Category Archives: Wine Articles

Grapelive Lastest: Brandy’s Italian Wine Trek Continues, Tuscany

agnese1.jpgMarchesi de Frescobaldi, at Nipozzano and Pomino
Brandy Falconer

After such a fun visit to the Marchesi de Frescobaldi camp at Vinitaly, I was really looking forward to seeing two of their estates on my trip through Tuscany.  Agnese, assistant to Tiziana Frescobaldi, the director of Communications, had suggested that we visit Castello Nipozzano and Pomino Estate which are just East of Florence along the Arno and Sieve rivers.  After a major blunder on my part in navigation, I arrived later than expected, but to a friendly and inviting welcome from Agnese and Gianluca who immediately drove us from Nipozzano, to Pomino Estate, just 10 minutes away.

In those few minutes, we went from a typical Tuscan countryside of manicured rolling hills with vines and castellonizzo1.jpgolive trees to what I would consider another kind of paradise: pine and cyprus-covered hills, more like mountains, a view of the valley below and a fresh cool breeze.  The sights, sounds and scents of Pomino brought back many happy memories of places like Carmel Valley, and Yosemite.  The vineyards here are small, and fit in like puzzle pieces with the groves of chestnut and pine trees on the hillsides.  At elevations ranging between 1,000 and 2,300 feet, and with cooler evening temperatures, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and other white varietals do well here, not to mention the Pinot Noir, which is expressed exceptionally well in Pomino’s Casafonte vineyard.

Since the 19th century, Pomino has also been producing Vin Santo, a delicious and wonderfully Tuscan after-dinner favorite not to be overlooked or more importantly not to be simply grouped with sweet dessert wine.  Made from Chardonnay, Trebbiano and a little bit of Sangiovese, Vin Santo is usually enjoyed with small biscotti after dinner, but can also be enjoyed as an aperitif with foie gras, which I am excited to try.  We were upstairs in the Vin Santo aging room where the 2005 vintage is still quietly maturing in barrels when I proudly showed Agnese and Gianluca a photo of my friends’ bottles of Frescobaldi Pomino Vin Santo from 1975 and 1971.  Every time I go to Lucca, I drop hints that we should see if that vin santo is still good after all these years, but I haven’t gotten a response yet, I wonder why..

pomino1.jpgWhen we returned downstairs and outside, I was marveling at how the breeze was making such beautiful music through the pine trees, and had a huge smile on my face.  After an unnecessarily tedious drive (note to self, hire a navigator!) I finally felt peaceful and relaxed.

We drove back down the hill to Castello Nipozzano where the tranquility just takes on another form.  The Tuscan scenery of hills and olive groves and vines and this perfect old castle-fortress dating back to the 11th century is everything you want Tuscany to be.  And it is quiet, beautifully quiet.  We started our tour in a room with old equipment used for winemaking and bottling, and I was amazed to see a reproduction of a decree from 1716 describing the different zones of denomination for the region’s wines, like Pomino.   The anthropology major in me wondered how anyone could not be enticed to drink these wines with such abundant and tangible history?   We headed down into the cellars to see both the family’s and the historical collections.  I learned that when there is a new addition to the Frescobaldi family, a number of bottles of Nipozzano Chianti (in the hundreds) are set aside for them  as a birthday present and a simple wooden plaque is hung with their name and birth date stenciled on it.  Stacks of dusty, unlabeled bottles lined the walls and then I saw the most recent stash of perfectly clean familybottles1.jpgbottles that had just been placed there in October.  The Frescobaldi name is still flourishing, and in contrast, another cellar behind iron gates with beautifully colored walls holds the family’s historical collection, many bottles of which are survivors of a German attack in 1944.  Stacks of bottles with the same wooden signs show the years 1864, 1908, 1911 and on up, the number of bottles increasing with the years.  When I comment on the colorful walls inside, I am told that the colors change with the seasons, due to the fact that what covers the walls is not paint, but cellar mold!  Who knew mold could be so quaint and charming?

oldbottles1.jpgGianluca left us to meet another group, and Agnese and I walked into the residence to go through some of the rooms.  Not simply a museum or showroom of Frescobaldi history, this is where the family entertains and enjoys the fruits of their labor.  There are photos of Britain’s royal family, American movie stars and more enjoying the grounds and the wine.  The home is relaxed and elegant, well-appointed and comfortable at the same time.  A new addition to the facility is a multimedia presentation room with an adjoining kitchen and prep area for conferences and presentations.  As we reached the small courtyard off of one of the living rooms, I noticed a table beautifully set for two out in the fresh air.  It was lunchtime and this was our table, dining al fresco at Castello Nipozzano!  The first plate was an assortment of Salumi which we enjoyed with the Pomino Bianco, the perfect glass of wine for this sunny, warm day.  Next came the “chitarra” spaghetti accompanied by the Nipozzano Chianti which we enjoyed over our conversation about Los Angeles and California, and other places Agnese has visited in the States.  This is how Italian lunch should be: equal amounts of great wine, delicious food and fun conversation. We had the bases covered with an extra helping of beautiful weather.  The next course was thick slices of perfectly cooked beef tenderloin and the Castelgiocondo Brunello.  It was nice to experience Brunello like this, mid-day, outside with lunch.  Something I have never done, and something I had never even considered.  With newly opened eyes, the boundaries of wine had just expanded for me.  After dessert and coffee, we walked through the house to the kitchen to thank Chef Leah.  As if I needed more reason to be impressed by this place, I sawpranzo1.jpg hanging on the wall with other menus and letters, a photo of Charles and Camilla and a letter thanking the Frescobaldi family for their wedding gift of selections from their cellar.

