Thursday, April 23, 2015

A visit to Prager Port Works

My roommate and I have taken to Port, so our most recent visit to the Napa Valley started at Prager Winery and Port Works. Port wine is often considered a dessert wine, but, we began our wine tasting this day with the good stuff!

Technically not Port wine, as it is not from the Northern Portuguese provinces of Douro Valley, since 1979, this family-run winery has been hand crafting port wines using traditional Portuguese Varietals such as Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao and Touriga. While blending these traditional grapes with Petite Sirah, the Prager family crafts some flavorful fortified wines, certain to please the palates of many port fans.

While it is true, Port can be an acquired taste, I was certain, the various styles of Port produced by this family owned and operated winery would appeal to even my non-port drinking friends.

We arrived at 10 am on Sunday, yep, Port on a Sunday morning. Apparently, my notes were off, as they don't open until 10:30 on Sundays. Since we were determined to hit up the Ports before the crowds, we hung around the gorgeous grounds and perused the gardens while we awaited the opening.

The gorgeous grounds are full of flowers and shrubs and fresh herbs and are lovingly tended by the family themselves. We spent a half hour walking around the garden, smelling the fresh rosemary and photographing the beautiful, quaint garden.

At 1030, we are greeted at the door by one of the cousins, so much less stuffy than some of the other establishments we have visited, our host wears jeans and a flannel shirt. The tasting room reminds me of an Irish Bar I used to visit, covered in dollars, mostly in single denominations, but others can be found as the entire room is covered. You can find a single from almost anywhere in the world on that wall and when asked, our host could point out most any country we inquired about. 

The window sill was reminiscent of Halloween, actually covered in real spider webs, seriously! These cobwebs are all very real. You might think it would make the place look a little old or dirty or dusty, but it really just added to the charm of the place and since we were actually turned off by the stuffiness at another winery, this place is the exact opposite!

Now, let's talk about the important stuff, the port! We started with a 2009 Petite Sirah table wine. Aged in American Oak, this wine had three years to soften in the bottle before being poured. It is a full bodied Sirah with cherry and grape nose. I rated it a 4/5 in vivino.

Next up, we tasted the 2010 Port, a blend of Petite Sirah and three traditional Portugese Varietals, this intense port smells of chocolate. This one is going to age well! I cannot wait to taste it in about 10 more years.

The 2010 Royal Escort Port has a modest sweetness to it. It is a pretty intense port with a robust acidic finish.

The 2010 Aria white port, which is a new one for me was interesting. Made of 100% Chardonnay and aged three+ years in oak, this honey-colored port reminded me of buttered popcorn.

A recent addition the Prager Family library, Noble Companion, a 10-year tawny port with caramel and butterscotch flavors lingering on the tongue followed with a smooth brandy finish. The aging has been done for you in this top-shelf option, but I suspect, another ten years will smooth it out even further.

Finally, upon asking, we tasted the 2013 Sweet Calire Riesling, OMG, have I mentioned that I love Rieslings? A well balanced sweetness with a crisp acidity won this Riesling a Double Gold Medal in the San Francisco Wine Competition, be sure to ask for a taste of this wine while you are there!

During our visit, someone came in to buy some caramelized nuts. Mama (Imogene) Prager has been making these nuts since 1979 and if the ports weren't so good, these nuts could be the main attraction. If your host forgets to put them out, be sure to ask, I promise you will not be disappointed. 

Sadly, my companions were not as impressed with the ports as my roomie and I were. We walked off with several bottles and they said they did not understand the "whole port thing." So maybe I was wrong, maybe everyone cannot find something at Prager Port Works, but one thing is for sure, if you already love Port, bring your wallet! Tastings run $20, which are not waived with purchase, which was a little disappointing as we spent well over $250, we had hoped for a waived tasting fee. We did get to take home the glasses, which are kind of cool, I sit here sipping some Sweet Claire in my glass which was etched on site at Prager.

They also make a Chocolate Port Drizzle and Chocolate Port Truffles which were not available for tasting. You can also pick up some older vintages of port while you are there.

