Canal Park Brewing Co in Duluth

If you're up this far north you have to stop in Canal Park Brewing Company.  It's a big space right on the shore of Lake Superior with an outrageous outdoor patio and some awesome brew.  The menu isn't bad either with typical bar fare along with their own touches like Pickled Herring and Beer Can Chicken.

I went for their 40 Acre Saison right away, served in a tulip.  It's light and refreshing like a Farmhouse Ale should be, but watch the kick- it's 7.6% abv.  I also went for the Nut Hatchet, which is a World Beer Cup Winner.  It had aroma of roasted nuts and 7 grain bread and a smooth taste of brown sugar with toffee- I'd have liked it with a Black & Bleu Cheeseburger.

The bar crowd was pretty lively and I actually started up a conversation about sports with a local Minnesotan and a guy from LA.  If I visit again, I'll be sure to take the tour.  This is another place to mark on your list to visit in Duluth.

Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth


While visiting Duluth, I had to venture to the Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park for one of their delicious sandwiches.  They're basically a small deli featuring smoked fish and house cured meat and pate, which you can take to go or grab a sammy.  

First visit I took Lily and we grabbed lunch for the whole family: got a Slamming Gordon for the kids which his smoked salmon pate on pita with cucumber & tomato, a Sitka Sushi for the wife which is Sockeye gravlax (dry cured) with wasabi mayo, ginger & veggies, and a Cajun Finn for myself- smoked Cajun spiced salmon with green onion cream cheese and peppers.

We sat on our patio and popped open some Ferrari Rose, a Metodo Classico dry sparkling wine from the Veneto made from Pinot Nero (60%) and Chardonnay (40%).  It was perfect with my sandwich: the acidity melded with the fat of the salmon and cream cheese, dry charred oak spice matched the smokiness of the fish, light berry flavor cooled the Cajun spice while bready toasty aroma went well with the ciabatta bun.

It's funny how something perceived as a classy or celebratory beverage can go so well with the casual encounter of a sandwich, so it just goes to show- don't pigeonhole a sparkling wine!

I stopped back to grab some smoked fish and pate to take home and it was outrageously delicious too.  The Smokehaus is a must-stop if you're in Duluth.

Windy City Wine Guy Hits Lake Superior

Lily & I on Lake Superior

After I hit the big "40" combined with my mother's recent passing, I realized you can't take time for granted.  I've always had wanderlust and now is always the time to continue traveling.  I always enjoy travel because it involves new experiences, culture (especially food!), scenery and people.

Lately I've been trying more local travel for a number of reasons: 

- Cost of travel and all involved has recently gone way up  

- Ground travel is far more economical in comparison to air 

- Everyone in this country has great spots to hit in an 8 hour or less driving radius

And that brings me to my latest travel: Duluth, Minnesota.  The city has a storied history of trains, ships and Lake Superior.  I'll be checking out all of this and local food & breweries to let you know about this great Northern town and help you put it on your travel list.

Vacation in Sheboygan Falls & Kohler

Recently, my family and I felt the need for a small out of town break from Chicago, so I started looking for great spots to go closeby.  A small bit of research led me to Sheboygan Falls- a small town about an hour north of Milwaukee near the Lake Michigan coast.  I read nothing but very good things about this spot and we decided to go for it.

The ride up there was pleasant as usual as we passed farms, forest, Mars Cheese Castle and we stopped in Milwaukee for lunch.  The Milwaukee Public Market is a no brainer- they have local vendors who have everything from fresh seafood, sausages, artisan cheese and sandwiches, sushi and tacos.  And free parking!  After that we started on the last leg up to Sheboygan Falls.

We had reservations at The Rochester Inn, a cozy Bed & Breakfast near downtown and the rapids of the Sheboygan River.  The rooms are all uniquely designed and named- we stayed in The Charles Cole named for a pioneer merchant from 19th century Wisconsin.  Most of the rooms are bi-level and, though they're meant for romantic couples, accomodated our family perfectly.  The first floor has a couch, fridge and kitchen sink and the upstairs has a comfy bed and bathroom.  Both floors have flatscreen TVs with DVD.  Lily was able to to sleep in a Pack n' Play on the 1st floor while we had some wine and watched a movie.  Your morning starts off on the right foot with a room-service breakfast of fresh fruit, french toast and omelete.  A great place to stay!

Our first day we took a walk around downtown which was a short walk over the bridge and headed to River Park, which I highly recommend.  It's a great spot to walk, fish, BBQ, watch baseball or play on the swings and slides.  There's quite a few shops but they're closed on Sunday and some are closed Monday as well.  A couple of local places to eat are Falls Firehouse Pizza, The Other Place Pub (known for their Friday Fish Fry) and the Bread & Bean Eatery, known for making great homemade sandwiches and dishes- the Chi-Town Stir Fry is awesome.  We were also able to shop for some wine at Save Way Liquor- they have a decent selection and I purchased Santa Rita 120 Carmenere (a good under $10 red) and a mixed 12 pack of New Glarus beers, a must buy whenever you go to Wisconsin!

