshness and strength, and is Napa Valley cab at its best. Wow! 99 points, $360

Accendo wines are limited in production and sold primarily on allocation, though they are available in some fine wine shops.

Observing 6-foot social distancing at Trois Noix Winery, Napa Valley

References

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