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Art and winemaking have many of the same traits or DNA. The land (terroir) combined with a specific year of heat, rain, fog, temperature variations provide an infinite palate in which the winemaker can formula a creative vintage. So like art and winemaking, exists a unique, colorful and highly energetic winery call THE GRADE Cellars in Calistoga. More about the creative angle later in the story.

The two Proprietor’s, Thomas Thornton and Brenda Mixson, combined with winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown to maximize their vineyard. Tom who is an architect and Brenda who is involved in commercial real estate financing, have managed to combine their right and left cerebral cortexes with just the right amount of analytic and creative percentages in their drive to produce an exquisite wine.

The Winfield Vineyard sits just above the top of northern Napa Valley’s floor in Calistoga. Their end product is a rarity, similar to precious art. Only two varietals are produced: a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. They called themselves a producer of “handcrafted wines and know their customers on a first name basis”.

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Their now sold out 2013 Winfield Vineyard Cabernet received a 96 point from Antonio Galloni. They are about to release the 2014 Cabernet which only 550 cases were produced. They typically produce approximately 100 cases for their Reserve Cabernet. In tasting the 2014 Estate Cabernet, it possessed a dark and opulent deep red hue with round tannins and a lasting finish.  Robert Parker quote on it was that was “as dark as a moonless night”.


In addition, having a “barrel sample” of their 2015, it held the promise of an exceptional wine. It was made with heavy toasted 100% new French oak barrels. This is the one which got my peak my interest and caught my undivided attention. This is similar to watching the brushstrokes of a gifted artist, knowing the end result will be spectacular.

Tom, when preparing his wine lot for Premiere Napa Valley in 2016, was required to write about the wine to be auctioned. Here is where his creative side kicked in and submitted a sonnet or quatorzain (14 lines) to describe his offering and aligns with the 2014 vintage. In Tom’s words, The specific references include the location of Clone 337 in Block 5 in our estate vineyard, a severe drought requiring more frequent irrigations than usual, early seasonal maturation and harvest that required farming “workarounds”, our winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown who considers great wine to be made in the vineyard, and “Kingly Project” which is the name of our Reserve wine from that block.  That label’s name, as well as our other names, are borrowed from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson who honeymooned in an abandoned mining bunkhouse above our vineyard and chronicled that experience in “The Silverado Squatters”. Apropos to my sonnet, he wrote that ‘wine is bottled poetry’.”


When you consider how the sunlight’s spent

O’er regal rows of three three seven’s leaves,

How into blue clay earth the rootstock weaves,

A season’s destiny is justly meant!


Consider droughts, too, our wells circumvent,

Nursing the ripeness each cluster achieves.

So dense and complex, the critic believes

Good farming allays what nature has sent!


Motionless while the stride of Mister Brown

Brushes against sprawled canopies, then gone,

Vines whisper sweetly, in sync and singly!


The twelve and thirteen are now cradled down.

Fourteen stands peerless, conclusions are drawn.

We bow to our earth’s project so kingly!


So in full circle, creativity in wine is limitless, yet specific in timeliness. I know you will enjoy THE GRADE Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and it will be included in my wine room. Should you get a chance to meet with Tom or Brenda when is Calistoga, their personalities are as embracing as the wine.



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Vatan – The Dark Bull of Tempranillos’

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Wines from Toro, located in Northwest Spain and their noted Tempranillo wines,  are especially known for coloration and boldness. The literally translation is “dark bull” – meaning this Tempranillo is not for the faint of heart!

The name Tempranillo comes from the Spanish word temprano (meaning early), a reference to the fact that it ripens several weeks earlier than most other Spanish red grapes. That said most Tempranillos’ exhibit a big blackberry, leathery and a slight smoky aroma – an earthiness character.


For the 2013 Vatan Tinta de Toro, a large portion of  grapes come from a vineyard planted in 1943 with some coming from their renown 1910 vineyard. After fermentation the wine is aged in new French oak barrels for 22 months. What comes out on the other side is a mouthful of wonderment! The 2013 vintage also came out at 15.5% alcohol adding to the robustness of this vintage.

