Uncorking the Urban Wine Scene at the Commonwealth Club

I attended a great program at the Commonwealth Club last night -- Uncorking the Urban Wine Scene, a conversation with folks making wine in the East Bay. As a wine lover who only seems to ever trek up to Napa or Sonoma once or twice per year, I was excited to learn more about my hyper local tasting opportunities, and to live vicariously through some everyday wine lovers like me who'd actually found a way to make the leap to winemaker without having a couple million dollars to invest in wine country.

Panelists were Jim Mirowski, Co-founder and Owner, Treasure Island Wines; Derek Rohlffs, Proprietor and Winemaker, Bravium Wines; Sasha Verhage, Winemaker and Proprietor, Eno Wines; and Kathryn Cohen, Proprietor, Eno Wines. Jim and Derek both make wines as part of the Treasure Island wine collective.

Sasha, a founder of the East Bay Vintners Alliance noted that there is strong community support for urban winemakers, with local restaurants and wine shops actively seeking out local winemakers, which makes sense given the Bay Area's locavore focus.

Something I had not thought about that Kathryn brought up during the conversation is local tasting rooms can be a ot more approachable for those new to wine appreciation. I do remember that on my first trip to Napa, when I was barely over legal drinking age, it did feel a little intimidating to go into a well-established winery's tasting room, vying for attention with those older, more well-versed, and certainly more well-heeled than myself. She said that she felt that the casual, inclusive nature of the East Bay's wine scene attracts a lot more diversity in its patrons.

WHile tasting up in Sonoma last week, I'd noticed a couple of wineries had growlers avialable for taking away wine, which had initially surprised me. I'm quite used to seeing them at brewpubs, but think this was the first year they were around enough to notice them, and the proliferation of wine on tap. The panelists touched on these new packaging options, with the consensus being that both options are nice due to less waste and lowering the costs involved.

Now before you start making boxed wine jokes here, think about it for a moment: how many bottles of wine per night does a busy restaurant go through to service its wine by the glass program? Now imgaine istead their having that wine on tap, where it's never stale, and they're not wasting all those bottles. I call that a worthwhile innovation. Sasha, however did say that although he supports packaging innovations, he's "not ready for a capri sun" wine distribution package, which got a good laugh out of the crowd (and especially from the two grandmotherly ladies in front of me who said more than once how adorable they thought Sasha was.)

By the time the conversation ended a little after 7:30, I was too tired to stay for the wine tasting (I know, I can hardly believe it either), but they did have a nice tasting setup that included R&B Cellars, Carica Wines, Dashe Cellars, Urban Legend Cellars, Tayerle Wines, Rock Wall Wine, Treasure Island Wines, Bravium Wines, Eno Wines, Stomping Girl WinesAndrew Lane Wines. The way I'm looking at it is I now have an excuse to set up an East Bay wine tasting day.

2010 Golden Glass Wine tasting and Slow Food Fundraiser


I spent a few hours enjoying the 2010 Golden Glass Tasting at Fort Mason Center with my SO today. It was an easy sell -- buy a ticket for an event that benefits slowfood SF, and get to taste wine and nibble on various artisanal and handcrafted treats? Clearly it was up my alley. And the half priced tickets through bloomspot sealed the deal.

Having been to many wine events at Fort Mason Center, I was struck by how relatively uncrowded the event was. Yes, we had to wait in a 10-person line for claiming our will call tickets, but we were able to easily get up to the tables without anyone shoving us out of their way, and easily caught the eye of those pouring the wine. We even had the opportunity to talk to some of the winemakers and chefs in attendance.

Too often at these events, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream, and feel like I've escaped with my life at the end of a tasting. Today on the other hand, I got to enjoy the food and wine, and be leisurely in making a pass around the floor. I would love it if someone could figure out a way how to retain that sort of a feel in these tastings, while still making the event seem like a good expenditure of time and money for the participating vendors.

Highlights of What We Tasted


Unlike you typical wine tasting which offer up a little bit of bread and possibly some cheese, this event had a number of artisan food purveyors and chefs on hand, which gave you the opportunity to do some food and wine pairings.

  • Perfect crust on the flour+water summer squash pizza, complete with a nice dark blister. They had a wood fired pizza oven out front in the bed of a pickup to make these delicacies. Really need to try to eat dinner there soon.
  • Serpentine and slow club shared a table and had perhaps the tastiest treat of the day -- sliders of roasted pork shoulder with pickled strawberry jam and arugula. Not a combination I would have come up with but perfect as a hand-held taste. It makes me want to start making some pickled jams myself, even if it's just pickled onion jam.
  • A16 had some tender pulled pork on a substantial hunk of baguette. A moist and delicious pork product.
  • The abundance of Italian-inspired food, and the tables of Italian wines already had my brain ready for a vacation even before I had the tiny square of cheese with a drizzle of honey from Marcelli Formaggi. But I am pretty sure I started babbling about how we needed another trip there soon after consuming that amazing honey.


