Category Archives: California

A little place of serenity outside of Napa: Ladera Vineyards

End of January, Nina and I spent a week in California. I’ll readily admit it was a nice break from the Michigan winter. We’d both never been to either Napa or Sonoma, so we decided it was time. Me being the complete newbie to wines from that region, I relied on friends and fellow bloggers to give me some direction on which wines to try. We decided to limit it to four wineries, two in Napa and two in Sonoma. We only had the weekend, and we have by now learned that tastings usually take a while and there is nothing worse than rushing away from a tasting to make the next on time.

The first thing that struck me visiting the two regions is really how much they look like other wine regions: a long, winding road in a center of a valley, with hills rising, sometimes steeper, sometimes gentler, but always surrounded by vines. There really is nothing like it, and I was not prepared for how much at home I felt immediately. And the light and slight warmth certainly helped.

Ladera Vineyards was suggested by Anatoli of Talk-a-vino. He insisted one had to try their wines, and he helped us in setting up a tasting there. The first thing I had to do was google the winery (I know, shame on me). So what did I learn? Ladera is located on Howell Mountain, one of the top spots in Napa, and its roots go back to 1886, when the first winery building was erected in that same spot it now is, with vineyards dating back to 1877 (not the vines, mind you). The winery building is still standing in all its glory, but has been completely modernized inside and a large cellar has been constructed underneath. Ladera has been owned by its current owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery since 2000 and has built an impressive reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon.

So on Sunday, around noon, we curved our way up the valley onto Howell Mountain, pretty steep at times, and then finally turned into the property of Ladera Vineyards. From the website, Nina and I were not prepared what was awaiting us at the winery. The place is an absolutely breathtaking stunner: The old winery building with its gorgeous sandstone facade, the sky was of a deep, satisfying blue, and the vineyards are gently sloping around it. It was just a wonderful piece of quiet and calm, way above the fray that can be Napa. We were really speechless for a bit. I mean, look at this:

Ladera Winery Building

Ladera Winery Building (and yes, that is Nina sitting in the sun)

Everything was just so peaceful, you almost wanted to speak in a hush not disturb it. The tasting room manager during our visit, Julie, was friendly and knowledgeable and was happy to share with us the story and wines of Ladera. And we were ready to have both shared with us.

Get what I mean about the sky?

Get what I mean about the sky?

We started with a 2013 Ladera Sauvignon blanc, from what I can tell the winery’s only white wine ($30). And it was a great start: The nose was full and lush, with kiwi and gooseberry aromas, some flint, slight green pepper and bitter almonds, as well as beautiful hints of cassis (yes, I am a white wine person). It was bone dry, crisp and fresh, and oh so flavorful: grapefruit and other citrus in the forefront, cassis and blackberry, but also nicely creamy and almost doughy (in a good sense – it spent 7 months on lees!). I loved the balance of it, it was the right opening for a sunny day. I could drink that any time.

On we went to the 2010 Ladera High Plateau, a mix of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot ($65). The wine poured in a dark ruby red, and the nose was amazingly powerful, with what felt like many layers of blackberry, plums, cacao, and, to my surprise, what I can only describe as watermelon. I guess a hint of sweetness combined with freshness. Definitely unexpected. The wine was dry with medium tannins and body, and nicely crisp acidity. On the palate it was aromatic, with sage and brush (Julie mentioned later the vineyard is surrounded by evergreens), raspberry, mocha and bitter chocolate with a long finish. Count me as impressed: This was a Cabernet Sauvignon that made me understand why people can love that grape, which I am often ambivalent about: It had the right mix of fruit and spice, and presented itself very well.

In between, we took a tour of the facility and state of the art cellar, probably one of the most beautiful modern cellars I have ever visited. And they have a great tasting room down there as well. The press and fermenting tanks are modern and lots of steel, it was quite pretty. In general, wines are fermented in open top vats with a cold soak for two to three days.

