In Vino Veritas, part 4

By J.T.

Day 4


We were at a bit of a loss in the morning. Truth be told, we didn’t want to leave. We needed to head to San Francisco later in the day, the forecast called for rain, and we hadn’t gotten ourselves into the heart of the Sonoma Valley yet. So we decided to Trust in Tara – our theme of the week – and put in an address we knew was on the north end of the Sonoma Valley. That way, we could drive, and anything we stumbled upon was fair game.

The drive was beautiful, though we got caught in the downtown district of Sonoma, which I thought was much more “city” than Napa. But when we cleared out of that, we were able to drive for about thirty minutes, gazing at the vineyards, feeling the slow seep of time. We spied a huge mansion in the distance, and the closer we got, the more interesting it looked. They had a sign that said Sangiovese in the front, so we stopped. (We really need a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Sangiovese”.)

The estate was called Ledson. We’d never heard of it, and soon discovered that this was another wine club-only vineyard. Intrigued, we started the tasting. It was so nice to be inside looking out on the rainy day, to see the mist rolling through the valley, to be warm and dry on such a dreary day. We were in the capable hands of Austin Smith, wine consultant extraordinaire, who entertain as well as educated.

We chose an array of reds for our tasting, and got to work. I say work because it is, in a sense. Anyone can go into a tasting and drink wine. It takes some practice to be able to tell one wine from another, to ferret out your individual tastebuds, to be able to tell French oak from American. And trust me, with a little bit of training, anyone can do this. And to the folks in these vineyards, when they get a true oenophile at the bar, it’s like a light goes on inside them. They want to educate. They’ve got the finer details down, and are willing to share. I have to tell you, the most fun of the whole trip was being surrounded by fellow wine junkies.

We started with the 2005 Diamond Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon – lots of rose petals, blackberry and cherry, vanilla, with cranberries, cloves and toasted oak. YUM! Then were tried the 2005 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Another excellent wine, with lots of leather, anise and lilac which tasted of chocolate and black berries. The 2005 Mes Trois Amour is the California version of an Australian GSM – that’s a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre grapes – with cocoa and smoke, rich cherry and smoked molasses. The 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir had the characteristic rose petal, strawberries and cherry nose that we’d come to expect from the pinots, but with a surprising caramel and pepper finish.

The 2006 Knights Valley Sangiovese was dry and spicy, and the 2005 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandelwas incredibly jammy, with white pepper and plum and a touch of cinnamon. We had some of the 2005 Kinghts Valley Bellisimo, the gold medal winner in the World Wine Championships, that is a 57% Merlot 43% cab blend – luscious, fruity and spicy, and the 2005 Sonoma County Cèpage, which was smoky, leathery, with toasted oak and plums. Truly an excellent wine. The last one we tried was the 2006 California La Montagne, a 75% cabernet 25% sangiovese with raspberry, pepper, rose and lilac notes. It’s a Super Tuscan wine, and absolutely divine. We were sold. We joined the wine club, and Austin comped our tasting, a very nice touch.

And then we ate. Thankfully, there was the great little Café Citti right down the street, and we munched a pizza and cleansed our palates with salad and lots of water.

Cafe Citti view

Declaring our trip a success, we headed into rainy San Francisco. It was too cool to drive the Golden Gate Bridge into town, but the shock of being in a city was a sharp contrast to the lazy, indolent days we’d spent in the country. We decided on the spot that we are definitely country mice, with the exception of New York.

We drove around San Fran and dined in the rain at Capurro's on the wharf. I had clam chowder and crab cakes, and a lovely glass of 2005 Clos la Chance Zinfandel. Randy was dabbling in the pesto gnocchi again – I just can’t keep that man away from the gnocchi.

We did a minimum amount of strolling, got lost (Tara wasn’t happy with the heavy fog and kept sending us to the wrong street) so we accidentally ended up on Lombard Street. It was dark, but you can still see the crookedness. We did a run through the red light district (when I visited San Fran last, when I was 8, my dad got lost and ended up on that street. Twice. My mom was having kittens.)

Back at the Grand Hyatt, we had a cappuccino and birra in the lounge, then went back to our room. Looking down into Union Square, we saw a group of people, all dressed in black, looking like they were doing a protest. We found out a few minutes later that we were watching anarchists who’d just cracked windows all over the shopping district, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Um, yeah. Way to make a statement, guys – cracking a window at Neiman Marcus while wearing a ski mask is sure to change the world.

