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”

Mauritson Winery


How can you tell if you’re at a Sonoma or Napa wine event? Check the ratio of Porches to pickups in the parking lot. OK, plenty of people in Sonoma County drive luxury automobiles _ and I have seen a few beaters parked at Napa wineries _ but in broad-brush terms, it’s true. Sonoma is to Napa like a chunky amber topaz necklace to a sparkly diamond pendant. Both gems, just one’s a little wilder, a little more unexpected. I was reminded of how much fun it is to explore Sonoma County when I spent a recent afternoon there doing interviews for some upcoming stories.

It was a beautiful day _ warm, sunny, and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of green vineyards unrolling under a cerulean sky. Lots of vineyards. The county has nearly 63,000 acres planted to grapes _ chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are the Big 3 _ and there are 260 wineries open to the public.

One of my stops was at the Mauritson Winery in the Dry Creek Valley. This winery has an interesting history that goes back to the 19th century. Great-great-great-grandfather S.P. Hallengren was a pioneer in Sonoma County’s Rockpile region and the family homestead and ranch grew to 4,000 acres. But in the early 1960s almost all of it was acquired by the government to create Lake Sonoma.

With most of their land under water, the family moved farming operations elsewhere, continuing their business of growing grapes for other wineries, something they still do. But in the mid-1990s, winemaker Clay Mauritson, then just out of college, suggested that the family go into the winemaking business as well. The inaugural release of Mauritson Dry Creek Valley zinfandel came in 1998. Meanwhile, attention turned to the family’s remaining property in Rockpile _ craggy, ridge line property once deemed good only for sheep-grazing. These days that kind of environment, sparse soils, steep slopes, sun and wind exposure, is considered a prime place for producing premium wine.  Grapes that struggle to survive turn out more flavorful than those that live a plush life. (Query: Is this true for people, too? I’d like to think so, especially on Monday mornings.) Today, Mauritson makes several Rockpile wines, including zesty zins.

In 2004, the winemaking facility and tasting room opened.  Nothing fancy here, just a comfortable  tasting bar with good, reasonably priced wines. With the temps being on the toasty side, I tried the sauvignon blanc, which was fresh with bright acidity and an aromatic nose. (Wel,l since this is down-to-earth Sonoma County, let me rephrase that last part. It smelled good.)



Crime vs. wine

Ugni grapes growing in Cognac
Ugni grapes growing in Cognac

After I made the switch from covering general news, mostly crime, to covering lifestyles topics, mostly food and wine, I took a lot of ribbing from people who seemed to think I had hitched a ride on the gravy train. All misguided, of course. Reporting’s reporting no matter what the subject. You still have to look stuff up, figure out what’s new and get people’s names right.

And pressure? You ever print a cake recipe with double the amount of baking powder in it? Hell hath no fury greater than that of a person who just wasted 2 hours in the kitchen, friend.

Still, there’s no denying there are a few teensy disparities between my new and old beats.

Herewith are my Top 10 Differences Between Covering Wine and Crime:

10. When people see you driving up, they give you the electronic gate code instead of changing it.

9. People gather at wine events to open bottles, not throw them

8. Winery dogs will greet you, junk yard dogs will eat you

7. When someone tells you to put a cork in it they’re most likely expressing an opinion about wine bottle closures, not your rhetorical skills.

6. In crime, you need evidence of wrongdoing before opening a case.

5. On the wine beat you cover people at bars. On the crime beat you cover people behind them.

4.  In the wine world, “fining” easier on your wallet. (Eds note: What?) (Dear Ed: “fining” means filtering, finishing off process for wine. Also don’t make me explain my jokes.) 

3. It’s OK for wine judges to drink on the job.

2. “Hang time” refers to grape ripening, not punitive measures.

(drumroll, please)

1. On the wine beat you drink to learn more about your subject. On the crime beat you drink to forget it.

Far Niente Turns 125

Parade of wines at Far Niente 125th Anniversary /Michelle Locke


The Far Niente Winery is turning 125 this year. And the old girl is looking good.  A birthday like that merits a party and that’s what the owners did this weekend, throwing open their gates to about 800 people who flooded the grounds to dine, hear music from world-famous performers _ Joshua Bell, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and trumpet sensation Chris Botti _ and finish up the evening shaking what their mommas gave them at a barn dance.

