The Right Wines for Summer Grilling

Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013
Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013

Summer grilling season is in full swing, which is a perfect opportunity for us to try different food and wine pairings. Wine as a whole goes better with food than any other beverage and with so many varieties to choose from, there are numerous pairing options with grilled food. The naturally occurring sugar, acidity and alcohol in wine to complement almost anything cooked with flames.

The general principles for selecting a wine for summer grilling is the same for any wine and food pairing. The goal of the pairing is that both the food and the wine taste better when properly harmonized. Start by matching the weight of food with weight of wine. The delicate flavors of vegetables, seafood and chicken are lovely with lighter wines. Fattier and denser varieties of fish, like salmon and swordfish, pair well with a medium-bodied wines like Merlot. The flavors in most types of hefty meat, like burgers, steaks, lamb and barbeque are enhanced by intense, full-bodied red wines.

The good news is that we have a long summer in Texas that gives us plenty of time to try numerous wine and grilled food pairings.


Grilled Veggies

Summer is the perfect time for grilling a bounty of seasonal vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant and corn. Whether veggies are your main course or a side dish, picking the right wine can turn it into the star of the show.

A wide variety of vegetables allows for a wide selection of wine pairing options.

Lighter style and green grilled vegetable call for white wines like unoaked Chardonnay, Chablis, dry Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc and dry rosé. The fire-roasted char and caramelization of grilled vegetables beg for fuller-bodied whites, dry rosé and even lighter reds, particularly those with mild tannins. For the other dark vegetables like squash, Portobello mushrooms or eggplant, reach for light style reds like Pinot Noir and Barbera.

Rosé to try: Commanderie de Peyrassol Côtes de Provence 2014, France ($20). A classic rosé with a delicate lilac, strawberry, lemon zest nose and fresh biscuit, strawberries and crisp lemon flavors and good minerality.

Chardonnay to try: Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013, California ($22). The dynamic fruit flavors of lime, cantaloupe, and pineapple make this wine an excellent accompaniment with eggplant or grilled zucchini.

Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013
Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013

Grilled Fish  

Selecting the right wine to pair well with grilled seafood is probably easier than grilling the fish itself. A range of wines with high acid are great with grilled seafood. Think of the kind of wines that make you pucker a little bit like lemony Pinot Gris, briny Albariño, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc, ripe fruit Chardonnay, or minerally dry rosé. These types of wines go well with any type of seafood that you normally squeeze a little lemon onto.

Don’t shy away from a fruity red wine with a smoky oily fish.  Meatier or fatty fish like swordfish and salmon love Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Pinot Gris to try: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014, California ($15). Made with a blend of grapes grown in the cool climate of Monterey, including Roussane, Viognier, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, this wine has a lively blend of citrus and mineral flavors. Its tropical fruit, melon and peach flavors love sea bass.

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014


Albariño to try: Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013, Texas/California fruit ($23). This fresh, dry and versatile Albariño has distinctive aromas of peach and apricot along with bracing sea spray, lemon and mango flavors. The unoaked wine pairs with incredibly well with shellfish.

Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013
Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013

Sauvignon Blanc to try: Matanzas Creek Winery Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc 2013, California ($40). This Knights Valley wine has floral and minty aromas and bouncy flavors of white peach, nectarine, grapefruit and lemon zest. It’s an excellent match with Gulf black drum.

Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc
Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Noir to try: Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013, Oregon ($54). This Old World style Pinot has delicate floral fragrance and spicy earthiness with lush flavors of wild strawberry, cherry, dark plum, nutmeg and vanilla. The velvety texture and smooth tannins make it a classic pairing with salmon.

Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013

Grilled Chicken

Grilled chicken always makes me think of carefree days and picnics by the lake. The hot coals bring out the best in this bird. The sweet caramelization and bitter char from the grill make it an excellent partner with buoyant white wines. Citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, aromatic peachy Viognier and tart, tropical Chardonnay are all excellent choices to pair with grilled chicken.

Sauvignon Blanc to try: Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013, California ($54). This limited production wine aged in a combination of French oak, concrete and stainless steel is an absolute delight. True to the Sauvignon Blanc style, it has zingy citrus flavors of lemon and green apple and layers in luscious toffee and butterscotch. The bright acidity is excellent with chicken thighs.

Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Viognier to try: Pedernales Cellars Texas Viognier Reserve 2014, Texas ($40). Floral scent with honey, and bright white peach, citrus, vanilla and toast flavors coming alive on the palate. This is an amazing wine that is versatile enough to pair with almost any style of grilled chicken.

Pedernales Cellars Viognier
Pedernales Cellars Viognier

Chardonnay to try: Flowers Vineyards & Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2013, California ($50). Bliss.  The barrel aging in mostly neutral French oak gives this wine roundness without letting the oak obscure the fruit. Lemon zest and white flower scents mingle with pear, green apple and melon flavors with a solid structure of minerality and acidity.

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Steak and Burgers

It’s hard not to have a beer in hand when you are standing over the grill, but once the meat is done, pick full-bodied wines with dark berry fruit and some tannin to pair with grilled beef. It’s a tried and true practice to pair red wine with steak because the fat and protein in beef lowers the impact of tannin. It’s simple chemistry. Don’t mess with a good thing.

Lightly seasoning any steak or burger and grilling it to a rare to medium temperature lets beef sing. The char on the meat goes well with the tannins in red wines such Cabernet Sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varieties. Meat with a heavier char and cooked medium-well to well-done pairs better with softer, less tannic red Rhone grape varieties like Syrah and Grenache, or Pinot Noir.  If you prefer to keep it local, grab a delicious Texas Tempranillo. The bright fruit and high acidity cut right through that fatty beef.

Pinot Noir to try: Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013, California ($50). This luscious wine has vivacious scents of wild strawberry, cranberries and herbs layered with black cherry, raspberry and thyme flavors. It is an elegant and refined wine that will dress up any meal.

Grenache to try: Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012, Australia ($32). The old vine Grenache was planted in 1946 and produces wine with powerful raspberry, cherry and red plum fruit flavors with peppery spice, licorice and chocolate. It is excellent with grilled lamb.

Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012
Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012

Petite Sirah to try: Edmeades Mendocino County 2012, California ($35). This limited release wine is absolutely perfect with grilled beef. Its smoky and spicy nose with loads of blackberry, plum, vanilla and coffee flavors and firm tannins will have you taking a drink with every bite of steak.

Edmeades Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2012
Edmeades Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2012

Tempranillo to try: Spicewood Vineyards Estate Tempranillo 2012, Texas ($45). This wine has bright acidity and firm tannins along with tart cherry, leather and tobacco flavors making it a perfect pair with grilled beef.

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Argentina ($15). This is a perfect backyard wine; easy on the wallet and big on flavor. Bold bouquet of blackberry jam and smoke accompanies a bounty of blackberry, raspberry, fig, chocolate and herbal flavors that are great with a burger.

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012, California ($65). Indulgent as a velvet smoking jacket, the Melka Cab is packed with ripe plum, black cherry, cassis and mocha with baking spice and tobacco. The silky tannins are soft as a kitten purring for another bite of your steak.

Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012
Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012


Sure it’s easier to grab a beer to go with the smoky, rich flavors of saucy slow-cooked meats like ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, but it’s not impossible to have stellar wine pairings with barbeque too. A rule of thumb is big, intense flavors go well with big wines.

