In the Wake of the Fire

Damage in California’s wine country was significant, but not devastating

Having successfully returned from the area of the wildfires in Napa and Sonoma, I wanted to give Out & About readers a quick update on the situation in Northern California.

For the most part, the wineries of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties are open for business, although each area suffered damage to several wineries and vineyards. Wineries that were totally destroyed include Paradise Ridge in Sonoma and Signorello in Napa.

The destruction to the City of Santa Rosa was unbelievable. The Coffey Park area, north of center city, was decimated. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, and some lives were lost.

I happen to have been right in the middle of that destruction. In fact, my group of 12 wine lovers that I had taken to tour Napa and Sonoma had to be evacuated from our hotel in the late night/early morning hours of Sunday, Oct. 8 and Oct. 9. The intense firestorm was just across the street from the hotel, where a gas station and a Kmart were engulfed. We were the lucky ones—we lost nothing and were not injured. There were wineries that were destroyed and some lost outer buildings and equipment.

The damage to vineyards, while not significant, did destroy grape vines in the Fountain Grove Appellation in Sonoma, Atlas Peak in Napa and Mount Veeder in Napa and Sonoma. Vineyards create a natural fire break because of the ample space between vines and the amount of water each plant holds. This limited the damage to most wineries in the area. It also was fortunate that the harvest was about 80 percent completed. Most of the wine was already in barrels and will have no smoke problems.

Pricing should remain strong and no price increases are expected. In fact, the best way to support the wine industry in California is to continue to buy wines from the areas that were affected.

And don’t change plans if you intend to travel to the Bay area, but do call ahead to be certain that the wineries remain open. Because of the displacement of much of the work force, tasting room hours may be cut back.

John Murray is co-owner of State Line Liquors and a regular contributor to Out & About Magazine.

Choosing Wine for Your Table

Here’s a primer on picking wines, along with a guide to sparkling additions to that uniquely American feast coming late this month

Choosing a wine for dinner, a party or general consumption is not that difficult. Whether you are budget conscious or not, trust yourself, but don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your friends or a reputable wine shop.

Generally, of course, you will serve red wine with meat and white with chicken or fish. However, I find myself deviating from that rule and serving red with fish and some whites with meat. After all, the Greeks have been doing this for centuries. Certain wines do accentuate the flavors of food. The combinations of spices used in cooking can and will influence the flavor profiles of wines.

Here is my basic Wine 101 Course:

1. Features presented by or through wine are: color; smell or nose (the aromas that awaken the senses); taste (flavors that are tasted and enhanced through the aroma).
2. Wine is red, white, rosé or bubbly
3. Wine is either dry, fruity or sweet
4. You like the wine or dislike it. And now for the hard part . . .
5. The reasons behind No. 4 will always have something to do with flavors of fruit, vegetable, herb, spice or mineral.

Once you have figured out what you smell or taste, find a credible wine shop and ask for guidance. I suggest you begin with a simple statement, such as, “I liked this particular wine because of this flavor,” or “I disliked this wine because of that flavor.” Based on that, the staff should be able to point out wines that would interest you.

There is not a right or wrong in wine selection. Drink what you like. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different wines. Trust yourself or a wine specialist who has given you advice. But by all means, do not let some pretentious wine snob ruin your quest for learning about wine. Like you, he or she also had to start from the beginning.

Thanksgiving Wines

I believe in serving only American wines for this uniquely American feast, which includes a great variety of food. Bubbles are always a great start for this festive occasion. Here are three handcrafted sparkling wines from Washington state:

Treveri Cellars
Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut is 100 percent chardonnay. This delicate, creamy wine offers hints of melon and citrus.
Sparkling Rosé is a blend of Syrah and chardonnay that gives a rich mouth feel of berries and citrus essence with a dry finish.
Sparkling Gewurztraminer has a light pepper spice and exotic fruits blended together in a rich, creamy finish.

Westside Crossing Pinot Noir 2014
Rick Moshin is renowned for his elegant, non-extracted, rich and early pinot noirs, grown in a very cool area within the Russian River appellation, not far from the historic Wohler Westside Bridge. The wine shows hints of roses and earth with black currants that give a rich, elegant, silky, soft flavor. This makes a perfect complement to turkey and all of its accompaniments.

The Boatman Red 2014
Barack Mountain Winery has crafted an interesting blend of grapes harvested from Lodi, Mendocino County, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County. This medium-bodied, spicy wine shows flavors of black cherry and rhubarb. The blend consists of Alicante Bouschet 40 percent, merlot 26 percent, Malbec 23 percent, cabernet sauvignon 7 percent, and Petit Sirah 4 percent.

