Grapelive Breaking News

Anderson Pleads Guilty to Arson in Wines Central Blaze
$100 Million in Premium Wines Destroyed in Attempt to Elude Debtors
By Bradley Gray – Special Report to Grapelive

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Four years and one month later, Mark Anderson of Sausalito pleads guilty to setting the fire at Wines Central, a 240,000 square foot wine storage facility that housed the cellar inventory for about 100 Napa Valley premium wineries. Anderson’s fire destroyed an estimated $100 million dollars worth of wine.

Why did he do it? Apparently to cover up for embezzling his clients out of wine he was storing for them and erase $290,000 he owed in taxes.

Wines CentralOn November 16th, Anderson entered a guilty plea to all 19 charges in an indictment that included one count of arson, four counts of interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained property, nine counts of mail fraud, one count of use of a fictitious name, and four counts of tax evasion.

As a result of his plea bargain, Anderson expects to serve just over 15 years in prison. A sentencing hearing will be held on January 26, 2010.


Just days after the 2005 blaze, Bradley Gray took these amazing and exclusive photographs of the devastation inside wines central. At the time of these pictures, no other photographers had entered the building, as it was a crime scene. ( His article appeared in the Sonoma Valley Sun, which appears below:


Wines CentralArson Suspected in Wines Central Blaze

(originally printed October 24, 2005)
By Bradley Gray

The eight alarm fire that ripped through a Vallejo wine storage facility made headlines last week, as over $100 million dollars worth of wine went up in smoke.

Now, a couple of weeks later, details are emerging and the scenario is getting pretty kinky.

The facility that burned was a company called Wines Central.  They stored wine for about 80 wineries and 40 collectors, and the company was housed in a former military building on Mare Island.

wines-central1.jpgThe building was a virtual fortress, with three-foot thick cement walls and heavy-duty steel doors.  The Navy used the building to store atomic bomb parts and torpedoes over 50 years ago.

In other words, this place wasn’t a fire hazard. Wines Central’s website boasts “state of the art security, fire and temperature monitoring systems.”

Because of the building’s immense stature, fire officials had difficulty gaining access to the blaze. Vallejo FD arrived on the scene minutes after the fire started, but by the time firemen cut through the heavy-duty steel door, the fire had grown to a point where it was too hot to enter.

Wines Central is owned by several partners, who have been fighting internal legal battles (ownership disputes) for a number of years.

Recently, Wines Central petitioned the court to allow investors to get involved, but the court denied the motion because of these internal legal problems. The company has reportedly been taking huge financial losses for some time.

wines-central2.jpgOne of Wines Central’s customers was Mark Anderson of Sausalito Cellars.  Anderson’s company stored rare wines for collectors.  Anderson is a City Parks and Recreation commissioner for Marin.

And who would have guessed it? Anderson is currently being charged with 10 counts of embezzlement.  It seems that when Anderson’s customers came looking to retrieve their rare wines, they couldn’t be found.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Marin officials said that Anderson was always very generous about donating wines to city events.

From what I understand, Wines Central gave Anderson the boot, and told him to clear out his client’s wine.  So, Wines Central general manager Debbie Polverino allowed Anderson access to his wine the day of the fire.

wines-central3.jpgSo, there was Anderson, on the scene, minutes before the blaze erupted.  Two forklift operators employed by Wines Central were also on the property.

And now, authorities have announced that the cause of the $100 million dollar blaze was–you guessed it–ARSON!

I visited the fire scene last week, and found nearly a dozen panic-stricken vintners standing in the parking lot awaiting word on the fate of their wines.  Additionally, ATF officials, attorneys, insurance adjusters and independent fire investigators were on the scene.

From the outside, the building showed hardly any evidence of fire.

Wines Central allowed me to tour the inside of the building, along with some fire investigators.  I signed the waivers, donned my hardhat and went in.

As soon as I entered the fire scene, my jaw hit the ground.  What I witnessed was a wine holocaust of epic proportions.  Destroyed wines in all directions, as far as the eye could see.  Everything was black, and the fire stench was haunting.  Broken glass still rained from windows above, and melted and broken bottles were strewn everywhere.

wines-central4.jpgI spent about an hour inside the building, and was surprised that I was allowed free access to roam through the wreckage.  One thing I was looking for was wine from Sonoma Valley, of which I found none.  I know there must have been some, though, because of the size of the facility.

Some of the more eye-popping sights were cases of Screamin’ Eagle, where the glass had melted but the labels were still in tact, magnums of Signorello Padrone (meirtage) that were charred beyond recognition, palettes stacked 15 high of rare “reserve” wines that had toppled and burned.

Fire and ATF authorities are being quiet about information gathered to date, but the Sonoma Sun was able to confirm that the fire was started with chemical accelerants, and that Anderson is the primary suspect.

“They found of box of rags in his (Anderson’s) space,” said Polverino.  “There was definitely something on them, but it could have been WD40 for all I know.”

It is unconfirmed whether the rags were used to start the blaze.

I asked Polverino when there might be further announcements.

“We probably won’t say anything until we have Anderson in handcuffs,” she told the Sun.

Authorities have searched Anderson’s house and vehicle in Marin, but aren’t sharing what they found.

Some of the rare wines that were destroyed cannot be easily replaced.

wines-central5.jpg“We had our whole library there,” commented a dejected David Graves, co-founder of Saintsbury Winery in Carneros.  “This is our 25th vintage, and we were planning on hosting some amazing tastings, a lot from large-format bottles.  But now it’s not to happen.  The fact that they’ve determined that the cause was arson is really hard to accept.  Someone’s twisted idea of doing something like this for personal gain is really very upsetting.”

