Month: November 2016

Vranac or Vranec? Either spelling means a great grape!

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First, why is it spelled two different ways? This grape has been harvested since the Middle Ages mostly in Serbia and southern Croatia. It also has been cultivated in Macedonia. In Serbian & Croatia it is spelled Vranac and in Macedonia it is spelled Vranec. No matter the spelling the transliteration means “black stallion”. Once you pour this wine, it is almost void of any red or ruby coloration, it is almost jet black! With the meaning of stallion, you get a sense of the strength and wildness of this wine.



I was in Sutter Creek, California recently having lunch and shopping but had time to “pop into a winery tasting room” on Main Street. The name is Sierra Ridge Winery.  I was not there to do a story, but asked the proprietor about his Nebbiolo wine on the tasting list. It was good, but had a distinct Amador County flavor (a bit sweet). I asked about a wine on the list called Vranac. It turned out to this wine was steeped in its own history far greater than the gold rush history of Sutter Creek!


As I spent time with John Bree, owner of the winery, I was enthralled hearing the history of his family’s development of the wine and grapes in the local area. Today, the fourth generation of Sicilian winemakers, harvest some 150 acres of grapes, many with ancestral roots in Sicily, Italian and old Europe. Specifically they have 23 varieties of grapes growing at about 2,000 feet in Amador County. Varietals include the standard Bordeaux grapes, but unique to them are Pinotage (South Africa); Vranac, Fresisa, Aglianico, etc. I did not taste the other wines, but will be back for a full tasting very shortly!


The Vranac was fascinating from the color in the glass, to the infectious smell, to the complete mouthful explosion! It was uniquely standalone without a true comparison. That said, it had the earthliness of Tempranillo, the subtle fruit of a Barbara, the fullness of a non-fruity Zinfandel and the completeness of a Cabernet Sauvignon in the palate. I instantly became a convert to this chewy grape varietal. This wine will only improve with age similar to a hearty Barolo. Stop by and try this wine at their tasting room.


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Lost and Found: Carménère Varietal

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History of Carménère

The history of Carménère varietal is as fascinating as it is happenstance! It was once a blending wine in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. It served a similar purposes as Petit Verdot does today – producing a deep red ink on wines. It was part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux. Carménère originates from the French word for crimson (carmin) which refers to the crimson color of the autumn foliage.

When the Phylloxera plague hit in 1867 destroying most of the vineyards in Europe, many thought the Carménère grape was extinct. It wasn’t until 150 years later that it was discovered that Chile had mistakenly preserved the Carménère grape thinking it was Merlot (from clippings planted from France). DNA confirmed it was the missing 6th varietal of Bordeaux.

Carménère Today


Carménère grows mainly in Chile, specifically the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley and in the Maipo Province. It is also grown Italy, in Veneto and recently several wineries in Lodi, Napa and Calaveras are producing it, albeit in small quantities. Walla Walla also has some root stock growing in Carménère

Uniqueness of Carménère

As a blend varietal is has the deep ruby coloring and aromas of red fruits and berries. Tannins are softer and milder than a Cabernet Sauvignon, thus its use in blending to soft a strong Cabernet. Similar to a Merlot. Chile produces a 100% Carménère which has a cherry and fruity flavor but has traces of smoke and earthy notes with the inky coloration.

Where to get Carménère


In Napa one of wineries who has planted and blends Carménère to offer a unique “true Bordeaux” is O’Shaughnessy Winery. Their 2013 Howell Mountain uses all seven of the Bordeaux grapes (7th will be another story). Both Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni rated this wine as 95 points. Truly a wonderful wine, worthy of tasting and putting into your cellar.

I am personally not aware of anyone in Northern California producing a 100% Carménère wine but many are working to use it as an historical marker in their blending.  Most 100% Carmenere wines are available from Chile and offer a unique “change of pace”.


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Who are the Winemakers I Should be Following in Northern California?

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This question always arises at dinner functions or wine tasting events. While I know I will unfortunately leave out a name or two, I will attempt to answer the question.

Following the two advent guard winemakers in Napa is a good starting point. They are Philippe Melka and Thomas Rivers Brown. Between the two of them who knows how many wineries carry their prestigious name as wine maker or consultant (Entre Nous, Skipstone, Outpost, Kinsella, Vineyard 29, Revana, etc). Also in this exalted list is Celia Welch of Scarecrow, Corra Wines, Bucella and Lindstrom wines. Their wines are remarkable and should never be passed up! Many writers have given accolades to each, devoting praise with multi-page spreads. I collect and follow their wines each year — they are all exquisite wines.

That said, I would like to focus on some of the “next tier” of exceptional winemakers who are constantly honing their craft and providing us the consumers with intoxicating creations or simple making an elegant varietal. For simplicity sake I am going to list them by two categories. The first category being those who have been doing this for years but have not received their full complement of notoriety. We will call those: The Humble & Craftsmen Superstar Winemakers (HCSW). The next category is identifying the next level of winemakers coming on to the scene or who have already had some excellent wins, like the SF Chronicle Tasting Event. We will call them: The Rising Superstar Winemakers (RSW).
Name                                  Category             Wineries
Steven Kent Mirassou   HCSW                   Lineage & Steven Kent
Rhonda Wood                  HCSW                   Wood Family Vineyards
Steve Burman                  RSW                       3 Steve’s Winery
David Akiyoshi                HCSW                   Lange Twins
Karen Birmingham        RSW
Tom Hoffman                  RSW                      Heritage Oak
Rudy Zuidema                 HCSW                   Red Cap, Alyris, Kent Price,
Shadybrook Estate
Chad Alexander             HCSW                   Mia Nipote (Livermore) &
V12 Vineyard Estate
Chuck McKahn              RSW                       Wm Harrison & McKahn Family Vineyard
David Tate                      HCSW                    Barnett Vineyards & Tate Wines
Pam Starr                       HCSW                    Crocker & Starr, Bridesmaid
Scott Young                   RSW                        YoungInglewood, Venn
Kirk Venge                     HCSW                     Trespass Vineyards, Venge Vineyards
Tom Garrett                  HCSW                     Detert
Michael Desantis        HCSW                     Harumph
Vince Kalny                   RSW                         Incendium Wines
Laura Zahtila Swanton HCSW                 Zahtila & Laura Michael
Sean Capiaux               HCSW                     O’Shaughnessy, Capiaux & Progeny
Ted Osborne                HCSW                     Phifer Pavitt Winery
Bob Foley                      HCSW                      Switchback Ridge & Robert Foley Winery
Steve Ledson               HCSW                       Ledson Winery & Mountain Terraces
(Jerry Padilla)
Fred Nunes                 HCSW                       St Rose Winery
Matt Taylor                 HCSW                       Reuling Vineyards
Steve Dutton              HCSW                       Dutton-Goldfield
Dan Goldfield
Leo Hansen                RSW                          Stuhlmuller Vineyards
Ron Pieretti               HCSW                       Prospect 772
Ryan Teeter               RSW                           La Folia Winery

My upfront apologies if I inadvertently left someone off this list. I will be updating this once a year going forward so you are welcome to ping me.

These folks are absolutely some of the best winemakers that Northern California offers. Pick up a bottle to taste yourself!


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