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I put everything aside, the prior day spent in Napa Valley served as preamble for my annual pilgrimage to Alexander Valley. Every year I try to make it to Sonoma County—a wine region that has occupied my heart since the beginning of my wine journey—to visit the fabulous producers in Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley. I plan for it, and when the time comes I become giddy and it is impossible to reign in my excitement. My trip was a little different this time; I had appointments and news to share with some of the familiar tasting room managers who could trace my path back to its roots. My tastes had changed quite a bit from the year before, trading in my adoration for Zinfandel (which nobody makes better than in Dry Creek) for more esoteric varietals and my recent raising stock in Northern California Cabernet Sauvignon. I would also sharpen my cartographer skills, penciling in new wineries throughout Sonoma as I spent my blithesome day tasting all over the expansive county.

Along the familiar 128 my friend and I stopped for breakfast at Jimtown Store before our day would begin. We placed our orders for a couple of breakfast sandwiches, taking a seat at the communal tables as we waited. We sat next to two people discussing the latest release by the Black Keys—what we didn’t know was that that record would score our wine tastings.

After our quick bite we traipsed next door to Hawkes Winery, parking under a burdened persimmon tree. The pregnant branches were festooned with apple-sized orange lanterns and after admiring the tree—recalling my father’s near obsession over the Hachiya persimmons—we wandered into the tasting room. A new face greeted us and it seemed much had changed since my prior visit to the winery. We discussed the differences since my visit over a year ago and we were treated to five very nice wines. We began our flight with their only white wine. The Home Chardonnay was crisp and clean, leaving my mouth full of fruit and minerals. We soared through the tasting, running through a Merlot and two Cabernets (a single vineyard Cabernet from Stone Vineyard was poured) before ending on an aged beauty. The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon pulled fruit from all of their properties and gracefully displayed its potential. Firm but elegant tannins, ripe black cherries and a long-lived finish demonstrated that after nine years they—all my shipments from the wine club—could last easily past a decade in the cellar.

Our second stop was close on the trail, continuing up the 128 until we reached the manicured estate of Stonestreet Winery. Our unannounced trip would not be as private as Hawkes; we shared the room with a group of three, tasting through some hedonistic expressions of Chardonnay to begin the flight. Our weathered tasting room liaison monitored my expressions as I sipped and spat the Gold Run and Broken Road Chardonnays. Most were in agreement that those were favorable styles; I was not enamored with the heavy mlf (malolactic fermentation). The white wines lacked subtlety, rounding it up in exchange for Disney-in-July fireworks. We pressed on and learned about the contributions of Jess Jackson and his role in Sonoma, as well as the history of Stonestreet Winery. Our pouring room guide culled bold reds from the ‘Single Vineyard’ collection before our sampling drew to a close.  He was resolute on wowing me since he had all but one juror in favor of their wines. My friend and I shared Monolith, Monument Ridge and Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon before calling it quits. The expressions were rich and the tannins were almost too big. Despite having popped and poured the latter three, it was easy to see the elegance and the ageing potential of the youthful reds.

After tasting five wines at Stonestreet Winery we were off to our first appointment of the day at Medlock Ames. We pulled up to a newly renovated space (previously the home of Alexander Valley Store and Bar) and on display in the garden was a sustainability exhibit. Early on, it was apparent that these guys were ardent supporters of the environment. In the tasting room, near the wine rack, were the makings of local and organic produce for sale, in the form of preserves, pickles and other vegetables. The latest sounds of the Black Keys filled the airspace, as our tasting guide was eager to share his new purchase. Without having tasted a sip of wine, I liked the place a lot. The differences between Napa Valley and Sonoma County were becoming quite clear to my friend. And after a brief introduction we tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that was just perfect. It tasted of fresh citrus (grapefruit and pommelo) and finished long on the palate. It was summer in a glass and the wines of Medlock Ames continued to impress. We riffled through eight wines; different vintages of Merlot and Bell Mountain Red Wine (an approachable Bordeaux blend) were all tasted before concluding with the signature varietal of Alexander Valley—Cabernet Sauvignon. Different tasting profiles manifested themselves for each wine; our mouths were coated with notes of cola, baking spices, blackberry and black cherry that stayed with us until the end. Before the album finished, I left a fan of the winery, confident in my ability to sell their wines when back in SoCal.

