Thursday, March 31, 2011

Holly’s Hill: Sommelier's choice for white wines

The fourth winery I dragged the sommelier to was Holly's Hill Winery, and let me just say that I was getting a little cold at this time. You may think California is warm, but once you hit the foothills, it's freezing. There was even snow on the ground.

I know I've lived here for a year now, but I'm still in denial and don't want to believe it can be cold -- so part of the reason I was freezing was that I was only wearing two light jackets. But the other reason was because power had gone out in the area so the wineries weren't heated. Good thing there was some wine to warm us up!
El Dorado’s wine area is known for having great Zinfandels, Mourvedres and other reds, but at Holly’s Hill Winery there's something there for the white wine lover.

“These are the first legit white wines I’ve run into,” said Sandford Wragg, sommelier and wine buyer for Tuli Bistro in Sacramento. “They are solid. They are dry. They don’t over power things. I can think of food I can eat with them. Their Roussanne had fruit to it, yet it was still dry.”

Wragg enjoyed both the winery's Roussanne and Viognier. He says Holly’s Hill has a different take on things than some of the other wineries, but their philosophy is similar to Sierra Vista Winery. They both grow Rhone grapes, their wines have low alcohol and they make wine for the dinner table.

Making wine at Holly's Hill since 1999, Winemakers Carrie and Josh Bendick have been able to keep the old world influence while being surrounded by new world winemakers. They say they have done this purposefully.

“We travelled to the Rhone and we travelled to Italy and we really liked their wines -especially in Italy. Their wines are so acidic. When you have them with food it’s just magical,” said Carrie, who is the first female winemaker I've met.

But it’s more than growing the Rhone varietals that make them different. Their winemaking process is also a little different.

“We really noticed that with the Rhone varietals that we couldn’t oak them. When you add new oak to them the whole character of the varietal disappears and you just taste oak. It becomes a generic wine that could be made anywhere. That’s why we decided here to only do neutral oak,” Carrie said.

In addition to not finding any new oak wines, you won’t find Zinfandels, which is unusual for the Sierra Foothills area- because there are Zinfandels everywhere. However, if you remember drinking a Holly’s Hill Zinfandel years ago, you’re not going crazy. They did make them when they first started -- and they won awards for them. So not making them now is almost crazy. I mean, why would you stop making your money-maker wine?

Carrie says they had a good reason. First of all, the Rhone wines they make now are their true passion, and secondly, they don't grow Zinfandel fruit on their estate.

“We had all Rhones planted from the beginning and we thought, 'Why? Why are we buying all this fruit to make zinfandel?'” Carrie said. “We decided to focus on what we could do really well and have more control over the growing cycle.”
Now Carrie and her husband are following their passion, and it’s paying off.

“I think the best thing they are making right now is their white wines. If you took a Sierra Foothills white wine line up, she would come out near the top or maybe even the top,” Wragg said. “I’m a fan of the winemaker and the whites and her philosophy. I’m hoping to see it come out in her reds as well.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sommelier picks for Sierra Vista Winery

After visiting Miraflores, my sommelier and I were off to winery number 3: Seirra Vista.  I didn't get to speak to the own of this one because as soon as we got there, we learned the power had gone out and he was busy trying to get the generator to start. 

Of course, while he was doing that, we tested out his wines.  They also had some yummy shrimp appetizers so I had try those as well.

Owned by John and Barbara MacCready, the winery crushed their first grapes in 1977 and were the first to plant Syrah in 1979 followed by Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Viognier.

“John started the Rhone movement in the El Dorado County area,” said Diana, one of the pourers.

But it’s not just the wines that keep people coming back to visit the winery again and again. It’s John’s humble personality and his integrity to keep his wines honest.

“John is very salt of the earth. He leaves his wines alone for the most part, but what I’ve always liked about him is that even in these times of high alcohol and high extraction wines, he’s always made wine for the dinner table,” said Sandford Wragg, sommelier.

Wragg, who has worked in the wine industry for over a decade says it doesn’t matter if is his award winning vintages or a table wine, it always comes from the same philosophy – good wine, with good integrity.
But with this being said, there are few vintages that rise above the others.

“I think John’s signature wine is his Fleur de Montagne,” said Diana.

The Fleur de Montagne is a Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. It’s a luxurious wine with great harmony that is a crowd pleaser. Wragg agrees that it is good and should be tasted when visiting the winery, but it's not his Sierra Vista favorite.