Inside Ladera's modern cellar

Inside Ladera’s modern cellar

From there, we went to the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cab, a just released 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the winery’s best lots in Howell Mountain ($85). It poured in a similar dark ruby that the 2010 High Plateau poured in, but the nose was a lot more powerful: plums, but then a bunch of green peppercorns, tobacco, and some smoke with definitely more prominent wood aromas in the nose. To my surprise, the palate was definitely more fruity than the nose gave away: There was a bunch of black berries and cassis, but paired with a certain rubberiness that can be expected in such a young wine of this intensity. What I loved most about this wine was its texture, which was just beautifully chewy. The acidity and the tannins were in good balance, and the wine showed a lot of promise, although I want to try it in five years when it has calmed down a bit (as most of you know, I like my reds with some age on them).

Finally, we got to try some of the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain “S” Cabernet, another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but this one stemming from the one block in Howell Mountain with the oldest vines, and only the four best barrels of that. So just a teeny little amount available ($175). The wine poured in a very dark ruby, almost black. The nose was intriguing, but also a bit mystifying: some brush, some licorice, some red berries, but also a bit musty at this stage. On the palate, you could tell this is way too young right now, but it provided a nice little window into its development: It felt a bit all over the place and very intense right now. What I liked about it was its fruit and acidity with powerful tannins that need settling down. But that’s a great structure for development. The finish was great: dark chocolate for days with no end in sight. Want to try this again in seven to ten years.

For me, this visit has the potential of being transformative. I never quite got why people could be so obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon, which to me is often just powerful with no finesse. Ladera showed me that there is a different route for that grape, and it’s definitely worth exploring more. Needless to say, Nina knew that all along and had a great time as well. So, thanks to Ladera and thanks to Anatoli for opening my mind!

And thanks to the sun, for making these wines possible and that day gorgeous. I paid it my respects:

In the sun at Ladera

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An evening at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor's Main Street

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor’s Main Street

The Ravens Club is a bar in downtown Ann Arbor, right on the most important restaurant road in Ann Arbor, Main Street. I’ve been there once or twice, but my main memory is from right after I moved to Ann Arbor. While Nina denies ever having been there with me before, I am certain we went there pretty soon after I moved to Ann Arbor from Germany. From that visit, I remembered its great cocktails fondly. But I also liked the atmosphere with its gold and dark, pretty classy. However, we were dirt poor at the time and couldn’t afford to go out much, and somehow The Ravens Club dropped off my radar…

A well-stocked bar at The Ravens Club

The Ravens Club’s well-stocked bar. The cocktails here are absolutely amazing!

So, a couple of weeks ago I received an invitation from The Ravens Club’s managing partner Jeff to come and sample their new fall menu along with a bunch of other food and booze bloggers in and around Ann Arbor. He specifically touted their revamped wine list, and you know, free food and free wine? Count me in. I was joined by my blogging and real life friends John (The Food and Wine Hedonist) and Hannah (Next Stop: TBD). It was great to meet other bloggers from the area, too, like the authors of Clover Eats and All the Brews. Others have written about their impressions, so feel free to check out The Food and Wine Hedonist‘s, Clover Eats‘, and Hannah‘s take on the event. I also asked both of them whether I could use some of their photos, because a) I suck at remembering to bring a camera, and b) I usually suck at taking photos. They were kind enough to let me use them, so all visual beauty today is thanks to them.

Jeff told us that he thinks he and his team finally figured out what The Ravens Club is about: A bar with excellent cocktails that will offer bar food with a twist. He admitted that it took them a long time to figure it out (roughly four years), but that he is now comfortable with what The Ravens Club is. He wanted to share his vision with us, and we were happy see what they had up their sleeves. The cocktails have always been amazing, so I won’t even go into those.

While I am a foodie of sorts, I want to focus this review on The Ravens Club’s wine list. But the food was good, and I like that they incorporate interesting dishes into the menu. Chef Frank came out to talk to us, and it was interesting to see how this young chef balances making bar food to please the average diner at a bar who doesn’t want fancy food and making food that is creative and keeps him on his toes. I think, overall, he managed to achieve this. These were my favorites:

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

However, on to the wine list. Let me preface that I believe that bar’s have the hardest time to figure out a wine list: The normal customer comes for the cocktails or the beer (in The Ravens Club’s case mostly the cocktails). Wines lead a shadowy existence in a bar setting. This poses several issues for bar owners: How restricted should my wine list be? What’s my ratio of wines that an average customer might be interested in (I am just throwing it out here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Moscato, or a sweet Pinot Grigio) to wines that I am proud of serving? Should I offer wines at all? The Ravens Club, according to Jeff, tried various approaches in the past: From a vast wine list befitting a fine dining establishment to a small, mainstream (boring) list. Just like with the theme of The Ravens Club, they now feel they know what they want The Ravens Club’s wine list to be.

