Tis the Season for Champagne — My Summer Find for Your Winter Cheer

roxypicklogoThe summer of 2016 was a game-changer for me when it came to the bubbly. That was the season I took a class on champagne and sparkling wine (A big “thanks” to my instructor Sue Slater—chair of the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program at Cabrillo College—for her devotion and passion to the drink).

Now no offense to sparkling wine, but my world—and palate—was rocked due to my exposure to a broader range of champagne, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a world of difference from sparklers produced outside of the Champagne region.

The topic of champagne versus sparkling wine is one left for another day. What I really want to share with you dear readers is one of my favorite champagnes—one in which I hope you will imbibe this holiday season, and beyond.

I’m talking about J-M Sélèque Solessence, NV Brut Champagne, a bubbly I happily and frequently lap up. A blend of 50 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Meunier and 10 percent Pinot Noir from the 2013 harvest, this Brut also contains 50 percent of reserve wines from perpetual reserve.j-m-seleque-solessence-brut

The appearance is wheat in color with a soft, subtle pink hue. The beads are small and delicate, as is the mousse, and the perlage lasts a good 1 hour minimum.

The nose exhibits yeast, green apple, peach, grapefruit and stony salinity.

Medium-plus acid defines the palate, with flavors of grapefruit, orange rind, Frambois, fresh raspberry and fresh cranberry, all enveloped in a rich and creamy mouthfeel. The finish is a tad bitter, yet minerally and long.

I purr over this wine’s fine balance of traditional champagne varieties—there’s plenty of acidity to refresh the palate and complement food, yet enough fruit to enjoy on its own.

Pair this champagne with appetizers of Italian green olives; and crostini with Gorgonzola, cippolini, and a caramelized onion spread with parsley and grated walnut and olive oil drizzle.


Beads: bubbles

Brut (“strong”): dry in style with less than 15 grams per liter (g/l) of residual sugar (RS)

Champagne: the region

champagne: the drink

Mousse: frothy stream of surface bubbles in a glass of champagne or sparking wine

Perlage: stream of bubbles originating at the bottom of the glass, like a pearl necklace

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R&W Vineyards: Work, Love, and Play Give Rise to Fine Wine

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aIt is often said, “The couple who plays together, stays together.” But, what about the couple who not only plays together but also works and lives together? For William (Bill) Wood and Noel Relyea, the relevancy in doing nearly everything together is that is enables self-sufficiency. “The fun for us is being able to handle all aspects of our lives,” says Relyea.

A major aspect of their lives is their shared love of red wine, which encouraged them to establish R&W Vineyards, a boutique winery located on Montebello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above the city of Cupertino, Calif. At an elevation of 1,895 feet, the winery produces 300 cases a year of hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Red wine is not the only element that binds them together. Both (now retired) have Ph.D.s in biochemistry from Cornell University. The couple didn’t know one another while attending Cornell. After graduation, Relyea found employment on the East Coast, eventually moving to California in 1994. Wood had been living in the “Golden State” since 1982. Their paths finally crossed in 1997 when they met on an Ivy League singles website.


Bill Wood and Noel Relyea, proprietors-winemakers, R&W Vineyards. Join R&W Vineyards Sunday, December 4, 2016 from 1 to 4 pm for its annual Holiday Open House.

Through a running club Relyea met Jim Bordoni, owner of the then Bordoni Vineyards in Vallejo. She started working as a volunteer during harvest, eventually taking wine appreciation classes. “I thought that this [harvest] was great fun, and when I met Bill he joined me,” she says. “It [soon] registered that ‘jeez, this is what we could do’.”


R&W Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The couple married in 2003; in the autumn of that year they purchased a modest-sized house on 3.5 acres on Montebello Ridge. In 2005, with guidance from Ron Mosley, a local viticulturist and enologist, they planted half an acre of estate grapes: mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of Cabernet Franc.

Wood jokes about how the hand-picked grapes travel only a few feet from the vineyard to the winery for processing. “There’s no freeway wine here,” he laughs, comparing their so-called commute to long hauls to and from the Mt. Veeder appellation in Napa Valley where they source Cabernet Sauvignon –- the first of their varietals to grace consumer palates, followed by Syrah.

