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

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…..

Russian Dancers, Ballerinas and Caviar Enrapture Guests at Jordan Winery’s Holiday Party

I always enjoy receiving an invitation to visit Jordan Winery in the Alexander Valley AVA of Sonoma County. Not only is it one of the oldest wineries in the region, with an impressive gate and curving driveway which leads to a golden ivy-covered building designed in the French chateau style, but they are known for their very innovative events.

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Ballerina Dancers at Jordan Winery in Sonoma County

This time it was an invitation to attend their Tchaikovsky Christmas Party tasting to highlight their new Jordan Cuvée Champagne made in partnership with AR Lenoble in France. This is a true Champagne made near Epernay, France and aged for 4 years on the lees. It has the telltale chalky minerality and crisp acidity that I crave in Champagne, along with hints of pear, lemon and brioche.  It is quite sophisticated and pairs well with the caviar that Jordan is now selling.

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Enjoying Jordan Cuvee Champagne and Caviar

As soon as we approached the winery, we were greeted by a small group of ballerinas who were there to entertain the guests with exquisite dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. As we entered, we were handed a glass of the Jordan bubbles and invited to help ourselves to a lavish spread of oysters on the half-shell, salmon, shrimp, multiple types of caviar, and many other delectable dishes including a huge table of desserts and Russian petit fours. Ice sculptures and Russian backdrops were arranged amongst the wine barrels, and Russian music was playing in the background. In addition to Champagne, we were also offered Jordan’s very classic chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, which paired well with the multiple cheese and meat courses.

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One of the highlights was a troup of Russian dancers who jumped and spun in the barrel room, delighting everyone with their gymnastic style dancing. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in California wine country.

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Russian Dancers at Jordan Winery

Prior holiday celebrations at Jordan included a Hawaiian Christmas theme, Halloween parties with vampires and pirates, and Belle Époque Spring Celebration. Jordan Winery is also famous for its fun YouTube video parodies featuring winery employees, such as the recent Despacito Embotellado.

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Russian Christmas Theme at Jordan Winery