Mr. Vinecdote and I put on our gladdest rags and joined the party. Guests included Margrit Mondavi, widow of wine country pioneer Robert Mondavi, Gordon Getty, resplendent in blue and white stripes, Bo and Heidi Barrett of Chateau Montelena, Boots Brounstein of Diamond Creek Winery, chefs Cindy Pawlcyn and Michael Chiarello and the lovely Leslie Sbrocco, host of KQED’s “Check Please.”

Festivities started with a sip of Dolce dessert wine and then it was into the cellars for chardonnay and a candle light stroll past barrels and strategically placed hors d’ouevres. After that it was on to the food booths, where restaurants from throughout the valley were serving. I had roast pork, pulled pork sandwiches and steak-on-a-stick. I wanted to be sure to get in all four food groups, so I had another pork sandwich.

Fortified in every way, we were in just the right frame of mind for the entertainment portion of the night, which began with duets by Bell and Thibaudet.  “Wow, this is gorgeous,” Bell said of his surroundings as he introduced a piece by Dvorak. It really was. The stage glowed softly as night fell, each perfect note hovering in the air before melting into the darkening sky.

Here’s a little snippet.



Bell, who got to know the people at Far Niente through his appearances at the Napa Valley’s summer Festival del Sole , joked that his 1713 Stradivarius was of an older vintage than anything on hand at the winery. He’d been abstemious, keeping a clear head for playing, but he assured concert-goers he had something good waiting in his dressing room.  Trumpet sensation Chris Botti was next, putting on a smooth show that moved effortlessly from classic favorites to an intense jam session.

A highlight of the evening was the Parade of Wines, in which friends and staff hefted in methuselahs (the big bottles that hold the equivalent of eight 750 mls) of old vintages. The 1984 was a standout for me, amazingly fresh and velvety.

The winery goes back nearly a century beyond that, to 1885 when it was founded by one of the original forty-niners, John Benson. He picked the name Far Niente  from the Italian, “dolce far niente,” or “sweet to do nothing.” Which makes sense if you think about the hardscrabble life of a miner.

The winery was abandoned with the onset of Prohibition in 1919 and stayed that way until 1979 when the late Gil Nickel bought it and began a three-year restoration while taking courses in winemaking and grapegrowing.    Today it’s run by Nickel’s partners, among them his widow, Beth Nickel, and the venture includes the Nickel & Nickel Winery as well as Dolce, a winery devoted to a single (delicious) dessert wine, and En Route, a pinot noir.

After Saturday night’s party, the Far Niente crew was taking Sunday off, Beth Nickel announced with a smile. And then, she said, they’ll start planning the next celebration.

I’ll drink to that.



Learning to speak vinacular: Meeting the’great crew’

My career as a wine country reporter started out at the top _ a visit to Harlan Estate, a place that makes small quantities of big wines that routinely win the highest of praise from critics and collectors.

It was one of those situations where, luckily, I was too naive to see how in over my head I was. Although I knew we were someplace special when we found a jag waiting to drive us around the property.

Sadly, that was my first and last time, so far at least, of being chauffered in such style. Winery founder Bill Harlan was the perfect host, giving me a primer on  the basics of high-quality grape growing as well as sharing his vision to create a wine that could compete with the famous chateaux of France.

At least, that’s what I figured out later after carefully going over my tape and looking stuff up. At the time, I wasn’t processing too clearly. I remember writing in my notebook, Wants to create a great crew in California. Made sense to me, I mean, we all need a good work force, right?

Of course, now I know he was talking about creating a California “grand cru,” or “first growth,” the French classification for wine of the highest quality that is awarded to only a few estates.I’m happy to say this was one of those times I resorted to the old smile and nod. Such a useful tool in the reporters’ workbox.Except for the time I interviewed Edward Teller.

But that’s another story.


Sunny Sonoma

Sonoma Town Square /Michelle Locke

You know how they talk about Berkeley being a hotbed of protest? They’re lying. It’s pretty much always perishing cold here. When we went through a (mercifully brief) pro-nudity movement a few years ago that was the question all of us locals were asking: How can they stand the cold?So I was particularly happy when business took me to Sonoma this week. This is a small city of about 10,000 people in Sonoma County wine country. The main attraction is the plaza downtown, beautifully landscaped with a pond so serene just looking at it makes your heart rate slow down. (In a good way.) The early 20th-century City Hall is here, as are the Mission San Francisco Solano and an assortment of shops and cafes.

