When it comes to concerts in wine country, Robert Mondavi has been consistently hosting excellent musical performers for the past 48 years at their iconic winery in Oakville, Napa Valley. What started with humble beginnings, the Summer Concert Series has grown into Napa Valley's most quintessential outdoor concert experience, fully equipped with overflowing wine and goodies to keep all ages satisfied during the show. Hosted on the winery lawn, the Summer Concert Series has been bringing big-name performers to the stage since its inception. Famous artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Patti LaBelle and Buena Vista Social Club have all graced the stage over the years. This year, one of the headline acts was without a doubt the Michael Franti & Spearhead performance on July 22.
What I love about this concert series is that guests can bring in picnic supplies to enjoy during the show. While no outside wine is allowed in, the winery tasting room and shop is open through intermission to purchase your favorite wine from the Robert Mondavi collection by the glass or bottle. Guests can also carry in blankets and low-back chairs to mark a spot on the winery lawn, and everyone is encouraged to come early and get comfortable before the show starts.
For those who are looking for an elevated experience, tickets can be purchased for a full dinner and wine pairing experience leading up to the show. Dinner takes place in the historic ToKalon Vineyard adjacent to the winery lawn, between the beautifully gnarled old vines, and wines from the Robert Mondavi collection are paired with a gourmet, farm-fresh, six-course meal. On a warm summer night, this experience is about as magical as it gets.
Although the Summer Concert Series has come to a close this year, the Robert Mondavi team is already planning next year's lineup and the performer list is usually released in early spring, so we all have something to which we can look forward!
Paso Robles is a California wine region known for its diversity of terroir and wide range of varietals. Once the largest undivided appellation in the state, Paso Robles is now comprised of 11 official appellations; across the appellations, the region sees a maritime climate that shifts to a more continental climate the further inland you go. Average rainfall varies between the appellations at anywhere from 8-30 inches a year, and like all quality-producing wine regions, the diurnal temperature range is wide at 20-50 degrees. This varied terroir makes for a diverse range of varietals produced in many different styles, and Bianchi Winery has successfully mastered the art of producing very agreeable and diverse styles of wines.
Starting with the whites, their Chardonnay brings together the ripe fruit flavors we all know and love from the California sunshine, with the fresh acidity we expect from this classic Burgundian grape variety. The 2013 Bianchi Signature Series Chardonnay brings together fruit-forward aromas of apple and green mango; on the palate, sur-lie aging with bâtonnage gives body with toasty, vanilla oak flavors combined with green apple, kiwi and a touch of toffee.
I've always loved the Rhône varietals from Paso Robles and Bianchi's expression of Syrah is no exception. Simply put, the 2014 Bianchi Signature Series Syrah is an easy-drinking and highly enjoyable Syrah that will put a smile on everyone's face. Dusty brambleberry and a touch of molasses make for an aromatic nose, and the palate brings ample fruit. Brambleberry and plum jam synthesize over layers of gentle tannin and agreeable acidity. Open this bottle with a group of friends and it won't last long!
From their Bordeaux collection, the 2013 Bianchi Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon jumps right out of the gate with its enticing aromas of sweet tobacco leaf, plum and cassis. Tasting nicely with several years of age, it takes just a bit for the tannins to mellow on this Cabernet Sauvignon, so I recommend decanting it for 30 minutes or letting it breath in the glass for equally as long before enjoying. Lighter in body, but by no means austere, this Cabernet still has vivid fruit flavors of blackberry and cassis, with savory notes reminiscent of sage. You won't be disappointed by this Paso Robles Cab.
Spring is all about abundance—baby chicks are hatched, flowers blossom and food begins to bountifully grow from the earth as the sun shines upon the plants. In wine country, the abundance around this time of year is all about new spring wine releases—and by that I mean white and Rosé! You’ve likely noticed that just about every winery recently released their 2016 whites and Rosés, and for those of us who’ve been excited to taste the new vintage, this release couldn’t have come soon enough!
In Northern California, the end of 2015 brought winter rains that helped to replenish dormant vines, and was then followed by a steady 2016 growing season with ample sunshine. An early harvest brought in normal-size yields of high-quality fruit. The high quality of the grapes is certainly visible in the new spring releases from Napa Valley’s Stewart Cellars. Their Rosé and Sauvignon Blanc are perfect for springtime sipping, and their Chardonnay makes an excellent match alongside a seafood feast.
