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California Trip report – I February 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine, Uncategorized.
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We spent just over a week travelling in California.  After a brief stopover with Lorraine’s high-school friend Monika in San Francisco, we headed up to Sonoma to vist Bill and Sandi, the first of our two sets of ex-Laguna Beach, ex-Len’s Wine Cite, friends.

We arrived in time for a late lunch, and were immediately introduced to the wines of one of Sonoma’s newer wineries, Roessler Cellars.  Roessler’s 2005 Alder Springs Pinot Noir is just glorious, with sweet, ripe fruit, classic Pinot character, and great intensity.  Afterwards, we wandered around downtown Sonoma for a while, looking in jewelry stores, before deciding to stop in to Sebastiani‘s tasting room.  There wasn’t a whole lot of time before closing, but we tasted through what they had.  We ended up buying a couple of bottles of their 2006 “Casa De Sonoma” unoaked Chardonnay.  We’re not great fans of Chardonnay, on the whole, unless it comes from Burgundy, but these wines were delicious, somewhat reminiscent of Chablis, with lovely crisp fruit and some minerally notes.

After dinner, Bill wondered idly whether we were interested in brandy, and if so, did we know about California brandy?  We were, and, oddly enough, we did, although we weren’t aware of all the aspects of the remarkable story of Germain-Robin.  Hubert Germain-Robin is a member of a French family which had been making fine cognac since the late eighteenth century.  In 1981, Hubert was hitch-hiking in northern California, somewhat despondent about the fate of the family firm, which had just been taken over by the brandy colossus Martell.  One day, he was picked up on the road by a guy called Ansley Coale.   The two struck up a friendship, and by the next summer, Hubert had shipped a traditional still to Ansley’s ranch in Mendocino County and the two had started experimenting with distillation.  Their first decision, which turns out to have been an inspiration, was to use premium California wine as the raw material, rather than the thin, insipid wines – normally made from Ugni Blanc – which form the foundation for most cognac.  The results are dramatic.  Germain-Robin brandies are just spectacular – gorgeous, smooth, complex nectars.  People who might be expected to know are classing them among the world’s best distilled spirits.

But I digress, somewhat.  It turns out that Bill is rather a fan of Germain-Robin brandies, and was surprised and delighted to discover fellow enthusiasts.  So we spent a good deal of the evening performing critical comparisons of the examples he had, and went to bed feeling no pain.  

It’s probably fair to say that we wouldn’t have timed the private tasting at Roessler any earlier than 10:00am the following day.  But, like true professionals, we were there on time, ready for action.  We tasted through about half a dozen Pinot Noirs, some from single vineyards, like the Alder Springs we’d had the previous day, some what they called appellation wines, where the wines are made from grapes from several vineyards. All of the wines were really lovely expressions of Pinot Noir, made in tiny quantities (only 137 cases of the 2005 Alder Springs were made).  We left with some of the Alder Springs and some of Roessler’s 2005 Hein Family Vineyard.

From there, Sandi took us up the road to Arrowood, where we tasted some of Dick Arrowood’s beautiful Cabernets, including the 2003 Monte Rosso and the 2002 Reserve, and some Syrahs  They’re certainly excellent wines, but it was difficult to taste Cabernets with the memory of the fragrant Roessler Pinot Noirs still on our palates and in our minds.  I should probably also add that our tasting experience was not improved by the arrival of a party of visitors who seemed to have bathed in perfume, and who, we discovered as we left, had pitched up in a Hummer with Idaho plates and had parked in the handicapped spot (with no sign of a permit).  Lots of hot buttons there – although I hasten to add that the great State of Idaho is not one of them.

The next stop was Healdsburg, about thirty miles north of Sonoma, where we paused briefly for lunch,  after which it was time to check out a couple more tasting rooms.  The first was Williamson Wines, where we were graciously hosted by the co-owner, Dawn Williamson.  Dawn had an interesting approach to tasting wine, which we liked a lot.  She was arguing strongly for the symbiotic relationship between wine and food, presenting each wine with a morsel of appropriate food – a little sliver of Stilton, or a tiny piece of lamb.  We thought this really worked well.  Finally, we stopped in at La Crema, where I was a little surprised.  I’d always thought of La Crema as a winemaker at the less expensive end of the scale,  with good quality wines in the $15-$20 region.  Turns out that they also make a series of super Pinots and Syrahs at premium prices, and also some exquisite wines, the Nine Barrel Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, which run close to $100 a bottle.  We came away with a bottle each of the the 2005 Sonoma County Syrah and the 2005 Russian River Pinot Noir.

And then it was time to return to Sonoma, for an early dinner and an early night, with a busy day in prospect, about which I’ll write later.

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Friends in wine February 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine.
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When we moved to Laguna Beach in 1992, Lorraine and I immediately realised that there was something missing in this otherwise perfect community – a place to taste and buy wine.  We spent a good deal of time scouring Orange County for places which fitted our taste and budget, but we found ourselves longing for something local.  All this changed in 1997 when Steve and Carmen Ricker opened Len’s Wine Cite in downtown Laguna Beach.  I was at their very first tasting, even before they’d secured a licence to hold tastings on their own premises, and I didn’t miss many thereafter.  The store immediately felt like home.  Steve is a major wine zealot with a fine nose, both for wine and for bullshit, and he’s also possessed of a disarmingly charming personality and an infallible memory for what his customers like and don’t like.  There were many occasions where dinner guests arrived at our home with bottles of wine purchased from Len’s, having introduced themselves to Steve with “we’re going to Pete and Lorraine’s for dinner – what should we take?”

I became the informal “Bordeaux bigot”, always to be called on when the merits of Old World and New World were to be compared, and Steve would describe me as “the man whose goal is to find a dessert wine he doesn’t like”.  That particular quest continues, and I have no particular expectation that it will ever succeed.  I hope it doesn’t. Eventually, Steve felt able to call on me to help in the tastings, pouring for customers and sharing with them the dubious benefits of my knowledge.  They liked the English accent too.  And I got to taste some pretty spectacular wines, and even to take some home with me.

We made friends there –  it seems to be especially easy to like people who are passionate about food and wine – and we still see many of them, even though Len’s Wine Cite itself closed a while ago, much to the anguish of the regulars.

Over time, friends moved away, but we kept in touch with two couples, one now in Sonoma and the other growing grapes in Paso Robles (can you see the connection here?).  We were able to visit both sets of friends on our recent trip up the coast.  It was a really wonderful trip, and I’ll talk more about it in the next post.