Taste Life

Culinary Institute of America Serves Up a Feast for the Senses

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ― Virginia Woolf 

Culinary_Institute_of_America_logo.svgThere is a CIA no one really wants to know and there is the CIA everyone should get to know.  My introduction to Culinary Institute of America began in late 90s when I started attending food and wine events there.

Located in the heart of the wine country in charming St Helena, the historic building (constructed in 1889) brings together many food and wine industry luminaries. It’s hard to adequately describe this magical spot, which emanates old world charm combined with modern sensibilities.

The CIA offers a wide range of educational programs; from associate degrees to non-accredited consumer-orientated courses.  These courses range from two to five day boot camps.

Given my love of wine and food, and my familiarity with the venue, I was excited by the opportunity to attend the “Wine Boot Camp – Become Wine Wise” course. Little did I know that the week that I spent at the CIA would forever change me.

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Robert Bath, the teacher of the “Become Wine Wise” course at the CIA.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the Wine Boot Camp taught by Robert Bath, a Master Sommelier – one of only 135 in the US to have earned this coveted title. His 30 year long career highlights include:

  • composing the original wine list for Thomas Keller’ French Laundry as well as working with several of Wine Spectator Award restaurants
  • founding a consultancy group RLB Wine Group which developed wine education programs for brands such as Marriott, Crystal Cruises, Taj, Kendal Jackson, etc.
  • being the national sales manager for Shafer Vineyards in addition to working with Duckhorn, Dalla Valle, Viader, Hartwell, Iron Horse, etc.
  • contributing to prestigious publications such as the Sommelier Journal and Sante
  • importing wine from vineyards across New Zealand

The idea behind the five day course was to expand one’s existing wine savvy and also expose students to a wide array of wine related subjects; from basics of deductive tasting methods to Master Sommelier level service program. Whether you are an aspiring wine aficionado or a trained professional, this course offers an unprecedented opportunity to greatly expand your existing knowledge base.

Every day of instruction contained a series of stimulating sensory and intellectual experiences. Bob Bath is a great teacher who draws you out and facilitates maximum immersion. Leading questions, blind and guided tastings, cerebral and palatal workouts made for a wonderful learning experience.

Day one was dedicated to the basics of wine tasting, learning a systematic wine evaluation process, becoming familiar with the concept of appellations, wine making methods and practices, and key concepts of wine styles. It featured a series of blind tastings that stretched every attendee’s wine appreciation skills.

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Nile Zacherle, shown here, has ten years of wine making experience.

Day two included a field trip to David Arthur Vineyards and Montagna Vineyards. The  afternoon was spent with the co-winemaker for the brands, Nile Zacherle, whose initial interest in alcohol fermentation was spurred on by beer and evolved into wine stints in Australia, and in California at Sterling Vineyards, Chateau Montelena and Barnett. Nile introduced us to wines from a two year old vineyard that was planted primarily to clonal material sourced from friends and neighbors, as oppose to nurseries, in order to avoid any possibility of disease-tainted vines. We were subsequently invited to sample 2011, 2012 and 2013 (barrel samples) of David Arthur flagship wine, “Elevation 1147″ and “La Presa” from Montagna. It was a fascinating comparative tasting of two magnificent offerings.  Crafted by the same winemaker, this tasting showcased soil and vintage diversity as well as different varietal compositions.

Back in class we learned about American Viticultural Areas, wine labeling, vineyard and farming influences and major distinguishing characteristics of white grape varietals.

That night, as part of the curriculum, we had fabulous dinner at the CIA Greystone restaurant.  The restaurant is run by CIA students, with the faculty oversight. The menu focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. Delightfully, the facility features a full view of the open kitchen. The food was fantastic. The meal started with a fresh salad consisting of spring greens, popped quinoa and pea sprouts dressed in sky billgoat cheese. It was followed by a perfectly prepared black pepper cured five dot ranch strip sirloin. The chocolate cake with blackberry reduction just about pushed us over the edge.

Day three was dedicated to discussing the diversity of Napa Valley’s various viticultural areas. A field trip to Raymond Vineyards drove home the point. The vineyard management team at Raymond Vineyards is known for their rigorous biodynamic regime, courtesy of the owner, Jean Charles Boisset’s unrelenting pursuit of organic farming. We had an opportunity to spend quality time with their gardener (the facility boasts an organic “Theater of Nature” garden), oenologist, viticulturalist and VIP hospitality coordinator. We toured the winery and tasted an array of wines, including the famed “Generations” 2010 Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Day four was all about food and wine pairing; and boy was it hands on! One of the most fascinating moments of my tasting career was the “white bean soup” exercise. A large pot of flavor-neutral white bean soup appeared along with a tray of various flavor enhancers.   There were eighteen flavor enhancers offered, including fresh herbs, olive oils, bacon, dukka (an Indian spice) and Chinese hoisin sauce. The goal was to find the optimal pairing of flavored white bean soup with six different wines. We wound up trying dozens upon dozens of combinations, with folks reaching consensus on only a few; but mostly having exploratory fun.

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William Heubel prepares a delicious ravioli.

Later we were introduced to Chef William Heubel, our “Iron Chef” for the day.  He guided us through a preparation of a wonderful three course meal consisting of pillowy ravioli on a bed of spinach and porcini mushrooms, parmesan infused brodo (an Italian stock) finished with goat cheese, lamb with rare red polenta, and luscious plum dessert.

Traci Dutton, manager of wine and beverage studies at the CIA, paired wines with our meal. We enjoyed  a fascinating interplay of white, rose, and red wines with our dishes. The meal was followed by a great conversation with Chef Heubel.  He discussed the perils of CIA student’s expecting instant success. Although many CIA graduates move onto some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country (recent examples include Press and Auberge du Soleil), for many it takes years of hard work before fame and recognition arrive.

Hailing from a number of four star properties such as Four Seasons Lanai, The Highlands Inn in Carmel, Ventana in Big Sur, and L’Auberge de Sedona, Heubel settled in at CIA. His food philosophy centers around eating thoughtfully and consciously. He favors shifting the focus from protein being the star of the show, to a more balanced approach where side dishes which are prepared using seasonal, local fare share the spotlight.

Day five came was dedicated to “living with wine” – wine storage, stemware, decanting, alternative bottle closures, and opening various wine bottles (there is a way of opening sparkling wine sans noise and flying corks drama).

“Wine as a lifestyle” is a powerful and highly applicable concept, that can be practiced in any circumstances. Value added is exponential, the better you drink and eat, the more you want to delve further into your own potential to live well. Wine’s flavor profiles, stylistic differences and price points take on a whole different meaning with the background knowledge under one’s belt.   If you are an wine aficionado, or just a novice, this course will greatly enhance and deepen your love of wine. I learned more about food and wine in five days than I had in the last five years. If you love learning, while tasting world class wines personally selected by one of the top Sommeliers on the planet, and eating phenomenal food, this class is for you!

Incidentally, daily lunches occur in CIA’s magnificent teaching kitchen and consist of roughly a hundred (not kidding) food options, from bouillabaisse to opulent dessert. The students in culinary arts program produce a wide array of complex dishes. They look spectacular and taste even better. I found myself promising that I’d hit the gym twice a day, so that I could consume more.

Each day I came back to my hotel room mentally spent yet exhilarated, looking forward to my next class experience and feeling a childlike sense of wonder and exploration.

On the last day of class I found myself fighting tears. Typically I get exuberant over wine and food related events.  This one was very different. I felt like I was leaving my best friend or a beloved family member behind. When Robert Bath signed my diploma, I felt my heart drop. It was really over. I absent-mindedly said good byes to my classmates and thanked Bob for one of the greatest teaching experiences of my life. I was overwhelmed with sadness that I won’t be coming back the next day. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you give your palate, and possibly your heart, a chance of a lifetime. Get to know my CIA, an American institution, where your senses and desires come alive.

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Sweet Homecoming For Napa Valley, with 18.7 Million reasons to celebrate

“Only great souls know the grandeur there is in charity”  – Jacques Bossuet

It is the most exhilarating weekend of the year in Napa Valley; overflowing with euphoric anticipation, filling the balmy June air with excitement .

live_celebrationAuctionNapaValley (ANV), seems to be everyone’s favorite charity event.  Since its start in 1981, the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which operates AuctionNapaValley, has raised and donated more $120 million to community causes.