I enjoy the way the 2016 Rosé has lots of fresh, juicy watermelon and green apple flavors, with zingy acidity and a very refreshing style on the palate. While on the lighter-profiled side, it does have a touch of weight and silky texture on the mid-palate—perhaps even a gentle kiss of caramel underneath. A touch of Meyer lemon shows itself on the finish with some white pepper and clove spice. This wine is lively and thirst-quenching—perfect when the sun is shining down upon you.
And the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc is equally as enticing. Full of stone fruit and mineral aromas, with a sprinkling of Meyer lemon zest, this Sauv Blanc is a delight. The palate mimics those aromas in its fresh, playful style. The way the acidity dances across the palate is nicely juxtaposed against the silky texture on the finish. I really enjoyed this fresh and tasty Sauvignon Blanc that finds the right balance between ripe fruit, zippy acidity and a seductive texture.
As for the 2016 Chardonnay, it sees ten months in 35% new French oak, so it’s one of those tasty Chardonnays that seeks to be well-balanced—no butter bomb, here! Instead, you get a well-crafted Chardonnay that has the intensity of flavor and texture to pair with food—seafood loaded with an herb butter sauce would be fantastic—while still being bright and fresh enough to enjoy on its own. White flowers and citrus grace the nose, while the palate leans towards flavors of peach, lemon, lime and ginger. Again, the acidity here is nice and crisp, but that is well-balanced by the textural richness left behind by the 35% new French oak ageing.
Be on the lookout for new white and Rosé wine releases this spring, and don’t miss a chance to visit Stewart Cellars to stock up on these refreshing spring selections!
Pigs and Pinot weekend is one of my favorite events of the year and continues to provide wonderful opportunities to taste old favorites and discover new ones. At this year’s Taste of Pigs and Pinot on Friday, March 17th—always held at the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg—the weekend kicked off with a bang. I focused on tasting producers I was unfamiliar with, before then parading around to taste my old favorites.
Seeking out producers I was unfamiliar with was very fruitful indeed, as I unknowingly tasted the wine that would later be revealed as the Pinot Cup Winner—the TR Elliot 2014 Bootlegger’s Hill Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. This elegant wine is filled with earthy, cranberry and pomegranate fruit, wrapped up in a medium body with delightful complexity. Another elegant Pinot that stood out was the Vaughn Duffy 2014 Suacci Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. This is a bright and extremely effervescent Pinot with almost crunchy-like red fruit, lively and full of finesse, with spices on the finish. Tasting like it has some whole cluster fermentation thrown into the mix, this unique wine really made an impact on my palate that night.
I also rather enjoyed the Kings Mountain Vineyards’ 2012 Bacchus Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains. I immediately liked this wine not only because it stood apart in style from the local Sonoma appellation wines, but also because it has tremendous amount of complexity. It is a bolder style, to be certain, but done in a very elegant fashion. Baking spices and earthy notes combine to provide an initial savory layer, with undertones of white pepper and a hint of vanilla over black cherry. The layers of this wine keep unfolding, revealing beautiful complexity and seduction in its silky-smooth style.
As for the cuisine at Taste of Pigs and Pinot, I was smitten with the Quail BLT from Chef Ryan Francher of Barndiva. Toasted brioche, tomato marmalade, sunny side up quail egg, chervil and rapini flowers made for the tastiest single bite of the night. A heavenly combination of textures and flavors, I loved the way the crunchy brioche contrasted the warm, oozing egg yolk, and the tomato marmalade added that touch of acid and sweetness to bring all the flavors together.
Alongside Chef Scott Romano, Chef Charlie Palmer of Dry Creek Kitchen never disappoints at his Taste of Pigs and Pinot event and the Niman Ranch Pork French Dip with herb-roasted cipollini relish, Cowgirl Creamery St. Pat cheese and Sausalito Springs watercress on a yeast roll dipped in au jus was a deliciously hearty offering. Cher Perry Hoffman of Shed offered up the most colorful and artfully prepared dishes of the night: the Confit of Niman Pork Cheek with sauerkraut powder, wild mustard and bread crumbs. This confit was wonderful, packed with succulent texture and those floral wild mustard flavors popped on the palate.
