Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Zinfandel is the all-American grape: big, bold, and brash. Up-front and fruity, it has nothing to hide and everything to say. It's high in alcohol (usually climbing above 15%), low in subtlety, screaming its California motto at you: "Go big or go home." All of this has made Zinfandel a very popular style of wine, its immediate flavours having an easy appeal that's hard to resist.

However, rather like Australian Shiraz, its appeal is also its downside. If you don't want a wine whose alcohol approaches the levels of fortified wine, then avoid Zinfandel. If you don't want a fruit bomb, then give Zinfandel a miss. If you want a structured, balanced wine, then don't stop at the Zinfandel shelf.

My travels around California have confirmed some of those impressions, but also challenged them. It's still nearly always high in alcohol and Zinfandel wouldn't be Zinfandel without its jammy black and blue fruits, but I've discovered plenty of serious wines with structure, depth, and ageability. Maybe because I've come to the wines quite fresh, I've often preferred Napa Zins to Cab Sabs - they're certainly more affordable.

where's it from?

The world came crashing in on the all-American grape in the 1990s when genetic fingerprinting proved that Zinfandel was the same grape as obscure, rustic Primitivo - rather like an American tycoon learning that they were descended from poor Italian immigrants...

It is, of course, impossible for Zinfandel to be an indigeneous American grape - all wine-producing vines are part of the vitis vinifera species which originates from Europe. Although Zinfandel was only known in California, it had to have come from Europe at some point. There are various theories about its origin, but the likelihood is that it was imported from Vienna by one George Gibbs late in the 1820s, making its way to California during the Gold Rush as Zinfandal. The grape itself doesn't originate from Italy, however, but Croatia. There's also a strong chance that Primitivo was imported into Italy by Italians returning home from California.

For all its genetic controversy, Zinfandel is now very much its own grape, grown in California for a hundred and fifty years, with nineteenth-century plantings still in use. During that time it's been soaked in California sunshine, reflecting the dry, dusty Californian terroir as well as time's changing fashions. 

Zinfandel in véraison, Calistoga

what does it taste like?

Due to its hardiness and popularity, Zinfandel is grown in areas that are too hot because it can cope with that heat and is overproduced because it has no problem providing high yields. That's where the image of Zinfandel as jammy and obvious comes from. The high alcohol has risen as the trend for rich, alcoholic wines has grown, although, as with other styles of wine in California, levels of alcohol are beginning to settle.

Whatever the style of Zinfandel, the black and blue fruits should be immediate, but serious examples of Zinfandel use American oak for up to two years, giving the wine real structure and balance, as well as adding a peppery spiciness.

There is also a phenomenon called White Zinfandel, which has further damaged the reputation of the grape if not producers' finances. Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home in Napa launched White Zinfandel in the 1970s and saw sales mushroom in the 80s; this resulted in increased plantings of the grape, which is one positive outcome. White Zinfandel is pink, sweet, and a tiny bit fizzy.


Without doubt the greatest producer of Zinfandel in California is Ridge. Although they are based in Santa Cruz, their finest Zinfandels come from Lytton Springs and Geyserville in northern Sonoma. The best Napa and Sonoma Zinfandels come from high altitude areas that are hot during the day but cool at night, allowing the grape to ripen at a slow, steady pace. I haven't visited Ridge yet, but the Lytton Springs is one my favourite Californian wines, arguably besting even their own famous Cabernets. It's a great example of a big, powerful, unabashed wine that is still classically balanced. Here are some of the many Zinfandels I've tasted over the last two months.

Saddleback Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 ($40)

Most of the grapes for this wine are grown in hot Calistoga, the best area of the Napa Valley for Zinfandel. Like the rest of Saddleback's wines, this is a serious, oaky, tannic wine, but softened by the Zinfandel fruits (plums and blueberries). The only Saddleback red to be aged in American oak, the wine has distinct vanilla, chocolate, and coconut aromas, and is very spicy on the mouth with pepper and liquorice. Still young, with plenty of ageing potential.