For dinner we headed to Sheboygan, which is right on the coast, and ate at the Duke of Devon which has an amazing outdoor patio, fish & chips and local beer selections.  The rest of the menu is comprised of English Pub fare like Bangers & Mash and Curry Chips.  This town is much larger and great for boating and fishing.

The following day after breakfast we headed to Kohler, a small town located just east of the Falls and home to Kohler Co.  There's a lot to do here: two golf courses (Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits), the Kohler Waters Spa, The American Club Resort, the Shops at Woodlake (all unique specialty shops, boutiques and restaurants) and Kohler itself which has a showroom and museum.  Driving, walking, shopping, eating- I recommend spending a day or two here!

This is a great trip anyone living in the Midwest can take with partners, friends and family.  Contact me if you have any questions and please comment if you've already made this trip.

Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville

Horton Vineyards

Horton Vineyards

I recently attended my third Wine Bloggers Conference, and this time it was held in Charlottesville, Va.  I was really looking forward to it since I've never been to Virginia, even though I've tasted a small sampling of wine from there and most people haven't had the chance even though production and quality has risen in recent years. 

I purchased my airline tickets early, and unfortunately before American Airlines created a direct flight from O'Hare late this spring.  So I hopped on my double prop connecting flight in Philly and was off to Charlottesville.

After landing I hopped in a cab and was off to the hotel.  I could tell I was in the eastern U.S. as many of the homes and buildings along the main road were older but in great shape.  This really peaks my historic senses, as I start to imagine all the people who lived here and the events which took place.  Grape vines have been planted here since the 17th century and due to a few factors, namely phylloxera and prohibition, Virginia recently just started to come into its own as a top wine producing region. 

The town and surrounding areas are worth a visit for both the traveler and wine enthusiast.  The downtown area has nice local shopping, restaurants and nightlife, with a good portion in the Downtown Mall- a brick street for pedestrian traffic only.  It's a lively area filled with street performers, musicians, outdoor dining, shops and theatres. 


They're surrounded by some very good wineries, and I was able to visit two.  The first was Horton Vineyards and they have a picturesque vineyards and winery.  Viognier, a white French Rhone varietal, has shown an affinity for the state and has become their grape, and Horton does wonders with it.  The wine is full of peach and honey flavor, along with some minerality and full body.  They also make sparkling wine with the varietal, not normally done, which turns out great- it's non-vintage, dry, and brings out much of the grape's natural character.  They turn out a good Cabernet Franc and a surprising Nebbiolo, which does well here and turns out lighter than in Piedmont.


I also visited Barboursville Vineyards which makes amazing wine and has a rich history.  The estate was designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by James Barbour in early the 19th century.  The Zonin family of Veneto fame purchased the property in 1976 and decided to forego tobacco for grapes.  They've created a winery which produces outstanding wines!  I was able to taste vertical library selections of different varietals like Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Octagon (their Merlot-based Bordeaux blend), all of which were excellent with age.  TheirPassito Drying Cabin at Barboursville restaurant, Palladio, is world class with a staff that travels to Italy once per year.  I tried fresh antipasti, homemade pasta & pesto, and roasted pork loin.  They also make an outrageous dessert wine, Malvaxia Reserve Passito, made from Moscato Ottonel and Vidal, and dried out 'Passito' style, making the wine golden, honeyed, rich and delicious.  An amazing adventure overall.


Thomas Jefferson's MonticelloThe biggest local attraction is the former home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello.  Jefferson tried for years, as did George Washington, to make wine from European varietals.  And though neither of them were even able to create a bottle of wine, they showed future generations of the opportunity.  There is a great sense of nostalgia just being on the property, which can bring out the American in all of us.  The home is of great design and enormous, littered with artifacts of exploration and invention.  The grounds ooze with history- gravestones, architecture and ancient vines.  A marvelous place to visit.

In summary, I really enjoyed this trip.  The culture is rich and there are many things to see, do and taste.  Wine has taken drastic turns to accolades and misfortunes over the years and is definitely on the right track to respectability.  My favorite grape varietals here are Viognier and Petit Verdot (honorable mention to Cabernet Franc), which both show great character and a natural ability to make high quality, lasting wines.  I recommend the wines and a visit to this area for any traveler- put it on your list!