These wines are on the menu of The House of William & Merry, a redone farmhouse in Hockessin, Delaware that serves high-end, farm-to-table cuisine. Co-owned and co-operated by Relyea’s daughter Merry Catanuto, the restaurant goes through a case of Syrah a week. This comes as a pleasant surprise, considering that Syrah typically doesn’t sell well in Delaware, according to Catanuto. “People don’t understand Syrah’s flavor profile and assume that it will be more like an Australian Shiraz –- bold, spicy and in your face. Their[R&W] Syrah has some of those characteristics, but it isn’t as intense and can also be drunk without food,” she explains, emphasizing that diners like the Syrah because it also pairs nicely with food. dsc03567

Catanuto says her restaurant also sells through the Mt. Veeder Cab due in part to Delawareans’ recognition of the Napa Valley. According to Catanuto, sales of both the Mt. Veeder Cab and the Syrah, which is from the Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, rival those of well-established California labels on the menu such as Larkmead Vineyards and Camus Vineyards.

Showing some modesty, Relyea attributes the success of their wines at the restaurant to the family connection, but Catanuto isn’t shy about this point: “To say that our family runs a winery serves as a good talking point with customers.” She explains that at first, some diners are skeptical of the wine because they think it’s made in the basement of a “mom and pop” operation. Once they taste it, however, their tune quickly changes.


Gravity flow is used to transfer the wine from the fermentation tanks down to the oak barrels in the cellar. Argon pressure moves the wine back upstairs to ground level for racking and bottling. (Photo courtesy of R&W Vineyards)

Despite the varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon is king in the Relyea-Wood household. They like big, fruit-flavored Cabs. Getting mountain grapes to ripen more than those grown on the valley floor can be challenging; however, the cooler mountain temperatures allow the grapes to ripen longer, developing full, rich flavors. Sporting an almost devilish grin, Wood explains that the Mt. Veeder grapes ripen until they “golf-ball” (wrinkle), “with just the slightest little pucker on them.”

Given the couple’s professional backgrounds, one might assume that chemistry guides much of their winemaking decisions. “We do apply chemistry, but we don’t use it that much,” says Wood. However, keeping the yeast happy is imperative. “We feed our yeast and treat them very well,” smiles Wood, recalling some lessons he learned from his father who was a microbiologist. Nonetheless, Wood did make the mistake once –- just once –- of forgetting to feed the yeast, resulting in a stuck fermentation.


The cozy cellar, with its vaulted ceiling and stone walls, houses up to 21 barrels. The wines are aged in 100 percent French oak for one to two years, followed by an additional one to two years in bottle before being released. (Photo courtesy of R&W Vineyards)

One might also assume that working and living together would pose some issues. Aside from a difference of opinion early on over how much space to give the cellar versus the stock room, the couple’s interests vary enough that between the two of them they fill in the empty spaces. Of the two, Wood is more meticulous, says Relyea. “[For example], he makes sure to treat the grape must and wine gently.” Wood punches down the must cap three times a day during fermentation.

Wood also works in the vineyard during spring, as Relyea is highly allergic to grasses. Oddly enough, her allergies don’t affect her palate. She is the expert taster in the family. Wood prepares the blind tasting trials, and Relyea does the sampling. While her husband does partake, Relyea is the first one to identify any faults in the wines. “It’s remarkable what she can pick up,” says Wood with amazement.


The image of the constellation in the upper-right is on the back of every bottle of R&W wines.

Their teamwork is seen in every aspect of the business. Even the artwork for the wine bottles was a dual effort. For instance, Wood’s passion for astronomy was the inspiration for the constellation and telescope embossed on the back of each bottle.The accompanying quote from Leonardo da Vinci was Relyea’s find: “The discovery of a good wine is increasingly better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.”


Backside of the observatory dome, with the winery building to the right. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Wood, when he has time, enjoys taking pictures of galaxies through an observatory he had built atop the “barn,” a 1,000-square-foot, two-story custom-designed entertainment space adjacent to the winery.