Regusci Zinfandel 2010 ($60)

Regusci are the only winery in Stags Leap AVA to plant their own Zinfandel - there just isn't enough money compared to Cabernet Sauvignon to justify planting the grape in the heart of Napa Valley. The intensity of the wine is quite different from those grown at higher altitudes: besides the black and blue fruits, the nose is toasty, oaky, and peppery, with a spicy, dusty palate - it's the dust that marks it out as from the lower reaches of the valley.

Nichelini Reserve Zinfandel 2010 ($41)

Nichelini, Chiles Valley
Yet another old Italian family still using original plantings of the vine - the family have been making wine in the same spot since the 1890s, including through Prohibition. Nichelini are based high in Chiles Valley, where altitude again affects the character of the wine. This Zinfandel is not shy: from 2010, when an unexpected heat spike overripened the grapes, the wine comes to a whopping 16.1% ABV. It's big, spicy, and alcoholic: the pepper, liquorice, and alcohol leave the tongue burning. It may mellow out after a few years, but even after four it's a bit too much. Nichelini also make a Primitivo, which is a bit more mellow (although it was from the cooler 2011 vintage), its fruits more chocolatey; an interesting comparison.

Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel 2012 ($38) & Home Ranch Zinfandel 2012 ($58)

Seghesio are a Sonoma producer who have made their name growing Italian grape varieties - they also make wines from Arneis, Vermentino, Barbera, Sangiovese, Aglianco, and Petite Sirah (a French grape known in France as Durif but often grown in California by Italian immigrants). Zinfandel was first planted by founder Edoardo Seghesio in 1895 on the Home Ranch vineyard, plantings which are still used today. Besides Home Ranch, Seghesio make several Zinfandels, all from vineyards throughout Sonoma County. My favourite is the Rockpile, from a small AVA where the vines must be above the fog level, attracting intense sunshine during the day but subject to cool nights - perfect for Zinfandel. It's a stony, floral wine, with subtle fruits on the nose; on the palate, it's more aggressive and oaky, with drying, slightly bitter tannins. Seghesio's premium wine, from the original Home Ranch vineyard, is serious, almost like a Cabernet Sauvignon on the nose. The palate is concentrated and complex, juicy, oaky, and spicy, with a particularly peppery finish.

Joseph Swan Stellwagen Zinfandel 2008 ($30)

Although Russian River Valley is best known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, it produces intense Zinfandels from select slopes. Joseph Swan make several single-vineyards Zins. The last ever vintage from the Stellwagen vineyard, this is a fruity, savoury wine, with vanilla, anise, and roses and violets adding a refined elegance.

When visiting the Joseph Swan winery, I couldn't resist buying one of their Zinfandels from 2001, for just $35. This is the first mature Zinfandel I've tasted: the rich black fruits were there, but were more dried and overladen with leather and game. Although Joseph Swan wines are unusual and generally come into their own with a bit of age, this was proof that Zinfandel is ageworthy, and not just a young, fruity wine to be drunk straightaway.

I've been tasting Zinfandel throughout my visits to different California wineries - more than any grape, it grows successfully in most areas. I've already reviewed the following wines on previous blogs from Laura Michael, Lone Madrone, and Pomar Junction.

From being somewhat sceptical of Zinfandel upon my arrival in California, I now look forward to tasting each winery's style and I'm disappointed if one isn't made. It's produced in different ways, from fruity and fun to oaky and serious, and you're never quite sure what you're going to get. As ever in California, terroir is key: it's at its best in high areas with significant variations in temperature from day to night, and it reflects the dusty intensity of California's summer heat. Zinfandel has so won me over as an expression of California, that the Saddleback Zin is going to feature at my wedding next week alongside Chardonnay and Rioja. I can think of no greater compliment than that.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


For all the writing, talking, and drinking about the various forms of alcoholic drinks, we spend too little time thinking about how they're made. Knowing the production process for a drink, whether it's wine, beer, or spirits, should inform our understanding and appreciation of it.