Eating & Drinking Maine

This past 4th of July brought me to the state of Maine for vacation, celebration and discovery.  I've heard so many great things about the oceanfront: the lighthouses, the surfing, the beaches, the views and the clean ocean scent, and have to say it all was amazing.  I stayed in Portland and Kennebunkport, two different towns, outstanding in their own ways.  Here's some great spots to hit:



  • Duckfat.  What can I say- their fries are cooked in duck fat.  Rich, flavorful, awesome.  Served with different ketchups and aiolis, they are a meal in themselves.  The panini style sandwiches are great too.  Don't overlook the tuna melt- this sandwich has a dry style tuna with a fresh lemon vinaigrette making it healthy and delicious.  Their beer and wine list is small and impressive with some local favorites like Maine Beer Company's Peeper Ale which I found to be citrusy and light.  While I didn't try their shakes, I've heard nothing but great things about them- wish I'd have saved room!
  • The Farmer's Table.  Great local ingredients included on the menu and continues the tradition of "leisurely Maine service" (it's slow but worth the wait).  Another small beverage list but big on great picks.  I tried another Maine Beer Company selection- Zoe, a red ale with huge hoppy flavor. 
  • The Salt Exchange.  Another establishment big on local ingredients, these guys take it to another level.  Mussels are fresh with traditional sauce you'd like to drink out of the bowl.  Grass-fed beef, flavor-filled pork, day-boat fish and seasonal veggies are sprinkled on this daily changing menu.  The theme of small but great content beverage menus continues here with local brews and worldly wines like Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza and Chilensis Riserva.
  • Standard Baking Company.  If you love baked goods, this place is a must!  French loaves, croissants, pain au chocolat, ham and cheese pastries, brownies, cookies, outrageous!  Go go go!


  • The Clam Shack.  This place is insane- it's a small shack (just like the name states) on the edge of a bridge connecting the two towns.  You grab your food- the lobster roll is a must, as it's the winner of Food Wars, and deservedly so.  They use an entire 1 1/4 lb. lobster, meat only, on a locally made soft roll, with butter and mayo.  Outstanding.  Fried clams, onion rings, etc. will make you yearn for an encore.
  • Alisson's.  The runner-up on Food Wars is no slouch.  More of a sitdown with a bar, great atmosphere, with traditional New England food.  Amazing clam chowder and a very good lobster roll.
  • Kennebunk Inn.  Grab the lobster pot pie (famous from Cat Cora of Best Thing I Ever Ate) and run- this place is supposedly haunted!
  • The Ramp at Pier 77 (Cape Porpoise Harbor).  This place is just up north up the coast and worth the trip.  Crabcakes, shrimp, seafood stew, all done right.  Awesome atmosphere with vintage posters of the Kennedys, Walter Mondale, Boston Red Sox and Obama.  Just don't be surprised if your beer flavor is 86'd

For local brews, make sure to try anything from Maine Beer Company, Allagash, Shipyard Brewing Company and Peak Organic Beer.  Surprisingly enough, there's also some good wineries to try like Blacksmiths (I tried their Sparkling Peach, which is made up of 85% peaches and 15% grapes, which is a touch sweet with a whole lotta peach flavor- $18) and Cellar Door (tried their Prince Valiant, a Zinfandel blend which is dry and pretty decent- $18).

Overall, I love Maine!  It's a great place to visit and seems to be an amazing place to live.  Just make sure to visit during the summertime and have fun!

All Arizona Wine List at FnB Scottsdale

This is an all Arizona wine list I encountered at FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale.  Arizona wine is hard to find outside the state, but very very good.  Most of the wine comes from the Sonoita AVA in the southeastern part of the state, which is located at very high altitude (4500 feet) and surrounded by mountain ranges.  There's not alot of rainfall, but the soil retains water well and irrigation is also involved.  The varietals mainly consist of French Bordeaux and Rhone grapes, with some Italian mixed in.  All in all, I loved the wine I tried, the Canelo Hills Sauvignon Blanc and the Dos Cabezas Red Blend.  If you're in town for spring training baseball (White Sox in Glendale, Cubs in Mesa), make sure you check out this restaurant and some Arizona wine!

Wine in Woodinville and Chateau Ste. Michelle


Before our WBC or Bust group was to set off east from Seattle to Walla Walla, we had a chance to break in the bus on a short trip to Woodinville, a former suburb of Seattle.  There are over 50 wineries in Woodinville and we were on our way to its most famous, Chateau Ste. Michelle, which has been around since the repeal of prohibition, when it was known as Pommerelle Wine Company.  Now it is nothing short of ginormous, with a large number of lines: Columbia Valley wines which bring out regional and varietal character, Indian Wells brings out new world nuances, Single Vineyard, Ethos Reserve with old world style, Artist series Meritage blend, Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wines, Eroica Riesling collaboration with German winemaker Ernst Loosen, Limited Release wines for club members and Col Solare, a red wine collaboration with Tuscan winemaker Marchese Piero Antinori.


