Taste Life

Hilliard Bruce – The Brand with a View on Authenticity

“Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.”

-Peter Guber

One only has to spend a few minutes with John Hilliard, proprietor of Hilliard Bruce Vineyard,  to realize that he is a dynamic man of principles, deep convictions, formidable work ethic and unrelenting drive to succeed at everything he does. Born in Houston, as an heir to a shipyard dynasty, he quadrupled his family’s business in record time. John’s passion for painting led him to become a patron of the arts as well as an active involvement in Diverse Works, a Houston based art organization where he became President. He also became an Advisory Board Member for the Museum of Fine Arts and Glassel Art School.


A little over a dozen years ago, John reconnected with his childhood friend Christine Bruce, an avid equestrian and a musician who shared his passion for horticulture. Together they subsequently earned the Master Gardner certifications at Texas A & M and University of Arizona. After successfully running a ranch outside of Houston, John and Christine bought a 101 acre ranch in Santa Rita Hills. They planted 21 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, utilizing top experts in viticulture. John took extension classes at UC Davis, Allan Hancock College, and Grayson County College to learn the winemaking craft. Today, the couple is as hands-on as it gets. Christine can birth a horse with one hand and make ethereal, sublime Chardonnay with another.



Vineyards of Hilliard Bruce

They named their winery, Hilliard Bruce to reflect both of their last names and to represent the collaborative effort they nurture. The vineyard is planted to multiple Pinot clones including Calera, Pommard, and Dijons a.k.a “sweatheart” clones and two clones of Chardonnay – 76 and 96.  It is continuously tended to by a permanent crew of five, a rarity in the wine business, due to cost, augmented by Coastal Vineyards management staff. A quick look confirms how challenging this steep, rocky, densely planted hillside vineyard is to farm. It’s immediately obvious how much hand farming goes into this high maintenance site. A long growing season influenced by maritime weather ensures physiologically ripe fruit of complexity and integrity.


Currently the winery is building an elaborate production facility; a design concept of Dan Lee, with the implementation of Vladimir Milosevic , who designed wineries such as Sea Smoke, Pali, Larner, Sierra Madre, Fiddlehead, Foxen, Grassini, Firestone Brewery and Hospitality Center, etc. It is to become a state of the art, LEED certified gravity flow winery with far larger capacity than Hilliard Bruce’s current boutique production site. The facility is built into a hillside, with an underground barrel room. It is elegantly minimalist, yet undeniably impressive. Due to be finished by the harvest time, Bruce firmly reminds his foreman: “Grapes are getting ripe!” It will have the capacity to sort and press hundreds of tons of grapes. It will also feature a demo kitchen, dining room and an expansive tasting room. The design is a unique combination of functionality and art.   


John’s passions run deep when it comes to viticulture, organic farming and sustainability. Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification is difficult to obtain and even more challenging to implement correctly. John’s goals naturally align with SIP principles: environmental impact control, conservation of natural resources, minimizing pollution and maximizing productivity.


The winery is powered by a 35KW solar power system. Since John and Christine raise Arabians on the property, the fertilizer comes from them, and is processed into compost. Water is supplied by a nearly 2 million gallon on-site reservoir. Vine irrigation is closely monitored through high tech sensors.


John clearly feels no goodwill for anyone who touts sustainability as a marketing tool to boost revenue. “Artisanal”,  “organic”, “sustainable” have become buzzwords in the wine industry and are used without any actual commitment to corresponding practices. John points out that there are a plethora of misconceptions about organic farming. Rather than science based, it’s primarily driven by emotion, rhetoric and populism. For example, many “organic” farmers use copper sulfur which is inherently inorganic and poses danger.  Ironically, and statistically, organic farmers are the largest users of pesticides in California. Another aspect that frequently gets overlooked by the overzealous folks who don’t let science get in a way of fantasy is the dosage. In other words, the Environmental Impact Quotient is crucial to healthy land maintenance. Chemicals are present in just about every organic matter, including our saliva. “Artificial chemical” is a misnomer and organics are in fact, chemicals.


As I listened to John peel apart the onion layers of organic farming I realized how honest he is with himself and his peers and how badly that is needed in any industry, especially when it comes to any type of farming and food production. We, as a society, have developed a highly irrational fear of chemicals fueled by populist, opportunistic, marketing driven entities who prey on emotional thinking and lack of intellectual scrutiny. “Greenwashing” is ubiquitous; not many meet energy efficiency in earnest but love to pontificate on its benefits.


