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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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Las Positas Vineyards

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Rancho Las Positas name came from a land grant (8,800 acres) from Governor Juan Alvarado to Robert Livermore.  Robert Livermore believed the name meant “little watering holes” as a stream ran through the land.  The Las Positas Vineyards under the ownership of Lisa & Lothar Maier produce some astonishing small lot wines with exceptional quality. Wine Enthusiast name it “…one of Livermore’s best boutique wineries.”


Two wines recently stood out featuring a mouthful and worthy experience. First was the 2013 Tempranillo Estate. This wine was almost red/black in coloration, with aromas of cherries & dark plum. The mouth was treated with a “warm greeting of smooth tannins” and a lingering finish. Upon doing some research afterwards, it had won Gold Medals at:

2016 Alameda County Wine Competition

2016 Livermore Uncorked Wine Competition

2016 Alameda Best of the Bay Wine Competition

2016 Dan Berger International Wine Competition

This Tempranillo is now a standard in the cellar and worthy of your consideration.


The next wine was the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve. This was tasted during the 2016 Wine Blogger’s Conference excursion to Livermore Valley. This wine is aged 28 months in French oak and “is elegant and complex. Aromas of plum, black cherry, leather & clove. The palate is rich and full bodied, exhibiting flavors of pomegranate, dark chocolate, tobacco & cherry.”  The coloration was again a dark red almost “blackish” and immediately upon tasting one knows this is no ordinary wine! The recently won “Double Gold” at the 2015 SF International Wine Competition and Silver at the 2016 SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Both noteworthy achievements.

Besides these two gems, they produce various other reds like: Malbec, Petite Verdot, Barbera, Petite Sirah and a few others. For the whites, they produce Pinot Blanc, Verdelho, Chardonnay and a few blends.


The grounds are excellent for holding a small party, intimate wedding, etc. They have private banquet rooms and patio space for such occasions.  Las Positas Vineyards also hold many events for their wine club members and guests such as: Wine & Cheese Pairings, Chocolate Truffle & Wine Pairings, etc.

Don’t know if Robert Livermore did the right translation of “Las Positas” as little springs, but Las Positas makes some big and enjoyable wines.


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Ledson Winery or “The Castle”

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When in Sonoma Valley, more specifically Kenwood, a stop at the Ledson Winery or “The Castle” is a must for numerous reasons!


Upon entering the winery, one is taken by the majestic 16,000 square foot French Normandy “castle” (originally designed as their home) which is the winery. This building is on their 17 acre estate and opened in 1999 to the public. This serves as their public tasting area and upstairs for their private tasting events. They also have a gourmet delicatessen with artisan cheeses and meats. The grounds are beautiful and serve for both picnicking and weddings.


That stated, the key reason for a visit are their wines. Personally I have been both a member and continuing supporter of Ledson wines since 2002. Steve Ledson and Jerry Padilla have been turning out exquisite red and white varietals for years. They make some 70 different and unique small lot wines. A partial listing of red wines include: Pinot Noir, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and some of their award winning blends like Cépage and more. Similarly, their key white wines are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Awards to both their red and white wine offerings is far too extensive to begin to list, suffice it to say, they are prolific in their achieving both excellent  and consistently high ratings (around mid-90’s) and gold medals in competition/events.

The wines also come from some of the 20 AVA’s around state including: Alexander Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek, Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, Knights Valley, Lodi, Anderson Valley, Madera County, Monterey, Lake County and Contra Costa. I often refer my out of state friends who want to experience Pinot’s, Zin’s and Chardonnay from Sonoma & Napa Valley’s to first visit Ledson Winery as there they can experience all of California in one stop!


While in the past I have drank and collected their Chardonnay Reserve, Cabernet’s, Zin’s and Cépage wines, I was “blown away” on my recent visit. Jerry Padilla, Assistant Winemaker and VP of Sales, who I have known since his start at Ledson winery and now a trusted friend, hosted a few out of state guests. He introduced us to the 2015 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. This was such a delight to taste this wine from smell to palate to the lingering finish – fruity (passion fruit & mango’s) yet with strong hints of lemon & hay. The aroma’s fill the nose with expectations which are delivered in abundance on the palate. On a personal note, having tasted some 1600+ wines a year, this one tied for my best wines tasted this year! The other one was a $225 Napa Valley Cabernet held for years. At $34 this is the deal of the decade if you enjoy a mouthful and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc.


Lastly I have to mention Steve Ledson who was there as we concluded this two hour plus session. Steve’s family history, challenges and success in so many endeavors is astonishing to say the least. Worth reading the family history to appreciate the man, his vision and family on their website.


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The Winemakers Studio at Wente Vineyards

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Invest a little to gain a lot should be the motif at The Winemakers Studio at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.

Essentially they have several different “classes” or experiences to choose from and participate in at The Winemakers Studio. Sunset Magazine called it the number one wine tasting experience in California!