Dry rubbed barbeque can sometimes be salty. That style loves Champagne and sparkling wine. A sip of bubbly after savory barbeque makes the salt pop and lowers the tartness of the wine. Sparkling wine tastes less tart with salt than it does by itself. It’s best to avoid big tannic red wines with this style of barbeque, as salt makes tannins taste more bitter and intensifies the alcohol.

Slow cooked, straight forward brisket is excellent with a high acidity, low tannin Cabernet made with mountain grown fruit.

Sauces and glazes introduce sweet and spicy flavors that call for different styles of wines. Fruit forward, full bodied wine like big, jammy Zinfandels and bold Syrahs are an excellent complement to sweet sauces. Barbera, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Grenache and rosé are excellent with either sweet or spicy barbeque. The soft tannins and impression of sweetness keeps the wine from tasting sour with a heaping plate of barbeque.

Sparkling Wine to try: Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé 2011, California ($37). The vibrant, fruity and creamy sparkling wine dances with delicate strawberry and raspberry flavors with a hint of apricot. Made with a blend of 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay grapes, this peppy, bubbly wine is an absolute stunner with barbeque.

Domaine Carneros Wines
Domaine Carneros Wines


Zinfandel to try: Quivira Vineyards Reserve Zinfandel 2013, California ($42) Stick your nose in the glass and fill it with the scent of blackberries ripening in the sun. The clean, bright wine has mild tannins that let the bold fruit shine through with red raspberry, black cherries and “that classic Dry Creek spice.” It’s a great accompaniment to ribs.


Pinot Noir to try: Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013, California, ($30). The coastal influences of the Anderson Valley creates wines with bright acidity to balance fruity black cherry, blueberry, chocolate and cola flavors. The silky tannins and lingering smoky, spicy flavors are a dream match with barbeque.

Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Napa Valley 2011, California ($75). When you order fancy BBQ, like the award winning brisket from Franklin Barbeque, you deserve a wine that is equally as good. A stand-out wine with energetic blueberry, black currants, anise violet and coffee flavors. This graceful Bordeaux blend has relatively soft tannins that will dress up any smoked brisket.

Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon
Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon
No matter what you choose to grill, use the opportunity to try a variety of wine pairings to discover which ones you like most.
This story was originally published in the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas newsletter, The Crush, “Jump Into Summer.”
Disclaimer: Several wine producers provided samples that were reviewed for this article at no charge. 

Rainy Night Wine, 2012 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir

Carmel Road 2012 Pinot Noir

Thunder grumbles old man curses as the rain spits half-heartedly on the black streets. The July heat gives itself up to the rain, but just a little bit. Heat’s oppressive sister, humidity, fills the space between the raindrops with breath-sucking glee.

Nights like this call for a chilled glass of wine. Typically sultry summer nights push my hand onto the neck of a cold bottle of rosé or white wine. When the night sky is blackened deeper by rain, red wine whispers in my ear. Hot rainy nights call for a cool bottle of Pinot Noir.

Tonight 2012 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir graces my glass. Carmel Road is made with pinot noir grapes grown in three vineyards in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County. The cool weather and layers of Pacific fog with sustainable practices slow the ripening of grapes, letting them retain the crisp acidity that makes pinot noir sing.

It smells of cherries aged in a dusty cellar and the petrichor aftermath of a rain shower deep in the woods. The earthy plum, cherry and berry flavors with hint of tea and mocha fit the rainy weather mood exceedingly well. Its 60 degree chill takes the edge off of the sticky heat. A wine as soothing as the patter of rain.

It sells for around $22 a bottle, which means it’s not too expensive to open one any night it rains.

Carmel Road provided a sample of this wine for review.

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Texas talent shines at the 2014 Austin Food & Wine Festival

In its third year, the Austin Food & Wine Festival drew some of the biggest names in the culinary world to demonstrate their talents. It wasn’t just the national celebrity chefs who drew applause. Homegrown beverage experts had the juice to attract crowds in Butler Park.

True Texas Spirits

David Alan Tipsy TexanAt mid-day Sunday, cocktail expert and author David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, hobbled on stage with a crutch and his foot in a medical boot. He swore the injury was from a skiing accident rather than a drink-induced mishap. A likely story.

He quickly changed the subject by offering a birthday toast to his sister with a mixed shot made with Treaty Oak barrel-aged gin for the crowd. It was a fantastic way to start his session.

Alan shared anecdotes about Texas spirits pioneers and cocktail recipes from his recently published book, Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State. The Texas spirits industry is just a baby. Despite prohibition ending in 1933, the state did not have a legal distillery until Tito Beveridge started Tito’s Handmade Vodka in 1996. When he applied for a distilling permit, there wasn’t even a process in place to get one. Beveridge had to work with state and federal regulatory bodies to get it going. Alan lauded Beveridge for inspiring other distilleries to follow.

“He is the one that got the industry started,” Alan said. “He is the reason we are here today. Independent distilling is one of the biggest movements in the beverage industry. There are now more than 50 licensed distilleries in Texas and business is booming. In 2013, Tito’s hit a milestone that few independents will ever hit. The distillery sold more than a million cases of vodka.”

Tito's Vodka, Treaty Oak RumTito’s was the lone distiller in the state for a decade. In 2006, Daniel Barnes started a distillery to make Treaty Oak Rum, which Alan described as “quintessentially Texan” because it is completely made in Texas, starting with the raw materials. Treaty Oak Distilling now makes rum, aged rum, Waterloo Gin and barrel-aged gin, and bottles of Red Handed Texas Bourbon.

With the rapidly growing thirst for local, independent distilleries, there are bound to be some corners cut to meet consumer demand.

“Some Texas spirits are all hat and no cattle,” Alan said in an impassioned discussion of the virtues of authenticity versus marketing shenanigans. “How many people believe that when you buy a product, you should know what the hell it is? Nobody wants to be misled.

“If a bottle says ‘Texas whiskey,’ we expect it to be from Texas. The problem is that about half the whiskeys on the shelf that say Texas aren’t from Texas. Balcones, Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek are all made right here with Texas ingredients. We need to support the folks who are actually making a product here. To make sure its Texan, check the bottle to make sure it says ‘distilled in Texas’ rather than just ‘produced’ or ‘bottled.’ ”

Alan describes the cocktail culture in Texas as being very similar to our culinary influences in that it is a melting pot of Tex-Mex and Southern, with bold flavors, spice and smoke. He encouraged the crowd to be adventurous in their choice of drinks and to use local ingredients in season like grapefruit, homegrown mint and watermelon.

“You wouldn’t eat the same food every day or listen to the same music every day,” Alan said. “So why would you drink the same thing every day?”

To demonstrate fresh approaches to cocktails that feature Texas spirits and seasonably appropriate local ingredients, Alan created two refreshing summer cocktails.

Sangria Rosa


  • 2 750-milileter bottles of sparkling rosé wine
  • 1/2 bottle Tito’s Handmade Vodka
  • 2 cups St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 1 quart cut up melons (watermelon, honeydew) and seasonal fruit
  • Large block of ice
  • 1 cup of carbonated water


Marinate the fruit in the booze for several hours, then it’s ready to serve.