San Francisco was having an unusually warm day (80s), which meant I tasted a lot more whites than usual. And I just could not bring myself to try some wines that looked great (I'm thinking about those amarones) because the heat made the prospect of most red wines seem daunting. That said, my three favorite wines of the day were all reds.

  • Navarro's 2007 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was my hands-down favorite. I know when I think pinot noir I often think of a substantial wine that needs a hearty dinner to go alongside it, not a sipping wine. But I'd happily drink this lighter than average pinot while cooking dinner. Their dry gewurtztraminer was also superb.
  • At the next table over, Handley's 2007 Anderson Valley pinot noir was another lighter pinot noir stunner. Not that I was surprised since I've been a huge fan of theirs for some time. Unfortunately, they didn't bring along their sparkling wine -- it would have been perfect today.
  • Although I'd done some wine tasting in southern Italy, I hadn't really looked into seeing if the greater Venice area, where I spent half of my last trip to Italy, had wineries to visit. But after having Nicolis' SECCAL valpocella DDC CLassico Superiore, you can BET I am going to look into arranging a private tour next time.

What Could be Improved for Next Year

I do wonder, however, if the lack of signage at Fort Mason was a factor in the sparse attendance. Even I got nervous I'd written down the wrong date on my calendar and pulled out my ticker confirmation to check. The 2-day crystal fair had a few signs up, and the Warhammer 2000 tournament was an easy to stumble upon beehive of activity. But the Golden Glass tasting was at the Center's far corner, and without any signs letting you know it was there until you actually got up to it. I have to think that on a gorgeous day like today, in the 80s, signage throughout Fort Mason Center would have generated some significant foot traffic for them.

Something else I'd love to see is use of those little reusable plates that hook on to your wine glass. Why do I mention this? Because a volunteer/staffer at the event went calling after me as I walked my used plate to the compost bin. I'd used the same plate at two stands, and needed to free up my hand for my wine. I'm actually *not* coordinated enough to carry and eat a plate of food and a glass of wine. At home we have a teeny garbage can + a huge recycle can and a handy compost bucket. I don't drive. I am limiting my carbon footprint! And thus, I don't want an event volunteer giving me  a hard time about ditching my used plate (as an aside, I didn't use another plate at all for the event.)

And finally, slow food events need to get over the little food tickets. No one wants to spend $70 per ticket (full price ticket cost) to get in and receive 5 food tickets, then have to pay another $20 for 5 more tickets for a few more tastes. It was one of my primary annoyances with the slowfood nation tasting here a couple summers ago. None of the food stalls would accept them because clearly they felt the same way as well. Please don't nickel and dime us when we are there in support of this cause we all feel passionate about!

P.S. If you're wondering about the lack of photos from today's event, that's due to my grabbing my small camera at the last second and not checking its batteries. First time in all my years of writing about this stuff that I've made that error, and hopefully will be the last time as well.

Great Wines Delivered to Your Door -- That's Progress!

As a non-driver, I am a collector of ways to have the things I want delivered to me in an expedient manner. This is why, to this day, I lament the demise of and my beloved webvan. I've previously chronicled my favorite grocery delivery resource herein but see I've neglected to mention my favorite place from which to order wine: K&L Wines here in the Bay Area.

This is a store I love to browse when someone else is driving. But it's honestly just as great to order from them online as it is to peruse in person. You see, they have an occasional newsletter with a ton of descriptions, and the website has those same descriptions for every wine. Plus, they allow you to set up keyword based watch lists, to generate an email every time something specific you are looking for comes into inventory. This way, you can keep an eye out for new releases from your favorite vineyard, or just get a feel for when a new vintage of a favorite varietal (say, Santa Barbara County pinot noir) is available.

