Sunday, March 28, 2010

What A Shameless Hussy!

For several months now, I've been on this relentless quest to learn everything I can about the wine industry in the state of Washington. I am planning on paying Washington a little visit in June via the North American Wine Bloggers Conference. There is so much to know--so many unknown little family wineries, so much history, so many beautiful places to visit. Instead of being overwhelmed, I plan on being prepared so I can embrace all of this.

Did the title of this post capture your attention? Well, it certainly did mine, thanks to a really nice winemaker I met on Facebook, Don Phelps. Don is the owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, in Manson, near Lake Chelan. Need a geography lesson? Located in north central Washington, the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area is the newest AVA and is an exciting place for recreation and for wineries. Play on words aside, this winery is one of the most popular and highly rated wineries to visit in Washington state! All the fan photos and reviews I have seen on their Facebook page and other sites prove this! Everyone is having fun and that's how it should be! Recently, I took part in a live Twitter event called #WAMerlot and Don was nice enough to send me a bottle of the 2007 Shameless Hussy Merlot to sample during the event. If these funny titles are intriguing you, please keep reading...

The label on the bottle was very interesting. The "Shameless Hussy" refers to the women of the night who moved into the area in the 1930s and offered their "services" to the miners who worked in the nearby copper mines. The old hotel they were based in is pictured on the label and the women are standing in the windows. In order to get to the hotel, which was anchored on the lake at Point Lovely, the miners would take the "Rowboat Taxi Service"--the only means of transportation. The cork in the bottle pays tribute to the rowboat. Where is all of this leading, you ask? The winery is appropriately named "Hard Row to Hoe". You can figure it out... Get it?

OK, now on to the wine...Hard Row to Hoe is a working winery, meaning all the wine is made on the premises although they source their grapes from several sources. The grapes for the 2007 Shameless Hussy Merlot were sourced from Wahluke Slope's Riverbend Vineyard, one of the warmest grape growing regions in the state, allowing for low acidity and rich flavors to come through. This is a small case production wine (175 cases) as are all of their wines. One sip and you will understand why this winery has such a following. A gold medal winner at the Tri-Cities Wine Competition recently, the Shameless Hussy has everything I love in a Merlot and more... It is round and voluptuous, with slightly firm tannins and a ton of flavor--big juicy dark cherries, blackberries, dark chocolate, a little bit of smoke and toasted oak. The dark and mysterious colors and flavors stem from the inclusion of 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. It has the quintessential smooth finish and becomes even more rich and flavorful as it opens up and develops. To sell this wine at the low, low bargain price of $20.00 is a mind blower! It drinks like it has a higher price ticket therefore leading to the old saying that wine does not have to be expensive to be great!

Hard Row to Hoe has a great website where this wine and others can be purchased directly, I am looking forward to meeting Don Phelps in person for the first time the evening before the conference when I attend a private event he is hosting. I warned him I may be late for the event but after sampling the wine, I will be running to this event with my track shoes on! Wish me luck!!

I'd like to thank Don for allowing me to officially "Tweet" about the Shameless Hussy Merlot! I had a wonderful time doing it. Til June...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cleavage Creek Makes A Difference

Breast Cancer. Such unpleasant words. In some way or another, we are all affected by it--whether we know someone who is a survivor-a friend or loved one-or have lost someone to this dreaded disease. I, personally, lost a good friend to the fight in recent years. When Cleavage Creek Winery came to me and asked me to sample wines, I said "YES!" They are out there making a difference! I wanted to support them and let the public know about their cause...

What are Cleavage Creek wines and why should you be aware of them? Cleavage Creek wines are the brainchild of Lake County, California winemaker Budge Brown. I knew he sounded familiar. I have been a longtime fan of Tulip Hill Winery--his winery based in Lake County. Budge lost his wife of 48 years to breast cancer in 2005 and in her memory, he started Cleavage Creek Winery. 10% of the proceeds from wine sales go to breast cancer research. So far, he has donated in excess of $70,000. In addition to this, the winery has made many charitable contributions--one of the largest being a $40,000 grant to help establish the Bastyr University Integrated Oncology Research Clinic in Kenmore, Washington.

After speaking to Cleavage Creek Winery on Twitter, I received samples of two of their wines, some pamphlets and some fun swag (I love swag)--a Cleavage Creek corkscrew and a pink luggage tag! I couldn't wait to sample them!