We embarked on a tour of the winery led by Lynda Eller (Director of Communications) and winemaker Wendy Stuckey.  We went through the winery's long history and partnerships, and saw their large fermentation tanks and multiple storage barrels.  Later, we were treated to a wine tasting and food pairing conducted by John Sarich, winery Culinary Director.  We tasted four different Rieslings: 2007 & 2008 Eroica ($24), 2009 Columbia Valley Riesling ($9) and 2009 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling ($15), Spiced Dishes & Rieslingpaired with three spicy samples: Indian Spiced Prawns & Tomato Chutney, Sesame Seared Halibut with Orange-Basil Thai Curry, and Currywurst.  I always love comparing different vineyards and vintages against eachother, as this is the best way to catch subtle and interesting differences.  Also, Rieslings pair very well with both exotic and inflamingDuck & Red Wine spice because of the grape's high acidity, citrus fruit profile and varying degree of sweetness.  We were then offered up Roasted Duck with Cherry Merlot Sauce, Sweet Potato Cake and Manchego Cheese paired with three reds: 2007 Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot ($22), 2006 Cold Creek Vineyard Merlot ($28) and 2006 Artist Series Meritage ($50), a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  Merlot and Meritage wines are a great pairing for rich duck dishes while Manchego, a rich sheep milk cheese, blends greatly with Merlot's silky tannins.  We finished off with 2005 Ethos Late Harvest Riesling ($35) with a lemon cookie and berries.  This fantastic dessert wine meshed well with the citrusy, butter cookie flavor.


Northwest Totem WinesAfterward, we met a slew of Woodinville winemakers at Willows Lodge: Northwest Totem Cellars, BetzBetz Family Family Winery, DeLille Cellars, DiStefano Winery, William Church Winery, Hollywood Hill Vineyards, Brian Carter Cellars, Novelty Hill/Januik Winery, Sparkman Cellars, Cuillin Hills Winery, Baer Winery, Des Voigne Cellars and Barrage Cellars.  There I met Bob Betz and his daughter Carmen, and tasted the best wine of the entire trip, 2008 Betz Family La Côte Patriarche Syrah ($55) from Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima.  An inky, black/dark purple color, with deeply spicey, floral, smokey aromas and deep dark fruit, black pepper and a touch of dried, cured meat on what seemed to be an endless palate.  This wine was so complex and lasting that I couldn't stop thinking about it!  I tasted so many good wines that it's hard to mention them all, but Hollywood Hill Vineyard Malbec, DeLille Cellars Grand Ciel and Northwest Totem Cellars Cabernet Franc were a few standouts.


The Barking FrogIt was a small walk to the other side of the lodge to The Barking Frog, where we were in for a killer lunch prepared by Chef Bobby Moore paired with more DeLille Cellars wines.  It kicked off with Grand Marnier Prawns and led to Seared Sea Scallops.  We finished with Dark Chocolate Coffee Ganache.  I would have been happy to call it a day after that perfect lunch on their outdoor patio, but we were in for more tastings and fun back in Seattle.  More on that in the next post!

Windy City Wine Guy in Seattle

On the wharf by Waterfront Seafood GrillIt was my first trip to Washington and I wanted to let Seattle give me all that it had.  Being from Chicago, I have the priveledge of being surrounded by some of the world's best restaurants, great lounges and bars, music, concerts and an awesome view of Lake Michigan.  When I go to a new city I seek its best aspects and try to live a full experience.  I was only going to be in Seattle for two days so it was time to live it up a little.

My first night I checked into the Roosevelt Hotel, an older building with nice sized rooms and central downtownSatay at Wild Ginger location making it easy for me to walk to my targeted restaurants and bars.  I walked to Wild Ginger, an Asian Restaurant with a reputation for making great satay.  If a restaurant being busy is a good sign, this place would be great- there was quite a crowd for a Tuesday evening.  When I'm in town alone, I like to dine at the bar because there's always someone to interact with.  The bartender's name was Nathan and he clearly had a grip on the action.  He knew his drinks and the menu very well.  I started with two satay- a Thai Chicken and a Young Mountain Lamb, and a Hitachino Nest White Ale (an awesome Japanese whitbier).  Both satay were extremely tasty, accompanied by sticky rice, pickled ginger cucumbers and their own sauce.  The wine list is exceptional with great selections by bottle or glass (which is dispensed by the Enomatic system), and a separate cellar list with over 2000 selections they've collected over a 20 year span.

Purple Wine BarI wanted more to try, so I went to Purple Cafe and Wine Bar, a gorgeous two level building surrounded by windows.  The wine list was full of great choices, with very interesting glasspour options: I went with Tenuta Sant'Antonio Scaia Rosso, 100%Small plates at Purple Corvina varietal from northeast Italy.  Good fruit, light/medium body and cedar box spice.  The menu was full of small plate options and I settled on three:  Housemade Toulouse Sausage, Mimolette and Roasted Garlic White Bean Crostini.  I loved the chance to try a little of this and that while sampling the wine list.  After all these small options it was time to turn in and get ready for another day.