The 34th Annual ANV, titled “Sweet Home Napa Valley,” had a pair of gargantuan shoes to fill. Last year, the most watched wine auction in the country, broke its own previous record, raising $16.9 million for local health care and children’s education programs. The wine community brimmed with happy anticipation, combined with a hint of trepidation. Tough standard to live up to.

Saturday evening the world learned that they need not have worried. AuctionNapaValley set a new record by raising 18.7 million dollars; surpassing the previous record by 10% and solidifying ANV reputation as the most prestigious and highly effective charity auction in the US.

Multiple lots earned over $400,000, with several prominent vintners becoming top bidders themselves. Prior to the main event, many participating vintner hosts went all-out for to support the four-day event by hosting pre-parties or winery sponsored dinners prepared by private Chefs. The barrel and live auctions were, once again, runaway successes.

After a head spinning final tally and an extravagant epicurean journey (with lots of culinary and winemaking celebrity sightings) one wonders what makes this auction so incredibly special? Is it the presence of Margrit Mondavi, widow of the late Robert Mondavi, who has been involved with every wine auction from its inception? Is it the site of Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello and Masaharu Morimoto greeting guests and chatting away with fellow chefs? Is it the rivers of extraordinary wines, freely poured? Is it the ostentatious, one-of a kind lots, such as the Star of Africa pendant studded with 100 diamonds and encased in a fluid-filled sapphire orb? Or is it the opportunity to experience the debut of Bill Harlan’s “Promontory”?

I think not. What makes this event special is that it is an event by the community for the community; permeated with the pure spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.

This large scale, theatrical production, that takes over a year to plan and countless individuals to execute it is a real coup d’etat. Although appears effortless, this gargantuan task brings together seasoned auctioneers, chefs, winemakers, and industry luminaries, all bound together by copious amounts of goodwill. It’s where worlds intersect; billionaires meet volunteers, community leaders assist vintners, and police officers volunteer their time. Its a place to see and be seen but where charity is the greatest equalizer.

By the Numbers:

500 Vintner members. 1000 Vintners participated.

1000 Barrel Auction guests. 100 barrels of predominantly 2012 Cabernet. Total $1.694 million. Top Lot: BrandNapaValley at $83,050 (followed by Shafer Vineyards: $55,200 and Continuum Estate: $52,750)

E-auction open to everyone: 175 lots. Total $490,000. Top Lot: Continuum Estate, Freemark Abbey and Staglin – $21,000

50 live auction lots, 5 hours of bidding, 1000 attendees. Total 16.6 million, 7 lots were doubled to accommodate the under-bidder.

Top Live Auction Lots were:


 Total raised: $3.8 million, 100 bidders energetically raising their paddles, with highest contribution of $1 million by billionaire Kieu Hoang. A Vietnam-born U.S. citizen, Hoang is the pharmaceuticals executive of companies focused on plasma, and a believer in the link between wine and good health. Having already spent $240,000 for a lot that included a jeroboam of 2010 Ovid, dinner for eight and the services of the famed architect’s Harold Backen who will design or remodel a house or a winery; Hoang seemed elated to contribute more to his new wine home base.

“Promontory” by Bill Harlan: $600,000

Acquired by a vintner and philanthropist Lee Anderson, this lot entitles him to the lifetime 1st Mailing List Customer title as well as ten cases of the first ten vintages of wine produced by Promontory.  It also included five double magnums from the 2009 through the 2013 vintage and accommodations at Meadowood, along with lunch or dinner for 30 at the estate.

Opus One: $550,000
Next year’s Auction Chairs, enticed five couples to pay $110,000 each for a trip to Bordeaux, a visit to Château Mouton-Rothschild, Mondavi’s partner in Opus One, five large format bottles of Opus One, and VIP packages to Auction Napa Valley 2015.

Araujo Estates: $520,000
Araujo Estates’ new owners, The Pinault Wine Group offered a whirlwind trip to Bordeaux; including tours of Château Latour, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St.-Emilion and Pomerol.  Also included was a 6-liter bottle of Araujo for the winner’s cellar.

Raymond Vineyards: $840,000 (Winning bid $420,000, doubled for two separate winners)
The charismatic Jean-Charles Boisset, with the help of his friend Harvey Weinstein, offered the winning bidder an unforgettable night at the Academy Awards, including a private jet, evening gown, tuxedo, an Oscar after-party, a VIP table, with plenty of chances to hobnob with Hollywood elite.  Also included were double magnums and a Salmanazar of Raymond Vineyards Generations Cabernet.

Casa Piena: $420,000
In addition to a couple of delicious double magnums from proprietors Carmen and Gail Policy’s Casa Piena, the winning bidders are entitled to four tickets to the 2016 Super Bowl in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, as well as a pre-Super Bowl party with the NFL Commissioner.

Chappellet Vineyard: $410,000
Blakesley and Cyril Chappellet offered a “traveling in style” package, that includes a ten-day trip for four to New Zealand, business class, lodging, 10 dinners in NZ plus a lavish dinner for 24 in Napa Valley, and four double magnums of Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lokoya: $400,000
If you would rather visit Australia, this package included a ten-day trip to for two, including a helicopter tour of Adelaide, private winery tours and sixteen bottles of wine.

Gargiulo Vineyards, Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars: $400,000
This lot included a trip to Colorado’s Diamond Tail Ranch, four Fender guitars, four target rifles, four fly rods, meals by Charlie Palmer, entertainment by Grammy Award winner Billy Dean, plus three wines offered by the Duncans and Gargiulos.

Mayacamas Vineyards: $660,000 (Winning bid was $330,000, doubled for two bidders)
Mayacamas Vineyards, recently acquired by Charles Banks (former Screaming Eagle partner), offered a stunning historic collection of wine, including a magnum from 1964 and five jeroboams from 1978, 1989, 1997, 2002 and 2013 as well as a six-decade vertical tasting. Also included were two dinners for twelve at their historic property, prepared by Blackberry Farms’ Chef Joseph Lenn, as well as a two-night stay for six couples at the Mayacamas estate on Mt Veeder.

NapaValley Vintners and Lexus: $580,000 (Winning bid $290,000, lot doubled for two separate bidders)
This lot included a three-day cycling adventure for two couples in the Great Smoky Mountains, four customized Panatela bicycles, 48 bottles of Napa Valley wine. Tickets to the Tour de Smokies, accommodations and meals at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee and use of Lexus vehicles.

Darioush and Robb Report Magazine: $440,000 (Winning bid $220,00, paid by two separate bidders)
Judgeship for the 2015 Robb Report Car of the Year and 2015 Culinary Masters Competition, five-night stay at Four Seasons Maui, five-night stay and Four Seasons Bora Bora, and dinner for five couples with Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi.

One of the most intense foodie lots, Colgin Cellars, offering four double magnums and a dinner for 50 (!) at either the French Laundry or Per Se, sold for $340,000.

For those looking for fantasy and once in a lifetime adventure, this was a playground like no other. International destinations, such as France, Australia and New Zealand lots were clear winners, but so were the “sweet home” lots.

David Alan Bernahl, founder of Coastal Luxury Management who produces Pebble Beach Food and Wine (among many other luxury wine and food events) attended the event; he was very impressed!  No slouch when it comes to top notch food and wine events, his appraisal of ANV was sky high.

I had a chance to spend some time with Sex in the City star, Kyle Maclachlan who was in town filming Anthony Bourdain’s new show, The Getaway. This show follows celebrities into their favorite locations. He was filming a segment in Napa’s famous bakery, Alexis Baking Co and briefly stopped in at ANV. Himself a vintner and a philanthropist in his native WA state, he spoke eloquently about the importance of giving back to the community: “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s an important part of connecting with and supporting one another.”

All in all, ANV demonstrated, once more, the generosity of those who love to visit and who inhabit this very blessed spot. One can’t argue with success, and, certainly, one can’t argue with love for your extended family; your community, and your favorite place to come home to… Home indeed, is where the heart is.