Many Wines Central clients were not insured.

I’m not insured,” said Jeff Tamayo of Cana Vineyards.  “Why would I need insurance in a building like this? I have no idea why somebody would do something like this.”  Tamayo fears that he has lost the 5,300 cases of wine he had stored in the facility.

“It was our whole life,” commented Joy Caldwell of Caldwell Napa.  Her father, winery founder Jack Caldwell, was beyond words.

wines-central6.jpg“They were all in there.  Everything from 1998 on.  Our ’03 was in there, and it hasn’t been released yet.”  Caldwell was unsure of his insurance position.

Wine doesn’t have to be burnt to affect quality. Even moderate amounts of heat are enough to destroy wines.

Jack Krystal, chief partner in Wines Central, told the Sonoma Sun that he felt that some of the wines could be salvaged.

“We’re just trying to do what we can. Right now we don’t know for sure, but it looks like some of the wine is still OK. “

wines-central7.jpgThe impact of this fire will reverberate through the wine industry for years.  In some cases, wineries lost several years of production.  Sure, the insurance companies might pay off, but they will lose years of brand building and momentum.  These wineries will lose their spots on restaurant wine lists and in distributor’s books.  A loss of this size is potentially devastating to a brand.

Wineries who were known to have stored wines at Wines Central could be potentially blacklisted for a long time, as retailers might not want to speculate on whether or not wine was compromised in the fire.

The good news is that no one was seriously hurt.  One firefighter was hospitalized for heat exhaustion.


To see bigger images of the fire

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glbradimage.jpgBradley Gray is a Sonoma, CA based wine journalist. His work has appeared in The Sonoma Index Tribune, Sonoma Magazine, The Sonoma Valley Sun, Wine Spectator, Marin Scope Newspapers, FineLife Magazine, Appellation America,, Grapevine Magazine and others. He can be reached at

Grapelive Latest: Wine of the Week

herm00.gif2000 Delas Hermitage “Marquis de la Tourette” Rhone Red, France. (Syrah)
Elegant and mature like a fine Burgundy with still fresh acidity and brightness, after air it really becomes classic and pure with dried herb, violets, cherry pie, mushrooms and blueberry flavors, before a dry finish with hints of savory game and spices. This wine shows you what nice cellaring adds to Syrah; give this rewarding wine a try! With question it shows some age, but these older wine notes are as they should be and unlock flavors that are hidden in a young wine, especially Hermitage or any Syrah, so keep an open mind and relish this gem. Subtle and dry at first, then gaining sweet plumy fruit and a fuller and rounder mouth feel, finishing long and with hints of caramel and mocha. ($60 at release, though it is a bargain at auction or online at under $45 Est.) 91 Points, grapelive


*Rancho Cellars have this wine on special for $35!

Grapelive Latest: Big Sur

Grapelive Latest: Big Sur Food and Wine Festival

Nov. 6th & 7th 2009


Right now there is a great wine festival going on in the amazingly beautiful and cool Big Sur, this event is debuting this year and I think it will continue for many years to come and hope it succeeds out of the gate. I am going to sit in on a panel on Rhone style wine this Saturday and I’m am so looking forward to tasting some wonderful wines and learning from some of the masters of these fine wines, including John Alban of Alban Vineyards. Plus other fantastic Rhone style wineries are presenting wines and are included in this seminar, with Linne Calodo, Beckmen, Tablas Creek, Antiqvs2 (Miura) and one of my favorites L’Aventure Winery of Paso Robles. I am somewhat disappointed to be missing Friday’s big Pinot Noir panel with Calera, Pisoni, Au Bon Climat, Talbott, Miura and Gary Franscioni of Roar, because it is sold out.

n75511428894_4747.jpgBig Sur is going all out and all the great resorts and restaurants there are putting on wine events and wine dinners, including the famed Esalen Institute is doing a wine dinner and soak in their mineral & sulfur hot baths that overlook the cliffs of Big Sur. So if you are not going this year, plan on it for next year for sure. Great nights are happening at: Big Sur River Inn, Post Ranch, Big Sur Roadhouse, Fernwood, The Lodge at Pfeiffer State Park, Big Sur Bakery, Deetjen’s and the fabled Nepenthe that are hosting the big party with our local “Rock Star’s” Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni who’ll pour their fantastic Pinot Noir from the great vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands; Rosella’s, Garys’ and the Pisoni Vineyard. Did I mention that Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards is pouring? Well, he is! And he is doing a lot more, giving his time, and donating a special 6-liter of his Monte Bello, one of the greatest wines in the world, to the auction to support the event. Draper will pour selected vintages of Monte Bello at star tasting with Bernardus, Justin, Chappellet and of course his Ridge Vineyards, as well as doing a special dinner at the Ventana Inn along with another local hero Robb Talbott of Talbott Vineyards and others.

The man behind this special event is Toby Rowland-Jones, a local legend, a sommelier, investor in green industries and lovable Brit ex-pat that loves Big Sur like it flows in his blood, which I’m sure it does. Toby wants to raise the profile of wine, food and the environment by showcasing sustainable produce, wine growing, and the benefits of a low carbon-footprint. All with the idea that we need to change our ways and look forward, to protect nature’s gifts to all mankind, and especial this place, Big Sur, which is a national and local treasure that should be cherished for all time. Toby will give some of the proceeds to local causes and non-profits that will help youth in the area and also help the community recover from the scarring left behind from last summer’s massive “Basin Complex” fire. His staff, that have worked their tails off are all wonderful people that have volunteered their time to make this a great event and have tirelessly done a professional job of putting on a show to remember with energy and love, they all should be proud.