“What I liked the best at Sierra Vista is their reserve Syrah. I think he is famous for Syrah for a reason and that particular Syrah had more focus, acidic intensity and the ability to serve as a wine on the dinner table than any of the other wines including the Fleur de Montagne,” Wragg said.

But the Syrah isn’t the only wine on Wragg’s “must try” list. He was also impressed with John’s wines made from Bordeaux grapes.

“You shouldn’t pass on his Merlot and his Cabernet. Probably because he leaves them natural in this colder climate, his Bordeaux grapes have some structure and some tannin in them making these wines worth checking out,” Wragg said.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Best picks from the Miraflores Winery

Victor Alvarez from Miraflores Winery
After checking out Auriga Cellars I dragged my sommelier to the next winery. It was Miraflores Winery and it was my favorite. Not only did I like some of the wines, but the owner Victor Alvarez is a fantastic storyteller.  In fact he kind of reminded me of my grandfather, except instead of having a thick French accent, he had a Spanish one.

"In this area, 11 wines are rated 11 points and six are ours. All are Zins," said Vic Alvarez, while pouring our wine. "Our Zinfandels are all varietal. They don't have sugar. The noses for all of them are very good."

Along with a number of other wines, Alvarez was pouring his 2006, 2007 and 2008 Zinfandels for the El Dorado Passport Weekend. He says his 2006 Zinfandel probably has the best nose out of the ones he has and even though it's older than the other two, it is only just becoming complex.

But the 2007 is not to be shunned. It is the highest rated Zinfandel in the area. And then there's his 2008 Zinfandel. It was this one that caught the attention of Sandford Wragg, my wine expert.

"This one has a pretty nose. It has the high-toned powdered candy smell that I associate with Piedmont," Wragg said.

I thought all the Zinfandels smelled pretty good, but the 2007 was my favorite. But Zins were only the beginning. There were many more wines to taste afer this one.

Miraflores Winery planted their first vines 11 years ago and all of their wines except for the Pinot Grigio are made from estate fruit. Alvarez says his secrets are planting higher to get more sun exposure, the grapes he has chosen and checking the fruit himself.

"I picked the grapes; they did not pick me. Whatever the grapes are become the flavor of the wine," Alvarez said. "I check the grapes myself and I'm also constantly dropping grapes. At the end, when I think the flavor is good enough, I'll tell them 'this one' and then we pick."

Alvarez says he doesn't schedule his harvests. Instead he reacts to what's going with the fruit. And while he's fond of all his vintages, there are a few that are his current favorites.

"Smell this thing," he said, as he poured a glass of Barbera. "I fell in love with the nose before I put it in the bottle. Right now it still has the acidity of the grape itself, but it's going to be a beautiful wine."

The particular vintage is not on the list yet as he just put it in the bottle a few days ago, but let me tell you that this wine did smell fabulous.  It had a delicate floral character to it. It was beautiful and had the makings of a good wine. I'm definitely going back to get it when he's ready to sell that vintage.

Another vintage that had both Wragg and Alvarez talking is the winery's Mouvedre. It's still in the barrel, but they will let you taste it (and buy it) as part of their futures.

"This is not a French wine. We are not going to be anything French. We are going to be what these grapes are. The Mouvedre here is light and it is a wonderful little wine," Alvarez said.

Another very tasty future they have to offer is their Cabernet Sauvignon. It's planted at an elevation of 2960 feet which Alvarez says is the highest Cabernet in the country. In fact, the vines in that area get three more hours of sun compared to the rest of his property: one extra hour at dawn and two hours more before the sun sets.

"It has magnificent exposure. It is our best lot. I have 250 acres here and those are the best acres of the entire property," Alvarez said. "This is a French high altitude Cabernet. We spent two years looking for it before we planted."

After tasting the cabernet from the barrel, the sommelier was surprised at how smooth the wine was compared to its age.

"It doesn't have that green taste a wine this age usually has. I'm excited to see how this one be when it matures," Wragg said.

While the Zinfandels, Barbera and the futures are all worth trying, it was Miraflores' sweet wines that were most memorable. It may because Alvarez tries to stay true to the wine by using traditional grapes or it could because of the passion his winemaker has for sweet wines. In either case, the wines were impressive.

"Marco is the probably the best sweet winemaker in the country and he loves them," Alvarez said.