Congratulations, ANV, you deserve it all.


BottleRock Napa Valley festival spells success

Napa residents David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins produce this year’s Bottlerock Napa Valley festival.




The Fray

A bright blue sky and the Petaluma Bay breeze caressing the Napa Valley Expo grounds spelled perfect weather for this weekend’s much anticipated BottleRock Napa Valley festival.  The event debuted last year with a four day music, wine and food extravaganza. Many Napa residents fell in love with the inaugural experience and the hundred and twenty thousand people who attended last
year’s festival were not disappointed.

Napa natives were particularly thrilled about having a major music experience in their own backyard. Things close early in Napa Valley area; one would be hard pressed to find many spots open after 10 pm, so this was a welcome change.

Four Napa residents, David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins, who are partners in Latitude 38 Entertainment, had produced this year’s festival. Although none of them are experienced in the music business, they have business acumen to spare.  Taking over from last year’s management, they were able to book bands, promote and sell out the event, and coordinate all of the logistics; all within two and a half months! They capped attendance at fifty thousand. At times you could feel the immense crowd’s presence, yet it wasn’t as overwhelming as one may have expected. The clearly defined goal of providing an authentic Napa experience succeeded. Once again, food and wine were stellar and the choice of talent was fantastic. Additionally, their “worst seat in the house = best at any other venue” strategy paid off. The enhanced platinum VIP program entitled 300 lucky guests to food prepared by Michelin starred chefs and wine chosen by a Master Sommelier as well as direct stage viewing.

Tri-Tip Trolley

Their selection of bands clearly embodied the festival’s  “something for everyone” motto. Whether you wanted to relax with a glass of Ceja Pinot Noir or jam to an Indie rock band, you came to the right place. The bands performed on four stages. The Whole Foods marketplace featured the likes of Morimoto, Tarla Grill, Napkins, Ca’Momi, Oakville Grocery and many more.  A multitude of food trucks were on hand, with the highlight being the newly launched, Tri-Tip Trolley, which was my favorite bite of the event.

I’m not sure what pairs better with food: great wine or great music.

The partners were passionate about merging music, fine wine, food and fun in a setting of a wine country back drop. The team’s laser-like focus on guest experience and unrelenting commitment to excellence paid off.

They met with community leaders to discuss noise issues, and how to attract more local business activities in conjunction with the event. The noise concerns were alleviated by a creative positioning of amplifiers. They contributed to the Napa economy by promoting after-parties at local restaurants and wine bars. Spreading the wealth and supporting local business were one of the partners core
values. The event was run in a tight, very business-like way without sacrificing neighborliness or community values.

Isaac Slade of The Fray, with a bottle of Rombauer Cabernet prominently displayed on his piano, rocked the house; performing a stunning version of his hit “How to Save a Life.”The crowds took in a mix of indie bands, classic hip-hop and an onslaught of nostalgia from 1990s.  The event featured performers such as Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth. The alternative rock band Cure was a huge hit with the crowds, as was Outkast, Eric Church, Third Eye Blind, Blues Travelers, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Weezer, LLCool J, Barenaked Ladies, Camper Van Beethoven, Gin Blossoms, Matt and Kim, Sublime with Rome, and TV on the Radio; over 60 bands in all.Howie Day was a highlight for me. His performance was extraordinary. Emotionally charged lyrics combined with inspired music have been a hallmarks of his impressive career. He found a loyal and receptive audience at this event. His hit song “Collide” was a runaway audience favorite.

Several of the principles’ dads served in the military, so military-related causes are near and dear to their hearts. Part of the proceeds of the festival going forward will be donated to charitable causes dedicated supporting our troops.

Howie Day

The BottleRock was a very successful event that embraced a variety of genres, both on and off stage. You could have a simple bite with your favorite beer or a sophisticated glass of wine paired with expertly made sushi, all within a few feet of each other. You could come for a concert and stay for three, all for the same admission fee. You could chat with winemakers at their wine booths or relax in a lounge with a refreshing drink. You could kiss your partner passionately under the stars while swaying to your favorite tunes…

Can’t wait for it to return next year.

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Russian River Valley Pinot Classic makes Memorial Day memorable

The annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic is a great Memorial Day weekend event for wine lovers.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Russian River Valley (RRV) has been known for classy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for decades. Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, the region has 15,000 acres under vine planted to 35 varieties. It is home to over a 100 wineries and produces a number of world-class wines. It’s also a gracious host of the annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic.

I attended this event last year and was happy to spend yet another glorious weekend in the lush vineyards and picturesque tasting rooms of one of my favorite wine regions. The event took place over the Memorial Day weekend, a somber occasion honoring our fallen troops. It was touching to see how many wineries showed tributes in respect for the day; red, white and blue were on display everywhere.

The event offers guests stops at a series of wineries which host open houses, pour library releases, offer a preview of upcoming vintages and (often), food pairings. I stopped at a number of participating wineries. Here are a few highlights:My adventure started at Hartford Winery, where I tasted barrel components of their Fog Dance 2013. Especially memorable were the 2011 Fog Dance and 2011 Marin offering which were paired with smoked duck and quinoa accompanied by pickled strawberries in balsamic gastrique.

On to Swan Vineyards where I had a chance to sample 2010 Great Oak Pinot Noir and 2010 and 2011 Trenton as well as half a dozen barrel samples. Their futures program is a savvy way to save a few dollars on some great wines.

Emeritus, one of my favorite RRV producers, generously offered a vertical tasting of Emeritus Hallberg Ranch 2010-2011- 2012, a barrel sample of 2013 and even a sip of 2011 Wesley. What a treat!

Dutton-Goldfield offered barrel samples of 2013 single vineyard pinot noirs, along the finished wines. Library offerings abound.Since I have no will power when it comes to Red Car wines, I felt that an unscheduled stop was in order. Winemaker Carroll Kemp crafts some of the industry’s most delicious wines. His 2013 Rose is a stellar example of a Rose of Pinot Noir. His brand new 2012 Chardonnay knocked my socks off. Both 2012 Sonoma Coast and Falstaff were divine, for dramatically different reasons. Syrah fans can’t afford to miss Kemp’s Syrahs, they are some of the best made in California.Discovering a new wine is always an exciting occurrence in my world, so I was particularly pleased to see DRNK on the participating winery list. The event debuted their 2013 Rose, 2013 Viognier, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Hallberg Ranch and 2012 Caver’s Cuvee Pinots. They also offered barrel samples of exceptional 2013 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. DRNK is partnership between O’Reilly Media founder, Dale Dougherty and winemaker Ryan Kunde. Their wines were brimming with character, integrity and class. I highly recommend that consumers check them out.

The marquee event was the La Paulee dinner. Named after a vital chef’s tool, sauté pan, or poile, a “Paulée” is a gathering that celebrates the end of harvest with a simple family style meal cooked in a poile.In accordance with tradition,vintners and their guests share a post harvestsigh of relief, conviviality and special wines from their cellars.Vintners from Arista,Bacigalupi,Benovia, Bucher, C. Donatello, Davis,DeLoach, Hartford, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Joseph Swan,Kosta Browne, LaCrema, LaFollette, Merry Edwards, Russian Hill, Siduri, Thomas George,Trione and Williams Selyem dug deep into their cellars and came out with doublemagnums of their flagship wines. Rare Burgundy made the rounds, courtesy of the attending guests. The classic French menu ofombreohevalier,oeufmeurette aufoiegras, cheese and dessert prepared b yMichou Cornu, Chef de Cuisine at Boisset Family Estates was superb.

Having successfully recovered from the opulent festivities, the next day I made my way to VML, which was the highlight of the weekend. Formerly C. Donatello winery, it is now home to some of the tastiest RRV wines. The 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 RRV Pinot Noir and the 2012 Floodgate Vineyard Pinot were all fantastic. A tri-tip pairing, served with arugula and divine chipotle aioli, plus live music completed the idyllic ambiance. Especially enjoyable was an impromptu pairing of Pinot Noir and blueberries, straight from the winery’s lovely garden.

