Monday, March 19, 2007

Oh Shenandoah

Last week I did a quick review of a few of the wineries in the Fair Play region of Eldorado County. If you keep heading south 10-15 minutes from Fair Play, you'll cross the Amador County line and come upon the Shenandoah Valley wine district.

No, this isn't the Shenandoah Valley of song and legend. There's no rolling river through this valley. However, it is a beautiful valley of rolling oak-dotted hills, interspersed with green vineyards, well worth a Sunday drive. But there’s more to see here than just pretty trees.

If you’re coming south from Fair Play, the first winery that you’ll encounter is Sobon Estate, right on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley. The wines here vary widely in quality, though they make an excellent reserve zin (no really, I’m serious, this one is more than a booze bomb). I’ve also been impressed by their 2004 Reserve Carignane, which has a surprising complexity.

After Sobon Estate, there are several ways to go through the valley. You can stay on the main drag (Plymouth-Shenandoah Road), take a loop on Steiner Road, or turn off onto Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road. My recommendation is to take the Steiner Road loop and then continue down Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road.

The Steiner Road loop is home to several wineries, some more worthy of note than others. One of the biggest wineries in the area is Renwood Winery – you sometimes see their wines in grocery stores and at Cost Plus. Overall, I’m not too impressed with their offerings, other than a 1999 Amador County syrah I had once. Still, they have one of the largest and nicest tasting rooms in the valley.

One place well worth visiting on the Steiner loop is Amador Foothill Winery. Winemakers Katie Quinn and Ben Zeitman do an impressive job on just about all of their wines. My special favorite is their 2004 Katie’s Cote, a Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache. This wine has earthly aromas, dense dark fruit flavors, with a touch of dark mocha on the finish. Excellent.

I was also impressed with their 2004 Sauvignon Blanc. This wine has just a touch of citrus on the nose, but much stronger notes of peach and apricot. Very nice and much fuller than your typical sauvignon blanc. Good acidity makes it very crisp and tart, with good notes of citrus and lemon rind. A very balanced and refreshing wine.

Once you emerge from the Steiner Road loop, cross the main highway and continue south on Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road. Give Karmere Winery a pass. We found their wines to be way too sweet and alcoholic for our tastes. They even had almond- and raspberry-flavored sparkling wines that were pretty nasty.

However, a little farther down the road and around a corner is Cooper Vineyards, where you can wash the raspberry flavor out of your mouth. A tiny tasting room packed with barrels greets you. But the wines here are consistently drinkable. Notables include their syrah, viognier and petite sirah.

Continuing south, you’ll pass Montevina Winery. Easily the largest winery in the Shenandoah Valley, Montevina wines can be found in grocery stores everywhere. Which is why I’ve never stopped in for a tasting. Maybe their wines are OK. I honestly don’t know.

On your way back to the main road, you’ll see the imposing Bella Piazza Winery on your left. Ah, Napa comes to the Sierra foothills. This large tourist trap is filled to the rafters with hideous knickknacks. Tuscan-style paintings, rugs, huge terra cotta jars – everything is for sale at Napa prices. Oh yeah, they also have a tasting room, but don’t expect to talk to the owner or winemaker. The girl who served us was nice, but knew virtually nothing about the wines. Do I even need to comment on the quality of the wines?

Once you get back to the main road, there is one more place to stop – the best winery on the whole trip. So turn right, back up the valley, to Domaine de la Terre Rouge. I can’t say enough about this place. They make – hands down – the best Rhone-style wines of any winery in Amador or Eldorado counties.

My personal favorite is the 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah. Strong, fruit-driven aroma. Waves of dense dark fruit, pencil lead, blueberry, black pepper and spice. Very intense and complex. On the palate, again dark, huge fruit flavors, but balanced by notes of vanilla, pepper and spice. Mild tannins. Amazingly balanced and complex.

However, any of their syrahs are excellent, including their Sentinel Oak and Les Cotes de l’Quest syrahs. Their Ascent syrah has even gotten national recognition, though I’ve never been able to afford a bottle. They also make a truly excellent mourvèdre.


Yeah, I know, you just got back from Fair Play, and now I’m sending you right back down to the Shenandoah Valley. Tough.

Directions: The best way to go is to head to Sacramento and then out Highway 16 to Plymouth.

