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 info@cliffledevineyards.com 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.

What are you drinking?

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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Charles Krug Winery, a Family Affair

What are your favorite childhood memories? Do they have anything to do with your current job? In a conversation with Peter Mondavi, Jr., co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, he reminisced about doing odd jobs around the winery in the mid-60s when he was 8 years old. His grandmother lived on the property, and after a long morning of work Peter would come home to her house to a lunch feast of homemade pasta, roasted chicken and other delights. He also remembers celebrating Easter at the winery with his cousins. One year they held an Easter egg hunt in the bottling line because it was raining outside. During the following days, unfound eggs turned up in cases of wine and in other unexpected places. 

Fond family memories have turned into celebrated family accomplishments. California Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed September 10 “Charles Krug Winery Day.” This isn’t because Gov. Brown is angling for a free tasting and a private tour of the venerable winery. No, it’s in honor of the 150th anniversary of the starting point for Napa Valley wine and the advances that Founder Charles Krug and later, Peter Mondavi Sr., have brought to the industry. They’ll celebrate the proclamation and the anniversary with a big bash on the winery lawn, pouring library wine for guests on Saturday, September 10.

Founded in 1861, Charles Krug Winery is the first commercial winery in Napa Valley. The Mondavi family has owned it since 1943 when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi bought it and took it out of the post-prohibition moth balls. Peter Mondavi Sr. has been at the helm since 1966, a year after a nasty spat with his brother Robert Mondavi led to his departure from Charles Krug to found his own winery down the road. Peter Sr., who will turn 97 in November, still comes to work every day, but he has turned over the day-to-day operation to Peter Jr. and his brother Marc. Now some of the fourth generation Mondavis are joining the party.   

In an era of when the wine industry is dominated by corporations consolidating smaller holdings, the independent family winery has gone the way of the cassette tape. The way of life is slowly eroding away. How do the Mondavis continue to succeed as a family venture? Peter tells me, “It’s in our blood. We love it. It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I love wine-making and everything that goes around it: The great people, the great food. Having a legacy of family is important. Maintaining a family winery ownership is a priority over all else. It’s a priority over profits and everything.”

A sesquicentennial celebration is a great indication that the blood line commitments are working.

One of the fun things they are doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary is a search for the oldest bottle of Charles Krug wine. One of the oldest bottles submitted on the winery Facebook page is from 1947. Can you imagine what one of the pre-prohibition, pre-Mondavi wines might taste like? Back then Napa Valley was dominated by different varietals like Muscatel and other sweet wines. The original grapes were mission grapes, and not Bordeaux blends despite the significant European influence, of pioneers such as Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Not only have the varietals evolved, but so have the technology of wine production and the viticulture. Krug was an innovator in 1861, introducing a cider press to crush grapes instead of crushing with feet. Peter Mondavi Sr. pioneered temperature controlled fermentation that is now a standard. He also introduced the first barrel aging in Napa in 1968. The vineyards root stock has changed dramatically, with vines tailored for specific soils and micro-climates. In addition, vine density has increased three-fold and pruning techniques have improved.

More recently the winery has undergone a significant refurbishment of the buildings. The historic Carriage House was restored and the Redwood Cellar, built in 1872, now holds the reserve barrel aging in a temperature controlled environment. They built whole new winery with smaller barrel fermentation and a temperature controlled environment to enhance fermentation. Charles Krug also brought in new grape presses from Switzerland to get the finest juice possible. The multi-million dollar renovation of the historic properties and the introduction of new technology shows a commitment to legacy and to continued quality improvements. 

Charles Krug Winery produces three lines of wine – the Napa Valley and Carneros Appellation Wines, the Family Reserve and the Limited Release – using six varietals. Within that line-up, Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay. The 2008 Cabernet Napa Valley is blended to achieve a good balance of moderate alcohol, fruit and tannins. The Mondavis strive for food friendly wines that don’t over power and are subservient to the food.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Look It is a glimmering jewel in the glass. Opaque garnet, with a bright heart and brick red at the edges. Slowly stretching legs cling to the glass with silky viscosity.  
Smell The ’08 Cabernet is has lush scents of blackberry, plum, anise and smoky cedar.  
Taste Velvety black cassis and blueberry coat the mouth followed by bitter dark chocolate and firm tannins. It has a smooth, long finish of stewed plum, charcoal and tobacco
Price $27


I also tried the Merlot. Charles Krug blends 79% Merlot with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and ages it for 20 months in French oak to achieve a quintessential California Merlot style. 

2008 Merlot Napa Valley

Look It is a polished aubergine shining with opaque mystery and depth.   
Smell The 2008 Merlot has a lively scent of black cherry, ripe plum and spiced chocolates.
Taste Its like a big mouthful of blackberry jam and violet blossoms, balanced with a touch of minerals and a smooth smoky, persistent finish.  
Price $24


Peter Mondavi Jr.’s favorite way to enjoy a glass of Charles Krug wine is with family and good friends while sharing a great meal. That’s exactly how I enjoyed these two wines. Open a bottle or two with your friends.  

What happens after “Charles Krug Winery Day” and the big anniversary bash on September 10? Peter Jr. plans for continued success with the winery as a family business. Staying an independent, family winery is paramount. He hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for quite some time yet to come. I’ll raise a glass to those honorable goals, and to the prestigious honor from Gov. Brown. Cheers.