Big Sur Food & Wine Festival

Call them at: 831-667-0800

Big Sur Food & Wine Festival

Grapelive Latest: Wine of the Week

papapietro07.gif2007 Papapietro-Perry Pinot Noir “Peter’s Vineyard” Russian River Valley.
This is a fantastic wine, and a remarkable Pinot Noir that stands out in what is all ready an amazing vintage. Without question this winery has reached new heights and with this vintage may have equaled Rocchioli and other top wineries in the region, well to be honest they might have surpassed them in this vintage. I was floored by the precision and balance achieved on this complex and smooth Pinot, and the freshness of the fruit and acidity that lifts the flavors. This wine is near perfect with raspberry, black plum, rich cherry fruits with hints of cola, currant, smoke, sweet tea spice and warm vanilla. This wine is long and lush, but still lively and as exciting as a Grand Cru, but Californian all the while. ($55 Est.) 95-96 Points, grapelive

Grapelive Latest: Staglin Family & Felsina Berardenga

Grapelive Latest: Staglin & Felsina

By Kerry Winslow,

staglinkw.jpgIt is always a great day when the best in the world of wine comes to you and asks if you want to taste their wine, and today was like that with top Napa producer Staglin and premier Tuscan producer Felsina dropped in on me in Carmel and showed their wonderful line ups of wine.  It is always a pleasure to see Garen Staglin, of Staglin Family Vineyard and to taste his wines, the Stalin’s are an elite family no question, but they have really given back and deserve lots of gratitude for all they have done for the wine community and their charity. As of today the Stalin’s have raised close to or more than $90 Million for mental health, in support of mental illness care and awareness, which is amazing and truly fantastic. Garen and Sherri Staglin also have a second label “Salus Estate” where all the profits go to mental health research, which is more than most small estates can do for good causes, further still, they put on a great party every year as well for the same cause. Next year they are they will be putting on the 16th Annual event, the Napa Valley Music Festival for Mental Health at the Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford on September 11, 2010 that will feature Dwight Yoakam and close to a hundred premium wineries pouring their wines as well.staglinchard.jpg Staglin employs David Abreu to oversee their vineyard and the famed Michel Rolland to direct the winemaking, so there is good reason to get excited about this estate and their cave is amazing to visit, let alone tasting to wine itself, which is always rated as one of the great wines of the world, not just one of the top wines of Napa Valley. Staglin has received praise from new world and old world press as well as the likes of Robert Parker, James Laube and Jancis Robinson, three of the best wine writers and critics, so it is great to get a chance to try it myself and relate and revisit my own views on the Staglin Family Vineyard.

I have been blessed to have been able to try most of the famed vintages in the past and have been on a tour of the cave and estate, all of which have impressed me greatly and I must say, even as jaded as I any wine buyer or wine writer can get, I am always delighted to try these wines. Staglin is most known for their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, but they also make a world class Chardonnay and even a little bit of Sangiovese. Then they also make the Salus Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from 100% estate grown grapes.

staglincab.jpgThe 2006 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Estate, Napa Valley is the new release and I must say it is a great wine and really enjoyed the beautiful nose and elegant texture is has all ready, without a doubt this wine competes with the heavy weights of Bordeaux for class and style. The 2007 Staglin Family Vineyard Chardonnay Rutherford Estate, Napa Valley is modeled after the Grand Cru Burgundies of Montrachet and it shows good depth and character with pretty pear and white peach layers.While the Chardonnay is a nice and refined wine, it really is the Cabernet that steals the show and makes the grade even in this price level. At $175, the Staglin still manages to compete well as a value as weird as that might sound! But, it does, when you look at Harlan at $500-650, Opus One at $225, Joseph Phelps Insignia at $200 and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild at $300-750 all make the Staglin look like a steal! Especially when you look at the critical scoring of these wines since 1995 to now and prices, it shows the Staglin is not only a great wine, but also one that ranks with the best..

Felsina Berardenga

felsinawines.jpgWhen you think of Tuscany and Chianti Classico you can’t not help, but consider Felsina, the iconic prestige Chianti Classico producer, recently named winery of the year for Italy and a winery that has been turning out amazing wines of late. I had some experience with this estate while a wine buyer, and got to enjoy their 1997 releases and well as a few 1995’s as well, then have enjoyed a few more modern vintages over the following years. In 2002 I travelled through Tuscany on vacation and I have a certain fondness for this region and know the Chianti Classico area from a personal perspective, which has made me a fan for life.Felsina Berardenga winery sits on the southern most border of Chianti Classico near Castelnuovo, closer to Siena rather than Florence if you are mentally looking at a map of Tuscany. Felsina focuses on Chianti Classico and the grape of native Tuscany the Sangiovese, and I must say it would be very hard to find a better Chianti Classico or Sangiovese than what Felsina makes. Beyond the Classico, Felsina also makes an IGT Rosso, or all Sangiovese “Super Tuscan”, though I consider the term “Super Tuscan” as a traditionalist, in that it means a wine made in Tuscany including international varietals, so an all-native Sangiovese wine from a non-classified area would be an IGT Rosso. Their other Sangiovese is called Fontalloro and is their flagship wine made from grapes on the estate that are outside the Classico region, and it is from a special terroir that has perfect exposure and soil to get the best out of Sangiovese and it has been proven to great success in many, many vintages. Fontalloro is a massive and glorious wine that deserves every accolade and I was very impressed by the latest release as well as all of the Felsina reds I was shown recently by Caterina Mazzocolin of Felsina.

