The Comstock Experience

Turning into the entrance of Comstock Wines, I noticed The Residence at Comstock Wines behind the winery. I had been looking forward to this two-day getaway for months, especially after having a tough January with the death of my mother and off and on respiratory illness.

I met the concierge, Erin, in the winery, and then I followed her to the residence to check in and get my key. She gave me a rundown of how everything worked and gave me a brief tour of the residence. I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of spending two days here. If there had been food, I would have never left. I kept thinking I should have stopped at a grocery store on the way. However, that would have been too much work. I was here to relax and take in the experience.

After Erin left, I was the only one at the residence as the other guests were out, so I took the opportunity to take photos. My master bedroom was beautifully decorated and included a fireplace, a sitting area, a work desk, and a welcome bottle of wine.

I have a thing for bathrooms and bathroom fixtures and the one that was a part of my master bedroom was nothing short of amazing, with both a spa bath and a separate shower. Similar to a high-end hotel, amenities such as a hair dryer, toiletries, and luxurious towels were included.

I ventured into the shared living spaces, the living room, the kitchen, and the media room on the second floor. The spaces were bright, modern, and spacious, with lots of natural light. They were impeccably clean, furnished, and meticulously well appointed.

Since I did not have food to prepare, I had asked Erin for dinner recommendations. Being the consummate concierge, she was a wealth of information and delighted to assist me. I told her I wanted something less expensive and touristy, so she directed me to Campo Fina, where I was able to sit at the bar in the patio outside and eat without a reservation. There, I enjoyed people watching and found something delicious and healthy to eat on the menu, Nonna’s Tomato Braised Chicken with sautéed Swiss chard and polenta, and splurged on a house cocktail, Plush, with Calle 23 Tequila Reposado, agave, pomegranate seeds, and Meyer lemon and lime juice.

After dinner, I walked to John & Zeke’s Bar, a local hangout, where the patrons had been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since early morning. I had a half of a pint of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA. I debated staying longer, but the sun was setting and the residence was calling.

I arrived back to the residence just in time to enjoy a beautiful display of Mother Nature’s glory, a cloud-laden sky at dusk. The only light in the middle of the impending darkness was the orange glow of the residence. I walked the perimeter of the property, snapping photos right and left. I didn’t want to go inside, but I also didn’t want to unexpectedly stumble upon vineyard creatures of the night.

Then I remembered the fireplace! It was chilly, but not cold, probably not really cold enough for the fireplace, but I wanted to use it. I sat for hours in front of it, mesmerized by its light and warmth. Finally, I settled into one of the plush beds in my room and slept uninterrupted until daylight.

I awakened and decided to explore outdoors as well as get in a workout. Although it was damp, overcast, and cool, I covered most of the property, getting in about two miles of walking, running, and photos over the course of a few hours.

2017-03-18 14.04.37

I needed to grab lunch somewhere, so I messaged a friend of mine to ask for a recommendation and he sent me to Taqueria El Sombrero, a local favorite since 1986, which was a perfect choice: plentiful, yummy, and inexpensive. I had the huevos rancheros, which was way more than one person could eat.

Back at Comstock, I joined winemaker Chris Russi for a tasting prior to the annual winemaker dinner that evening. I have written about that tasting experience for another outlet, American Winery Guide (to be published soon), so I will not say anything more at this point other than it was splendid. I felt like I had made a new friend, not just tasted with a winemaker.

After the tasting, I had about 30 minutes to get ready for the winemaker dinner. I was told to wear cocktail attire, so I wore a new Ralph Lauren dress with black boots, which turned out to be perfect for the evening.

I joined the other dinner guests in the tasting room, where we enjoyed Comstock’s 2015 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2016 Rosé, and 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir with passed appetizers. A few of the attendees noticed I was alone and introduced themselves to me.

Shortly thereafter, we gathered for a tour of the winery with Chris Russi, which led us from the tasting room, to the crush pad, to the production area, and finally to the barrel space where we would be dining.

The dinner itself was nothing short of fantastic. It included two dinner courses, a cheese course, and dessert, all paired with Comstock wines: the 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2014 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, and the 2016 Late Harvest Zinfandel. My favorite course of the night was the chardonnay with a Bodega Bay seafood chowder. The bright acidity and luscious mouthfeel of the chardonnay brought the creamy, rich chowder to life.

After dinner, I lingered to take photos. I met members of the Comstock family, including patriarch Bob Comstock. We hit it off so well that I have an open invitation to return soon.