Texas Watermelon MojitoWatermelon Mojito


  • 4 large sprigs fresh mint
  • 1/2 cup cubed and seeded watermelon
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 1.5 ounces Treaty Oak Rum
  • 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce carbonated water
  • Watermelon wedge for garnish


Gently muddle three of the mint springs and the watermelon with the simple syrup. Add the rum and lime juice, and shake the hell out of it. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with carbonated water and garnish with mint and watermelon.


Devon Broglie, Vilma Mazaite, Craig CollinsThe final wine seminar of the Austin Food & Wine Festival featured Austin’s only Master Sommeliers, Devon Broglie and Craig Collins. In their third year presenting at the festival, the renowned wine experts chose to showcase a wine region that they feel is experimenting with non-traditional grapes and new methods in winemaking: California.

“California is one of the regions leading the charge for a new revolution in wine,” said Collins, the beverage director for Arro and ELM Restaurant Group. “In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert Mondavi and others were experimenting with making new wines but retaining European influences for making wine with balance and quality. In the 1990s, the region gained notoriety for pursing big, bold, fruity wines with high alcohol. Now we have pioneers in the industry making sophisticated wine with less prominent grapes with lower alcohol.”

The sweaty and slightly intoxicated crowd at the California Enlightenment session was treated to a tasting of six wines that were selected for new approaches to a well-known grape variety or unheralded grapes. There was one other factor in the wines’ selection.

“The criteria for wines in this tasting is they had to be wines that are loveable,” said Broglie, the Whole Foods Markets associate global beverage buyer. “We’re talking about wines that after you have slammed back half a glass, you stop and realize, holy shit, I love this wine. We wanted to present wines that are enjoyable and that are drinkable with food.”

California Enlightenment wine lineup2010 Seghesio Arneis

The Seghesio family settled in California from Italy in 1895 and has been producing wine ever since. Seghesio is well known as a pioneer and major producer of Sonoma County Zinfandel, but less known for its Italian white wine varieties. Arneis is a white grape from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy that makes clean, crisp wine that is high in minerals. Seghesio grows its grapes on small acreage in the Russian River Valley, which has a cool climate. The result is fresh, bright, medium-bodied wine with guava and tropical flavors that is perfect for a summer picnic. It’s available for about $23 at Austin Wine Merchant or Whole Foods Markets.

2012 Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay

In 2008, Matt Licklider, a wine importer, and Kevin O’Connor, wine director at Spago Beverly Hills, partnered to start an urban winery to make pinot noir and chardonnay that reflect the terroir of California. They chose to break the mold of California wineries making overblown wines. Rather than age the wine with new oak barrels that can hide the flavor of the wine with vanilla flavors, Lioco uses stainless steel and neutral barrels to create a full yet crisp wine that lets fruit and acid shine through, for a citrusy wine with grapefruit and lemon flavors that pairs well with shellfish. The Sonoma County chardonnay is available for $22 on the Lioco website.

2012 Chappellet Chenin Blanc

“Cappellet is one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley, starting the winery in 1967 in storied Pritchard Hill vineyards,” Collins said. “The area is considered a grand cru of Napa because the magical mountain makes the cream-of-the-crop wines.”

The volcanic soils stress the grape vines, and the high elevation allows for a large swing between nighttime versus daytime temperatures, which helps grapes ripen better. Not only is Chappellet making wine with a less popular grape, chenin blanc, it is also taking a non-traditional route to make the wine. It is fermented in a combination of neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel tanks and a concrete “egg” that gives the wine extra weight and richness while retaining high acid levels that give it massive zippiness. It has vivacious floral scents and honeydew, lemon zest and hazelnut flavors that bring roast quail to life. It goes for about $30 a bottle.

2012 Donkey and Goat Grenache Noir – El Dorado

Everything about Donkey and Goat is non-traditional. The winery got its start when Tracy and Jared Brandt decided to make natural, Rhône-style wines with minimal intervention.

“They put 50,000 miles on their Toyota Prius looking for the right grapes to make wine in an urban winery in a warehouse in Berkeley,” Broglie said. “This is an example of a new trend in California winemaking where the winery doesn’t need vineyards or a fancy château.”

The grenache was made with grapes grown in El Dorado County using natural yeast to ferment them, and it was left unfiltered, giving it a slight haze. The red berry flavors and earthiness will go well with grilled meat.

“This wine makes me want to bury a goat in the yard and roast it in the pit,” Broglie said.

The Food & Wine Festival was fortunate to land a handful of cases to serve, but the 246 cases made have sold out immediately.

2012 Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel

California zinfandel has earned a reputation for being inky dark with enough alcohol to give you a buzz by just smelling it. Broc Cellars throws that playbook out the window. The Vine Starr zinfandel is true to its intended character, a gorgeous translucent ruby color, bold aromas of ripe fruit, cream strawberry flavors and the zip of black pepper on the finish. And its only 12 percent alcohol.

“It’s all of the things I like about zin without the things I hate,” Collins said. “I like the bold aromatics and ripe fruit, but not the high alcohol.”

Broc is another one of the small-production urban wineries and only 800 cases of this juice were produced. It sells for about $30.

2010 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon

The last taste of the day, which I’m sure some of the drunks in the tent downed in one lustful gulp, was Stony Hill Napa Valley cabernet 2010 from Spring Mountain. Stony Hill Vineyard has been making wine since 1952. They are predominantly a chardonnay producer. No matter the type of wine, they have not chased the big scores of some wine reviewers by making wines with big flavors, and instead have stayed true to their heritage of making refined, balanced wine. The 2010 cabernet is only the second vintage of cab Stony Hill has produced. It has blackberry, ripe, juicy red fruit, green pepper and herb flavors with a subtle earthiness. Less than 400 cases of this wine were made and only six of those cases made their way to Texas, one of which was poured at the festival. This was my favorite wine of the entire festival.

Whether you are in to obscure grapes, natural wine or inventive approaches to winemaking, Collins summed up a solid maxim for drinking wine (and maybe for life).

“What do you want to put into your mouth now?” he asked. “It’s not about what is right. It’s about what is going to make you happy.”


This story was originally published on Austin Man Magazine.

Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to attend the Festival at no charge. 

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Merry Edwards Honored as Featured Winemaker at the 29th Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction

This story originally ran on Austin Woman Magazine

Merry EdwardsThe wine world can be a bit of a good-old-boys club, but Sonoma County-based winemaker Merry Edwards has broken through the gender barrier in her 40-year career. Edwards, who makes pinot noir and sauvignon blanc at Merry Edwards Winery in the Russian River Valley, will be honored as the featured winemaker at the 29th Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction March 22 at Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

This honor adds to a long list of accolades for Edwards, including recognition as the Outstanding Wine Professional at the 2013 James Beard Awards, just the fourth woman to be so honored, and she has been inducted in to the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. Her wines have also piled up the hardware, including landing the number nine spot on the Wine Spectator’s list of Top 100 Wines of the Year with the Merry Edwards sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley 2007.

The Rare & Fine Wine Auction, hosted by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, will benefit the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, which will receive a portion of auction proceeds. The foundation awarded Dell Children’s $60,000, earmarked for nutritional programs and education, from proceeds from last year’s auction.