With this in mind, I attended a weekend course at UC Davis, California's leading institution devoted to the study and production of drink. I've always wanted to make my own beer, but have been daunted by all the equipment needed - pots, kettles, wort chillers, tubes, false floors, fermenters, and bottles - as well as lacking the space to allow the beautifully stinky aromas of fermenting beer to develop away from the living area. Even if I never get round to making my own beer - and I hope that I do manage it - this was a great opportunity to understand better the various styles of beer I enjoy drinking.


we spent the first hour of a sleepy Saturday morning being told the importance of cleanliness and sanitation (two very different things). Unclean or unsanitised equipment will cause your beer to be infected with dirty organisms which will go on to spoil your beer and make it undrinkable. As clearly important as this is, most likely many homebrewers ignore this aspect of beermaking.


hops may currently be the fashionable ingredient when discussing the flavours of beer, but having the chance to smell and taste different grains I found them to be more important. They are, after all, the base ingredient, imparting flavour and colour to the eventual beer. Most grains used are malted barley - barley is the most suitable grain for beer, for it has a husk which means the grain won't get too doughy in the mash (likewise, barley isn't suitable for bread-making because of that husk). There are also "speciality" grains which give distinct aromas to the beer and should only be used in small amounts - for instance, chocolate and peated malts or roasted barley. Dark malts only need to be used in very small quantities to give colour.

the mash

the mash
is when warm water (between 60 and 75°C) is added to the grains to break down the insoluble starches into fermentable sugars. Different temperatures result in different profiles; lower temperatures break down "beta enzymes" for a lower body, while higher temperatures do so with "alpha enzymes" for a fuller body. Playing around with these temperatures, for instance in the "step mash" when you gradually increase the temperature of the water, creates different styles and degrees of complexity.


95% of a beer is water; some of the most famous styles of beer have developed due to the nature of the local water. Burton-on-Trent, home of Bass and other darkish ales in the Midlands, has particularly hard water. In contrast, Pilsen, from which light, pale Pilsner comes, has extremely soft water. The homebrewer wishing to replicate renowned styles can alter the water by adding "brewing salts," such as calcium, carbonate, magnesium, sodium, and sulphate.

the wort

is the liquid drained off from the mash, full of grain flavours and that distinctly beery smell. This is then boiled, which is when hops are added.


when I started drinking beer, I could barely have named a hop. This may be because English hops have a low flavour profile, contributing a light bitterness and body to the beer. Hop flavours come from the amino acids present in the plant: a traditional English hop like Fuggles has what is called an Amino Acid (AA) rating of 3.5-5.5%, while a modern North American hop such as Chinook or Citra have levels of well over 10%. Smelling through a series of hops made clear just how much stronger North American hops are compared to their English or German counterparts; Australian (e.g. Galaxy) and New Zealand (Nelson Sauvin) hops take the aroma and bitterness levels another notch higher.

adding hops to the wort


is measured by IBUs (International Bitterness Units), one of the few internationally recognised and universally applied forms of measurement. The maximum level of bitterness that a human can discern is 90 IBUs; coincidentally, the physical limit of bitterness is 90 IBUs. Any beer that claims to have more than 90 IBUs is lying, taking advantage of the fashion for high levels of bitterness.


the most obvious aspect of making a beer. The wort is put into fermenter vessels, with a small amount of exposure to oxygen to get the fermentation going when yeast is added. The fermenting beer is moved into a bottle or a storage container where the second part of the fermentation continues with a little added sugar and yeast.


for a homebrewer, the best way to add yeast is in its liquid form, although some brewers use yeasts they've filched from a local winery or a strain they've taken from their favourite beers which have been bottle conditioned. As with wine, the most important yeast is Saccharomyces while the most dangerous yeast is Brettanomyces; conversely, this is the most significant yeast for the production of sour beers. We were wisely advised to use a separate set of brewing equipment if we wish to make sours.

styles of beer

in the US, there are 23 specific styles of beer allowed by the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), beyond which 90 sub-categories are recognised for the Great American Beer Festival. To enter a beer into an accredited competition, a homebrewer has to meet the guidelines exactly or face disqualification. Such categories allow homebrewers to replicate famous recipes and stick to tried and tested parameters, but I think doing your own thing and experimenting would be much more satisfying.

metric system

it baffles me that the Americans continue to use measurements like cups, quarts, pounds, gallons, ounces, and Farenheit. I thought I was just the lone European struggling to come terms with these measurements, but the young brewer taking us through the practice of making a beer scratched his head reading the tutor's recipe: "The metric system is just so much easier." A student cautiously agreed, "It does make more sense." Yes, it does.

how many gallons?