When everyone had left except for some of the winery staff, I spent a few hours with them taking more photos and talking. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcomed by a winery family. The fact that they allowed me to stay with them as they cleaned up and prepared for the next day was a testament to their openness and gracious hospitality.

The next day, I didn’t want to leave. Erin allowed me to check out later than usual so I could enjoy the residence and winery a little longer. During these two days, I learned that Comstock Wines isn’t solely a great winery, but an all-inclusive wine destination experience that I will never forget. The residence, the hospitality, the winemaking, and the comradery are etched in my mind forever. After all, “we are all Comstock Wines.”

She Said, He Said: 2017 ZAP Zinfandel Experience

Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #31

*This post is my entry for Wine Writing Challenge #31, Faith, as described at this link.Voting begins March 7, 2017 and goes through Monday, March 13 at this link.*

She Said, He Said

Elizabeth (Beth) Smith: She Said

The definition of faith is primarily religious in nature. However these synonyms struck a chord with me – affection, allegiance, commitment, constancy, dedication, devotion – and convey precisely what I feel when I attend Zinfandel Advocates and Producers’ (ZAP) annual Zinfandel Experience Grand Tasting.

As I entered San Francisco’s Pier 27 gorgeous, bright event space and caught my first glimpse of what seemed like endless tables of zinfandel, I immediately felt the sense of faithful community that brings together zinfandel producers and lovers every year. The room buzzed with excitement as winemakers shared the labors of their love with hundreds of people. The enthusiasm for all things zinfandel was contagious. Soon, Tony Maass, my partner in wine, and I joined the comradery, moving from table to table. We originally had a plan to see certain producers, but soon we were roaming without a care, caught up in the gloriousness that is Zinfandel Experience.

Miro Cellars

With around 130 wineries in attendance, there is no way to taste everything, but we gave it our best effort. We enjoyed wines made by old friends and made some new friends along the way. Some of my favorites this year included Bedrock Wine Company, Beekeeper Cellars, Bella Grace Vineyards, Robert Biale Vineyards, Day Zinfandel, D-cubed Cellars, Elyse Winery, Fields Family Wines, Limerick Lane Wines, Miro Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars, Scribble Scribble Wine, Talty Winery, and Turley Wine Cellars.

Bedrock Wine Company

Bedrock Wine Company won me over with their sparkling zinfandel, my first, which was the perfect way to kick off the event. It was a reunion of sorts for me reconnecting with Bella Grace Vineyards and Fields Family Wines after spending time with them during the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi. Another reunion in the making was with D-cubed Cellars, whom I met and featured on my blog during the 2015 Zinfandel Experience, as well as Miro Cellars, whose winemaker, Miro Tcholakov, is also the winemaker at Trentadue Winery.

Tony Maas and Tres Goetting, Biale’s winemaker

Tony and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with Tres Goetting, winemaker at Robert Biale Vineyards, and Michael Talty, winemaker and founder of Talty Winery, who for me represented what makes zinfandel a world-class varietal wine.

Elyse Winery Korte Ranch Zinfandel

Both D-cubed Cellars and Elyse Winery brought wines from Korte Ranch in Saint Helena, which is adjacent to where I work at Ehlers Estate, so it was fun to taste wines made from our neighbor’s grapes to see how zinfandel does in the loamy benchland soils of the narrowest point between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains.

Limerick Lane Wines

I was especially enamored with new-to-me Limerick Lane Wines, who only produces wines from their estate, 30 acres, around 4500 cases. All are zinfandel-dominant field blends with grape varieties like alicante bouchet, carignane, mourvèdre, negrette, peloursin, petite sirah, and syrah. I love a winery that stays true to the land and the bounty provided to them.

Scribble Scribble Wines

Another up-and-coming producer that landed on my radar was Scribble Scribble Wine, the brainchild of winemaker and founder Dean Wilson. We tasted the evolution of his Lucille Zinfandel, named after his daughter, his inspiration: the 2014 current release vintage, as well as 2015 and 2016 barrel samples, and we knew we had tasted the work of a dreamer, a genius in the making.

Green and Red Vineyards

This year we had the chance to participate in two Meet the Maker roundtables, where attendees had the opportunity to spend 15-20 minutes with a participating winemaker. The first was Green and Red Vineyards’ winemaker Jay Heminway, who purchased 31 acres of land in the Chiles Valley AVA of the Napa Valley in 1970 and planted it in 1972, replanting again in 1993-1998. We tasted his 2014 Chiles Mill Vineyard Zinfandel. It was dark and dense, with pervasive blueberry and a warm, peppery finish.

