Searching for Terroir in the California Wine Country – And Finding It!!

I just returned from a quick trip to Napa and Sonoma.  This was my first trip to the Wine Country in California.  My focus and passion has always leaned to the Old World and I have become somewhat jaded towards new-world wines in general as being too fruit-forward and not built for the long haul.  I hoped to discover otherwise.

We began our visit in Sonoma.  The standout in Sonoma was definitely Hartford Family Winery in the Russian River Valley.   My co-travelers were enamored with the generous single-vineyard, small production Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, which by the way, were fantastic.   However, I found my happy place in a 2005 Syrah.   The first thing that caught my attention was the age of the wine.  At seven years of age, I would consider this Syrah a library wine.  I immediately think, “This could be interesting”.   It did not disappoint.   It was classic Syrah, with smoky bacon, pepper and dark fruits.  I was on my way to a big purple-toothed smile!


I am generally not a huge fan of Zinfandel as they are often too alcoholic and soft to please my palette.  Nonetheless, I was determined to taste with an open mind.  To my pleasant surprise, the 2009 “High Wire” Zinfandel had tremendous grip and plenty of acidity.  This was enough to compel me to purchase a couple of bottles.  I am anxious to revisit.

From Sonoma, we headed to a trade tasting at Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.  The Ramey Winery is nothing more than a warehouse in an industrial strip.  The wines, however, are all the pomp and circumstance necessary for this producer to impress.  Our tasting consisted of two “appellation” Chardonnays from Russian River Valley and Sonoma County; two vineyard designate “premier cru” Chardonnays from Hyde (Carneros) and Ritchie (Russian River Valley); the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a single vineyard Cabernet “Pedregal” Oakville, and a single vineyard Syrah – Rodgers Creek Sonoma 2009.

I was familiar the appellation Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Syrahs, which I carry in my store.  These wines are priced from around $30 for the Chardonnays to around $50 for the Cabernet Sauvignon.  The appellation wines are very good at a modest upgrade from what might be considered entry-level pricing.  The vineyard designate wines reinforced what I appreciate about the Ramey wines.  David Ramey produces classically-styled, terroir-driven wines with an emphasis on structure over ripeness.  It is important to note that all Ramey wines of a given varietal in the same quality tier are produced in exactly the same manner.  Thus, any variation between say, the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is an expression of the differences in terroir, nothing more, nothing less.

The vineyard designate Chardonnays we tasted were classically styled, richly layered, and reminiscent of fine white Burgundies.  The Burgundian influence was particularly evident in the Hyde.  The Hyde Vineyard is in Carneros and planted to the Wente Clone which does not express tropical flavors. So, the resemblance was not surprising.  The Rodgers Creek Syrah, like the Sonoma Syrah is made in a Cote Rotie style, co-fermented with about 7% viognier.  It showed its youth and elegance and should be drinking well in a couple of years with a long development trajectory ahead.

The real show-stopper, however, was the Pedregal Cabernet.  The Pedregal is at the top end of Ramey’s wines.  Tasting proved it to be worth every penny.  This wine literally exploded on the palette. The Pedregal, even in its youthful state, exhibited a balance of fruit and structure. The finish lingered for at least a minute – incredible!  It needs some time in the cellar to settle a bit but should have at least 20 years of life ahead.   If you appreciate classically-styled wines that are excellent values in their price category, give Ramey a try.

Diamond Creek, in the Diamond Mountain AVA, produces three single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons that are a must-have for the aficionado of terroir-expressive collectible wines.  The backdrop to our tasting was a beautiful vista of the three vineyards of the estate. (shown above at top) The view itself was enough to make the journey worthwhile, but we had a treat in store for us – the wines.

Our tasting from ½ bottles featured a vertical of Volcanic Hill, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2009s from both Gravelly Meadow and Red Rock Terrace.  Cidy, the brand ambassador for Diamond Creek,  also prepared a beautiful plate of small bites that were exquisite.  Our first hint that we had come upon something special was the first pour of the 2003 Volcanic Hill.  After nine years, it was layered and firm, with gravelly tannins that had rounded somewhat but would still require several more years to soften. Being a textural aficionado, I’m thinking, “This is my kind of wine”.  The wines that followed were equally amazing, and age worthy.  The 2005 and 2009 Volcanic Hill showed a more refined tannin than the 2003 but still would benefit and develop with cellaring.  The Gravelly Meadow and Red Rock Terrace proved equally provocative and after much discussion, there was no agreement as we each had our favorites.

The last stop on my bucket list for this journey was at Viader (Pronounced Vee-ah-dair)  on Howell Mountain. Of late, it has become harder to find Viader wines in the Texas market.  This scarcity can be attributed to the fact that Viader produces only 1500 cases of its flagship red, a large proportion of which are presold to wine club members.

Frankly, I think mountain fruit separates the pretenders from the contenders in Napa. Cab Franc is one of my passions.   The Viader estate, situated at 1200’ on Howell Mountain has both.   The vineyards are steep and extreme.  Looking west towards the valley from the tasting room, the vineyard rolls over the hillside and falls out of sight.  Tending the vines must be a little scary in certain parts of the vineyard.

The Extreme Vineyards at Viader Overlooking Napa Valley

Brand Ambassador John Rosa started our tasting from a magnum of 2003 Viader Estate Red, a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc.  It was a great start that demonstrated the development trajectory and aging potential of the wine.  After nine years, the wine was integrated, but still youthful and fresh.  We continued forward with 2006 and 2008.  Each wine offered proof of the elegant and balanced style that is the Viader trademark.

2003, 2006, 2009 Viader Estate Red, 2003, 2008 “V”

Then, John broke out the 2003 “V”.  The “V” is a brooding and tannic blend, of 92% Petit Verdot, with the balance of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  After roughly decanting the wine twice, we were offered a taste of this opaque purple monster.  As we chewed on our samples, we admired the significant “scab” in the shoulder of the bottle.  Nine years down the road – wow -this wine should be drinking well for a couple of decades.  The 2008 “V” was quite different from the 2003 with 54% Petit Verdot and 46% Cabernet Franc in the blend.  Still deeply colored and tannic, the 2008 was more perfumed due to high percentage of Cabernet Franc. Certainly, this was another wine for the cellar.

In my short visit to Napa, we made some wonderful acquaintances that I am sure will become lasting friendships.  I went with an open mind and discovered some true artisans making classically-styled, ageworthy wines that will reward with patience.  While a great number of renowned California wines succumb to our desire for instant gratification, it was refreshing to find some beautiful wines that will improve over time, as we can only hope for ourselves.

Pairing Wines with Mediterranean Spices


Food and wine pairings can be amazing.  The synergy of both coming together can provide sensory experiences that will surprise you.  Pairing wine with food can bring adventure to you culinary experience.  With the vast array of wines from around the world that are available these days, there are many interesting options that go far beyond the basic red wine for red meat, white wine for fish and chicken.  An ideal pairing will complement, or at times, complete the flavors of a dish.  I’ve tasted a great number of wines that didn’t seem all that special until paired with a particular dish.  Its fun to come away with the thought “I didn’t know that wine tasted like that.”

Here are some interesting pairing ideas for some of the more popular Mediterranean or “silk road spices”. These pairings are suggested by MW Charles Curtis and paraphrased from an aside published in the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Cardamon – With hints of eucalyptus, citrus, and camphor, this spice is often used in curries, rice dishes, and baked goods.  Pair with Pinot Noir because a powerful wine will overpower the delicacy of cardamon.  An elegant Pinot Noir will provide balance.

Corriander – Made from the ground seeds of cilantro, reminiscent of lemon and sage.  Pair with a Sauvignon Blanc to match the crisp and clean character of the spice.

Cinnamon – With its warm-sweetish flavor it is widely used in desserts , breads, and cooked fruit dishes.  However, it is also used in savory dished such as curries and tomato based pasta sauces and ragus.  With the exception of the red sauces, the spice of an oaked (not over-oaked) Chardonnay would make an interesting complement.  For the red sauces with meat, a medium-bodied Cote du Rhone with a little age to tame the fruit would be nice. La Vista in Houston has a venison ragu that would fit the bill.  It is BYOB, so you are free to experiment.)

Cumin – Widely used in Mexican cuisine.  If you want to make a soup or sauce taste Mexican, add a little cumin.  the flavor profile is slightly bitter and earthy, with a hint of lemon.  This is a difficult pairing.  A full-bodied Grenache with plenty of alcohol could absorb all of cumin’s strong aroma with fruit to spare.

Clove – With its distinctive sweet hot-spicy flavor clove must be used sparingly as it can easily overwhelm the flavors of a dish. It is used in curry powders, punches, and mulled beverages. Crisp versions of Pinot Gris could provide an interesting contrrast, while the richer versions from Alsace could complement the exotic flavor

Ginger – Pungent and hot it is used mainly in sweet in the West.  Elsewhere it adds interest to pickles, chutneys, curry pastes and powders, puddings, jams, and preserves.  A spicy Gerwurztraminer is a perfect match.  It is rich enough to act as a foil for the fruit, and its own exotic flavors will complement the natural spice of the ginger.

Have fun!!!