Worth a Hit: Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Amador Foothill, Sobon Estate, Cooper Vineyards

Worth a Miss: Karmere, Stonehouse, Story, Bella Piazza

Dinner: Without a doubt, the best restaurant within 10 miles of the Shenandoah Valley is Taste ( in Plymouth. Superior food, excellent, knowledgeable service, and a good selection of local wines. A must.

Playing Fair

As you may have figured out by now, you’re never going to get a trip review from me for Napa Valley. Sure, there are some great – world class – wines from Napa, but the wine tasting experience there isn’t even remotely enjoyable for me. Crowded, over-hyped and expensive; that’s how I characterize it. A big part of what makes wine tasting enjoyable for me is the relaxed atmosphere; talking with the winemaker him- or herself and enjoying the rural environment.

One of the best places to still capture this experience – and taste some surprisingly stunning wines – is in the Sierra Foothills, only a couple of hours from Chico. This week, I’ll talk about the Fair Play region of Eldorado County. Next week I’ll talk about the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County.

The Fair Play region (roughly 20 minutes south of Placerville) is perhaps the most under-appreciated wine making region in California. Like Lodi, the area is “famous” for its burnt and overblown fruit bomb zinfandels with 16% alcohol, but in my opinion you should skip the zins altogether. What this region really surpasses at are Rhone wines – the syrahs, grenaches and viogniers that hail from the Rhone valley of France.

And one of the best-known places for Rhone wines in Fair Play is Holly's Hill Vineyards ( Holly's Hill prides itself on making Rhone wines and in comparing their wines to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Papes from France. And though they can’t quite compete with a quality Chateauneuf du Pape, they do make some truly top-notch wines. One wine that stands out is the 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. This was wine has a truly earthy complexity and is well worth seeking out. Overall, all of Holly's Hill wines are a clear cut above of the highly alcoholic zinfandel fruit bombs that many of the wineries in this area churn out. Holly’s Hill is easily in the top five or six wineries to visit in the area.

Just down the road from Holly’s Hill is Heaven’s Gate Vineyards ( I missed this winery on my first few trips to the area, but it’s very much worth a stop. Like Holly’s Hill, Narrow Gates owners and Los Angeles escapees Frank and Teena Hildebrand specialize in Rhone Valley wines. I haven’t had the chance to do more than taste their wines at the winery, but their syrah and viognier were both excellent. I will definitely be returning to taste their wines in more detail.

Probably the best overall winery in the Fair Play area is Windwalker Vineyards ( Interestingly enough, while most other wineries focus on either zinfandel booze bombs or refined Rhone wines, owner Arnie Gilpin focuses the weight of his craft on Bordeaux style wines, based on cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. And it shows.

Easily the most developed, most complex, and most profound wine produced in the entire Fair Play region is Windwalker’s Lady in Red Bordeaux blend. Both the 2002 and 2003 vintages (when properly decanted) are absolutely stunning wines that – seriously – could complete with cabernets from Napa and Sonoma. How he gets such complex and full-bodied cabernets in this region I don’t know, but no one else seems to be able to replicate his success. All the other cabs I’ve had in this region were worth a pass.

There is another place also worth your attention, though there is no tasting room, and not even any winery – at least not yet. My partner and I had the great pleasure to taste a syrah from Bechard Vineyards ( at a local restaurant. We were extremely impressed with their 2003 Herbert Vineyard Syrah and decided to look up the seemingly homeless winemakers.

We ended up spending a truly wonderful day talking and tasting wines with Andrea and Ted Bechard in their half-built home near Fair Play. The walls weren’t even complete and the winter wind blew right through the four of us, but there can be no more warming experience than tasting wonderful, interesting wines with the very people who made them. To me, that experience – four people sitting around talking about wine and life – is still the high point of my wine tasting experience.

You can still find that experience in California, but you have to be willing to look for it. Trust me, it’s worth it.


Do I need to spell it out? Head down to the Fair Play region this weekend and taste some wines. Do us all a favor and skip the zinfandels. You might be able to arrange a tasting with the Bechards, but please, don’t everyone overwhelm them at once. Absolutely do not miss Windwalker Vineyards.

Directions: Go to Placerville. Turn south. How hard could it be?