The 2007 Tracy Hills Reserve Chardonnay (retail $18.00)--This was a complete surprise because it was the most unusual take on Chardonnay I'd ever tried. I'm used to tropical Chardonnays, which this was definitely tropical (the pineapple and coconut were prominent) but it had this orange-mandarin twist I wasn't expecting. Very different, but refreshing and delicious! Hailing from one of the newest AVAs (American Viticultural Area), the Tracy Hills AVA is part of both San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County, both in the Central Valley of California. Budge Brown owns a vineyard there on Mount Oso--and petitioned for this newest AVA. The label(as every label does) features a breast cancer survivor/model. I think it's a wonderful concept. What a great way to celebrate! I have a beautiful friend who is currently battling the disease and I let her know I want to see her on a label! The power of positive thinking and hope...

The other wine I sampled was the 2007 Tracy Hills Merlot-Shiraz, a nice blend of 33% Merlot and 67% Shiraz, all hailing from that same vineyard on Mount Oso. Very pleasant, smooth and flavorful, it was redolent of full berry flavor (raspberry, blackberry) and spice, but not jammy. Very easy to enjoy. $18.00.

This winery has a fantastic, very informative There you can find information on the wines, the story behind each model/survivor on the labels, information about the proceeds and where they go. You can purchase the wines on the site as well. Anyone who is in the Des Moines area and would be interested in learning more, I have pamphlets I can pass on to you if you want to contact me at

I truly believe Cleavage Creek Winery is making a difference and I want to thank Budge Brown and his winery team for making me aware of these awesome efforts! Thanks for making some really great wines and helping those in need. You are truly touching each and every one of us!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Peju Experience

In the Napa Valley, as you drive north on Highway 29 near Rutherford, you will spot an absolutely beautiful place on the right hand side of the road. Everything about this place will make you want to turn into the driveway, get out of the car and look around. The winery is called Peju. A stunning homage to French provincial architecture, it has everything you would want all rolled in to a package that is easy on the eyes and the palate. Just one visit will make you come back to it again and again...

After seeing a photo of the winery at a local wine store, I made a decision to visit them during my first and second trips to the Napa Valley. Everything was beautiful about the place--from the perfectly landscaped grounds, to the interesting artwork sculptures that line the property, to the winery building itself complete with a fifty foot tower (pictured above). Inside, there is a colorful stained glass mural, two well-designed tasting rooms decorated with artwork and other items for purchase.

Each time I visit, I still marvel and how this place came to be. All that Peju is and stands for is a dream come true story for Tony and Herta Peju, a Los Angeles couple who shared a vision and passion for art and culture. They dreamed big and slowly made owning this winery a reality. Starting out with a small floral shop in southern California, they began searching the area for a bigger property. Eventually, a visit to the Napa Valley in the 1980s brought to light thirty acres of prized land. Tony decided to become a winemaker, attending UC Davis to hone his skills. Initially, in order to establish himself, he began conducting wine tastings and selling wine out of his garage. The wines received critical acclaim, however he didn't have the cash flow to build the winery yet and this met with much resistance from the law. Eventually, Tony went to court to establish that he could indeed continue holding these "garage" tastings and he won his case. The case was instrumental in defining the meaning of a "winery" in Napa County. It paved the way for other wineries to be able to this also. Since then, Tony and his family (which includes their two daughters, Lisa and Ariana, both involved in the business) have built a spectacular winery. It is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest wineries I've ever seen. Their attention to detail, whether it be with the landscaping, architecture, artwork or the wines is impeccable. Over the years, Peju has become one of the top California Cabernet producers, earning a spectacular amount of accolades along the way.

The second time I visited, I had the chance to chat with their Communications Coordinator, Katie Lewis Vandermause. She was really great and gave my group a walking tour of the grounds, the tasting room and the barrel room. What else can I do but mention their excellent customer service! If you are there to do a tasting, I recommend you spend some time watching the musical show their wine pourer, Alan Arnopole, puts on in the tasting room. His homage to Peju and Napa Valley has been talked about in the media and is a real treat! This is a total package for a winery named "Artisan Winery Of The Year" by Wine & Spirits Magazine.

But what about the wines? Once you get past the beauty of this place, you will taste the wines and realize they are just as great as you thought they would be! That's how I felt when I did both my winery tastings and recently again when I had the opportunity to taste three of their current releases, sent to me as samples. In coordination with the latest tasting, Katie arranged for me to speak with their winemaker, Sara Fowler, via cell phone. Sara and I had a pleasant conversation during which I asked her many simple but introspective questions, bringing me into her winemaking world, albeit for a short time. Since I'm not a technical writer, I wanted to put myself in her shoes for a day and see what it was like...