Now, to get to the good part -- here's what I ordered:

  • 2005 Gundlach Bundschu "Rheinfarm Vineyard" Mountain Cuvee. A dependable red table wine.
  • 2007 Ridge Vineyards "Three Valleys" Sonoma Zinfandel Blend. Ridge has long been one of my favorite zinfandel producers. And Sonoma zin = win.
  • 2006 Rosenblum "Aparicio Vineyard" Amador County Zinfandel. I always have a handful of Rosenblum zins on hand, and Amador/El Dorado County zins are as tasty as more well-know appellations and typically at a lower price.
  • 2007 Sobon Estate "Rocky Top" Amador Zinfandel. Sobon has a number of well-priced tasty zinfandels.
  • 2006 Quivira Dry Creek  Zinfandel. Quivira is one of those wineries I haven't tasted at very often, but whenever I order a bottle of their wine in a restaurant I always htink to myself I should make ore of an effort to keep up with them. Have I mentioned yet that I am moderately obsessed with zinfandels?
  • 2006 T-Vine Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel. This was a little bit of a splurge, but should be well worth it.
  • 2006 T-Vine Cellars Napa Valley Merlot. Many folks are of the opinion that merlot is an easy sipping boring wine best reserved for when your parents come to dinner. I beg to differ -- you just need to be drinking merlots from wineries who make an effort. can't wait to crack this open with a special dinner.
  • 2007 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir Russian River Valley. Another winery, like Quivira, that I always enjoy when I buy it in a restaurant. Will hold on to this for a night I make something especially hearty for dinner.
  • 2006 Au Bon Climat "Sanford & Benedict Vineyard-Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection" Santa Ynez Valley Pinot Noir. I may have actually made a little squealy noise when I saw this returned in my search results. The Sanford & Benedict vineyard has been a favorite for a decade, with a Foxen Sanford & Benedict bottling having been the first I enjoyed from there if I recall correctly.
  • 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. This is my most frequently purchased pinot noir, and Au Bon Climat is one of my top 10 favorite wineries.. If you bring this to a special dinner, you're happy and your hosts know you really like them.
  • 2006 D-Cubed Napa Valley Zinfandel. I first tried D Cubed at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and keep an eye out for them when I shop for wine. This was an especially yummy bottle that paired nicely with a variety of dinners last week.
  • 2006 Kathryn Kennedy "Lateral" Bordeaux Blend. I tried this for the first time at a Family Winemakers tasting some time ago, and have kept it on my short list of red table wines since.
My wine rack and cellar are both full again, and I have a bunch of great wine waiting to be drank over the next few months. This is the good life.

Family Winemakers 2008 San Francisco tasting event

Fw2008 It's time for my favorite San Francisco wine tasting event of the year -- Family Winemakers of California Taste 2008.

Not as overwhelming as the ZAP! zinfandel tasting, and with varietals ranging from marsanne to sangiovese, to viogner and back again. This is the place where I have found all sorts of new lovse -- like the Heidrun sparkling mead at the 2005 tasting.

My only constructive criticism about this event every year is I wish for more non-trade tasting hours. Take a look at the printer-friendly version of the participating wineries list and start planning your limited time now.

Personally, my hit list would include:

Sunday, August 24
12:30-2:00 p.m. open to the trade only
2:00-6:00 p.m. open to the public and the trade
Monday, August 25

1:00-6:00 p.m. open to the trade only
Fort Mason Center
TICKETS: Ticket price is $45 in advance, $40 for groups of 10 or more, $55 day of the event, plus ticket fees.

Lazy Sangria

Yes, my theme this week is making yummy food stuffs when you are feeling far too lazy to do much of anything in the kitchen.

Over the weekend, I made sangria for a gathering of about 20 people. It was one of the tastiest, and easiest, varaiations on my usual sangria recipe.

1 bottle of Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvee zinfandel
24 oz of cherry cider (I would have preferred cherry apple cider but couldn't find any)
3/4 or so of a bag of Trader Joe's pre-sliced apples (about 3 fuji apples worth)
1 pint of strawberries
3 shots of white rum
2 shots of grand marnier
1 lime sliced into thin circles
1 teaspoon sugar
Lots of ice

Clean and quarter ripe strawberries, and place in a a large ziploc bag. Add shots of Grand Marnier and rum, plus sugar. Seal bag and refrigerate for 2 or more hours prior to making the sangria. Pour liquids into a large punch bowll. Add fruit and stir. Add a few handfulls of ice. Drink and enjoy your afternoon.

Battle of the Wine Heavyweights at Indigo

Williams Selyem  vs. Dehlinger -- yes, it's not quite at the level of suspense as an Iron Chef America episode featuring Todd English, but it's a great idea nonetheless. San Francisco's Indigo Restaurant has put a fresh spin on their popular wine lovers dinners with a new "Battle of the Varietals" format for the rest of this month.

Details from the restaurant behind the cut.

