Bubbles: Good for all year

No matter what you call it — champagne, sparkling wine, cava or prosecco — wine with bubbles add a festive pop to any occasion and is especially associated with New Year’s. These were some of my favorite sparklers, with a special shout out to Barry Jackson of Equinox in Santa Cruz who not only makes his own vintage champagne but produces sparkling wines for many of northern California’s wineries.

Try his Blanc de Blanc Monterey Cuvee de Chardonnay ($42) for a balanced, concentrated and lush champagne. The Equinox 2001 Brut Reserve ($60) is a special wine aged nine year ‘en triage.’ Biscuits, caramel, vanilla and apple-pear are rich and ripe.


McIntyre Vineyards produces L’Homme Qui Ris (Laughing Man) a cuvee of pinot noir grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, where  viticulturist Steve McIntyre oversees thousands of acres of grapes in the AVA in addition to his own vineyard.

His traditional style sparkling wine ($42) is creamy, pale in color with delicate bubbles and has flavors of lemon, apple, pear and apricot layered with distinct mineral and yeast notes as you would find in a older, aged champagne.

The Russian River Valley also offers some beautifully structured wines bursting with flavor.

The Balleto 2013 Brut Rose ($42) is light and peachy with a pale pink color and refreshing finish. Strawberries, watermelon and a slight sweetness are balance by nice acids.

J Vineyards and Winery produces the crisp, zesty Cuvee 20 ($38) and the vibrant, fruity Brut Rose ($45). Even though the J Cuvee is creamy with ripe apple, pear, lemon and apricot, it dances on the tongue. A spritely wine. The J Brut Rose is delicate, a ladies sipping wine with flavors of strawberries.

Finally, compare our cool climate California sparklers with the Gran Moraine Brut Rose ($50) from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. This traditionally made, pale pink is described by winemaker Shane Moore as “masculine rather than feminine and very sharply dressed and clean shaven,”


Last minute wine gifts

It may be only a few more days until Christmas but the holiday season will last at least another week. Here’s a few suggestions for last-minute holiday wine gifts.

floraspringsholidayEach year Flora Springs comes out with special holiday -themed wines in beautifully etched bottles. The red blend comes in three designs: Joyful Angel, Toy Soldier (sold out) and Snowflake Dancers. Each of these 2014 cabernet sauvignon-based, Napa Valley blends is $65.

The limited edition wine tastes of blackberries, black cherry, plum and rich spices. A hint of vanilla and toast round the offering for a warm, generous glass.

The more affordable Dashaway 2015 Chardonnay ($45) tastes of ripe rich apple and pear. Perfect for an aperitif.

Since Santa Cruz County is perfect for growing pinot noir, try giving these lesser known but fantastic wines to the pinot lover on your list. I tried these recently at the Pinot Paradise event, and they were fantastic.

The Armitage 2014, Santa Cruz Mountains, ($48) is dark in color but bright in flavor. Bursting with cherry and cranberry, a bit of forest floor and lavender, round out this wine that’s best with food.

The Muccigrosso 2009 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains ($35) is as hard to find as the winery, which is not open to the public. You can sample the wines at the Santa Cruz Winegrowers Association Passport Days at nearby Byington Winery.

The wines are fruity but with substance. Ripe plum, redwood duff, leather, wood, lavender and sage pair well with in season mushrooms.

Track them down at (408) 354-0821.


Party favors and favorite gifts

As we get closer to Christmas and the winter solstice, holiday gatherings fend off the darkness. Sharing food and drink, laughter and love elevate us all and presenting a favorite friend with special gift is a shared pleasure. Here’s a few suggestions for wines to share, a bottle and glass pairing, and a few, rather exclusive gifts.

Louis M. Martini 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($20) is inky black with berry aromas — a hearty wine best served with food. Blackberry, plum, raspberry flavors are balanced by vanilla, chocolate and coffee with a bit of toast. Affordable and available.

