Art Show & Wine Tasting at Artisan Wine Lounge and Cafe

Artisan Events PosterI made it back over to Artisan Wine Lounge and Café last Saturday with a big group of friends in tow. We were attending the latest event that Lena Chu had lined up at her superb destination venue in downtown Walnut Creek, CA.

The event was a showcase of two artists, Katey Shockey, the artist currently showing at the lounge and Sones Cellars, a family boutique winery from Santa Cruz. Katey has had her work featured in the lounge since Beth and I first visited the relatively new wine spot, which I wrote about here. Since that first visit, Beth, myself and our friends have grown quite attached to the lounge and have been regularly visiting the wine joint. It’s conveniently located near BART, as well as one of the stops on the CC Free Ride bus that runs it way through the downtown shopping districts, starting at Walnut Creek BART.

Last Saturday figured to be a great way to spend an evening trying wine and discovering new art…and indeed it was. For $10 you were allotted tastings of the three wines that Sones Cellars was pouring that night, including a currently unreleased white blend (although when pressed, you were allowed a few more!) and some wonderful hors d’oeuvres created by Lena and her resident chef, Jenny.

A large and stylish crowd turned out for the event, with many that were obviously friends of the featured artist. A wide mix of ages and styles were seen among the patrons, proving that Lean is definitely drawing a great mix of people to hers still young loung. Katey had her art displayed on all four walls in the lounge. Along with multiple painting styles and themes, Katey is also responsible for the innovative logo for Artisan, a red wine glass stain surrounding a lower-case “a.”

Sones CellarsSones was represented by the couple that owns and runs the winery, Michael and Lois Sones. Michael and Lois specialize in two grapes that are rather grand at producing great wines in California, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. Lena has carried the 2004 Sones Pet ever since I first swung by the place and has been harping on me to try the wine, so I was excited to actually have the chance to not only taste a variety that is a personal favorite, but also to meet and speak with the winemakers!

Sones CellarsWhile I didn’t get much of a chance to speak with Michael or Lois (the event was incredibly well-attended), I did find out that their Pet is a phenomenal intepretation of the varietal, filled with gaminess, deep depths of black and blue fruit and big but round tannins. It was a hit with the natives, along with their quixotic white blend known as La Sirena. The ’07 we tasted has yet to be bottled, but the wine is a tremendous effort that mysteriously acts like two equally complex whites depending on its temperature. Early in the evening I tasted it cold, a few degrees cooler than cellar temperature. I immediately noticed the aromas and flavors of crisp citrus and grass, coming from the Sauv Blanc in the blend. Later in the night, however, the wine had warmed to a few degrees above room temperature and it was completely different, now dominated by the Viognier and Pinot Gris, exhibiting strong aromas of white fruit and flowers followed by a bigger mouthfeel and more of that tropical white fruit on the palate. Fascinating! Lena later informed us that the wine is 43% Viognier, 43% Pinot Gris and only 14% Sauvignon Blanc. At any temperature however, the wine is glorious blend of the three white varieties and is a can’t miss in my book. I ended up buying a bottle of all three wines that Sones brought that night.

Please see my tasting notes on the Sones’ wines below and if you’d like to list them all in your own WineLog or Wish List, they are tagged with “ArtisanWL” and “ArtisanSonesShockey.” Enjoy!

2007 Sones Cellars Monterey County La Sirena

2004 Sones Cellars Monterey County Petite Sirah

2005 Sones Cellars Wiedeman Vineyard Zinfandel

Na's Birthday in Napa

I made my first visit to the latest “castle” in Napa this past weekend, in honor of my sister Shauna’s birthday. Saturday morning Beth and I made the cruise up from the East Bay and into the Valley, meeting up with everyone at my parents’ house in Browns Valley.