Proulx Wines

The second roundtable was with winemaker Kevin Riley of Proulx Wines in Paso Robles. With Riley, we tasted two wines. His 2015 Zinfandel was unfiltered and unfined, cloudy in the glass, with loads of juicy, red fruit flavors. The 2014 Dimples, a 11-grape blend that included enough zinfandel to be ‘ZAP approved’, was what he called the ‘Châteauneuf’ of blends. In contrast to his zinfandel, this wine exhibited a much darker fruit and spice profile.

As the day grew longer and our palates grew fatigued, we concluded our Zinfandel Experience with Proulx Wines. However, we departed knowing in our hearts that the ‘zinfandel faith’ is alive and well, thanks to ZAP and its devoted members, who will ensure the constancy, vibrancy, and diversity that is California Zinfandel.


Bella Grace Vineyards Reserve Zinfandel

Tony Maass: He Said

On Saturday, February, 25, 2017, I was able to experience my first large comprehensive tasting of a single varietal. I was able to attend this amazing tasting thanks to Elizabeth Smith, aka Travel Wine Chick, who also works in Saint Helena at Ehlers Estate.

My first impression of the event was that it was massive. There were 130 different zinfandel producers and each of them brought several wines, so you can imagine the sheer size and depth of this event. It was at Pier 27 in San Francisco and it covered the entire second floor.

Beekeeper Cellars

Some of the standout producers and wines were:

Bedrock Wine Companies 2013 Under the Wire: Bedrock Vineyard Old Vine Sparkling Sonoma Valley and 2015 Heritage Vineyard Sonoma Valley

Beekeeper Cellars 2014 Monticello Vineyard Sonoma Valley and 2014 “Secret Stones” Rockpile

Bella Grace Vineyards 2014 Reserve Amador County

Robert Biale Vineyards 2011 Old Crane Ranch Saint Helena and 2015 Black Chicken

D-Cubed Cellars

Day 2015 El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley and 2014 Grist Vineyard Dry Creek Valley

D-cubed Cellars 2000 Napa Valley, 2008 Brown Vineyard Chiles Valley, 2012 Napa Valley, 2012 Korte Ranch Saint Helena

Elyse Winery 2012 Korte Ranch, 2013 Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford, 2013 Korte Ranch Saint Helena

Fields Family Wines 2013 “Family” Old Vine Lodi, 2014 Lodi Native Old Vine

Fields Family Wines

Green and Red Vineyards 2014 Chiles Mill Vineyard

Limerick Lane 2014 “1910 Block” Russian River Valley, 2014 Rocky Knoll Russian River Valley, and 2014 Russian River Valley

Miro Cellars 2011 Grist Vineyard Old Vines Dry Creek Valley, 2011 Pizetti Vineyard Dry Creek Valley, 2014 Reserve Algeria Vineyard Russian River Valley, and 2015 Gadis Old Vines Russian River Valley

Ridge Vineyards 2015 Barrel Sample Pagani Ranch Sonoma Valley

Talty Winery

Rosenblum Cellars 2016 Barrel Sample Carla’s Vineyard Sonoma Valley, 2016 Barrel Sample Maggie’s Vineyard Sonoma Valley, and 2013 Planchon Vineyard, Contra Costa County

Scribble Scribble Wine 2015 Lucille Barrel Sample, Lodi, 2014 Lucille, Lodi

Talty Winery 2011 William Talty Estate Dry Creek Valley, 2012 Felice Connolly Vineyard Napa Valley, 2013 William Talty Estate Dry Creek Valley, and 2014 Felice Connolly Vineyard, Napa Valley

Turley Wine Cellars 2015 Barrel Sample Hayne Vineyard, 2015 Juvenile California, and 2014 Pesenti Vineyard Paso Robles

Proulx Wines Dimples

I participated in a couple of the Meet the Maker roundtable tastings with the owner and winemaker of Green and Red Vineyards where he talked about how he got started in the wine business, his philosophy about winemaking, as well as his thoughts on zinfandel and its importance to California. I also spoke with Kevin Riley, winemaker of Proulx Wines in Paso Robles, who gave me great insight into his philosophy of winemaking and his thoughts on blending and style of winemaking in Paso Robles.