It was hard to remember that this was a working day in such a serene setting, but it was time to head back west to Lucca for the night.  I wasn’t the only visitor at Nipozzano that day, and there would be plenty more journalists and enthusiasts coming in the following days to learn about the history and winemaking of the Frescobaldi family.  I personally look forward to exploring their Castelgiocondo Estate in Montalcino the next time I am in Tuscany.  The next time you are in the mood for a Tuscan experience, forget the “chick flicks” and head to your local wine shop.  You can experience all the romance and beauty of this region on your own terms by enjoying a bottle from Frescobaldi.  For you Californians and Californians-at-heart out there, I suggest a Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino paired with a generous slice of Humboldt Fog cheese.  Enjoy!

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

rose08.jpg2008 Domaine de Fontsainte Rose, Corbieres, Gris de Gris, France.

This is a lovely and spicy dry rose that is pure and refreshing with mothwatering red citrus, strawberry, pepper, mineral and summer melon flavors. Enjoy this classic with any food, breakfast, lunch or dinner! Almost the perfect wine for anything, anytime and anyone, great for parties and picnics as well as afternoon sipping. Made from old vines that include Carignan, Syrah and other Rhone red grapes that have been planted more than a hundred years ago. Another awesome Kermit Lynch Selection, of course.($15 Est.) 90 Points, grapelive


Grapelive Lastest: Visiting Germany

rudesheim.jpgA Small (Wine) Town in Germany
Kerry Winslow

Rudesheim on the Rhein (Rhine) River is a beautiful and rewarding wine travel destination with lots to see and do that has something for everyone. The whole town is one big area dedicated to the glories of Riesling, with great reason, as it sits right below some of the best Riesling vineyards on earth. Even by chance you weren’t a big fan of wine, I still recommend a visit, because this very affordable place has plenty other charms on offer, including river cruises, great beer, sublime natural activities that feature forest walks, river promenade strolling with the local fowl, tough hikes, biking treks and romantic sightseeing. I must say the place was easy to walk and get around, plus I took a train from the Frankfurt International Airport to Rudesheim, so I never had to grab a cab or rent a car or even a bike the whole time I stayed. I did take the cable car and a chair lift, and if you saw the hill, you would too! I did put in two wonderful hikes during my visit to Rudesheim and toured the town by foot, giving me a chance to work up my appetite which turned into a blessing as the food was very enjoyable indeed, especially the fresh white asparagus that was huge and fantastic with hollandaise sauce. The German’s go crazy for the “Spargel” and I was lucky to have timed my trip well, as they only get 8 to 9 weeks of this magic!

castle.jpgRudesheim is to Riesling as Napa is to Cabernet, so when in Rome as they say, and I went Riesling nuts, but as always I still looked for Pinot Noir and other interesting things. I met some locals that pointed out small wineries and gave nice tips on food and local interest sites as well. I ran into a few winemakers and long solo vineyard walks, but there are “Wine Gardens” almost on every corner here so I got to try lots a great wine in fun social settings and just relaxed and took in the local color. Rudesheim even had Wine Kiosks! What a great idea, it was great to walk by the river, step into the park and find a local vintner pour his wines at a tiny wooden kiosk surrounded by trees and grass, brilliant, though I enjoyed the kiosk near the market square best and it was the place where I had the best wines. I learned to my surprise that the locals drink mostly dry Riesling, and I mean dry, even drier than Alsace, and though I had tasted a few super dry Rieslings from Germany, I was pleased more with the ones I tried here. In fact, I only drunk dry wines here, well I did have few Spatleses, but no Auslese or sweeter. Looking back it seems weird, though it felt perfectly natural, as that is what went with the food and mood of the place.

hans-peter1.jpgAt Rudesheim’s center square, I found a tiny kiosk that served local wines, and met a local winemaker pouring his wines. Hans-Peter Veith-Bertam a researcher at the famed Geisenheim makes a small amount of beautiful Riesling from family vineyards that have been in the family since the 1800’s at least, and may even go back to the late 1600’s!  Now he leases most of the vineyard sites to other wineries, a move that lets him make high quality wine and keep his well-regarded day job. He showed me 3 stunning Rieslings, mostly in the drier “local” style, which is in fashion here, plus a 1999 Spatlese that was still perfectly fresh and rich in fruit. Best of all, unlike what we find at home in the USA, they all were fewer than 11 Euros, or $16-17 dollars! It was great to find Hans-Peter, as the grapes come from the vineyards I spent my time hiking to above Rudesheim, letting me really taste the place under foot.

More from the Rheingau, Germany coming soon.


vbtrocken.jpg2008 Veith-Bertram “Via Castellum” Riesling “Rudesheimer Bergweg” Trocken (Dry) Rheingau, German White.
This wonderful and fresh young Riesling has plenty of everything to appeal to everyone, but is bone dry and brightly flavored. This wine shows off pretty lime and citrus flower, with tangy white peach, melon, tropical fruit and loads of mineral and flinty slate. Should gain a bit of weight in the future, but is clean, refreshing and zesty now.



vb08kabinett.jpg2008 Veith-Bertram “Rosarius Versura” Riesling “Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck” Kabinett Feinlieb, Rheingau, German White.
Roseneck is one of the finest Reisling vineyard sites in German, and is in a stunningly beautiful location overlooking the bend of the Rhein River with castles and eagles all in view as well, this site is steep and gives tiny yields of great fruit. This wine, while only a Kabinett is intense and has vigor, with vibrant deep fruit that explodes on the palate. This vintage looks to be a classic around here and shows loads of stone fruit, peach, apricot and white plum, along with pineapple, guava and pure apple in the background, with some tangerine and citrus flowers. This wine will gain muscle and flesh with time, though it is lovely and balanced now. This wine has good fruit, plenty even, but still remains dry and tangy.


vbdry08.jpg1999 Vieth-Bertram Riesling Spatlese “Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck” Rheingau, German White.
Even with 10 years of age, this gem is fresh and zesty with full body and a slight honey tone to the lush apricot and applely fruit. The mature side takes a bit to come through, but finally does with a classic petrol fume and thick liquid mineral feel on the nose and palate that adds to the whole, showing the complexities of aged Riesling. Even though a Spatlese, the sweetness feels perfectly balanced and makes this wine great for anytime drinking, though it would be killer with crab.