Worth a hit: Windwalker, Holly’s Hill, Narrow Gate, Mount Aukum, Busby

Worth a miss: Fleur de Lys, Granite Springs, Toogood, Winery by the Creek, Oakstone

Dinner: The Gold Vine Grill in Somerset ( Owner Mary Kemp is a wonderful person to talk to and knows everything about the local wines. And the food is superb. Best thing to do is show up at 3:30 for the afternoon tasting menu. Great wines and tasty small plates. Yum!

Monday, March 12, 2007


I've left German wines for last in my lexicon on wine pronunciations for a couple of reasons, but mostly because German wine terms include some of the biggest, longest, most tongue-twistingess words out there. I’m not sure what it is with the Germans; maybe spaces are rare and expensive, but whatever the case, they sure seem to like to string words together. Where the Italians will come up with a long name of three or four words (like “Vernaccia di Serrapetrona”), the Germans like to jam them all together in one really, really long word.

There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re a native German speaker, but the uninitiated tend to blanch when they encounter a word like “trockenbeerenauslese”, which simply means “selected dry berries” – or more literally, “selecteddryberries”. German is full of words like that. How about “weingärtnergenossenschaft”?

No wonder they started a couple of World Wars – they were probably pissed that no one could pronounce their language (or pissed that they had to).

As far as pronunciation goes, I always had trouble with German (no duh). It seems like it should be like English – much of the English language comes from German – but they have some tongue-twisting ways of putting letters together and then saying them. The best thing you can do to improve your German pronunciation is hawk up a big load of phlegm, but don’t spit it out. Just keep it in your mouth and try to talk around it. Crude, I know, but it does wonders every time.

The most obvious difference in German is how “w” is pronounced. Ve all know this one, don’t’ ve? In German “w” is pronounced like “v”.
Gewürztraminer = guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner
Weingärtnergenossenschaft = VINE-gart-nur-geh-NAW-sehn-shaft
“Th is pronounced as “t”. Yes, you’ve been saying “Neanderthal” wrong all this time, you knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.
Müller-Thurgau = MEW-lerr TOUR-gow
Thanisch = TAH-nihsh
Vowels are tricky in German, particularly “ie” and “ei”. I was always saying them wrong. But I finally realized that you pronounce the second vowel and ignore the first. So “ie” is pronounced as “e” and “ei” is pronounced as “i”. Cool.
Riesling = REEZ-ling
Mittelrhein = MIHT-uhl-rine
The letters “Ch” are pronounced as “k” (with a bit of spit thrown in at the end), but not if part of “sch”.
Bereich = beh-RICK
Sachsen = ZAHKH-zuhn
An “e” at the end of a word is often pronounced as “uh”.
Trockenbeerenauslese = TRAWK-uhn-bay-ruhn-OWS-lay-zuh
Grosslage = GROSS-lah-guh
“Pf” is pronounced as “f”.
Rheinpfalz = RINE-faults
In fact there are so many weird pronunciations in German that there’s no way I could cover them all. It’s just too flurbereinigung.


Your homework this week is supposed to be tasting German wines. Well, good luck finding a real German wine in Chico. CostPlus has a couple of bottles and Creekside Cellars has - count 'em - one. You may have to settle for a California- or Washington-grown version of German Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Both are light, often sweet white wines.

Wines of the Week

Dr. H Thanisch 2005 Riesling
Very tart, green apple aroma. Very nice. Just a touch of nectarine and muskmelon on the nose. This wine has the slightest touch of frizzante (a fancy word for fizz), which is nice. It's sweet, almost a bit cloying, so if you like only truly dry wines, this might not appeal to you. The acidity is a bit weak on this wine, so it's not as crisp and refreshing as it might be. Available at CostPlus for $15.99. 3 stars.

Sander Halbtrocken Riesling
Halbtrocken means "half dry", and this is a lightly sweet wine. Muskier and less aromatic than the Thanisch, it has more nectarine and apricot on the nose. On the palate there is no frizzante, but that is more than made up for by a really refreshing crispness. Very nice and enjoyable. This wine goes great with Indian food. I'm not kidding - Rieslings generally pair well with curries and other spicy Asian foods. Available at Creekside Cellars for $12.99. 3.5 stars.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Unpronounceable

Odds are that you know only one word regarding Italian wines: chianti. And who could blame you? I'm convinced that the reason nobody knows anything about Italian wines is because Italian wines are confusing as hell. I mean, there's like 475 different wine producing regions in Italy. Every little village seems to have its own wine that nobody else produces.