This was an intensive overview of the beermaking process, delving into the history of beer, emphasising the importance of cleanliness and good preparation, and investigating the effect ingredients have on the finished product. I now just have to put all that theory into practice.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Play the Sonoma Pinot

It's easy to stereotype California, which makes it so exciting to be confounded by those stereotypes. 'California is hot and uniform; its Pinot Noirs are as a result big, jammy, and shouldn't be made.' Although there's still much Pinot Noir being made which is too fruity and unsubtle, it's clear that California is increasingly capable of producing Pinots that can compete on an international level. This is because California is certainly not hot and uniform, but consists of a series of microclimates that winemakers are seriously exploring with exciting results.


To give an example of the different climates of California that don't conform to geography, my one favourite area for Pinot Noir has long been around Santa Barbara - less than two hours north of Los Angeles. Here the coastal AVAs of Santa Ynez and Santa Rita are cooled dramatically by coastal fogs to the point that Santa Rita is the coolest AVA in California. I haven't visited Santa Barbara yet, something I hope to rectify.

Now Sonoma, north of San Francisco, is attracting attention for its Pinots, as well as its Chardonnays. Sonoma folk make a big play on how cool a climate Sonoma County has, in order to emphasise the area's suitability for the classic Burgundy grapes. Compared to Napa, it is cooler - the ocean fog isn't interrupted by mountains - but it has still reached more than 30ºC when I've visited in recent weeks. However, the temperature drops sharply at night, and the fog lingers in the morning - and the land by the ocean is particularly cool.

Sonoma is divided into several AVAs, which can be confusing. Sonoma Coast AVA is the source for great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, including for Napa producers, but it extends much further inland than it should. Russian River Valley AVA has also been extended so that it flows into the Sonoma Coast AVA as well as encompassing the small Green Valley AVA. Further to the north are Dry Creek Valley AVA, where some great, intense Zinfandel is made. Beyond Sonoma county to the north are Anderson Valley AVA, home of some of the best vineyards for Pinot Noir, and Mendocino, a diverse area with some particularly cool spots for Pinot.

Many of the best producers are located in Russian River Valley, even if they source some of their grapes from other AVAs, especially Anderson Valley and Mendocino to the north. It's a beautiful, secluded area, with roughly laid, winding roads tracking through forests and fields. The major city is Santa Rosa; smaller towns, with tasting rooms and inviting restaurants, are hippyish Sebastopol and self-consciously well-to-do Healdsburg.


Joseph Swan

Joseph Swan, established in the late 1960s, is one of California's great maverick wineries. The GPS takes you elsewhere and if you do manage to find the winery it's likely to be in a state of pleasing confusion. The wines, now made by Swan's son-in-law Rod Berglund, manage to be both weird, funky, and slightly oxidised yet hypnotic, enticing, and unforgettable.

There are several single-vineyard Pinot Noirs made, all exceptional and, despite the purpose of this blog to highlight the characteristics of Sonoma Pinot Noir, completely individual and like nothing else. Saralee's 2011 ($39) is a dark, intense wine that powers its red fruits through with peppery spices and savoury notes. The Great Oak 2010 ($36) is more floral and perfumed and less spicy, its fruits more curranty. The Trenton View 2011 ($38) is more of a classic Pinot, with strawberry aromas; intense but nuanced, with a dry, peppery finish. The Cuvée de Trois 2011 ($30) is a combination of these three styles: intense, weighty, slightly difficult, but full of delicious berries.


Littorai have recently been receiving a lot of attention as the leading light of the "New California," although winemaker Ted Lemon has been making wine since the 1980s. He studied at the University of Dijon, where he gained an interest in wine; by his early 20s, he was Burgundy's first ever American winemaker. He returned to the US to work in Napa, where he became disillusioned with conventional winemaking practices which led to an interest in biodynamics. With his wife, he started looking for the perfect site to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; although they began making their own wine in 1993, it wasn't until 2003 that they bought their own property.