Edwards is the first female selected as the annual auction’s featured winemaker and joins a stellar list of who’s who in the wine industry, including Robert Mondavi, Paul Hobbs, Chuck Wagner and Christian Moueix. Wine & Food Foundation auction chair Daniel Bleier has collected Merry Edwards’ award-winning pinot noirs for years and says he’s thrilled to introduce the wines to the audience in Austin.

Austin Woman recently visited with Merry Edwards to learn more about her participation in the auction.

Austin Woman: How did you get connected with the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas for the Rare & Fine Wine Auction?

Merry Edwards: The call came through my daughter, Leslie. They asked if I would be interested in being honored as the featured winemaker. I was thrilled because, while I support a lot of charities, I have a big interest in children’s health. I have two sons and one left the earth when he was 19. He was severely disabled. Because of that, I have spent a lot of time in hospitals. That, coupled with my background in physiology and nutrition, has led to support for charities that help sick and needy children. I like to support medical centers like the Dell Children’s Medical Center to put money in to saving a child. There is also another personal connection, as a friend of my daughter was treated at Dell Children’s.

AW: What does it mean to be the featured winemaker at the 29th Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction?

ME: It’s an honor to be a featured winemaker. I like doing an event that puts my wine in the spotlight, as it’s a great opportunity to share deeper information about it in my seminar. I enjoy speaking and educating people about wine. More focus on our brand.

AW: What inspired you to become a winemaker?

ME: I came to winemaking through food. I started cooking when I was pretty young and I carried that forward to college, when I started brewing beer and making fruit wine. Wine is an extension of cooking. You start with a recipe, just like cooking. While I was in graduate school studying nutrition at UC Berkeley, a friend introduced me to the wine program at UC Davis, where I earned a master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology. When I started in 1972, there were no women professors teaching in the program and there were only three women studying in the graduate program. The study of winemaking was a natural extension of interest in chemistry and nutrition. I got hooked. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t even drink. I introduced my parents to wine back then and my mom is still my winery partner at age 93.

AW: Do you have any female role models in the wine industry?

ME: The two women that led the way for me were Maryann Graf and Zelma Long. They were the only women I knew in the industry when I was starting out. They were both successively hired by a French winery in Sonoma called Simi Winery. Maryann was a pioneer for women’s winemaking and she was followed in that position by Zelma, who was previously an enologist at Mondavi. Between the two, there were at least 20 consecutive years of a female winemaker at Simi. Zelma also went on to start Vilafonte Wine Estate in South Africa. There have been many women role models in other places around the world. Most of the women in Europe who came in to the wine industry did so through the death of their husband. Women like Madame Jacques Bollinger in Champagne made a profound mark on the industry, and so many innovations in the industry came from women.

AW: When you first entered the business, you were one of the few female winemakers. Did you meet any gender bias?

ME: Oh, yes, of course I did. I credit my dad, in part, with how I overcame it. I was very close to my dad. He never told me I couldn’t do this because I was a woman. The second influence was that there were a lot of gay men in my life in the time when I was getting in to the wine business. They didn’t think there was anything weird about a young woman trying to get in to the wine business. Among those gay men, I had a professor, counselor and advisor who supported me and stood beside me. I was really discouraged in the beginning when I was applying for jobs. The winemaking business is farming-based, and there is no business more conservative than farming. A recent survey by UC Davis found that today in America, only 9.9 percent of winemakers are women. When I got in to the business, there were probably only six female winemakers total. Now there are more women winemakers because there are more wineries, but the percentage is still pathetic.

Merry’s Favorite Wines:

Littorai  Mays Canyon Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $90

“Ted Lemon is an excellent winemaker who produces elegant pinot noir and chardonnay in Sonoma.”

Peter Michael Winery L’Après-Midi Estate Sauvignon Blanc, $55

“I like sauvignon blanc from America. I make a barrel-fermented style and like similarly made wines. I’m very loyal to our area and don’t think they are as hard on the teeth enamel as wines from New Zealand or South Africa.”

Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, $60

“I drink a lot of my own wine and I prefer my vineyard designates. I like to drink my pinot older and right now I’m drinking the 2003. I’m also infatuated with our Georganne pinot noir, which I drink a little younger. Right now, I’m making a special wine to celebrate our 40th vintage year. That wine will be composed of different selections of my own clone from different vineyards. I’ll make about 300 cases with a specially designed label.”

Photo courtesy of Merry Edwards Winery. 

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Turning up the Volume at Cliff Lede Vineyards

Beautiful Wife at Cliff Lede VineyardsPart III in the blog series, “Our Anniversary Trip to California Wine Country.”

When you imagine Napa Valley, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I think of gracious winery tasting rooms with spacious outdoor seating areas to take in the picturesque views of the vine covered hills. That’s exactly what Beautiful Wife and I experienced while sitting in the courtyard at Cliff Lede Vineyards (pronounced LAY-dee sorta how Styx would sing it) on a gorgeous October day.

The winery has a small art gallery and its spacious tasting room opens onto a covered patio and courtyard bedecked in flowers, vines sculpture and an outdoor fireplace. It was a casual and idyllic setting to taste through the winery’s line-up. Our host gave us a bit of a history lesson as he poured each wine.

Canadian wine collector, Cliff Lede, had such an intense passion for Bordeaux wines that he decided to try his hand at making his own Cab-based wines in the Staggs Leap district. He bought the winery property in 2002, fired up the winemaking equipment in 2005 and hired a top notch winemaker, Chris Tynan, from Colgin Winery in 2012. Cliff Lede Vineyards now makes Sauvignon Blanc and seven styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery also purchased Anderson Valley Pinot Noir producer, Breggo Cellars in 2009 to round out its portfolio.

Four years ago, we spent our tenth wedding anniversary visiting wineries in the Anderson Valley. We spent the better part of an afternoon in the Breggo tasting room in Mendocino sipping on lush Pinot Noir and chatting up jazz musician, Joshua Redman. Waves of nostalgia washed over me when we saw the Breggo on our tasting menu. Another fine anniversary trip.

Mr. Lede’s love for the arts is on display beyond the paintings, sculpture and poetry in the Poetry Inn. He is also a big music buff with an affinity for classic rock. His love for music spills into the vineyard blocks, which are named for his favorite songs. These names in turn show up in the names of wines like Songbook, High Fidelity and Landslide Fire with a Spinal Tap-esque Marshall double stack amp on the label and a volume knob that goes to 11 on the foil capsule.

A taste through the Cliff Lede wines showed that many of them go to 11.

Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc2012 Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

Bright as an autumn day in California, this Sauvignon Blanc twinkles pale sunshine in the glass. It’s a floral scent and crisp citrus flavors are accompanied by melon, green grass and seashell. It begs for a buttery croissant to start off brunch. It sells for $23.

2012 Breggo Pinot Gris Anderson Valley

The Pinot Gris had slightly more heft than the Sauvignon Blanc and was broader on the palate. It had zippy acidity with plenty of lemon zest, grapefruit and green apple flavors accompanied by almond and yeast. I wish I had a plate of oysters to go with it. The Pinot Gris cost $25.