Grapelive Lastest: Brandy’s Italian Wine Trek Continues, The South of Italy

locorotondo.jpgPuglia – Wine tasting at Locorotondo’s Cantina Sociale and Monopoli and Cantina Albea and Alberobello
Brandy Falconer

Early Friday morning, my friends and I drove to the nearby sports and recreation area owned by the US Navy to meet a tour bus that would take us for a weekend wine tasting in Puglia.  I learned to play golf many years ago at this recreation area known as Carney Park, and always loved it because it is literally on the floor of an ancient volcano crater.  From the park you look up in any direction and see the tree and grapevine-covered walls of the crater rising up to the sky.  Once on the bus, and on the road to pick up more passengers, I sighed a huge sigh of relief at the notion that I did not have to DRIVE!  We were in a luxurious tour bus and Vito, our competent driver whom I remember from many years ago, was at the wheel.  We picked up our guide, Barbara and the other passengers and were on our way down the beautiful A16 highway heading east and around the back side of Mt. Vesuvius.  Speaking of this route, I keep hearing about the restaurant in San Francisco, “A16” and its fabulous Campania dishes and wine selection, and have put that on my list of things to do when I return.

After about four hours of head-bobbing sleep on the bus, we arrived in Locorotondo, a whitewashed hilltop town formed of concentric circles, each reflecting a later time period of building and progress, surrounding its ancient 12th century center.  We headed to Cantina del Locorotondo, a “cantina sociale,” or co-op winery founded in 1930 by a group of grape growers.  (  Our guide, Mastro Oronzo told us that today, the coop has over 700 members and in 1969 was given the DOC denomination of “Locorotondo.”  After touring this massive winery, with huge underground facilities for the fermentation tanks, we sat down in a nicely presented tasting area and were immediately offered plate after plate of tasty, simple appetizers.  Mastro started pouring and describing the wines and the first one, fruity and a bit frizzante was a hit with many in the group.   The second white was the 2007 Talinajo, from Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and Fiano grapes, which I liked for its complexity and a nice balance of acid and fruit-herb flavor.   I was given a bottle of the 2008 to bring home with me and thoroughly enjoyed it one evening with my friend when she made pasta with cooked spinach and cherry tomatos.  Nibbling on Pugliese “panzerotti”, or mini fried pizza turnovers, we moved on to the reds, like Nero di Troia, a grape I had never tasted, and the overwhelming favorite, the Terre di Don Peppe primitivo, which is a grape akin to our Zinfandel.  After the tasting, the group lined up to purchase bottles of their favorites, and some even purchasing the bulbous 5litre glass bottles in baskets as souveniers.  Like most wineries, they do not bottle every ounce of wine they make.  Locals come into the winery with their large glass bottles and “fill up” at the tanks just inside.  This is the charm of winemaking and local consumption, and after spending so much time in wine shops looking at all the stunning bottles and labels, there was something also beautiful in the simplicity of this, seeing wine as an integrative and obvious part of every day life.

albea1.jpgWe left the winery glad that the bus had cavernous storage underneath for all the cases of wine, and headed to our hotel in the seaside town of Monopoli.  Yes, there really is a Monopoli, but move over park place, all of their properties are beachfront!  While my friends went to stick their feet in the Adriatic for the first time, I rested before our tour of the town.  Our local guide, Caroline, led us through the narrow and curvy streets past some very different churches, including one with encased mummies that you could see through the windows.  We were welcomed into a neighborhood restaurant which was able to accommodate our large group easily.  Plate after plate arrived and we shared the different tastes with the house wine until late into the night.  Though I am not a stranger to the three-hour dinner, there is always something amazing about sitting down to eat and realizing how much time has gone by…and how many dishes you’ve eaten!  Well, when you’re in good mixed company and the food and wine just keeps coming, it is pretty hard to jump off that train.

