California Wine Country Tasting Recap

An abbreviated summer trip to the Bay Area and Healdsburg included visits to eight wineries where I tasted close to 50 wines. My 7-year old son Alex was along for the ride this time, so we decided to avoid Napa altogether and really focused on wineries that offered either seated tastings, outdoor areas, or both. This is becoming more and more of my preference these days anyway, as rising land costs in Napa have resulted in its wineries almost completely pricing out those of us seeking affordable tasting experiences. It’s gotten to the point that if I am paying $100 for two people to taste wine, I’d be better off just skipping the tasting and purchasing an entire bottle of whatever I desire, and then drinking it overlooking the vineyards, or back at my hotel pool.

The more relaxed pace allowed us to really zero-in on what I feel are the can’t miss tasting spots in these areas. And of course, as a result of the wineries we selected, this turned out to be a trip to wine country that focused almost entirely on Zinfandel and blends, and very little on Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting the differences in terroir between the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma County Zinfandels was an eye-opening exercise, and as Cabernet prices continue to soar, these impressively structured and nuanced alternatives should be on the radar of every California wine lover. We discovered some delicious white wines as well, and spent less time at tasting bars and more time sitting outside overlooking the surrounding vineyards than ever before.

To briefly recap, our itinerary combined a list of old favorites with some new surprises.

  • The J. Lohr tasting room in downtown San Jose is always a great stop, as the tasting is complimentary, the service is friendly and knowledgeable, and the Gesture wines deliver consistent quality at the price-point.
  • Our first trip to Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy was a success, as we enjoyed our tasting outdoors along with a picnic lunch before ordering more bottles to share by the bocce ball courts. The quality of the Pinot Noir and Viognier here far exceeded expectations.
  • The relatively new Hartford Family tasting room on the Healdsburg square now offers outdoor tastings with very generous pours of its top notch Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, as well as wines by the glass. Despite the lack of vineyard views, I could sit here for an entire day and be perfectly content.
  • Limerick Lane is almost entirely empty every time I visit there and I cannot for the life of me figure out why, as they are making some of the most innovative and delicious wines in the area. The reservation-only tasting experience is very relaxed, intimate and informative.
  • I never miss Seghesio on any trip to Healdsburg, as it is the only winery I deem worthy of my wine club membership. We enjoyed an outdoor tasting for the first time ever with spectacular service before ordering a bottle to share. They remain the Zinfandel king of the area in my book.
  • The drive up Dry Creek Road is usually my favorite part of any trip to this area, and we opted to stop at Ferrari-Carano to enjoy a bottle of Chardonnay while seated over their sunny terrace this time around.
  • Every time I have ever been to Ridge, they haven’t been pouring outside because of excessive heat. We took advantage of the milder temperatures and enjoyed a seated outdoor tasting. You’d be surprised how great the views are here from the valley floor. Just watch out for the cactus at the host stand.
  • We made our last stop at Mauritson on the way out of town, and purchased a bottle to enjoy outside. (We really only wanted a glass, but that is apparently no longer an option here).
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The entire tasting crew (plus well-behaved kiddos) enjoying the day at Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy, where the Viognier 2016 and Pinot Noir Estate 2015 were big hits. 

Below, I’ve listed my top 10 scoring red and white wines tasted on the trip. As always, wines scored the same are listed in ascending order of price, as extra credit is given to wines that deliver equal quality at more affordable price points.

REDS

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While enjoying the always relaxing and spectacular tasting at Limerick Lane, we were asked if there was anything specific we would like to try. When I answered honestly, we enjoyed an unexpected treat, and the greatest wine of our entire trip!