felsinacaterinakw.jpgCaterina explained that Felsina has great vineyards in Chianti Classico, 11 parcels of which they use for different wines, with all eleven going into the basic Chianti Classico, then a selection of up to seven for their Chianti Classico Riserva, then the single cru site “Rancia” for the Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva that is their top Chianti and a sublime wine that has finesse and richness not usually found in Chianti and I would compare it to a top Bordeaux in a sense, though it is pure to its grape and region. Felsina Berardenga makes extraordinary wines that deliver layers of flavors that are focused and lively making the most of Sangiovese. The basic 2007 Felsina Berardenga Chianti Classico aged in neutral big ovals (oak) has bright and young fruit, though rich in flavor and a gem with food. Next up is the 2006 Felsina Berardenga Chianti Classico Riserva which is aged longer and is both a vineyard and barrel selection, that does show a big difference and makes for a darker, deeper and more perfumed wine. This wine is magic and sends me straight to Tuscany in my mind with lush berry fruit and lovely balance, if you like Sangiovese and Chianti, you must try this wine. Felsina’s other Classico Riserva is the cru, 2005 Felsina Berardenga “Rancia” Chianti Classico Riserva that is more edgy and tannic, much more like a young Bordeaux and with the French oak almost tastes like one at first with smoke and pencil lead, before opening up and giving classic Sangiovese character. While more intense than the regular, this wine is a joy for any serious wine lover and a wine that will age gracefully and worth keeping your hands off for a few years in the cellar. This wine is on the same level as a Brunello and worth every penny if you can find it, and I suggest a little extra effort and time to find this wine, it will prove rewarding I swear!

fontallaro05.gifThen there is the aforementioned 2005 Felsina Berardenga Fontalloro, a wonderfully textured and bold Sangiovese that explodes on the palate that is more modern in style than the “Rancia” and fills out in the mouth with sweet red berry fruit, though returns to more classic Sangiovese on the finish, again rivaling top Brunellos for richness and depth. As much as I taste wine and am lucky enough to try many interesting wines, this line up hit me and left me wanting more, Felsina is a winery to watch and look for if you haven’t tried any and a winery that is worth searching hard for. I also intend to pay a visit to this place when I return to Tuscany!

Grapelive Latest: Food & Wine Harvest Farm-to-Table Fest 2009

Food & Wine Harvest Farm-to-Table Fest 2009
By Kerry Winslow

harvest2.jpgThis new event that was based on the Tomato Fest has taken things to a new level with great seminars from top chefs and even a Riedel glassware class that showed class and commitment to excellence. A big kudos goes out to Dave Bernahl and Robert Weakly, the same duo behind the Pebble Beach Food & Wine, as they worked tirelessly to put this show on. This year they had Tomatoes yes, but they also tied the farms themselves and wine growers into the mix with some great chefs and restaurants from the central coast and beyond. I had worried about parking and traffic, which in the past had been horrible here at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, but these guys nailed it, and it was a breeze with super managed care. Once inside, you get the warmth of a country fair, though there was some lounge areas to unwind as well, in fact they even had a special Champagne and Hip Hop area that while not really my thing was entertaining the thongs non the less. Being the same time of year as the famed Munich Oktoberfest, they had thought of having a good-sized beer hall tent as well, now that got a lot of play too. There was a good sized crowd when I was there and I can only see things getting better for this event, especially when it gets out how many great wineries were pouring and the talented chefs that had some amazing bites on offer, all in all it was a perfect day.

harvest1.jpgWith chefs galore and a glorious day the Food & Wine Harvest has proven a success to me, even before getting some tasty wine in me! The roll call of cooking talents included and vast selection of stars local and not so local, but all put on some great stuff. There was a select group that I enjoyed best, even though I missed the headliner of the main event Tyler Florence, they included; Cal Stamenov of Marinus, and who had my favorite bite of the day, the baby octopus over a zesty puree, Craig Von Foerster, Sierra Mar, Christophe Grosjean, Aubergine, Jason Balestreri, Cantinetta Luca, Christopher Kostow, Meadowood Napa Valley, Keiko Takahashi, El Paseo Restaurant and Phillip Wojtowicz of the Big Sur Bakery. Please forgive me, as I have left off mention of some stunningly talented people and couldn’t begin to try everything at this awesome event, so I hope people come back next year and that anyone who reads this comes too!

harvest5.jpgThen it was on the taste the wines being poured at the Food & Wine Harvest, which was something that I’m much more qualified to report on anyway! As I was really doing this even for my own enjoyment and mainly as a social thing, I didn’t get down to note taking or geeking out too much, but I can say there was lots of beautiful wines being served and some rare and much sought after bottles here, very unique for an outdoor free flowing show! More power to these guys, it is not often you see bottles of cult wine or top producers pour big glasses of their best stuff, but here they did, I even saw Joseph Phelps Insignia being filled up on more than one pass by. Plus if you looked hard enough you could find some really special wines, and I did, a few that stood out were; L’Aventure Estate Cuvee, Donum Estate Chardonnay, Morlet (Luc Morlet, formally of Peter Michael) Chardonnay and Vision Cellars Pinot Noir from the Rosella’s Vineyard. These four wines seemed to show best for me on this day, but all are fantastic wines, and no question would all rank high on anyone’s list. That said there was lots of super wines to be tried here and others that made me stop and take mental notes were wines by; Tudor, Tantara, Figge, Parsonage, Maia-Lynn and Chock Rock, though like the foodie side, I could not begin to taste all the wines at the Harvest and I’m sure I missed plenty of outstanding wines.

