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What’s Up in Sonoma County
Preisers’ Reserve: Though the rest of the column will highlight Sonoma County, our Reserve today goes to a trio of Napa wines made by up and coming star Rudy Zuidema for Ehlers Estate. It is no secret that one needs to have the talent of Sherlock Holmes (Adrian Monk?) to find top flight Napa Reds for under $50. So imagine our surprise when we literally fell in love with three layered and serious red wines at $33 each.
If your wine stores don’t have them, we recommend you seriously consider touching base with the winery to obtain the 2004 Estate Merlot (16% Cab, floral nose, satin in the mouth, smooth, and a pretty finish); the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (12% Merlot, 2% Cab Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, soft and smooth with structure, and a full mouth of cocoa and cinnamon); and the 2004 Cabernet Franc (100%, bright, long red fruit mid palate, layered finish – only 250 cases made).
It is worth noting that 100% of the profits earned by the Ehlers Estate winery go to the Le Duq Foundation, which supports cardio vascular research. Isn’t this a good way to spend your wine budget?
We had lots of positive response to our last column about Mumm Napa and Sparkling Wines. As you recall, we have no problem referring to classically made American Sparklings as Champagnes. But there are those who disagree, including noted radio host from New Orleans Tim McNally, who writes (in pertinent part):
I must take issue with your terminology. Whether we are signatories to the Treaty or not, we should respect other country’s copyrights and laws. We went nuts when the fine winemakers of Sicily, working with the primitivo grape, began calling it Zinfandel. The US took a restraining order against them and made them stop. So turnabout is fair play. I would like to see you take a correct stance on this. And that is especially true when speaking of a French Champagne company’s American outpost.
We answer: Thanks, Tim. We are honored you took the time to write. Our opinion is a bit different. We see a vast difference in the reference to varietals versus the reference to description. The words “Sparkling” and “Champagne” really refer to nothing more than a composition of grapes made in a particular manner. Much like tissues are usually called “Kleenex,” bandages are “Band-Aids,” and gelatins are almost always called “Jell-o,” some names are just so well known that they take over all like products. We think Champagne is in that category, but we also recognize your point of view is held by many.
As we mentioned in a column some weeks ago, the hottest trend in both Napa and Sonoma seems to be wineries offering food and wine pairings. And in the industry’s usual competitive spirit, every winery has its own take on how to do it best. Some offer h’ors deuvres upon drop in, some offer reservation only small plate tasting, and others will prepare full meals.
We recently visited two Sonoma wineries with variations on the theme. Chalk Hill Estate (about which a full column will soon follow) features a garden tour and “large” small plate tasting twice a week, while J has varying levels available for the taster. Most visitors to J who want to taste gourmet h’ors deuvres will probably enjoy (for $25/person) Chef Mark Caldwell’s four daily selections designed to compliment specific still and sparkling wines. For $55/person, the “Bubble Room” is more luxurious, and offers flights of sparklings or stills with sumptuous accompaniments such as Tsar Nicoulai caviars or braised short ribs. And soon the winery will offer a $200 tasting and food pairing. Reservations are recommended for the major pairings.
Not far from J you can find Foppiano Vineyards, worth a visit for those looking to purchase what are commonly known as value wines. The 2005 Riverside Chardonnay ($7.50) is aged in stainless steel and undergoes no malolactic fermentation. It shows nice honeydew and honeysuckle, and its crispness makes for a nice pairing with fried foods, or a remedy for a long day of tannins. We are also fans of the 2004 Dry Creek Zinfandel ($15), and, while you usually cannot expect too much from a $15 Merlot, this one offers hints of chocolate and, with a healthy 10% dose of Cab Franc, some bright fruit.
We think the best wines here are the Petite Syrahs. Current and recent releases are quite nice, but the surprise is that this varietal as made at Foppiano is aging beautifully. Two of the better wines we have tasted this summer are the 1991 and the 1995 Petite Syrah, both now available (and recommended) at $60.
Like a baseball team that knows it is going to improve when it engages a superior manager, Adobe Road in Petaluma has made a good move by bringing on board former Cosentino President Julie Weinstock as its General Manager. Like a number of wineries these days, Adobe Road is actually owned by a racing group, called, appropriately, The Racers Group. Unlike the other racing group owned wineries, however, when you tour Adobe Road you may, if you desire, not only taste wine but enjoy a tour of the Group’s championship winning factory Porsche race facility. Those who are not fans of the track can choose simply to sample the available wines in a lovely tasting room set apart from the fumes and the noise.
We have never been impressed by the self styled gourmet dining rooms of Sonoma, most of them located in Healdsburg. That does not mean one cannot find excellent cuisine in the county, however. We recommend three particular restaurants that are fun, feature varying atmospheres, prepare some excellent dishes, and don’t require a Platinum card to afford.
1. Restaurant Mirepoix: Located in Windsor, this quiet bistro is the epitome of wine country dining. Casual yet stylish, with knowledgeable staff and the freshest of cuisine, the ever present crowds testify to Mirepoix’ popularity, especially since it does little advertising. Dishes such as beef Bourguignon, lamb shanks, pork belly, and cassoulet reflect the chef’s French background, and a distinctive wine list permits exploration of Sonoma’s many vineyards.
2. General’s Daughter: Just west of Sonoma’s charming downtown plaza, here you may dine inside or on the patio of a restored Victorian mansion featuring cuisine influenced by the chef’s French training and southern American roots. May we suggest the sweetbread and forest mushroom ragout with cheddar grits and Madeira jus; the shrimp and grits with andouille and Tabasco butter; or the Colorado lamb loin? The wine list is an award winner.
3. El Dorado Kitchen: Perhaps our favorite restaurant in Sonoma (in fact, it is in the heart of downtown Sonoma), here is California contemporary cuisine as you would hope to find it. The management and wine staff here are outstanding, and we often consult with them before making any final decisions on what to order. This is not much of a gamble since we know everything former French Laundry sous chef Ryan Fancher prepares will be terrific.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.