Prager Winery and Port works is located at 1281 Lewelling Lane in Saint Helena. We almost missed the sign, so look closely for it amongst the resorts on the main drag.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Napa Wine Tasting: Robert Mondavi Winery

Stepping into the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, is like many other winery visits, you are immediately transported to a blissful haven of scenic beauty and tranquility. Even in the heart of wine country, this popular facility is truly like stepping into paradise. Parking at the winery finds you amongst the rows and rows of grape vines and once you walk under the famed arch of the facility, you immediately step into an amazing courtyard with beautiful gardens back-dropped by more and more vineyards. It is a feast for the senses, and that is before you even find your way into one of the tasting rooms.

As a member of one of the sister wineries, we were greeted in a private, members-only tasting room. The staff was friendly, informative and the wine was scrumptious. There is a reason why Mondavi is such a common name in wine circles. Even many casual wine drinkers are familiar with Mondavi wines. Richard was our host and he was incredibly knowledgeable about the wine, the facility and Mondavi himself. He gave us tips on swirling and tasting.

We learned the To Kalon vineyard, meaning "highest beauty," in Greek, is one of the oldest first-growth vineyards in the world, originally planted in 1868. This particular vineyard produces some of Mondavi's finest wines, including its world class cab and is the exclusive source of the Oakville Fume' Blanc.

All in all, we tasted 10 wines. My roommate and I chose 4 wines each, enabling us to taste 9/10 offered options, Richard kindly threw in the moscato and happily provided a sample of a dessert wine upon request.

It was on this tasting where I learned that I prefer Unoaked Chardonnay over Oaked Chardonnay. The 2012 Unoaked Chard was smooth, slightly sweet, yet slightly dry, almost a perfect balance.

Five of the eleven wines we tasted were winery exclusives, as in, you can only purchase them from the winery. I came home with four of the eleven, two of my absolute favorites were:

2013 Pinot Noir Clone 115
2012 Pinot Noir PNX

I also really enjoyed the 2011 Momentum, which is a red blend with 90% merlot.

Finally, as true to my form, I purchased the 2013 Moscato d'Oro and my absolute favorite was the 2001 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc called Botrytis. I find this ironic, considering the name Botrytis is the name of a grape fungus that destroys crops. Regardless of the name, the wine is amazing, if you like sweet wines or dessert wines, since they are my favorite, I had to get at least one bottle of this, I am likely to go back for some more!

The winery is beautiful, the service exceptional, the wine.. well it is Mondavi after all, so I would expect nothing less than tasty, wonderful wine and I was not disappointed. While I get free tasting and discounts from this winery due to my membership at a sister winery, I enjoyed Mondavi wines so much that I may actually join it too, just to get some more frequently! I saw their online store had a pinot clone 777, which I am dying to try, so I see another visit to Mondavi in my near future.

While it is one of the more popular tourist destinations in St Helena, it is completely worthy of your time. If you visit Mondavi, stop by and tell me what you think!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Del Dotto Cave Tour

After reading all the rave reviews of the Del Dotto cave tours on Trip Advisor and Yelp, I had high expectations for this tour. Also, at $65 a pop, I thought surely, this would be an amazing wine tasting experience.

The place is palatial, reminiscent of the old, defunct Vegas Hotel, the Venetian, with its gorgeous Venetian-style architecture and impeccably landscaped grounds. We spent so much time taking pics of the out-side grounds, we almost missed our tour.

The place was gorgeous, beautiful marble columns and floors, crystal chandeliers, long, draped silk curtains, you immediately feel like you are in the presence of greatness and in for a wonderful experience.

Pictures are forbidden inside. (There is a sign as soon as you walk in the place) Our tour began in the main room, just outside the entrance to the caves, here you are served your first glass of wine and this is where you learn about the different wine-country regions, specifically, the regions where Del Dotto grows their grapes.

The tour proceeds into the wine caves, which were not what I expected. I guess perhaps, after touring actual caves, I had a vision, of an actual cave.... Ok, that may sound ignorant on my part, but I will take it, I did not envision the marble to continue, I envisioned an... well, a cave, this was more like a long, dark hallway with wine barrels in it, but I digress.

