Tag 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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2010 Bargetto Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot

2010 Bargetto Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot

2010 Bargetto Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot

Last summer, we spent about 10 days with Nina’s grandmother who lives in Santa Cruz, California. During that visit, we had the good fortune to attend a tasting at Ridge (for the report and an awesome photo of me see here – at the bottom of the post). While I love visiting producers that are widely known and appreciated, I also get a kick out of visiting smaller, less well know, more local wineries. For one weekend, we decided to go and hit up Bargetto Winery, a winery I had never even heard of. It’s located in Santa Cruz and was established in 1933. It was founded by two brothers that migrated to the United States from the Piemonte region in Italy. From 1918-1933, due to prohibition, the winery was only making wine for family and friends, until in 1933 they cranked up production with the end of prohibition. It is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.

We went to the tasting room in Soquel on a Saturday afternoon, and had a great time. It was a rather quiet day, we paid the California obligatory tasting room fee, and then proceeded to try their Merlot, Pinot Noir, and other varietal wines. We got to talk to Michael Sones, the winemaker who is a great guy, and got a tour of the estate. The winery claims to try to follow the Northern Italian wine making tradition, which seems to entail trying to express colder climate flavors in their wines. For us, that approach seemed to work. Grandma signed up for the wine club, and we took home a couple of bottles of this Merlot, and one of their high end Pinot Noir, which I really enjoyed.

Another note to send ahead: I don’t understand why so many people have issues with Merlot. When done right, it is such an interesting grape, with awesome flavors. Its rather light feel is a much better fit for me than the seemingly heavier Cabernet Sauvignons. In my book, if you are looking for something between Cabernet and Pinot Noir, try a Merlot….but that might just be me.

The 2010 Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot is composed of 90.2% Merlot and 9.8% Petite Syrah grapes with the vast majority of grapes coming from Regan Estate vineyard. The wine has 13.5% ABV and was aged in 33% new oak barrels for 18 months before being bottled in September 2012. 381 cases were produced. Price: $25.

In the glass, the wine showed a bright darker red with hazy rims. The nose was extremely full of berries, mostly crushed raspberries, but also currants. There were floral aromas, and hints of smoke. I thought the nose was terrific. After a while, branch aromas started to show up and the nose got more earthy. On the palate, the first thing I noticed was a healthy acidity, and then what I can only describe as vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce. It was such a cool tasting experience, and definitely not what I remembered from our tasting room tasting. The mouth-feel was silky and fresh, and some wood aromas shown through. The wine was of good length, with all in all well integrated flavors. If I had one issue, it would be that the acidity was maybe a bit too bright for it to be entirely balanced.

All in all, a cool tasting experience. I enjoyed the flavors, which became more spicy and herbal as the bottle progressed, and it brought back good memories from last year’s visit to the Bay area. Cannot wait to go back. Also, I tried some dark chocolate with this wine, and it was a great pairing. The red berries and chocolate just hit it off! If you get a chance, stop by at Bargetto Winery and give their wines a try.

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2012 Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon

Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon

Disclaimer: The wine was received as a media sample. Opinions expressed are my own.

A few weeks ago I was approached whether I wanted to review a wine for a good cause. Apparently, the California negociant Joseph Carr has developed a line of five varietals under the name Josh Cellars, to honor his father. With the holidays coming up, the company is going to donate $1 for every bottle bought until December 31 to the military family support organization Operation Homefront (up to $50,000). While many like to talk about honoring the troops and with Veterans’ Day, I thought that’s a neat idea and why not combine pleasure and giving.

The wines in the line include a Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Grapes come from California and are made in the French wine making tradition, whatever that really means (sometimes, I do find marketing talk interesting). The wines should be available nationwide.

A few days after the initial contact, I received a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon in the mail….and cursed myself for not telling them that usually I am not that fond of Cabernet Sauvignon. My preferred choice would have been the Pinot Noir or even the Sauvignon Blanc. Ah well. I knew I could count on Nina to help me assess the wine (she’s in love with all things Cabernet Sauvignon).

I checked the technical stuff on the wine, so let me share that with you. It contains 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, which was actually exciting news because I tend to like Cabernet Sauvignon blended much better. For those unfamiliar with negociants, they are wine merchants that cooperate with growers to produce a crop from which the negociant makes and markets wines, think of Louis Jadot or Georges Duboeuf of the American Kermit Lynch.

When we poured the wine, shortly before I took off to Germany, it poured in a surprisingly light color, much less saturated than I had anticipated. The nose showed some heat, prunes, ash, blackberry and strawberry after a while of opening up. When tasted initially, it just had a great mouth feel with a good chewiness and freshness. I got green peppers, some sweet raspberry aromas, cooked strawberries and there were hardly any tannins noticeable. The wine had retained some hints of sweetness, and was all in all quite pleasing. After an hour, I noticed aromas of licorice and tobacco complementing the palette.

What the Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon might lack in depth, it easily made up for its drinkability and how accessible it is. I can see this as a great wine for people that might be interested in wine, but don’t have much experience, and frankly, we all have a ton of such friends. They want to explore wine more, but they also see the entry barrier as too high. I can see the Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon come in handily for those. And when seen from that angle, it makes for a great gift for a family member or something to take along to a party in the neighborhood. It’s an easy to enjoy wine for sure, and the price tag at $14.99 SRP seems quite alright.

Their website is currently under construction, but you can look up their partnership with Operation Homefront on Josh Cellars Facebook page.

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