Bob’s Steak and Chop House Prime Tenderloin Sliders

Not only was this event jam-packed with amazing California zinfandels, but there were many delicious appetizers and small bites. Some of the standouts for me were Bob’s Steak and Chop House San Francisco, which made a fantastic prime tenderloin slider with toy box tomato jam, shaved midnight moon cheese, and micro greens served on a mini-brioche bun. It was fantastic and paired well with zinfandel, of course.

Canetti Roadhouse Italiana Crostini

Another great appetizer was Canetti Roadhouse Italiana, which made a crostini of whole milk ricotta soufflé bread with smoked McFarland spring trout mousse and candied red onions. This also went great with Zinfandel, which I did not expect.

Ridge Vineyards

This world-class experience offered me the chance to try so many different zinfandels from all over California, from well-known producers such as Ridge, Biale, and Turley, as well as producers that were completely new to me – Green and Red Vineyards, Talty Winery, and Scribble Scribble Wines – all who brought something different, fun, and exciting to the world of zinfandel. I would recommend this tasting experience to anyone that loves zinfandel or is a wine geek like myself. It is must-do event and one that will make a lasting impression on you.


You had me at aphrodisiac!

Aphrodisiac Food and Wine Pairing

Working in the wine business, I attend many events. After a while, many start to feel the same. However, at Dutton-Goldfield Winery in the Russian River Valley, which I reviewed previously, the event planners are clearly thinking outside of the box. One such event was their recent Aphrodisiac Food & Wine Pairing Class taught by Master of Gastronomy and author/fourth-generation publisher, Amy Reiley. I was excited, literally and figuratively, when Dutton-Goldfield allowed me to attend the class as a representative of the media.

You may not be as familiar as you should be with Reiley’s name, but I bet you’ve heard of some of her cookbooks such as Fork Me, Spoon Me: The Sensual Cookbook and Romancing the Stove, both of which attendees received as part of the class. She is also the founder of Life of Reiley, a boutique publishing company for culinary professionals, and the creator of EatSomethingSexy.

Amy Reiley teaching us about aphrodisiac foods

Attendees of the class were couples except me. Such is the life of a single girl. Regardless, I had a fantastic time and met a lovely couple with whom I shared a table. The wife was from my hometown of Asheville. Small world.

The class consisted of four food and wine pairings, with the recipes being from Reiley’s cookbooks and the wines from Dutton-Goldfield, of course. Chef and Innkeeper Larry Willis of the The Gables Wine Country Inn prepared the food.

As we proceeded through the pairings, Reiley explained to us what makes a food or drink an aphrodisiac. It is typically a food or drink that offers long-term health benefits, such as nutrients our bodies require and/or something that is good for cardiovascular health and blood flow. A few examples include honey (the nutricious nectar of Aphrodite), crabmeat (high protein, low fat), avocado (healthy fat, vitamin E), and oysters (zinc). Aphrodisiacs also often impart immediate physiological effects, as do wine, chile peppers, and ginger, for example. Now about those delectable pairings…

Honey Carrot Soup and 2015 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling

Pairing #1: Honey Carrot Soup and 2015 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling, Marin County
One of the reason’s I love Dutton-Goldfield is because of the beautiful Alsatian-style wines they produce. The riesling’s lively acidity and citrus and stone fruit flavors tamed the sweetness of the soup ever so gently, as well as cleansed my palate for every sumptuous spoonful.

Afternoon Delight Crab Salad and 2014 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard Chardonnay

Pairing #2: Afternoon Delight Crab Salad and 2014 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard Chardonnay, Green Valley of Russian River Valley
As as some of you may know, I am not typically a fan of California chardonnay, but this pairing left me wanting more in every way. This cool-climate chardonnay was luscious, yet also bright. Combined with the salinity of the crab and capers, the creaminess of the avocado, and the textured crunchiness of the apples, this was my aphrodisiac moment of the class. I took tiny bites and sips to prolong the deliciousness. I brought home two bottles of the chardonnay and I’m ready to make this crab salad for someone special. Oh, yes.

White Truffle Scented Wild Mushroom Risotto and 2014 McDougall Vineyard Pinot Noir

Pairing #3: White Truffle Scented Wild Mushroom Risotto and 2014 McDougall Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview
This was the first rice recipe I’ve eaten in over five months. Oh, my. The velvety risotto coated my mouth, while the intensity and earthiness of this pinot noir gave way to sensual euphoria. This, my second favorite pairing, felt like comfort food, like home, and I imagined curling up beside someone and sharing this exquisite pairing together in front of a warm, crackling fire.