For me, the excitement ends here. The cave tour at Del Dotto gets rave reviews. so, know the opinions below are my own and digress from the opinions of most people who review the tour.

Truthfully, the entire experience, for me, was a disappointment, there are many other tours in Napa and Sonoma that I would recommend over this one.

At first glance, one may revel in the beauty and awesome architecture of both the exterior and the interior of the facility. The service is five star, everyone is friendly and helpful, knowledgeable and for me, a little too formal. Of course, the professionalism was spectacular, but, for me, a little too stuffy and formal. I don't want to use the word uppity, stuffy or stiff, but frankly, these are the first adjectives that come to mind when asked to express my views of the tour. My roommate and I discussed the tour at length before this post, we were both left with the same opinion.

Our tour guide was fun and knowledgeable, while I did not mind, he was also a little fresh which some may find uncomfortable. Starting a tour with the Vegas-like saying, "What happens in the cave stays in the cave." Several sexual overtones to the tour, which I found to be such a dichotomy to the formal feel of the rest of the place. Our group had a lot of fun and were not put off by the subtle undertones of the tour. Another example to help illustrate my point, as our tour-guide introduced himself as "Randy, that's my name and what I am." It only went down-hill from there. Again, our group actually had a good time with this, but I certainly know a few people that would be put-off by it. Especially, as I said, when everything else about Del Dotto is so formal.

Besides the sexual over-tones of our tour guide, who by the way, I only remember by name because of the way he introduced himself, he was very knowledgeable about the facility, the winemaking process and the wine. Ok, so that is the important part, right, you want your guide to be well versed on a wine tour. The tasting experience was different than any other I had experienced. I learned how to taste from a barrel, to pull the wine with a thief, I learned about the aging and toasting practices of the oak barrel and what type of toasting is used for different wines. I learned that I prefer the old oak barrels from France vs. the young American oak, as the former gives the wine a smoother taste, the oak is less prominent on the palate, which is my preference, while my roommate prefers the latter.

The walking tour takes about an hour and is extremely educational. However, here are the things I didn't like about it: no pictures, who wants to take a tour of anything (Other than the Vatican) without taking pictures.

The caves are dark, it brings good atmosphere and the lack of bright light is better for the wine, but, it is difficult to write tasting notes on a walking tour, especially one where you can't use apps like Vivino, when you can't take any photos, but the darkness adds to that difficulty.

Again, the tour was exceptionally informative and you taste a decent amount of wine. However, since you can't really take tasting notes and sample quite a few wines, by the time you get out of the caves, an hour later, you can't remember the subtle intricacies of the wine. They do offer little cards on the barrels you taste with name and year of the wine, so you can grab a card to remember the specific wine you want to purchase. Personally, I prefer to note the nose and the flavors, it helps me to learn what I like about some wines and not others, it helps me refine my preferences and make better purchasing decisions. When the tour was over and I received a personalized, printed list of the wines I tasted on the tour, I tried to remember the subtleties of each wine, but I just prefer to do it on the spot as I use my senses to see the wine, taste it, smell it.

As we gathered around a bar at the end of the tour, we were given a plate of cheese and charcuterie, which was prepared on-site and was almost needed at this point, considering the generous barrel pulls. Sadly, there were six of us on the tour and there was not enough of each item for each of us to try each one, however, the ones I did try, were incredible! They also served a small pizza, which was also delicious. Finally, a dessert wine was poured and it was really scrumptious. The personalized list of wines was printed and distributed.

Sadly, some of my favorite wines, like pinot, cab and sangiovese were not my favorite at Del Dotto. The ones I enjoyed the most, I found to be a little overpriced. My taste for wine has gotten progressively more pricey, since moving to Northern California, so it was not a matter of liking the cheap wine over the good stuff, I have enjoyed numerous scrumptious wines from other wineries in the area, Del Dotto wines were just not that appealing to me. Furthermore, there is no instant gratification from barrel tasting. As you are tasting wines from the barrel, they have not been finished and bottled yet, so should you choose to purchase anything, you have to wait a few months, you are purchasing futures. Lastly, there is no club membership or anything else to get a discount on your purchase, unless you purchase some insanely large amount of wine over the course of 12 months.