And, what could be more relaxing than sipping wine under the stars –- wine that does not come with a hefty price tag. “Our goal is to make a seventy dollar bottle of wine and sell it for forty,” says Wood, explaining that consumers tend to associate price with quality. All of their wines sell for under $40: Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; Cabernet Sauvignon, Betchart Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains; Mt. Veeder Cab, Camalie Vineyards, Napa Valley; and Syrah, Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley.


The “barn” plays host to private tastings and intimate gatherings. Expansive windows give way to Santa Clara County and beyond. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)


Giant chessboard adds an air of whimsy to R&W Vineyards. The infinity pool (background) hugs the hillside. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

If you visit R&W for a tasting and after a few sips of wine start seeing “…men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,” don’t worry. The wine hasn’t been spiked, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit isn’t blaring from the overhead speakers, and you haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole and into the bizarre world in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The giant on-site chessboard is real and made of tile inset into the stone patio. Light-weight, oversized plastic chess pieces are weighted down with sand bases. The chessboard was inspired by Wood, whose father taught him how to play the game.

The view from the patio, which also boasts a swimming pool, is breathtaking. The eye can see nearly four Bay Area counties: Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Alameda, including landmarks such as the San Mateo Bridge and Moffett Field. The view just falls short of the San Francisco and Oakland skylines.

Seeing is believing: Having spent some time with Wood and Relyea, I’d say that they are the epitome of “the couple who plays together stays together.” But, with all this work, when do they have time to play? Between wine making duties, they enjoy running. They also volunteer for the Stevens Creek Volunteer Fire Department. When harvest is done they enjoy traveling. Their journeys have taken them to Patagonia, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia and even Spain, where they hiked and ran along the Costa Brava –- as well as enjoyed the local wines under the Iberian stars.

R&W Vineyards is hosting its Holiday Open House, 1 to 4 pm Sunday, December 4, 2016. Sample a pre-release of the 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This event is open to the public.

R&W Vineyards is open by appointment-only and is located at 15060 Montebello Road, Cupertino, California 95014. To schedule a tasting, call 408-872-1540 or email info@rwvineyards.com. Visit www.rwvineyards.com for a list of or to purchase current vintages.

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A Nearly Extinct Grape Makes a Bold Comeback

roxypicklogoGiven my Greek heritage, and also the fact that it was Orthodox Greek Easter (on May 1), I figured that this was as good an occasion as any to open a Greek wine. In case you are wondering if cats have an ethnic background, the answer is “Yes.” I am Greek because the woman with whom I live is Greek. It’s that simple.

A grape that is considered to produce one of the most aromatic white varietals of Greece, Malagouzia (pronounced: Mah lah gou zya’) results in wines that are anything but shy. Case in point is the 2012 Alpha Estate AXIA Malagouzia,  from the Turtles subregion of the Amyndeon plateau of Greece. The ecosystem of the vineyard is called Turtles and is an ancient nesting area for the local turtle species that is preserved and protected. Hmm. Watching a turtle walk around must be as exciting as watching me go about my day…pretty uneventful. Seriously though, you wouldn’t know it by looking at me but I am an animal-rights activist and wildlife conservationist, just like the woman with whom I live. Okay, back to the wine.

Light yellow with a green tinge, the aromas of this 100 percent Malagouzia leap from the glass and range from jasmine and honeysuckle, mint and rosemary, white peach and citrus to green apple and green melon, apricot, and tropical fruits to warm brioche.

Malagouiza 2012

Photo by Cynthia Bournellis

Dry, full-bodied and complex, the 2012 vintage expresses luscious flavors of creamy custard, lemon zest, citrus, clove and nutmeg, and dried herbs—all wrapped in medium-plus, solid acidity. Warm spices, flint, wet stone and herbaceous notes create a long, lingering, sublime finish. Despite some earlier reviews that suggested consuming this vintage by 2015, the 2012 was nowhere on its way out—or I wouldn’t be writing about it. In fact, dry Malagouzia is known to age in bottle beyond four years.

A once almost extinct grape, Malagouzia originated in the region of Nafpaktos in western Greece, and in the early 1980s was recognized by winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou for the potential it had for producing great, complex wines. Today, many wineries in Greece harvest this grape to produce 100 percent Malagouzia, or to use it in a blend, giving this indigenous grape a second life. Malagouzia is grown in a number of regions in Greece, including the Peloponnese, Central Greece and Greek Macedonia.