On Wednesday I checked out and met up with the WBC or Bust group at the site of my new hotel room, the Renaissance, before we departed for Woodinville, which I will touch on in my next post.  When we returned that afternoon, it was time for a beer tasting hosted by Charles Finkel himself at Pike Pub & Brewery.  We tasted a lineup of their beers like the Pale, IPA, Kilt Lifter, Naughty Nellie and XXXXX Stout before we moved onto a tour.  I wish we had time for the menu, Roasted Snails in Phyllobut we had to get ready for the Waterfront Seafood Grill where we were in for aBraised Short Rib coursed wine dinner with tasty items like roasted snails, seared scallops and braised short rib.  There was also some killer wine being passed around from producers like Andrew Will and Nota Bene Cellars, both of whom make stellar Syrahs and Owen & Sullivan Winery.  This was an outstanding dinner from a spot with an uncomparable view.

In my visit to Seattle I had a small piece of what makes the city so great and I still have so much more to see.  If you get a chance to visit then make sure to take advantage of it and try to visit the places I mentioned.  If you live there then be proud and let us know what I missed, which places are your favorites and why- share the wealth!

Coming up- Woodinville & Chateau Ste. Michelle, Yakima and Walla Walla.

WBC or Bust!

I'm always up for a challenge, and is putting it out there: 12 citizen wine writers are being given the opportunity to catch a free ride across Washington to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference.

I will now be writing about Washington wine for the next month plus to try to win my behind a seat on that bus!  I've been crazy about Washington wines for quite some time now and for many reasons: good quality, great value, wide range of varietals and numerous subregions.  So I will be sharing my enthusiasm with all of you about this great state for wine.  We'll run through the regions, producers, history and my favorite wines.  So sit back, put your reading glasses on, pop open a bottle and get ready to learn about Washington!

Class at Culinary Institute of America

IMG_1413On my second day at the Wine Bloggers Conference we split up into eight different buses and headed to  Napa Valley, with our first stop being at the Culinary Institute of America.  It is situated in a humongous greystone building resembling Hogwarts School, minus the magic.  I entered and was amazed at not only the size, but the decor and design as well.





Staircase at Greystone

After climbing up two stories of stairs, which showed off a great view of the entire entrance hallway, I walked into a large dining room.  It contained a historic collection of California wines encased in glass- I was simply blown away! 







The oldest was a bottle of 1875 Isaias Hellman Cucamonga Private Stock Port.  The wine is made from the zinfandel varietal, and was aged five decades before being  bottled post prohibition.IMG_1417 












The next one I looked at was the 1941 Simi Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon Hotel 1941 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon Del Monte HotelDel Monte Selection.  The Simi brothers started making wine in 1876 after a tough go at the Gold Rush.  Women led the winery to greatness, as Isabelle Simi hid the wines for prime aging in Healdsburg during prohibition, and later hired the first two female graduates from UC Davis.







They also had the 1958 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Martini name1958 Martini Cabernet Sauvignon is associated with bulk wine, but older vintages are great wines and collector items.  Louis was trained in winemaking at the age of 19 in Italy, and returned to his family's California winery to make excellent post prohibition wines.


1962 Inglenook Charbono







Onto a bottle of 1962 Inglenook Charbono.  The winery was started in 1879 by Gustave Niebaum and thrust into fame after prohibition.  The property was eventually purchased by Francis Ford Coppola.








Another oldie was the non-vintage Sebastiani Barbera Bin No. 132, bottled in 1968.  It was another Italian immigrantNV Sebastiani Bin 132 Barbera founded winery, as Samuele Sebastiani started it in 1904.  They were know known for their zinfandel, and are known for many more varietals nowadays.






1973 Ch. Montelena Chardonnay



The best wine I stumbled upon was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay created by winemaker Mike Grgich, now of Grgich Hills Estate, who put his signature on the bottle.  That wine won the white wine category in the now famous 1976 Tasting of Paris.  This event clearly put American wines on the radar of wine lovers and collectors worldwide.

I eventually settled down to listen to a great wine social media seminar conducted by Barry Schuler, former CEO of AOL.  His information was one of the highlights of the conference.  I think much of what he said will inspire wine writers to push to the next level.  I was also very happy because it was one of the few times I had access to Wi-Fi!  The seminar ended around noon, just in time for everyone to move to their bus and move on to lunch.  More on Bus #6 travels tomorrow...

If you get a chance to visit the CIA Greystone, make sure you do.  It is a majestic building- with a huge kitchen!CIA Kitchen

Wine and Baseball in San Francisco

During my first trip to San Francisco, I could not resist visiting AT&T Park, home of the Giants.  I purchased tickets for September 7th, a Sunday afternoon game against the Pittsburg Pirates.  The ballpark was chosen as this year's best sports facility, and we saw why.

Everything a couple or group could possibly need to enjoy a ballgame were here.  Easy access by public transportation, phenomenal concessions, extra large jumbotron, televisions showing live football, and great views inside and out were so distracting, one might not even notice a game was going on! 