trulli.jpgThe next day we headed just south to Alberobello and the Cantina Albea ( which surprised us with an excellent wine museum on property with beautiful photos and explanations in Italian and English.  A great way to learn about the grapes and wines and culture of Puglia, our guide walked us through the various exhibits in the two-room museum.  We were then treated to a short film about the region of Puglia and its treasures before sitting down at their long tables which had been nicely prepared for our tasting.  Plates of traditional cheeses were passed as the first wines were being poured.  The first wine was their Il Selva DOC Locorotondo Bianco with its characteristic golden straw color and tropical fruit aromas.  This wine paired nicely with the “caccio cavallo” cheese they had passed around, with its firm texture and mild flavor.  The first red was the 2006 IGT Raro Negroamaro and Primitivo blend, with toffee and licorice aromas that gave way to dried cherry flavors.  Gentle tannins made this a nice accompaniment to the selection of salami that were offered.  The 2006 IGT Petranera 100% Primitivo had fresh aromas and taste instead of the more cooked or jammy flavors, which I really liked.  This wine was like chewing a mouthful of ripe black cherries, with the flavors lingering at the finish.  I was particularly interested to read in their brochures that the winemaker of their array of award-winning wines is Riccardo Cotarella, the famous Umbrian enologo, interestingly enough, also the winemaker at Morgante winery in Sicily.  Several of us at the table had opted for the additional tasting of their 2005 IGT “Lui” made from Nero di Troia grapes, and this Gambero Rosso 3-glass-winning wine did not disappoint.  This enjoyable wine left you having to remind yourself that this was a tasting, not a drinking.  This wine is nearly black, not red, with soft aromas of licorice and cherry.  It is soft and full in the mouth, with layered flavors of bitter cherry and spice, perfect for roasted meats and aged cheeses like the manteca affumicata that we were served.  During the tasting my friends were really trying to learn how to pick out the fruity aromas and flavors of the wines and my friend Kirsten was particularly inspired by one of the comments that was offered to us, “red wines, red fruits and white wines, white fruits.”  Our charismatic tour organizer, Natalie, when trying to confidently express what she was tasting had innocently asked one of our hosts if one can really be wrong with what one smells, and he instantly answered, “yes!”  Well, ok, at least we all agreed that the wine was excellent!

trulli_bnk.jpgAfter wiping out the supply of Lui available in the cantina, and thanking our excellent hosts at Albea, we set out for the charming town of Alberobello to see the ancient trulli houses before heading home.  Alberobello is an amazing hilltop town surrounded by olive and almond trees, and because of the amazing conical-shaped trulli houses, it has been declared an International Human Resource by UNESCO.  Trulli are common in the central part of Puglia, and nowhere else, and their history dates back to the middle ages by some accounts:  Because of the structure of taxation on the king’s land, anyone with a permanent home would pay heavily.  Therefore, the people of this area devised a structure based solely on stones readily found in the area, and utilizing a centerstone that would keep the structure intact.  Upon hearing word that the taxman was coming, the contents were removed and that centerstone would be removed, causing the entire structure to crumble into an unrecognizable heap.  When the danger had passed, the homes could be re-assembled.  Hex symbols identify individual Trulli, which, with their whitewashed walls and grey conical stone roofs would normally be difficult to distinguish.  These symbols only add to the magical charm of this town, which is nothing short of a fairytale village.  Like the new tastes discovered in the wines, the flavor twists in their regional dishes and the amazing history of this region, Puglia proved to be a world apart, while only hours away.

Grapelive Lastest: Rheingau, Germamy

germany512.jpgI’m headed off to Germany to taste wine and see the vineyards in the Rheingau region along the Rhein River near to Rudesheim. This looks set to be a great trip and I look forward to sampling the glories of the area, Riesling and even Spatburgunder, German Pinot Noir. I will also be hiking up the steep hills and check out the vineyard sites, weather permitting of course, to feel the terroir and view the great Rhein River from the slopes. Look for some quick notes and updates, with a full report to follow in June. While I’m in Germany, Brandy Falconer will be continuing her reports from Italy. Thanks for checking to grapelive and look for some more reviews soon.


Grapelive Lastest: Brandy’s Italian Wine Trek Continues

tasting3.jpgSicily – Morgante Winery in Grotte, Agrigento

Brandy Falconer

Noticing that the stormy weather had not subsided despite my efforts to appease the gods yesterday, I decided to try again, and swing by the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.  Though I did not do the tour and get up close and personal, I felt I had a better view of the many temples atop rolling hills that descended to the sea.  It was incredible, and reason in itself to visit Sicily.  Hoping my token visit and photos would prove worthy, I headed back out of town to Grotte where I would find Morgante Winery (thanks to the guidance of Loredana’s directions during several phone calls along the way.)

I had met Carmelo Morgante at Vinitaly and was glad to finally see this small but important winery.  We first toured the production area and I saw huge stainless tanks, one being worked on to ensure the temperature control system was functioning properly.  I could see the insulation between the panels and marveled again at how these tanks can keep the contents cool like a giant thermos in the hot summers, and I realized how enormous the winemaking industry is, with all of the technology needed to create our favorite wines.

In the barrique cellar, workers were racking the barrels and it suddenly dawned on me:  I never thought about how they were racked, considering that they must be empty to move into place.  Then, like a child at Disneyland with that sort of horrified look after seeing a costumed character go backstage and remove his head for a breath of fresh air, I asked Carlo how the wine gets in the barriques if they are stacked empty.  With a sympathetic look, he showed me the incredibly long hose that extended the length of the building beyond to the tanks in the other section of the building, then the gas-pump nozzle, with a nose as long as the diameter of the barrique.  I’m sure my mouth was wide open at this point, as if to say, “Where’s the magic in that??!”

After that dose of wine-reality, we moved on to the bottling and corking area where I asked Carmelo about the corks, as I like to do with every tanks.jpgwinery.  When I pose the question about synthetic vs. natural, the consensus seems to be that there is still a taboo even within the industry about the switch to synthetic corks.  Carmelo said that they will always use natural cork for the Don Antonio, and does not see a change in the use of natural cork for the Nero d’Avola in the near future.  He then described how there must be a good rapport between the cork maker and the winery, a relationship of trust which is just another factor in the quality control of their winemaking.  Another point to make here about quality control is just how many levels deep the controls go.  For example, at Morgante, the guides that allow a machine to insert the corks into the bottles can get dirty after a day of processing, even though the corks and the machines are cleaned thoroughly, so as an added protection to ensure consistency and quality, these guides are cleaned daily during bottling.  This is certainly not just one standout procedure, and walking around the winery, and others I visited in Sicily, I was impressed by the consistency of cleanliness in each phase of the winemaking process.  I personally think that barriques.jpgthe wineries here are given a bad rap by critics who say that the quality control just isn’t there in the southern regions of Italy, because the professionalism that I experienced here is on par with any of the wineries that I have visited in California.  Just because they don’t have fancy visitors centers and tasting areas does not mean they are not serious about their wine, in fact, their efforts are concentrated more on the process than the image.