Picturesque pond at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards


John and Christine’s extensive gardening background was a perfect training ground; being a Master gardener naturally predisposes one to look for the right balance of soil, climate, clonal selections. They did just that by choosing the right location (after scouting wine properties all over the state, including Napa and Sonoma Valleys.) Santa Rita Hills is a relatively new American Viticultural Area and offered a plethora of possibilities.


John, by his own admission is not in the business of making money. He is in the business of making good wine; his way. After observing a number of winemakers at work in Central Coast Wine Services, most notably, Paul Lato, he decided to be his own winemaker. His reasoning? If he messes it up, it would be his responsibility, rather than living with errors of others. This is no designer, vanity, or absentee owner brand. Its hands-on, all the way.


True to form, John and Christine were determined to make wines of uncommon distinction, integrity, and style, an epitome of artistry and elegance. Unrestrained beauty not masked or overwhelmed by oak or any other additions. In fact, if John feels that the barrel he is tasting has too high residual sugar content, it gets declassified and sold off in bulk.



Hilliard Bruce wines

Well the proof is in the pudding, isn’t it? I recently tasted four wines – 2011 Chardonnay, 2011 Earth , 2011 Sky and 2010 Sun. All five Hilliard Bruce wines, four Pinot Noirs titled Sun, Sky, Moon, Earth, and a Chardonnay, are tiny production (240-529 cases) offerings. They are strictly allocated to their mailing list and top-notch restaurants.



Hilliard Bruce Residence


Take a look at her home decor, and you would get an instant sense of Christine Bruce’s sense of elegance and style.
Understated, yet high visual impact. Her Chardonnay? Same.

Glorious shimmering color, creamy citrusy and slightly nutty aromatics. Not a hint of austerity, it is all about classic, well framed flavors wrapped in a gorgeous floral bouquet that lingers leisurely on the palate.  Without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite 2011 Chardonnay from Santa Rita Hills.


Not all vintners make good winemakers. John is the exception to the rule. His drive for perfection and an obvious talent serves him well. His 2011 Pinot Noirs are highly focused. They offer gorgeous purity of fresh and dry fruit, firm yet silky tannins with a clean, lengthy, luscious finish. What more can one desire from in a fine Pinot Noir? The 2010 is quite a head turner. Rich and expansive, it fans out on the palate; performing an expert black fruit dance with just a hint of spice and dark earth, the kind you smell after a fresh summer rain. The tannins are beautiful, long, and luxurious.


During a recent visit, we were musing over the sizes of their newly printed T-shirts with the Hilliard Bruce logo. John turned to his wife and, softly, with the warmest tone of voice, said “You look so cute in that T-shirt.” This private comment wasn’t meant for my ears, but I heard. It sent unexpected shivers down my spine. This couple of twenty-some years is still in love. And that love shows through in their wonderful wines.



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John Hilliard and Christine Bruce

John and Christine are living proof that if you invest your heart and soul, if you love completely and with abandon, if your artistic talents are rooted in a sense of accountability and personal responsibility; anything is possible. If every wine brand took those principles to heart, we would live in a wine lover’s paradise.



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How the West Won Me – West of West Wine Festival

“A gourmet meal without a glass of wine just seems tragic to me somehow.”

― Kathy Mattea

If you consider yourself any sort of Pinot lover, friend or even a distant acquaintance, you may want to block next’ year’s first weekend of August on your calendar. West of West is a two day festival that takes place in the city of Sebastopol, located in the heart of Sonoma County. The event offers seminars, tastings and elaborate dinners hosted by wine making luminaries.


This year’s event featured:
Forty extraordinary wineries pouring Pinots and Chardonnays during two grand tastings

  • Seven winemaker dinners
  • Two educational seminars
  • The Grand Dinner featuring forty wineries presented by  the winemakers themselves

The event took place at The Barlow, a former apple processing plant that is now home to art galleries, retailers, a coffee roaster, a micro-brewery, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, a gin distillery and a fantastic ice cream shop.


Leading up to the event were two fabulous winemaker’s dinners, the Littorai dinner at Chalkboard in Healdsburg and the Freeman Winery dinner, which was held at the winemakers’ beautiful home.


The Littorai Vineyards dinner at Chalkboard restaurant that evening was superb. Chef Shane McAnelly’s daily changing menu celebrates the finest local ingredients. If the food doesn’t entice you, their wine list and innovative cocktail menu will.


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Black Miso Cod at Chalkboard

The dinner began with a big-eye tuna crudo with iberico lardo, umeboshi, ponzu and scallion appetizer.  Paired with Littorai’s stunning 2012 Savoy Pinot Noir, it hit every hedonistic note. The main course, Misoyaki black cod with duck fat potatoes, roasted grapes, pink peppercorn jus and house pickled ginger, just about send me over the edge. Littorai’s wines are undeniably consistent, age-worthy, and impeccably crafted; a perfect pairing with Chef McAnelly’s marvelous meal!