Antonio Galloni stated it best in his review stating it is a “Dark purple. Fresh black and blue fruits, pipe tobacco and candied violet on the highly perfumed, smoke-accented nose. Fleshy, seamless and broad in the mouth, offering intense blueberry and cherry-vanilla flavors and an exotic touch of Indian spices. The spicy quality carries strongly through the finish, which clings with excellent tenacity and smooth, building tannins.”


Here is an excellent picture of the almost black Tempranillo grapes on the vine in Toro. Photo by Fabio Ingrosso.

Most California Tempranillos’ do not come close to this intensity. So if you are looking for a “different big red” without the stark tannins, pick up a bottle of Tinta de Toro for a big, bold  and exotic wine.



Available at http://thewinesteward.com/

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Foretell Wines

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As the name implies, it is the art of telling beforehand, what is to come. Very appropriate for a winemaker of Sam Baxter’s pedigree, both from experience and knowledge. To walk about the vineyards and be able to prognosticate the future quality of the wine is as much intellectual training as it is intuitive from years of experience.


The label on the wine is also provides a clue as to the pedigree of this wine with the Latin phase “respice, adspice, prospice” meaning “look, look, look!” letting you know something good is in the bottle! With the other phrase “Ab Actu Ad Posse Valet Illatio” meaning “from the past one can infer the future”.  And so Sam provides his calculated prophesy of an excellent experience.

Sam and Angela Baxter used a woodcut from Jost Amman, an astonishing craftsman, noted for his detail in his art from the 16th century, for their unique signature label. This label stands out and doesn’t need a bright color or a gimmick to be remembered. Simply classy.

Now on to the wine. Sam makes both a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is a mix of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 27 months in 50% new oak fine grained barrels. The coloration is dark and purple with a thick viscosity showing the deep black fruit. The taste of blackberries, dark caramel and cocoa open on the mouth. While excellent today, it will blossom over the next 3-5 years and Sam states it will hold for 18 years.

As of this writing, I have only tried the Cabernet but anxious to try the Pinot. If it is as good as the Cabernet Sauvignon it will foretell of a great wine to be enjoyed.



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When is New Still Old? Terra Valentine Wines

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To answer the question when is new still old, is simple: When the same winemaker who has been producing the wine since 1999. Recently the old winery location was sold, but the name Terra Valentine was kept by the original winemaker Sam Baxter and now being the new proprietor. Thus while new, it remains the same with the established winemaker and vineyards, yet they have even added some new vineyards on to Spring Mountain.


Sam and his wife Angela purchased the name in 2014 from the founders Angus and Margaret Wurtele. Terra Valentine had been producing wine since 1999 at the historic Yverdon Winery on Spring Mountain. I last visited the cold and damp winery in winter of 2006. The wines were great then and my last bottle was consumed in 2016. A longtime friend, Joe Flippini who is now assisting in sales effort, mentioned I should try their wines again. The Jackson Family Wines took over the Yverdon Winery and Sam and Angela continued with Terra Valentine. The Wurtele Vineyard (1,000 foot elevation) continues to be farmed by the Wurteles. The Baxter’s, along with their more recent purchase of property at 2,200 feet elevation have multiple vineyards available for fruit selection.


Sam continues to produce two white wines, a Riesling and Viognier. His also does various red wines, including Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a harmonious blend called appropriately, Marriage. 


Perhaps the most outstanding wine is their 2014 Cabernet Franc. It is kept in barrel for 18 months in 40% new French barrels. It possess a dark cherry coloration and exhibits almost chewy tannins. While very tasty today, it holds the promise to be exceptional in 2-4 years. Patience here will be rewarded. It is now in my cellar and slated to be enjoyed in the not too distant future!