With all of that said, the tour was informative but pricey. The staff was friendly, the place was gorgeous, but, overall, I found the whole experience a little bit pretentious for my taste. As I have stated, I have read a lot of reviews to the contrary, so maybe take my review with a grain of salt. If you are not rich and famous and want to be able to afford the wine you like, I think there are many other tours available in the area that would serve your money better. Sorry, Del Dotto, this easy going girl is not a fan. No worries though, there are plenty of other people who love the tour and the wine.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

My favorite place in Berkeley: Skates on the Bay

Ok, Ok, so it also happens to be the only place I have ever gone in Berkeley, but with a place like this, who needs another?

A few years ago, I came to California for a business trip. While I was out and about, looking for a scrapbook store to purchase some local memorabilia, I asked the local store owner to point me in the direction of a place I could eat some good seafood, some good wine and a great view. She pointed me to Skates on the Bay, a wonderful restaurant on the Berkeley Marina. I have never forgotten the place, it was so wonderful, the view, the food, the ambiance, the wine...

My roommate is retiring from the Air Force and this is her last week in town, we decided this deserved a splurge and made our way to Berkeley, hoping to recreate the good memory of years ago.

With trepidation, we made our way into Skates on the bay and it did not disappoint.

It really is an unassuming place from the parking lot of the Marina, just a quiet restaurant until you step in and see the view.

All while enjoying your dinner (and there is not a bad seat in the house), you can view the sailboats enjoying the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco and Oakland skylines. And a wonderful place to view the sunset, as you sip some delicious wine off their decent wine list

The worst thing about the experience is deciding what to eat. I enjoyed a filet with Crab Oscar while my roomy enjoyed the Haddock special. We munched on some scrumptious crab and artichoke dip and a delicious salad. I had a wonderful cab and she had a moscato blend that was out of this world!

We decided it was a special occasion, so we also ordered the bread pudding, which was made from carrot cake and served with a wonderful orange sauce which tasted fantastic along with the flight of Graham's port (a 10 yr, 20 yr and 30 yr port). You can taste the amazing difference in the ports as they age, this was a great experience in itself.

After dinner, we walked on the pier, just to walk off some of the calories and soak up the salty air. This place would make a wonderful date night, dinner and wine with a view and a lovely handheld walk on the water.

Sadly, the pier has declined over the years, covered in graffiti and the fishermen line the place at sunset, trying to catch that magic hour. We saw one guy catch a little shark while we were there,

If there is one word that I could use to sum up my evening at Skates on the Bay, it is nostalgia, I found myself transported to past days, that really had nothing to do with California or the food, wine or view, but it was a nostalgic night and was a cathartic reprieve from the every day.

100 Seawall Drive
Berkeley, CA 94710
Happy Hour:
Mon-Fri 4pm-6pm
Late Night Happy Hour:
Mon-Thur 9:00pm-10:30pm
Lunch:Monday thru Friday 11a –3pm
Weekend Brunch & Lunch: Saturday & Sunday 10:30–2pm
Dinner:Monday thru Thursday 5pm–9:30pm
Friday 5pm–10pm
Saturday 4pm–10pm
Sunday 4pm–9pm
Lounge:Monday thru Thursday 3pm–10:30pm
Friday & Saturday 3pm–11pm

They do get full, so I recommend you visit the website and book a reservation before you go!
Sunday 3pm–10pm

Monday, April 13, 2015

Buena Vista Winery: The oldest Premium Winery in California

Long before Napa and Sonoma Counties were known as wine country, just outside the town of Sonoma, the first premium winery in California was founded in 1857. Now a California State Historic Landmark, Buena Vista Winery still sits in Sonoma county. Buena Vista Winery, acquired by the Boisset Family in 2011 has overcome a long, troubling past, but under its new ownership and extensive renovation, promises to be a delight to California wine tourists and locals alike.