We had a chance to talk to the guy who put this list together, Ben Eberlein, who heads The Signature Collection, which is the boutique wine division of Henry A. Fox Sales Co. Ben is a super chill guy, and I loved talking to him for a while (it helped that his family’s roots are in Germany, and that we seem to have similar tastes in wine). First of all, he looked at what The Ravens Club has to offer: classic cocktails and American bar food. This led him to focus on American wines only. Except for the sparkling wine, which is a Spanish cava (which I always consider a good alternative to expensive champagne). He then decided to create a limited wine list of twelve still wines: six red, six white. Period. The wines are all from either California, Washington, or Oregon. I was a bit surprised to find no Michigan wines on the list, given how home state-proud a lot of Ann Arbor is, but it is what it is…and probably not for the worse.

The wineries deliver their wines in small barrels of 19.5 liters (around 5 gallons), and most wines are available on tap. At first I was a bit surprised, but it actually makes a lot of sense: Their wine sales aren’t overly big, and when you store the wines in the barrels and have them on tap, you can hold them and offer them for up to six months without them losing flavor. I think it is a win-win strategy for winery, The Ravens Club, and also the consumer. All wines I tried tasted fresh and one couldn’t tell how it got into the glass.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

With my wine buddy John sitting right beside me, and Hannah helping out from across the table, we got a good go around of a lot of their wines. Here are my thoughts on what I had:

  • We started with the Stolpman Sangiovese Carbonic from Ballard Canyon, California. The wine is made with carbonic maceration, which means the grapes are not crushed but put in a tank and then infused with carbon dioxide which causes the grapes to ferment in the berries. It’s an interesting way of making wines. However, the result was not my style at all: It showed a very light and VERY bright color (insanely bright for a Sangiovese), and ended up being pretty sweet without any Sangiovese characteristics (no cherry or underbrush). While this was not my style, I think this can work for those seeking a sweeter wine and I grant The Ravens Club that this is more interesting than your average Pinot Grigio.
  • I also tried the Blacksmith Cabernet Sauvignon fromOakville, California. Now most of you know I am not a big fan of that grape in a monovarietal, but I wanted to see what The Ravens Club offers that most consumers will probably go for. This was about what I expected: wood and red fruit. Clean, nothing really objectionable, but also nothing that would excite or entice. For what it is, it probably works well for many.
  • Now the Corvidae Lenore Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington was an entirely different story: If you want to try wine at The Ravens Club (and you should), I highly recommend this one. Pitch dark, juicy and smoky, with depth and layers and layers of interestingness. To my palate, which likes restraint, Syrah can easily be too spice. But this one was just the right amount. This also paired well with the burger.
You knew I had to try the Riesling...

You knew I had to try the Riesling…

  • I simply had to try the Corvidae Ravenna Riesling from Columbia Valley, Washington. Most West Coast Rieslings leave me wishing for more and often disappoint me, but this was outstanding. I would compare it to Alsatian Riesling in style, with prominent notes of petrol, clean and bright citrus flavors with good acidity. The wine was very balanced, and it paired amazingly with the rillette and then the chicken liver. I was a bit stunned, because I didn’t expect this wine to wow me that much, but in fact it did. Pretty high up on the list. In what I assume is an attempt to make people actually order this wine it is described as off-dry. But to my taste buds, this seemed way more dry than off-dry. In a very pleasant way.
  • When we asked Ben what else we HAD to try, he said the Chardonnay that they sell as a bottle only. It took little to convince us at that stage (two cocktails and a couple of wines into the evening): the Roco Chardonnay from Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. US chardonnay and I have a charred history, where I often struggle with too much alcohol in the wines (which is my personal crux). Everyone that tried this wine seemed to love it. It was the picture perfect example of what a well-made Chardonnay can be: crisp, clean, refreshing, with bright lemon and green apple flavors. A delight to drink, and definitely worth a try.