I really hope the Food & Wine Harvest Farm-to-Table Fest continues for many years to come, it was a wonder event that was a huge boost for the whole community and I must say that it also raised awareness of good local and international charities. There was one organization I found very appealing and one that I did drop some cash with as well, and it was Freedom Fields USA. ( Freedom Fields continues the late Princess Diana’s main cause of removing landmines. Right now Freedom Fields is digging up thousands of explosives in Cambodia. They say there about a million landmines buried in border region between Thailand and Cambodia, and they only serve to kill innocents, mostly women and children.  It is estimated that there are 60 million landmines abandoned and waiting to cause harm to animals, farmers, mothers and kids around the world, in fact 5,000 to 10, 000 people are killed or injured each year and these are overwhelmingly in countries in which there is no current war going on. This is a very sobering issue and I hope that a few people will see this and help them out making people safe around the world.

Moving around the booths at the Harvest, I found many friends and characters, most of which poured great wine to me! In my photos, I have included a few familiar faces that have made some excellent wine.
harvest6.jpgThomas Perez, a local sommelier at the famed Aubergine in Carmel, and a classically trained winemaker that learned his trade in Rioja, Spain, has released his first series of wines under his Maia-Lynn label. With the help of Jeff Fink and Tantara Winery Thomas got some great fruit from top vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills region and he put out his 2006 wines this last spring. This weekend I retried some of his premier vintage Pinot, with the 2006 Maia-Lynn Pinot Noir “Rio Vista Vineyard” Ste. Rita Hills showing very nice on the day. Thomas only made a few hundred cases total and they are selling well, which is great news as Thomas is a really good guy that makes everyone around him feel special and providing lots a smiles along the way.

harvest7.jpgI was happy to see Mac from Vision Cellars as well, and though he was very popular and I wasn’t able to interact with him personally this time, I was able to savor his very pretty 2006 Vision Cellars Pinot Noir “Rosella’s Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands which is really becoming an attractive and interesting wine with good depth and balance. Vision Cellars has been getting good reviews for many years and looks to keep getting positive press for a long time to come. Mac in his trademark overalls and farmer’s hat is charming and very talented; it was a pleasure to watch him work the crowd.

harvest4.jpgA surprise find at the Harvest was Donum Estate, Anna Moller-Racke’s tiny vineyard estate in Carneros, that is one of the hottest Pinot Noir houses in the state. I was very impressed with the new Pinot Noirs and was blown away with the estate Chardonnay that comes from almost 30 year old vines that are old Wente clone of which only a tiny amount is made. I want to thank Dorothe Moller-Racke, second generation, in the US, wine grower for pouring me the 2007 Donum Estate Chardonnay Carneros. Dorothe took the time to give me all the details and explain the winemaking on this remarkable white and I hope Chardonnay lovers take note, as this wine was in a superior league, making it in my mind on par with some Grand Cru Burgundies. I would put it up there with my very favorite Chardonnay wines, including some fine Corton-Charlemagne!

Carmel Valley, California is a perfect place for this kind of event and enjoys all the terroir and history for foodies and wine lovers as well as organic farmers. With beautiful fall weather Carmel Valley has proven itself as the perfect host venue for the Harvest Fest and I look forward to this event next year all ready!

Grapelive Latest: Brandy’s Back in Italy

“Life Between Nature and Culture”–Prosecco Day with Isabella Spagnolo of Iris Vigneti
By Brandy Falconer,

iris_brgrapes.jpgThis week I traveled from Naples to Venice by plane to visit the heart of Prosecco country, and in particular the Iris Vigneti Winery (  For the last 10 years, husband and wife owners Isabella (Spagnolo) and Loris  (hence, the combined name of I-ris) have been realizing their dream of producing and selling high-quality Prosecco in the luxury market.  I emphasize high-quality here because in the last bunch of years there has been an influx of inexpensive, medium grade Prosecco which, like in the ‘70s with basket-bottle Chianti, makes it difficult for quality producers to distinguish themselves and sell at prices they merit.  Isabella tells me that to combat this, the area where Prosecco is produced is working hard to make funds available to producers to market and export their product, which in her case means constantly traveling the world to show her line of bubbly.  In a sense, Prosecco is the valiant hero of the people of this region, the “Zorro” representing these dreamers, and fighting for a fair share in the global market.

Prosecco, sparkling wine from this particular region in Italy is made from Prosecco grapes using the Charmat method, rather than Méthode Champenoise which means the fermentation occurs in the stainless steel tanks rather than the bottles; and without the processes of riddling, or turning the bottles, and disgorging the sediment as with champagne, these bubbles usually cost considerably less than champagne.  For those of us who like to celebrate just about anything, this is one nice advantage!  Another is the fresh, crisp fruit flavors (without sweetness) rather than the more complex yeast and cheese flavors found in most traditional champagne.

iris_grapesbottles.jpgAt Marco Polo airport in Venice, Isabella picked me up and we drove straight to the seat of Prosecco country, Valdobbiadene, which you have probably seen on labels of Prosecco with DOC designation.  This area is a sharp contrast from the Venice we know and love, with its rolling green hills and more area dedicated to grapevines than to houses and towns.  Out of this green wilderness, order takes shape as small parcels of rows of vines  appear like puzzle pieces fitting nicely together.  Vineyards are rolling up and over hills, around houses and groves of trees, and though the grapes have already been picked, the  vines are beautiful as the leaves start to change color.  Valdobbiadene has signs for the “strada del vino” or wine-road throughout the town pointing Prosecco pilgrims to the different wineries which helps make this a tourist-friendly experience not always found in other famous wine regions.  The calm and tranquility of this town offer a nice contrast to the spirit of celebrations of every kind that merit popping open a bottle of bubbly, and this gives me a sense that this is a treasure, understated, and worth the effort of discovery.