Devil’s Gulch Ranch Pork Albondigas and 2014 Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir

Pairing #4: Devil’s Gulch Ranch Pork Albondigas and 2014 Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marin County
You had me at pork and pinot noir from the same farm, no less, right out of the gate! I mean, how could one go wrong? The acidity of the wine and sauce was a match made in heaven. And this pinot noir, for goodness sake, showed layers and layers of vibrant berry fruit and complex spices for days. I didn’t want this pairing to end.

As we progressed through the class, which I was sad to see end so quickly, I thought often about my Fit Body Boot Camp meal plan, which isn’t just good for me and has helped me lose lots of weight in just over five months (52 pounds as I type this!), but also contains many aphrodisiac foods. Now that’s a slam dunk: great health, improved body shape and image, AND increased libido. Now if only I could find someone with whom to try some of these recipes and wines…



Wine and Olive Oil

I’ve been on a bit of a writing ‘vacation’ since the fourth of July weekend, trying to sort out what I can continue to do in my increasingly limited spare time. I’ve enrolled in a wine marketing course this fall and I am being considered for a print writing opportunity, so I am at a point in my career where I need to make some decisions regarding my writing. I began an editorial calendar to figure out what I can do when so that I am able to enjoy free time as well. However, these past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to taste some interesting wines and an olive oil that I wanted to share with you. Therefore, voilà, an unexpected break from my self-imposed hiatus. These wines and olive oil are worth tasting. From my palate to yours, enjoy!

2013 Antigal Uno Malbec, Mendoza
2013 Antigal Uno Malbec, Mendoza

2013 Antigal Winery & Estates Uno Malbec, Mendoza, $18 (media sample)
What I most love about wine is that one sip can evoke time, place, people, and emotions. The 2015 Antigal Winery & Estates UNO Malbec takes me back three years to Mendoza, Argentina, the trip of a lifetime with a wonderful group of travel and writing professionals like me. Fermented and aged 12 months in French and American oak and sourced from higher-elevation, estate vineyards in Uco Valley, Tupungato, this malbec is not at all shy, with aromas of violets, cedar, blackberries, and spice. This dark ruby red, medium-bodied delight – with its interplay of vanilla, pepper, and dark fruits – is calling for grilled meat, roasted vegetables, and hearty potatoes. In this moment, my mind recalls an Argentine asado, whose intoxicating flavors of wine and food awaken memories of horseback riding in the Andes and late-night laughter in the streets of downtown Mendoza.

2014 Pike Road Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
2014 Pike Road Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

2014 Pike Road Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $19 (media sample)
This wine from Pike Road, the sister winery of Elk Cove, defies its $19 price tag by offering a fantastic example of Oregon pinot noir. Sourced from both estate and partner vineyards in the Williamette Valley, the grapes are hand harvested and sorted, then the juice is fermented in open stainless steel tanks and barrel aged 10 months in French oak. The resulting wine is brambly, dusty, earthy, and herbal. The night I tasted it, I took the winery’s advice on the label and paired it with salmon for a lovely dinner at home.

2013 DaVero Sangiovese, Hawk Mountain Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
2013 DaVero Sangiovese, Hawk Mountain Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

2013 DaVero Estate Sangiovese, Hawk Mountain Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, $75
One of my favorite wines of a recent visit to DaVero, the estate sangiovese is biodynamically farmed at their three-acre Hawk Mountain Vineyard, wild yeast fermented, then aged in all neutral oak. This wine possesses contrasting floral and leathery aromatics. On the palate, black cherry, blackcurrant, and acid abound. The same sangiovese is used in their 2013 Estate Altobasso blend of sangiovese (60%) and barbera (40%), which was the first DaVero wine to captive my palate and my heart a year ago during a Twitter tasting of Dry Creek Valley wines.

2015 DaVero Vermentino, Schatz Family Vineyard in the Cosumnes River AVA, San Joaquin County
2015 DaVero Vermentino, Schatz Family Vineyard in the Cosumnes River AVA, San Joaquin County

2015 DaVero Vermentino, Schatz Family Vineyard, Cosumnes River AVA, San Joaquin County, $30
This vermentino is produced in Sonoma County by DaVero, but sourced from the Schatz Family Vineyard in the Cosumnes River AVA of San Joaquin County, which is in the northwestern part of Lodi. DaVero takes a biodynamic, non-interventionist approach to winemaking to handcraft this wine, including foot stomping the grapes, two days of skin contact for added complexity, and native yeast fermentation. This wine is everything you want in a summer white: lemony, crisp, mouthwatering, and delectable.