Castello di Amorosa (eWinery Solutions)Now…when I say “castle,” I don’t mean some overgrown McMansion built by the latest tech wiz from San Jose, I mean a real and ginormous Italian castle! Daryl Sattui, family patriarch and proprietor of the enormously popular V. Sattui winery destination on 29 just before St. Helena proper, has spent the last 14 years and over US$30 million building an obsessively authentic Italian castle on Diamond Mountain.

One of the entrancesAt 121,000 square feet, 8 stories and 109 rooms, this painstakingly-designed replica of a Tuscan medieval-era castle, while ostentatious, is so well executed that one cannot come away from visiting the grounds without a sense of awe and inspiration. Most of the stone, artifacts and other materials were imported from Italy, as were many of the artisans that worked on the building. The building is replete with a dungeon and even a torture chamber!

The feeling of awe becomes tempered however, once you actually enter the facility and realize that you need to stand in line for tickets to taste or tour the facility, just as you would at any amusement park. We actually had to wait for an extra 5-10 minutes while the cashier and another gentleman searched for the proper “color” ticket for Napa residents until the cashier finally just wrote on some other colored tickets and sent us into the main tasting room. Our problems were not yet over however, as two of the pourers debated whether or not we could taste using these “other” colored tickets…frustration abounded. The tickets were not bar-coded, meaning that no database would be off at the end of the day if we were just to taste with a ticket that had the wrong color. This image of an obsession with the payment for any services really turned me off for awhile.

I would have just shrugged it off as one of those things that you encounter at any big “destination winery,” but then I saw the size of the pours. Most pours were barely 2 small swallows, some even smaller. It is very difficult to actually evaluate a wine with such a small volume, particularly when the pourer (nicely, actually) suggested we share and that way can try more wines at once, something Beth and I do fairly often. But we’ll share…what? A taste that’s about a third or a quarter of an ounce?

After tasting some of the wines, I did come away with some good first impressions of their ’06 Pinot Bianco and the ’02 Il Brigante pseudo-Super Tuscan (it’s not a Super Tuscan blend, traditionally that of Sangiovese plus any number of Bordeaux varietals, its 100% Cab). After finishing my allotted pours, our pourer also offered me an extra pour of any other wine, which was much-appreciated.

We then walked around the grounds some more, at least of the two floors that were accessible without a tour and really enjoyed the facility. The tour prices that we’ve seen ranged from $25-50, so we didn’t tour that day, but I don’t think that I’d take one if it was, indeed, $50, regardless of whether the tasting was included. I did enjoy myself at the Castello and I think it is quite an experience, but I think they need to work on the money-centric ambiance and iron out some of the tasting service kinks before I’d head back over to taste any time soon. While I did find a few wines that I really liked as you can see below, I thought that some of the wines might have been a bit over-priced, especially when compared to those at V. Sattui. Admittedly, they might be going for a different market than their original winery. That said, it’s hard to justify a New World Pinot Grigio priced at $20.

Graeser WineryAfter touring medieval Tuscany, we decided that a picnic lunch was next on the agenda and debated where we might go and eat. We finally decided on heading up to an old favorite up the road, Graeser Winery, also situated on Diamond Mountain. I first wrote about Graeser when my dad and I had such a great time there again, during our annual Pops & Son Wine Trip. There we had lunch amid the beautiful surroundings, joined by Richard Graeser’s two Great Danes . We greatly enjoyed Graeser’s ’02 Chard and ’02 Two Dog Merlot during our meal.

We next headed down to the city of Napa to check out Copia (to which I’ve never been) and the new Oxbow Wine Market next door, modeled after the very successful Ferry Building Marketplace in SF. Oxbow was a bit sparse, seeing as how their official grand opening is to be the following weekend and we ran out of time for Copia. Oxbow does look pretty promising however, with an expansive wine merchant and many other stalls offering high-end foodstuffs and antiques. It is the latest addition to what is becoming another fine food and wine destination near downtown Napa, what with the new Taylor’s Refresher (the original is still in St. Helena) that opened that weekend and many other bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants all in that neighborhood.