Now normally I would have prepared a fine Greek meal to complement the wine, but I had celebrated Easter dinner earlier that day and just wanted to experience this varietal on its own. If, however, you want a food-pairing suggestion, then try the 2012 vintage (if you can find it) or a current dry vintage with grilled white fish; a traditional Greek salad (cucumber, red onion, tomato, green bell pepper, feta cheese and Kalamata olives tossed in red wine vinegar, olive oil and oregano); dolmades (Greek stuffed grape leaves); and spanakopita (Greek spinach pie)—all of which highlight the wine’s herbaceous character and crisp acidity.

Koulourakia (top) and Kourambiethes (bottom). Photo by Cynthia Bournellis

But in honor of the occasion, I nibbled on Greek Easter pastries—koulourakia and kourambiethes—my Yaya Helen and I made using an old family recipe.

Hronia Polla (happy [post] Easter)! 

Roxy’s yaya (grandmother) Helen. Photo by Dan Murphy

Alpha Estate is located in northwestern Greece in the Amyndeon, Florina region. For further information, email: info@alpha-estate.com


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Tasting Room Etiquette, Part 3—The Tasting Room Table Has Turned

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_a

In my first two installments on tasting room etiquette, One and Two, I wrote about customer do’s and don’ts. Well, etiquette goes both ways. This post is for tasting room hosts, although anyone can benefit.

Take Your Stinkin’ Paws Off Me You Damn Dirty Ape! gorilla public domainOkay, calm down. This is a famous line from the original 1968 movie Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston plays U.S. astronaut Taylor (aka Bright Eyes) who forcefully speaks up when being yanked from a suspended net by a gorilla. I don’t think that tasting room hosts are damn, dirty apes. They are very nice people who work very hard, often for minimal compensation. By this analogy I mean, please don’t grab my glass away from me to pour my wine, unless absolutely necessary. If you can’t reach it, I’ll bring it closer to you. Proper wine service requires that hosts pour the wine without touching the glass. 

Lip Service 101. My glass is for my lips only, not for the neck of the wine bottle. In other words, please don’t let the neck touch the lip of the glass when pouring. Doing so can spread germs. Think about it: Your hands and fingers touch the neck of the bottle when removing the foil and cork, or when handling bottles in general. If your hands are not clean—and they should be—you could transfer germs to the bottle, and ultimately the glass. When the neck touches one glass, it touches them all.

cork public domainThis One Just Blows My Cork. Now and then wine will dribble down the neck of the bottle after being poured. It takes skill to avoid this, whether using pour spouts or not, so that’s what towels are for. Nonetheless, don’t use the lip of the glass to scrape off excess wine. I bit my tongue the first time this happened to me. My tasting room host said that she was “helping out her son for the day…and didn’t know much about wine.” After each pour, she scraped. So, before each new pour, I turned my glass around to a virgin position on the bowl, as well as wiped down the rim of the bowl with a napkin. I didn’t want to create a possible awkward moment by pointing out her faux pas, and thus let it go. I will never be silent again. If a bit of wine dribbles down the neck of bottle, wipe it off with a towel until you become proficient at pouring. (Note to wineries: Please don’t put inexperienced hosts behind the bar, unless they are in training and are under the supervision of an experienced professional.)

Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting. Tasting rooms can get very busy. I get that. But it’s up to the tasting room manager to staff appropriately. Even so, regardless of how many hosts are working on any given day, it’s important that they acknowledge customers when they walk in, at least within the first five seconds. If you can’t serve new guests right away, greet them and let them know that you’ll be with them shortly. Most customers will understand. They just want to know that they are welcomed. I once waited 30 seconds (Yes, I watched the clock) before being greeted. While this was unacceptable, I “tested” the staff by continuing to wait. Some staffers looked at me but no one verbally or physically acknowledged me. So I left and they lost a potential sale.