The first one we tried was their 2008 Botricelli which was a Sauterne model and an 80/20 Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Alvarez makes only 240 cases a year of this wine. But OMG...this wine was soooo good.  I ended up taking a bottle home with me and wish I bought more. It's like drinking a little piece of heaven.

"It spends three years in a French barrel. It's not quite 100 percent because there is a little bit of Hungarian. The reason we do that is because we want to distance ourselves from others doing this wine," Alvarez said.

The next wine was the Black Muscat, which smelled like violets. It was smooth, with a long incredible finish. This one was also fantastic.  I loved the violet smell and it tasted really good.  I almost bought this one too, but held back.  Now I'm regretting the decision and may have to go back for it.

"This fruit is bought from a guy who has only one acre of this grape and we buy his entire production. This is a wine that we make as a port-style. When the sugar reaches 11, we pick it up with brandy up to 18 percent alcohol," Alvarez said.

Then there was the port. Port is made with the two main sources of port in Portugal: Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional. Alvarez has made sure that his port uses those fruits.

"I don't want to do Mickey Mouse stuff. We're going to do good Zinfandels and good sweet wines. We are not going to make a Zinfandel with a sweet wine," Alvarez said.

Wragg agrees that using the traditional grapes could be working in Alvarez's favor. The Botricelli, Black Muscat and port were three wines that he says winelovers should try when visiting Miraflores.

"It's cool that he is trying to make port with the real grapes. Some people make port from Zinfandel so it is Zinfandel port, but he's actually bringing in the Portuguese fruit. He has gone out of his way. There is probably no one else in this area growing Touriga Nacional," Wragg said.

So in addition to the sweet wines, what were Wragg's other picks?

"The Zinfandels had really nice bouquets and aromas that aren't average. There were pretty, delicate bouquets on the wines we tasted that would please the Zinfandel lover," Wragg said. "But I'm also excited about their futures. I'd like to check out the Mouvedre and Cab again when they're ready. They should be interesting."

The next winery was Sierra Vista. Hoping to have blog ready for you tomorrow.

Monday, March 28, 2011

El Dorado Passport weekend: Best picks from Auriga Cellars

Sometimes working at a news station totally rocks.  This weekend I had the chance to visit a bunch of wineries in Pleasant Valley and talk to the vineyard owners about their vintages. Of course, I did do a bunch of sipping and spitting along the way because there really is no way to write about wine without actually tasting some of it.

If you've been following my adventures, then you already know that I LOVE wine, vineyards and the whole winemaking experience -- but even though I do taste a lot of vintages, I'm not exactly a professional. I know what I like, but I don't always know why I like it. help me on my wine adventure and to avoid reviews like "that one made my tongue wrinkle" I dragged along a sommelier.  So if you don't agree with his picks, don't blame me. Blame him. Just kidding.

SLIDESHOW: El Dorado Passport weekend

We visited five wineries on Saturday so I'll try to feature one in my blog each day.

Our first stop was Auriga Cellars. Auriga Cellars' is a cute little winery and this was their second year participating in the El Dorado Passport weekend. Oh and here's something about the weekend that I didn't know -- your ticket not only includes the cost of all your tastings to all 26 wineries, but each wineries also serve food to go with their wine. Really good food.

Richard Stading from Auriga Wines
 Anyway, last year Auriga Cellars brought people to Ireland by serving a traditional Irish stew, but this year, winery owners Richard and Diane Stading treated guests to their version of Italy.

"We have our Sangiovese and Barbera, and we're serving Italian foods like focaccia and minestrone" said Diane Stading.

The Stadings starting making wine 1982, but they didn't go commercial with Auriga Wines until 2002. Diane says initially they were only going to be growers, but then they got bit by the winemaking bug.

"You get into the whole wine making thing and you start entering contests and competitions. We took home a few gold medals from the State Fair for home wine making. That's when we starting to think about going commercial," Diane said.

They only had one problem. Back then they only had one wine -- Shiraz. If they were going to make it as a winery, they needed to expand their selection and they needed to do it quickly. They did this by buying fruit from neighboring vineyards including Smokey Ridge Ranch, Quarter Hill and Sumu Kaw Vineyard. They still make their signature Shiraz from their estate fruit, but also bottle Zinfandel, Merlot, Marsanne, Sangiovese, Barbera and a few others.

"We get our Zinfandel fruit from 35-year-old vines from Suma Kaw Vineyard which is about five miles down the road," Richard said. "Their entire vineyard is only 25 acres and we have upper block which is about five acres. It's under exclusive contract to us."