We finished our tour in the modern yet relaxed tasting room adjacent to the offices.  I had the opportunity to taste the Nero d’Avola from 2005, 2006 and 2007, which was a great way to get to know this wine.  The 2005 had aromas of amaretti cookies, and an herby cherry flavor and velvety feel.  The 2006 had strong herbal and fruit aromas and a flavor just like chewing a mouthful of ripe bing cherries, very juicy and delicious.  The 2007 was somewhat more elegant in flavor than the 2006 and perhaps a little less round and full, but possibly because it was also younger.  Finally we tasted the 2005 Don Antonio IGT Nero d’Avola, their cru, which is a complex, elegant structured wine that is also quite drinkable with aromas of fruit, licorice and cocoa that will just make you smile.  At this point, I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet Carlo’s father, Antonio and talk a little bit about the wine.  I found it very interesting to know that Morgante is one of the wineries here who has just recently begun to vinify their own grapes.  Though the vines for Don Antonio are between 34 and 39 years old, the first vintage bottled was 1998, whereas previously the grapes had been sold to other producers.  I am personally glad they made the switch and took the risk!

agrigento.jpgI was thrilled to have another chance to indulge in traditional Sicilian seafood preparations when Carmelo and I traveled a few minutes to a nearby town to Ristorante Cavaggliere.   Though we were enjoying both antipasto and main dishes of seafood, a bottle of Don Antonio was opened, and I was interested to see how everything would match.  Our antipasto consisted of I think eight dishes of cold plates of everything from octopus…whole octopus… to shrimp salad, sardines, mussels and more in varying preparations.  Then, I had the opportunity to meet the fish I was about to eat when the waiter brought out a platter of uncooked ocean friends for me to choose like a dessert cart.  I took another rather large sip of wine and appreciated this new experience, not being one who typically likes to know where the delicious piece of food actually comes from.  The mixed grill of seafood and calamari was simple and delicious, and I was shocked at how enjoyable the food was with the Don Antonio.  This was an exciting discovery and I would say in wine terms, dates the classic Bond film, “From Russia with Love,” where the villain reveals himself at dinner in his poor choice of Chianti to go with his fish.

After a quick goodbye back at the winery and a few photos, I was on my way back towards Catania for my flight the next day.  I thoroughly enjoyed the landscape throughout Sicily as it reminded me of California’s central valley and our central coast, with all the ancient charm that more than 3,000 years of civilization and trade can offer.  The hospitality and warm friendliness of Sicily really helped me get through four days of rough travel in the rain, and I look forward to returning to see Etna and the beautiful beaches in the Sicilian sunshine.

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

craig07.gif2007 Robert Craig “Mt. George Cuvee” Napa Valley (Bordeaux Blend).

This Cabernet based red punches way above its weight in terms of quality and class! This wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with parts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot adding elegance and complexity to the whole. The vintage shows dark color, lush fruit and ripe tannins making it a smooth Bordeaux style drinking wine that delivers big flavors and sweet smoky oak shadings. This wine shows blackberry, plum, cassis, spiced currants, cedar, cigar box and dried flowers along with touches of pepper, mocha, pencil lead and vanilla cream. Did I mention the value here? This treat is a bargain at $25! ($25-30 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive



Grapelive Lastest: Brandy’s Italian Wine Trek Continues

Grapelive: Sicily
Brandy Falconer

selinunta.jpgTrecastagni Sicily, BBQ with Ciro and Stephanie Biondi and the winemakers of Etna region.

After a week in Naples to reorganize and refresh at my friends’ home in Pozzuoli, Sicily was calling.  It would be my first time on the island, but I would be visiting three wineries to which I was introduced at Vinitaly: Vini Biondi, Planeta and Morgante.  I had a very early flight out from rainy Naples, and found not only the number of people at the airport shocking, but also the fact that everyone was vibrant and put together at ten minutes to six in the morning.  Is it the Neapolitan espresso perhaps?  The 50-minute flight down to Catania was easy if not a little bumpy from the stormy weather.  I grabbed my luggage (yes, it was there, waiting for me) and headed to the row of coffee bars in the tiny airport, choosing the one where I saw all of the airline workers and Carabinieri going, figuring this must be their daily routine.  I noticed a sign above the coffee machine advertising almond milk cappuccino, so I ordered one and enjoyed it and a delicious brioche, agreeing with anyone who has ever said that Sicilian bread and pastries are the best.  For those of us in search of alternatives to cow’s milk, I think is a delicious alternative.  I made my way outside to the car rental offices and picked up the keys to my stylish little Fiat, deciding against the Tom Tom navigation system since I brought my friend’s Garmin from Naples… except that I had actually forgotten it in my haste to leave the house.  Oh well, how bad could driving in Sicily be?  Besides, I had a fancy Michelin map just in case.  Oh, those famous last words…

biondioldvine.jpgI chose my route on the autostrada North along the coast to Acireale then headed East on the small roads (which should really be called road-lets) to Trecastagni where I met my host, Ciro Biondi of Vini Biondi in the town square.  I followed him up even smaller roads on the steep incline created by Mount Etna to a charming and beautiful winery with Bed and Breakfast called Palmento La Rosa, less than 5 minutes from the town square.  The low fog created an atmosphere that reminded me of a fairytale forest, and even though I could not actually see Mt. Etna, this ethereal setting would not have been the same without it.