iris_tastingtable.jpgBack at the winery, a beautiful and modern complex which houses the offices, tasting area and production facility, I start to learn the history and the source of the passion behind Iris Vigneti.  Awards cover the walls of the offices, from shows in New York, London and Valdobbiadene, and after tasting the collection, it is easy to see why.  The tasting area is upstairs at an incredibly long table that seats 30.  As I look around, admiring the open space and light, Isabella tells me that this part of the building is inspired by her love of Kenya, and the lodges found there.

iris_oderzo1.jpgThat night and the next morning, I had the pleasure of visiting the nearby town of Oderzo, an old Roman town that has aged gracefully and welcomes visitors with beautiful architecture, frescoes and a river that winds through it.  I will surely return to this town, because I found everything here: relaxed atmosphere, beautiful cafes and stores, and friendly people, and in addition, the first question at the restaurants and cafes is “a glass of Prosecco?”  My hosts at the Postumia Hotel Design will definitely see me again, as they offered all the comforts of a sophisticated American boutique hotel (not easily found in Italy), in a 33-room package, steps from the city center, with a restaurant serving delicious Venetian specialties along the riverbank; perfect.

iris_ibgrapes.jpgBefore leaving for the airport, I would have the opportunity to see the harvest and production in action.  The press is filled with grapes picked that morning, and Loris starts the machine, extracting the first juice to become Prosecco, and little Alessandro, their son, looks on from the seat of the forklift, pretending to direct the action.  Inside, Isabella shares with me her “wine book” which expresses in beautiful fashion what compels her to follow her dreams of producing these beautiful, shining bottles of bubbly, and this for me adds something to the experience of tasting the collection of Prosecco, because I know that it is produced with passion and attention to detail.  And when choosing the right bubbly with which to really celebrate something, in the true sense of the word, isn’t this a great reason?

(Dedicated to Daniel Barduzzi, a generous friend and a life worthy of grand celebration)

Brandy Falconer 

Wine Writer & Guest Columnist for

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Grapelive Latest: Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest and New Release Update

Grapelive Latest:  Santa Cruz Mountains Indian Summer

By Kerry Winslow

kwafv09.jpgA mid September afternoon and I head up to the Santa Cruz Mountains to see the Pinot Noir harvest and catch up on some new releases at Alfaro Family Vineyards, the weather is warm and perfect, with blue sky a welcome sight after some Monterey fog. Richard Alfaro is fine tuning his talents and getting the best out of his estate in this special region, showcasing their interesting and unique terroir. His wines show remarkable class, depth and balance with out doubt he is making some of the best wine for the money in the central coast. His Chardonnay from the Lindsay-Page estate vineyard has been rocking my world and grabbing gold medals for a few vintages, then there is his Pinot Noir, which is getting better and better as the vines gain age here, and the new release of the estate Pinot is stunning with intense color and richness, and Richard’s newest project to be released is the estate Syrah of which I can say enough good things about.

Richard also buys select grapes from some big name vineyards, including the Garys’ Vineyard down in the afv09.jpgSanta Lucia Highlands and will for the 2009 vintage feature it as a single vineyard bottling under his own Alfaro Family Vineyards label, and he also gets some fruit from the Lester Family Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains of which he has worked with for many vintages under the Martin Alfaro label and was known as the “Deerpark Vineyard”, for those that had this wine know it was a secret find, giving a wine of density and charm, and I’m happy Richard is continuing with it. While on this visit, I saw the 2009 vintage must, pre-fermentation, and I can tell you that both the Lester Vineyard and the Garys’ with be fantastic wines to look forward to, I can’t wait to see them develop. Alfaro showed me around the cool jacketed bins of juice soaking on the skins and ran lab tests on sugar and PH levels, all which was really enlightening even to this wine geek and I can attest to the numbers looking great for the 2009 vintage, with all of the Pinot lots on track, and Alfaro’s own fruit which only partial lots have been brought so far is very impressive, and I was jazzed to see the alcohol looks set to be about 14% and can report on near perfect balance coming from this ra09juice.jpgharvest.

If you get to Santa Cruz, head down to Corralitos and check Alfaro Family Vineyards out, not only will you see beautiful landscapes and vines, you’ll be treated to some of the most intriguing terroir wines from this up and coming region. This is a special place and the wines are great here, especially the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though I’m fond of the Syrah too. The nice thing about Santa Cruz is that it is very relaxed and laid back; everyone is open and friendly, especially at Alfaro’s place. People can taste wine and take in the winery or vineyards, as well as having a great spot to enjoy a picnic or cheese and crackers. The setting is peaceful and warm with a down to earth character that is steeped in local tradition and humor, I highly recommend a visit and know you’ll be getting quality wine and a huge bang for the buck here.