Bacigalupi Vineyards, a generational wine grower who sold fruit to Chateau Montelena for the historic Chardonnay that took top honors at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” celebrated Memorial Day by pairing nana’s red gravy meatballs with their wonderful 2012 Estate Pinot.

The exciting new discovery of the day was UPTick. According to the winery “UPTick” is defined as… “a transaction in the stock market at a price above the price of the preceding transaction.” It can also mean a move forward to a higher level experience in the quality and production of wine.”

They certainly delivered a “higher level” visual experience. Their decor consists of an electronic ticker-tape on the wall with real-time Dow and NASDAQ quotes. In addition an old-fashioned ticker machine and a bull sculpture graced the Wall Street themed tasting room. There were commemorative flags honoring the fallen heroes of 9/11, as Uptick owners lost friends in the tragedy. They support a number of military and firefighter charities and donated 25% of sales made during May 24th-26th event to the Marine Corps Relief Society.

It was wonderful to see the wine world honor the day and the sacrifices our brave man and women made on the battlefield. The wine country is a place for great connections and celebrations of life. Somehow the joys of life seemed more poignant that day.


Top Ten Reasons to Visit Napa Valley


“Every time I open a bottle of wine it’s an amazing trip somewhere”  -Jose Andres


Napa_Valley_welcome_signI have been visiting Napa Valley’s 16 appellations for over 16 years; twice a month on average. One might say that it an anniversary of sorts, an odd coincidence. Napa was my first love, no doubt, and although one never forgets, not many of us marry their first love, do we?


As an independent journalist, not beholden to any entity or school of thought, and with no specific agenda, I’ve ventured to every wine country found in California; from Santa Barbara to Lake County. I’ve written about my spirited adventures in Sonoma, Anderson Valley, Paso Robles, etc. Each region offered an exciting, transformative, and exceptional experience.  Richly worthwhile, they were not the same as the experience of visiting Napa, which will forever occupy a very special spot in my heart.


At a dinner party, in another wine region, a couple of my colleagues started bashing Napa as pricey and elitist; offering poor value for their readers. This caused my blood to slowly, but surely, come to a boiling point. I have heard the same sentiment expressed all too often for my taste.


It’s time to contribute my two kopecks to the collective cup of kvetching on this subject.


Occupying an area of 788 sq. miles, the Napa Valley stretches from the Mayacamas Mountains tothe foot of Mt. St. Helena, in Calistoga area. It is home to over a dozen grape varieties. It won a geographical lottery with the location delivering superb geological and climatic conditions ideally suited for grape growing.


Napa’s first distinctly successful marketing efforts started after Prohibition, when Beringer invited Hollywood stars, the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard to visit the winery. Today 4.5 million people visit Napa Valley’s 450 wineries each year. It is the largest wine and food tourist destination in the country.


A lot of brands from other regions secretly wish to be Napa in terms of prestige and corresponding revenue. Yet they fail to grasp is that imitation is a form of flattery, not a formula for success.


How has the Napa Valley earned it well deserved reputation as one of the world’s premier food and wine destination?


Hospitality Standards


Lets face it – every wine region offers fine hospitality; but what sets Napa apart is the level of guest experience. Wuthering heights would accurately describe it, when one is on the receiving end of the elevated customer service. Think of it as Four Seasons of the wine world. There are a lot of wonderful, well-run, even charming hotel chains, but there is only one Four Seasons.


Wine Quality


wine-pouringLet’s state the obvious. Napa is steeped in viticultural and winemaking talent, plus unparalleled technical and financial resources. The influx of capital (much of it from the Silicon Valley) into this small valley has insured that you will be drinking well. What happens when capital and skills meet? Good things for the consumer.






Fabulous Food


Yountville alone, which I refer to as “Magnificent Mile” has more phenomenal restaurants within one freeway exit than a large number of entire major US cities. It is a capital food crime to visit Napa Valley and not have a memorable meal.

Whether you eat at Michelin star restaurants or a get in line at the outdoor Gott’s Roadside casual diner which famously made Robert Parker’s Favorite Meals of the Year you will be well sated.


Easy Access


Unlike many other wine regions Napa is geographically compact and easy to navigate. There are six major stops, Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga all of which are a just few miles apart. Spring Mountain, a wine tasting paradise is just a few minutes away from St Helena.  Should you feel adventurous you can venture into the more remote Angwin and Lake Berryessa. They are in fact close by, yet feel quite secluded.


Diverse Landscapes


Pope-Valley-Landscape---NAPA-VALLEY-copyWithin a few miles drive a visitor can experience various microclimates, terrains, views and landscapes. A small, modest, family run winery can have a palatial estate with all the attributes of ostentatious living as a neighbor. The Napa area offers rugged mountain estates and idyllic valley floor vineyards, festooned with postcard-worthy golden wild mustard.


Glamorous Hotels


Napa hosts a large concentration of some of the most upscale and the ultimate guest experience focused hotels and resorts such as Meadowood Resort, Calistoga Ranch, Auberge du Soleil, Bardessono, and The Meritage Resort.  Napa Valley offers a discerning traveler some of California’s best options for a five star experience.




You heard me right. Napa Valley had become a Mecca for great cocktails thanks to rock stars such as Scott Beattie of Goose and Gander, mixologists at Solage Calistoga, Redd, Ad Hoc (I dream of their Bloody Mary’s), Morimoto, Fagiani’s, etc. For a fantastic (and inexpensive) Margarita, try La Condesa in St Helena.


Health and Wellness


Should your trip’s motto be “healthy body, healthy mind and spirit” Napa offers a logical choice yet again. Most upscale hotels offer modern gyms, full service spas, yoga and wellness classes, some have phenomenal golf courses, tennis courts, etc. You can grab a bike and go for a ride along idyllic countryside or lay out by the pool. Charming Calistoga is famous for its hot springs, mineral pools, mud baths that should get you relaxed enough to forget the meaning of stress for a while.



Blend Your own wine


Wineries such as Judd, District 4, Raymond, Mondavi, Franciscan, Conn Creek, and Paraduxx all offer a chance of being a winemaker for a day at the end of which you will boast your very own custom wine. Raymond Vineyards, for instance, will outfit you with a shiny lab coat and sit you in a stainless steel room with black lighting where you would use professional equipment to make as much wine as you want to take home.


Food and Wine events


Napa is home to some of the best food and wine events is the country, so you may consider planning the timing of your trip to coincide with one or more of them.

This week is one of the most exciting weeks of the year when the largest Napa Valley fundraiser, Napa Valley Wine Auction,  takes place. For all its glitz and glamour, it is really a charity event that raises funds for the local community, with a strong emphasis on healthcare for immigrant workers. Monumental effort goes into the event which set and broke many of its own f6a00d8353b464e69e20111688f47c2970cundraising efforts. There is a very good reason why guests who have all the choices in the world are so eager to contribute to Napa community. Yes, there is a prestige by association, but dig deeper and you will see that the real reason is how unique and special they are made to feel. Great hospitality is an art form and combined with unparallel food, wine and fellowship it is simply irresistible.


Some other festivals worth considering are The V Foundation Wine event, which is celebrating it’s 16th Anniversary of raising funds for cancer research; Flavor! Napa Valley, Mustard Festival, A Taste of Yountville, Justin Siena Wine Auction, Tour de Cure, Walk Through the Vineyards, Art in The Park, Festival del Sole, Mondavi and Staglin Music Festivals, Stag’s Leap Vineyard to Vintner, BASH St Helena, and many, many more.

Or consider taking a course at CIA, Culinary Academy at Greystone and sharpen you knife and wine skills, be taught in a state-of-the-art facility by top notch instructions from one of the country’s
most prestigious culinary schools in a glorious wine country setting.


Napa Valley is what you make of it. You can take a safe route, hire a limo and be taken to some of the most obvious destinations. Or you can figure out what appeals to you and invest into a trip that will become a revelation and a lifetime memory.

I have, and I haven’t stopped coming back for more.



Top Ten Anderson Valley Wineries That Every Wine Lover Needs To Know About

Pinot Noir, more than anything, should tell the truth. And it does that very well. But you have to take a risk in order to hear the truth and then you might not always hear what you expect” – Scott Wright

anderson-valley350Much have been said about the ravishing, raw beauty of Anderson Valley and whatever it was, it wasn’t nearly enough. To be there is to understand what God intended when he created heaven on Earth. The hills and valleys, the proximity of the Pacific, the pristine nature that engulfs your very soul… combined it reaches you in emotional places one never knew existed.