Pushy, Pushy. Sometimes customers visit a tasting room because they are interested in a pushingspecific varietal and don’t want to do the entire flight. I once had a host INSIST that I try the winery’s chocolate sparkling wine. Really? I hate judging a wine without trying it, but I just couldn’t take this seriously. I kindly declined, but she kept INSISTING. She also INSISTED that I try the sparkling with chocolate and pushed a plate of bittersweet my way. I wanted to tell her to “get off my back,” but just couldn’t squash her enthusiasm for the product. Furthermore, my friends—with their morbid curiosity—tried the “pairing” just to indulge our host. So, I caved. The sparkling was god awful. I spit it in the dump bucket—I just couldn’t get myself to swallow it. And, I ate the chocolate only to mask that nasty flavor residing on my palate. The host asked me what I thought, her doe eyes beaming with anticipation. To avoid being brutally honest, I simply told her that I’m just not a fan of off-dry wine and thanked her for her hospitality.

Lesson here: Respect the customers’ wishes. But, if you want to further engage them in conversation, politely ask what it is about the varietal they are denying that they don’t like. If your wine doesn’t match their preconceived notion, then you could give them more information and maybe they’ll change their mind and try the wine. If not, let it go. 

wine wordSpeak the Lingo. One of my biggest pet peeves is being served by hosts who have not been properly trained in some of the basics. I understand that it will take someone new to the wine industry to get up to speed. But, if you can’t speak the basic wine lingo, get a wine dictionary—there’s tons of wine-related resource books on the market. Case in point: A sweet, yet ill-informed, host at a tasting room I visited told me that the winery had a new winemaker who changed the “recipe” of the wines. Winemakers don’t use recipes; winemakers have winemaking “styles.” Simple examples: Oaky, buttery Chardonnay versus stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay. This time I spoke up by politely correcting her. She just giggled. Whatever.

This Wine Smells Like Man’s Best Friend! Wine education is a life-long process, so I wet dog public domaindon’t expect tasting room personnel to get bogged down in the minutia of it all, unless I ask. I do, however, expect them to know when a wine is corked. Corked wine is a flaw (wine flaws differ from faults) and is caused by cork taint. One chief cause of this is the presence of the chemical compounds 2,4,6-trichloransiole, or TCA.

TCA production is a complicated process. In general, TCA is produced when airborne fungi come in contact with the cork and transferred to the wine. Corked aromas include dank, moldy basement; wet dog; and wet newspaper. Sometimes the presence of TCA is extremely subtle; other times it smacks you in the face. Some people have higher thresholds than others when it comes to recognizing TCA. If you detect the slightest bit of an off aroma, get a second opinion from one of your tasting room colleagues. If you are working alone, play it safe and just open another bottle and leave the suspect wine for the winemaker to inspect.

Wine pouring 101: Before you open the tasting room, test the wines by looking at the color, smelling the wines, tasting them, and spitting them out.

only you public domainOh, It’s Only You. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “snubbed” by tasting room staff after learning that I’m industry. Most wineries will comp tasting room fees for industry colleagues. This practice isn’t law, it’s just a courtesy. Not all wineries partake, and that’s okay. But if yours does, please treat me with the same respect you’d treat a non-industry customer. Us industry folk can be one of your best ambassadors—if we like your wines and, more important, your hospitality. Bear with me please as an example is in order.

Of all the responses I’ve received over the years, this one—so far—takes the cake: I approached the register of a winery whose tasting room was designed to charge the tasting fee first before handing customers their glass and advancing them to the tasting bar. I approached the register, was greeted fairly quickly, and asked if I had “checked in.” I looked around to make sure that I wasn’t at a hotel, having never been asked this question before at a tasting room. Then the host (who by the way was the tasting room manager) asked me if I was a wine club member. Now that’s a legitimate question because wine club members taste for free. I said “no” and asked if they “take industry” (industry-speak for “comp the fee”). Here was her response (and this is no exaggeration): She curled her upper lip and donned a frown before saying “oh” in a tone of disappointment.

Ok, so you can imagine my inference. She may have just as well said: “Oh, it’s an industry person who wants to taste for free and has no intention of buying wine.” I mean what am I? Chopped liver? No, I’m a customer—and a wine ambassador—remember?