We actually thought that was happening at first because not only were the Giants looking lackluster and losing, but the park itself was devoid of atmosphere.  Then the place exploded as the Giants rode a hit parade, scoring 10 runs without a home run!  After that, we toured around the park, drooling at concessions like Gilroy's Garlic Fries, chowder bread bowls, fajitas, italian sausage, crabcakes, and Caribbean BBQ.  There are also Carls Jr. for burger fans as well.

Now for beverages.  There are many microbrews to be had highlighted by Anchor Steam (for $8.50!).  And there may be no crying in baseball, but there is wine-ing!  Local heavy producing wineries are on the menu like Kendall Jackson, Clos du Bois, Ravenswood, and Cellar No. 8.  They are served in plastic cups for about $7-8 per.  So go to the ballpark, get your beer on, get your dog on, and get your wine on!

A Napa Must Stop: Taylor's Automatic Refresher

Going from winery to winery in Napa can be a bit draining.  Travel, heat, and wine does make one a bit tired.  Refreshment is just what the doctor calls for, and there is none better than Taylor's Automatic Refresher.

My wife and I found out about this hotspot from Guy Fieri's Diners Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network.  We decided to dig into a wide array of what they had to offer.  We split an Ahi Burger, which came out medium rare on an egg bun topped with slaw.  Delicious.  We later split a Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger- a large beef patty topped with bacon, BBQ sauce, and an onion ring filled with blue cheese!  The garlic fries were thin and a bit soggy, but the beer batter onion rings are perfect.  You can wash all of this down with California's best shake or a wide array of local wines.  Buon Appetito!

Sonoma Wineries- All Aboard!

If you are staying in Sonoma, there's a variety of wineries within bicycle distance.  I know what you're thinking- not sure about the drinking+bicycling thing.  This is not a bad idea if you do not plan on drinking too much, plus it beats driving a vehicle!  At any rate, we were off and riding toward a couple of wineries on a sunny Sonoma day.

We first visited Bartholomew Park Winery.  The property was originally home to Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman who traveled America and became the "father of American wine".  The winery now offers organic estate wines overseen by Jim Bundschu, of Gundlach Bundschu.  All are small batch with most being under 1000 cases produced.  We tasted the entire line:

  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc- a fruity white with a smooth richness, despite the absence of oak or malo.  Best SB we tasted on the trip!

  • 2005 Desnudos Vineyard Merlot- good mix of spice and fruit for this silky red

  • 2005 Estate Syrah- full bodied and very complex with dark fruit, smoke, and earth

  • 2005 Estate Zinfandel- excellent depth and long flavor.  Slight sweetness, very rich.

  • Two Cabs: '04 Kasper Vineyard, '03 Estate- both will be great wines, are still youthful, and need aging.

The only way to purchase these wines is either at the estate or through their club. 

We later stopped at Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery.  There is no winery in the US that has been producing wine on a continual basis while being family owned than Sebastiani (since 1904).  They have a wide array of wines to choose from, over twenty, and all are reasonably priced, quality selections.

Sonoma is also surrounded by many other wineries: Gundlach Bundshu, Gloria Ferrer, Viansa, Buena Vista, and Ravenswood.  Enjoy the wineries if you visit Sonoma City and happy hunting!

Staying Inn Sonoma

When we decided to visit wine country, we wanted a place to stay which was centrally located.  We settled on the Inn at Sonoma.  If you are driving, Sonoma will give you easy access to Napa to the east (15 minutes away), as well as Sonoma and North Sonoma Valleys to the north.  If you are planning on staying in Sonoma, there is much to do just walking and biking.

The Sonoma Plaza is less than two blocks away and is not to be missed.  The town hall is in the middle and surrounded by a beautiful eight acre park.  A Farmer's Market is put up every Tuesday evening during Spring and Summer.  There were local bands striking up tunes, grills ablaze, children playing, and people enjoying their favorite wines due to the open container law.  The quality of the fresh produce, especially the tomatoes, reminded us both of visits to France and Italy.  The restaurants were represented by stands serving some staple dishes (we loved Uncle Bill's gourmet corn dogs!), and local artisans were vending olive oil, honey, vinegars, and crafted items. 

The park is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and the Sebastiani Theatre.  We visited most of the shops (wives love to shop), and a few of the restaurants.  Murphy's Irish Pub serves great local beers like Anchor Steam and oysters grilled outside with either BBQ or champagne butter sauces.  The Girl and the Fig serves up seasonal fair accompanied by a French Rhone varietal wine list.  599 Thai Cafe is across the street from the Inn and makes some good fast noodles.  The Sonoma Cheese Factory was full of souvenirs, wines, meats, and cheeses, has an outdoor grill, and makes a great sandwich.  We enjoyed ours with some wine and a nap in the park.