This wine came with a Riedel glass specially designed to enhance the flavor of the Martini cabernet sauvignon. I gave it the taste test, against an average wine glass, and the Riedel glass did in fact concentrate aromas and bring out depth of flavors. The Louis M. Martini Riedel Cabernet Sauvignon Glass at $15, paired with a bottle, would make a nice gift and a fun party experiment.

hess chard bottle 003The Hess Collection 2015 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($22) is like a serving of lemon meringue pie with a bit of apple, pear and tropical fruit. Perfect for the crab feed. For a rich chocolate dessert, or meat-based meal, share a bottle of Hess Collection 2015 Allomi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($32) for its berry-liciousnous — blackberry jam, fig, blueberry, plum flavors and a hint of walnut.

An extravagant gift would be the Hess Collection 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder ($65) with its pleasing cranberry-cinnamon nose and rich, lush mouth feel. Cranberry, dried cherry, spice and cola show off the red fruit flavors of the cabernet grape grown on Mount Veeder. This cab comes with a bit of Malbec to add blueberry and spice.

As a final indulgence, choose any one of winemaker Chris Carpenter’s merlots, which he makes makes for three wineries on two continents: the La Jota Vineyard 2014 Merlot, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($85), the Mt. Brave 2014 Merlot, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley ($75) and the Hickinbotham 2014 The Revivalist Merlot, McLaren Value, South Australia ($75).

The La Jota merlot is deep and well-balanced with deep, dark fruit and dense, concentrated flavors. Blackberry, dark chocolate and earthy tannins deliver the terroir of the renowned Howell Mountain. The Mount Brave merlot also shows terroir with a lighter touch in its red fruit, floral aromas, smooth tannins and a long finish. Compare this one to the Hess Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. The Hickenbotham merlot comes in the brightest and lightest while still retaining its earthy merlot nature.

Raise a glass to Mr. Carpenter and his championship of an under appreciated varietal.


Perfect for parties and party gifts

Trione_River_Road_RanchBringing a bottle of wine to a holiday party, or even as a housewarming gift, makes you a welcome guest. Here’s a few suggestions of wines that pair well with many types of food, are easy to find, and won’t break the bank. Plus a couple of suggestions for a lavish gift for your favorite host from William Hill Estate Winery and Trione Vineyards and Winery. Both wineries are based in Sonoma County.

The William Hill Estate Winery 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast ($17) and the 2015 Chardonnay, North Coast ($17), both go well with food but in different ways. The sauvignon blanc is bright and tight with flavors of green apple, grapefruit and a mineral overtone.  It will go well with Chinese food, Thai, deep fried hors d’oeuvres. The chardonnay is silky with butterscotch, pear, melon and vanilla. Bring this one to the dessert party.

Trione Vineyards and Winery has a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($25) that’s made for the cheese plate. Crisp and tart with flavors of guava, grapefruit and apple. The 2015 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($34) is a mellow maker. Aromas of spun sugar and lemon curd are followed by flavors of papaya, Mandarin orange, butterscotch and nutmeg. A wine with intrigue and diversity.

To spoil your favorite host, buy him or her a bottle of Trione 2013 Henry’s Blend, Alexander Valley ($56) red wine. Complex and smooth, it offers flavors of blueberries, currants, white peach, cigar and a bit of spice on the finish. This well-designed wine is harmonious and luxurious.

The William Hill 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley Benchlands Series ($40) is lush and loaded with flavor. Floral aromas and ripe flavors of pineapple, lime, lemon, butter and apples give an almost honey-mead feel.

Details: Trionewinery.com and (707) 814-8100.

Details: Williamhillestate.com and (707) 265-3024

Hahn Family Elevate SLH Region

By Stacey Vreeken

In a more than 30-year journey, the Hahn family has taken their Santa Lucia Highlands-based winery and created quality, estate-grown wines sought after on restaurant menus, tasting bars and even grocery shelves. Along the way, Hahn Family Wines and its fellow wineries have made the Santa Lucia region one of the premier winemaking regions for pinot noir and chardonnay.

In January, founder Nicolaus (Nicky) Hahn will be honored as an American Wine Pioneer by Wine Enthusiast magazine at its 18th Wine Star Awards, held in Miami. He is the first recipient of the award, which recognizes pioneers who have paved the way for others in the wine business, and will be featured in the prestigious magazine’s Best Of issue.

The award recognizes not only Hahn’s leadership in rallying his fellow winemakers but also the vision and promotion of the highlands as a distinct growing region, earning American Viticulture Area (AVA) status in 1991.

“I am extremely humbled to receive this recognition from Wine Enthusiast,” said Hahn. “I’m grateful for the cooperation of numerous neighbors and allies who supported the vision of defining the Santa Lucia Highlands as a unique winegrowing area. I also must attribute this recognition to the hardworking team at Hahn Family Wines who are instrumental in crafting the high-quality wines that have helped build the AVA’s reputation.”

Hahn, a Swiss native, started as a businessman in Paris and chairman of a software company in London. He and his artist wife Gaby bought the Smith Vineyard and the Hook Vineyard in 1979, planted with cabernet sauvignon, on the ridge overlooking the Salinas Valley and made their first vintage in 1980.

As the winery and the AVA developed, cattle ranch land was converted, and Hahn replanted hundreds of acres in the early 2000s to primarily pinot noir and chardonnay. He and Gaby now split their time between Monterey, Zurich and 50,000-acre wildlife conservancy they’ve founded in Kenya.

Today at the estate winery, a line of redwood trees march up the hill to the tasting room decorated with Gaby’s art. Expansive vineyards, 650 acres that range in elevation from 200 feet to 1200 feet, stretch down the hill and overlook the valley below. In the mountains directly across, the jagged peaks of the Pinnacles stand out.

An additional tasting room has recently opened in Carmel.

Part of Hahn’s current success is having family stay involved in the winery and having a local, surfing winemaker –– son Philip Hahn is chairman of the winery and Paul Clifton grew up in Salinas and worked at several regional wineries before joining Hahn.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see my father recognized for his dedication to a winemaking region that was under-the-radar for many just a decade ago,” says Philip, the second generation of the Hahn winemaking family. “The Santa Lucia Highlands makes some of the top pinot noir in the country, and I take very seriously the responsibility to further the legacy that my father has built for Hahn Family Wines and this exceptional AVA.”

As a native son to the Salinas Valley, winemaker Clifton knows all its in and outs, and that’s reflected in the wines he’s made for 15 years at Hahn. Clifton, who loves surfing, biking, skiing, hiking, kicked around New Zealand, Colorado, Lake Tahoe and Santa Cruz before settling back in Salinas.

“I came back like everyone does. They hate where they grew up, until they realize how important family and connections are,” says Clifton, who is now raising his own family in the Salinas Valley.

He had been working in the wine industry 20 years, including at Byington and Bernardus wineries, when he met the Hahns “in my back yard” so to speak “So I was like whew!”

It was a good match. Clifton is clearly in love with the vineyard and his years making wine there.

“The property, when you see it, it’s like a playground. It’s so beautiful and has so much potential. And the family is so awesome for getting you what you need in terms of people,” he says. Nicky, Gaby and Philip Hahn have invited “people to do what their dream was, which is to build a world-class winery.”

© Copyright Stacey Vreeken 2017

Visiting Europe by the glass at Santa Cruz’s Soif

photo 1-2For my birthday this April, my partner Rob deemed me Soif-worthy and made reservations to spoil me with a wine-paired dinner at the downtown Santa Cruz restaurant Soif. With the help of our server, I ordered a different glass of wine with each course (Rob was driving). It was pricey; he said I was worth it.
We browsed the adjacent wine shop first, looking for bottles from the Rhone region of France we visited last fall. Sure enough, wine buyer John Locke’s extensive connections provided many choices.
When we sat down, our attentive server immediately offered us some time to discuss bottle versus glass and made suggestions. Bottle would have been more affordable; by the glass more fun. I got spoiled.
We ordered a small plate of piquillo peppers stuffed with manchego cheese ($7) paired with 2007 Alain Geoffroy Chablis premier cru “Vau-Ligneau” chardonnay ($12) from Burgundy, France, for me and a 2013 Jose Pariente verdejo ($8.50) from Rueda, Spain, for Rob.
The Chablis was creamy and rich, perfect with the flavors of mild pepper and cheese. I’d like to explore more of these types of wines. Rob’s verdejo was fruity and crisp, more to his liking, and he kept it for the marinated beet salad with endive, red quinoa, radishes and feta ($11). The salad was earthy and full of textures in the mouth.
I chose the chopped spring vegetable salad with fava beans, snap peas, avocado and manchego ($12) which was a great melding of delicate green flavors, except I couldn’t get past all the raw celery and onion in it.
Rob gracefully swapped plates with me.
Originally paired with the chopped salad, the Allimant-Laugner crémant d’Alsace rosé pinot noir ($10) from Alsace, France, also went well with the beet salad. This was one of my favorite wines all night. Light and fragrant, barely rosé and gently sparkling, a bottle of this creamy sparkler ($23) came home with us from the wine shop after dinner.
My favorite food course all night was the Alaskan halibut with roasted beets, fennel, radishes and Clementine butter ($28) paired with a 2012 Királyudvar Furmint from Tokaj, Hungary. The halibut was succulent, cooked just right and the Clementine butter was scraped from the plate.
It was tough to offer bites to Rob but after the salad swap, I know how to say thanks and forked over generous amounts. The halibut was so good, that if you had to order one thing, the firm but delicately flavored fish would be it.
I enjoyed the slightly sweet furmint, which complemented the halibut. Plus it was from Hungary and called “fur-mint”! Had to have it. Liked it.
Rob ordered the steamed clams with house made pancetta, Yukon gold potatoes, espelette and lacinato kale ($21) originally paired with the 2013 Bucci verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi classico superiore ($8.50) from Marche, Italy. We both agreed the verdicchio was off, perhaps corked or oxygenated, and our server easily agreed to replaced it. She suggested the 2013 Trail Marker Legan Vineyard chardonnay ($12) from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The wine paired OK with the clams, but not my favorite. I was visiting Europe for this dinner. Rob enjoyed the sauce and the pancetta, but felt the potatoes would be better in a clam chowder.
Our server worked hard to please us, and many of our wine choices were not the suggested pairing. I wanted to sample European wines, and Rob doesn’t like wines that are too sweet. At one point, she brought out several tastes for us to choose from and helped guide Rob to his locally produced chardonnay to get the flavors he wanted.
Well, was it worth the $175 price tag? The small plate peppers and halibut were my favorites. I loved the Chablis and crémant, and Soif presents many interesting, well-sourced wines that I wouldn’t experience otherwise. Furmint from Hungary!
At the end of the night, we not only picked up that bottle of crémant but also a bottle of St. Joseph red wine from the Rhone region of France.
Soif represents another stop on my wine journey. Thanks, Rob.photo 2-1 Read More…

The white wine offshoot of pinot

Vintage: Rexford Winery 2013 Pinot Blanc Chalone Antle Vineyard

Rexford Winery offers an uncommon pinot blanc from grapes grown near the Pinnacles, from a vineyard planted by legendary Chalone winemaker Dick Graff. Rocky, limestone laden soils there produce lustrous, complex white wines.
An unusual varietal that comes from a genetic mutation of pinot noir, in Europe pinot blanc is sometimes used to make sparking wine. Aromatic with fruity and floral characteristics, it can be made dry or sweet. Rexford’s version is dry.
The winemaker >> Winemaker Joe Miller has leveraged a lifelong love of wine into a retirement endeavor. He taught enology and wine appreciation at UC Santa Cruz in addition to astrophysics and astronomy and is strongly influenced by the style and character of European wines.
Why like it >> This wine is for Champagne lovers. Honey-gold in color, light bodied, it’s a pinot blanc as complex as any red wine. Opening with fragrant floral tones of jasmine and a hint of licorice, the wine is still clean and effervescent. Flavors of pear, peach and lime are tempered by notes fenu greek and cucumber. Developed acids allows flavors to rise on the finish.
Pair it with >> Thai food, pork, salmon, Mexican food.
Cost >> $28.
Tasting room >> 429 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz. 2-5 p.m. Friday and Sunday; 1-5 p.m. Saturday. By appointment and when flag is out.
Details >> http://www.rexfordwinery.com and 426-1500.
Copyright © Stacey Vreeken 2015