Shafer Vineyards

Shafer ChardonnayI first visited Shafer Vineyards in 2002. Back then, I knew even less about wine than I do now. For one thing I wore a floaty skirt and flip-flops. Just the thing for walking through the vineyards. For another, as I recall, I merely smiled vaguely when offered a glass of Hillside Select.

OK, so now I know it’s a hugely sought-after wine. But no major gaffes were committed and I got what I came for, an interview with winemaker Elias Fernandez, a talented and determined guy who has a Shafer wine named after him: Relentless.

(If they were naming a wine after me I think it would more likely be Hapless: Somewhat acidic with notes of coffee and despair.)

The winery was founded by John Shafer in 1972 after he left a job working for the Chicago schoolbook company that put out the “Dick and Jane” readers. (Remember them? Run, Jane, run!) Shafer bought the property and planted cabernet sauvignon.  In 1994, he handed over to son Doug Shafer, now president. Father and son recently won the “Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional” award from the James Beard Foundation.Shafer wines get a lot of sunshine and they show it in big, bold flavors. They’re not for everyday drinking, with prices currently ranging from around $50 to $240 for the flagship Hillside Select, which is allocated to customers who’ve already signed up on a mailing list.  Take that, recession.

This is a great spot to visit, but not the kind of place you roll up to on a Sunday afternoon drive. Tastings are by appointment only and cost $55 per person. On the other hand, it’s not every day you get to visit one of the world’s top wineries. Try doing that in France. Or rather, don’t.

At Shafer, your visit begins with a hearty welcome from one of the winery dogs. Then you’re ushered into an elegant dining room with a breathtaking view of the Stags Leap District, which is where the Shafer grapes come from. There are no gift shops or snack bars here; the emphasis is on wine. I recall one visit where our group was lucky enough to have winemaker Fernandez present. He was the perfect host, listening to the various opinions and giving us a bit of back story on growing conditions for the vintages we tried. It wasn’t too long before we had a conversation going.

And that, Fernandez pointed out “is the beauty of wine. It allows people who never met to communicate about something.”




Robin Williams’ Napa Valley Estate for Sale


Robin Williams’ Napa Valley Estate

Great news for would-be Napa Valley property owners, comedian Robin Williams’ fabulous estate is back on the market. And it’s been marked down!

From $35 mil to $29.9 mil, but hey, a discount’s a discount.

Do rich people think like us, by the way? Are they all, “Twenty-nine-nine, OK, but 30 big ones, no way!’? I know I always feel better about paying $99.99 for shoes than blowing my budget on a $100 pair.

The house is called Villa Sorriso and is set on the Mayacama hills between Napa and Sonoma. For your $29.9 million you get nearly 20,000 square feet that includes five bedrooms, an oak-paneled library, a home theater, an elevator, safe rooms, climate-controlled cellars for your art and, of course, wine, and a tower and bridge. The villa sits on 653 acres and includes an infinity-edge swimming pool and a seven-stall horse barn.

I don’t want to brag, but there are safe rooms in our house, too. For instance, if the basement is piled high with dirty laundry it’s safe to say I’m the only person who’s going to be down there.

The real estate listing posted the first time the house went on the market, in 2012, was written quite poetically and talked up both the wildness of the property and the fact that it’s within 80 minutes of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, creating “a wilderness so convenient, yet so wild and haunting, that it summons even the softest city dweller.” I guess they’re going for the Green Acres dynamic.

Back in 2012, I noted that the listing showed a billiard room complete with billiard table. Which I thought would be convenient if you happened to have Prince Harry visiting, since the royal had recently demonstrated a complete lack of billiard skills. You’d think after two years I’d be willing to let that cheap joke go.

You’d be wrong.

williams billiard


Mondavi Mansion Mystery Unmasked

So now we know who the mystery buyers of the Robert Mondavi mansion are _ Jean-Charles Boisset, president of the French company Boisset Family Estates, which owns several California wineries, and his wife, Gina Gallo, granddaughter of California wine pioneer Julio Gallo.