The Inn itself is quaint and homey.  The comfy rooms have enclosed outdoor patios, fireplaces, and wireless internet.  They serve a continental breakfast every morning, and offer cheese and wine in the afternoons along with some chess and boardgames.  The Inn also offers free bicycles, which we used to tour the neighborhood and local wineries. 

If you go to Sonoma try the Inn.  I hope you have as much fun as we did!

Bubbly at Domaine Chandon

On our drive back to the Inn, we had one last stop to make in Yountville- at Domain Chandon.  It is a gorgeous and gigantic estate surrounded by vineyards and a stream.  We walked in to see a huge retail area, which we checked out while we awaited our tour guide.  Their wine array is about as large as the estate- there are over twenty current releases, with anything from Pinot Noir Rose to Sparkling Red.

We finally met Chandon Ambassador Stephanie Wolden and we were off to the winery.  Most of the grapes had already been harvested by August 3rd, due to increasingly hot summers.  It is important to remember that when making sparkling wine, the grapes should still have a relatively high acid level, to maintain a traditional and crisp style.  The juice was being fermented in very large stainless steel tanks. 

We then went down to the cellar where riddling was taking place.  This is a process where the dead yeast cells are slowly moved to the neck of the bottle, for removal, as it is rotated upside down.  It used to be done manually, but technological advances have made the use of gyropalettes commonplace.  There was also an assembly line which freezes the yeast cells, removes them (disgorging), adds dosage (adjustment of sweetness level), corks the bottle and labels it.  This process takes twenty minutes per bottle!

Stephanie then took us for a tasting in the Salon where we tried their Prestige Cuvee and Classic tastings, seven sparkling wines in total.  The étoile Rosé was our favorite with spice, weight, and excellent fruit essences, excellent for summers, lighter fair and cheeses.  Stephanie's enthusiasm and knowledge of the wines rounded out our tasting. 

Knowing the quality of their still wines (I have their Pinot Meunier at ENO) I could not resist grabbing some of the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.  The bottle never made it back to Chicago, as we splurged and opened it the following evening!  It had excellent body for a Pinot with lively cherry fruit, spice, and even some tobacco on the finish.

I normally see Chandon classic sparkling wines on sale at Binny's for about $12/bottle so stock up if you enjoy the bubbly.  Thanks again to Chandon and Stephanie!

Visit at Blackbird

Next visit led us to a small artisanal winery, Blackbird Vineyards.  We were greeted at the farmhouse by Heather Yargus, Blackbird's sales and marketing associate.  The house was full of antiques and paintings- it felt like Little House on the Prairie meets the Guggenheim.  We then were introduced to the wines.

Blackbird began as a vision by proprietor Michael Polenske.  He sees the Oak Knoll District in Napa as having the same capability with Merlot as Pomerol in Bordeaux.  The wines are crafted by winemaker, Sarah Gott of Joel Gott Wines and formerly of Joseph Phelps and Quintessa.  They have garnered high praise and scores from many writers and connoisseurs.  We tried two of them:

  • 2007 Arriviste Napa Rosé- 80/20 Merlot and Cabernet Franc, has great pink color with lots of fruit and a bit of spice.  The finish was medium and seems to be a good summer wine.

  • 2006 Illustration- mostly Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, has a rich dark ruby color, and full body.  Black fruit accompanies floral components, leather, and chocolate.  It has very natural flavors due to being unfined and unfiltered.

If you get your chance to grab one of their wines, take it.  They are low production, fine quality, and definite collectors items.

Sorting Grapes with Rob Lawson and Tuck Beckstoffer

First stop on our second day in Napa brought us to see Robert Lawson of Pavi Wines at the Napa Wine Company.  Rob gave us each a glass of his Pavi Napa Valley Pinot Grigio and brought us out to the winery.  He and his crew were busy since before sunrise harvesting, and now it was time for hand sorting.  Tuck Beckstoffer showed up to help us sort and we found out he and Rob grew up together in the valley.  My wife and I dug into the conveyor belt of organic Pinot Gris grapes and began to remove unhealthy grapes, stems, and leaves. 

This is not common practice at all vineyards but in Napa Valley, over 90% of grapes are hand-sorted.  It was alot of fun for us but a full day of harvesting, sorting, and crushing in 100 degree weather would be draining for anyone.  After the Pinot Gris was sorted, it was on to the fermentation tanks. 

The wine had been fermenting in large stainless steel tanks for about five days, converting the ripe sugars and yeast to alcohol.  Rob opened the tank into a pitcher and poured us each a glass.  The juice had a cloudy dull pink hue and was very fruity with sweet apricot and peach flavors.  The cloudiness of the wine would eventually settle and leave a clear dry white wine.

We then went to Bonded Winery Number 9, where Ghost Block and other great wines are tasted.  We tried two more Pavi wines, their Napa Dolcetto and Italian Pinot Grigio.  Rob and his wife, Pavi, started making the wines in 1998 from Italian varietals and eventually Italian vineyards to reflect her heritage.  If you want an authentic Napa experience, check out the Napa Wine Company and maybe you will have Rob making a wine for you!