During a recent Wine Bloggers Conference we were given a quick overview of four of the various experiences. The ones that we participated in were both utterly fascinating and educational. The four were: The Wine Aroma Discovery; Wine and Cheese Pairing; Size and Shape Matters; and Black Glass Blind Tasting. Each were unique and a different experience.


The first class was the Wine Aroma Discovery (see picture). In the room were three “control scents” unknown to the class. You would then lift the “empty cup” and sniff to determine the “aromas”. Then go about the table trying to identify that specific aroma by smelling various cups (with removing the covers on them). For example, there were peach slices, various nuts, raspberries, cinnamon, etc. In all there were some thirty-three plus foods with lids on them. The object was to get a scent of the control and then match that with “real aromas” by various foods. Doing this with a group of friends and sharing was a bonus part of the experience. Smelling a scent and then pairing it up with tangible foods was at times easy and other times frustrating, getting your mind to focus. Very educational. This is an absolute must do!


The second class was the Wine and Cheese Pairing. This was a bit more straightforward as most folks have done wine and cheese pairings. They did a bit of a twist with some crab thrown in which was excellent! The key is understand the cheeses and impact on the various wines. What is fun however is finding what you think would be “an oddball” pairing turns out to be mouthwatering sensation!


The third class was Size and Shape Matters! If you have had a chance to do a Riedel glassware class, this is similar in that it allows you to get a wine’s aroma from the shape of the glass. Thus a glass for Chardonnay is significantly different than a Pinot Noir glass and yet different than a Cabernet Sauvignon glass.  Each glass brings out the fruit and passion of the varietal. If you have ever wondered about which glass to use, wonder no more after this event. For example you will smell a Chardonnay in four different cup shapes – all are different but one is exceptional!


The fourth was Black Glass Blind Tasting. While many wine followers have done blind tastings ad nauseam few have the opportunity to do it in a black glass wine goblet. When you walk into a room with black goblets on your place setting, you do not know if it is a red or white or rose! So you need to rely on your sense of smell in order to pick out first the color and secondly the varietal with the benefit of sight. Again a fascinating experience for sure.

The Winemakers Studio offers several other classes (some are seasonal) but all of them are worthwhile and an enjoyable experience.  You will be catapulted to new levels of self-understanding as well as in your knowledge of wines.


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Is this Bekaa Valley or Mendoza? A change to my “normal California wines & wineries”!

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It is Bekaa Valley in Lebanon with the snow-capped mountain range of Laqlouq in the background. Yet similarly striking as Mendoza with the Andes in the background (although the Andes being more striking!). This 75 mile long valley and 10 miles wide is notable for many wines with an average altitude of 1,000 feet.


A quick history lesson is important in understand this regions impact to wine throughout the world. First, ancient Phoenicians (now Lebanon) who inhabited the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, developed a maritime trading culture. Their influences in both winemaking and viticulture were considered the source of recorded wine history. Scholars attribute this area for making wine since 6,000 BC!! Many believe their dissemination of wine by trade routes influenced greatly the countries of Egypt, Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.

Secondly the Lebanon varietals range from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cinsaut, Carignan, Grenache, Musar, Obeideh, Merwah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Muscat. Combined the wineries of Lebanon produce approximately 600,000 cases of wine a year. Chateau Ksara Winery remains the largest, with 70% of all the country’s production.


This brings us to reviewing a bottle of Chateau Ksara. They are the country’s oldest winery, founded in 1857 by Jesuit Fathers for making sacramental wine.



Now let’s discuss their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon made with 100% Cab Sauvignon grapes and aged 14 months in 50% new French oak casks. This produces a full body Cabernet with structure and surprisingly potential to lay down in the cellar for a few years. Strong tannins fill the upper palate. Color has a light purple hue. Key aromas and tastes are peppers and semi-sweet dark chocolate. Personally I would like a bit more fruit to be exposed.


The prophets speak in the Old Testament about God’s restoration of his people, the quote “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely….They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon” (Hosea 14:1, 7). Now there is a visual for today’s world—restoration and being fragrant. What a welcomed picture. Pick up a bottle and see how it might change you!


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Confessions of a Wine Snob— Mea culpa, Livermore & Lodi AVA’s

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For forty years I have been collecting, tasting and drinking what are considered expensive wines. While I always looked for some “inexpensive wines”, which I found on occasion, I was generally disappointed and reinforced by belief that one was destined to pay $100 to $300 for quality wines. While recently attending the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference with a pre-event one day excursion to Livermore and three and an half days in Lodi I can only say — I was blind and now I see!!!