The plan for the day was to enjoy a barbecue in Biondi’s Ronzini vineyards with Ciro and Stephanie as hosts, but as the weather just wasn’t cooperating, the lunch was moved to Palmento La Rosa, where I would be staying.  The proprietors, Franz and Zora Hochreutener, a delightful Swiss couple opened up their B&B to the lunch guests, and the location and setting was perfect for the occasion as the 18th century building was built and used as a wine press until just a few years ago.  After dropping my bags off in my comfortable and well-appointed room, and meeting my hosts, I understood what I had read on their website, “combining the best of our experiences in various countries, you will find a mix of Swiss quality, French charm and Italian hospitality at Palmento La Rosa.”

I set off with Ciro to visit their vineyards before the guests arrived for lunch.  We started with the highest elevation first, at the Mt. Ilice vineyard, which was magical, with a steep (50% grade!) slope, black crunchy volcanic soil, ground fog and tiny little bright green shoots emerging from the old twisted vines.  Climbing up the incline and at about 900 meters in altitude, I stopped to catch my breath and then wondered how in the world the workers tend to these vines, and then manage a harvest on these slopes.  There is of course a machine to transport equipment and grapes up and down the hillside, but take a look at their website to see the photos of Mt. Ilice and you will see what I am talking about.

biondisbrandy.jpgWe then headed to Carpene vineyard and finally Ronzoni, where there is a beautiful terrace with a cooking and seating area which looks to be the perfect setting for an event (again, take a look at the website, The fascinating thing about this terraced vineyard are the Greek artifacts that were found here while creating it.  Carved out of the black volcanic rock are ancient millstones and a very large bas-relief phallus, sort of a fertility-charm hitching post for the animals at the time.  Greek ruins, mind you, not Roman, so these date back thousands of years, as do many of the grape varietals still found and cultivated in Sicily today.  This is a noteworthy project that many Sicilian producers take seriously, cultivating and rediscovering the ancient indigenous vines that were used by the Greeks.

ciro_barriques.jpgComing back down the bumpy, twisty road, we were heading to the winery when Ciro’s phone rang to the tune of Homer Simpson’s “Spider Pig.”  Laughing, I wondered who are these people and what have they done with the serious winemakers?  In this seemingly limited landscape and terroir, these people aren’t stuffy producers, and though young, they are not the snooty up-and-comers either.  They are fun people, always laughing, who love wine, and love the land and the people who make winemaking possible.  At this point I knew that there was much more in store that afternoon.  At the modest and compact winery, I enjoyed some barrel tastings of the Nerello Cappuccio and the blend with Nerello Mascalese which will be the Outis (Nessuno) DOC label, as well as the Gurna Rosso IGT from Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola.  After talking with several winemakers who tell about how they tinker and experiment in their winemaking with barrels, ageing and production, I asked Ciro how he experiments with the wines he makes, and he instantly replied, “the vines!”  This is a winemaker who concentrates on the heart of the process, the fruit itself, and standing on the Etna slopes, with the decomposed lava crunching underfoot, I could really appreciate the complexity of this sentiment…even though I still hadn’t actually seen the top half of the mountain I was presently standing on!

Back to Palmento La Rosa where the guests, other winemakers from the Etna region, had started arriving with bottles from their own cellars to share, including Marco Asmundo from Barone di Villagrande, Alberto Graci from Graci, and lunch.jpgGiuseppe Russo from Girolamo Russo.  This would be my first time enjoying traditional Sicilian food, so luckily one of the guests brought me over to the cheese plate and started explaining the various traditional cheeses like the orange-hued Piacentinu, using saffron-infused sheep’s milk, which I enjoyed with a glass of Murgo’s Brut Rose metodo classico from 100% Nerello Mascalese grapes – a delicious start!  Next I tried the fava bean puree with fresh fennel drizzled with delicious olive oil from Vini Biondi, and then I discovered my favorite dish, the flattened-egg-shaped meatballs cooked in lemon leaves – extraordinary!  There must have been 12 different wines open by this point, and not knowing where to start, I just held my glass out to anyone walking by with a bottle.  A smart choice in this area because each producer created their wines on the slopes of the same volcano, using basically the same grape varietals, and what deliciously different wines they all created, as unique as the personalities of these guests.  And for you “label lovers” out there, the diversity was also reflected in the packaging, and it was almost a game to try to discover which label belonged to which winemaker after a brief conversation.  This was a wonderful way to experience winemaking, and reminded me of races I attended as a child, where champion race drivers were put in identical cars and the results were a expression of different skills, experiences and drive.  When you think about these producers who are all competing for sales and notoriety, it might make you wonder why they come together like this to share a Sunday afternoon of food, wine and stories.  I found that while they are sharply focused on quality winemaking, balancing the terroir with their indigenous grapes, they also have the peripheral vision to grasp the bigger picture, of Etna, of Sicily and the Italian market as well, and they know that while perhaps their individual output will restrict their competition at a high level in a global market, they realize that the wines of the Etna Region can, and will.

planetaresort.jpgSicily – Planeta’s Ulmo estate winery in Sambuca di Sicilia, & Cantina Piccola & Grande in Menfi