Sara Fowler has been with Peju since the Summer of 2006 and her winemaking skills are starting to come to life as some of her own are now being released. In keeping with the Peju tradition of excellence, she brings to her winemaking a passion for Bordeaux varietals, innovative creativity (creating new and interesting wines) and the knowledge and experience of a seasoned winemaker. Sara began her road to winemaking with family experience as she grew up around farming. However, she initially chose a different path and studied art. But it was not to be. Changing her mind and looking to the future, she looked at winemaking and began her journey by working at Kendall-Jackson and studying enology at Fresno State University. Her impressive resume includes associate winemaker positions with Franciscan and Mt. Veeder wineries, working with Veramonte in Chile and working with world-renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland. At Peju, she is committed to helping the winery receive organic certification as well as overseeing the sustainable farming practices of several of their vineyards. She sometimes puts in 12+ hour days in the vineyards all while juggling a schedule of speaking engagements, training, traveling, hosting wine dinners and most importantly, being a Mom to two sons. She does it all! Will she ever want to stop doing this? She doesn't see retirement on the horizon because this is her labor of love! The owners have empowered her to make the best wines she can make and many of the decisions are her own. Well-deserved. I know she will continue to make excellent wines for Peju for many years to come!

But what about those wines? I'm finally getting to that! Here are some recommendations based on what I sampled recently. All the samples I received were current vintages and handcrafted by Sara Fowler.

The 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is most enjoyable! Fresh key lime, lemongrass, exotic fruits and thyme spiciness dominate the flavors. It's a little burst of "Ooh La La!" and the perfect accompaniment to any seafood dish or light salad. An award winner, this delectable wine sells for $22.00.

2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc--What can I say? After I am finished drooling over the fact that they make a Cabernet Franc, I am highly recommending this one. 84% Cabernet Franc and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, it is plummy, full of chocolate, coffee, and toasty vanilla. It is amazing! This wine will turn anyone into a Cabernet Franc lover! $45.00.

And now for a very unique wine... The Peju Provence. A non-vintage blend of white and red varietals (Chardonnay, French Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel), it is strawberry-rhubarb heaven served chilled. This would be the perfect Summer sipper on your patio. I love it! $22.00

Sara also makes some wines that are her own creations, such as 50/50-a unique blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In recognition of Breast Cancer research she does Peju Pink, a proprietary blend. So many great wines to taste! The wines are available on their website at I would like to thank Katie for her friendship and for giving me the opportunity to speak with Sara. I hope to meet Sara in person during my next visit! If you are in the Napa Valley, please make a stop there and find the magic that is Peju. The grounds will mesmerize you, their hospitality will delight you and the wines will entice you! I can't wait to visit them again and again!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bring On The (Washington) Semillon!

I recently had a strange flashback to the year 2000. Back then, I was near the beginning of my wine education and would attend these weekly tastings around town. I would taste the wines and like many of the others in the room, I would leave learning nothing. Some of the people pouring the wines were just as clueless as me. The blind leading the blind. I got tired of feeling defeated so that same year, in the dead of winter, I decided to start furthering my wine education by taking a class offered by a local wine shop. The class was "Bordeaux." I remember arriving and wondering if I would be the only person there that evening. It was snowing hard, but back then I was fearless-- a little snow would hardly stand in the way of my learning all there was to know about Bordeaux. (Disclaimer: After enduring many years of bad winters, I no longer do silly things like drive 10 miles during a blizzard warning to go wine tasting but looking back, while I did not learn everything there was to know about Bordeaux, I do have a wonderful wine education to show for it!) Eventually, a few more people showed up and it ended up being myself and four much older gentlemen, a wheel of Maytag Blue cheese and several bottles of Bordeaux. We sampled whites, reds and dessert wines. The white wine was Chateau Carbonnieux, one of the most revered and splendid white Bordeaux bottles on this planet. Believe it or not, I don't remember the vintage, but the way it made me feel the moment I took in the aroma on the nose is something for the memory books. I will never forget how my head just wanted to explode! Just picture a Warner Brothers cartoon and the character that gets hit over the head and has bells clanging all over the screen. That was me! I somehow was carried off this planet and into a new universe! It was my defining moment...

I had that moment again and again several weeks ago when I sampled two very unique wines from Washington state. It must be the Semillon...

Semillon. The casual wine drinker will say, "What the heck is that?" Well, I'm here to tell you that if you are not drinking Semillon, either straight up or as a blend with Sauvignon Blanc, you are missing out on a great experience, my friends! Sixty years ago, Semillon was the most widely planted white wine grape in the world. Nowadays, it is not as widely produced which I believe is the reason why there isn't much of a choice out there (especially here in the US) of wines made either of this grape alone or as a blend with Sauvignon Blanc. When blended with Sauvignon Blanc, it gives the wine a little more luscious oomph--a taste of honey.