I started the next day at Flying Goat Coffee, with a beverage titled Bangkok, a Vietnamese style espresso based drink with house made sweetened condensed milk. Yum.


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The Liberty Duck by Bay Laurel Culinary

Ken and Akiko Freeman’s dinner was catered by none other than Christopher Greenwald, a highly regarded chef from Bay Laurel Culinary. The menu featured cast-iron seared wild king salmon, locally grown “Liberty” duck and a variety of fascinating wines. We tasted Freeman’s entire portfolio of current releases in the wine cave prior to the meal.  Rather than pairing their own wines with the mealthe Freemans offered 2006 Pinots from Oregon and France to compare and contrast with their 2006 Akiko’s Cuvee. My thoughts? Akiko’s Cuvee clearly prevailed.

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The Evolution of California Cuisine & Wine Seminar

The WOW event kicked off the next morning with a seminar titled “The Evolutions of California Cuisine & Wine” hosted by renowned chefs such as Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, Evan Rich of Rich Table, and Nick Balla and Courtney Burns from San Francisco’s Bar Tartine.

The seminar centered around how today’s most admired chefs focus on fresh, local ingredients and how wine plays into the gamut of flavor combinations.


A main topic of discussion was the symbiotic relationship that today’s great chefs have with the local farmers.  The best chefs spend tremendous amount of time, energy and thought sourcing the finest local ingredients. It was also apparent, that due to the efforts of chefs such as Stuart, Evan and Nick, menus are more frequently placing fresh vegetables in the coveted front and center position, with proteins playing a supporting role!


It was great to hear Chef Rich speak of his wine list evolving from mainly imports to a heavy focus on California wine, specifically Pinot Noir. West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir naturally lends itself to food and wine pairings due to its acidity, minerality and delineated, robust aromatics and flavors. It makes complete sense to match local wines to local cuisine and it was very gratifying to hear such talented Chefs fully embrace the concept.  We clearly are eating and drinking better that we ever have, in no small part due to the efforts of the above mentioned chefs, who push the envelope and supply the inspired, unforgettable culinary experiences.


After a delicious lunch, prepared by Rocker Oysterfeller and Firefly Fine Catering, we reconvened for the seminar on Charles Heintz vineyards featuring several producers who source fruit from his renowned estate, located just outside Occidental. Some of California’s most revered Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers including  Ceritas, DuckhornDuMOLFlowersFreemanLittorai, Peirson Meyer, Moone-TsaiRadio-Coteau, Von HoltWilliams Selyem, and Zepaltas produce wine from Charles’ grapes. His criteria for choosing which wineries?  Sell fruit to winemakers whose personalities and winemaking philosophy he likes, a synergy of art and science that honors the vineyard he nurtures daily. In that spirit, Charles even gives away fruit to the aspiring winemakers who are passionate about their craft. The seminar was fantastic and focused on the unique confluence of soil, climactic condition and meticulous viticultural practices that provide winemakers with high typicity, physiologically ripened, no expense spared, no compromises fruit that they personalize in the cellar. 2013 Barrel samples, as well as  blind tasting of three Chardonnays, were a revelation. It looks like 2013 may be the vintage of the century for California.


After a short break, the Grand Tasting was upon us. 40 producers vying for your palate, offering some of their best efforts, some in Magnum format. Here are a few highlights:

  • 32 Winds 2011 Chardonnay, made by Ehren Jordan from fruit sourced from Lucky Well Vineyard planted by Ulises Valdez to Ehren’s specs.  This elegant, high toned, Chardonnay with gorgeous minerality, showcases beautiful vanilla, peach and floral aromas.
  • Alma Fria Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, crafted by Carroll Kemp of Red Car.  They speak to the soil and the soul of winemaking. Concentrated and balanced, these wines will age gracefully, and yet, are a pleasure to consume now.
  • Readers and twitter followers may be familiar with my ongoing affection for Benovia, Hartford, Failla, Flowers, MacPhail, Ramey, Red Car and Siduri wines. They are consistent, always well crafted, invariably delicious and the winemaking personalities behind these brands are off the charts.
  • A couple of notable mentions go out to Senses Wines. Their 2012 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, made under the tutelage of Thomas Rivers Brown are easily the QPR of the event. These are modest, down to earth, wildly talented folks that you should get to know.
  • Wayfarer, the inaugural release of Jayson and Cleo Pahlmeyer are on the opposite end of the spectrum, price wise yet deliver elegance and finesse of withering heights. Crafted by Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, a winemaker to watch (she has her own brand she co-crafts with her husband, Jeff Pinsoni, called Shared Notes), these wines are stunning, ultra-refined, and
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    The Grand Dinner


The Grand dinner that evening was superb, offering the best salmon I’ve had in my life. The mouth melting, sublime goodness, flanked by summer beans, punctuated with salmatto sauce delivered by the genius of Bar Tartine, left a lifetime impression. The dessert, made by State Bird Provisions, roasted peach melba, oozed exquisite sensuality.