After a difficult drive in the rain the day before, I left my nice seaside hotel near the Palermo airport and drove south about 90 minutes to Sambuca di Sicilia, whose sister city in the U.S., you may want to know is Winter Haven, Florida.   I would be meeting Chiara Planeta at Ulmo, one of the five Planeta estate wineries, which, in years past was a stopping place for farmers driving their horses and cattle.  I had met Chiara’s cousins Francesca and Alessio the winemaker, at Vinitaly, and was very excited to see the estates because they treat each one as its own winery with its own equipment to reduce the transport time for the grapes in the hot summers.  In contrast to this, it was pouring when I arrived, having driven cautiously down the windy path from town.  While Chiara was showing me the main reception building, the rain let up a bit so we decided to take the short walk down to the winery.  This was an impressive operation with shiny stainless tanks, mostly indoors and a beautiful underground barrique cellar, all air conditioned to maintain quality control in the hot summers.

dogs.jpgWe walked back up to the main building and began tasting as lunch was being prepared.  Out the windows, the view of the olive trees and beyond to the man-made lake Arancio (orange) was beautiful, even in the stormy weather.  We started with the Rose, from 100% Syrah, whose aromas of wild strawberry and flowers, combined with a roundness and great acidity would be delicious with the suggested grilled fish and tomato and onion salad.  Next was the La Segreta Bianco that smelled like a fresh fruit salad with a hint of minerals, which would make a wonderful aperitif.  Note that these two, because they are the “ready to drink” wines, are offered in a screw top, which is something of a slow and experimental transition for Planeta because they recognize the prejudice towards this method of bottling, both in Italy and abroad.  As we tasted the more serious whites, the Alastro, Cometa and the 100% Chardonnay, there was a definite link between these wines, the citrus undertones, which is not a huge surprise as Sicily is known for their citrus fruit production.  We moved on to the reds starting with the La Segreta Rosso, a wine that Chiara describes as the one that makes them most proud.  This is an easy drinking wine that has pleasant herbal aromas and plum flavors that when slightly chilled allow it to shine as a summer barbecue wine or aperitif.

br_tanktaste.jpgThe Cerasuolo di Vittoria, from Nero d’Avola and Frappato is the only DOCG wine in Sicily, with its beautiful bright ruby color, and easy to drink style.  The 100% Nero d’Avola Santa Cecilia is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and this dark ruby wine with great tannins and smoky cherry flavors is very elegant.  Finally, we tasted the Syrah, and because it is not normally my favorite wine, I was eager to try their interpretation of this grape.  First thing I noticed was that I could actually taste the grapes, and coupled with the soft chocolate aromas and smoky undertones, I felt like I had found a Syrah that I would enjoy drinking again.

Lunch arrived and the wonderfully rustic table was set and we brought a few bottles and our glasses over to the table.  We enjoyed bowtie pasta with fresh fennel and asparagus pesto, which was delicious, fresh green beans, salad and more.  The combination that I could simply not get enough of was fresh ricotta sprinkled with lemon zest, salt and pepper and the Chardonnay.  This pairing was exquisite and I think I had three helpings; just to be sure what I was tasting was real.  For those of you out there who don’t go for the chardonnay based on current California production, I encourage you to try this one, or any one from Sicily, as you will be amazed.

After lunch, Chiara and I got back in the car to go to Menfi, just a few minutes’ drive where we would find another two wineries, Cantina Piccola, where international variety wines are produced, and Cantina Grande, where La Segreta and Rose wines are produced.  This is also where many of the family members live, and Chiara even showed me the traditional blue-and-white tiled kitchen where they eat their meals.  If you are looking for that romantically stereotypical winery, this is it.  Trellised flowers climbing up the terracotta walls to the tiled rooftops, the dogs sleeping in the sun near the old watering basin, it is all here, among smiling faces.  We walked upstairs to see their library, a beautiful room with walls full of books on wine and vines with many selections dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.  This is also where they meet, at a fabulously long boardroom table, to discuss the future of Planeta.  This future is a combination of winemaking, partnering with charitable organizations and environmental sustainability.  Planeta works with Wine for Life, which offers proceeds from wine sales to help fight AIDS in Africa, and at the wineries, one sees the use of solar panels and biomass production to produce energy, which is important when you consider what it must take to air condition the production and storage areas during the hot summers in a country where conservation has always been the rule, not the exception.

palmeropress.jpgAfter leaving Menfi, I was then treated to a glimpse of their new resort being built on the hillside near the winery.  Though at mid-production, I could get a feel for the layout, and easily appreciate the view of the vineyards and the ocean that this set of structures will have.  There will be guest rooms, a restaurant, pool and barbecue area, and a spa.  I look forward to returning to see it completed, because judging from the Planeta estates and wineries, no element of quality or comfort will be overlooked.

Chiara was nice enough to help me arrange a Bed and Breakfast right on the beach, and as we drove up to La Vittoria, I was amazed to see the sand and water just steps from the front door.  It reminded me of other beachside locales like Fernandina Beach in Florida and Molokai in Hawaii, and I wished the storm could let up for just a few hours.  So, to plead my case, I did what I though the ancient Greeks would do, and I headed out to Selinunto to visit the Temples, and pay my offering of an entrance ticket.  It has been a long time since I saw the Greek temples at Paestum, just south of Naples, and the awesome view of the main temple and the acropolis below on the sea cliffs took my breath away.  Little yellow flowers were in bloom everywhere and the sun was just a few hours away from descending into the ocean, so the lighting was fit for this spectacle.  There was one temple standing, and three others in ruins due to an earthquake many years ago, and with very few people there, it was easy to enjoy and imagine how this all looked thousands of years ago.  As the sun began to set, the park was closing so I headed back to the hotel by following the seacoast.  I walked downstairs to the restaurant, and as usual, was the first one there, having arrived at the unfashionably early hour of 8:00.  I had heard that swordfish and tuna are the most abundant in Sicily, so I chose the seared swordfish, some friend artichokes and boiled potatoes with parsley.  When the fish arrived, I though there would be no way I could finish it, but to taste swordfish this juicy and tender and tasty made it impossible to leave any behind.  So far, Sicily is living up to every myth and story I have heard, and in the most casual and unassuming way.  I felt totally at ease being there by myself, but also wished there was someone with me to share it, because these moments and experiences are truly special.