Continue reading "Battle of the Wine Heavyweights at Indigo" »

2005 Family Winemakers Tasting

For the first time in half a decade, I attended the Family Winemakers Tasting as a paying guest, rather than volunteering. The plus to paying the $35 in advance tasting fee, rather than tasting and then working a shift, was being able to leisurely taste, with my significant other in tow. The downside, other than the cost, is my notes were less comprehensive than they tend to be when I taste on my own. But I think it was the right decision all around.

The most interesting find of the event was the Heidrun sparkling mead. The avocado sparkling mead actually had a hint of avocados, while the Starthistle sparkling mead tasted as sweet and thick as the everyday Starthistle honey from Marshall's at the Farmers' Market. The one that really won me over, however, was the Ventura County Wildflower sparkling mead which had plenty of effervescence but was a little drier than the others we sampled. I am tempted to buy a case of it to give as holiday gifts this year.

To make navigating the several hundred winery tables more manageable, we decided to focus on Pinot Noir. Exceptions were made only for wineries I love. Interestingly, these exceptions pretty much proved to be less enticing than the newcomer/new-to-me wineries.

On the disappointment side, I wasn't a fan of the 2001 release of the Astrale y Terra "Arcturus" Bordeaux blend which has historically been one of my favorite wines. I was bummed when they discontinued their merlot a few years back, but this blend had made up for it. Another disappointment was Turley's Dusie Ranch zinfandel, which my notes recount as both weird and unpleasant. I'd fallen in love with Turley over a dinner at Delfina a few years back, but haven't tasted anything from them in the past 2 years that can keep that flame alive.

Some favorites:

  • Davis Bynum Winery pinot noir. Made from organic grapes from 7 Russian River vineyards. Nice spicy cherry and plum.
  • Derbès Wines was probably my favorite producer at this event, and a winery I knew nothing about prior to tasting them. Their Les Pinots, a pinot noir and pinot meunier blend, was an outstanding, yummy juicy wine that would be a welcome addition to any dinner. And their pinot noir., which is due to release in November, was lovely, full-bodied and dense. I think I may buy one of each to take with me for Thanksgiving dinner, as these are special wines.
  • Flora Springs had two blends that we tasted. Their always lovely, though pricey, Trilogy was luscious and dark with lots of berry, while the Poggio del Papa, a Sangiovese-based blend, was a lighter, more spicy blend with a delightful floral nose.
  • Fritz's pinot noir was lighter than most of the others we tasted, but still had some dark fruit, but was not at all spicy.
  • Navarro has become a default choice when I want a pinot noir and nam not familiar with anything else on the list, and with good reason. They're consistently good, and under $30 retail.
  • Opolo Vineyards was another new-to-me winery. Like Fritz, they had a lighter pinot noir, but it had a spicy kick to it.
  • Paul Hobbs Winery had a 2003 pinot noir that had some effervescence backed up with dark cherry.
  • Pisoni Vineyards and Winery had a medium bodied Gary's Vineyard pinot noir that I liked quite a bit.
  • Roar Wines was another new favorite, with a spicy Gary's Vineyard pinot noir that, unfortunately, is sold out at the winery.
  • Robert Sinskey's 2002 pinot noir was pretty light with an interesting candy nose and a a dry finish.
  • Toad Hall Cellars was new to the tasting, and had an awesome light, spicy 2003 Carneros pinot noir that had hints of Oak.
  • Truchard is an old favorite that hadn't impressed me my last few times tasting at their winery. This time around, however, their La Storia meritage caught my attention, with its smooth, dark berries.

This tasting was not as crowded as the ZAP! annual tasting, which I attend regardless due to my love of zinfandel. There still wasn't a lot of elbow room, but for the most part you did not have to wait very long to receive pours, and the lines at the cheese and cracker stations were also manageable.

Save the Date: next year's Family Winemakers tasting will be August 20, again at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

NY Wine Shipping Ban Overturned!

I was happy to read this morning that one of my least favorite laws (banning shipping of wine into NYC without going through a local distributor) has been overturned by the Supreme Court. No, I don't work in the wine industry. But I am a wine lover who has been annoyed by her inability to ship wine home from NYC, and to send friends outside of California wine as gifts. This is how I *like* to see my tax dollars at work.

Here's hoping the other 20-something similar laws are also overturned soon. It was surprisingly close though (5-4). Apparently Justice Clarence Thomas argued in his dissenting view that the ruling needlessly overturns long-established regulations aimed partly at protecting minors. Yeah. Because we all know that minors are itching to order wine from CA vineyards and not to go shoulder-tapping at the local convenience market. Uh huh.