For example, the montepulciano grape comes from Abruzzi in east-central Italy (somewhere above the Achilles tendon in the Italian boot), and wines called "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" must be at least 85% montepulciano grape and come from the Abruzzi region. Fair enough. But Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a wine that comes from Tuscany, and is made from the sangiovese grape (the same variety used in chianti), not the montepulciano grape. Huh? Now why would they go and do a thing like that? I thought Italians were nice people.

Where the French are very stuffy and uptight about their wines, I get the feeling that the Italians really don't care. They make great wines, no mistake about it, but they just don't care much about what's called what or defined how or made with what grape. Everybody just does their own thing. As a result, there are a million different types of wines, from barolos and barbarescos to brunello de montalcinos and buttafuocos (I kid you not. You really think I would I make up a name like that?).

It's a consumer nightmare.

I'll go into Italian wines in more detail once I've learned something about them, but today's column is about pronouncing Italian wine terms.

Italian words are easy to pronounce as long as you gesticulate wildly as you talk. OK, OK, that was a cheap shot, but for some reason it really does seem to help. Actually Italian wine terms wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many weird tongue-twisters. Things like “Amarone della Valpolicella” and “Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro”. When it comes to big long names, the Italians are almost as bad as the Germans.

OK, the rules:

If a word ends in “e”, it’s pronounced as its own syllable.

Sangiovese = san-joh-VAY-zeh
Amarone = ah-mah-ROH-neh

If a word has “ci” in it, the letters are pronounced “ch”.

Montepulciano = mon-te-pool-CHAH-noh
Montelcino = mon-tall-CHEE-noh

If a word has “ce” in it, the letters are pronounced “che”.

Docetto = dole-CHET-oh
Valpolicella = vol-paw-lee-CHEL-lah

If a word has “ch” in it, the letters are pronounced “k”. Isn’t this all backwards?

Chianti = kee-AHN-tee

The letters “gna” are pronounced “nyah”, just like “lasagna”.

Albana di Romagna = ahl-BAH-nah dee roh-MAH-nyah
Carmignano = kahr-mee-NYAH-noh


Today’s homework is as simple as last week’s. Try a bottle of Italian wine. Strangely enough, you can probably find a better selection of Italian wines in Chico than French wines. Creekside Cellars, in particular, has an interesting (if sometimes pricey) selection. Cost Plus World Market also carries a small selection. Be forewarned that Italian reds (other than thin insipid chiantis) tend to be BIG wines that need some bottle aging or heavy pasta sauce to cut them down to size. They're not delicate sipping wines.

Wines of the Week

2003 Da Vinci Chianti

Rustic aromas, with lots of vanilla, a touch of herbs and spices, and a faint echo of blackberry bramble. On the palette, it's clear that this wine is past its prime. A bit flat, somewhat tart with just a faint echo of fruit that died a year or two ago. These cheap (uh, affordable) Chiantis are meant to be drunk the day you buy them, so holding it as long as I did was a mistake. Probably decent in its time. Just about anywhere, about $11. 2.5 stars.

2001 Canonico Negroamaro

This little wine hails from the heel of Italy and is actually pretty decent. Rich, with a hint of wood smoke and spice. Not fruity on the nose. Mild red fruit on the palette, but more earthy than fruity. Certainly different from your California fruit bomb. Light, smooth tannins, and a tartness that would go well with pasta. 3 stars. $17.00 at Vino 100.

2001 Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre

I had the 2000 vintage of this wine and it was stunning in its complexity and earthiness. In fact, I bought the last two bottles of the 2000 that Cost Plus had. The 2001, unfortunately, pales in comparison. It's not a bad wine - in fact, its very good - but the 2000 was an incredible wine. A bit of earthiness to this on the nose, and a touch of licorce and spice - oregano and green pepper. Not very fruity or dense, a nice tartness and assertive tannins...but nothing like the 2000. If you can score a bottle of the 2000, pay whatever it takes. Available at Creekside Cellars and Cost Plus for about $20. 3 stars.