2011 Breggo Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley is known for its cool climate Pinots and 2011 was a particularly cool growing season. It brought out high acidity that punctuated the red cherry and tart plum flavors. I could mistake this for an Oregon wine with its mushroomy, dank forest undertones. I’m a sucker for this style of Pinot and would serve it with roast duck. It goes for $38 a bottle.

Breggo Pinot Gris2011 Cliff Lede Vineyards Claret Napa Valley

Our first Cabernet of the session, the Claret, is made from a blend of 32% Merlot, 18% Petite Verdot and Cab Franc. It has a fresh, herbal nose and brings a big dollop of stewed fruit up front with plum, cherry Coke with violets and cedar. It’s a bold wine that would go great with smoke ribs. It runs $45.

2010 High Fidelity Napa Valley

All I could think about when this wine was poured was Jack Black belting out “Let’s Get it On” in a Chicago bar in the movie High Fidelity. And get it on, we did. Merlot is dominant in this Bordeaux blend, bring abundant blueberry, blackberry, plum and cassis flavors balanced with chocolate and baking spice. The tannins are smooth and velvety. After a few sips I wanted to upgrade my soundtrack to Marvin Gaye. Grilled lamb would cuddle well with this wine. I will set you back $80.

2010 Landslide Fire Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District

Cliff Lede Landslide Fire

This predominantly Cabernet wine is made with grapes from the Landslide and Light My Fire blocks with a compliment of other

Bordeaux blend grapes including 13% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec. The Marshall amp label is a good indication of the power inside the bottle. It has full throttle blackberry, plum cassis, licorice, violet, mocha and tobacco flavors with earthy minerals and firm tannins. It was approachable now, but it definitely has potential to rest for eight to 12 years. Only 822 cases were made of this limited production wine. It sells for $95 a bottle.

2010 Cliff Lede Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District

This is the bread and butter wine for Cliff Lede with more than 5,000 cases. It’s the one you’ll find readily at wine shops. It’s the wine I’ve had several times and ultimately seduced me into scheduling a visit to the winery. The Cab is blended with 11% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot giving it round, yet elegant fruit flavors of black currant, plum and blackberry along with tobacco and dark chocolate all set on a fine mineral backbone. Throw a few thick steaks on the grill to pair with this wine. It sells for $70 a bottle.

We spent a good portion of the afternoon letting the sun warm our faces and the wine warm our hearts. Cliff Lede is a fantastic place to lose yourself in art, music and wine.

The winery is located at 1473 Yountville Cross Road in Yountville. It’s about a quarter mile west of the Silverado Trail on the south side of the road and about a mile and a half east of Highway 29. Its open daily from 10am to 4pm and no appointment is necessary. If you want a tour and tasting program where you sit on the patio and taste through the whole line-up, you’ll need an appointment. Call the tasting room 1-800-428-2259 or email to set it up.

Disclosure: we were provided with complimentary tasting arranged by C. Milan Communications. We purchased bottles of wine at full price.

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Tasting Mountain Wines at Cardinale Estate

It’s a pretty special thing to taste through the various creations of Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Cardinale Estate, La Jota Vineyards, Lokoya and Mt. Brave Wines. That’s exactly what Beautiful Wife and I did on a gorgeous October morning as harvest wound down around us in Napa Valley.

Cardinale was our first winery visit of our 14th anniversary wine country trip, and it was a magnificent way to kick it off. Four jewels of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio in one place. We were greeted with sweeping views of the valley, the heady perfume of fermenting grapes and a squadron of seven wines in formation in an elegant great room reserved just for us. Our host, Kristen, kept us smiling with wit, charm and insightful stories.

Carpenter, a former football star at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, earned his master’s degree in the Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. He started at as the enologist at Cardinale in 1998, became assistant winemaker in 1999 and was promoted to winemaker in 2001. Kristen described him as a “master of the mountains” coaxing expression of the terroir from the various appellations of Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder and Spring Mountain.

We stuck our noses deep into our glasses to find out what she meant.

First up, we taste the 2010 Mt. Brave Merlot. This wine tugged at our heart-strings a bit as the Mt. Brave winery, named in deference to the Wappo Indians, “the brave ones”, who were the original inhabitants the area on Mt. Veeder, is the former property of Chateau Potelle, a winery we visited on our honeymoon 14 years earlier. Carpenter created a velvety, dark wine with ripe blueberry, plum and black cherry flavors brought to life with a pop of acidity. There were only 200 cases of this wine produced and it’s sold on allocation for $75 a bottle.

Next we tried 2010 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard was first established in 1898 and is one of the oldest vineyards in the area. The cool climate and volcanic soil mixed with granite and chalk produce an approachable wine. This Bordeaux style blend of Cab and Merlot has powerful blackberry, cassis and fennel flavors on a backbone of soft tannins. It’s available for $75 a bottle.

On to the Lokoya. It was quite a treat to taste all four mountain wines side-by-side. These wines let Carpenter showcase the distinct characteristics of the fruit from each mountain. His approach is, “don’t mess with the fruit from the mountain to the bottle.”  Less than 500 cases are made of these wines and they are sold on allocation.

2010 Lokoya Diamond Mountain, as the name suggests, is made with 100 percent cabernet grown on Diamond Mountain, just north of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains. With vineyards reaching to 400 feet in elevation, the vines planted in volcanic soil get plenty of sunshine. This wine starts with a big wet kiss of blackberry and black currant with undertones of tart cranberry. The fruit is punctuated with vanilla and anise. It runs $250 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Spring Mountain is made in one of the coolest and wettest districts of Napa Valley with significant influence from coastal currents. The cool weather and elevation make an elegant yet intense wine with plenty of floral scent mingled in layers of fruit. Its blackberry, blueberry and plum flavors are draped with violet and lush chocolate flavors. It is velvety smooth with soft tannins. It will dent the wallet at $350 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Howell Mountain is one big, bold wine. With grapes grown way up in the 1,400 to 2,200 feet in elevation range, they get the cold night air and direct sun tempered with plenty of fog. The Howell Mountain is brawny with blackberries, plum, chocolate, fennel and baking spices. It’s a damn fine California cab. It will set you back $350 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Mt. Veeder is planted on the steep slopes allowing for the sun to ripen it above the fog. Elegant with rich fruit layered on stout minerals, it is a stunner. Blackberries play with leather, black currant frolics with cedar and spicy licorice. As intense and brooding as Brando, this wine is $350 a bottle.

Our final sip of the morning was the 2010 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon. Cardinale Estate was established in the late 1980s and purchased by Jackson Family Wines in the 1990s. Less than 1,000 cases are made of this blend of cab grapes from all four Napa mountain appellations — Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain. It’s concentrated with ripe fruit and firm tannin. Fragrant rose petal layers onto blackberry, blueberry, vanilla and stone. It has a smooth lingering finish that begs for a steak. It runs $250 a bottle.

I can’t say that I had a favorite among them. That’s like picking your favorite child. I was smitten with the setting, the experience and each of the wines. We left with a selection of various wines to cellar and to uncork on anniversaries to relive memories of this anniversary.

You should go here. Cardinale Estate is in the heart of the Oakville District, 7600 St Helena Highway. Wine tastings are available by appointment only, so call ahead: 707-948-2643.

Disclosure: we were provided with complimentary tasting arranged by the Jackson Family Wines PR team (normal tasting fee is $50). We purchased bottles of wine at full price.