Sonoma County doesn’t get quite the same kind of press as the Napa Valley next door, but it’s definitely worth a visit. One of my favorite wineries is Benziger Family Winery.  For $15, you can take a 45-minute tram tour of the vineyards, farmed biodynamically _ just learning about that is an experience _ and see the fermentation facility, crush pad and barrel caves. Oh, and you get to taste a little wine.

Another good side trip is Jack London State Park, where the author of “Call of the Wild,” etc., lived from 1905 to 1916. There are the ruins of what was to be his dream house, which burned down in 1913, and also a cottage where he lived and wrote. I visited a few years ago and was impressed by his mantra of write 1,000 a words a day, every day. Can’t say I live up to that. Of course, he didn’t have the handicap of being distracted by unbearably cute pictures of cats on the Internet.


Learning to speak vinacular: My buddy Brunello

Writing about wine is a wonderful thing. Great places to visit, smart, engaging people to talk to … and a whole new world of ways to stick your foot right in your mouth.

Let me tell you about my first experience with Brunello di Montalcino.

It was some years ago and I was writing about an international wine competition. The important part for me was that a couple of California wines had scored big. Local angle, check.

But I couldn’t help noticing as I scanned the list that Brunello di Montalcino came up a lot, too. Really an impressive showing in the top 10.

So, when I interviewed one of the contest officials, I had to ask: “Who is this Brunello guy? He really seems to be raking in the prizes.” (I didn’t share, but I had a whole vision in my head of Mr. B. Stocky, muscular, dark brown hair just beginning to go gray and a rich, riotously curly beard.)

There was pause. A sigh. And then the official said gently, “Brunello di Montalcino is a type of wine.

“Ah,” I said, ever one with the quick comeback.

I am sure you would never drop such a clanger, but just in case you need a refresher, Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine produced from grapes grown in vineyards near the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. Brunello means brownish (roughly) in Tuscan dialect and the wine is made from a clone of the sangiovese grape. Not a lot gets made and this is one of those wines prized by collectors; 2004 was a good vintage.

Adding a bit of drama, the region was the source of scandal a few years ago when Italian authorities investigated whether some producers were using grapes other than sangiovese, strictly forbidden under the many regulations governing how brunello is made.

So, that’s your brunello primer for today.

Now, I’m off to find out more about my new wine friend, that Australian minx Margaret River.


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.



Goodbye, Fess

Fess Parker, 85, died today.

Parker, of course, is famous to Baby Boomers as TV’s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. But he was also a force in wine country, founding The Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country  some 30 years ago.

I visited the winery in late 2002 while writing a story about celebrity vintners. I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a gracious, silver-haired giant of a man who radiated equal parts charisma, country charm and a sly sense of humor. He was 78 then and full of energy, driving myself and a photographer around the property in a Hummer, occasionally stopping to stride through vineyards, his long legs eating up the yardage. One of our stops was at a local diner where the waitress knew without asking to bring him his usual breakfast,  a substantial plate heavy on the pancakes.

Fess was my favorite kind of interview, the subject who has interesting things to say and isn’t shy about saying them. The deep,  gravelly drawl didn’t hurt, either.  We drove around hills that were just beginning to turn green with winter rains and he talked about everything from his serious pursuit of wine excellence to his days in Hollywood. And he told stories on himself, like the time his wife went to the wine store to fill the cellar in their new Bel Air home and came back with such famous wines as Chateau Lafite from France. His reaction, he said with a twinkle, was a shocked, “How could you spend $6 a bottle for wine?”

Interestingly, the family at first called the winery simply Parker, wanting the wine to speak for itself. But it wasn’t long before Fess convinced them they needed something extra to stand out from the thousands of brands crowding store shelves. “I learned one thing from Walt Disney,” he said, “and that was the value of a trademark. Some people take it the wrong way and say you’re just promoting yourself. But my vision is to have a presence that represents quality.”

After the interview was over, I thanked him, went home and wrote the piece. I didn’t expect to hear from him again but a few days after Thanksgiving a fax came across my office machine _ a handwritten thank you note from Fess. That’s unusual in this business, and very unusual from a celebrity.

So, today lots of people will be remembering Fess Parker in his roles as frontier heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone _ great characters both. But I’ll be thinking of Fess Parker, wine pioneer and gentleman.

Farewell, Fess.