My gut reaction was to jokingly say, “Sorry to disappoint you.” But once again (as in etiquette #3 above), I curbed the urge to verbally purge. (I really need to work on this.) Anyway, she finally said, “Yes, we comp industry, but only with a business card.” I kindly gave her my card and after taking notice, she changed her tune and praised the heck out of our Pinot Noirs. I may not have spoken up but our wines sure did. Touché!

P.S. In case you are wondering, I didn’t buy any wine—not because I’m a freeloading industry person. I didn’t buy wine because 1) the price-quality relationship of was not equal (that’s a topic for a future post). And 2) even more important, the hospitality, with the exception of one individual, was subpar.

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A Regal Rosé Fit for Any Occasion

roxypicklogoIf you think December is too cold for drinking Rosé, think again. Dry Rosés go with any season and with any meal. It’s the perfect wine for pairing with goat cheese, salmon, baked ham, cranberry sauce, yams, deli meats, Asian food, sweet and sour dishes, and even white fish.

One of my favorite Rosés is Chateau de Trinquevedel Tavel. The current vintage is 2014, but I’m still lapping up the 2013, given that this is one Rosé that benefits from aging. When consumed during the first two years, this wine displays fruity, fresh character—bursts of deep red berries and raspberry—which mirrors the palate. With longer aging, aromas evolve into a bouquet of dried and stewed fruits. tavel2011_web-2

Strong acidity delivers a solid Rosé from year to year. Deep Salmon in color, the 2014 is Grenache-dominant, with Cinsault, Clairette, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Bourboulenc. Wines from the Tavel Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in the southern Rhône wine region of France have been favorites among kings, novelists and popes—I sense something regal happening here. No wonder I love it!

Clean, fresh, fruity and bright, Tavel from Chateau de Trinquevedel is an elegant Rosé that will add a touch of elegance to your Christmas dinner.

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Skinner Vineyards & Winery Puts the “Aah” in Syrah—and in So Much More

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aBased on a recommendation, I found myself driving along windy roads through the Sierra Foothills with my friend Cathy in search of a winery called Skinner Vineyards & Winery in California’s El Dorado County. We weren’t sure what to expect (neither of us had been to the Fair Play AVA). But, sometimes the unknown makes the journey worth taking.

Our jaws dropped as we rounded that final bend toward the hilltop estate. At 2,600 feet, the view of the Sierra Foothills was breathtaking—so much that we took our time getting to the tasting room, oohing an aahing our way around the landscaped grounds. Three-thousand square feet of outdoor terraces provide room for tasting and seating, along with a wood-fire pizza oven and three fireplaces. A spring wagon and a wine press, both from the 1860s, add rustic charm. skinner vineyards_lawn seating

We arrived on a Monday and were the only guests there. The quietness was Zen-like, and the sound of water trickling from a decorative pond gave me pause. So I relaxed in one of the cushy chairs on the upper outdoor deck, where I pondered life while gazing at the nearly dormant old Grenache vine adjacent to the pond.

The Skinner property captivates your visual senses, and even calms your soul, but, it is the wine that is oh so satisfying—think, velvety tannins.

Skinner pond and stairs

From the upper patio, visitors may relax by the pond/tiny stream or descend the wooden stairs to the lower grounds.

Skinner specializes in varietals patterned after Rhone wines. Three wines in particular got my attention, with the 2012 Dry Diggings forever etched on my mind. This wine is always a Syrah-based blend: the 2012 is 33 percent Syrah, with Grenache, Mourvédre, Petite Sirah and Counoise (Counoise is a black-skinned grape that adds a peppery note and good acidity to a red blend). This full-bodied wine fills the senses with aromas of meat, plum, and blackberry with hints of tar, anise, black pepper and dried flowers. The palate has bright acidity.

Unlike the Diggings Syrah-based blend, the Eighteen Sixty-One blend is Grenache-driven. The 2012 vintage—which includes Mourvédre, Counoise, Syrah and Viognier—has aromas of raspberry and dark cherry. Notes of clove, nutmeg and vanilla dance on top of earthy notes of forest floor, dried herbs and pipe tobacco. A touch of minerality and fresh acidity complement the finish.