Hanging with Tuck Beckstoffer

Our last stop on our first day in Napa was with Tuck Beckstoffer of Vinifera Vineyards, Beckstoffer Vineyards, 75 Wine Co., and Private Reserve Jets.  From the moment we met and shook hands, I knew that Tuck was my kind of guy.  He was business and casual at the same time, with a warm and welcome demeanor.  When we sat down to try some wines I knew I was in for some prime tasting.

The Beckstoffers have been working with grapes and acquiring land in California since 1969, and Napa since 1975 (hence the name 75 Wine Co.).  They are now the largest private landholders in Napa Valley and source grapes out to such wine greats as Paul Hobbs, Plumpjack, Broman, Merryvale, Provenance, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Clos du Val.  Tuck himself has worked at Cakebread Cellars and Far Niente.  All of this and being part of the 1987 America's Cup winning Stars and Stripes crew make for the right person to drink some vino with.

We tried four of his wines:

  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley- this 100% stainless steel organic white was in tune with my buds.  It had a good amount of citrus, though not as much grapefruit as I like (ala New Zealand).  Still, it was a bit tropical and had a nice creamy texture from sur lie aging.

  • New Bordeaux like blend- this is a new release from Tuck which was still was sans label.  It is a Sauvgnon Blanc/Semillon blend which had more floral components and body than the '07 Sauvignon.  Can't wait to see this one in the Chicago market.

  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Amber Knolls Vineyard- with a floral and tart red fruit nose which leads into dark fruit flavor, spice, earth, and chocolate.  Has fine body and aging potential.

  • 2005 Vinifera Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley- another fine Cab with added leather and pepper components. 

Tuck has a mission-

"We are committed to producing and offering hand-crafted wines from the finest vineyards in California at a reasonable price in a package that will compete for attention in the finest restaurants in the world."

Have to love some high quality Napa wines which fall into the $15-35 price range!  Now, you cannot get these wines everywhere as Tuck is picky about who he lets vend his wines (which is a good thing) but I have seen some of them available for online purchase.  Pick them up if you get the chance.

We left 75 Wine Co. bound for Sonoma and some rest.  But we would get a chance to see Tuck again the next day...

Grgich Hills Cellar

Driving down I-29 in Napa, I could not help but stop by one of my favorite producers, Grgich Hills.  The winery was started by a man I idolize, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich.  Mike came to America from Croatia with nothing and has become one of the leading wine producers in the nation.  His ability to work with new equipment, innovations, and techniques has created a world class reputation.  He worked with Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (BV), Robert Mondavi, and created the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting winning Chardonnay, 1973 vintage Chateau Montelena.  After the Paris Tasting, he struck out on his own at Grgich Hills. 

The property is welcoming and simple.  I noticed on the way in a sign stating the estate is both biodynamic and organic certified- a suggestion from his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz.  Ivo has been with Mike for two decades and his wine background goes back to Croatia, growing grapes and making wine with his family.  Mike and Ivo were also able to create a winery in Croatia, Grgic Vina, in Dubrovnik.  Mike may have some great help, but at 85 years of age, he is still very active at the winery.  We hoped to speak with him but he was very busy with scheduled visitors and harvest.

We were greeted by Connor, a California native who was very knowledgeable about both the winery and the wines.  The tasting room is offset by both stainless steel fermentation tanks and oak aging barrels- nice to be surrounded by future great wines!  Here is what we tasted:

  • 2007 Napa Fume Blanc- this Sauvignon Blanc was aged in oak and sur lie, giving it good body.  Great tropical and citrus fruits, oak, and oily texture.  Long finish.

  • 2006 Napa Chardonnay- this is the first vintage of both biodynamic and organic certification.  Mike's Chardonnays are always done in Burgundian style- oak aged with no malolactic fermentation, leaving a crisply acidic full bodied wine with great floral, citrus, mineral, and honeyed components.

  • 2005 Napa Chardonnay, Carneros Selection- this is the best of the best.  More contact with new oak makes this wine more rich and nuttier.  Tropical fruits and creaminess shine through with elegance.

  • 2004 Napa Merlot- is a Merlot meant for aging with rich tannins and structure.  Has a silky texture along with dark fruit, spice, and cedar.

  • 2005 Napa Zinfandel- a rich dark color accompanies lively fruit, leather, and earth.  This wine gains great structure from the addition of Petit Syrah.  Perfect pizza wine.

  • 2004 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon- a complete balance of body and fruit, this wine also gives off floral and chocolatey components.

Every wine we tasted is of the best quality and not only garner high WG scores, but also high scores from all expert tasters and writers.  The price tag on these wines are very moderate for the quality, ranging from $30-135 and considering the cellaring potential, all are a steal.