Livermore AVA


First in Livermore, I considered only a handful of wineries “worthy” to buy (Wood Family, 3 Steve’s, Mia Nipote, McKahn, McGrail) and only one to “age” in the cellar (Lineage & Premiere Series both by Steven Kent Mirassou). I was turned around by various delightful and solid performers in Livermore. Those that shined brightly were:

  • Darcie Kent Vineyards – 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Bent Creek Winery – 2013 Cabernet Franc
  • Page Mill Winery – 2013 Petite Sirah (Outstanding!)
  • Wente – Small Lot Eric’s Chardonnay
  • Concannon – 2013 Mother Vine Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Concannon – 2014 Assemblage Blanc
  • Murrieta’s Well – The Whip 2014
  • Murrieta’s Well – The Spur 2013
  • Los Positas Vineyards – 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Excellent)
  • Los Positas Vineyards – 2013 Estate Tempranillo
  • Dante Robere – 2013 Estate Syrah (very good!)

None of the above will cost anywhere near $100 and most are in the $20-39 range.


Lodi AVA

The next stop was Lodi and yes I was “Stuck in Lodi again” for several days. Had been up and down both Hwy5 and 99 but never stopped thinking the best we could be served was “headache wine”. My preconceived notion was that it was going to be a “Zin fest” event. But it was a “good stuck”, as the wines opened up to taste and on occasion to drink, were spectacularly wonderful and way beyond Zin’s!  I had read that Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Lodi as Wine Region of the Year in 2015. However, what I did not know, were the following facts on Lodi:



  • Lodi’s wine grape acreage now tops 110,000 acres, the most in the U.S. Let’s put that in some perspective by looking at the totals planted in other major American wine regions that we all know about:
  • Lodi – 110,000 acres
  • Washington – 48,000 acres
  • Oregon – 27,390 acres
  • New York – 10,000 acres
  • Napa County – 45,000 acres
  • Sonoma County – 60,000 acres
  • Paso Robles – 26,000 acres
  • Santa Barbara County – 16,600 acres


  • Lodi was approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1986. Of Lodi’s 7 official sub-appellations, just over 40% are in the historic region surrounding the City of Lodi, the Mokelumne River AVA (first vineyards planted in 1852). Most of the growth over the past 25 years has taken place in the Jahant, Clements Hills, Borden Ranch, Alta Mesa, Sloughhouse and Cosumnes River appellations (all these AVAs, identified primarily by soil and topographic differentiations, approved in 2006).
  • Today over 100 Varietals are grown in Lodi. The range of vines are so broad. Here is a sample of those to be found:
    • Spanish VarietiesAlbariño, Verdejo, Graciano, Tempranillo, and Garnacha are just a few of the interesting Spanish varieties grown in Lodi soils. 
    • Portuguese Varieties Relatively obscure varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Souzão, Verdelho, and Tricadeira
    • German VarietiesKerner, Bacchus, Riesling, Dornfelder, Gewürztraminer, and Zweigelt
    • Italian Varieties— Barbera, Aglianco, Sangiovese, Teroldego, and Vermentino

·         20160812_180535

Some of the key wines tasted during the Event from Lodi that stood out as exceptional were:

·         Oak Ridge Winery, Old Soul Chardonnay (WOW!)

·         Peirano Estate Vineyards, 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel

·         Klinker Brick Winery, Farrah Syrah

·         Lange Twins Family Winery, 2014 Nero d’Avola (very good and unique)

·         Lange Twins Family Winery, 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (excellent)

·         Lange Twins Family Winery, 2013 Caricature Old Vine Zinfandel

·         Heritage Oak, 2013 Charbono (a winner!)

·         Heritage Oak, 2013 Sangiovese

·         PRIE Vineyards, 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon


All of these wines are embarrassingly reasonably priced. While there were many more that were not tasted so many return trips await to be scheduled.

So again, one cannot judge a book by its cover, similarly, one cannot even phathom the immense diversity of varietals, quality of wines and “farm land hospitality” afforded by the winemakers of Lodi.

Mea Culpa to both Lodi and Livermore AVA’s from a turnarounded “wine snob”.



For more reading on Livermore and Lodi see:

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Wine Bloggers Conference — Lange Twins Family Winery & Vineyards

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At the conference it was a “blind draw” as to whom you would be with this late afternoon and evening for dinner in Lodi. I was “re-schooled” in value and quality in Lodi at Lange Twins Family Winery. Had never been to a single winery in the area. Being blown away with both quality and pricing is an under statement. We were hosted by Marissa and Kendra, cousins of the brothers who are twins– thus the name. I will be doing a complete story on them later, but here was the dinner w/wine pairings tonight. If this is Lodi hospitality, I want to be “stuck in Lodi” all the time!
Local Sloughhouse Corn & Endive Served with Seared Dry Scallops Topped with a Bacon Scallion Vinaigrette. Paired with their 2015 Lange Twins Exclusive Gewurztraminer
Slow Braised Short Rib with Roasted Mirepoix and Pan Jus Accompanied by a Potato Leek Latke. Paired with both a 2014 Lange Twins Nero d’Avola (new for them and very smooth!) and 2013 Lange Twins Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (excellent).
Tayberry Butter Crust Tart with Dark Chocolate Gelato Topped with Chocolate Nib Sauce. Paired with a 2013 Caricature Old Vine Zinfandel (one of their other labels).
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