Winemakers brought copious amounts of wine (many in Magnums) as well as library vintages, so one can imagine that nothing short of palatal orgy ensued. If I could stretch that evening over six months, I gratefully would. Alas, time machines do not exist, so I was forced to consume a half year supply of West Sonoma Coast greatness over a few hours.

Not quite ready to depart, I stalled the next day, spending quality time at Zazu’s Sunday brunch.  I savored their fabulous spicy Bloody Mary cocktail and unbearably tasty fried rabbit sandwich. If you get a chance, check out Chef Duskie Estes’ homage to all things pig.
Spending time in West Sonoma is a treat for the senses in a variety of ways. Each bite of food, taste of wine and tidbit of conversation leaves an indelible impression. The folks there are genuine and have a strong sense of community, a strong bond with their land and a huge capacity to connect with one another. The West of West event embraces and frames all of this. It is one of the best, most intimate, soulful wine events in the country.  You will leave wistful and fulfilled; yearning for your next encounter. You will leave a piece of yourself in the foggy, magical forests, vineyards and mountains of  the Sonoma Coast. It will win you over when you are not looking and you will fall in love.


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IPNC Is The Place To Be

“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, founder of Oregon’s Scott Paul Winery

The 28th annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) took place on July 25th-27th on Linfield College’s campus in McMinnville, Oregon.  It launched with the usual fanfare and unbridled excitement of loyal fans who have been coming to the event for many years to celebrate this elusive, yet transparent grape. The theme of this year’s event was “Pinot Noir and the Doors of Perception” with each seminar, blind tasting and winery tour geared towards challenging one’s own preconceived notions and grandfathered assumptions.

IPNC is known for its incredible confluence of chefs, world famous vintners and wine educators. It enjoys a stellar reputation of a place to be, see, and be seen. Many wineries vie for a coveted invitation spot. Having experienced three festivals, I can clearly see why. It’s perennially a well run event, driven by the efforts of the IPNC staff and a large number of volunteers who donate their time in support of the event. Perhaps equaled only by la Paulee in France; it’s a festival for which many oenophiles plan a year ahead to attend.

The event’s clever format consists of pre-IPNC winery dinners, two days of seminars and field trips, two lunches and two dinners, including the traditionally sold out Salmon Bake. Especially enjoyable is the Sunday Sparkling Brunch, which features sommeliers in colorful short shorts and hilarious wigs pouring guests awesome sparkling wines.

The event started off with keynote speaker, David Lynch of Bon Appetit magazine, who delivered a humorous rendition on why the wine world never needs to take itself seriously. Looking around the room he referred to the crowd as “the whitest ever, eerily resembling the Bush’s family reunion”

The field trips to a variety of wineries had the guests abuzz. The winemakers who wound up on busses were as surprised as the festival attendees, to learn that they would be tasting their own wines blind and were expected to correctly identify them!

This year’s “University of Pinot” featured a wide range of seminar options:

  • Sensory Science: The Physiology of Taste with Josh Raynolds, assistant editor of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar
  • Matchmaking: Smoke and Mirrors, a food and wine pairing seminar led by Chef Ben Dyer and James-Beard-Award winning wine, spirits, and food writer, Jordan MacKay
  • Chemistry: Dropping Acid (a sly reference to the “Door’s of Perception” theme) presented by wine-philosopher, Elaine Brown
  • Climatology: The Future of Cool Climate Viticulture with Master Sommelier, Vajra Stratigos and climatologist, Greg Jones
  • Field Study: Distilling Terroir with perfumer Hall Newbegin
  • Geography: Loire Valley Pinot with master sommelier, Pascaline LePeltier
  • Regional Studies: The New California Wine with Jon Bonne, the wine editor at The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Gastronomy: Pairing Tea and Cheese with Smith Teamaker owner, Steven Smith

Perhaps the most intriguing seminar was the “Aroma of Color” one led by Jordi Ballester, a researcher in Sensory Science Université de Bourgogne. He has dedicated his career to studying the cognition behind the perception of wine. Is perception reality? Short answer is, yes. The “black glass” tasting was fascinating. We were supplied with three wines poured into black stemware and were asked to identify whether the wines were red, white or rosé. The group was unevenly split with most participants guessing correctly.   However, as we were put to the addition challenge of blindly identifying various wines, it became very clear that there were many psychological factors at play. Furthermore, extensive wine expertise can be both an asset or a hindrance.