From left to right: 2012 Eighteen Sixty-One, 2012 Estate Grenache, and 2012 Dry Diggings (photo by Cynthia Bournellis

Left to right: 2012 Eighteen Sixty-One, 2012 Estate Grenache, 2012 Dry Diggings (photo by Cynthia Bournellis

The Estate Grenache is one of the five varietals planted at the original J. Skinner Winery in the 1860s. The 2012 vintage is 100 percent Grenache produced from three different clones, which result in a complex wine with deep character. This Grenache wants to be seen and heard: ruby-red with aromas of dark cherry, raspberry and sage. The palate is similar but with rich flavors of plum, surrounded by modest tannin and good acidity—all leading to a lingering finish of mineral and holiday spice. This is my type of Grenache: bold and chewy.

Skinner Vineyards & Winery

All other photos courtesy of Cathy Bentley

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Branciforte Creek Vineyard: Complex, Elegant Pinot Noir—from the Vineyard to the Glass

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aThe Early Days
There’s a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains that dates back to the mid-1800s. It is known today as Branciforte Creek Vineyard, and is part of one of the oldest continuously operated grape-growing regions in California—a 300-acre site originally called Rancho San Andres, in what is now the Vine Hill District, above the city of Scott’s Valley.*

The region was established in 1863. According to a manuscript written by Robert Jarvis Sr., as told to him by his late father George Millen Jarvis, George bought cuttings from France and planted them in his vineyard. Around 1865 George’s brother, John Jarvis, arrived from Oregon and bought a ranch across Blackman Gulch to the east of Vine Hill and developed a vineyard. He built a road to connect with Branciforte Road. That road is Jarvis Road. (By 1868, the Jarvis brothers’ plantings comprised 90 percent of the 300 acres.)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1908s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1980s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is located on Jarvis Road, just one mile from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s historic Estate, formerly called “Jarvis Vineyard.”

Fast-Forward to 1988: A New Generation of Farmers
As noted, Branciforte Creek Vineyard sits on a site that had produced grapes continuously since 1863. However, it had become fallow over time but was reclaimed in the late 1980s by Dave “Woody” Wood and his wife Jennifer.

The Pinot Noir that had been produced by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard impressed Woody so much that he decided to breathe life back into this once fallow land. So, he broke ground in 1988, planting both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on St. George rootstock, a hefty rootstock that does well in this vineyard’s sandy soil, which has very little nutrients. Later, Woody grafted the Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. From this vineyard, Jeff Emery co-produced his first vintage of Branciforte Creek Pinot in 1991, when at the time he was assistant winemaker to then Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard owner-winemaker Ken Burnap.

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
(Photo by Ken Swegles)

Farming, however, was not in Woody’s blood, so from 1992 to 2002 he contracted the tending of the vines to local winemaker David Bruce and Bruce’s then vineyard manager Greg Stokes. Emery didn’t make wine again from that vineyard until 2003—after he purchased Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (the name, equipment, and inventory) from Burnap, who retired.

In 2007, Emery took over the viticulture activities at Branciforte Creek Vineyard. When it was first planted, the vineyard was established on a vertical trellis system for cordon pruning but was changed over to cane pruning to ensure better fruit set, as Pinot Noir tends to be apical-dominant—the shoots grow upward to get more light, and thus undergo photosynthesis. Emery explains the advantage of cane-pruned vines: “Cane pruning lets you leave behind a cane each year with one to two bud spurs for the next year. So you get all the fruit off this one cane.”

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vine rows run east and west and thus get the morning sun, which moves over the vines during the day, finally setting on the west side of the vineyard, welcoming the cool nights. The downhill side of the vineyard (which is 750 feet in elevation) faces somewhat south and experiences more shading, which varies throughout the summer. Emery calls this section the “banana belt” because it gets warm but not scathingly hot, and the fog comes in but doesn’t linger forever. “In a normal summer, there’s a seven- to ten-day cycle where there’s a good balance of sun and fog,” says Emery.

This balance is perfect for the vines, which need the cooler nights to maintain their acid. Since acid slowly goes away as fruit ripens—day after day, week after week—Emery is careful, not to “burn out acid,” as he puts it, in disproportion to sugar development by ensuring that the grapes are not overripe at harvest time. “I don’t like a strawberry soda pop [type of] Pinot,” he adds.