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

redcar07.gif2007 Red Car Pinot Noir “Trolley” Sonoma Coast.
This is a rich and creamy wine that has lots of lush fruit and classic Pinot character. Red Car has a cult following and produce only a tiny amount of each bottling, mainly Syrah, but has got a lot of attention for the interesting Pinot Noirs. This wine shows the ripe fruit and depth of the 2007 vintage perfectly and is a pleasure in the glass all ready. The fruit is dark colored and sweet with a heady perfume and is framed by creamy toasty oak from the French barrels. Everything here screams quality and focus in a clean modern way. The fruit is a mixed of plumy black fruit and spicy red fruits with plum, cherry, raspberry and tangy sweet red currant all seamless on the palate. There is lots of layers, but is very fruit driven with vibrant young flavors and a full body, though with age should develop classic floral and mineral notes with Asian spices and smoky vanilla. ($45-50 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive


*can be ordered through RANCHO CELLARS


Grapelive Lastest

Tasting some California Grand Cru’s

morlet.jpgWhen you think of Peter Michael and Lewis Cellars, you think, and rightly so, you think top quality and limited availability. They produce some of the richest and most sought after wines in California including Chardonnay’s and Cabernet’s that rival the best from anywhere, especially the French Grand Cru’s and First Growths. This past week I was able to taste their wines, which is a pretty rare opportunity, for which I am grateful. The Lewis’ came to see me, and others while in town and the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event had the Peter Michael Winery at a press and trade lunch after a seminar.

I sipped on the Peter Michael Chardonnay and hammed it up with their winemaker Nicolas Morlet, who is becoming a super star with the last releases since taking over from his brother there. Plus I was also luck to taste the 2006 Peter Michael “Les Pavots” red as well, and I can say they are fantastic wines, though unfortunately at out of reach prices. I get a little depressed that these wonderful wines are so exclusive, but I can understand and enjoy them as well. The Chardonnay was amazing in its depth and richness with truly a Montrachet presence and outstanding elegant flavors and structure. The “Les Pavots” is everything it is billed to be and then some with power and sublime balance. Without question these are among the great wines of the world, and I am thankful to get the chance to try them.

lewisrc.jpgRandy and Debbie Lewis, of Lewis Cellars, are dedicated to producing full-bodied and ripe world-class wines. They have hired the best winemakers in the state to help them over the years, including Helen Turley and Paul Hobbs and in recent years have formed a house style that delivers total commitment and passion in the glass. Randy, an ex- Indycar driver and Debbie show intense focus on their wines and especially their vineyard sites, knowing that the fruit has to be perfect to make great wine. They get fruit from top sites in Napa and Sonoma, and they oversee them all, including little vineyards in Rutherford, Calistoga, Russian River and on Pritchard Hill. They poured the latest releases of their famed Reserve, both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, both from select Napa Valley fruit and hand picked barrels. These cuvee’s offer intense fruit and lush textures with beautiful depth and pure flavors.

To see my notes and reviews of these great wines just click here


pmchardmp.gif2007 Peter Michael Chardonnay “Mon Plaisir”.
The Peter Michael Chardonnay’s are some of the greatest whites produced, and I liken them to Domaine Laflaive, or maybe I should say they are or the Montrachet Grand Crus of California. While they don’t taste like Chevalier or Batard exactly by any means, they do scream of quality and have immense depth and richness. This vintage of “Mon Plaisir” is one of the finest ever I would suggest with deep layers and perfect balance, it should deliver excellence in flavors for 8-10 years, easy. This wine shows class, elegance and charm along with thick gobs of fruit and a super long finish. The nose is peachy, nutty and has orange blossoms that dovetail on to a palate of creamy pear, apple, honeysuckle, banana, and yellow peach with fig, backing spice, liquid mineral and vanilla. The toasty oak is a perfect frame to this lovely wine and gives hints of smoke, hazelnut, and nutmeg. The finish is long and has a wonderful lemon tart essence along with apple and quince. ($150-250 Est.) 96 Points, grapelive


lewiscab06.gif2006 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley.
This is the main stay of the Lewis line up and it shows all the power and richness that a great Napa Cab can give with ripe and thick fruit oozing on the palate and smooth fine tannins holding everything in place. This is a big wine that shows classic character and depth of flavors. A blend of select vineyard sites including Pritchard Hill where the likes of Colgin, Bryant, David Arthur and Chappellet farm their most impressive Cabernet vines. This mountain fruit gives massive structure and a boysenberry layer and then there is some wonderful Rutherford and Calistoga Cabernet that gives lush crème de cassis and black currants as well as a chocolate like ease. There are many layers and great depth with beautiful toasty French oak shadings giving lots of creamy vanilla and mocha notes. Enjoy the huge mouth feel and the added background of plum, licorice, liqueur, tobacco leaf and sandalwood essence. ($125-150 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive