Category Archives: Travel

Tasting Report: Blue Chip Wineries of Paso Robles, 2014

Paso Robles, in central California, is a wine region that has never gotten much respect. Sandwiched between high-profile Napa/Sonoma to the north; the well-regarded Santa Barbara (Sideways) region to the south; and the bulk-wine-producing Central Valley to the east, Paso is close to nothing and, for many, just not worth a very lengthy drive for what many see as inferior wines.

I can’t help you with your travel plans, but it’s time to look more closely at Paso, a region rapidly on the rise in the quality department. Once known as a home for zinfandel (never a good sign for any region), Paso is now producing a remarkable range of quality wines, with a special focus on Rhone-style wines (syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and their ilk). Cabernet Sauvignon is also on the rise here — as is the number of wineries in total. Over 300 wineries populate this region now, and more are on the way.

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Recently we spent several days touring Paso, with a specific focus on some of the region’s brightest stars. We also took the opportunity to stay at Justin’s completely revamped Just Inn, dining that evening at Justin: The Restaurant, an intimate place serving local and seasonal fare. (Note: Justin hosted both.) The Just Inn Isosceles Suite is quite the affair, featuring a lovely sitting area with fireplace, a king-size Tempur-Pedic bed, and a well-appointed bathroom complete with Jacuzzi-style tub.

The Justin Restaurant was a fun experience, with careful service and a steady pace of inventive dishes coming from the kitchen. (No a la carte here, only a set menu of about seven dishes.) Wine pairings (all Justin wines) are available, or you can order a bottle from a list that largely comprises imports. (We had the Justin pairings, of course.)

Many of the dishes were quite delightful, including a delectable venison loin, a luscious spring pea soup, and a fun little “deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich,” served as an amuse bouche from the kitchen. Other dishes weren’t as memorable — like the cheese course of burrata (not my favorite), served not with bread but with a pile of breadcrumbs. The only miss was the second course of hamachi crudo, a few beautiful slices of fish that were absolutely divine… until they were covered with a bright-green and quite bitter “herb jus,” washing out the lovely brininess of the fish. Sometimes, simpler is better.

On the whole, it was a lovely meal. Some photos follow. (Dine there yourself by entering Justin’s mega-sweepstakes on Facebook!)

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Complete tasting notes on all wines tasted during the trip follow.

Tasting Report: Paso Robles 2014

2013 L’Aventure Rose Estate / $25 / B+ / rose of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and petit verdot; crisp and light; some lemon and vanilla notes
2011 L’Aventure Optimus / $45 / B+ / syrah/cab/petit verdot; silky, chocolate notes; big tannins now with some rough edges; definite mint notes
2011 L’Aventure Cote a Cote / $85 / A / syrah/mourvedre/grenache; good structure; more softness; some floral notes, black and blueberry; quite lovely
2011 L’Aventure Estate Cuvee / $85 / A- / syrah/cab/petit verdot; massive black fruit, blackberry nose; tobacco and lots of tannins; needs time to soften; approachable now
2012 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Gap Cuvee Blanc / $40 / B / grenache blanc/picpoul blanc/rousanne; marshmallow meets floral and honey notes, green apple character
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Pick Grenache Cuvee / $55 / A / blended with syrah, mourvedre, and counoise; lots of ripe strawberries, some tea notes; vanilla – great little wine
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The 46 Greanche-Syrah / $55 / A- / 50-50 blend; similar to The Pick, more of a beefy quality, tobacco notes, some jam
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards 5 Blocks Syrah Cuvee / $55 / B+ / mourvedre/syrah/grenache/cinsault; modest, some herbs, jammier finish
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Hedge Syrah / $60 / A- / 100% syrah; lush, floral meets fruit, black cherry, big finish
2012 Calcareous Chardonnay Paso Robles / $32 / A- / lots of mineral, butterscotch; tart with a buttery body
2011 Calcareous Pinot Noir York Mountain / $40 / B / fruity and tart, light raspberry and blueberry notes; spicy end, some bitterness on the finish
2010 Calcareous Grenache-Mourvedre / $36 / B+ / licorice, big pepper notes; dense spice, earthiness
2010 Calcareous Lloyd / $49 / A- / malbec/cab/cab franc/petit verdot/merlot; lovely nose, restrained; cherry and raspberry fruit; some cedar and vanilla
2010 Calcareous Moose Paso Robles / $48 / A / syrah with 11% petit verdot; huge nose; most lush body of the bunch; vanilla and tobacco notes
2010 Calcareous Tres Violet / $42 / A / the winery’s signature blend – syrah/mourvedre/grenache; slighly thin, but with big floral tones; quiet and silky; the violets are there
2010 Calcareous Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles / $38 / A / huge blueberry and even bigger floral notes; some cocoa and cedar; wonderful
2011 Calcareous Syrah (barrel sample) / $45 / A / going to be killer; blueberry jam, a backbone of pepper; nicely chewy
2011 Oso Libre Volado Viognier / $32 / B / buttery, some tropical notes
2011 Oso Libre Carnal GSM Blend / $40 / B+ / smoky, a BBQ wine; acid on the finish
NV Oso Libre Primoroso Winemaker’s Blend / $39 / B+ / a vatting of 10 different varietal wines from 2009-11 vintages; wacky; some straberry candy, lots going on as expected
2010 Oso Libre Quixotic Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / $50 / A- / light and fruity; barely hints at tannins
2009 Oso Libre Reserva Bordeaux Style Blend / $52 / B+ / cab/merlot blend; big fruit, black tea, brown sugar, strawberry candies
2011 Oso Libre Nativo Estate Primitivo / $45 / B+ / wood smoke, dense; leathery, coffee bean notes
NV Oso Libre Rojo del Patron Winemaker’s Blend / $32 / B+ / zin/cab blend; quite sweet; edged with violets and more strawberry candy
2012 Justin Viognier / $23 / B- / woodier take on Viognier; light tropical notes with a big slug of vanilla; not my favorite
2013 Justin Sauvignon Blanc / $14 / B / mango, pineapple; quite steely
2013 Justin Rose Estate / $20 / A- / pretty, strawberry with tart and light sweet notes
2011 Justin Reserve Tempranillo / $45 / A- / huge cherry, vanilla, almost pinot-like in structure; a real surprise
2008 Justin Syrah / $40 / A- / cedra box, with long herbal notes; fun, with a long finish featuring dried fruites
2011 Justin Justification / $50 / B / cab franc/merlot blend; touch of barnyard here; dense, coffee, currants
2011 Justin Isosceles / $62 / B+ / cab/merlot/cab franc; pre-release but in bottle; drinking young, almost green; light cherry; give this 3 years
2010 Justin Isosceles Reserve / $100 / A / 90% cab with malbec/cab franc/merlot; huge wine; concentrated fruit and cassis, some chocolate and a bit of strawberry

Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New Orleans

Ah, New Orleans… it’s not just the home of some of the best food in the world, it’s also the birthplace — a spiritual birthplace in some cases — of some of the most classic cocktails ever invented.

I had the good fortune to travel through Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, on the eve of Mardi Gras recently, with a specific goal of seeing how these classics measure up to more modern fare. Whenever possible, I went straight to the source where the cocktail was first created.

Without further ado, here’s a rundown of some of NOLA’s biggest and most noteworthy cocktails… recipes included. (Note: I skipped the Grasshopper, reportedly invented here at Tujagues’. Next time, I promise.)

Sazerac047 300x225 Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New Orleans
1 tsp. Absinthe liqueur (preferably Herbsaint)
1 1/2 to 2 oz. Rye Whiskey (preferably Old Overholt)
1 sugar cube
several dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Coat the inside of a cocktail glass with the Herbsaint and pour out the excess. Shake the remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.

I’ve covered this classic before. It’s one of my favorite drinks. It’s also the official drink of New Orleans, invented here in the 1850s. The Sazerac at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar — as iconic a place to order one as you can find — isn’t the best I’ve had. Sweet and spicy, it was way too warm and — more importantly — absent of nearly any absinthe flavor, the quintessential part of the cocktail, in my opinion. Today the Roosevelt is better known for its Ramos Gin Fizz, another NOLA classic.

040 300x225 Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New OrleansVieux Carre
3/4 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz Cognac
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1 tsp Benedictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

On the rocks with a lemon twist.

This is very close to the recipe that the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar — where this drink was invented — uses today. (Most others omit the Benedictine.) A powerful, bittersweet cocktail, the Vieux Carre (the French name for the French Quarter) makes for a near-perfect digestif, all the better while sitting at the Carousel… which actually rotates 4 times an hour as you sip your beverage.

032 300x225 Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New OrleansFrench 75
1.5 oz cognac
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp simple syrup
Champagne

Briefly hake the first three ingredients and strain into a tulip glass. Top with Champagne and a lemon twist.

This is the recipe used at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. Arnaud’s didn’t invent the French 75 — but it’s become an iconic drink in NOLA either way. (It’s also one of the most refined, service-oriented bars in town.) I really love this cocktail, but there are myriad ways to make it… many of which use gin instead of cognac.