As should become obvious here, there are some true gems on this wine list. For Wine Century Club lovers, they have a Grenache blanc on the list, and for the eccentrics or the bourbon lovers, they have a wine that matured in bourbon barrels. In any case, it is worth looking past the cocktails and the excellent selection of bourbons that The Ravens Club has to offer. The wines make for interesting pairings, and can be a nice mix-up of the regular fare.

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Because of the gorgeous summer weather: Two Rosés I liked…and a bonus wine

The wines were received as samples from the winery or a marketing association.

We’ve been spending the whole week in London and Oxford, and the weather has been startlingly gorgeous: temperatures in the high 20s Celsius, barely any rain. I don’t think I have ever seen the UK like this…with temperatures like this, I find myself reaching for Rosés, fulfilling every Rosé stereotype: that they are only really good when it’s warm and you can drink them very well chilled. In fact there are a lot more uses for these types of wine, and I acknowledge them, but to me a Rosé still tastes best in the summer…

Over the last months, I received a couple of samples and I was particularly impressed by these two:

 

Piattelli Premium Malbec Rosé

Piattelli Premium Malbec Rosé

2013 Piattelli Vineyards Premium Reserve Rosé of Malbec

Piattelli Vineyards is an Argentinian winery with holdings on the Eastern side of the Andes in Mendoza and Salta whose head oenologist is Valeria Antolin. This particular wine was made with 91% Malbec and 9% Torrontés (a white grape) grapes and has 14% ABV. I tried it as part of #BevChat, a Twitter tasting, in May. The wine poured (as you can see) in a bright red that I would describe as watermelon color.  The nose offered roses and melon aromas, and was enticing. On the palate, this presented itself as a serious wine, pretty heavy with not much acidity. It felt much more like a light red than a heavy white, if you know what I mean. It had pretty good balance and not much fruit.  The main reason I like this particular wine is that it pairs great with a BBQ, THE summer food. It has the heft to stand up to these charred aromas, and is still fresh. Someone else tried it with a sausage and mushroom pizza and was also seriously impressed. This is not your easy-peasy Rosé you can grab for a few bucks at the liquor store, but it shows what Rosé can be capable of. Retails for between $8 and $14.

Cline Cellars Rosé

Cline Cellars Rosé

Cline Cellars 2013 Mourvèdre Rosé Contra Costa County

I tried this wine as part of a #WineChat hosted by Protocol Wine Studios and received the wine as a sample from Cline Cellars. Cline Cellars has a reputation for producing Rhone-style wines in California, and as it happens, Mourvèdre is a standard Rhone grape but is rare to find in California. The wine has 13.5% ABV and 8.1 grams of residual sugar per liter. The special thing about this Rosé is that the grapes come from vines that are a century old, which is not normally material for a Rosé. It shows that Cline Cellars takes this wine seriously. The way the wine is made is as a blanc de noir, basically a white wine made from red grapes. Let me just say that I loved this wine. It was wonderfully full of raspberry aromas with some floral elements, and it was just super fresh and great. Nice acidity keeps it lively, and the hint of sweetness makes for great drinkability. Retails for between $10 and $14.

And while we’re talking Cline Cellars, let me add a non-Rosé to the mix:

Cline Cool Climate Pinot Noir (Photo credit: www.wine-searcher.com)

Cline Cool Climate Pinot Noir (Photo credit: http://www.wine-searcher.com)

Cline Cellars 2012 Cool Climate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

This wine was part of the Cline Cellars tasting, and if you know me, you might have picked up on my weariness when it comes to California Pinot Noir, which I often find too strong, too intense, too fruity. Well, not this one, let me tell you. At 14.5% ABV it is definitely a tad higher than I would wish for in a Pinot Noir, but the wine’s aromas totally made up for it: In the glass, this Pinot Noir was prune colored. The nose gave away raspberry, cherry, white cake batter, and was slightly perfumy. An intriguing mix of aromas. On the palate, the wine was a bit smoky, showed aromas of cocoa and cherry and just great acidity! Someone wasn’t shying away from it in a very good way. There was also enough forest aromas in the wine to make it recognizable as a Pinot Noir, but it wore its New World colors proudly. A great mix, in my book. This should work really well with a BBQ and was a great surprise! Retails for between $15 and $20 and is a great value!

 

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