Saturday, March 05, 2005

Russian River Barrel-Tasting Saturday—A Decidedly Biased Taste


CAVEAT: I have a YES/NO response to most wines, with a palate decidedly on the sweet side of the gauge. I buy ports and late harvest wines for me to drink, and an occasional bottle of red wine to take along to a family dinner. I love to taste good wines, though, for their own sake, so I'm very lucky to live in Sonoma County, California, where wine-tasting can be a regular pastime.

STRANGE ATTRACTORS: We try not to miss the Russian River Barrel-Tasting event each year, in part because my spouse collects wine glasses, and many smaller wineries are only open during these events. Imagine our surprise to start talking with a gentleman (C.S. Miner) with whom my spouse had shared some local cycling club events, and discover that he collects wine glasses, has a blogspot of his own, and has even posted to some of the same wine and review sites as I have (notably We arranged to meet tomorrow for some more mutual tasting.

The season and weather usually conspire to make this a local event, but today was beautifully warm and inviting, and we kept meeting the same people as we progressed from one winery to another. One family was four generations in two vehicles. Grandma seemed partial to the Cabernets, while her muscular grandsons were drinking Syrahs. Their wives, both toting infants, were sticking with Zins or Chardonnay. A tall woman in sunglasses and a black sleeveless dress joked that we were "stalking her" as we met for the seventh time at the end of the afternoon. She was squiring some out-of-county visitors around in search of chocolates and bold reds.

MOST COMPLEX: We started at the south end of Healdsburg, looking for a missing glass for my ever-loving's collection. Camellia Cellars on Front Street let us both score: a brand new logo glass for the collection, and an amazingly complex 2004 Sangiovese that will be in the barrel for at least another year. This wine has a profound difference in nose between the first whiff out of the barrel, and the glass after only five to ten seconds of breathing. Its initial acrid tang disappears completely, leaving a beautiful fruit compote sense. On the tongue, it already has a rich complexity and a great berry finish.

Next door is the Holdredge barn where the Sapphire Hill Winery barrels were available for tasting. Their 2004 Winberrie Zinfandel (from 96-year-old vines) has only slightly less complexity—we have enjoyed wine from this vineyard in its bottled, finished version for three years now.

If I had the money to buy futures for us to drink or gift, I would divide between these two wines (based on this Saturday tasting only.)

DRYEST: Barry at Harvest Moon was pouring a dry Gewurztraminer that was perfectly finished, wonderfully crisp and dry. I am not a fan of dry white wines, but I could see enjoying a bottle with my sisters-in-law, maybe with a dish of green olives, pickled cauliflower, and pepper-jack cheese.

NEW GRAPES: As in past years, we went to Suncé Winery on Olivet Road west of Santa Rosa for the "adventurous" grapes. Last year they had a barrel of Barberra that was nicely made, and this year's barrel-taste of Barberra was even better. Trying to describe it for tasters last year, the winemaker called it a "Zinfandel for newbies." Nowhere near as rich and berried as a Zin, the Barberra is still fruity with a slight pepper bite on the back of the palate.

This year Suncé had a grape popular in Argentina and Chile, Malbee, which they use in a Meritage blend. The Malbee had a very slight nose, but a pleasant fullness in the mouth. While it's not a wine I would recommend, it is always exciting to try these less-familiar grapes, so I am grateful for the adventurous spirit of Suncé's winemaker.

NEW WINERIES: Driving along the Old Redwood Highway, we noticed a cluster of black and gold balloons at Limerick Lane, with a sign reading Christie's Winery. This, it turned out, was not one of the "official" barrel-tasting wineries, but it had barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from 2003 and 2004. Straight from the barrel, the Cabs were a bit oaky to my taste, but bear watching. (I did not taste the Pinots.) Christie's had paired their bold reds with a sweet milk-cheese with crackers, and brownie squares.