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Grilled Leg of Lamb by Vitaly Paley

My IPNC extravaganza kicked off with a dinner at the beautiful Domaine Serene. Chef Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place, Imperial, Portland Penny Diner prepared a feast for the senses. Truth be told, there were a number of great meals that weekend, but Chef Paley’s food proved to be simply unforgettable; quite refined, yet somehow soulful and nostalgic. Beautifully textural braised octopus salad with melt-in-your-mouth butter-poached potatoes; rustic mushroom and foie gras stuffed rabbit; skillfully elevated grilled leg of lamb with chorizo masa cake and green sauce were all executed to perfection.

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Ellen and Robert Brittan

The walk around tastings held prior to the evening’s dinners were remarkable. Many of the world’s best Pinot producers
poured their current releases. Noteworthy Oregon wines included Archery Summit, Bergstrom, Brittan (my wine of the event), Dominio IV, Hamacher (stunning 2012s), Harper Voit, Patricia Green, R Stuart & Co. and Scott Paul. California standouts included Donum, Drew, Foxen, Knez, La Follette, Navarro, Red Car, Rhys, Siduri and Talley. New Zealand was well represented by Mt Beautiful, Wooing Tree and, most notably Villa Maria Estate. 2010 Taylor’s Pass was extraordinary and supplied a powerful motivation for tasting a whole lot more NZ Pinot. During a blind tasting, Villa Maria’s winemaker, Alastair Maling (Master of Wine), was the only one to correctly identify his own and his peers’ wines.

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Winemaking Panel at Ponzi Vineyards

In a long standing IPNC tradition, each year attendee are treated to a bus trip through the unbearably picturesque Oregon countryside, to a secret location.  This year’s destination: Ponzi Vineyards. It was a truly great visit, complete with a phenomenal lunch catered by the Ringside Fish House. Prior to, there was a winemaking panel from heaven, with Alastair Maling, Luisa Ponzi, Eric Hamacher, Andrew Rich, Bryan Weil, each tasting their five wines blind along with us. Ponzi is a generational winery, with a long history of success across an expansive varietal board. They even make an ice-wine, called Vino Gelato, which is quite delish and made for a nice addition to the dessert course.

The Grand Dames dinner is traditionally terrific; with beautiful food prepared by renowned northwestern chefs.  Additionally, many winemakers graciously shared library and large format bottlings. This year, the dinner celebrated female chef talents such as Stephanie Pearl Kimmel of Marche, Kristen D. Murray of Marice, Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita, and Cathy Whims of Nostrana.

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The Annual Salmon Bake

The Salmon Bake, perhaps the most anticipated part of the event, started with a long line forming outside of the campus’s Oak Grove. In the spirit of generosity common to the wine world, many guests brought multiple bottles of wine to share with table-mates. If you see an impressive collection of illustrious and highly allocated Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Oregon, California wines randomly covering the tables, you are at IPNC! Your palate ought to be bracing for an onslaught of goodness that you will process for months to come. The food was brilliantly executed by Ben Dyer, David Kreifels, Jason Owens of Reverend’s BBQ, Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood of Bunk, and Jason Stoller Smith from Timberline Lodge.

Sunday’s Passport to Pinot that often gets overlooked due to the fact that it features all of the same wineries that poured during the weekend. However, in my book, it’s a do-not-miss event. Complete with acrobatic acts and phenomenal food purveyors, it’s an opportunity to taste and validate what you have learned during the previous days. The wineries poured in two shifts, with a short break in between. Seventy top notch Pinots on the same lawn? I’m in!

What sets IPNC apart and puts it into its own category? Between the quality and diversity of producers selected, some of the best Chefs in the country, guests sharing legendary wines and very tightly, organizationally professionally run logistics, one would have to really struggle not to have a great time.

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Anthony King of Lemelson Vineyards

Anthony King, of Lemelson Vineyards and next year’s event chair, has some big shoes to fill!  Yet, I have no doubt that the next year’s IPNC attendees are in for a treat. I know my personal expectations are sky high. Hear that, Anthony? 2015 isn’t all that
far away.



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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.

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