Before it was time for a highly anticipated lunch—I had been singing the praises of Diavola for some time to my friend—we visited Trione Winery. We caught up with their tasting room manager—a long time acquaintance—who first poured for me four years ago at Stonestreet. The epitome of class and hospitality, she would pour us the royal treatment. We tasted through twelve wines, crossing vintages and digging deep into their cellar. Over the airwaves was the timid but powerful voice of Regina Specktor before there were musings of changing the station to the Black Keys. As we tasted through some of the acclaimed wines, the music did little to distract us, though it was changed. We tasted and talked, breaking to rest our palates between varietals and enjoy our time. We moved through the lineup and in no time we were onto the last legs of the tasting. The apex came when we examined their Pinot Noir. The 2007 vintage was very good and varietally correct but when it came to the 2005 vintage of Russian River Pinot Noir I was blown away. I couldn’t hold back my enjoyment. The wine was Burgndian—though I am not a fan of using that descriptor on domestic expressions—and called to mind some of the better old world expressions I have had. Dusty and earth-driven; with notes of root vegetables, mushrooms and forest floor filling my nose as the wine still possessed some raspberry and pomegranate fruits in combination with the best elements of oak in the mouth. It was by far the best thing I had tasted all day.

After a sumptuous lunch at Diavola, that survived my hype, where we enjoyed headcheese, minestrone soup, beef cheek ragu, a salsicca pizza and a drank a local example of Sangiovese from Acorn vineyards it was onto Dry Creek Valley to taste at Quivira. I was somewhat familiar with the winery, having sold their Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc; this was a time to try a larger portion of their fleet. I knew that they were dedicated and staunch environmentalists but I was not aware that their lineup ran so deep. They served many Rhône and Southern French varietals with success; a Grenache that was loaded with pepper, an earthy Mourvèdre that was reminiscent of Bandol and a servile Viognier that would tandem with Sauvignon Blanc. Quivira proudly portrayed some spicy California varietals to offset their Francophile fancy with the aforementioned Zinfandel and their Petite Sirah. Intrigued after tasting seven wines, I could not get over their Refuge Sauvingon Blanc that relied heavily on malolactic fermentation, ageing the wine for ten months on lees (dead yeast cells) to give it some creaminess. It shook my view of the possibilities of California Sauvignon Blanc and provided a tastefully warped guise on a grape I thought I had pegged.

Before wrapping up our day we finished our eventful Friday at the family-centered tasting room in downtown Healdsburg on the recommendation of the tasting room manager of Trione. Portalupi would be our final stop. We were walked through the list of seven wines by the father/winemaker. A daughter and her boyfriend were fresh from the Pacific Northwest, adding to the vibe of the tasting room. We felt bad for interfering with family time but were assured that there was no need to worry. The wines had a particular Italian influence, though the grapes were not distinctly of Italian decent. We tried two excellent Pinot Noirs, sourced from two different regions in California and a Mendocino Barbera that displayed lithe acidity that recalled my love for Piemonte. The unique package of the Vaso di Marina told a story that was rich in tradition and particularly interesting. The daughter and nonna shared the name Marina, which highlighted a deep family connection inherent in every wine we had tasted to that point. The showstopper for me was the Port, maybe because I was in the mood for a dessert wine or just enjoyed my glimpse into their family dynamic but that Port was beautiful. Restrained and free of goop, showing notes of chocolate, nuts, fruit and caramel that was fit for a Christmas gift. I bought a bottle for the fast-approaching holidays and we bid arrivederci to the Portalupi family.

In no hurry to leave the beautiful settings of wine country, we had some drinks at the Spoon Bar in Healdsburg before departing for San Francisco. We met some wonderful locals at the bar, flanked on both sides by people willing to engage us, sharing stories with the couple on our left and the three ladies to our right over deliciously-crafted libations as I discussed my purposes for the trip through Sonoma in the off-season. Eighty-eight wines between two days (16 remained), glorious foods and the Black Keys latest record supplying the perfect diagetic soundtrack to my visit up north… yeah, I was living right and on pace to crack five hundred bottles before the year’s end. I can’t wait to go back to Sonoma.