Littorai are biodynamic in all but name, with flowers, plants, and beehives to maintain a flourishing ecosystem; so particular is the set-up that the bees are a specific pollinating only, non-stinging, and non-honey producing species. Production is small and hands-on - when I visited, the first grapes were coming in from the harvest, overseen personally by Ted Lemon.

Most of the Pinot Noirs are single-vineyard, but the Sonoma Coast 2013 (c.$40), which has just been bottled, is a combination of their vineyards from the second pressing of the grapes. It's a friendly, forward Pinot, with tart raspberries and cherries and a slight savoury feel. The Savoy Vineyard 2012 ($65) is from Anderson Valley; smoky, toasty, with soft, ripe, red fruits, and white pepper and sage on the savoury finish. Haven Vineyard on Sonoma Coast was the couple's first purchase in 2001; the 2012 ($90) is earthier and gamier, with more gripping tannins, spicier with a lightly chewy finish. My favourite of the wines I tasted was from Hirsch Vineyard, which has become one of the leading vineyards in Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir. Littorai were the first to bottle from the vineyard in 1994, leading to a longstanding relationship. The 2012 ($70) has an interesting combination of smoke and earth with rose petals. The tannins are bigger and chewier: this is quite a big, aggressive wine for a Pinot Noir, but well structured and firm.

Ant Hill Farms

Located on a converted dry fruits factory site in Dry Creek Valley, Ant Hill have been going for over ten years. It's just three friends who work in the wine industry, together making single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and some (excellent) Syrah. Like all makers of Pinot Noir, everything they do is very particular - hand-picked and -processed grapes, vineyards fermented separately, grapes cold soaked before fermentation to extract flavours, 40% of the grapes fermented in whole clusters - a figure which has gone up, to get different tannins from the stems - with a slow, steady MLF after pressing which doesn't finish until spring.

Comptche Ridge 2012 ($50) comes from a northerly vineyard in Mendocino, just six miles inland. This is cool climate without a doubt, and it's reflected in the wine: austere, earthy, medicinal, and mineral, a drying finish offset only by a high acidity. The fruits are very reserved. Peters Vineyard reflects the confusing nature of Sonoma's vineyards. Just southwest of Sebastopol, it's at the intersection of Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast; it's also part of Sebastopol Hills and in the Petaluma Gap, through which cooling winds blow - both of these are potential future AVAs. Again, this is cool climate, for it was once thought too cold to grow grapes; instead, the land was used for dairy and apples. The vineyard is near Littorai, where the Gold Ridge soils are light, fine-grained, fluffy, and porous. The wine ($55) itself is more forgiving than the Comptche Ridge, with more apparent red fruits, a savoury Pinot smell, and nice spices on the palate. Tina Marie Vineyard is in Russian River Valley and on my visit some of the grapes from this vintage were already undergoing cold soak in the unglamorous plastic bins. This is a friendlier climate, producing smokier wines; the wine ($55) is chewier and jammier, with more candied fruits.

As with many of Sonoma's Pinots, all of Ant Hill Farm's wines are food-friendly; I was given a bottle of the Demuth Vineyard 2012 ($50), from Anderson Valley, whose spicy, floral, gamey aromas complemented perfectly the duck cassoulet at Grace's Table in Napa a couple of weeks later.


A brief visit to their tasting room in Healdsburg introduced me to this winery's superb Pinot Noirs. Once again, there is a concentration on the characters of different vineyards. Perli Vineyard is 600m high in Mendocino Ridge AVA, where the vineyards have to be above 300m, above the fog line and with plenty of exposure to the sun on the steep slopes. A light, upfront wine at first, the 2011 ($48) has a surprising grainy, gripping, bitter mouth: a good introduction to the winery's approach to creating wines that are delicate and full of depth and complexity at the same time. In contrast, the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($38), from two vineyards, Leonardo Julio and Floodgate, is exposed to fog, creating an earthy, almost stinky wine, with rose petals and raspberries and a dusty, dry finish. The Floodgate Pinot Noir 2011 ($40) is much darker and denser, with blackberries and blueberries as well as strawberries; producing what the previous wine was hinting at, with subtly gripping tannins, a smoky, barnyard feel, and a lightly spicy finish.