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A No-Fuss Approach to Viticulture
Emery and his crew farm Branciforte Creek Vineyard somewhat modestly. Vineyard maintenance consists of mechanical weed control (mower and weed eater). Herbicides are not used—instead, native vegetation is left to grow during the season, and a good amount of wild mustard provides the vines enough nitrogen.

Powdery mildew, a fungus indicative to the Santa Cruz Mountains, is more common and is controlled via the spraying of sulfur early in the season. Fortunately, 2014 was good weatherwise—not much mildew was present, so spraying was minimal. Emery stays on top of mildew control, given his long history of working vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The text book interval is overkill,” he says. “A lot of it [viticulture] just comes down to budget.”

Eutypa is another disease that sometimes affects the vines. Caused by the fungus Eutypa Lata, Eutypa produces cankers that appear typically on one arm of the vine, moving toward the roots and ultimately killing the plant. As a result, some replanting has taken place.

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vineyard is pretty much spared when it comes to bacterial disease. For example, Pierce’s Disease is not an issue, since the property is not located near a riparian zone.
Pests of the vertebrate kind include birds, which eat the berries but are not a major threat since netting is used. Gophers, however, are more of a nuisance, but their numbers are small.

There are some issues with insects such as mealy bugs, which the ants eat because they live off of the honey dew that the bugs secrete. To combat mealy bugs, the crew applies natural orange oil to the vines, which suffocates the critters.

A Vineyard that Delivers, Time and Time Again
Branciforte Creek is unique in its ability to bear fruit that produces a wine whose character is consistently exceptional year-over-year, with interesting complexity. One exceptional vintage was 2007. “It has lots of spicy and floral complexities,” says Emery, comparing it to 2004, which he says was a much hotter year, resulting in a more fruit-forward wine without as many savory complexities.

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

This depth of complexity, says Emery, has everything to do with the Pommard clone—in which the vineyard is planted—and the site, which he insists trumps the viticulture. “This clone is very distinct when it comes to white pepper, savory spice and a floral, perfume character.”

The soil too greatly influences the wine. The upper block of the vineyard (which is 800 feet in elevation) is basically a sandbox, in which pests such as Phylloxera—a tiny aphid-like insect—cannot live. In a cooler climate such as the Santa Cruz Mountains, the soil benefits the vineyard by draining well and retaining heat. Because of this, the vines can produce a highly aromatic wine. One sniff of the Branciforte Creek wine is all it takes to understand this aspect of the terroir. However, this block requires irrigating two to three times more than the lower section where the soil consists of sandy loam and clay. The combined soil types here impart a muscular character to this Pinot Noir—this is not a wimpy wine.

A Sense of “Place” in Your Glass
To describe Branciforte Creek Vineyard as nothing more than just 4 acres of Pinot Noir would be, well, an insult. There’s a Zen-like quality to the place that can be experienced during early morning harvest when the fog lingers over the vineyard, caressing the vines. Dew clings to the grape clusters, puffs of dust rise gently with each step through the rows, the air is brisk and the silence is hauntingly beautiful.

B40Creek labelThe wine too will haunt you, as its garrigue permeates your soul. Redwood, bay leaf, sage, thyme and fennel surround more delicate, deep round notes of lavender, perfume, dark cherry and rhubarb. Savory spice, dried leaves and damp earth dance among these layers, which are enveloped in noticeable acidity. (For more on the wine, read The Composition and the Creek: Listen, Sip and, by All Means, Weep)

This vineyard has low yields—due in part to the nature of the Pommard clone—and represents what Emery says is “the best of ‘old school’ Pinot Noir, before all of those cola- cherry-focused ‘modern’ clones became so popular.”

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is one that shows off the best attributes of what the Santa Cruz Mountains offers in terms of complexity in Pinot Noir. Adds Emery: “An excellent combination of clone and site, this vineyard celebrates the non-fruity elements in Pinot that make it a fascinating variety.”

* “Late Harvest: Wine History of the Santa Cruz Mountains,” The Late Harvest Project, Michael, et al., Santa Cruz, Calif., 1983.

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