2015 Fields Family Vermentino, Delu Vineyard, Lodi Appellation
2015 Fields Family Vermentino, Delu Vineyard, Lodi Appellation

2015 Fields Family Vermentino, Delu Vineyard, Lodi Appellation, $19
Now in perpetual pursuit of an alternative to sauvignon blanc, and smitten with vermentino thanks to DaVero above, I enjoyed this small lot, Fields Family offering prior to the start of the Wine Bloggers Conference, sitting by the pool at Bare Ranch talking to winemaker Ryan Sherman. I’ve always preferred to taste with the winemaker because usually I connect better with the wine through the person making it. After whole-cluster pressing, the wine is fermented in stainless steel, dry racked semi dirty, then spends about seven months aging sur lie in five- or six-year-old neutral barrels. Sherman’s love of vermentino, with Ryme’s “Hers” version as his inspiration, really shines. Bright, floral, textured, and tart – as well as exceptionally delicious – the Fields Family vermentino was the perfect accompaniment to that summer night in Lodi.

2015 Mainelli Family Reserve 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil, California
2015 Mainelli Family Reserve 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil, California

2015 Mainelli Family Reserve 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil, California, $25 (sample)
I don’t typically review olive oil, although I have, nor do I always eat parmesan herb ciabatta, but when I do, I dip it in Mainelli Olive Oil Family Reserve 100% Extra Virgin California Olive Oil. Each year, Tom Mainelli and his team carefully taste, select, and bottle some of Northern California’s best olive oils. This oil is one you want to taste, with its exquisite flavors, purity, and warm bite, indicative of great quality. Drizzle on almost everything. Delightful. Yes, please.

Lodi: Beyond the Zinfandel

Beyond the Zinfandel
Beyond the Zinfandel

The Opportunity
When I was invited by Visit Lodi to spend a weekend there, I jumped at the chance. I love to travel. I also love dispelling stereotypes and delving into a new place. When Lodi is mentioned, often people think zinfandel. Lodi is more than that. It offers a plethora of wines, food, and activities for everyone. Join me while I take you behind the wine and beyond the zinfandel.

Highway 12 Diner
Hwy 12 Diner

The Trip
Travel to Lodi from Napa is nearly a direct route by way of California Highway 12, with a few miles overlapping with Interstate 80. Once outside of Fairfield and Suisun City, Highway 12 is quite barren except for what I would call fields of wind turbines, the Shiloh Wind Power Plant. For miles, all you see are turbines. At the closest point, they appear ominous, yet also hypnotic. About halfway between Fairfield and Lodi is Rio Vista, suitably named due to its location on the Sacramento River and gateway to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River (California) Delta. It was home to my food stop that day at the also fittingly named Hwy 12 Diner, where I enjoyed an inexpensive breakfast for lunch. The next 25 miles were a bit more interesting with occasional bridges crossing the delta’s waterways. Upon my arrival to Lodi, I was surprised to discover that it is larger than I thought, with a population of around 60,000 people, not too much smaller than Napa or my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. After checking into my hotel, I decided to see if Lodi had Uber as a transportation option. It did. My driver originated in nearby Stockton to take me only a few miles, where my adventure began at the Downtown Visitor Center.

Welcome to Lodi!
Welcome to Lodi!

The Downtown
Downtown Lodi is on the cusp of change, with one foot in history and the other stepping forward into the future. The city’s reawakening began in the 1990s and continues today, yet it still retains a very charming feel. As my group walked around our first evening, the birthplace of A&W Root Beer captivated us with its blend of past and present. My advice to the city of Lodi is to not lose this balance of quaintness and progress because at this moment, it feels like home.

Tyler, the captain of our boat!
Tyler, the captain of our boat!

The Outdoors
I was not a very good Girl Scout when I was a young girl. I never went to summer camp and only spent one required overnight in a tent for a badge of some sort, which was enough for me. I also sunburn very easily. My idea of the outdoors is relaxing on a patio sipping wine. Visit Lodi gave us the choice to go kayaking or tour on a covered boat, so of course, I opted for the latter. We accompanied the kayaking part of the group for an hour and a half tour of Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River while we sipped sparkling wine from local producers under the helm of our outstanding captain, Tyler.

Yes, there's a Sip Shuttle selfie stick!
Yes, there’s a Sip Shuttle selfie stick!