Day 5

Louise and JT

We had very special plans today. At noon, we were meeting our dear friend Louise and her sweet hubby Bruce for lunch at the Washington Square Bar and Grill. After we packed and managed to get the multiple bottles of wine we bought along the way shipped home, we headed to Washington Square.

Our dear Louise looked lovely, and kindly gifted me with a San Francisco compass, which I desperately needed. We had a brilliant meal (try the fish and chips, they are croquettes and really yummy) and a plain old fashioned cellar merlot. I was actually a bit wined out, if you can believe it.

After a couple of scintillating hours in our dear friends’ company, it was time to go home. We drove across the Bay Bridge into Oakland, and the fairy tale ended. Alas. But out luck held – even though we were an hour late turning the car in, they didn’t charge us an extra day. Southwest was on time, as always, and we got home safe and sound to a very, very happy kitty.

Bottles of wine have been rolling in, with almost daily visits from UPS. Our cellar restocked, now we’re planning our next outing. Italy? Oregon? Wherever we go, we’re sure to find good food, good wine, and make new friends.

Thanks for taking the journey with us. A new decade has begun, and I hope it brings great joy and success to us all.

In Vino Veritas, part 3

By J.T.

Mumm Napa

Happy Birthday to me… We called this one the unbirthday.

We started with a drive up the 128 to Mumm Napa. What better way to start an unbirthday than with champagne? (And yes, I know this is really sparkling wine, real champagne only comes from the French champagne region.) We took a seat on the Oak Terrace, Mumm’s gorgeous new outdoor tasting deck, settling into the comfy red wicker, and were served our tasting flutes. Though since we were on the Oak Terrace, we were tasting from the Library Collection, and the flutes were full :)

We started with the 2001 Blanc De Blanc. It was a classic brut sparkling wine, crisp and jasminy, with a lemon finish. I moved on to the 2000 DVX Rosé, which was redolent of red apples, and Randy tried the 2005 Pinot Noir. In order to make rosé, you need red grapes as well as white, so the pinots add just the right amount of pink to the glass. But I never knew Mumm’s bottles a pinot out of each season’s growth. That was the second excellent pinot of the trip – smooth and clean with strawberry, peach and tobacco notes.

Me being a complete lightweight, I was a wee bit happy at this point, (nothing like catching a buzz before noon – sheesh) so we had a small plate of crudités that included a divine chocolate covered strawberry and fresh strawberries. Outstanding.

Rubicon Estates

We headed off toward Cakebread then, but accidentally stumbled upon the Rubicon Estate. We’d been planning to hit Rubicon last, but since it appeared on our right, we decided to hit it first. Rubicon is the former Inglenook Estate and is owned by Francis Ford Coppola. You’ve seen me suggest the Coppola wines before, but this is the special place, the vineyard that houses the estate wines. Estate wines are generally older, more established vines that produce less fruit and subsequently, fewer bottles, which means they are more expensive.

This was by far the most expensive stop, $25 per person for the tasting. They give you a passport, with the history of the estate and fun facts about the vineyard, and plenty of space for tasting notes. And the tasting – oh, my, the tasting.

We started with the 2007 Captain’s Reserve Chardonnay. Though neither of us are big white wine fans, this was very good, tropical and fruity. Then we moved to the 2006 Captain’s Reserve Pinot Noir. That was not what I’d call a very challenging wine. It was good, smooth, actually almost too smooth, and perfectly balanced, and tasted of raspberries and rose petals. The next was the 2005 Captain’s Reserve Shiraz. Now this got our attention. It was deeply purple, with boysenberry, black licorice, blueberries and sandalwood. It had a lovely nose and had fun tidbits – the grapes are only hand-harvested in the early morning hours, then cold-soaked for 48 hours to ensure the rich, ripe color.

Next was the 2005 Cask Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a monumental vintage for the Cask, and the wine was rich with blueberries, cherries, plum, vanilla and cocoa, and was very bold and spicy. Really excellent wine (we bought some to take home!) We tried the 2005 Rubicon too, a heavy cabernet with loads of pepper, raspberry and smoky wood notes. Just fantastic.