062 225x300 Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New OrleansHurricane
2 oz light rum
2 oz dark rum
2 oz passion fruit juice
2 oz pineapple juice
2 tsp lime juice
1 tablespoon grenadine

Mix in a Hurricane glass (what else) and serve on the rocks with an orange slice and a cherry.

OK, that’s a legit Hurricane, and as with many Tiki-style drinks, recipes vary far and wide. Just reading that recipe makes my yearn for the beach. Sadly, you won’t get that cocktail anywhere in New Orleans, especially not at Pat O’Brien’s, where it was invented. Sadly, this bar, just steps from Bourbon Street, is now focused on pushing out huge quantities of crude, Frankenhurricanes in plastic cups (see photo), designed to get you sloshed on the cheap. Pat-O’s, as it’s known, doesn’t even pretend any more, listing the official recipe of this Kool-Aid-like concoction in the brochure it places on the bar here as such:

Pat O’Brien’s World Famous Hurricane
4 oz. Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Rum
4 oz. Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix

A souvenir glass is 3 bucks. Popcorn is free, though!

Fortunately you can still make a good Hurricane for yourself… at home.

071 300x225 Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New OrleansDoctor’s Orders
2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
1/2 oz white creme de cacao
a few dashes Benedictine

Shake over ice and strain into a coupe.

And now for something new. Bartending legend Chris McMillan made me this cocktail at Kingfish on my last night in NOLA, asking what I liked to drink and whipping this up on a whim. (The measurements are estimates on my part.) This chocolatey-vanilla-honey drink hits on all cylinders, and it’s almost embarrassingly easy to make. Give it a go in your home bar and take the credit.

California Wines: Page, Revolver, Mumm, Miraflores

I’ve spent more time than usual in various wine regions in Northern California, and I figured I’d put all my tasting notes into one post. Page Wine Cellars is a boutique winery in Yountville that also sells under the Revolver label. Miraflores is based in El Dorado — up in the Sierra Nevada foothills — where it produces quite the bevy of wines (we didn’t taste about a third of those available).

Finally, there’s mega-sparkling outfit Mumm (“You can get a whole bunch of Mumm’s.”), which surprised me with some really exemplary wines. Mumm may have the reputation of a budget, grocery store-friendly winery, but it has quite a range of wines that deserve another look.

Tasting notes follow.

Tasting Report: Semi-Random Wines of Northern California

2010 Page Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc / $25 / A- / peppery finish

2010 Page Wine Cellars Proprietary Red / $60 / B / Cabernet blend

2009 Revolver Wine Co. “The Fury” Cabernet Franc / $50 / B / pepper and plum

2009 Revolver Wine Co. “Forsaken” Petite Verdot / $50 / B+ / really juicy, pepper, cocoa

NV Revolver Wine Co. “Redemption” Petite Sirah / $NA / B+ / jammy

2010 Miraflores Chardonnay / $21 / B / big oak, butterscotch

2008 Miraflores Muscat Canelli / $15 / B+ / peaches, orange blossoms

2009 Miraflores Barbera / $23 / B-

2006 Miraflores Zinfandel / $22 / B+ / juicier, chocolate

2007 Miraflores Zinfandel / $25 / B+ / good body, licorice finish

2008 Miraflores Zinfandel / $25 / A- / more fruity, fig, currant

2005 Miraflores Syrah / $30 / B+

2006 Miraflores Syrah / $25 / B / hefty, drying finish

2007 Miraflores Syrah / $25 / B / very dry

2009 Miraflores Methode Ancienne Syrah / $30 / A- / more complexity, exciting finish

2008 Miraflores Botricelli / $40 / A / a Sauternes clone, not bad at all

NV Miraflores Principe Port / $24 / C

NV Miraflores Black Muscat / $40 / B- / astringent and medicinal

2009 Miraflores Zinfandel / $NA / B / more traditional Zin, jammy

2010 Miraflores Barbera (barrel sample) / $NA / B+ / big fruit

2010 Miraflores Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample) / $NA / B+ / jammy

NV Miraflores Angelica (pre-release) / $NA / B+ / fortified grape juice, almost; juicy raisin and cocoa powder character

2001 Mumm Napa DVX / $60 / A / crisp apple, lovely balance, lasting finish

2005 Mumm Napa DVX / $55 / B+ / ends with earth notes, somewhat less thrilling

2006 Mumm Napa DVX Rose / $65 / A / strawberries, cherries, lively fruit

NV Mumm Napa Brut Prestige “Extended Tirage” / $30 / B+ / long fruit character

2006 Mumm Napa Devaux Ranch / $36 / B+ / touch of sourness

NV Mumm Napa Brut Rose / $24 / B+

Travel Report: The Rheingau, Germany

Germany may be best known for its beer, but this is Old World wine country just like everywhere else in Europe. True, you won’t find classic reds here, but you will find some of the most vibrant white wines in the world on the western side of the country. This is the home of Riesling – both dry, table wine varieties and the super-sweet stuff… the kind that can age for dozens of years – if not a hundred or more (more on that later).