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Chateau Ksara – Le Souverain

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Last year I did a story on Chateau Ksara, see https://californiawinesandwineries.com and now I want to feature their 150 year Anniversary Le Souverain. It is a 50/50 blend of their Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa. I personally was not too familiar with the Arinarnoa grape.  



Arinarnoa grape is a cross between two Bordeaux varieties, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It is a dark berried grape which was bred in 1956. Wine-Searcher calls the grape a “rich and fleshy Merlot with acidity and spice of Petit Verdot” which produces a wine “naturally deep in color and well structured”.  Without a food pairing the acidity and earthiness came through loud and clear. Would have enjoyed tasting it with a hearty meal.

The grape was originally grown in the south of France for the designations of the famous Languedoc and Provence regions. Today it is grown around the world and surprisingly Lebanon produces 54% of this varietal.

This 150th Anniversary Edition won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Mundus Vini in 2011.

I am not familiar with anyone in California producing this varietal and if you know of a winery, please pass it along to me.



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David Girard Vineyards

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How not to die!!  An odd beginning to a winery story, but let me explain. Recently I was at David Girard Vineyards which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Coloma-Lotus Valley where gold was discovered in 1848. While tasting several delightful wines, Rod Gideons, our host for the day, mentioned a quote by David Eagleman stating “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” Okei who came over from Japan was a nanny for the prominent Veerkamp family. She longed for her homeland in Japan and often went to a nearby hill and watched the sunset knowing it was going to be a new day shortly in Japan. She came over when she was 17 and unfortunately died at age 19 in 1871. Okei asked to be buried on that hill facing east. She is the first know Japanese to be buried on American soil. She is revered as personifying the immigrant spirit and is a popular folk hero here and in Japan. A Japanese melody laments her early death according to the Japanese community. So with that in mind, David Girard Vineyards being in the same area, wanted to immortalize her by naming their flagship wine, Okei-san Syrah. And by continuing to mention her name, she will never die the third death!


David Girard Vineyards 85 acre estate incorporates approximately 50% in Rhone and Provence varietals. His wines include Vermentino, a Rose (Mourvedre, Counoise and Grenache blend), Mourvedre, Grenache, Rive D’Or (blend), Syrah and Port. These wines are the handcrafted work of Grayson Hartley. Grayson got his “wine education” as the Assistant Winemaker at Schramsberg in the mid-2000’s and learn his craft from the now prestigious Andy Erickson and John Kongsgaard.


The two standout wines of the day were the 2013 Grenache Reserve with a whole cluster soak which produce a peppery, bright and enticing Grenache. The second wine was their 2014 Dessert Wine (Ruby) which uses the Portuguese grape, Touriga Nacional which imparts a black fruit bouquet.  Both of these outstanding wines are now in my cellar!!


The grounds are spectacular in design accommodating guests and club members, a beautiful scenery in the El Dorado foothills. Possessing the rolling vineyards, Grayson as the winemaker and David Girard at the helm, they will never face the third death as we will all be talking about them for years on end.



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Exceptional, Outstanding and Top Wines of 2016 – Click TAB above for details.

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Exceptional, Outstanding and Top Wines of 2016   – Click TAB above for details.

In 2016 I was fortunate enough to taste over 1600+ wines. While most were good to above average, some five wines stood out and rated as EXCEPTIONAL and should be sought after and tasted ASAP. Each would contribute to your cellar. These wines can be secured from the wineries based on availability.

Another 12 wines were rated OUTSTANDING and provide an excellent wine for tasting and procuring. These wines are the paramount of quality for California wines. Again most would be purchased at the winery only.

Another 29 wines are in the TOP WINES IN CALIFORNIA in various varietals. These vines are markedly above average, unique in specific characteristics and should be tried soon. Most of these would be sold at the winery only.

This year I also added some “OUT OF STATE” and “OUT OF COUNTRY” wines that made an impact on the palate, demonstrated a unique quality or provided a new twist on the varietal. Most of these wines can be procured at the listing provided.



Michael Kelly

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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