Thursday, May 26, 2011

Groking La Follette's Manchester Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay

I first tried winemaker Greg La Follette’s wine under the Tandem label at the 2009 Wine Bloggers Conference speed tasting. Say what you will about the merits of the speed tasting rounds, but it does serve to set in your mind wines that are very good or “very not so good”. The Manchester Ridge was in the very, very, very good category and I kept thinking about it for days afterwards. It was one of the most enjoyable and surprising Chardonnays I’d ever had.

Next thing I know, I got a bottle of Tandem Pinot Noir in my Quivira club shipment and it sparked me to learn more. Tandem wines was started in 2001 by Greg La Follette and then purchased by Quivira in 2009. Subsequently in 2010, Quivira owner Pete Knight made the great decision (in my opinion) to roll out Tandem into the new brand La Follette.

After that initial WBC tasting in 2009, I bought a case of the Tandem Manchester Ridge Chardonnay and a case of Tandem Sangiacomo Pinot for a Christmas party I was having. It’s funny how a lot of people say they don’t drink Chardonnay. But what’s more interesting, is my friends who say the opposite, “I don’t drink red wine!” (Hmmm… I know what some of you are thinking -- get rid of those friends, but hey, it was Christmas time.)  Plus I have friends from all walks of life the majority of whom are not wine bloggers, merely casual wine drinkers, and I have somehow become their go to person for recommending wines and helping them expand their wine horizons. I’m no expert, I’m just a diligent explorer and always looking to share something I think is great.  So when I have parties I try to have something different on hand they will enjoy.

I set out both wines at the party and watched people’s reactions. You know a wine has someone’s attention when they try it and then they go pick the bottle up again and say “Wow who makes this Chardonnay?” Or my favorite line “This is Chardonnay? I don’t drink Chardonnay. Where did you get this?” (Oh how quickly our tightly held convictions crumble in the face of a great wine!)

Days later I had people calling to thank me for the party and ask about the wine. “Can you tell me again that name of the wine you served? It was so good.”  No surprise that it was the die-hard ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) red wine aficionados that went gaga over the La Follette. Mission accomplished.

Recently I was sent a sample of the Manchester Ridge Chardonnay under the new La Follette label-- and it’s as amazing as ever. So balanced and bright, with crisp apple and pineapple notes. It’s creamy without the dull thud on the palate some Chards can deliver. 

Maybe La Follette Chardonnay should be called “Beyond Chardonnay” as I think it’s in a class all it’s own. Even the Manchester Vineyard is out on it’s own. If you look at a map the vineyard for Manchester ridge is located way north of Sonoma on the Mendocino Ridge AVA. It’s high elevation and cool coastal temperatures is not a typical growing area for Chardonnay. But that is perfectly in line with the winemaker’s philosophy of crafting wines from outside of so-called “safe growing” zones.

As I learn more about wine I realize the multitude of facets there are to every part of the process from growing to bottling. It’s a vast knowledge base. And I admit, my goal is not to become a student of winemaking, just a better educated consumer. But when you find a wine that really sparks your interest, it’s through its graces that you are led deeper down the path to understanding it. Or as I like to say Grok it! (For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; it means to so fully understand something in its essence that you practically become it.)  I like to experience wines from all over the planet and love discovering new favorites, mostly I drink and enjoy them in the moment. But with La Follette I want more. I really want to grok Greg’s wines. And I will stay on that path for as long as full grokdom takes.

So now you can find and enjoy Greg's wines under his eponymous brand La Follette. Visit the La Follette website for more in depth information on winemaker Greg La Follette and the “vineyard-designate” Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the vineyards of Lorenzo in Russian River Valley, Manchester Ridge, van der Kamp, and Sangiacomo.

La Follette also makes stunning Pinot Noir’s as well and I’ll address those at a later date, as this post is for Chardonnay day. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Opulence? JCB Hez It! -- A Visit to Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley

The wine revolution will not be televised—it will be shown live at Raymond Vineyards. And it’s going to be quite a show. Things are different here. Owner Jean-Charles Boisset has taken the venerable Raymond vineyards and sprinkled pixie dust all over. Boisset is the mastermind and ringmaster for some evolutionary new ideas in the experience of wine. But don’t let the wow factor fool you. There is some serious good wine here along with all the glamour and glitz. 

On Saturday May 14th I visited the Raymond Vineyards with a group of bloggers and wine writers and it was unlike any winery visit I’ve ever experienced before. It was a three-ring circus of wine, creativity, and decadence. 

Ring 1 –Tank Room and Crystal Cellar: The Baccarat chandelier in the Crystal Cellar steals the show, but once your eyes adjust to the low lighting there’s plenty more to see; stainless steel walls, a mirrored bar and a display of crystal decanters. The philosophy is kind of Forest Gump like in it’s approach—Beauty is what beauty does. Surround yourself with beautiful things and beauty becomes you. It seems to work. Who knew stainless steel could be so sexy? From the looks of it, Studio 54 is alive and well in Napa at Raymond. I half expected Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show to pop out from behind a tank and purr in my ear “Give your self over to absolute pleasure!”  But instead Boisset arrived and the wattage of the room amped up considerably. Boisset is a bundle of energy, ideas and most of all showmanship. Take one part P.T. Barnum and one part marketing genius, (shaken, not stirred) and you have Jean-Charles Boisset.

In the warm glow of the candle lit Crystal Cellar winemaker Stephanie Putnam poured the current releases:
All of the Cabernets were exceptional examples of what Napa Valley is known for, but I liked the Rutherford best--Hearty, meaty, and balanced with sweet notes of blueberries. Very drinkable now and well into the future too.

Ring 2—Barrel to Barrel: Next it was time for the arts and crafts portion of the tour. We split into teams to decorate individual barrels that are part of Barrel to Barrel a new program for delivering a wine by the glass experience in restaurants and homes. The materials provided for the decorating were anything but traditional. Liberace would have approved. Hello! Leather, glitter, leopard prints, sequins, peacock feathers and marabou galore. I think a tasteful decoupage of wine labels might be a better approach. But hey…C'est la vie! 

While sipping the 2009 Barrel to Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon we set upon decorating the mini barrels. The end result included a sexy kitty, an ode to “Eyes Wide Shut” and an over the top Mardi Gras creation that took first place. If you want to try your hand at barrel decorating too, you will soon be able to visit the Raymond website to decorate one online and be eligible to win an actual barrel in real life. 

Ring 3—The JCB Lounge: As we entered the JCB lounge I had the feeling of Déjà vu. Where had I seen this place before? Was it in a scene from a movie? Boogie Nights perhaps? Gianni Versace’s home in Miami Beach? Possibly. Then it hit me…I’d seen it all before here in this commercial.

Opulence? JCB hez it! The JCB lounge had the same vibe going on-- Mirrors and gold statues? Check! Stack of gold bricks? Yup! A charming and charismatic leader with foreign accent and beautiful female staff? Check! Check! Check! Check! The mini giraffe was about only thing missing. Actually the JCB lounge is beyond opulent. It’s a sensory extravaganza of gold and marble and crystal and candles and glitz all grooving to a steady beat of Michael Jackson videos playing on the big screen. Honestly, you really must see it to believe it. 

This is where we tasted the JCB label wines, which are numbered and labeled with evocative terms. 
JCB No.81 Chardonnay—Alluring*Ephemeral*Insatiable
JCB No.7 Pinot Noir—Debonnaire*Charismatic*Seductive
JCB No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon—Voluptuous*Opulent*Incorrigible

The Pinot from Sonoma coast fruit tasted true to it’s terrior with a light scent of lavender and mint and rich flavors of clove, blackberries and a bit of bacon fat too.

I have to say, I first found Boisset’s eccentric approach to the “wine of the mind” disconcerting. It seems nothing is too far-out or off limits. But then half-way through the tasting I found the energy of it all to be wildly creative and inspiring. I came up with several ideas on the spot, that I’m sorry to say, his attentive staff my now be charged with bringing to fruition. Sorry! (By the way--I think it would be great to spend a day brainstorming with Boisset and his team if they are interested.)

So, you might be thinking why all the theatrics? Are they trying to distract my attention from the wine? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s merely an attempt to deepen the experience and increase the enjoyment of wines that are already very good. But you can decide that on your own. Note: If you go to Raymond Vineyards be warned; the experience can be overwhelming. One of our group stabbed themselves during the barrel decorating session drawing much blood, and another got so carried away by the Michael Jackson videos, she lit her hair on fire in tribute to him. Proceed at your own risk. But do by all means proceed. Let go, loosen up and have some fun.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Aboard the Good Ship Yeatman

View of Oporto across the Douro

If you have been following along with my Portugal posts you may recall that on the second day of the Wine Pleasures pre-tour we stayed overnight at the newly opened Yeatman Hotel. The Yeatman is built into the hillside above the Douro on the Vila de Gia side of the river. The grand open spaces, nautical details and juxtaposition to the river give it the feeling of a luxury ocean liner with all the rooms oriented towards the river, each with a private terrace.

Grand staircase leading to Lobby

After the Wine Pleasures tour I returned to the Yeatman to visit the private wine cellar and view the rest of the property. I stayed on for few days and got to unwind after a jam packed schedule.

The Yeatman is designed not only to take full advantage of the glorious views of Porto across the river. But also to highlight the wine producers of the region. Rooms are named after different wineries and showcase their wine. For die-hard oenophiles one of the Barrel rooms may be to your liking. That's right, you get to sleep inside a barrel.