My recent visit to Germany took us in part to the Rheingau, one of the two major winemaking regions in Germany, the other being the somewhat better-known Mosel region, a bit to the north and west of the Rheingau, which is an easy drive from Frankfurt.

It’s called the Rheingau because it’s situated along the Rhine River, one of the most famous waterways in Europe. This wide expanse comes right up to the road the winds through the region. Hillside stretches up and away from the river, and vineyards crawl their way to the peaks along those slopes for miles, interrupted only by the impossibly quaint villages that dot the road along the way.

Our trip took us to two of those villages, to two wineries within. First stop: Prinz von Hessen, in the village of Johannisberg, where winemaker Dr. Clemens Kiefer tasted us through a range of Rieslings from everyday to the ultra-luxe sweet stuff, all mildly sweet and offering more earth tones than you’d expect from most Riesling we get here. Nothing, however, is more interesting, and more controversial, from Prinz von Hessen, than its “Dachsfilet” bottling, dach being a badger (a common wild animal in these parts) and filet being, of course, the best of the best. Von Hessen’s Dachsfilet (not sold in the U.S.) is unique in that it is in part fermented on the skins of the grapes – unheard of in Germany – which gives this wine quite a bit more body than the typical, highly acidic Rieslings of the region. Think of how Chardonnay’s creaminess is a counterpoint to Sauvignon Blanc – but while Dachsfilet retains the traditional flavors of Riesling, it becomes a different beast with that time on the skins.

After a beautiful lunch with Kiefer (one of the few times I got to eat fish during the entire trip), we headed a few km back toward Frankfurt and stopped in the village of Kiedrich to visit Weingut Robert Weil, a larger operation with unmistakeable baby-blue labels on its bottles. Here, our host Jochen Becker-Köhn took us into the (under expansion) cellars, and talked of trying Riesling from the early 1900s – black in color, but still sweet and alive. In our tasting of eight Robert Weil Rieslings, I found these wines almost as good, quality-wise, as the Prinz von Hessen offerings, but Weil’s 2007 “Gold Cap” Auslese, a private release unavailable for sale, was perhaps my favorite wine of the trip: Chewy, with massive honeycomb sweetness – but still that hint of earth – it was a phenomenal way to end the day trip to the Rheingau.

If you go: Getting to the Rheingau is very easy from Frankfurt, which is the main travel hub in Germany. Drive time from Frankfurt or nearby towns (we stayed in Kronberg, which was delightful) is about an hour, with about half of the driving on the Autobahn. Don’t expect much scenery during the winter months, but it’s compensated for with all the Christmas festivities going on in every village and city in the country. One final tip: Make sure you spring for the GPS unit for your car! Despite my fiancé speaking fluent German, we found it essential for getting around.

First image and map courtesy Prinz von Hessen.

Excuse Me, Do You Have Pussy in a Can?

Discovered this oddball energy drink at the train station in Munich. Turns out you can get away with a lot more here (of course) than you can in the U.S. I bought a can and frankly it’s not that bad. Flavored (strongly) with lychee, the exotic fruit drowns out the (all natural) active ingredients, including guarana, caffeine, ginseng, gingko, and some other stuff I can’t really read because it’s in German. Further analysis and commentary is left as an exercise for the reader. Additional reading: pussydrinks.ch

pussy Excuse Me, Do You Have Pussy in a Can?

Greetings from Frankfurt, Germany

I’m spending a week in southern Germany and just finished a wonderful meal with Lenz Moser of Laurenz V at the Schlosshotel in Kronberg. Check out what I encountered earlier today at Frankfurt’s mammoth Christmas fair. Anyone else ever seen this? Off to the Rheingau tomorrow!

jack daniels winter jack Greetings from Frankfurt, Germany

Tasting Report: Wines of Mendocino 2011

The weather’s been surprisingly delightful in Mendocino this fall, and a recent excursion to the coast brought not fog and drizzle but sunshine, warmth, and sea breezes. We took the opportunity to visit a number of wineries along the Mendo wine trail, finding some new Anderson Valley favorites in Phillips Hill’s lush Pinot Noirs, squirreled away in a quiet tasting room in the tiny town of Philo. Thoughts on other wines from this land of Pinot, unoaked Chardonnay, and a healthy number of German varietals follow.