I have been coming to Anderson Valley for several years, yet find it impossible to get used to its presence. It is the kind of place that unconsciously causes you to get real with yourself, to find the utmost sincere authentic voice you are capable of.

What does it do for winemaking? Forces winemakers to do great things, true artistry

Most of Anderson Valley vineyards are owned by large companies, the likes of Roederer and Kendal Jackson. However a few dozen growers, and artisanal producers have turned the hills and valleys of this magical spot into a virtual Pinot Paradise. There are a few Alsatian varieties grown there as well and I can happily attest to a number of lovely Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling etc. I have had over the years.

The name “Anderson Valley” applies to a region stretching from Yorkville through Boonville and Philo (located on Indian Creek) to Navarro. The main stem of the Navarro River begins less than a mile south of Philo at the confluence of Anderson Creek and Rancheria Creek. The mouth of the Navarro is 10 miles (16 km) south of Mendocino, California. The climate is tempered by cool marine air. Steep hills and mountains surround rolling to nearly level alluvial terraces. The dominant natural vegetation is a mixed forest of Coast Redwood, various native oak varieties, and Douglas-fir. Elevation ranges from sea level to 2,500 feet (760 m). The average annual temperature is about 53 °F (12 °C), and the average frost-free season ranges from 220 to 365 days. Towards the coast the summers are cool and moist with frequent fog, while the interior Anderson Valley proper features a warm to hot summer climate similar to nearby interior regions, with daytime highs occasionally in excess of 100 °F

By the 1960s the sheep, timber and apple sectors of the economy were in decline. Large tracts of land were removed from production and subdivided. The first commercial vineyards for wine grapes were planted. Marijuana production flourished with the influx of many new residents from the urban counterculture in the 1970s. By the 1980s the timber industry was reduced to two small specialty mills (lath and decorative fencing), the sheep industry to four working ranches of modest size, and the apple industry to a small fraction of its former planted area. A wine boom began in the 1980s. This led to the establishment of the Anderson Valley AVA, specializing in Alsatian varietals, Pinot noir and sparkling wine. The wine industry is currently the dominant contributor to the Anderson Valley economy. The major annual wine events are the Pinot Noir Festival the third weekend in May and the International Alsace Varietals Festival in late February

AndersonValley is located between mile marker 9 and mile marker 50 on highway 128 in Northern California. Boonville is the center of the valley in activity and population and is about two and a half hours north of San Francisco and about thirty minutes from the PacificCoast. Highway 128 is a twisty two laner that runs between Cloverdale and coastal highway 1. It is heavly traveled on the week-ends by tourist from the San FranciscoBay Area headed to and from MendocinoVillage and FortBragg on the MendocinoCoast. The valley is sparsely populated on mostly large parcels with most people living in the hills and not in the communities listed above. You can also visit Boonville by flying into the Boonville Airport which is a 10 minute walk to downtown.

Back in the day this was a redwood logging community with plenty of timber cutting and saw mills but times change and there is only one small sawmill left in the valley. The cows and sheep are also mostly gone and the land now supports vineyards. We grow, press and ferment grapes that make wines equal and sometimes better than any in the world. Our wineries are loaded with gold metal awards and ribbons and serve these great wines in 30 + tasting rooms every day. We also brew world class micro brews at the Boonville Brewery. These beers are popular throughout the west but can also be found in many areas around the country. We host the Boonville Beer Festival that brings in 40+ brewies from all good beer drinking regions. We also grow and enjoy our share of great “medical” marijuiana. There are plenty of wild pig, turkeys and deer to hunt which provides good sport and eating. We also have several apple orchards and great artist of all kinds. ally and Don Schmitt’s legacy stretches from The French Laundry to an heirloom apple farm to a hotel/restauran in the Anderson Valley and now to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Yountville, where their daughter’s son commands the kitchen. Carolyn Jung visits an extraordinary family.

Glance around the pristine kitchen of Thomas Keller’s rarified French Laundry in Yountville, California, and it’s hard to imagine that a dark-haired toddler once played amongst pots and pans here, managing even then to help slice bread for crostini and to hold crimson peppers up to a flame until their skins charred to a deep ebony. Perry Hoffman still remembers those wondrous moments decades ago. His grandfather would greet guests with glasses of wine at the restaurant, while his grandmother was ensconced in the kitchen, braising Zanzibar duck with heady five-spice that often graced the nightly country French prix-fixe menu.

Many chefs start cooking at a precocious age. But Hoffman, now the 27 year old chef de cuisine of the elegant Étoile restaurant at Domaine Chandon, blocks from the other landmark restaurant of his childhood reminiscences, may just have them all beat. At age 4, his day care was essentially the kitchen of the original French Laundry. Here, as a tot, he gnawed on day-old baguettes and picked herbs to keep occupied while his mom arranged flowers in the dining room and worked as a waitress. Hoffman’s uncommon upbringing came courtesy of his grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, who transformed what was once variously a bar, laundry, brothel, and run-down rooming house into a destination restaurant in 1978. Even back then, their French Laundry attracted the likes of Julia Child, Richard Olney, and Marion Cunningham before the Schmitts made the decision to sell it to a down-on-his-luck chef named Keller. The couple then went on to refurbish yet another neglected property, the 30 acre Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino County. In doing so, the Schmitts set in motion an inimitable legacy, which all began when they moved to Yountville in 1967 to manage the Vintage 1870 marketplace, where the couple also ran a cafe and lunch spot, before buying The French Laundry across the street 11 years later.

Had it not been for what the Schmitts first nurtured in that distinctive 1900 stone building in Yountville, there might not be The French Laundry as we know it today. Nor the now-vaunted reputation of tiny Yountville as a culinary destination. Nor a thriving Philo farm with 80 varieties of heirloom, biodynamically farmed apples in a setting now so idyllic that Pottery Barn does catalog shoots there. Nor might there be the Domaine Chandon winery, where their grandson now works, and which was a development project serendipitously approved by Don Schmitt during his 13 year stint on the Yountville city council. Nor lastly, might there be the singular achievement of their grandson as the youngest chef in the country to garner a Michelin star in 2009 at Étoile, an honor that moved Keller to send Hoffman a hand-written congratulatory note, as well as a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

“I didn’t think what we did was anything special,” says Sally, 79, about what she and Don, 81, have accomplished over the years. “But I’ve come to realize what we’ve done is pretty remarkable only because so many people keep telling us that.”

In Napa Valley, they are practically royalty. When chef Cindy Pawlcyn first started out in her career at a time when there were few women chefs, she carried in her wallet a photo of Sally torn from a magazine for 15 years until it plain wore out. “The valley would have been hugely different without the Schmitts,” says Pawlcyn, who now owns Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, and Go Fish, all in Napa Valley. “They touched a lot of the valley and taught so many of us to eat and cook. Sally brought globalness to the Napa Valley. And she kept us sensible.”

Native Californians, Sally, who grew up on a farm near Sacramento, and Don, who hails from a family of butchers in San Joaquin Valley, have always been self-starters with a knack for seeing the potential in what others would have turned their backs on. That included Keller, whom the Schmitts knew from the moment he stepped through the door was the right person to take over The French Laundry in 1993, even if meant taking the risk of giving him 18 months to round up the money to do so.



Angel Camp Vineyards
Ardzrooni Family Wines
Balo Vineyards
Baxter Winery
Bink Wines
Black Kite Cellars
Breggo Cellars
Brutocao Cellars
Champ de Reves Vineyards
Chaname Wines
Copain Wines
Domaine Anderson
Drew Family Cellars
Edmeades Winery
Elke Vineyards
Expression Vineyards
Foursight Wines
Frati Horn Wines
Fulcrum Wines
Goldeneye Winery
Greenwood Ridge Vineyards
Handley Cellars
Husch Vineyards
Knez Winery
La Crema
Lazy Creek Vineyards
Lichen Estate
Littorai Wines
Lula Cellars
MacPhail Family Wines
Maggy Hawk Vineyard
Meyer Family Cellars
Navarro Vineyards
Nelson Hill Winery
Panthea Wine
Phillips Hill Winery
Philo Ridge Vineyards
Rhys Vineyards LLC
Roederer Estate
Roma’s Vineyard
Scharffenberger Cellars
Signal Ridge Winery
The Donum Estate
Toulouse Vineyards
Twomey Cellars
Waits-Mast Family Cellars
Williams Selyem
Wind Racer
Witching Stick Wines
Zina Hyde Cunningham


1. Lichen Estate


2. Black Kite Cellars


3. Breggo


4. Roederer


5. Goldeneye


6. Knez


7. Handley


8. Foursight


9. Navarro


10. Champ de Reves


Williams Selyem, Copain, Rhys, Littorai, MacPhail, Lioco all make AV bottlings.


Ram’s Gate: Gateway to high design and fine wine

Where Sonoma meets Napa resides Ram’s Gate, a stunning mix of architecture and fine wine

Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

To say that I visit a lot of wineries is an understatement. I have visited as few as 1-2 and as many as 9-10 wineries on the weekly basis. Rarely does a week go by when I’m not in a winery’s cellar or tasting room in order to avoid a painful condition known as “wine country withdrawal.” It is an “achy-breaky” disease, which consumes the soul and the palate and for which there is only one known cure: Visit the wine country as often as possible.

A few months ago, I finally got a chance to spend time at a property I had heard lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ about, Ram’s Gate. Given its curious locale, right where Sonoma meets Napa, I felt a tad skeptical. How can such as open space with expansive, yet rather monochromatic views, be all that interesting? Having just passed the lush green vineyards and pastures of Sonoma, it was an interesting contrast.

Having visited hundreds of wineries, I am rarely surprised. I have seen lots of gravity flow, state of the art facilities with the latest and greatest equipment. I’ve seen a myriad of picturesque, postcard-worthy worthy vistas. At some wineries I have been greeted by adorable cats, friendly winery-dogs, peacocks and even an alpaca! However, when I arrived at Ram’s Gate, I wasn’t merely surprised, I was stunned.

Ram’s Gate is the brain child of a group of friends: third generation vintner Jeff O’Neill, Michael John, Peter Mullin and Paul Violich, who found the property at the gateway to Sonoma and Napa entirely irresistible. What they did next was to set out to create the most hospitable, upscale, yet relaxed environment a guest could wish for. They achieved this goal via stunning architecture, a glorious wine cellar, an in-house Chef, and of, course, world-class fine wines.

With the ultimate wine experience for their guests in mind they hired Jeff Gaffner, a heralded and highly sought after winemaker who had worked with a number of renowned brands such as his very own Saxon-Brown, Xtant, Black Kite, Hestan, and Chateau St. Jean. (Gaffner had a hand in 1996 Cinq Cepages, named Wine of the Year by the Wine Spectator). His wines are as authentic as it gets and embrace the essence of the vineyard. I have followed Jeff’s projects closely over a number of years, and can’t say enough of my fondness for them.

rams-gate-4Designed by the renowned architect, Howard Bracken, the Ram’s Gate facility is a study in contemporary design that integrates well with the surrounding landscape. Clean, crisp, sleek lines, constructed with traditional materials and modern finishes create a stunning visual effect. The modern barn boasts grandeur and spectacular views, yet somehow retains an acute sense of warmth and intimacy. The decor is simple, yet impacts; an eclectic mix of old and new, high drama and soothing calm. One of the most interesting aspects of the design is the unique lighting, with its soft, dreamy, intimate shapes. Finishing touches such as ultra modern, artsy, floral arrangements are just stunning.

By sheer coincidence, during my visit a falconer was at the winery. After loosing part of the harvest to starlings, Ram’s Gate vineyard managers turned to falcons to ward-off these vineyard pests. Tactical Avian Predators brings a team of falcons to patrol agricultural fields and other businesses in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington that suffer from avian annoyances. Proprietor Jim Tigan was on hand with his cast of falcons, which scare the starlings away from the vines. It was a magical experience, watching the lightning bolt of a bird slice the sky in swift, elegant motions.

On the wine side, to facilitate Gaffner’s formidable talent in the cellar, Ram’s Gate sources fruit from the list of growers that reads like who is who of the wine world:

Steve Hill (Parmelee-Hill), Bill Price (Durell), Larry Hyde, Lee Hudson, Sangiacomo Family, Ulises Valdez… In a word, wow.

I absolutely loved their Pinots and Chardonnays, especially the sublime UV and Durell offerings. Additionally, my palate has become downright obsessed with their 2009 Estate Brut Rosé. It offers fine, delicate bubbles, aromas of stone fruit and fresh red berries, with touches of vanilla cream. Its stunningly pure acidity and alluring minerality made this one of the most exciting domestic bubblys that I have had this year. Impeccable in its youth, it is likely a great candidate for the cellar as well.

Nestled next to the vineyard is an adorable pond that oozes beauty and bliss. I wonder if it was by that very pond where the four friends got together, wine in hand, and decided to combine everything one needs for a satisfying experience. They clearly executed on their vision to provide fabulous wine, great food, gracious hospitality, an attractive, relaxing environment. Every time I drive by Ram’s Gate, my heart skips a beat. I miss it just as much as my green, as-far-as-the-eye-could-see vineyards. May be even a little more.

Click to view the slideshow:


Meritage Resort and Spa is great starting point for exploring Napa Valley

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

As an avid wine traveler, I spend my fair share of nights in hotel rooms; some purely oriented towards business traveler, some quite opulent. There is one special place, though that I love to revisit: The Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Meritage’s unique location, at the foot of Napa Valley, with the picturesque back drop of a hillside vineyard and the famous Grape Crusher statue affords the visitors a great starting point from which to explore the wonders of the valley.

The resort features Tuscan-theme luxury suites, Trinitas Wine Cellars tasting room with an estate cave, and several eateries, including Siena restaurant. It also boasts a spa where you can take in a massage or relax in the soaking pool after a long day of wine tasting.

The rooms are very contemporary and designed with ultimate comfort in mind.

Between expansive event spaces, cave, Trinitas tasting room, surrounding vineyards, restaurants, special library wine pairings with Kollar chocolate, bars, indoor and outdoor pools, spa and a bowling alley, you may never want to leave!The most unique feature of Meritage, however, is its lovely, intimate Chapel, complete with an ordained in-house priest. Should you choose to get married there, you have all your needs taken care of – wedding ceremony, reception, guest rooms, and Trinitas wine; all in a gorgeous setting.

Ultimately, a hotel, however wonderful and well located, is just a hotel. It is the people who run it that make it special. From the moment you walk through the door, you take in every moment of the experience and it’s those seemingly insignificant details, such as a warm or upbeat, positive attitude of the staff that make the most difference in the guest experience. I was greeted by every single staff member who passed me by. The employees at the Meritage is incredibly well-trained and take gracious hospitality to a new level.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Meritage is home to Trinitas Cellars, which opened its doors in 2002, a realization of a lifelong dream of the Busch family. Trinitas embraces the synergy of sun, soil and humanity as their motto. A core belief of Trinitas’ proprietors is the importance of supporting their community. They live their personal and business lives in a dignified, honorable way, and in service of God. The Trinitas Philanthropy Association and Charity Program is responsible for supporting a number of worthy causes.

Their wine offerings cover a broad range of the varietal spectrum. They source fruit from a number of local vineyards and produce a wide variety of wonderful wines, all of which are worth sampling. I’d like to highlight just a few that stood out during my visit:

2012 Psalms Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc is a blend sourced from grapes grown in Yountville and Pope Valley, respectably. Sensuous tropical and citrus fruit aromatics, followed by creamy, plush texture, it’s light on its feet yet has a nice presence, particularly on the finish. Since it’s barrel fermented in Russian oak (from Sochi!), it’s palatal characteristics are quite sophisticated.

2011 Rose’ary exudes floral aromas (acacia?) framboise, yellow raspberry, Crenshaw melon and light vanilla. Playful, with good acidity, it has a surprisingly long finish. The blend composition is quite unique – Zinfandel, Carignane, Cab and Merlot. Priced at $20 it is a QPR and a great summer sipper!