A winery that's just three years old and still very much finding its way: there's only a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir currently produced. Like Ant Hill Farms, coincidentally, Senses are three friends making wines on the side from their day jobs. Again, it's a hands-on job, though they've been helped by one of the three's family owning a farm with a disused vineyard, which they now get their Pinot Noir from. They've also received quite a bit of help from neighbouring wineries Red Car and Dutton Goldfield - Sonoma is a definitely an area with a strong community feel. The 2012 Pinot (c.$40) is a clear indication that the winery has lots of promise: red fruits that are developing a darker texture as the wine ages, with a long, spicy finish. The enthusiasm that the Senses team express for their Pinot Noir in particular is both justified and characteristic of every winemaker in Sonoma: the wines are still unknown, full of promise, and at the start of an exciting future.

For all that Sonoma and its various AVAs are producing great Pinot Noir, each winery - and each wine - has its own distinct character, expressive of philosophy, vineyard, and vintage. This makes the area difficult to define and pin down, but that's how it should be; already Pinot aficionados - who are a picky, geeky bunch - are seeking out their favourite vineyards and wineries. This is an area that's going to get more and more interesting and is one to follow.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Paso Robles besides the Rhône

A young wine region such as Paso Robles allows opportunities to experiment, as imaginative winemakers explore the different possibilities the area affords. There are over 40 grape varieties grown, including Zinfandel and Spanish and Italian varieties, besides the Rhône blends Paso excels at. There is also a major brewery which makes an eclectic range of beers, as well as a distiller and a producer of Port-style wines. It all makes for a fascinating region to explore, not just for wine and drink but for food too, as there are some excellent restaurants.


Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the few Paso Robles wineries were mainly producing Zinfandel. From the blisteringly hot days, the wines were big and robust, the wines of cowboys and outlaws. The grape has now largely been uprooted by Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Grenache, but wineries are still making some Zinfandel with mixed results.

The Lone Madrone Bailey Ranch Zinfandel 2011 ($37) is a superb example of Zinfandel at its most expressive. From a dry-farmed vineyard and head-trained vines, this is a proper, perfumed Zin: violets and roses, blueberries and damsons, oak and vanilla. Likewise on the palate, with a savoury, peppery kick to the finish, with juicy fruits and high acidity, with some dried fruits coming through as well. Lone Madrone also produce another powerful wine with some Zinfandel in the blend. The Will ($45; 47% Grenache, 33% Petite Sirah, 20% Zinfandel) has an upfront fruity nose of raspberries, cherries, and blackberries; the palate is more interesting, with pepper and liquorice, vanilla and oak, gripping tannins, and a fresh, high acidity.

Pomar Junction also produce an expressive, serious Zinfandel (Zinfandel Reserve 2011, $54), with ripe fruits on the nose overladen with perfume; on the palate, it's a toasty, oaky, meaty wine, with a subtly spicy finish. Less successful is the J. Lohr Gesture Zinfandel 2011 ($25), which is too much like strawberry jam. Although the oak balances the jamminess on the palate, this is too much of an old-fashioned Zinfandel where it's all about the fruits and too little about the structure of the wine. The Eberle Zinfandel 2011 ($28) is better; still too fruity, it does have a cocoa, black pepper backbone to it.