On the other side of the region to the very north is one of the legends of California wines, Ridge Vineyards, and they are just releasing their fall releases, include their flagship wine and one of the first growths of California, the Monte Bello, which in my mind is the great red of California. This Bordeaux style blend is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with the other varietals playing lesser, but important roles in support, making a for a classic wine that does the state proud, as has done since Paul Draper first made it. Ridge also is letting out their Monte Bello Chardonnay, same 2006 vintage as the red, and the estate Cabernet blend too, from the original vineyards high above Cupertino and the South San Francisco bay.

mb06.gifThe 2006 Monte Bello red meritage is exotic and fruit forward, shockingly easy to enjoy and love now, which is surprising for a wine that in most vintages takes years to unfold. The is bold red fruits and savory licorice and plum layers and then the finish which is mouth coating and long that gives the true classic flavors that you’ll be more accustomed to with Cabernet fruit, mineral, tobacco and subtle oak notes. This was for sure the most round and lush young Monte Bello that I’ve tried to date, so I’d say mark this vintage for early drinking.

06ridgechard.gifThe 2006 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay is vast and a wonderful wine that has it all and then some, just like last year this wine maybe just be the best wine coming out of Ridge Vineyards, with deep full flavors and stunning complexity. The wine has unique character and is not a Napa or Burgundy clone, though it does have Grand Cru like elements and class. The nose has pretty white flowers, matchstick, apple pie and peach notes before a huge palate of pear, apple, yellow peach, banana and butter cream that unfolds in smooth layers, but has bright fresh acidity that just gives a hint of lemon. The Chard has mineral, spice and a golden hue that all wrap it up, letting you know that it is something truly special.

ridgescm06.gifThen last, but not least is the other estate red, the Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2006 that is the baby Monte Bello, a wine that sells in the $40 region and delivers great value and full flavors that will knock some of the Napa Cabs down a few pegs! All in all Ridge Vineyards delivers true California wines that can rival any wines from any region, well they have done for 40 plus years now and don’t look like stopping anytime soon.

Again, Santa Cruz has blown my mind, just when I think they have done it all, they bring something new out of the area that makes me take even great notice. This is a region that doesn’t seem to get media glare, but makes some of the states best wines year after year. All of which makes me very happy as it is very close to home and the people deserve massive props, and the wine will amaze you. I’ve been singing the regions praises for that last three or four vintages and I think I will keep doing so until I lose my voice! This is a great region with magical terroirs that highlight its wonderful character and location. Bravo Santa Cruz, keep rocking my world!

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

melville08vpn.gif2008 Melville Pinot Noir Verna’s Santa Barbara County
Melville and their talented winemaker Greg Brewer (Brewer Clifton & Diatom) continue to nail it with amazingly good wines at a great prices. This new release is even more interesting than last years, and 2007 was a great vintage! So you can get this wine now before other critics chime in and know you are getting a fantastic deal and wine. For your hard earned dollar, this is one of the best Pinots you can get, especially this vintage, as it has layers of rich fruit and silky classic Pinot texture, plus it is just plain sexy. Lush, full and focused wine with grenadine, cherry, cola and raspeberry cream ending with tea spices and sweet vanilla! ($26 Est.) 92+ Points, grapelive

*Available now at RANCHO CELLARS 831-625-5646

Grapelive Latest: Pisoni Rules!

glkwgp09.jpgGary Pisoni Shows His New Releases

by Kerry Winslow

Every time I see Gary Pisoni I tell him how grateful I am to taste his wine and I make sure I mention that I believe, with out a bit of doubt in my mind, he is the greatest thing to happen to Monterey wine ever! I thank him for his passion and for making the Santa Lucia Highlands a household name for wine lovers the world over. As a native and a local, I am profoundly proud of my region and I regard Pisoni the man who put us on the map. Before Pisoni, there was Chalone, Morgan and Talbott all making nice and interesting wines, but there was mostly bulk wine that deserved no merit and that defined Monterey as a whole, that changed when Pisoni starting growing Pinot Noir on his family’s ranch, for which he took a huge gamble at the time. His risk paid off, and now his Pisoni Estate is almost certainly regarded as the best Pinot Noir vineyard in California and might even be on par with the likes of Romanee-Conti, La Tache and Richebourg, the top Grand Cru sites in Burgundy.

glgpgrapes.jpgGary loves to hear me sing his praise, though he is far to humble and seems more amused than anything, always telling me that he just did it because he loves it. His legend has grown beyond the scale, though he may be even bigger in real life, his joy is infectious, his intensity is inspiring, his kindness and heart are not mere mortal. Gary loves his family, he loves his wines, he loves his friends, he would give the shirt of his back for a stranger, and lives large, I mean really large! No question, he has a reputation as a wildman, sometimes deserved I am sure, but I know him as a quiet spoken supporting person that always has a joke, a smile and something nice to say about everyone. Honestly, Gary Pisoni will be remembered as much for his generous nature, humor and class as he will for his amazing grapes.

It is early September and harvest 2009 has started for certain varietals including Pinot Noir in some areas and Gary Pisoni brought some freshly picked grapes from his estate for us to taste, they are sweet, dark and beautifully flavored. So there you have it, your first review of the 2009 vintage, even before Beaujolais! Look for an exceptional Pisoni Estate vintage for 09, mostly likely to be released in two years to the day. As well as his grapes, Gary has brought his line up of wines to try, all new releases from the 2007 vintage, some of which I previewed in March and for which the slightly more famous wine critic than me, Robert Parker just published reviews of this month. Mr. Parker was as blown away as I was, and even though I put my reviews up first, I must say he gets much more attention, as the wine world hangs on his every word, and those words about Pisoni and his wines were in a word, awesome. Most all got mid to high nineties ratings from Parker (and me too!) with the Pisoni Estate Pinot grabbing 96 Points, along with his Lucia Syrah Susan’s Hill Pisoni Vineyard, scored by Parker.