The last wine at the Rubicon was an add-on from our server, who was a delight – knowledgeable, pleasant and willing to share some insider secrets. We talked of the Nardi estate in Italy (my family name is Nardi, remember) and that Mr. Coppola had visited their wine-making operation. She suggested we write Mr. Coppola a note, which we did. (The funny thing was, I’m writing a note to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and all I’m thinking about is how to express my deep gratitude for his endeavors into wine making. Should’ve slipped a card in, but I really didn’t think of it until we left. Oh well.) The wine is a homage to his grandmother’s side of the family and is called Edizione Pennino. We tried the 2006. This is an organically farmed wine, a Zinfandel varietal, soft and full, with white pepper, smoke, blackberries, blueberries and raspberry notes. We took some of this home too, it was lovely. And it was nice to have the opportunity to taste such a special wine, a wine that’s dear to the winemaker’s heart. Made us feel right at home.

And then we went to Cakebread. I know the white fans are drooling right now, but the two whites we tasted, 2007 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2007 Chardonnay, while good, didn’t make a lasting impression. I just don’t have a white wine palate, though I was assured by our tasting tour partners that it was a good wine. The tour itself was a bit uninspired too, with this being more focused on just getting some wine in the glass and into your mouth than any real education. I think the group was a bit too big, and a little unsophisticated, so things were kept on the top layer, so to speak. The 2006 North Coast Rubáiyat was very good, a pinot heavy blend. The 2007 Rubáiyat will be a Merlot blend, which I found interesting. The 2005 Red Hills, Lake County Zinfandel was great, lots of dark chocolate and purple fruits, and the 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had all the elements of a great cab. It’s typical of the cooler parts of Napa, and was our favorite of the lot.

We had just enough time to hit one more, and let me tell you – choosing which vineyards to go to can be a bit daunting. There are hundreds to choose from. But the wonderful Preiser Keywas a Godsend. It breaks the vineyards into appellations, so we could look for vineyards that did our kind of wine. We wanted to taste a California Sangiovesi (the grape that’s used in Chianti,) so we headed to Castello di Amorosa.

And boy, did we get a fun surprise! What no one mentioned was the name of this vineyard was quite literal – the estate is a castle. A 101,000 square foot medieval castle. Cue enchantment!

Castello di Amorosa

We scoured the castle, then went to the tasting. This was one of the estates with a wine club. We wanted to join a couple of clubs, but didn’t want anything that we could buy in stores. Castello di Amorosa is exclusive to their wine club members. Intrigued, we asked for a special tasting that would allow us to determine if this vineyard could be a contender. They didn’t disappoint. The 2005 Diamond Mountain Sangiovese was great – black fruits, supple oak, and vanilla notes. The 2005 Merlot was good too, but needed to breath to let out the spicy, peppery finish. We loved “Il Brigante”, a 2002 Cabernet Merlot blend, cherries, light oak, spices. It’s very dry, which we love. And the name means Little Thief – how can you not love it? The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon was lovely – rich and fruity, then we moved off the regular tasting list and into the big dogs. “Il Barone”, a reserve cab, was excellent, but what sold us was the 2005 “La Castellana” Reserve. This is a beautiful Super Tuscan wine, absolutely outstanding. We signed up for the club and took bottles of Il Brigante and La Castanella home with us.

And now it was time for the dinner. We had reservations at a restaurant in Napa, so we hurried home, changed and set out for our fine meal. We were sorely disappointed: despite our 8:00 reservation, we weren’t seated until 8:30, and then it took another fifteen minutes for the waitress to take our drink order. It was noisy and crowded, not at all what we were looking for in an intimate birthday celebration. I won’t name the restaurant because I’m sure it’s normally great, they just looked incredibly understaffed, and that never speaks to a good experience.


So we walked. We knew UVA was right around the corner, and we headed there. It was a chilly walk, but well worth it. The meal we had goes down in my top five best meals I’ve ever eaten. It was simple, rustic Italian fare made from fresh, local ingrediants – meatballs smothered in tomato sauce and mozzarella as an appetizer (it was their special, and it was fabulous,) chicken and mushroom carbonara, and a phenomenal tiramisu, accompanied by a bottle of L’Uvvagio Barbera, 2005 and homemade limoncello. They even threw in a candle and wrote Happy Birthday on the plate, and comped the desserts. Classy, and guaranteed that we will recommend them highly. Top it all off with another fire and one of my all time favorite movies, FRENCH KISS, and I call that a successful day.

In Vino Veritas, part 2

By J.T.