Zinfandel is a hedonist’s delight, with its voluptuous body and come-hither ripeness, recalling Peter Paul Rubens’ fleshiness in a beautiful fruit-forward package. I respect Zinfandel immensely and marvel at its ability to knock you on your can while imbibing glass after glass of deliciousness. I kind of fell off the Zinfandel train a few years into wine, preferring subtlety to the overt notes of fruit and tobacco smashing my palate but it is always nice to refresh my memory. I would still have to exercise caution, remain defensive while attending any Zin tasting—making serious use of the spit cup—to keep my senses alert because the wallop that Zins packs is unforgiving and would make the tasting a drag if I let my guard down.

For the coming tasting we met up in West Hollywood; battling traffic (what’s new?) to make it to the tasting that would include a dinner as hearty as the wines of grilled Pork Chops, Momma’s sauerkraut, baked Brussels sprouts, cole slaw and some brownies to wallow in decadence.

I was in charge of the tasting order since one of our mainstays (and a big-time organizer) was off in a far away land. I popped the bottles as they trickled in, allowing for maximum breathing time between each of the brawny Zins. I arranged the bottles by amount of alcohol (not by price) from low to high, trying to be fair to those wines with less ABV in hopes that they would have a fair showing in the tasting later on.

On the table we had the following:

09 Musar Jeune Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault

08 Zito SLO Zinfandel

05 Acorn Heritage Vines Zinfandel

08 Quivira Zin

05 Papapietro & Perry Zinfandel

09 Mauritson Zinfadel

09 Rockpile Zinfandel “Jack’s Cabin”

09 Seghesio Zinfandel “Blue”

09 Seghesio Zinfandel Old Vines “Red”

 

I was able to open the tasting with a bottle from Lebanon’s major player—Château Musar—and had a bottle of their entry level Cabernet blend. A faint perfume of dried cranberry, herbs and orange blossoms on the nose translated to a little more than Crasins on the palate with drying tannins and moderate acidity. Quickly, we transitioned to the Zinfandels, with the primer in place and moved into the juicy fruit flavors of the Quivira Zinfandel that had a powdered cocoa finish and smooth tannins that perked up my buds.

Moving into another crowd pleaser with notes of blackberry, eucalyptus and coffee filling the nostrils, showing a pleasant blue and blackberry combo with velvety tannins and a long favorable finish, the Acorn “Heritage Vines” Zin was a great sipper on its own.

Not all the wines were as well received, some (he doesn’t name names) showed a little more than baby fat in the mouth and left our collective palates saturated in grape jelly, still we were getting as much traction as we could coming out of the goopy turn, making tracks to Mauritson.

We showed two Mauritson wines back to back, their first Zinfandel shown deep garnet in the glass with notes of ripe cherry and some figs on the nose and following on the palate. The Rockpile Zinfandel showed a detectable difference from its varied soils with some herbs, fruit and potpourri that leaped from the glass and on the palate everything was balanced but big with ripe cherry, tobacco and wood spice lingering on the finish. We concluded the tasting with the two Seghesio wines, side by side. The blue labeled Zin had garnet coloring with red fruits, smoke and oak on the nose. The dry wine was surprisingly herbaceous and we then tasted the “Old Vines” Zinfandel that had potent aromas of red fruits, licorice and boysenberry that was coupled with intense acidity by comparison, in addition to the enjoyable amount of fruit. It was the first time in the night I had paid attention to acidity which to me spoke volumes.

We were ready to eat, devouring a summer night’s fare that complimented the wines remarkably. The sides of Brussels sprouts with fresh thyme mixed well with some of the earthier Zins present and the Sauerkraut was one of my favorite items eaten this year and could easily have been eaten on its own. I knocked off nine wines during this sumptuous tasting, leaving 182 left on the journey and I can assure you that Zinfandel will be making another visit on the countdown.

 

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