Finally pooped, we headed back to my parents in Browns Valley where we enjoyed a little more wine and I barbecued some great steaks that my parents had picked up. A wonderful day concluded with some more great food, drink and company. Shauna knows how to party!

Feel free to peruse the reviews of all of the wines we had or tried that day, listed below. I’ve tagged them all with “NaBday2008” in case you would like to list them all in your own WineLog. Enjoy!

Castello di Amorosa:

2006 Castello di Amorosa Anderson Valley Pinot Grigio

2006 Castello di Amorosa Los Carneros Pinot Bianco

2005 Castello di Amorosa Dolcino Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer

2005 Castello di Amorosa Napa Valley Sangiovese

2002 Castello di Amorosa Napa Valley Il Brigante

2003 Castello di Amorosa Napa Valley Merlot

2003 Castello di Amorosa Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2006 Castello di Amorosa Il Raggio del Sole Santa Barbara County Muscato

Graeser Winery:

2002 Graeser Napa Valley Chardonnay

2002 Graeser Two Dog Vineyard Merlot

Others:

2005 Eagle Eye Napa Valley Voluptuous

2005 Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Merlot

Book Review: "A Moveable Thirst"

Let me just get this out right now…when I first saw this book I was really excited and yet filled with trepidation. I’m always excited to read about my home town of Napa, but this book was a bit different. It is essentially, a review of Napa…its people, the tourists, the Valley and of course, its wineries. I have plenty of my own opinions about the Valley, but I guess I put up a bit of an initial defensive shield about the home team, especially when I saw that they would be relating stories about some of my favorite wineries around the Valley. I should have been more open-minded!

A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country (978-0-471-79386-1) is a true account documenting the adventures of two men who decided that they should taste at every public winery or tasting room in Napa Valley…in one year. Best friends, Rick Kushman, a nationally syndicated television columnist for the Sacramento Bee and Hank Beal, Executive Wine Buyer for the Nugget grocery chain, set off in March of 2005 determined to taste at all the tasting rooms and wineries in Napa that were open to the public or were available by appointment “only.” Rick is a complete wine novice and Hank is a fully-seasoned professional, as evidenced by his multiple medals at the California Wine Tasting Championships.

The premise of the adventure is both impressive (141 wineries in under a year??) and great educational fun for us, the readers. The book is actually split into two parts, with about 200 of the 326 pages devoted to stories and anecdotes while on the trail of good wine, encompassing a good number of the tasting rooms that they visited. The remainder is an extremely comprehensive set of reviews of all 141 tasting rooms, along with some other great tips for newbie wine tasters and organized lists for the newbie and experienced wine tourist.

The tips that they offer are very spot on and are incredibly helpful to the less-experienced wine enthusiast, both in the sort of Napa almanac at the end and within the various stories and adventures. The account is written from the novice Rick’s perspective, who has a very down-to-earth and nicely sarcastic writing style that is easy to follow and quite funny and self-deprecating.

My only complaint is that many of the stories in the first 80-100 pages just seem to end too quickly, leaving me wanting more and feeling like there wasn’t as much detail as I’d like, or that those first sets of pages were edited too harshly. Once the guys start relating their time with the Diageo vineyard manager and at Smith-Madrone, the stories flesh out a whole lot more and I could really get my teeth into their adventures. The information about wine and wine-making is also quite extensive. Their impressions of many of my most treasured wineries, such as Nichelini and Hess are very similar to mine and we agree on many of the same wine faves and the reasons that we enjoy those wineries the most within the Valley.

Overall I’d recommend this book for both wine novices and experienced enthusiasts. Its a decent wine adventures read and has the most extensive wine-tasting information about the Napa Valley that I have ever seen in one volume. The educational stories about wine-tasting and wine-making are particularly invaluable to the new wine lover, whether you ever plan on visiting Napa specifically, or some other wine region around the US. I just wish that I could devote a year to the same endeavor!