Napa April 2009

This was the last day of the decade for me. We wanted to see some redwoods, so we rose late, programmed Tara Stella Gypsy (our Garmin Nuvi, named such because Tara is the Buddhist goddess of navigation, Stella for stars, and Gypsie for . . . yes, GPS) and off we went. Tara has a plethora of cool features, and we trusted her implicitly to get us around.

The Armstrong Redwood Forest was about an hour north and west of Napa, and we weren’t disappointed. HUGE trees. HUGE. Towering to the sky, thousands of years old. Having grown up in a forest, it was especially peaceful and perfect. We shared some cocktail peanuts (thanks, Southwest!) and just spent some time being, astounded at the silence in these woods.

Napa April 2009

Glancing at the map, we knew we were close to the coast, so we figured what the hell. Tara happily obliged us with a point of interest entry called Goat Rock State Beach. That sounded promising. Driving through the forest, knowing that just around the curve, something glorious awaited us, we were breathless in anticipation. An eagle soared down and got in front of the car as if he were leading us to the rocky cliffs. I couldn’t help myself, I mentally recited some Tennyson.

Napa April 2009

The forest quickly gave way to flatter land, yellows instead of greens, and suddenly, there it was, this gigantic cliff with the Pacific gleaming beneath us.

Napa April 2009

We drove down, taking a million pictures, then parked and walked along the soft sand. Goat Rock is one of the most dangerous beaches in California – the water sneaks up on you and there’s a twenty foot drop shelf right at the water’s edge – we nearly got creamed by a wave trying to dip our fingers in the pacific.

Napa April 2009
Napa April 2009

That beach was one of the speechless moments. I don’t have them often, but they burn themselves into my memory banks to stay on forever.

We finally dragged ourselves away and headed to Seghesio Vineyards in Healdsburg. There’s definitely a warming process with some of these wine folks – they assume you know nothing, and treat you a bit disdainfully until you say something in the magic code language of Dionysus (something about oak barrels usually suffices.) Then they open to you and treat you well. That irritated my populist heart a bit, but whatever. There’s also a bit of competition between Sonoma and Napa, with the Sonoma folks looking down their noses at the Napa folks, which I had absolutely no time for. All that aside, we tasted several really good wines at Seghesio: the2006 Cortina Zinfandel, made in the Dry Creek Valley, 2007 Costeria Pinot Noir, which was a bit too new for me, the 2005 Auradou Zinfandel, also from Dry Creek Valley and the stuff the Old Vine Zin I recommended last week is made of. The 2005 Home Ranch Zinfandel had some Sirah in it, making it fruity, and the 2005 Home Ranch Petit Sirah was excellent, very peppery and laced with black fruit. But the standout was the 2005 Venom. Grown on Rattlesnake Hill, it’s their baby Brunello, and it was rich, spicy and very full-bodied, the kind of wine you want to let breathe for at least thirty minutes, then consume with a superior steak.

The purveyor at Seghesio suggested a fine Italian restaurant in Healdsburg, and since it was past 5:00, we decided to break for food. We ate at a great place right in the Healdsburg Square called Scopa. Scopa is run by a young couple who take their food seriously but keep the atmosphere light and friendly. It was also local vintner’s night, where they have local growers and bottlers wait tables and introduce their wines.

This night, the vineyard was Ceritas. Grown on a rocky slope at the Escarpa Vineyard in the Burgundy tradition, their 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was outstanding, probably one of the best Pinots I’ve ever tasted. They only get about 70 cases off the land, and they’ve sunk their life savings into this vineyard, but I bet it will pay off for them in spades. The wine will be available in August, 2009.

The lovely waitress at Scopa suggested we drive the 128 back to Napa. It’s a windy road, but the sun was just getting ready to set and the vineyards were sheathed in the gloaming’s glow – it’s always my favorite time of day, but this was especially gorgeous. The drive took nearly an hour, but it was so worth it.

Napa April 2009

We rolled into Napa wanting to taste one more wine for the day. We found ourselves at UVA, a lovely Italian restaurant (are you seeing a pattern here???) We had glasses of Monticello Sangiovese and desert – a strawberry tiramisu for me, flourless chocolate for Randy. Throw in a decaf cappuccino and it was time to call it a day. We popped KISS THE GIRLS into the DVD player, lit the fire, and crashed.

Just think. On the last day of my third decade, I was in a forest, on a beach, in a vineyard, ate in two Italian restaurants, drank several gorgeous glasses of wine, watched a movie, had a fire, and did all of the above with the man I love. Every favorite thing in my world. It was one of those perfect, special days that couldn’t be planned if you tried. Sometimes, the road less travelled does pay dividends.

Next Week: DAY THREE, the Rubicon Estate, and how I managed to slip Francis Ford Coppola a note.

There are plenty more photos of the trip here and here.

In Vino Veritas, part 1


Note: This is the first of a four-part travelogue J.T. will be bringing on Fridays. It's a lovely remembrance of the time she turned the big 4-0 a few years ago and went wine-crazy in CaliforniaAKA living the dream.

Ahhh, vino. Anyone who knows me is well aware I am a complete and utter wine junkie. An amateur oenophile. A lover of the dark juice, a disciple of Dionysus, a proponent for good wines and vineyards. When we first started Murderati, and I had nothing to say (odd that we’ve come full circle) I thought I’d give a wine tip every week, just as a sort of value-added incentive to read the columns. I’ve given hundreds of wine tips over those three years, so many that I’m considering hiring someone to go through and list them all out for me so I have a record. Because I don’t have a list of all the wines I’ve recommended.

Does that surprise you? I know you know I’m a complete control freak, borderline OCD about so many things, but keeping track of my wine consumption? I’m terrible at it. I’ve started too many notebooks to count—separating them into varietals, countries, years. I put them into lists and then forget to add to it. I’m a bit hopeless, and that’s not the way a real wine connoisseur acts.

Well, I’m not a real connoisseur. I’m just a thrillerchick who likes her grape juice.

So when hubby told me he was taking me to the Napa Valley for my birthday, you can imagine how excited I was. We’ve been to Italy a couple of times, strolled through pour favorite vineyard, Tenute Silvio Nardilearned about tastings and fermentations and the benefits of French oak from our friend Jeorge, the estate manager. We know Francis Ford Coppola has been there, his wine team spent a few weeks learning from the Nardis. (More on that later) And my family name, for those who are interested, is Nardi. Winemaking, apparently, is in my blood.

We touched base with friends we know have travelled in the area for recommendations. We quickly discovered that this can be a pricey trip, because most of the vineyards charge for the tastings, anywhere from $10 a person to $25. That can add up quickly. It was recommended to us that we stay in Sonoma, the less trafficked and less commercial part of the wine country. But Sonoma’s expensive, so we decided to go the economical route of a bed and breakfast in Napa proper, taking advantage of the great travel deals (many, many hotels are doing specials now, three nights for the price of two, that kind of thing.) Turns out that was our smartest move. Napa proper? Not so commercial after all. And the B&B was perfectly located at the mouth of Highway 29 and Highway 128, two of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world. Breakfast in bed daily, a spacious, clean and quiet room with a fireplace and DVD player, a comfy bed and oodles of hot water—it was heaven.

The first day we’d arrived at about 3:00 pm local time after a full day of traveling. We were tired and hungry, and poor hubby had a cold (we were hoping it wasn’t hamthrax, we’d stopped at a local store for a jug of hand sanitizer and there were people in masks.) The B&B manager pulled out a map and a slew of tasting coupons (despite the prices, the coupons were along the lines of two for one tastings, etc.) We decided to forego the tastings in favor of a cheeseburger, which we found at the Napa Valley Grille in Yountville. Napa and Sonoma are made up of a multitude of small contiguous charming towns, with vast tracts of vineyards stretched between them. Most picturesque.

Food served, along with buttery focaccia dipped in rosemary, pepper, garlic and sea salt infused olive oil, we ventured into our first wines. Hubby had a Tangley Oaks Merlot, and I tried the Napa Cellars Merlot. Both were excellent, and we had a first moment of fortune—they’d emptied the very last bottle of Tangley Oaks and didn’t have enough for a full glass, so that one was on the house. Just the right way to get the trip started.

Verismo Malbec

As we left, we noticed a tasting room for Verismo Wines. We stopped in for the heck of it and discovered three excellent wines: Stretta (aged in American Oak), Stella (aged in French Oak), and a surprisingly good Malbec, also aged in French Oak. I’ve never been much for the Malbecs, but this was rich and deep, just great.

Back at the B&B, 5-7 is cocktail hour, with lovely crudités, several wines to taste and some elevator Muzak. We retired early with a bottle of Stretta in our room, lit the fire, doped up the hubster and got a great night’s sleep.

Tune in next Friday for more Napa travel tips, the inside scoop on California vineyards and labels, and more!