2011 Mendocino Road Trip Tasting Notes

2009 Navarro Pinot Gris / $19 / B /

2009 Navarro Gewurztraminer / $19 / B /

2010 Navarro Riesling / $18 / B- /

2010 Navarro Edelzwicker / $13 / A- / my fave wine from Navarro, a lovely German style belnd

2009 Navarro Navarouge / $14 / B / licorice notes

2009 Navarro Pinot Noir / $19 / B / very dry

2007 Navarro Pinot Noir Methode a l’Ancienne / $29 / B+ /

2006 Navarro Cabernet Sauvignon / $29 / B / licorice again

2009 Navarro Gewurztraminer Late Harvest / $35 / A- / like peach pie

2006 Navarro Riesling Cluster Select Late Harvest (375ml) / $29 / B+ / honey and tea

2005 Scharfenberger Blanc de Blancs / $30 / B / big, yeasty

NV Scharfenberger Brut / $20 / B+ / more fruit, light bitterness on finish

NV Scharfenberger Rose / $25 / B+ / blackberry notes

NV Scharfenberger Extra Dry / $21 / B+ / light sweetness is nice

NV Scharfenberger Cremant / $25 / B- / cheesy character

2006 Scharfenberger Pinot Noir / $20 / B / past its prime

2007 Scharfenberger Syrah / $23 / A- / chewy, good fruit

2008 Scharfenberger Chardonnay / $16 / B+ / easy

NV Roederer Brut / $20 / A- / lots of fruit

NV Roederer Brut Rose / $27 / A- / lovely strawberry

2002 Roederer L’Ermitage Brut / $43 / B / tart, acidic and yeasty

2000 Roederer L’Ermitage Brut (magnum) / $90 / A / considerably better, creamy and balanaced

NV Roederer Extra Dry / $22 / A- / sweet finish, nice

2009 Roederer Rose of Pinot / $19 / B /

2007 Roederer Pinot Noir / $22 / B+ /

2008 Roederer Chardonnay / $18 / B /

2009 Goldeneye Chardonnay Migration / $30 / A- / figs and lemon

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir / $55 / A- / herbs and mint, easygoing

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Confluence Vineyard / $75 / A- / light body, quite similar to the blend

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard / $75 / B+ / tougher, great with cheese

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir The Narrows Vineyard / $75 / B+ / a bit unripe and heavy, needs time

2010 Phillips Hill Chardonnay / $30 / A- /

2010 Phillips Hill Gewurztraminer Valley Foothills / $18 / B+ / unusual, big acid and earth

2009 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Wiley Vineyard / $38 / A / great fruit here, Burgundy style earth

2009 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Boontling / $27 / B / some bitterness, tougher

2008 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Beeson Tree / $40 / B+ / from the Mendocino fire year, hugely smoky, like a Syrah

2008 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Oppenlander Vineyard / $38 / A- / mushrooms, good earth, nice fruit too

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Tips, Tricks, and Advice for the Traveler

In Kentucky, Bourbon is a religion. They have plenty of real religion here, too, but based on the statues, plaques, and other honorifics on every corner and wall, Bourbon is second only to Jesus.

Any whiskey fanatic owes it to himself to visit at some point America’s most hallowed home of the stuff: Bourbon country. And for three days I’ve been soaking up the angel’s share myself on a pilgrimage of sorts before heading back to California.

Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, but “Kentucky Bourbon” does. And in fact, 95 percent of America’s Bourbon is made here – in just nine distilleries situated between Louisville and Lexington. When you visit Bourbon country – affectionately known as “the Bourbon Trail” – you can stay in either hub. We picked Louisville, as the city’s a little bigger and more flights are available to the west coast.

If you’re planning a trip to the land of Bourbon, here are some things to think about before you go.

Bourbon country is quite a different experience than, say, visiting Napa’s wine country. In California, wineries number into the hundreds and you’ll find them located often just a few hundred yards from one another. You can spend all day visiting Napa wineries and never venture more than a few miles from your hotel.

In Kentucky you will need a car and you will be putting in two long days to cover the ground required if you want to see even six of the state’s nine distilleries. We did all nine (except one which isn’t open to visitors now) in two days, and if you’re dedicated and plan things right, you can do it too. Just prepare yourself for long treks, as getting from one to another usually means a drive of 20 minutes to an hour.

Driving in Kentucky can be confusing thanks to a dearth of signage and a wealth of two-lane country roads, but we managed the trip without just the map in the back of Bourbon Review magazine (a copy was in our hotel room), a printout of the KDA brochure, and an iPhone for use in a pinch. That said, pre-planning your trip with Google Maps or a GPS will probably cut down on the missed turns and the arguments over who doesn’t know where whom is going.

The good news: Most of the tours and tastings (yes, you get to sip Bourbon at every stop) are totally free, but you’ll need to time things carefully, as most tours start on the hour, and it can be tough (though not hard) to get a tasting if you don’t go on a tour. If you don’t have time to take a tour, just tell the visitor’s center staff and ask if you can have a nip or two solo or with another group. Make sure you know each distillery’s tour schedule well in advance. Calling ahead will help, too.

The distilleries can be neatly divided into two groups: Northeast (nearer Lexington) and Southwest (nearer Louisville). We did the four northeast ones – Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses – on day one; we did the five southwest ones – Jim Beam, Barton 1792, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark – on the second day. I’ll have comments about each later on.

To make the visit a little more interactive, the Kentucky Distillers Association has created a “passport” you can take with you on the Bourbon Trail. Only six distilleries are current members – Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers are currently not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t visit, and in fact you should, especially Buffalo Trace, which has arguably the most interesting tour in the state. Anyway, get the other six distilleries to stamp your passport, mail it in, and the KDA will send you a t-shirt for your efforts. (It’s a gimmick, sure, but a fun one.)

And so we get to the nine distilleries. I saw them all, one way or another, and while a few of my experiences were sometimes unique and (sorry, folks) unavailable to the non-media visitor, mostly I saw the same things you’ll see when you go. I hope that these comments will prepare you for the trip – and let you know where your tour time is the most wisely invested. They are presented in the order we visited them.

Buffalo Trace – It was an absolutely perfect first stop at this mega-brand which produces many hallowed Bourbons, including George T. Stagg, Blanton’s, and Sazerac. We prearranged to attend the “hard hat” group tour of this factory-like environment, which takes you much further into the production process than any other tour we experienced. How far? How about letting you dip your fingers into the mash fermentation tanks so you taste what pre-Bourbon is like? (I won’t spoil the surprise.) From watching the corn truck unload its haul to sipping white dog straight off the still, you’ll see it all – though if you want to see the barreling, warehousing, or bottling process you’ll need to take a different tour (which is not a problem; as most of the other distilleries focus on this part of the process the most heavily). Afterwards you’ll taste a few spirits. I nabbed an Eagle Rare Single Barrel, a great way to start the day. Call ahead and get on the “hard hat.”

Woodford Reserve – Kentucky’s smallest distillery and the heir to Maker’s Mark’s crown as the Bourbon with cachet. Woodford is a unique distillery in that everything is distilled in beautiful copper pots, and a tour will take you through some really beautiful buildings and grounds and may include a nuzzle by the distillery cat, said to be the reincarnation of the distillery’s original owner, Elijah Pepper. We had a wonderful and lengthy private tour that included some employees-only areas and a wealth of knowledge, but the group tours seemed just as thorough. Note: Woodford costs $5 to tour. Lunch is also available here (a rarity at distilleries).

Wild Turkey – We were late and a little lost and missed the tour at Wild Turkey, but the video we got to see instead was a nice intro to the brand’s six bottlings, which of course I’ve had many times. Wild Turkey is huge and has just opened a new distillery, which looks quite modernized compared to its old, mothballed facilities across the street. Very nice and generous folk in the visitor’s center.

Four Roses – Day one ended not with a whimper but a bang at Four Roses, where we spent nearly three hours on a private tour after everyone else had left for the day. A company rep took us through the distillery – which wasn’t actually running (note: many distilleries shut down during the summer months because the local stream or water source, used for cooling the mash, is too hot), showing off a mix of old school equipment and computerized operations. But the real fun came after, when we retired to the lab and sampled over a dozen whiskies from various Four Roses barrels and bottles – its 10 recipes are famous, and famously confusing – as well as Bourbons from competitors. The discussions we had about the history of distilling in Kentucky – and the corporate intrigue that goes on behind the scenes – was a real highlight of the trip.

Jim Beam – Day two began at the massive home of Kentucky’s top-selling Bourbon brand, but it’s also the home of some hot, premium brands like Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek. There’s more of a museum environment here than a factory one, and though we skipped this tour we took a spin around the grounds solo to see the sights. The receptionist said we should taste with a returning tour group, but a rather surly tour guide frowned on this, so we took off instead for the next appointment, sans whiskey.

Barton 1792 – Formerly Tom Moore Distillery, Barton has just re-opened a quaint visitor’s center and is relaunching tours now. Unlike most distilleries we visited, this one was virtually empty, and our group included only two other people on it. Barton’s stills weren’t running on this day, and while the tour had less depth than the others we visited, it was a quick one and a good introduction to the brand, culminating in a taste of Very Old Barton ($7.50 a bottle at the local drugstore!) and 1792 whiskeys.

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers – A bit of a cult distillery – Willett, Noah’s Mill, and many other artisan brands are made here – but KBD was clearly not prepared for visitors when we pulled up to its under-construction grounds and a few pairs of skeptical eyes. We high-tailed it out to our next stop pretty quickly. I know KBD has been open in the past and may be open for tours again in the future.

Maker’s Mark – Owing to its location, normally this would be the natural last stop on the trail due to its distant location, but a later appointment at Heaven Hill made this diversion a better fit, time-wise. Maker’s Mark is an anarchic zoo of a distillery, its legions of stroller-pushing fans clamoring to wander the (quite lovely) grounds and dip their own bottles of Maker’s in red wax. We skipped the tour and crashed the tasting area (both original Maker’s and Maker’s 46 are offered) after having lunch at the on-site café.

Heaven Hill – Our last stop looked like a bust as I had goofed up our appointment and the place was packed with visitors, but while waiting I got to listen in on a group tour of the huge “Heritage Center” that takes you deep into the origins of Bourbon on the frontier. (Additional tour options are also available; two are free but a three-hour “deep dive” into whiskeymaking will run you 25 bucks.) There are literally tons of awesome memorabilia here, and you can easily take it in by yourself – but you’ll need to get on a tour if you want to taste, and Heaven Hill gives you some good stuff, including old Elijah Craig and/or single-barrel Evan Williams. We pulled some strings and got into the really good stuff, including Rittenhouse Rye, two wonderful Parker’s Heritage Collection whiskeys, the burly and heavily-wooded Evan Williams 23 Year Old (available only in Japan and one shop in London), and finishing off with perhaps the best Bourbon I’ve ever sampled, the $500-a-bottle William Heavenhill, an 18-year-old single barrel that’s simply outrageous in its goodness. Heaven Hill has about a dozen bottles left at the distillery if you want one.

And that’s it! Kentucky’s friendly residents do everything they can to make the Bourbon Trail experience fun and interesting, and we found everyone to be welcoming and gracious hosts for all of our visits. No doubt you will too.

One final note: If you’re staying in Louisville, don’t miss the companion Urban Bourbon Trail, which invites you to visit six bars that each offer dozens of Bourbons. Similar to the regular Bourbon Trail, if you get six stamps from any of the 14 bars included on the trail, you’ll get another t-shirt… and you’ll see plenty of history and probably find tons of whiskeys you’ve never heard of along the way.

Bring on the photos… apologies for the massive volume of them. Many/most of these pictures courtesy Susanne Bergstrom.

 

 

Tasting Report: Argyle Winery

A recent trip to Oregon took us down to the Willamette Valley, where we had the chance to visit, well, one of the few wineries that was open on New Year’s Eve: the celebrated Argyle.

Tasting through several sparklers, whites, and Pinots and found that Argyle is still making some classic Oregon wines. Notes follow.

Argyle Winery Tasting Report

2007 Argyle Brut / $27 / A- / big and very fizzy

2007 Argyle Black Brut / $30 / C- / sparkling (red) pinot noir, not my bag

2000 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut / $60 / A / impressive, creamy and austere, nice to see what age can do on domestic sparkling wine

2007 Argyle Nuthouse Chardonnay / $33 / B / very buttery, oaky, with a melon finish

2006 Argyle Spirithouse Chardonnay / $50 / B+ / a touch more acid here, still big butter tone

2008 Argyle Riesling / $18 / B- / a bit funky

2008 Argyle Reserve Pinot Noir / $40 / B / very young, a little tannin here, finish is lacking

2007 Argyle Nuthouse Pinot Noir / $50 / A / perfect structure, rich cherry fruit

2008 Argyle Minus Five / $30 / B+ / a late harvest riesling, unremarkable

argylewinery.com

Argyle wines Tasting Report: Argyle Winery

Tasting Report: Wines of Madonna Estate

Madonna Estate is very centrally located between Sonoma and Napa — it’s one of those wineries you pass by a thousand times when you’re driving through the wine country, but you never stop there.

I finally did on a recent drive in the area and tasted their wines, the vast majority of which are grown with estate fruit and are reasonably priced.

Madonna Estate Wines

2009 Madonna Estate Pinot Grigio / $27 / B / tough, bitter edge, organic

2008 Madonna Estate Chardonnay / $27 / C+

2007 Madonna Estate Pinot Noir / $30 / B / oaky on the finish

2006 Madonna Estate Barbera / $35 / B+ / smoky and tannic

2007 Madonna Estate Dolcetto / $35 / B- / huge and robust

2005 Madonna Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / $32 / A- / smoother, with some pepper notes

2004 Madonna Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve / $50 / A- / really big, very different than the estate Cab; a cellaring wine

2009 Madonna Estate Gewurztraminer / $20 / B

2009 Madonna Estate Muscat Canelli / $23 / B+

madonnaestate.com

What Wineries to Visit in Sonoma County

Yesterday I offered some of my favorite Napa-area wineries to visit during wine country vacations. Today I turn my attention to nearby Sonoma.

Sonoma is a trickier area to visit because it is much larger and is split in two by a huge freeway. Touring this area takes longer than Napa, so keep that in mind when planning your trip. Try splitting the area into north and south regions to make things simpler.

Drinkhacker’s Top Sonoma Valley Wineries Worth Visiting (in alphabetical order)

B.R. Cohn – Owned by a former Doobie Brother.

Chateau St. Jean – Hit the reserve room, then the deli.

Cline – One of the first wineries you hit coming into the area. Feed the fish out back.

Eric Ross

Ferrari-Carano

Hanna

J Wine – Sparklers usually come with canapes.

La Crema – An easy stop if you’re in the Healdsburg town square.

Lambert Bridge – Again, go for the reserve tasting, which comes with a cheese plate.

Little Vineyards – Perhaps the smallest tasting room you’ll ever enter.

Longboard – Open late, so easy to hit for a last stop.

Loxton

Matanzas Creek – A bit out of the way, but worth it.

Quivira – Goats plus good wine.

Ravenswood – You’ll be surprised how many varieties of zin they have that don’t appear at your grocery store. Always have gifts for the kids, too.

Rosenblum – Another Healdsburg plaza winery, easy to hit up.

Sunce – Bocce court out back.

VJB Cellars – In the process of moving, I believe.

Get Napa Wineries to Visit advice here.

What Wineries to Visit in Napa County

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Readers and friends regularly ask when traveling to California’s wine country, what wineries should I make a point to visit?

Not a bad question. There are lots of dull wineries not worth your time — or your (sometimes expensive) tasting fees. There are also many hidden gems worth seeking out but which don’t make much of an impression in the big guidebooks you’ll find.

So, with that in mind, here are my (completely subjective) picks for Napa’s best and most interesting wineries to visit.

Oh, and please note — though I’ve spent countless days in the wine country, I haven’t been to every winery (there are hundreds), and many of Napa’s best wineries don’t operate visitor centers open to the public. I’m avoiding to some extent wineries that require reservations to visit; I know how wine country touring goes. I’m also including Carneros here, which is between Sonoma and Napa but usually “on the way” from San Francisco.

How to find all these places? If you don’t have a map, grab a copy of “Wine Country This Week,” a free magazine available at many wineries in the area. Their maps are stellar and cover the whole of California’s winegrowing regions.

Drinkhacker’s Top Napa Valley Wineries Worth Visiting (in alphabetical order)

Artesa – Postmodern facility built into a hillside in Carneros.

Beaulieu (BV) – Go straight to the reserve room, which is in its own building.

Casa Nuestra – Call ahead and ask to feed the goats.

Chateau Montelena – A piece of Napa history.

Clos du Val – Humble, solid wines.

Corison

Darioush – The most ostentatious winery — built with imported stone — in all of Napa.

Domaine Carneros – Midway between Sonoma and Napa, this classic French chateau offers fine pinots, sparklers, and cheese pairings.

Flora Springs

Folio Winemakers’ Studio – Carneros tasting room with several smaller labels, many of which are very good. Vintage tractor out front.

Freemark Abbey

Heitz – A Napa classic.

Joseph Phelps

Luna Vineyards

Opus One – Second-most ostentatious winery in the county. A landmark.

Pine Ridge – Always something interesting being poured.

Prager Port Works – Fortify your liver first.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – Expensive tasting fee, but usually worth it.

V. Sattui – More for the deli (which is amazing) than the wine, though some good stuff is often being poured.

Vintners Collective – Another multi-label wine room, in an ancient building surviving in downtown Napa.

Got your own top Napa picks? Add them in the comments!

Coming tomorrow: Top Sonoma Wineries to Visit.