Charles Krug Winery provided samples of both wines for review. Photos provided by the winery.

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Prolonging Summer with Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

God I love Indian summer. I love the toasty smell of fallen leaves, the chill mornings lit by the glow of Venus and Orion, the top-down heat of the afternoon sun that beckons me to stare into the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky just a little bit longer transported back to dreamy, lazy summer vacation days. It’s a cheat. Its summer reincarnated just weeks after it left. Don’t ya feel like you’ve been given a second chance? I do.   

This summer I wrote about my love for Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day in the post Suitable Wines for a Summer Romance. Even though summer has officially graduated to fall, this little taste of Indian summer is a perfect excuse to break out a light, crisp bottle of liquid sunshine. Beautiful Wife and I visited Cakebread Cellars last summer and stashed away a bottle of 2007 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc for just such an occasion.

Cakebread is a family joint in the heart of Napa Valley started in 1973 by patriarch Jack Cakebread. It’s known for delectable Cabs, Chardonnays and the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc. Cakebread grows most its Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Rutherford with some sourced in other various vineyards in the Napa region.

Mother Nature has some fantastic building blocks to create tasty wine in that blessed valley in California, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be enhanced by a little artistry. Winemaker Julianne Laks blends 4% Sauvignon Musqué and 7% Sémillon in the Sauvignon Blanc for enhanced aromatics, softer acidity and brighter citrus. Cakebread further coaxes complexity and intensity from the grapes by fermenting and aging the wine in a combination of tank-fermentation and in neutral French oak barrel aging; fermentation and aging in barrel; and tank-fermentation with no barrel aging. 

That seems like a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Look Harvest moonbeams in a glass slipper, staying at the party well past midnight.
Smell Flinty oyster shells and lemon rind left on the plate after a picnic. Plenty of grapefruit and kiwi left for desert.
Taste Intense as an Indian Summer that knows its days are numbered. A rich harvest of melon, grapefruit, lemon zest and honeysuckle with a nice balance of crisp mineral with an undertone of vanilla oak for a lasting finish.
Price $26

Yankee haters across the nation, put on you rally caps because we are going to stretch this summer into extra innings.  If you want to hold on to that summer ease for just a little longer, give this Cakebread a try. You’ll feel like going for a swim in the lake before you finish the second glass.

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Oscar Worthy: Rubicon Estate CASK Cabernet Sauvignon

Translator: The general would like to know if you will drink a toast with him.

Patton: Thank the general and tell him I have no desire to drink with him or any other Russian son of a bitch.

Translator: [Nervous] I can’t tell him that!

Patton: Tell him, every word.

Translator: [In Russian] He says he will not drink with you or any Russian son of a bitch.

Russian general: [In Russian] Tell him he is a son of a bitch, too. Now!

Translator: [Very nervous] He says he thinks you are a son of a bitch, too.

Patton: [laughing] All right. All right, tell him I’ll drink to that; one son of a bitch to another.

Francis Ford Coppola has made a ton of great movies like Patton, The Godfather trilogy, Virgin Suicides, American Graffiti, etc. He also makes some kick ass wines. The Niebaum Coppola Estate Winery (they changed the name to Rubicon Estate in 2006) has been around since 1975 when Coppola bought the Inglenook winery, and makes both prestige and affordable wines.  He borrowed part of the name from Gustave Niebaum, the founder of Inglenook. I’ll drink to that.

Beautiful Wife and I visited the winery several years ago. It’s a gorgeous estate and worth a visit the next time you are in the Napa Valley. We brought along Argyle Nuthouse Pinot Noir that I bought with my employee discount to trade for some excellent Niebaum Coppola wines. With a trade, we were lucky enough to score a bottle of 1998 Rubicon Estate CASK Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the prestige wines.

The wine stands out with the 1800 style label printed on thin cork. Pretty cool. Coppola first made the CASK Cabernet Sauvignon in 1995 as a wink and a nod to the hearty Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon. CASK Cabernet is made from 100% organic Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the storied Rubicon Estate vineyards, Cohn and Chateau, in Rutherford, Calif. These vineyards first started producing fat Cabs in 1871. CASK is aged for 28 months in 500-L American oak puncheons to round out the hearty fruit.

We opened the ’98 CASK to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary and drank this as the sun quietly set over our little rental house on Lake LBJ. We felt a little sentimental drinking it as this wine was bottled the same month we met, 12 years ago and we had also honeymooned in Napa. Ah love. It goes well with a great wine. Ah wine. It goes well with a great love.

Look Dark, inky purple as dark as the Nung River just after sunset in Apocalypse Now.
Smell Fragrant blackcurrant and rosehip like a Sicilian vineyard in late fall in The Godfather.
Taste Big dollops of black cherry jam, raisin, tobacco and cocoa came on as seductively as Johnny Depp in Don Juan DeMarco. It had a nice long finish with smooth tannins and gentle oak.
Price $70 (a hell of a lot cheaper if you can trade for it)

This was a fitting wine for a special occasion. While I like Coppola’s films, I’d choose this over any of them any day.

What are you drinking?