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.