The Thumbprint Cellars tasting room had opened in Healdsburg last fall, but this was the first event we had seen them involved in. Thumbprint is one of the local wineries that have gone to the medical-grade cork substitute, and I can testify that it works beautifully. They also have a great logo design, supposedly the wine-maker's thumbprint. A bottle of 2002 Cabernet from this winery was a hit at our family New Year's dinner.

Harvest Moon on Olivet Road and Manzanitas Creek in Healdsburg on Grove Street were two other wineries that were not on our list last year.

BEST PORT or LATE HARVEST: We didn't taste many late-harvest wines this year, but Thumbprint Cellars had a gorgeous Cabernet Port available for tasting and futures purchase. This is an investment port that will not be bottled until late summer 2005. At the tasting, the port was paired with rich chocolate truffles—these were not out on the event buffet, but were doled out inside the tasting room to the cognoscenti.

BEST FOOD: Suncé Winery wins this hands-down. First, they cater the food, so that variety and supplies are generous: tender tri-tip slices marinated in peppered grape leaves, toasted cheese-bread, a variety of cheese slices and crackers, a pasta-heavy minestrone, red and green grapes and richly moist chocolate brownies. This year they had to wave traffic on down the road each time their parking lot filled—the word is definitely out about this excellent (and free!) buffet.

Thumbprint Cellars had a strong second place for best food, with smoked cheese polenta, miniature mushroom "burgers," and a rich olive tapenade with crackers on the event buffet. (As I mentioned above, they also had wonderful little chocolate truffles inside the tasting room.)

Tri-tip marinated in wine was on the menu at Wilson Winery on Dry Creek Road west of Healdsburg. Wilson's barrels are exclusively Zinfandel, and this year they also had a visitor ballot to rate the barrels between three vineyards. I found the Tori Vineyard wine unpleasantly peppery, and the Stewart Vineyard wine, unusual for a Zinfandel, almost lacking in fruit tones. Not surprisingly, the Carl's Vineyard barrel had 10 votes for every one that went to the Tori.

FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE: A lady clerk at Pellegrini Family Vineyards gets my vote for the friendliest single person we met today. This is a hard decision to make, because people on the wine road are friendly, and it's an easy in to meet the actual local winemakers. Randy at Harvest Moon was the most accessible winemaker. All three people we spoke with at Christie's Winery were very pleasant to talk to.

So tomorrow is another day to taste the wonderful wines of Sonoma County. If the Russian River vintners will "sell no wine before it's bottled," as the old joke goes, at least we can taste them and get an idea of what's in store for us next year.

Camellia Cellars
57 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Harvest Moon Estate & Winery
2192 Olivet Road
Santa Rosa, California 95401

Holdredge Winery
51 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Manzanita Creek
1441 B, Grove Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Pellegrini Family Vineyards
4055 West Olivet Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95404

Russian Hill Estate Winery
4525 Slusser Rd.
Windsor, Ca 95492

Sapphire Hill Vineyards & Winery
51 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Suncé Winery
1839 Olivet Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Thumbprint Cellars
36 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Wilson Winery
1960 Dry Creek Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I am now a part of the barrel tasting work force, I enjoy the reviews of critics who truely enjoy this event from the 'outside'. I am still coming down from the exilleration of sampling so many people our food and wine at our new location. You seemed to hit the highlights and I appreciate your passion of the quest. Just one question - how could we more qualify for friendliest people? I am still working to rest my smile and relax my enthusiam from this sun soaked weekend.
Scott Lindstrom-Dake
thumbprint cellars

3/08/2005 9:58 AM  
Blogger DrPat said...

Scott, we enjoyed so much our visit to Thumbprint's tasting room - especially the Cabernet Port! You and your "chef" assistant were inundated with people, yet you were both outgoing and sunny throughout.

And you let your "better half" stay in the cool indoors on that very warm weekend. So great wine, great food and a happy spouse win you lots of kudos in my book!

3/08/2005 12:42 PM  

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