The Ride
Driving in Lodi is easy, but if you plan to visit a few of Lodi’s wineries, look no further than Sip Shuttle, the brain child of Lodi native, Taylor Kininmonth. With Sip Shuttle, you “sip back and enjoy the ride,” without having to figure out directions or worrying about driving if you have tasted too many wines. During our afternoon with Taylor, we were nothing short of impressed with her service, her hospitality, and her kindness. However, I did warn Taylor that her business is going to blow up, which brought a wide smile to her face as she said, “I hope so.”

The Food
Visit Lodi introduced me to two notable food experiences, Smack Pie Pizza and a winemaker dinner at Oak Farm Vineyards.

Smack Pie Pizza deliciousness!
Smack Pie Pizza deliciousness!

Local favorite Smack Pie Pizza was a great way to kick off the weekend, with its casual, relaxed atmosphere. Guests create customized pizzas or choose from a few house favorites. The pizzas are made from scratch in front of you while you watch and wait. The beers on tap serve as the ideal beverage pairings.

The third course of our winemaker dinner
The third course of our winemaker dinner

The winemaker dinner at Oak Farm Vineyards exceeded my expectations. It began with a pairing of exquisite cheeses from Cheese Central and award-winning wines from Oak Farm Vineyards, led by their respective owners, Cindy Della Monica and Dan Panella. The delectable food and wine pairings continued with a four-course catered meal by Chef Warren K. Ito. From chilled scallops ceviche, to smoked quail, to braised prime beef and prime rib, to limoncello-soaked pound cake, Chef Ito and Dan Panella left no stone unturned with this best of Lodi food and wine extravaganza.

Talking with Kathy Mettler at Harney Lane
Talking with Kathy Mettler at Harney Lane

The Wine
In Lodi, grape growing and winemaking are king. Lodi produces more wine than any other appellation in California with around 116,000 acres planted to vine. The Mediterranean climate, cooled by the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta breezes, coupled with mineral-rich, diverse soil types, makes Lodi ideal for grape growing. Its 85+ wineries, some under the leadership of fourth- and fifth-generation winegrowers, craft wines under 450 brands. It’s true that Lodi is home to 40% of California’s old-vine zinfandel, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. During my visit, I had the good fortune to taste wines from four wineries – Mettler Family Vineyards, Harney Lane Winery, Bokisch Vineyards, and Oak Farm Vineyards – all of whom showcased the breadth and depth that is today’s Lodi wine. We sampled a few zinfandels, but also albariño, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, garnacha, garnacha blanca, graciano, merlot, monastrell, petite sirah, sauvignon blanc, Tievoli (Oak Farm Vineyards’ proprietary blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah), verdejo, and verdelho. I was dazzled by the variety and quality of Lodi wines. Most wineries here are still family owned and operated. Many also began as farms, selling their grapes to other producers in California including Napa and Sonoma. For some, crafting their own wine is relatively new, like Harney Lane, who’s only been making wines under their own label since 2006. In fact, Harney Lane still sells 94% of their grapes, while retaining only 6% for their own brand. As Kathleen (Kathy) Mettler, the matriarch of Harney Lane, told us during our visit, “First and foremost, we are farmers.” It’s this farming tradition and entrepreneurial spirit, now captured in every bottle of wine, that makes Lodi a must-visit wine destination.

The view at Bokisch Vineyards
The view at Bokisch Vineyards

The Experience
From the moment I arrived at the Downtown Visitor Center until I checked out of my hotel two days later, I felt welcomed by the people of Lodi. At every venue we visited, everyone was genuinely nice and very proud of what Lodi has to offer. By the end of the weekend, I realized I had made new friends as well as found a new weekend getaway spot. From my perspective, Lodi is one of the most underrated areas in California. It has small-town allure, a beautiful California delta locale, scrumptious food, and first-class wines at a fraction of the cost of some of California’s other wine appellations. If you’re looking for a destination that has it all, visit Lodi and be prepared to fall in love beyond the zinfandel.

Savoring the Sweet Life!



Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in DolceVita Safari’s first Sonoma Day Camp. I had previewed the itinerary on my blog a few weeks ago. Now it’s time for the scoop.

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The day of the event could not have been more beautiful, sunny and breezy. We began at Tin Barn Vineyards, which is one of Sonoma’s Eighth Street wineries. We were greeted by winemaker and co-owner, Michael Lancaster, and the director of communications and operations, Amy Bess Cook, whom I had met five years ago at the 2011 Wine Bloggers’ Conference. Tin Barn Vineyards wines were part of our swag bag that year.