Despite its colorful past, visiting the winery is a fascinating history lesson in California viticulture. Between its founding by Agoston Haraszthy in 1857 and its modern day renovation, the winery has survived a troubled past. Everything from Phylloxera,(a grape killing disease which wiped out Buena Vista's vines), near financial ruin, the great depression and prohibition to being jilted by two California Earthquakes, have threatened the rich history of this winery. From the ideals of an eccentric, self-proclaimed Count to the ambitious dreams or an eleven-year-old powerhouse Burgandian, wine-family heir, The Buena Vista Winery's legacy has endured.
To read more about the colorful past of this delightful place click here.

Better yet, visit this beautiful historic winery and take the historical wine museum tour and tasting. For only $25, you can tour this historic facility and learn about its rich history. While enjoying your tour, you can taste exclusive current release wines and explore the wineries recent renovations.

Additionally, the facility offers a "Be the Count" Blending experience, private tastings, barrel tastings and gorgeous picnic grounds.

On a recent visit to this breath-taking facility, I had the opportunity to taste several of their wines and learn much about the winery's rich history.

I tasted several wines (of course) and not only came home with a few bottles of my own, I joined their club, so I can enjoy their delicious vino regularly and spend some more time exploring the amazing grounds.

My favorite tasting:

The Sherrif of Buena Vista - A bold 2012 Red Blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cab Sauv and Grenache. This wine had some bold berry and chocolate flavors, a just a hint of spice. It was smooth and had an almost boundless finish and a wonderfully aromatic nose.

Now, I must admit that I am a big fan of blends, so this blend did not disappoint, it was bold and lingering and will go nicely with a great steak!

It was a beautiful day, beautiful weather and the perfect place to close the weekend. If you love history and wine, Buena Vista winery is the perfect place to get both

Do you have a favorite wine at Buena Vista? I would love to hear about it!

Open Daily from 10 am to 5 pm
18000 Old Winery Road
Sonoma, CA 95476

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sterling Vineyards

The first production winery designed with visitors in mind, Sterling Vineyards is one of the more commercial wineries in the Napa Valley. They are set up to handle a lot of tourists and a price to go with the view. The only gondola ride found in the Napa Region, visitors wait in line to ride the Gondola from the parking lot on the valley floor, to the main building, up a 211 foot wooded volcanic knoll, where a self-guided tour begins.

Like a beacon on high, the Meditteranean-style Visitor's Center calls to Napa Valley visitors.

The aerial tram showcases the beautiful Napa Valley floor from a birds-eye view. The tasting and educational-experience begin almost immediately upon disembarking the gondola.

Elevated walkways continue to provide amazing scenery while the self-guided tour, designed to show case how the vineyard turns grapes into wine.

Sterling sources a remarkable variety of exceptional wines which can be tasted by stopping at several tasting bars along the self-guided tour and enjoyed on the terrace while taking in the spectacular views of the valley.

Sterling is known for its exceptional wines and produces several 90+ vintages. Offering reds, whites and sparkling, you are sure to find something you love at Sterling.

One of our favorite "sips" of the day, the Malvasia Bianca is so wildly popular, it has its very own wine club. The Malvasia Bianca is traditionally a Mediterranean grape that produces a semi-sweet, refreshing wine which is light bodied and fruity white that is not overly sweet. I brought a few bottles of this one home.

While many locals will consider Sterling a little too commercial for their tastes, this is a must-see winery, if not for the views alone. Pair those spectacular views with their amazing wines and you have a can't miss place to take all those out-of-town guests looking to experience wine country.


Putah Creek Cafe

Nestled in the lazy, quaint town of Winters, the Putah Creek Cafe is one of my favorite places to eat! I was introduced to their amazing wood fired pizza, while sipping on some wine, right down the street at the Turkovich Family Wine Tasting Room. While enjoying a blissful Friday Night and some amazing wine, we ordered pizza from the Putah Creek Cafe, which was delivered to us at Turkovich.

The Putah Creek Cafe, as featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, serves up some amazing pizza. I recently stopped by to allow my son to eat some pizza and I enjoyed some incredible Scallop Risotto.

This is certainly one of my all time favorite dishes and favorite places to dine! As their website boasts, this is comfort food at its finest! A small family owned place, the Putah Creek Cafe offers a great dining experience in a friendly, casual atmosphere. Best of all, they deliver their fabulous wood fired pizza to Turkovich... a little wine with your pizza?