Call me sentimental but I like the idea of all that dynastic family winemaking converging in one spot.

The news was first reported in the Wine Spectator and Boisset confirmed the purchase to the Napa Valley Register, saying the property is a spectacular site with amazing views.

I have no idea what will happen next, but if the renovations at Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards are anything to go by, it could be pretty interesting.

The house is 11,500 square feet on a 56-acre estate with sweeping views, a tower and a 50-foot indoor pool off the living room, under a retractable roof. It originally was listed for $25 million but the price was later dropped to $13.9 million with the recession and all. The house ultimately went for less than that, although there reportedly were two bids that were described as “strong.”

Faithful readers may recall that when the house went up for bid at the reduced price in October, the various descriptions of its fabulous fittings left me with a slight case of real estate envy. After all, the only sweeping views at Chez Vinecdote involve me, a broom and a good deal of dust. So, I decided to spruce up the homestead by fixing the leaking pipe under the kitchen sink.

How’d that go? Good news: pipe no longer leaks. Bad news: I used up an entire month’s swear quota in the space of about 15 minutes.



Wine labels: Reading between the lines


A Rioja red wine /Michelle Locke

What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you’re a consumer or producer of wine. A poll released today shows that 79 percent of the people surveyed thought the region where a wine comes from was an important factor when buying a bottle of wine and 75 percent said they would be less likely to buy a bottle of wine that gave the impression of coming from a region such as Champagne or the Napa Valley when in fact it did not.

The kicker: When presented with two labels for comparison, most consumers were unable to determine the correct origin of the wine.

In hopes of making the location equation a little less puzzling, winemakers from Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma County and 12 other premier international wine regions are banding with well-known chefs to campaign for truth-in-wine labels.

“A wine’s unique characteristics cannot be duplicated anywhere in the world except its country of origin,” Christopher Taranto, marketing director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said in a press release announcing the campaign. “Misleading consumers to believe that their wines come from a place they do not is damaging to the worldwide marketplace for wines. Working with Porto, Jerez and Chianti Classico and all of the partners in the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin, we call on the U.S. to support our efforts and protect these wines.”

The poll was among 1,000 wine consumers who purchase at least three bottles of wine a month. It was released by the signers of the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin, which was formed in 2005. Chefs in support include Thomas Keller of Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Wolfgang Puck.

Protecting place names has emerged as a hot-button issue across the food and beverage world as consumers have become more interested in the provenance of the plate, and glass. It’s quite a surprise to learn that parmesan cheese is not the white powder Americans used to shake over spaghetti but a distinct product made only in certain regions of Italy, including Parma. Ditto the revelation that sherry is a real place (Jerez, Spain) with numerous and high-quality wines, not just a generic name for something sweet and cheap.  The U.S. has signed an agreement prohibiting domestic producers from using port, sherry or champagne on their labels but grandfathered in existing brands before 1986, an ongoing source of contention.

I’ve been a fan of reading labels, especially the nutritional labels on food, for a while. It never ceases to amaze me when I see something labeled “all-natural” and “healthy” on the front of the package and I flip it over and see the first ingredient by volume is “sugar.”

Wine labels, which are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, are a bit trickier. For one thing, they’re notorious for flowery prose, especially on the back labels, individualized styles and a whole lot of variables in what gets listed. Generally, what you want to look for is the front label and any place names listed. If the wine says “California,” for instance, that means that 100 percent of the grapes used in the wine come from the Golden State.

Highlights from the poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies

  • 79 percent consider the region where a wine comes from an important factor when buying a bottle of wine;
  • 75 percent report they would be less likely to buy a wine if they learned that it claimed to be from a place like Champagne, Napa Valley or Oregon, but in actuality was not;
  • 84 percent think that the region a wine comes from is extremely important in determining its quality;
  • 96 percent say that consumers deserve to know that the location where wine grapes are grown is accurately stated on wine labels; and
  • 98 percent support establishing worldwide standards for all winemakers that would require that they accurately state the location where wine grapes are grown on wine labels.