Sweet dreams of fermentation

A tour of the impressive cellars turned up a few surprises, like a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello from my home state of California. The plan is to allow guests to visit the cellar between 4-6pm and select a bottle for dinner, then based on their selection, the Yeatman chefs create a meal to pair with the wine. I love this idea. It would be worth a trip back just to experience this concept alone. But with all those wines to choose from I'd need to stay a month or more! Below is a brief slide show of what the cellars hold.

One special highlight of my was the lunch I had in the dining room. I dined alone with only the view as my companion and the attentive staff. Dining solo in this type of setting allows you to focus entirely on the food and not feel compelled to make idle chit-chat. Not that I don't like to share, it's just a gift to have things to yourself sometimes. Although I did not partake of any of the Yeatman Spa offerings while I was there, my meal in the hands of chef Ricardo Costa was like a full spa treatment for the taste buds.

To start I had a glass of the 2009 Crasto and the first Amuse bouche set in Three Spoons--
Black Spoon: Scallops with apricot, green asparagus and beurre blanc.
Sliver Spoon: Smoked duck with foie gras, portuguese blood sausage and caviar
White Spoon: Sea urchin cream with caviar
Macaron of Serra del Estrela cheese
Foie gras truffle

Amuse bouche 2: Tuna terrine with foie gras and oyster yogurt and mushroom dust.

First Course: National Octopus with Crab cannelloni, sun dried tomato bread, molecular olives and green tomato consomme with olive oil.

Second: Megrim (a type of white fish) with vitelote potato flakes, vegetable gratin and fennel sauce.

Third: Algrave Almond cheesecake, spearmint sorbet, with hailed orange juice sorbet and vanilla with Taylors 2004 LBV Port.

Coffee and Mignardises ( Pasteis de Belem shown above)

The only thing that pulled me out of my reverie with the meal was the odd background soundtrack playing muzak versions of I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady, Frank Sinatra's The Lady is a Tramp, U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and most strange of all the Theme from MASH--Suicide Is Painless what SiriusXM Channel is that?

The Yeatman is an experience with a capital E. It's luxurious, but not in an oppressive old-guard way--it's light and modern and accommodating in a most gracious way. It's worth a visit for the views alone. Stop in for a port cocktail in the laid-back bar overlooking the Douro and see if you don't feel like you are about to float away on the Good Ship Yeatman.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wine Pleasures Portugal: The Boxed Set

All good things must come to an end eventually, and although I could keep writing about Portugal for another two months I think I have covered all the highlights now. Whew! Thanks for following along. It was an incredible visit and in addition to all the fabulous wine and port and food my fondest memories are of the people. No matter where you travel, it's the people you meet that make the journey worthwhile. The crazy ones make for great stories, (you-know-who) while others make for lifelong friendships.

Long bus trips can lead to all sorts of mayhem. And if you've ever been on a Wine Bloggers Conference bus trip you probably know the feeling. --- Here's a quick video of some of the people I met on the Wine Pleasures tour and their comments about the trip on our final day in the Douro. Thanks to everyone for being such good sports. The lighting is not so good, but the scenery and background chatter is priceless!

And if that's not enough to scare you... here are some out-takes from "Bucky's Stuffed Wine Show" (Special thanks to Jethro for kind loan of his "teddies")

Next year the Wine Pleasures Conference will be in Umbria, Italy. If you'd like to be a part of it apply here.

Here are all the links to my Portugal series and links to other participants posts as well. If I missed your post let me know and I will add it to the list.

Wine Pleasure Participant Posts:
Grantoursimo --
Douro Part 1
Douro Part 2

Aneesh Bhasin-

Messina Hof:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Portugal Part 8: Quinta da Pacheca Lodge and Cellars

The last night of the Wine Pleasures tour in the Douro was spent at Quinta da Pacheca near the town of Lamego.

Quinta da Pacheca looks like a traditional manor home, but inside it has a sleek modern look. The dining room was one of the most elegant yet relaxed rooms I've ever dined in. Painted a crisp apple green with plush console chairs, it featured an ornate carved wood display case, and large windows overlooking the vineyards and river.

The cellars at Pacheca were like something out of a spread for Vouge magazine. The setting so romantic it's become a hot spot for weddings and receptions. If I ever get married again er...I mean renew my vows...I'd like to do it here.

Our host, winemaker Jose Serpa Pimentel, led us through the cellars and the lagare room that was over 100 years old with 11 largares for lots of stomping action. Mr. Pimentel (who Mr. Terrence Carter pointed out resembles Francis Ford Coppola) was a relaxed and genial host. After a tour of the grounds Jose poured us samples of the wines. My personal favorite was the Quinta de Pacheca 200o LBV Port bottled by Jose's father Eduardo in 2002. Love at first sip. A lush spicy port with notes of dried cherry and sweet plums.

For another perspective on the final days of the tour and some wonderful photos, check out Grantourismo's account of it here.


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