Richard says Zinfandels and Shiraz are their specialty. The sommelier I brought with me, Sandford Wragg, agrees and recommends their estate grown Shiraz as your best pick if visiting the vineyard.

"Their Shiraz is the most balanced wine of their portfolio. It has structure and it is varietally correct. You get mint and high tone on the nose which is traditional in Shiraz," said Wragg. "You get a good amount of fruit but you also get a little bit of tanic structure so it's not just a throw away wine. There is something there."

When it comes to their Zinfandels, he says they have plenty of options to please the Zinfandel drinker, but wine-lovers should also check out their Merlot.

"It has a lot of pleasant fruit, but is a little more interesting than what we've come to think of in Merlot. It's one of those bottles that is a crowd pleaser but also has something interesting to offer," Wragg said.

So that's the inside scoop on Auriga. Best picks from other vineyards to come later this week:

-- Miraflores
-- Sierra Vista
-- Holly's Hill
-- Narrow Gate

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stolen iPhone? Five prevention tips I now know

Having your iPhone stolen is not fun. Believe me. I know. Mine was stolen this weekend.

I accidentally left my phone in the car when returning it to the rental shop and in less than five minutes it was gone – and naturally, no one at the rental shop could say which one of their staff checked the car or had access to it.

At first I was in denial. Maybe it wasn't stolen. Maybe the phone was in my purse or my jacket and I just couldn’t find it. I immediately borrowed the manager’s phone to call my beloved iPhone. It went straight to voicemail.

That’s when I knew it was over. The thief was smart enough to turn off the device so I couldn’t hear it.

It was then I panicked. Not only did I lose all the phone numbers I had in the phone, my life was completely accessible. With the iPhone, the thief could not only use it to make lots of overseas calls, but they could send my friends nasty texts, access my Facebook and Twitter account using the APPs I downloaded, and find out other personal information. My life was an open book. And the worst part was that I was about to board a plane so I wouldn’t have time to contact AT&T until I landed eight hours later.

I also couldn’t get in touch with my friends to let them know what had happened because even though people were nice enough to offer me their phone to text or call people, I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number. I was so reliant on my phone I couldn’t even help myself even when offered a lifeline.

To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, here are a few tips:

1) Download a Phone Tracker App: I didn’t know about this until after I lost my phone, but I really wish I did. GPS Tracker is one APP that a couple people have recommended. Not only will it help you find your phone if someone steals it, it can help you keep track of where your kids are if you install it on their phones. Apple also has an APP just for their phones. It costs $0.99.

2) Get MobileMe from Apple: I didn’t have this because I’m cheap and it costs $99 a year. But the program does have some good perks such as it tracks your phone and if it’s stolen, you can do a virtual data wipe from any other device to protect your privacy. The $99 covers all your Apple devices so your iPhone, iPad and computer could all be covered. It also will let you lock your devices remotely.

3) Password Protect Your Phone: This is the one thing I did have on my phone. But on the iPhone, the password is only four digits so if the thief is persistent, they could eventually crack it. At least, it’s better than nothing. Just make sure your password isn't something like 1-2-3-4.

4) Call Your Carrier: As soon as you can, call your phone carrier and suspend service on the phone. This way the person won’t be able to make texts, use your data plan or make calls. However, please note that this doesn’t mean your service will be canceled. You will still be responsible for monthly bills on that phone until your contract is over. The good news is that you can reactivate the phone if you happen to find it – without having to pay a reactivation fee.

5) Loud Ringtones: Use an annoying loud ringtone that is distinctive. If your thief is not as savvy as mine and doesn’t turn off the phone, there is a chance you will hear the ring if you call it.

I also learned that your carrier's and the iPhone protection coverage doesn't cover stolen phones. It only covers broken phones.  However, you can buy iPhone insurance though from AT&T called

What I really would like is a self-destruct app like they had in old spy shows such as "Get Smart".  This way the next time someone steals my stuff, I could activate a countdown and in 10 seconds the phone would unleash a virus that would corrupt it's circuits and make it useless. I'm not talking a mini-bomb that would hurt the person. I'm not that vengeful.  Just something that corrupts the phone.

But that doesn't exist yet. 

In the meantime, I'm still phone-less and in mourning. Every once and a while I swear I can hear my iPhone calling me with it's friendly little ring. Will I get another one? Definitely.  I'm just not ready to dish out another $399 yet.