Here is a good primer on wine label rules from the Napa Valley Vintners, I’ve recapped some of the key parts below.

Vintage: Optional. The year designates the year in which the grapes were harvested. As of May 2006, the U.S. law allows that up to 15% of the blend can be from a vintage other than the stated year. However, appellation-specific wines are held to a higher standard.

Appellation of Origin: Wine labels may contain several levels of geographic distinctions:

  • a. California State law requires that 100% of the grapes come from within California.
  • b. Other States Federal law and nearly all other states require that 75% of the fruit must come from within the named state.
  • c. Officially Designated Viticultural Areas. Since 1983, at least 85% of the grapes must come from the named region (for example “Napa Valley.”)

Wine Type: Mandatory. A wine may be labeled by a grape or varietal name such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, or it may be given a generic name such as “Red Table Wine.” Prior to 1983, a wine labeled as a varietal was required to contain at least 51% of the named grape varietal and have the “taste, aroma, and characteristics” of the grape varietal. Beginning in 1983, wines using varietal names must derive at least 75% of their volume from the grape designated.

Vineyard of Origin: Optional. Many wineries name the vineyard in which the grapes were grown because the winery believes the property produces an unusually high-quality grape. The winery or an independent grower may own the vineyard. Federal policy requires that 95% of the grapes must have been grown in the vineyard named.

Producer and Bottler: Mandatory. The label must indicate the bottler and its location. Several descriptions are common:

  • a. “Produced and bottled by” certifies that the bottler fermented 75% or more of the wine. Used in combination with other information on the label, such as a vineyard, this term provides the consumer with significant information about the origin of the wine and who is responsible for its production.
  • b. “Cellared and bottled by” indicates that the bottler has aged the wine or subjected it to cellar treatment before bottling
  • c. “Made and bottled by” indicates that the bottler fermented at least 75% of the wine (10% before July 28, 1994)
  • d. “Bottled by” indicates that the winery bottled the wine, which may have been grown, crushed, fermented, finished, and aged by someone else

Estate Bottled: Optional. This term certifies legally that the winery grew 100% of the grapes on land it owns or controls and that the winery crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a continuous process. Both the vineyard and winery must be located in the viticultural area that is stated on the label.

Alcohol Content: Mandatory. This statement on a table wine indicates the alcohol content by volume, with a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5%. However, the tolerance cannot be used to label as a table wine a wine containing more than 14% alcohol.

Declaration of Sulfites: Mandatory. Beginning in 1988, wines which have a level of 10 parts per million or greater of sulfur dioxide must be labeled with a sulfite declaration.

Government Warning: Mandatory. All wine bottled after November 18, 1989 must bear the federal warning.

So endeth today’s lesson. My sincerest appreciation to anyone who read all the way to the bottom. You deserve a nice glass of something if it’s after 5 p.m.

Properly labeled, of course.






Bidding in the rain

The Staglins and Chef Chiarello celebrate a big bid /Michelle Locke

It was a wet ‘n wild afternoon at this year’s big Napa wine auction as an unseasonable _ I mean really unbelievable, are you kidding me, winter storms in June?! _ downpour pounded the event. But although umbrellas took the place of big hats it was charity that reigned as the 31-year-old event reached a lifetime giving total of more than $100 million.

As honorary chair Koerner Rombauer put it, “Sorry about the weather, but so what!”

So what, indeed. Although the total was shy of 2010, when the bidding topped $8 million, it was a good showing for a year that could have been swamped by the lingering economic doldrums not to mention the nasty weather.

Here’s a video of the event.


The top lot of the day was a joint effort by Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard and celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello. The lot, which combined food and wine, went up to $300,000 as two bidders duked it out, and then the Staglins and Chiarello doubled the lot for a total of $600,000. So everyone went home happy.