Spanish varieties

The Spanish name of Paso Robles suggests a town with a heavily Hispanic influence. Only one winery, though, specialises in Spanish varieties, as well as a few Portuguese. These wines were good enough to suggest that more wineries should follow the example of Bodegas Paso Robles. I tasted two whites, Galicia 2013 ($25; 100% Albariño) and Garnacha Blanca 2013 ($27), the latter having appealing citrus fruits and an almond, almost bready finish. Many of the reds are Tempranillo based, though winemaker Dorothy Schuler is not afraid to experiment with lesser known varieties such as Graciano. The signature red is ¡Viva Yo! 2010 ($29; 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon), an earthy, gamey wine with an engaging mixture of red and black fruits, and a savoury, spicy mouth. The Iberia 2005 ($45; 33% Tempranillo, 31% Touriga Nacional, 25% Graciano, 11% Tinto Cão) is a mature blend of Spanish and Portuguese grapes, with a smoky, leathery character to add to the plums and blackberries. My favourite wine was the Vaca Negra 2009 ($33; 43% Mourvèdre, 36% Tempranillo, 21% Garnacha). This combined all the best of Paso Robles - Rhône grapes, albeit with a Spanish influence, and imaginative blending.

Italian varieties

I am yet to be convinced that the great Italian varieties Sangiovese and Nebbiolo work out of their Tuscan and Piemonte homelands, but one wine I tasted disproved that theory. The Eberle Sangiovese 2011 ($24) is a good wine, with red fruits, oak, and liquorice, but a little simple. The Lone Madrone Bollo 2007 ($60) is something else though, and one I would love to taste alongside a Barolo or Barbaresco. It has a very floral nose of violets, roses, and irises, with strawberries and cherries: with its garnet colour and inviting perfumes, this is very Nebbiolo. The palate delivers too, with big, heavy, powerful tannins washed with high acidity. For a wine from 2007, it's still going strong. This is a big wine that still has delicate red fruits; complex, maturing, but lively.

view from Lone Madrone


For such a hot, barren, wild area, one would expect a healthy supply of beer to whet away the still days. Lone Madrone make cider, a tradition which has sadly been usurped throughout California by winemaking. I only got to taste one, the Bristols Original Cider ($9, 7.5%), which was an intense farm cider, with bitter apples and a juicy acidity. Nine ciders are made in total.

The main brewery of Paso Robles is Firestone Walker, who make a series of imaginative, and slightly difficult, beers. They made their name with the Double DBA (12%), an intense dark beer with coffee, caramel, toffee, and dark chocolate, which has the overall feel of vanilla ice cream and the dried fruits of a Pedro Ximenez sherry. Two complex saisons are made; the Opal (7.5%) has a slight sourness to it, with a gentle farmyard, countryside nose, with sour apples and pears and cinnamon. The LIL Opal (5.5%) is a proper stinky beer, with oranges, tangerines, and marmalade adding to the brett and mushrooms. Despite all those strange flavours, it's extremely refreshing on the palate, with high acidity and a lightly oaky spiciness. Two beers only available at the brewery are the Hefeweizen (4.7%), an outstanding wheat beer which has won awards in Germany, and the Stickee Monkee 2014 (13.4%), a one-off beer that's been aged in Bourbon barrels and had brown sugar added to it. It has sweet whiskey flavours of oak, coconut, and leather, as well as molasses from the brown sugar (I would have guessed it had been aged in rum barrels). The high alcohol and sweetness are balanced by the spicy flavours of pepper and anise. Not a beer to drink a lot of, but much to appreciate.


Many of the wineries I've visited throughout California are keen to stress their sustainable practices. Villicana Winery take this concept a step further by reusing the left-over juice from pressing to make grape-based spirits, under the Re:Find label. There is a vodka, which has a nice citrus, spicy character, a cucumber vodka, and a gin, made with seven different botanicals. Not being a huge vodka fan, it was the gin I found most interesting with lots of citrus aromas from the coriander, lemon and orange peel botanicals, and delicate floral aromas from the lavender and orris root, finished off with a bit of spice from the grains of paradise.

Visiting Re:Find was a reminder of the US's bureaucratic laws towards alcohol, distant off-shoots of Prohibition days. In California, only grape-based products can be sold on-site; all other products must be sold through a third party. Therefore, the distillery could only sell the two vodkas and the gin in bottles labelled as "brandy" - legally so, as they are grape-based. In sites elsewhere in California, the bottles are labelled vodka and gin - which is what they actually are.