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Our Anniversary Trip to California Wine Country, Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Art at Cliff Lede WineryFourteen years ago Beautiful Wife and I said our “I Dos” among the grape vines at a winery nestled in the Sierra Foothills in California. What a great way to start your lives together surrounded by family, friends and the scent of grapes beginning to ferment in the heat of October harvest.

The California wine country holds an irresistible draw for us for a lot of reasons in a large part because we got married there, but there is more to it. The confluence of wine, art and an incredible culinary scene add to its allure for us. Oh the epicurean bliss.

The siren song has drawn us to Napa, Sonoma, Alexander and Anderson Valleys along with Amador County, Mendocino and other wine regions several times since our wedding. We’ve learned a few things about visiting the wine country such as:

  • Only visit two to three vineyards a day so you have plenty of time to enjoy them. It also reduces the likelihood of getting too drunk to drive to the next place.
  • If you visit more than three wineries, never join the wine club at the last winery of the day.
  • Call ahead to arrange visits at wineries rather than visiting the places with open tasting rooms. You’ll have smaller crowds and get to learn more about the winery and its wines.
  • Always buy wine from the wineries where you have scheduled an appointment. Honor the time and effort they made to meet you.
  • Don’t limit your California wine country travels to just Napa Valley. There are several excellent wine regions throughout the state.
  • When visiting Napa, avoid the crowds by visiting the wineries on Silverado Trail rather than Highway 29.
  • Book reservations at fantastic restaurants well in advance.
  • Relax. Soak your cares away in a traditional mud bath in Calistoga.

We were fortunate enough to spend our 14th wedding anniversary back in California during harvest this year. Coming up will be a series of blog posts recapping some of the places we visited:

Let me know where you like to go in California and what your experiences have been.

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Roark Wine Company: A one-man wine (minimalist) empire

In college I wanted to emulate the minimalism of Jack Kerouac in On The Road, sleeping on a rice mat and being able to carry everything I owned in a rucksack. His philosophy sounded so profound when he explained, “everything belongs to me because i am poor”. I romanticized the ideal of stripping away material trappings to focus on the present. Nothing to interfere with the here and now. Well, except for maybe some Benzedrine.

That’s sort of the way Ryan Roark approaches making wine. His minimalistic winemaking philosophy is to let the land and the fruit speak for themselves.  “I work hard to bring the grapes to the winery on the right day, at the best possible time. That way there is no need to mess with the grapes.” While he’s not a strict adherent to natural wine making, he uses neutral yeast and avoids acid or water additions to let the wine reflect the terroir. I bet he doesn’t even go for the occasional dose of Benzedrine.

Roark, a native Texan, studied environmental science at Texas A&M. From there he entered a study abroad program in France, learning about grape growing, the aesthetics of wine and did a viticulture internship where he learned the ropes in vineyard and cellar work at a small family winery. His experience working with a family that managed every aspect of the business from the farming, to winemaking to sales and marketing shaped his approach to the wine industry in a profound way.

After an internship at Etude in Napa and another in New Zealand, Roark moved to Santa Barbara where he wound up at a vineyard management company. Working the fields helped him uncover a forgotten jewel. He found Chenin Blanc grapes in vineyards planted in the 1960s, and decided to purchase the grapes to make about 60 cases of his own wine at a friend’s winery.

Roark Wines world headquarters

That small batch was the first step toward becoming a winemaker. Patterning his approach after the family wineries in France, Roark is farming an acre of his own. He picks the grapes, makes the wine, hand bottles the wine and sells it all by mail order all on his own. He is a one-man show and doesn’t even have a website or the assistance of marketing, PR or distributors to help him move his wine. He relies completely on word of mouth.

In 2010 he rented a 1,000 square foot building and equipment to make his wine. His adherence to simplicity even extends to his facilities. He goes so far as to use old school winemaking basket press and whole cluster fermentation. And he lives in the winery, sleeping enveloped in soft blankets of grape aromas to stain his dreams. Minimalism lets him cut out all the extra costs and keep his wines affordable.

Letting the grapes show what they have with minimal intervention means that Roark is really at the whim of Mother Nature. There was a lot of variability in the vineyard where he’s harvesting. In 2009 he had ripe grapes with plenty of sugar that produced Chenin Blanc with riper, rounder mouthfeel and slightly higher alcohol. He made 100 cases and it sold very quickly.

In 2010 the sugar was lower and the acidity shines through with citrus flavors. Roark says 2010 is typical of the style he wants to make. He is shooting for wine that is similar to Vouvray from the Loire Valley, punctuated with bright acidity and mineral characters to pair well with fresh vegetables, grilled seafood.

How does it taste? Bill Elsey, sommelier and specialist of wine and spirits for the Red Room Lounge and, and I opened the 2009 and 2010. Here is what we thought.

2009 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc

Look Light gold with great clarity. The ’09 is slightly deeper in color than the 2010 with a copper tinge.
Smell It has aromas of dried leaves, grass and mild lemon zest. The scents are skin driven not like fresh fruit and shows good characteristics of Chenin Blanc.
Taste This approachable wine has springy citrus, bright acidity and is slightly floral. The middle palate has a honey suckle, cotton candy fading to peach pit. The alcohol is zippy on the tongue giving way to a quick finish. It’s a dry style lacking the hefty residual sugar found in some Chenin Blancs in the U.S.
Price $15

2010 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc 

Look Shimmering light gold with crystal clarity.
Smell This guy is as herbaceous as a fat sack of weed or a basket of Cascade hops. After the kind bud scent, it has a stony mineral backbone and citrus. It’s less aromatic than the ’09.
Taste The 2010 has full frontal citrus that carries through the palette. The citrus dominates as a single note without a lot of variation. It has lively acidity with an under-current of minerality, which is just what Roark is gunning for.
Price $15

Bill’s read? “I wouldn’t have thought these were new world wines. They definitely have an old world aesthetic.”

My read? He hit the mark in 2009, making a wine that resembled one you would find from Loire. However, 2010 lacked the complexity that made 2009 enjoyable. It’s still a decent wine that would be satisfying on a hot summer day.

Roark also started making Malbec in 2010 with grapes grown in the hottest part of the Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon. He may be the only person in the area making Malbec. Right before he picked, there was an unusually hot spell which ripened the grapes quickly. The resulting juice lacked the acidity he wanted, so Roark purchased under ripe Cabernet Franc grapes to blend in to boost the acidity as it’s done in the Loire Valley. He just released this wine in March 2012 and is confident he’ll sell out the limited production of 60 cases.

I got my hands on a pre-release bottle that was labeled with duct tape. Nice minimalist touch that I’m sure Kerouac would approve of.

2010 Malbec Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 

Look Opaque midnight purple with fat grapey edges and lush viscosity.
Smell It has aromas of spicy blackberry and funky back woods fruit hanging on the vine late into the chill fall.
Taste The 2010 has powerful fruit showing grape, blueberry and plum flavors, with red licorice intertwined. The gripping tannins cling through a slightly smoky, persistent finish. This is an easy drinking – “gulp-able” even – Malbec that would pair well with Texas BBQ and stout meat.
Price $25

Elsey liked it just fine. He said, “This is varietally correct. It’s like what I get from Argentina with no oak influence, the alcohol is balanced with bright acidity. Fresh.”

Roark is also farming an acre vineyard to make Syrah and Grenache. He’s interested in making a blend that is very acidic and light in style. In the 2011 harvest he picked the grapes and fermented them separately, and blended them to bring out the desired characteristics.

2010 Grenache 60%/ Syrah 40% Santa Ynez Valley Santa Barbara County

Look The wine shows amethyst purple with ruby edges. It has some clarity, but is almost opaque.
Smell It’s a fragrant wine with red fruit, raspberry, white pepper spiciness and lavender scents that blossomed over time.
Taste Roark’s Rhone style blend has flavors of plum and tobacco with bright acidity good tannins. The oak doesn’t get in the way of the fruit. I poured a second glass of this one.
Price To be determined when it is available for sale.

Roark can’t fit everything he owns in a rucksack and he’s soon going to have more to stuff. He has development plans to plant another two or three acres over the next year or two. He plans to build his to 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year. That minimalist philosophy runs deep though. He’ll stay small and keep selling direct by mail order and to local restaurants and shops. He hopes to build group of devoted fans over time.

If you want to get your grubby mitts on some of this wine, you’ve got to figure out how the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service works and mail order it. Roark takes orders and checks at:  Roark Wine Company, PO Box 1833, Santa Ynez, CA  93460.


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Texas wine for Texas cowboys at Rodeo Austin’s Off the Vine

Nothing represents the archetypal spirit of Texas better than a cowboy; rugged, hard-driven, dependable and connected with the land. Rodeo Austin has brought some of the nation’s best cowboys to town to compete for 75 years. Now for the second year they are gathering another group of daring adventurous rebels steadfastly working the land in harsh conditions; Texas winemakers. On Thursday, January 12, 2012, Rodeo Austin hosted the second annual Off the Vine wine and food tasting, mixing the attitude of the Texas cowboy with the harvest of the Texas winemaker.

The event was inspired by the strong tie between the wine industry and agriculture. The wine industry has grown significantly since its humble start in the 1970s and has really come on strong in the past decade. Jennifer Paladino, marketing coordinator for Rodeo Austin, describes the event as “a great way to help promote one of Texas’ finest agricultural assets. Also, we pride ourselves on providing unique events to the diverse community we live in and a wine event seemed like the perfect fit for Austin.”

The wine tasting event, along with other Rodeo Austin events, raises money for its scholarship fund. In 2011, Rodeo Austin awarded 46 students $442,000 in college scholarships, and a total of $1.9 million to the youth of Texas through scholarships and the Youth Auction. This year’s Off the Vine is expected to net several thousand dollars — a fat sack more than last year — through ticket sales and a silent auction.

Event vice chairman, Drew DeBerry, who is also the Texas Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, says, “Rodeo Austin is one of the top five economic drivers in Austin, contributing north of $68 million annually, drawing more than 300,000 visitors.” DeBerry is thrilled to be a part of generating revenue to provide educational opportunities for kids in Texas. He also sees Off the Vine as one more way that the Rodeo connects people with the agricultural sources of food and drink. Texas wine makers are passionate about taking their crop all the way from the field to the bottle in one of the harsher climates for growing grapes. It was clear that people at the event were really glad they go to the trouble to do it.

Rodeo Austin executive committee member Hap Feuerbacher says, they started Off the Vine “to reach people that the rodeo might not ordinarily reach.” He’s probably right. The event attracted an enthusiastic, eye-catching crowd of people wearing a mix of evening wear and cowboy hats who are really interested in wine.

The eager and engaged crowd enticed many of the participating wineries to come back again this year. The event featured 31 wineries, 24 of which were from Texas. It’s a unique event with iconic California wineries like Silver Oak and Caymus Vineyards standing shoulder-to-shoulder with small up-and-coming Texas wineries like William Chris Vineyards and Torre di Pietra. It was a great way to try new wines from small wineries that don’t have broad distribution, and take home a few bottles of the new discoveries.

Stand-out wines from small Texas wineries included:

Perissos Vineyard 2009 Tempranillo Blend
This wine had luscious flavors of raspberry, and chocolate with a silky texture. It sells for $25 a bottle and can be found at the winery and at Specs. Proprietor, grower and winemaker, Seth Martin, started the winery in 2006 with the first bottling in 2007. They now produce 3,200 cases a year using 100 percent Texas grown grapes and practicing organic methods.

William Chris Vineyards 2011 Blanc du Bois
Crisp, floral with a hint of honeysuckle, this wine would pair well with Texas BBQ on a hot summer day. Jack Gilmore selected it as one of the wines he will serve in the James Beard Award dinner in New York. Bottles sell for $28 online and at select restaurants in the Austin area. Winemaker, grower and owner William (Bill) Blackmon has been making wine for two years, but growing grapes since 1983. The winery makes about 1,800 cases with all Texas grapes and will make about 4,000 cases of the 2011 vintage.

Dotson-Cervantes 2010 Gotas de Oro
A blend of 61% Muscat Canelli and 39% Chardonnay, this wine had a smoky nose and flavors of lychee fruit and tangerine. Its big, smooth and slightly sweet; a perfect wine for desert. It goes for $28 a bottle at Austin Wine Merchant and Specs. Former NFL star, Alphonse Dotson, father of NFL star Santana Dotson, and his wife, Martha Cervantes, made about 1,000 cases of this wine in its second bottling. They made 800 cases of the 2009 vintage.

Sandstone Cellars 2009 VII
This wine is made of 100 percent Touriga, the primary grape in Port. It has bold flavors of blueberries, sassafras tea and black bark. It’s available at Specs on Brodie Lane for $30. Master Sommelier, Drew Hendricks, has selected Sandstone Cellars VII for his wine list at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston. Winemaker, Don Pullum, was the first person to plant grapes in Mason County, TX ten years ago. He now makes about 500 cases of wine with fruit grown in the county.

It wasn’t just wine. Eleven local restaurants served scrumptious nibbles including the award winning Steiner Ranch Steakhouse lobster mac and cheese. Dzintra Dzenis (pronounced like Sentra, but with a Z), owner of Plate by Dzintra and a contestant on Season 6 of Food Network Star, served Kobe beef sausage in blankets. Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen’s Kitchen wowed the crowd with his farm to table magic.

Guests at the event were able to vote for their favorite red wines, white wines and restaurants. Fan favorites taking home the coveted trophy are:

Organizers of Off the Vine plan to showcase the talents of local winemakers and chefs in an even bigger event next year. Watch for it.

This article also appeared on CultureMap.

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Participating wineries included:

  • Becker Vineyards, TX
  • Bogle Winery
  • Braman Winery, TX
  • Cap Rock Winery, TX
  • Dancing Bee Winery, TX
  • E&J Gallo
  • Fairhaven Vineyards, TX
  • Fall Creek Vineyards, TX
  • Fiesta Winery, TX
  • Fredericksburg Winery, TX
  • Freixenent USA
  • Georgetown Winery, TX
  • Homestead Winery, TX
  • Landon Winery, TX
  • Mandola’s Italian Market, TX
  • Messina Hof Winery, TX
  • Nice Winery, TX
  • Perissos Vineyards, TX
  • Pillar Bluff Vineyards, TX
  • Pleasant Hill Winery, TX
  • Precept Wine
  • Salado Creek Winery & Vineyard, TX
  • Sandstone Cellars, TX
  • Solaro Estate Winery, TX
  • Spicewood Vineyards, TX
  • Texas Legato Winery, TX
  • The Vineyard at Florence, TX
  • Torre di Pietra Vineyards, TX
  • Westcave Cellars, TX
  • William Chris Vineyards, TX
  • Wines of Dotson – Cervantes, TX

Participating restaurants included:

  • Carmela’s Ristorante Italiano
  • Carmelo’s Ristorants
  • Gumbos
  • III Forks
  • Jack Allen’s Kitchen
  • Mandola’s Italian Market
  • Plate by Dzintra
  • Quality Seafood Market
  • Ranch 616
  • Steiner Ranch Steakhouse
  • Vivo Tex Mex

Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery delivers quality without the elevated price

A friend of mine was serving Shannon Ridge Chardonnay at his holiday party. When I asked him why he chose it, he said, “I was looking for a Chardonnay with a traditional Napa Valley style, but without the Napa Valley price. The guy at the wine shop steered me to this Lake County wine.” 

That’s exactly what Clay Shannon, founder of Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery, had in mind when he bought land in Lake County just north of Napa Valley – quality without the elevated price. The high elevation and cooler climate big are ideal for growing big tannic grapes like Cab and Zin. The well-drained, rich soils full of potash, calcium and good potassium levels allow the fruit to get ripe. Equally as important, the steep sloped vineyards were didn’t come with the king’s-ransom price tags of their Napa cousins.   

Clay grew up in wine country in Healdsburg, CA. He got into the grape growing business right out of high school and established a solid business. He eventually sold his farming business to Sutter Home Winery in 1985 and worked there until 1993. He learned a on the job, growing grapes all over California. After a short and lucrative stint as an almond farmer, Clay was beckoned by the siren’s song of the grapes to return to the wine industry to start Shannon Ridge with his wife in 1995.

In the beginning, he was growing Petite Sirah and Cabernet in the red soil of Lake County and selling the grapes in long term contracts to big wineries such as Beringer Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and others. He started making small amounts of wine with winemaker Marco de Julio in 2002 and got the feel for it. In 2003, as he talked to his young children about their future, he realized he wanted a more stable financial business and decided to go full bore into the wine making business. Fast forward a hand-full of years and Shannon Ridge is now producing around 100,000 cases of wine a year.  

He embraced the challenge of transitioning from vineyard management to being a winery owner and relished the learning. “As a grower for other wineries the incentive is to grow tonnage. When making wine, the importance of yield on quality is more important. You have to focus on the quality of crop management: pull leaves, let the grapes hang the proper amount of time and don’t over crop it. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the wine.” His biggest learning, “If the wine is priced right and it tastes good, people will buy it.”  

For the Shannons, quality is rooted in sustainability. A corner-stone of the Shannon Ridge approach to sustainability is a heard of about 1,000 head of sheep that roam the vineyards. These wooly compost machines sanitize the vineyards by eating the leaves dropped, grapes missed and the weeds. With sheep hard at work, the Shannons eliminated the use of systemic types of herbicide and reduced the fungicide program. They also take the straw from the lambing barns and use it for mulch under the vines. To complete the cycle they sell grass-fed lamb to the local restaurants that buy the wine.   

Shannon Ridge makes a wide selection of wines such as Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Barbera. The diversity of varietals is a vestige of planting vineyards under contract for other wineries. It’s also allowed Clay to experiment to see what worked best. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are the top sellers, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Wrangler Red, which is a fun blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Tempranillo.  

I tasted my way through the “Ranch Collection” line-up, enjoying the whole batch. In the cooler months I tend to drink more red than white wine, and opted to share my tasting notes for the Shannon Ridge reds.

2009 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah Lake County

The grapes are sourced from the family’s High Valley Vineyards in Lake County. It is fermented in stainless steel and barrel aged in a mix of French and American Oak. This is the winery’s signature wine. The grapes grow particularly well in Lake County producing a wine with deep color, firm tannins and plenty of fruit.

Look The first thing I said when I pour the wine into the decanter was “Whoa, look at that color.” It splashed down the sides like liquid grape jelly; deep, vivacious and jolly royal purple as opaque as the last breath of sunset before the night goes black.
Smell The Petite Sirah has bouncy aromas of baked blueberry pie and flaky pie crust with spiced roasted beats and vanilla.  
Taste The bold blueberry, currant and vanilla flavors are balanced with firm tannins. The fruit coats the tongue in a velvet robe and the tannins grip the lips and teeth in a warm embrace. This wine pairs well with lamb, like the grass and grape fed woolies that roam the Shannon Ridge vineyards.
Price $ 24


2009 Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County

 The grapes for the Lake County Cab are grown in High Valley and Red Hills appellation vineyards. They use extended maceration to get the darkest color possible and then age the wine in a mix of French and American Oak.

Look This Cab is deep plum purple with some translucence.  
Smell It has a rich nose of blackberry, black cherry and baking spices.    
Taste Jammy blueberry, stewed plums and fig with baking chocolate flavors meld with plenty of tannins that punctuate each sip. The smooth texture holds for a long finish the eases from berry to bitter. This is a steak-lovers wine. It has the pop to marry with a fat ribeye.
Price $19  


2009 Shannon Ridge Merlot North Coast

Merlot grapes grown in Lake and Mendocino counties are blended with small counts of Cab (9%) and Barbera (6%) for vibrant color and flavors.

Look This is eye popping eggplant and ruby gleaming in the glass.
Smell Full scents of cassis, black currant, pomegranate and cedar greet the nose.  
Taste Shannon Ridge makes a pleasant, easy-drinking and food-friendly Merlot with buoyant berry, black cherry flavors and a touch of bitterness. It has mild tannin on the finish and a smooth mouthfeel. A great wine for a cool night, roasted root vegetables and pork tenderloin.
Price $19  


2009 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel

 Zin is well suited for the cooler climates of Lake County. Much of the Zinfandel that Shannon Ridge grows is used in the Wrangler Red, but Clay selects some of the best fruit and blends it with 7% of Petite Sirah to make a little more than 2,000 cases of this Lake County Zin.

Look Dark garnet color foreshadows the richness of this wine.
Smell It has opulent fragrances of fig, tart cranberry, black pepper and dusty cedar bark.
Taste This is a fairly traditional California Zin with big, jammy raspberry, cola, pepper and tobacco flavors. It’s perfect with pizza, pasta or just with a conversation.
Price $19


Clay’s favorite wine and food pairings are as humble as his beginnings. “I’m a deluxe hamburger guy, and I love it with our Wrangler Red. It’s fun wine with good tannins and structure, but simple enough to drink it with a hamburger. I also our single vineyard cab and our Viognier with lamb loin chops seared with salt and pepper.” That sounds damn good to me.

If you want to try Shannon Ridge wines with your favorite meals or at your holiday parties, call your local wine shop or order online. Shannon Ridge wines are available widely throughout most U.S. states including Texas. I purchased Wrangler Red (not reviewed here) at Specs in Austin.

Shannon Ridge Vineyard and Winery provided samples of the wine for review through its PR agency, Balzac Communications.

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