Other big lots included a doubled lot from BOND which brought in $240,000 and another two-fer from Raymond Vineyards which added up to $390,000. Raymond owner Jean-Charles Boisset has a lot to celebrate; he and wife Gina Gallo  just welcomed twin girls into their family.

The auction is a four-day affair held each year on the first weekend of June. In addition to the live auction, which takes place on Saturday afternoon, there’s an e-auction and a barrel auction. This year, the barrel auction brought in just over $1 million with the top lot coming from Shafer Vineyards, fetching $59,600.

The only loser of the day was the beautifully manicured fairway at the Meadowood resort which owner Bill Harlan (of Bond Estates and Harlan Estate) perennially donates as a venue for the live auction. The soggy conditions and foot traffic turned some patches into soupy mud; an area reserved for dancing was particularly churned up. That’s the first time I’ve ever gone home with mud on my dancing shoes rainboots.

Talk about getting down and dirty on the dance floor.


Cinderella's slippers, #ANV11 style /Michelle Locke








Raymond Vineyards

Put yourself in the picture at Raymond Vineyards /Michelle Locke

Looking for something a little different? Raymond Vineyards fits the bill and then some.

Interested in organic and biodynamic farming? They’ve got that. Want to meet a weed-eating sheep named Woolly Wonka? Check. Meanwhile, if you want to  indulge your inner hedonist there’s the Crystal Cellar, which has the usual tanks, etc., you’d find at any winery juxtaposed with some most unusual accoutrements including artful lighting, a fabulous chandelier and Baccarat crystal.

The changes come at the direction of proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, which bought the property in 2009. Among his many innovations are the frames strung up on the winery grounds that make a fun frame for snapshots.

Wines are well-made and well-priced, starting at about $13 and going up to $85 for the flagship cabernet sauvignon. There’s also an interesting barrel-to-barrel program featuring 10- and 3-liter bags that fit into a stylish wooden barrel equipped with a tap for dispensing.

In a nod to the legacy of the founding Raymond family, the winery has started a club for anyone with “Raymond” as a first, middle or last name. Membership is free and comes with such perks as complimentary tastings for life.

Crystal cellar at Raymond Vineyards /Michelle Locke


Address: 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena, CA
Phone: 707-963-3141
Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily
Cost: Tasting fees start at $15
Don’t miss: Taking pictures through the frames hanging outside


Inglenook Returns


Inglenook chateau /Michelle Locke

Francis Ford Coppola has worked for years to restore the good name of the Napa Valley’s Inglenook winery. This week he made it literal with the announcement that he had acquired the Inglenook trademark.

The director _ although these days he may be known as much for wine as for movies _ also announced he has hired Philippe Bascaules from France’s famous Chateau Margaux as his new estate manager and winemaker

Inglenook goes back to 1879, when it was founded by Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum. Under Niebaum’s successor, John Daniel, the winery drew wide acclaim and the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet is considered one of the greats. But hard times came to the winery and by the 1970s the estate had been broken up and the name sold off.

In 1975, the Coppolas purchased the Rutherford property and began the long, expensive process of putting the estate back together and restoring winemaking operations in the famous chateau.

At first the estate was called Niebaum-Coppola in honor of both families. More recently, Coppola changed the name to Rubicon, which is the name of the estate’s flagship wine. In a cool touch of history, new vintages are released on March 15, the Ides of March, to mark the Julius Caesar tie-in. (In case you don’t have Roman history memorized, Caesar came to power after a civil war he started by crossing the Rubicon, a river outside Rome, with his troops, which was forbidden and considered an act of war, hence the whole “crossing the Rubicon” expression.)

The premium wines will continue to be called Rubicon but the estate will now be known as Inglenook.