2010 Meritage is a classic blend of Bordeaux varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet, Petite Verdot and Malbec. This combination results in a complex, full bodied wines. The wine delivers plenty of rich fruit, smooth, classy tannins, and a great mid-palate. The fruit comes from an Oak Knoll Appellation vineyard, known for its intensity and structure.

All of Trinitas wines are made with the utmost care and attention to detail. Prior to joining Trinitas Cellars in 2007, winemaker Kevin Mills was mentored by Sean Foster, the winemaker at Peju Province. With a focus on producing quality wines that deliver outstanding value, Kevin makes a variety of wines under the Trinitas umbrella, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet and Meritage.

I recently wrote about the main restaurant, Siena where Chef Karkus crafts his inspired cuisine which is very impressive.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Crush, a casual cocktail bar (which also serves delicious food) is located next to the bowling alley. My favorite cocktail at Crush was The Bunny Lebowski: Pomegranate Lemon Drop with Citrus Vodka, Triple Sec, Orange Liqueur, fresh lime juice and fresh pomegranate puree.

My favorite menu items? Dungeness Crab Louie with large chunks of fresh crab featuring a divine house dressing.

Meritage, a four diamond resort, is an upscale, lifestyle property with an intimate, understated charm, and boutique ambiance. Quality rest, plus great food, wine and drinks await you upon arrival. The next time you are in Napa Valley, don’t miss this hidden gem.If you are a Mac and Cheese fan, try The Extreme Mac and Cheese: Napa Smith Lager Macaroni, Smoked Cheddar, Swiss, roasted garlic, grilled onions, grape tomatoes, apple-wood smoked bacon, topped with panko crust. Yum.

Meritage, a four diamond resort, is an upscale, lifestyle property with an intimate, understated charm, and boutique ambiance. Quality rest, plus great food, wine and drinks await you upon arrival. The next time you are in Napa Valley, don’t miss this hidden gem


Top Ten Northern CA Pinot Producers to Pay Close Attention To

At their best, Pinot Noir is the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch, that like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic.

- Joel Fleischman for Vanity Fair


Its flavors are sensuous, often erotic, above rational discourse and beyond powers of measured criticism.
- Oz Clarke

Pinot Noir a special grape, as any Pinotphile will eagerly tell you. Thin skinned, fragile, moody and unspeakably pure, ranging from a single minded focus precision to a seamless, subtle seduction it has a unique ability to pierce one’s emotions and linger in one’s heart and mind.

This “heartbreak” grape variety is widely considered to be responsible for some of the world’s greatest wines and can be a powerful muse, if you are willing to pay the ultimate price and engage your very soul.

I often compare Pinot Noir in an art sense to a watercolor, a medium that is entirely unforgiving to its creator. In the world of oils and acrylics many corrections are possible and routinely take place. In the world of watercolor you only get one shot to get it right. If you make an error, you are finished, no second chances.

I have been obsessed with this grape variety for many years, having tasted my first Kistler Occidental Cuvee Elizabeth in 1996. I remember dialing the winery and offering Mark Bixler, Kistler Vineyards GM at the time, pretty much anything he wanted in exchange for this 50 case production gem.

A number of pinot noirs followed that took my breath away, but you never forget your first.

The following list of Pinot Noirs could easily be titled Pinot Royalty, because they are. Highly allocated and quickly snapped up by the adoring fans they enjoy the cult status that affords them creative freedoms and in the case of purchased fruit, a rather strong say in the viticultural practices of their fruit sources. In other words, the vineyards they source the fruit from farm to their exact specifications, thereby ensuring the highest quality possible.



Helen Turley

1. Marcassin

If you haven’t heard of Marcassin it’s little wonder. Some would argue that it is an equivalent of DRC of CA. This tiny 100 barrel production winery that sits on a 10 acre vineyard in Sonoma Coast is home to some of the most coveted Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  If you haven’t heard of Helen Turley, however, you have been living under a wine rock. Arguably the most powerful woman winemaker in the business, she won favor with critics and consumers alike. Jim Laube of WS never met a wine of hers he didn’t like. She was the winemaker of record for some of the most coveted producers such as Turley, Martinelli, Colgin, Blankiet, Bryant Family, to name a few. Her vineyards are meticulously farmed, the fruit is allowed to physiologically ripen, and the yields are miniscule.
Wines are sold via mailing list with a significant waiting list (I heard it was as long as 15 years) Ordinarily I would strongly encourage you to join the waiting list but it could be a long while before you see any wine, so your second best bet is to seek her wines on the open market where you are likely to pay high premiums. Conversely it’s still a bargain in comparison to DRC!

2. Kistler


Steve Kistler on the left, who has produced wine for 36 years.

Steve Kistler founded the winery in 1978. After an apprenticeship at Ridge he became a winemaker and vineyard manager of his own brand. Mark Bixler, who I mentioned earlier worked at Fetzer prior to joining Kistler Vineyards and been their Business Manager ever since. Kistler has producing some of the most compelling APinot Noirs and Chardonnays for 36 years, and has been getting accolades from the renowned critic Robert Parker on virtually every vintage, and rightly so. Arguable the reference point of the varietals, Kistler wines are as authentic as they come and exquisitely crafted. Find out more at






tom and joe jr

Joe Rochioli Jr (left) and his son Tom Rochioli (right).

3. Rochioli
Rochioli Vineyards and Winery was established in 1938, when Joe Sr. bought a 160 acre vineyard in the majestic Russian River Valley. It is now represents three generations of stellar farming and extraordinary wines. When Tom, the current generation, took over in the mid 1980s, it became evident that Rochioli name will always be associated with outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. High in demand, the miniscule production single vineyard offerings are sold via mailing list, larger production estate wines can be obtained either direct from the winery or at a few select retailers.

4. Kosta Browne


Dan Kosta (left) and Micheal Browne (right).

I wrote about the Kosta Browne “boys” recently:
As the story goes two John Ash Co employees, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne pooled their tip money to start a wine brand. Initially sold from the back of their car trunk, the waiting list for their wine is now 5000 customers and growing. A true American Pinot “rags to riches” story the wine has perennially been scored very high by Wine Spectator and is known for its rich, fruit-forward, unapologetically opulent style.




5. Benovia


Mary Dewane and Joe Anderson.

The name Benovia pays homage to Ben and Novian, fathers of Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane who shared passion for wine led into both starting the winery and an acquisition of the highly coveted Cohn Vineyard atop a mountain near Healdsburg. The decision to partner with Mike Sullivan, one of California’s top winemakers, whose thoughtful and quality driven winemaking at Hartford vineyards caused for me to fall madly in love with his wines. Mike Sullivan used to make wines for the next favorite on my list, Hartford






6. Hartford


Jeff Stewart

Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, about 15 miles from the Pacific Hartford Family Winery was founded in 1994 by Don and Jennifer Hartford. Their current winemaker, Jeff Stewart’s passion for winemaking was ignited by a summer spent in France. A UC Davis graduate Jeff is an industry veteran who has made wine for over 25 years at renowned brands such as Laurier, De Loach, Mark West, Kunde, La Crema and Buena Vista. Hartford Family Winery. I have had along standing love affair with Hartford Pinots and Chardonnays for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is quality and consistency.






Joan and Walt Flowers

7. Flowers

Originally from PA, Walt and Joan Flowers, following a multitude of  trips to Napa and Sonoma purchased 321 acres on the north Sonoma Coast, high above the Pacific, in 1989. Today, Flowers Winery
produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from its two estate properties, Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard and Sea View Ridge Vineyard, as well as select vineyards in the coolest regions of the Sonoma Coast AVA, which are farmed to Flowers’ specifications by their own crews. In addition to direct consumer sales, the wines are sold to fine restaurants and retailers in the US and overseas.