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Amy poured for us two vintages of their Joon Rosé of Syrah, paired with Melon Skewers with prosciutto and mint and Smoked Salmon crepe, egg, red onion, dill, and capers, all provided by the Girl and the Fig’s Suite D. I’m fairly confident I can say that the skewers were our favorite. We also tasted their Hi Vista Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.

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Michael then led us into their barrel room for a tasting of their Coryelle Fields Syrah in different barrel types, to show everyone the difference a barrel can make with regard to aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel. Returning to the tasting room, we tasted additional vintages of the syrah – 2005, 2011, and 2012 – paired with mini quiche Lorraine with bacon. They had me at bacon and I really didn’t want to leave. And in fact, we didn’t leave immediately, as they poured us tastes of more of their wines such as their Desnudos Merlot and Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Mind you, this was all before noon. What a start!

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Our next stop was Stone Edge Farm Winery and Vineyards with a tour led by sales and marketing director, Dorothe Cicchetti. I didn’t know this until the day of the event, but the farm and part of their estate vineyards are located on the owners’ private property. Leslie and Mac McQuown purchased this land in 1995 and in 2004, along with winemaker, Jeff Baker, and organic viticulturist, Phil Coturri, created the organically-farmed Stone Edge Farm. The farm produces wine, fruits, vegetables, olives, herbs, chicken, and even beehives. I must admit I felt both strange and special roaming around someone’s private property. I knew that this was a visit that not many people have the opportunity to experience.

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After our farm tour, we traveled to Edge in downtown Sonoma, which is the culinary home of Stone Edge Farm, to enjoy a three-course, farm-to-table lunch prepared by culinary director and chef John McReynolds, who was there to not only cook for us, but walk us through each of the courses, while Dorothe told us about the three accompanying wines. What made this meal exceptional (besides the chef!) was enjoying the produce we saw growing on the farm. Lunch was nothing short of fantastic and included:

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A spring salad of lettuces, asparagus, leeks, radishes, and burrata (cheese) paired with the 2014 Stone Edge Farm Sauvignon Blanc

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Sonoma lamb with potato rosti and ember-cooked vegetables, roasted morel mushrooms with red wine and green garlic butter, paired with the 2012 Stone Edge Farm Surround (Bordeaux-style red blend) and the 2011 Stone Edge Farm Cabernet Sauvignon

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Almond cake, Watmaugh strawberries, rhubarb compote, crème chantilly, and strawberry sorbet

The salad was the best I’ve ever had, quite frankly. The Sonoma lamb course paired perfectly with both wines, although my favorite was Surround, which sees less time in a smaller percentage of new French oak, allowing the wine to demonstrate intensity of red and black fruits with a softer mouthfeel and approachable tannin structure. For a brief time, we did indeed live life deliciously in the company of Stone Edge Farm.

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After our amazing lunch, we traveled a short distance to The Donum Estate in the Carneros AVA of Sonoma, where we were joined by two more group members and our host for the visit, Laura Micciche. The Donum Estate, led by president and winegrower Anne Moller-Racke since 2001, is a producer of one Estate Carneros Chardonnay and multiple, single-vineyard pinot noirs from 70 acres of vines at the estate in Carneros, the 16-acre Winside Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and Angel Camp Vineyard in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County.

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Laura poured for us a glass of the Carneros Chardonnay and led us on a brief tour of the property, which includes magnificent art curated and brought to the winery by its investors. The tour ended at the barn, which, by the way, opens to a splendid view of Carneros vineyards. We sat at a long table tasting the menu of the day, which included four of their premium pinot noirs. As we tasted each, it seemed as if each one were better than the next, although all of them were beautiful expressions of their single-vineyard sources.

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The day concluded with a focus group meeting, this being the first Sonoma Day Camp. During the discussion, I discovered that at least four of the participants did not consider themselves to be very knowledgable about wine, but enjoyed immensely the day that they described as immersive, a breath of fresh air, a conversation about wine, and like being at a friend’s house. I told them that analyzing wine doesn’t mean anything, really. What is most important is did you like it, not the why or what you tasted (or didn’t taste). I hoped I was able to reassure them that at the end of the day, it is the experience, the happy feeling, the enjoyment of a day spent with new friends, that ultimately matters. Life is too short to not savor the sweet life. Viva la dolce vita!

*For more information about DolceVita Safari and its off-the-beaten path excursion options, please visit their website! *