Montinore Estate 2015 Borealis White
This multi-dimensional blend features several grapes. Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Riesling combine to show mouthwatering flavors of kiwi, melon, mango and nectarines. It is an instant crowd pleaser.

Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2013
The year 2013 was a classic California growing season. This openly rich traditional Rhone blend displays beautiful scents of peaches and cream. Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Raussanne add a depth of flavor. Minerals, with melon stone fruit overtones, give this wine rich textures—perfect with turkey.

John Murray is the proprietor of State Line Liquors, Inc.

Treats for Your Holiday Enjoyment

They’re exotic, intriguing, and unusual: Recommendations from area experts.

I’ve been in the beverage industry for 40-plus years, and I am still excited, intrigued and learning. Every vintage is unique and challenging, offering a whole new learning process every year.

The basic science of converting sugar to alcohol has remained the same, but flavor profiles have changed. Yeast strains, rootstock, varietal clone selection, canopy management, soils, weather and farming techniques all come into play. The artistic creation of wine is done through the winemaker’s idea of what he wants to express in the fruit he receives.

Janice Robinson, in her book Wine Grapes, lists 1,368 varietals known to be produced as wine. No, I haven’t tasted them all, but I will continue to make a valiant effort to do so.

While I can’t list and explain all, I will attempt to provide insight into some of these grapes and their fermentation styles. I’ll wrap up with some thoughts for your holidays—ideas from me and my State Line colleagues.

Cowan Cellars Ribolla Gialla 2012—$29.99. This is a medium-bodied, straw-colored wine with hints of apricots and honey. It has good structure and is well balanced with a white pepper finish. There are only two vineyards in California currently growing this grape.

Also from owner/winemaker Jim Cowan is ISA—$24.99. It is 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc fermented with extended skin contact, leaving a golden orange color. Its brightness and minerality give way to a tangerine rind component with a lasting herbal basil finish. If you want wines with personality and quality at a reasonable price, try Cowan Cellars.

Stony Hill Winery Chardonnay 2010 – $44.99. This is not your typical California fruit bomb. It’s lean, bright and delicate. Located high up on the northeast slope of Spring Mountain on the Bale Lane side, the McCreas have farmed this fruit for more than 50 years. Dry farmed, eco-friendly fruit is crafted by Mike Chelini, winemaker for decades, into an elegant and age-worthy wine. Minimum skin contact, neutral barrels inoculated with Montrachet yeast and no malolactic fermentation keeps the fruit clean, with great acidity, preserving the citrus and mineral expressions of Chardonnay. This is the finest example of Chardonnay in North America, rivaling anything from Burgundy.

Dashe Cellars old vine Carignane Evangelho Vineyards 2014 – $29.99. From Contra Costa, Calif., fruit from 125-year-old vines is planted on its own root stock and dry farmed. The grape is usually blended with Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Exotic spices with cassis, pomegranate, and mineral flavors burst on your palate. It’s vibrant with balanced, lush flavors of black cherry and strawberry. There were a whopping 159 cases made and Mike Dashe gave me five.

Neyers Mourvedre Evangelho Vineyard 2010 – $39.99. This is grown on the same property as the Dashe Carignane . Bruce Neyers and his wife, Barbara, are from Wilmington, graduates of Mount Pleasant High School and the University of Delaware. Bruce began his career in the Napa Valley in 1972 with stints at Mayacamas and Joseph Phelps before beginning his venture at Neyers. Mourvedre planted here is also more than 120 years old. Its exotic, rich, black currant fruits add great complexity to this wine, which is fermented in used French oak for a year and bottled without fining or filtration. It shows earthy, gamey notes with soft structured fruit flavors, perfumed blackberries with exotic ginger and herbal flavors.

Holiday Suggestions

Here are some more picks for your holidays from the State Line Staff, starting with mine:

Andrew Will Champoux 2010 – $39.99. This is a traditional Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Red and black fruits are very pronounced here. Cassis, blackberries, blueberries with hints of cedar and tobacco intertwine with earthy, dark spices and cocoa. Champoux Vineyard is located in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation of Washington State.

Ramey Wine Cellars 2012 Chardonnay Woolsey Road – $69.99. David Ramey is an icon in the California wine industry, famous for his ability to create a seamless balance of fruit and flavors in his wine. He has worked for such greats as Matanzas Creek, Dominus and Chalk Hill Winery. The 2012 vintage was a long yet moderate, ideal growing season and is considered a great vintage. It is aged sur lie, on the dead yeast cells, for 18 months in one-third new oak with no filtering. Rich and delicate with citrus, lemon, and pear flavors, this wine is bright with lots of complexity. It’s rich and has good acidity, helping to prolong the flavors.

Iron Horse Brut Rose – $49.99. A bright rose color from extra skin contact during fermentation, this mostly Pinot Noir gives a rich, creamy texture, finishing dry with light, delicate bubbles. It’s a perfect sparkling wine for your festive holidays, especially the New Year.

Joe Buchter’s Selections:
Domaine Nerantzi 2012 Pentapolis, Greece – $19.99. Forty percent Malagouzia, 30 percent Assyrtiko, 30 percent Asprouda Serron, Pentapolis takes its name from five city states that existed in Greece circa 5500 B.C., long before the vines were planted for this wine. Though the grapes may be unfamiliar, the easiest thing to compare it to would be a full-bodied Chardonnay. The wine’s richness and weight make it stand up tall alongside all sorts of holiday meals.

Red: Azienda Agricola Foradori 2012 Teroldego – $24.99. Elisabetta Foradori is a winemaker dedicated to tradition, the environment, and the betterment of her wines through hard work in the vineyard. To grow her Teroldego, a grape that is most easily comparable to Pinot Noir, she uses a holistic approach to vineyard management called biodynamic farming.

Sparkling: J-M Seleque Brut Rose – $44.99. As a gift, as a celebratory bottle, or as a pair for your holiday meals, J-M Seleque is a hip grower champagne that one can afford. This dry rose delivers smaller production and more unique wine year to year than the grand marques, which are designed to be identical industrial products.

Rick Ostrand’s Selections:
Wigle Walkabout Pennsylvania Organic Apple Whiskey – $69.99 (750 ml). This product from Pittsburgh’s micro distiller Wigle is made from barrel-aged wheat and rye whisky that is brought proof by the addition of apple cider, which is sourced from an organic farm and is a blend of five local varieties of apples. Add a splash of Fernet Branca and a dash of apple-cinnamon bitters for a cocktail to take the autumn chill away.

Vapor Distillery Pumpkin King Cordial – $34.99 (750 ml), $19.99 (375 ml). This Colorado distillery cordial is made with roasted Baby Bear Pie Pumpkins that are pureed and blended with clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger with a bit of pure cane sugar. The result a less sweet, well balanced pumpkin cordial that is the best we have ever sold. It’s bottled at 60 proof, so it mixes well with ginger beer or apple cider and can also be added to a cafe latte or eggnog.

Robert Murray’s Selections:
This time of year, Brewers from around the world put their best foot forward with their delicious Christmas Ales. Two excellent examples of these styles are Troegs Brewery Mad Elf from Pennsylvania and Belgium’s St. Bernardus Christmas Ale.
Mad Elf is a cheerful ruby red creation reminiscent of ripened cherries, raw honey and cocoa with notes of cinnamon, clove and allspice.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, at 10 percent ABV is characterized by its fruity aromas and deep, dark color. A creamy thick head leads to a full-bodied and velvety taste.

And finally, from the staff at State Line Liquors, we wish all a safe and Happy Holiday Season!

California Dreaming – and Wines for Thanksgiving

A wine expert returns from the West Coast with some recommendations

My two trips to California had special significance this year, since our son, Branch, moved to Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma, last spring. So I got to visit him in his new home, where he’s working in the production side of the wine industry—for the Jackson Family at their Vinwood crush facility. The hours are long and the work is labor intensive, but the benefits are great. He’s enjoying learning the process of creating wines from start to finish.

Then there is my cousin, Walter, who at 102 is the oldest resident of Healdsburg, Calif. I’ve been visiting him since 1978, when he introduced me to the majestic Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve, a true gem of a park in Northern Sonoma County, and a must-visit destination in the heart of wine country.

In May, I got to attend the first-ever Sonoma County Barrel Auction, and it was a great event. The wine lots were selected by the vintners; some were iconic, some not, but all were one-of-a-kind wines from all appellations in Sonoma County.

Previews of all the lots were offered the day before and the morning of the auction. Quality was absolutely amazing, and I found myself bidding on a few lots, but lost all (oh well). The event generated more than $460,000 from the 71 lots auctioned.

Here are some of highlights of my trips, along with holiday recommendations.

Shafer Vineyards is among the handful of producers I visit every year. I’ve had the honor of knowing John Shafer since the release of his first vintage in 1978. Doug, his son, and I have developed a friendship as well. On this trip, John, still spry at 90, came down the hill to greet us. Amazing wines are crafted here with consistent quality in every vintage.

Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah are the varietals used here.

Dashe Cellars, on the Oakland Urban Wine Trail, was founded by Michael and Anne Dashe in 1996. Their wines are always complex yet elegant, and express true varietal character. If your trip West takes you in or out of Oakland, Dashe Cellars is a must stop. Their Les Enfants Terribles series features grapes from specific vineyards. Heart Arrow Ranch Zinfandel from Mendocino County is the 2014 vintage. Brambly spice and berry flavors lead to a rich fruit finish. Their 2014 McFaddin Farm Zinfandel, Mendocino County fruit, has great earthy berry spice flavors, complex and delicate. Both wines are extremely limited and will match your Thanksgiving table red wine needs.

Frog’s Leap, in Napa Valley, is another favorite of mine. John Williams has been a friend since 1984. Organic dry farming is a key to the quality of his fruit, and his integration of grapes, vegetables, plants, bees and wildlife attract subtle nuances to the vineyard. This balance of nature shows brightly in the wines he produces.

His 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a richly textured wine with black currant fruit, resembling the wines made in Napa in the 1970s. Soft, sweet tannins, dusty earth with cocoa and mint, make for a rich, balanced wine. The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is a clean and refreshing wine, and bright accents of minimal citrus fruits give a wonderful flavor profile.

Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Merlot are also produced at Frog’s Leap, and are exceptional examples of their distinctive varietal flavors.

Calluna Vineyards, in the Chalk Hill Appellation of Sonoma, is a great example of new world fruit with the flavor profile of old world fruit. David Jeffrey has done an amazing job of growing the five red varietals of Bordeaux and crafting them into great wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot are the grapes used and grown. The winery and the house sit atop a hill overlooking Mount Saint Helena, Geyser Peak, and to the west, the Coastal Range. The Calluna Vineyards Cuvee and Estate use a blend of all five varietals. The 2012 cuvee is loaded with black currants, dusty earth, black cherries with subtle nuances of tobacco, mint, and cocoa. This leads to a mouthful of explosive flavors. Firm tannins and good acidity show the ability to age for some time. The 2011 Estate is a great example of how good the vintage can be, and is another elegant, yet very complex wine. Aged for 21 months in French oak, of which 10 percent is new oak, its flavor profiles include licorice, blackberries, black cherries and other dark fruits.

Holiday Recommendations

Here again are my two cents on what to pour for Thanksgiving. Lots of food and flavors mean a wide variety of tastes. The challenge is to complement all of this.

I always like to begin with bubbles, or sparkling wine. My two suggestions:

• Argyle Brut Rose from Oregon is a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Bright salmon color gives way to a delicate, creamy, rich floral flavor.
• Iron Horse Vineyards classic Brut vintage is a clean, delicate, refreshing wine, with lively citrus flavors of lemon and orange zest, lightly toasted, clean and rich.

And here are two whites and two reds to complement your meal:

• Chehalem Three Vineyard Pinot Gris 2013 is like a refreshing, rich, fruit tart. Creamy flavors of pears, melons, and nectarines are wonderfully balanced. It is structured, clean and bright.
• Dashe Grenache Blanc 2014 is mineraly, rich and spicy with hints of pear and stone fruits. Rich textures and good acidity round out the flavor profile.
• Pedroncelli Zinfandel Mother Clone 2012 is an excellent example of classic earthy black currant fruit with a nice brambly, spicy finish.
• Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2012 is loaded with fruit flavors of raspberries and blueberries. This medium-bodied, earthy wine has scents of nuts and exotic spices. It’s a perfect match for the bird on your Thanksgiving table.

John Murray is co-owner of State Line Liquors.

Thanksgiving Wines: Go Native

After all, it’s an American holiday, right?

The question I hear most often during the time between Nov. 1 and the fourth Thursday of November (that would be Thanksgiving) is, “What kind of wine goes best with turkey?”
Thanksgiving is the one holiday where almost everyone puts a bottle of wine on the table. The diversity of flavors from all the foods presents an interesting challenge as to what wines to serve (pour), but I am a firm believer that wine at this feast should be from the United States. After all, the first harvest feast was a collaboration between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

There are no clear right or wrong wines to pour for Thanksgiving, but here are some of my favorites.

Sparkling Wines

These are always a great start to the celebration. Bubbles also will work well with foods. Iron Horse from Sonoma Valley is American owned. Gloria Ferrer is Spanish-owned and produced in Sonoma, Calif. They make a great Brut and Blanc de Noir, as does the French-owned Mumms from the Napa Valley.

White Wines

Willamette Valley Pinot Gris is rich, medium-bodied, with hints of tropical fruit, melon and honey. Two great examples are Adelsheim and Eyrie.

Sauvignon Blanc is clean and crisp with subtle hints of grapefruit, mild tropical fruits and a grassy herbaciousness. Honig and Frogs Leap from Napa, Pedroncelli and Dry Creek Vineyards from Sonoma and Buty from Washington state are brands to look for.

Riesling can be fruity or dry and both examples are widely available. The varietal is floral in smell and loaded with flavors of peaches and citrus fruits. Hyatt from Washington state is fruity, and Wiemer, from New York, is on the drier side and works quite well. Wiemer also makes a nice, spicy, dry Gewurztraminer, another varietal that matches nicely and is my wife’s favorite.

Red Wines

Syrah and Petit Sirah wines are dry and earthy, showing dark fruits and black pepper spice. Examples are Tablas Creek, Ojai, and Parducci. Neyers is also a good choice, and winemaker Bruce Neyers is local and a graduate of Mount Pleasant High School.
Zinfandel has combinations of spices, cloves, cinnamon and red berry and is full bodied. This wine style is one of my favorites. I love the spicy, brambly flavor; after all, I am a Zinophile. Sonoma has some very old Zinfandel vines and I am fond of Pedroncelli Mother Clone and Dashe—very elegant. Steele has an old vine version from Mendocino, Pacini Vineyard, and on the juicer side is Ryzin from Paso Robles.

Pinot Noir is, by far, my favorite wine for Thanksgiving. Earthy black cherry and raspberry fruits seem to match the diversity of all the flavors in the feast. Pinot Noir is grown quite well in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and in the cooler regions of California.
Excellent examples from Oregon are Adelsheim, St. Innocent, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Le Cadeau and Soter.

From California we have Neyers, Baileyana, Steele, Murphy Goode and locally-owned Bouchaine Vineyards.

These are just some suggestions of the many available. The bottom line: drink what you like, and enjoy!

And to all Out & About readers: Have a safe, wonderful and blessed holiday season.

—John Murray is owner of State Line Liquors in Elkton, Md.

Quake Hits California Vintners

August event expected to have little effect on prices

Shake, rattle and roll: that’s what makes an earthquake, especially in wine country. Buildings collapse, barrels shift and are thrown, glass breaks and people get hurt. That happened in Napa Valley on Aug. 24 at 3:30 a.m., when a 6.1 earthquake interrupted a peaceful night.

Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties sustained the brunt of the damages, with repair estimates totaling more than $400 million. USGA research geophysicist Annmarie Boltay describes an earthquake as being like a bowl of Jell-O, “once shaken and continues to shake for a long time.” The Napa event was no exception, and it seemed unusually long. Some people thought it lasted close to a minute.

Preliminary reports have about 120 wineries suffering approximately $80 million in damages. Most occurred in the Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Oak Knoll and the Rutherford Bench appellations of Sonoma and Napa counties.

Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros, locally owned by Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, sustained damages to 30 barrels. A barrel contains the equivalent of 25 cases or about 60 gallons. That’s a lot of wine down the drain.

Jeff McBride, head winemaker for Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley, told me, “There were no issues, and we were extremely grateful.” Unfortunately, down the road from Benziger, B.R. Cohn Winery was not as fortunate. Cracked barrels spewed their 2013 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon all over the winery, potentially losing the entire vintage.
Napa winery Trefethen in the Oak Knoll district suffered structural damage to its historic barrel room. That’s a beautiful building; I hope it can be repaired.

Silver Oak Cellars had multiple wine racks collapse and hundreds of bottles broken. Saintsbury, in the Carneros appellation, lost many archival library wines. Doug Shafer, Shafer Winery, and Michael Honig, Honig Winery, both texted me: “All ok! We were lucky.”

There is a great sense of camaraderie in the wine industry, as exhibited by Burgess Cellars offering storage space.

All in all, larger producers will probably absorb the losses and maintain normal prices. Small wineries will not be as lucky. They will have trouble making ends meet and will have to increase prices.

My gut feeling is that some wines may increase in price, but there will still be many great wines available with no increase. Don’t panic. Buy, be smart, trust your tastes, and most of all, enjoy!

John Murray is the owner of State Line Liquors.