8. Aubert


Mark Aubert

Mark Aubert grew up in the heart of Napa wine country, St. Helena, where his parents owned a vineyard. It was his parents cellar that first drew him to wine. After getting a degree from Fresno State in 1985 he worked at Monticello and later met the renowned winemaker Helen Turley who was producing state-of-the-art Chardonnays at Peter Michael Winery.Turley was so impressed s
he hired Aubert to be her assistant winemaker at Peter Michael in 1989. About six months after hiring Aubert, Turley abruptly left Peter Michael to embark on her own project, and later to the then-brand-new Colgin winery, where she proceeded to turn out some of the most sought-after Cabernets in Napa. Aubert, in turn, was named head winemaker at Peter Michael, where he continued to turn out exemplary Chardonnays. He was only 28 years old. A few years later, Turley departed from Colgin and again Aubert was named as her replacement. His Colgin wines are wildly sought-after and have received great accolades. By 1999 he was ready to make his own wines. Today his Pinots and Chardonnays are sold exclusively via mailing list and are very highly allocated.



ed and burt

Ed Selyem and Burt Williams

9. Williams Selyem
Williams Selyem Winery began as a simple dream of two friends, Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, who started weekend winemaking as a hobby in 1979 in a garage in Forestville,
California. It took less than two decades from their first commercial vintage in 1981 for Burt and Ed to create a cult-status winery of international acclaim. Together, they set a powerful new standard for Pinot Noir winemaking, raising Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley profile to among the best winegrowing regions in the world.

10. Peter Michael


Nicolas Morlet

Although primarily known for the their Bordeaux blends Sir Peter Michael winery makes some extraordinary Pinot Noirs from both Monterey and Sonoma Counties. Nicolas Morlet, the winemaker, who follows in the footsteps of his brother Luc, uses a non-interventionist, neo-classical approach. This relies on traditional, hands-on winemaking methods blended with the best of modern technology.

I often get asked about wine and food pairings. In my view there are no steadfast rules in regards to that. However when it comes to Pinot Noir, there are two things that I must share that gave me much pleasure over the years.

Pinots often evoke a powerful desire to be consumed with food.  My two favorite pairings that bring out the best in this varietal are:

1. Beets. I know some of you are cringing right now, but give it a second. Roasted, or fresh heirloom beets with a little goat cheese tossed in can deliver a merry mouthful, paired with bright (especially red fruit dominated) and minerality-driven Pinots.

2. Mushrooms. Preferably wild ones, but you can work with any. Add it to any protein, finish with a splash of port-style red wine for extra oomph (I call it my “Be” Bordelaise effect) and experience your mouth melting in gratitude. There is something wildly satisfying about the perfect marriage of earthy, fleshy, deep flavored, fruit-driven Pinots.


Great Pinot Noir simply spells pleasure. If you are a card carrying hedonist you would be hard pressed to find a grape that lends itself so naturally to fulfilling your unspoken palatal desires and seduces senses so effortlessly and expertly.

The above list represents the apogee for the senses as interpreted by uber-talented folks on perpetual, relentless quest of pinot perfection.

Warning: If you are lucky enough to partake, like I was, you will be entirely incapable of accepting any mediocrity in your future when it comes to this variety. You palate simply won’t let you. Seek at your own risk.


Focus: Lawrence Fairchild wines poised for California Cult Cabernet status

The success of Lawrence Fairchild is defined by the superiority of products he creates.

Lawrence Fairchild wines | PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson

I’m fortunate in that I have the opportunity to experience a lot of fantastic wines regularly. Many are drop dead gorgeous, some would even qualify as epic. On rare occasions I get to taste the wines that have the feel and presence of an instant classic. However, what is perceived as an overnight success, often comes from decades of hard work and thoughtful dedication.

I first experienced Lawrence Fairchild wines at the PremiereNapaValley, Napa’s ultimate insider’s wine event. The wine poured by Fairchild during that event was particularly striking. It took me by surprise and remained in my thoughts long after the weekend ended. It exhibited a rare combination of old and new world.

It offered a rendition of fresh, sassy, glorious fruit intricately woven into an old wise soul; a tale of multidimensional delineation, oozing with style and class.

Lawrence Fairchild | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona THompson

Lawrence Fairchild came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm in Nebraska. He later graduated from University of Nebraska with a degree in economics. His career path took him to the House of Representatives International Affairs department. He then moved to San Francisco in the 1980s and began a 15 year stint of a series of small start-ups.  He focused primarily on investment research publishing, service oriented companies, semi-tech ventures.

In the early 90s, Fairchild caught the wine bug,  which slowly mutated from a hobby to a full-time pursuit, complete with a house and a vineyard acquisition. Lawrence is a thoughtful and exceptionally tenacious man. For years, he scouted California wine countries, with a focus on Napa Valley, for a perfect location that would be well suited for carrying out his vision of producing world-class wine. In 1999, Fairchild planted a two acre Cabernet vineyard on the north side of St Helena, above the picturesque Lake Hennessey. He named it “Sigaro” which means “cigar” in Italian. Why? Lawrence enjoys a good cigar while walking his vineyard.

His first commercial release was in 2005. What an introduction to the wine world it was!  Deep, floral, with gobs of lip-smacking wild berries and plush tannins, deftly balanced and impossibly stylish, it was a spectacular début.

His original wine inspiration came from Burgundies. He still remembers how 1990 Domaine Dujac Echezeaux tasted all those years ago.

His vision for his brand however is classic Bordeaux, combined with California’s generous, opulent fruit. He hired a renowned vineyard manager, Jim Barbour, to tend to his young vineyard and a highly sought-after winemaker, who originally came from France, Philippe Melka, to implement his vision. Fairchild’s wines are plush, yet elegant, showing silky, sensuous tannins. They are far more hedonistic than the famed first-growths, yet possess laser-like focus, solid acidity and great minerality; European elegance meets American largesse.

Barbour is to vineyard management what Bono is to music: a rock star. He farms organically and only works with clients who share in his philosophy of low production, high quality vineyards. He continually improves viticultural practices on his client’s vineyards; from canopy management to irrigation regimes. Fairchild speaks passionately about the improvements he has seen in a short few years. His vineyards are farmed by individual blocks, a philosophy that Fairchild adheres to religiously. Ripening, acid development and tannin management play key roles in his grape growing strategy and harvest timing choices. His average yields are 1.5 tons per acre, a miniscule amount that yields a couple of hundred cases of one of the most compelling Napa Valley Cabernets.

Lawrence Fairchild Wines | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Lawrence produces three bottlings, Sigaro, from his estate vineyard; G.III and “Stones” for which he sources the fruit from some of the most coveted, hardest to procure spots in Napa Valley such as To Kalon, Beckstoffer Georges III and Stagecoach Pritchard Hill vineyards.

Philippe Melka works in close partnership with all of his clients; blending decisions are made during a multi-week exhaustive collaborative process. Fairchild and Melka have an easy friendship, facilitated by Philippe’s quick wit and sense of humor. Their collaborative style is built on the a foundation of enormous mutual respect and Fairchild’s unwavering commitment to excellence. His attention to detail and businesslike approach are evident. He spares no expense and is involved in every decision concerning his vineyard and his wines, from planting to marketing.

Despite being in the business world most of his life, Lawrence is exceptionally hands on. Given his agricultural background, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Interestingly, like any farmer his biggest trepidation every year comes from the uncertain nature of weather.

Like many winemakers, he is an avid cook and loves to make French country dishes such as bouillabaisse and braised lamb shank. His choice of music leans towards Italian classics such Bocelli and Pavarotti.

When asked who of the famous people, living or not, would he like to have a meal with, he came up with a couple of surprises. His choices were Stephen Tyler and Ronald Reagan!  Imagine the three of them, sipping a glass of Sigaro Cabernet while enjoying Fairchild’s lamb shanks!

Lawrence’s measure of success is defined by the superiority of products he creates. His goal is to provide a spectacular experience for each and every time a customer drinks his wine. I believe he’s clearly reached and exceeded this lofty goal. He set high standards for himself. He believes in five or so vintages he will be in a far better place with his estate vineyard. Although entirely logical, given the quality of his current offering, it’s mind-boggling to imagine such a feat.

Fairchild is sold direct to consumer, via mailing list. The word on Fairchild’s wines stellar reputation is spreading quickly. Grapevine is a powerful platform and people “in the know” are jumping on the mailing list. I advise you to do the same.

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