Bringing together world-class Pinot Noir and fine cuisine from mostly local restaurants, Pigs and Pinot is definitely a decadent weekend of wine and food, and the best part is that it’s all for a very important cause. A portion of the proceeds from event ticket sales and the silent auction are donated from the annual event to Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign and a wide array of North Bay charities. This year along, This year, Pigs and Pinot weekend surpassed $1,000,000 in total funds raised over the last twelve years! Cheers to the Chef Charlie Palmer and his team at Dry Creek Kitchen for hosting such a fabulous annual event and providing such a fun way to give back to the local community.
When it comes to terroir expression, Etude Winery takes it global with their Appellation Series collection of Pinot Noir. Comprised of six bottles, the Appellation Series showcases different appellations across California, Oregon and New Zealand. And with the small variation of 12-13 months barrel aging, as well as new French oak ranging between 25-33% for each bottling, the winemaking techniques are both minimal and nearly the same across all six wines—making the terroir characteristics both easy to detect and easy to distinguish from one bottle to the next.
2014 Grace Benoist Ranch Pinot Noir | Carneros, California
Coming from the diverse appellation of Carneros with 13 different soil types, varying elevation and sun exposure, the Grace Boist Ranch Pinot is well balanced and full of charm. Aromas of fresh and tangy fruit abound, cranberry and orange zest, with a dash of incense spice. This Pinot is bright on the palate, too, with refreshing acidity and structure, blueberry notes leading into cranberry, cedar and a hint of barrel spice.
2014 Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir | Sonoma Coast, California
The Ellenbach Vineyard sits above the fog line on California’s cold Sonoma Coast, just two miles from the rocky shore of the Pacific Ocean. Because the vineyard sits above the fog line, you can taste that sun exposure in the glass. There’s an abundance of rich red cherry and spices, while those cold nights and Pacific breeze maintain the wine’s acidity, creating a very robust but balanced Pinot.
2014 North Canyon Vineyard | Santa Maria Valley, California
In California’s Santa Barbara County, the North Canyon Vineyard finds its home in the east-to-west-facing Santa Maria Valley appellation. Cool Pacific breezes and fog sweep through the region, offering up Pinots with strong acidic structure and lots of freshness. This North Canyon Pinot Noir is dark and spice-filled on the nose with black cherry, chocolate-covered blueberries and clove scents. The palate is mouth-filling and very structured, with juicy blackberry fruit and lingering acidity. It’s a balanced wine and you can tell it will improve with cellar time.
2014 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir | Sta. Rita Hills, California
Another Santa Barbara County appellation, the Sta. Rita Hills is about ten miles from the Pacific Ocean and sees steady mid-70s temperatures. This region is one of the coolest wine-growing climates in California and offers up Pinots with more savory characteristics than their warmer climate counterparts. The aromas are rather Burgundian with hints of black tea, rose petals and forest floor; there’s also a brininess to it that hearkens to the oceanic influence. A denser mouthfeel with more tannin structure, the Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot shows vanilla-laced flavors of cherry and spice. Give this another year in bottle for the tannins to soften and the oak to find its synergy with the fruit.
2014 Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir | Yamhill-Carlton District, Oregon
A sub-appellation of the well-known Willamette Valley, Yamhill-Carlton District boasts hillsides with a wide range of elevation between 200-1,00 feet, but the Yamhill Vista Vineyard is perfectly situated in the middle at 600 feet. Outside of the rain shadow, the site sees plenty of sunshine and that shows in the fruitiness of the wine’s aromatics. Full of plum and cherry, these fresh fruit aromas are juxtaposed against savory scents of tea and purple flowers. On the palate, this soft-textured wine brings forward cherry and cranberry in full force.
2014 Bannockburn Pinot Noir | Central Otago, New Zealand
Reaching halfway across the world, the Central Otago Bannockburn site in New Zealand completes the Appellation Series collection. The site is a bit warmer and drier than other parts of the appellation, and its continental climate offers a strong diurnal temperature range, making the perfect conditions for grapes to ripen slowly. There are aromas of black cherry and dark berries on the nose, while the the schist gravel soils bring about a beautiful texture and earthiness to the palate. Rich and full, there is a plumpness to the Bannockburn Pinot, with notes of spiced plums, blueberry and crushed rocks.