The two wines I recently sampled are from opposite ends of Washington state. The first was the 2008 Andrew Will Cuvee Lucia Velvet Canyon. After seeing the movie "Merlove," I contacted Andrew Will Winery to let them know how much I enjoyed watching their winemaker, Chris Camarda in the film. They e-mailed me back and the next thing you know, a box of wine samples arrived. This wine is phenomenal and has easily become a favorite of mine. In a nutshell, I have to have some more! The winery is located on Vachon Island, near Seattle. The wine is composed of 50% Semillon/50% Sauvignon Blanc (all Columbia Valley fruit) but it is a unique animal! Luscious, round, juicy. Like sinking your teeth into a ripe white peach dipped in honey. It was playful and just amazing! And clanging bells? They were everywhere! I jumped for joy. This wine literally blew my head off, as I've told the folks over at Andrew Will. It sells for about $25 and it is worth every penny and more.

The next wine is the 2008 Luminesce by L'Ecole No. 41, a winery near Walla Walla. This wine arrived at my house as part of a myriad of nice samples the winery sent me recently. It is the more serious counterpart to the one I just spoke about. And I say serious because it is completely different in taste and texture but equally as enticing! The "Luminesce" is made up of 70% Semillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc, all Walla Walla Valley fruit from the Seven Hills Vineyard. It was bright and fruit-forward, full of melon and citrus with a crisp, mineral finish. The bells were clanging again. $19 at the winery. I'm telling you, it's the Semillon! L'Ecole No. 41 also does do a Semillon straight up and I am looking forward to hopefully trying that sometime! All in all, this was yet another mind-blowing experience. All I want to do is sit down and breathe in the aroma of these two wines and sigh!

These wines are available through the wineries' websites, and I have a new best friend. His name is Semillon. I'm so glad I found him!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wine And Horse Lovers--This One Is For You!

How many of you love horses? Horses are great. I work with someone who is so passionate about horses that I get to hear about horses as much as she gets to hear about my passion for wine. Now, how many of you love wine? (That was a silly question. You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't love wine!) I never fathomed that I would be able to find a story that would connect the two together. I know it sounds strange, but I was able to do this and the story is one of champions-- a champion by the name of Seabiscuit. Surely, unless most of you have been living under a rock, you may have heard of the legendary horse named Seabiscuit at some point in your lifetimes. OK, so I know you are asking yourselves, "What is she going on about now? How does this horse have anything to do with wine?" The answer is simple.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman by the name of Walter Dreyer. He is the owner of Dreyer Wines, LLC. He was a very nice, older gentleman with many stories to tell. I could've spent hours listening to him if it weren't for the hundred other people who wanted to ask him questions also. Walter is passionate about wine. He represents several brands of wines, including Dreyer Sonoma, Il Cuore, Compass, Solitude Wines and a very special brand called Seabiscuit Ranch.

"Savor The Legend" is the motto for Seabiscuit Ranch wines. Let's start with a little geography lesson. Just where do these wines come from? The Seabiscuit Ranch is located 20 miles from the Mendocino coastline in Northern California---1000 feet up on steep slopes of the Pacific Coastal Mountain Range. The vineyards are tended to by hand, using sustainable farming practices. The location offers the optimum scenario for complex and well-balanced wines to be produced. The vineyards are part of the Ridgewood Ranch, which was purchased in the mid-1920s by Seabiscuit's original owner, Charles Howard. He and his wife used the ranch as a refuge to spend peaceful times in the country. Seabiscuit, their race horse, triumphed to set track records in the 1940s and became a legendary racehorse in his time. They retired him to the ranch where his memory now inspires the winemaking team to create legendary wines!

I had the chance to sample two of the three Seabiscuit Ranch Wines that are currently available to the general public. The first of which was the 2007 Seabiscuit Ranch Chardonnay. This wine was amazingly rich and full-bodied. Very round mouthfeel with tropical notes and buttery finish! At around $23, this wine scores big with myself and would be loved by any wine lover who prefers a buttery, rich Chardonnay experience.

The second wine I sampled was the 2006 Seabiscuit Ranch Trifecta. Another fabulous Bordeaux-style blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc), this is their proprietary wine. Rich dark berries, chocolate, a bit of tobacco. The nose on this wine was so terrific, I would have been content just smelling it all night! Really dreamy stuff with a very long finish! At $28 a bottle, it's the deal you can't beat!

After speaking to Walter for quite awhile, I was also able to sample a few of the other wines he represents, including another Chardonnay that I was crazy for and will blog about in a future installment! These wines are available on the Seabiscuit Ranch website, or if you happen to be fortunate enough to live near the Sonoma Valley, you may sample these wines at the Sonoma-Enoteca tasting room in downtown Sonoma. You may also find these wines in your local specialty wine shops. They're such a find! I would suggest to everyone to seek these out so you can savor the legend for yourselves!