  1. Limerick Lane 1023 Russian River Valley 2015, 95 Points, $60- Huge, explosive nose of red currant fruit and exotic spice. So soft and seamless on the palate entry, showing off a gorgeous body of dark raspberry, plum and licorice that runs along a backbone of smoke, white pepper spice and cinnamon. Milk chocolate notes creep in late, this is a blockbuster. Incredible elegance and an essay in balance as the finish lingers for minutes. Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache.
  2. Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2015, 94 Points, $40- Super elegant, with explosive dark raspberry and licorice flavors above briar and cracked pepper undertones. Creamy body shows a mocha note through the long finish. Seamless texture. Rocking in a stream of solid vintages for this single vineyard offering.
  3. Hartford Family Russian River Valley Zinfandel Old Vine 2016, 93 Points, $40- A near perfect expression of the varietal. Dark and brooding, with crackling briar and pepper spice above blackberry, black licorice and black plum. Loads of black pepper underneath. All in finesse and not overly ripe, a big and burly Zin. Savory herbs creep in late.
  4. Seghesio Zinfandel Rockpile 2015, 93 Points, $45- Silky and ripe, with black cherry and wild berry flavors that give way to savory underbrush, wet slate and mocha. Incredibly polished and deep through the long finish.
  5. Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Jolene’s Vineyard Old Vine 2015, 93 Points, $60- Exotic spice and baked raspberry pie aromas. Elegant but robust, with intense baking spice, cinnamon and cracked pepper that runs through the core of jammy red currant fruit, lingering long on a savory herb note. Delicious and expressive.
  6. Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2015, 92 Points, $37- Deep and intense, with crackling briar weaving through rich, earth-driven blackberry that leads into peppery spice. Lingers with a firm tannic grip, but this is a mouthful, showing lively acidity throughout.
  7. Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Pagani Ranch 2015, 92 Points, $40- Huge, ripe red currant fruit aromas. Plump and plummy, with juicy baked plum pie and black cherry flavors gaining traction from subtle tobacco and pepper. Silky tannins, this is super bright, alive, and almost port-like.
  8. Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Old Vine 2015, 92 Points, $40- Velvety, ripe and deep fruit flavors of dark raspberry and black cherry. Super elegant and streamlined through the delicate finish, feminine and refined, if perhaps a tad less complex than the Cortina and Rockpile.
  9. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2015, 92 Points, $42- Explosive nose of ultra-ripe blackberry pie backed by savory herbs. Silky and refined, with tons of blackberry paste and black licorice at its core. Leads into white pepper spice through the very vibrant, alive finish.
  10. Sarah’s Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Clara Estate 2015, 92 Points, $45- Dark body but aroma is true to the varietal, with jammy raspberry and strawberry aromas. Ultra-soft texture, with understated dark raspberry, blackberry and black cherry flavors above a blast of white pepper and tobacco spice. Just super soft through the long finish. This feels very refined, for fans of the darker style of Pinot.

WHITES

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The impeccably manicured grounds at Ferrari-Carano have always been second to none. The winery recently added a terrace where you can enjoy this view while relaxing with a bottle, a choice we recommend above dealing with the often busy tasting room.

  1. Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Russian River Valley Tre Terre 2016, 91 Points, $28- Intense and concentrated, with golden delicious apple and poached pear flavors. Succulent and juicy, gaining complexity from its subtletly intertwined oak influences as it lingers on a toasty vanilla bean note. Smooth, driven and persistent, laced with a lovely nutmeg spice note.
  2. Sarah’s Vineyard Viognier Santa Clara Estate 2016, 91 Points, $32- Floral aromas of white peach leads into vibrant stone fruit flavors of peach and apricot. Creamy texture is laced with honey and floral spice through the long finish. Spiciness really defines this, one of the best American Viogniers I’ve tasted in years.
  3. Hartford Family Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Far Coast 2015, 91 Points, $65- Fresh and tropical, with floral notes of lemon-lime, nectarine and guava laced with creamy toffee spice that is understated and perfectly intertwined. Smooth, polished and balanced through the long finish.
  4. Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2015, 90 Points, $32- Citrus and toffee notes on the nose. Creamy body of golden apple, pear and vanilla bean. Rich, polished finish, with caramel spice lingering.
  5. Hartford Family Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Stone Cote Vineyard 2015, 90 Points, $65- Golden-bodied, with ruch golden apple and pear flavors above layers of toasty oak and vanilla bean. Picks up honeysuckle nuances as it lingers with oaky spice. Creamy, oily and thick throughout.
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Visiting wine country with a 7-year old didn’t slow us down at all! Alex was a perfect angel and really enjoyed the beauty of the vineyards. (At Mauritson)

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Courtney and I enjoying the top-billed Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Tre Terre 2016 on our second annual trip to California Wine Country. (She preferred the Viognier from Sarah’s Vineyard, which I scored the same, but it lost the tiebreaker based on its slightly higher price point.)

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I surpassed the mark 5000 wines tasted, evaluated, scored and recorded on this trip. Until next time! (Enjoying the game-changing Limerick Lane 1023 in front of the winery’s 108-year old Zinfandel vines). 

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