"Portuguese Style Dessert Wines"

Violeta 2006
The road up to PasoPort is a steep dirt track lined with the labels from the winery's bottles, all of which feature distractingly glamorous portraits of 1920s women. Opened only in 2008, the winery is still a ramshackle affair, but the wines are interesting and beautifully packaged. There's a pot still on site which is used to make the base spirit for fortification, and they hope to start producing liqueurs and grappa. A mixture of Portuguese and international grapes are sourced to make port-style wines; in the tasting room, the term "port" was used quite liberally, but the wines are labelled "Portuguese style dessert wines." One is made from Zinfandel ($35), but it's the more traditional Violeta (2006 $40, 2009 $36), made from the Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, and Souzão, that worked the best. Violets on the nose, with blueberries and blackberries; deep, rich fruits on the palate, with chocolate, cocoa, and black pepper.

places to eat

Paso Robles is a small town, but there are plenty of good places to eat. For lunch, Bistro Laurent is perfect: a small patio that catches the afternoon breezes serving delicious salads and a light onion soup. In the evening, La Cosecha has seriously good food, with a relaxed, lively atmosphere. Buona Tavola is a laid-back Italian restaurant with fresh pasta dishes. When you're done eating, Pine Street Saloon is a great place for a beer and live music.

All in all, Paso is a wonderful area to visit: an up-and-coming wine region still discovering itself and willing to experiment, with plenty of other drinks to try when you've had enough wine. Everyone is friendly and helpful, and at the end of the day there's good food to be found. If you ever make a road trip along the California coast, Paso Robles is a must stop.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Napa Earthquake

Fast asleep at 3 in the morning, vaguely conscious of a dream in my head. Slowly the dream becomes more vivid, until the sense of being in a violently shaking room becomes too real to stay sleeping. I half-wake and realise that I actually am in a room that’s violently shaking. I stay still for a few moments when I am brought fully awake by a piercing scream from my girlfriend lying next to me. I grab hold of her and tell her it’s OK, though I wonder if I am holding her or she me.

The house continues to shake, feeling as if a giant hand has grabbed the building and is toying with it. It’s perhaps the silence that’s eeriest: there’s no sound of rumbling or the earth breaking apart, just constant, uncalm vibration.

That silence is broken by a smash upstairs, but as the house continues to rock that's all we hear. After a while - it feels neverending, but it's probably less than a minute - the rocking stops and we hold each other until we’re sure everything is calm again. Voices emerge from our flatmates upstairs; we get up to join them and share some whiskey. The house is unscathed - it stands on bedrock, meaning that the foundations are on solid rock that moved from side to side during the earthquake without any danger of splitting. There’s just one plate broken on the kitchen floor.

We go back to bed, knocked out by the whiskey (never has Jameson’s tasted so good), thinking that for all the violence of the earthquake it hasn’t done too much damage. We’d got off lucky, though. Waking the next morning, the internet showed us pictures of wrecked buildings, homes and shops a complete mess, and cracked roads (though it’s hard to tell on the Napa highways, they’re full of potholes anyway). My girlfriend’s former landlady had lost an entire outhouse and her home had become a rubbish dump – not a sight for a seventy-five-year-old woman to face. For many, it's the inconvenience the earthquake has caused and the cost and time it will take to clean up after it rather than any long-term damage.

The next day, the centre of the city was calm, residents and tourists walking around inspecting the damage. There's a sense of shock, but also relief that the damage hasn't been far greater. Most of the bars and restaurants are closed, some with boarded-up windows, others cleaning up the broken bottles. Only one street has sustained serious damage - Brown Street, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. Wine bar Carpe Diem is worst affected, the turreted roof caving in on the building.

Carpe Diem wine bar

Brown and 3rd

This was my first ever earthquake; as exciting as it was to experience, it was quite terrifying. The worst is the feeling of complete helplessness, for there is literally nothing you can do apart from hold on to the person next to you. You're at the mercy of nature and the land, if it wants to take you it will. This was the biggest earthquake in California since 1989; luckily, and thankfully, the damage wasn't too bad and everything will get back to normal fairly quickly. The last few weeks visiting Napa, I've been told over and over how Napa Valley has more soils than the whole of France because of the perpetually shifting land: this was living proof of that.