glpisoniwines.jpgMy latest reviews of the Pisoni wines with echo my first impressions from March, though at that time I didn’t get to rate the 2007 Pisoni Estate Pinot though I gave it 96-97 recently when a tried it a month earlier at the family winemakers show in San Francisco. This time my notes recorded a full 97 Points, and I am convinced that it might be the finest vintage ever. So the Pisoni family does the Pisoni label, of which to date is just the Pisoni Estate Pinot, and the Lucia Vineyards label that has a Rose of Pinot Noir known as Lucy, a fine Chardonnay, two Pinots (A blended cuvee Santa Lucia Highlands, and the Garys’ Vineyard) and two Syrahs that are the big surprise, one is from the Pisoni Vineyard called Susan’s Hill and one from the Garys’ Vineyard. All of Gary’s wines are made by his talented son Jeff Pisoni who once trained at Peter Michael Winery and who is getting a lot of praise in his own right as a top winemaker. These wines are world class and rival any wine from the same grape any place in the world, I can say that with no reservation at all, with no hesitation at all and all with a straight face, these wine are that good. My local pride no know bounds when it comes to the Pisoni wines, and I am even more certain that they get better every vintage!

Latest Pisoni Reviews

luciachard.gif2007 Lucia Vineyards Chardonnay (Pisoni Vineyard) Santa Lucia Highlands.
Pisoni’s Chardonnay continues to shine, even though the press is all about their Pinot Noir, and the 2007 vintage is rich and textured with massive appeal and charm, much like Gary Pisoni himself. I wonder if this beautiful wine will ever get the merit it deserves? This Chard is right up there with the likes of Aubert, Talbott, Kistler and Peter Michael with pretty pear, white peach, and tropical fruits, liquid mineral, cream, fig, butterscotch and spicy vanilla. When it was first released it had a lovely lemon tart layer that seems to be fading now into the background, but everything else about this wine pure heaven. ($40-45 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive


luciaslh07.gif2007 Lucia Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands.
This cuvee of Pisoni and Garys’ grapes is very ripe and lush with intense fruitiness and bold flavors, I had rated it slightly higher in my earlier tastings, but it seemed a touch over the top this time, even though it is hedonistic and totally a pleasure to drink now. This vintage has Plum jam, wildflowers, cherry liqueur, blackberry and tea spices all mixed with classic Pinot character as well. This wine continues to be a great value for a big in your face Pinot that has many fans. This wine is fun and lush and should be drunk while young. ($40 Est.) 90-91 Points, grapelive



lucia07garyspn.gif2007 Lucia Vineyards Pinot Noir “Garys’ Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands.
This wine just gets better each time I try it, this highly impressive Pinot Noir has depth and density that is mind blowing with sublime flavors and focus. Jeff Pisoni is becoming one of the best Pinot Noir winemakers in the state and this Lucia Garys’ is proof in the pudding. This remarkable vintage has rich dark berry, plum and black cherry fruit with bramble, briar and sweet spices coming on after you take in a nose full of violets, roses and lavender. The oak is subtle and pure French though it leaves a hint of smoke, vanilla and mocha goodness. You can and I’m sure will enjoy this beauty now, though it should gain lots with a few years in the cellar as there is potential perfection here! ($50-55 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive


pisoni07.gif2007 Pisoni Vineyards Pinot Noir “Pisoni Vineyard” Estate, Santa Lucia Highlands.
This nearly perfect wine is a stellar Pinot Noir that is my all time favorite Pinot and surpasses the 1993 Romanee-Conti “La Tache” I had been holding on to in my memories, and I hope I’m able to save a few bottles for 5 to 10 years to revisit, as I’m sure that it will develop even more greatness in the cellar. It is amazing when a wine blows away the hype, and this wine surely does that in spades. The nose is lovely with fresh wildflowers and rose oil with blackberry and cherry fruit. This vintage has intense flavors and wonderful balance with layers of silky fruit, spice, mineral and pure French oak smoke, vanilla and caramel that lingers on the finish.  ($65-75 Est.) 97 Points, grapelive


luciagaryssyrah07.gif2007 Lucia Vineyards Syrah “Garys’ Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands.
If you try one new wine this year, let it be a Lucia Syrah, it will change all your ideas about the grape and where it grows well! I was blown away last year with these wines, but this year everyone is blown away with these wines! The Lucia Garys’ Syrah is a mammoth wine with deep color and layers with bright peppery spice. The nose is still closed on this young wine, but the palate explodes with fruit with black plum, blueberry, cherry and mountain berries unfolding in the mouth. There is a meaty and bacon essence along with the thick texture very much like the wines of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone, the spiritual home of Syrah in France. This wine should just get better and more complex over the next few years. With question this is one of my favorite Syrah wines and a unreal value! ($40-42 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive

luciasusans07.gif2007 Lucia Vineyards Syrah “Susan’s Hill, Pisoni Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands.
This young Syrah is very tight and fresh, but once it gets some air you know right away it is something very, very special with perfume and massive fruit. This wine is very much the Cote-Rotie type of Syrah from the Pisoni Estate with a touch more elegance and less pepper than the Garys’ with more refinement maybe and smoother in texture. That said this wine will really fill out and be a monster with some short-term cellar time and I look forward to seeing it develop, as I believe it has wonderful potential. The last two vintages were excellent, but this is something really special and Pisoni just might be even better known for Syrah than his Pinot! The mouth is full and rich with loads of black and blue fruits, cassis, licorice, cherry liqueur and bitter chocolate, hints of smoke, crushed rock, and vanilla. ($40-42 Est.) 94-96 Points, grapelive

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