In a statement, Coppola said he’s spent the last year assessing the estate’s needs, including recruiting Bascaules, invigorating the vineyards and planning a state-of-the-art winemaking facility, part of his goal of  “restoring this property into America’s greatest wine estate.” Coppola also acknowledged the “gracious support” of The Wine Group, which had owned the Inglenook name.

Wine Group CEO David Kent said the company is “pleased to see the revered Inglenook brand reunited with its historic estate under the Coppola family’s stewardship. This is a proud moment for the California wine industry.”

I was lucky enough to taste the 1941 Inglenook at a dinner the Coppolas gave to wine writers and assorted others some years ago. Unfortunately, this was when I was just starting to cover the industry and I think I probably spent more time thinking about what to say when meeting famous people than concentrating on the wine. At the time I was struck most by the light ruby color and I remember thinking that it “tasted like wine.”

Now, I see things differently. There’s no point denying I’m probably always going to be the type of person who prefers her wines young and fruity, but I can appreciate the awesomeness of drinking a wine that had been made 60 or more years ago, listening to the winemaker’s harvest notes written just months before America crossed its own Rubicon into the fury of World War II, and appreciating that in the glass, all those years later, the qualities Daniel sought still breathed.


What not to wear, vineyard version

IMG_4510What should you wear when you’re going to get out in the vineyard to observe the nitty gritty, emphasis on gritty, of grapegrowing?

Here’s a hint. Don’t follow the example of a group I  encountered recently who showed up for a vineyard tour wearing sleeveless tops and flip-flops _ and here’s a bulletin folks; toes are not pretty _ not to mention one ill-advised pair of 3-inch platforms.  Stumbling and shivering ensued followed by the kind of whines you don’t find in a tasting room. Continue reading “What not to wear, vineyard version”

Auction Napa Valley


A lot at the Napa Valley wine auction /Michelle Locke

Napa Valley vintners partied like it was 1989 for their annual auction this weekend, and what a swell party it was.  Black tie, evening gowns and a fancy emcee: Out. Flowered dresses, big hats and “Walk Like an Egyptian” rock group the Bangles: In.

The result was $8.5 million raised for local charities, a good showing for any year and downright impressive for the Great Recession. As honorary co-chair Beth Novak Milliken put it, “a spectacular weekend.”This was the 30th anniversary of the auction, which started out with $140,000 raised in 1981. Back then, the valley was so laid-back organizers used bedsheets instead of tablecloths because there wasn’t a local linens supplier with the resources to put on that big a party. Over time, the Napa Valley shifted upscale and in recent years the auction followed suit, switching from relaxed garden party to posh dinner complete with big names like Jay Leno performing host duties.

But this year it was back to basics, with a relaxed dress code and less formal vibe. You knew you were in for a change when you walked into the big tent for the live auction Saturday and saw water pistols on the tables. It was a warm afternoon and the pistols got plenty of use. To the point that Mme. Vinecdote was used as a human shield by one sharpshooting vintner who shall remain nameless.

There was still plenty of glitz during the four-day event, formally known as Auction Napa Valley. Elegant parties were held at wineries on Thursday and Friday night featuring fabulous wines and four-star food. But the star turn of the weekend was the live auction held, as usual, at the exclusive Meadowood Resort in St. Helena.The most suspenseful action of the day came with a lot from Colgin Cellars. A winning bid of $250,000 quickly grew to $1 million after Colgin Cellars kept offering to duplicate the lot for others willing to pony up that much. What did winning bidders get? Eight magnums of Bordeaux blends, dinner for six and a comparative tasting for six.

(It is without a doubt a splendid thing to watch other people spending thousands of dollars for a good cause, never more so than when your own bank account is a shade shy of six figures.)

And, in keeping with today’s frugal aesthetic, there were bargains to be had.Take the $200,000 bid that secured a 6-liter bottle of the highly sought-after Screaming Eagle. (The 6-liter bottle is known as a methusaleh and is the equivalent of eight regular bottles.) In 2000, a 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle went for $500,000.A $300,000 discount? I’ll drink to that.