Artisan Wine Lounge and Cafe

Artisan Wine Lounge and CaféBeth and I had a free Wednesday evening the other week so we decided to head over to one of the newer local wine destinations in the East Bay, Artisan Wine Lounge and Cafe. The lounge sits just off the much busier Locust St in downtown Walnut Creek. The map says Stave Wine Lounge and Café, because the business partners that own Artisan, Lena Chu and Kevin Ng, also own Stave, situated in Napa.

Lena chooses wines from small and cult California wine producers, as well as those that remind her of her years living in Spain. This is also shown in the great small plates menu that they offer. Beth and I weren’t that hungry the night we were there, so we just chose a couple “Small Bites” to nibble on, the Marinated Olives and the Artisan Cheese Plate. We really liked the Manchego cheese, which went quite well with just about every wine we tried that night. The stronger blue cheese that was offered was also outstanding, but we had to leave it towards the end when we had some tastes of the dessert wine.

Artisan Wine Lounge and CaféThe ambience of lounge is very kick back, yet with a nice air of a modern, upscale establishment. The converted wine barrel tables give a nice rustic Wine Country feel to the seating area, but the modern metal and marble other surfaces, as well as the slate flooring still add a contemporary feel. You walk in feeling as if you could go home and dress up after work, but you don’t really need to in order to fit in.

Artisan Wine Lounge and CafeThe real star of the lounge is the method of tasting…Lena has installed three of my favorite machines on this very Earth…the Enomatic self-dispensing wine servers. These machines make me wish I had the dough to plop down and get a couple for some reds and whites in my kitchen! These awesome machines dispense wine by the 1 oz pour. The wine lush, such as myself, first loads up a monetary value on the swipeable magnetic cards, grabs a nicely cut Eisch Breathable lead-free crystal glass and then proceeds over to the Enomatics to taste. You place your card in the machine and then choose from a selection of 6-8 wines that are already installed in the machine. The prices are fully adjustable with the majority at Artisan ranging from $1.25-$2.50 (very reasonable!). Press the button above the wine that you want to taste and boom, you get a 1 oz pour and the value is subtracted from your card! The volume displaced by the pour is replaced by Nitrogen gas, ensuring that the wine is properly stored until empty. Whites are in a separate machine that is sealed by glass and cooled to the necessary serving temperature.

These machines instantly open up the number of wines that you can try at any one visit…a standard wine pour is 5 oz, so you can try 5 different wines with that amount instead of getting a small pour of the 5 or so wines that a normal wine bar might have open to try. You can even create your own flights or rely on some that Lena has pre-chosen. Also making things easier is that for both the whites and the reds, the wines range from lighter to stronger and bolder, from left to right. One thing you *don’t* want to do with the Enomatics is to press the button 5 times to get a full glass. Lena has separate and cheaper pricing for those wines that you’d like to investigate further with a full pour.

Artisan has become my new favorite hangout in the Creek. It provides everything I might need…a wine store (you can purchase every wine you see on the menu, with a really nice 10% discount if you take it to go!), a coffee and tea shop (or check out Green Tea Cafe next door!), a constantly updated boutique wine tasting bar and a delicious food menu, all with rotating art displays and some rad music. Yum!

Please check out reviews of all of the wines that I’ve currently tasted during my visits to Artisan below (tagged with “ArtisanWL“) and be sure to stop by and say hi to Lena if you get the chance to visit!

2005 Adegas D’Altamira Brandal Rias Baixas Albariño

2006 Hagafen Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2006 Field Stone Staten Family Reserve Viognier

2005 Mahoney Vineyards Gavin Vineyard Chardonnay

2005 Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Chardonnay

2005 Mil Piedras Mendoza Sangiovese

2006 Te Kairanga Martinborough Estate Pinot Noir

2002 Tulocay Nord Family Vineyard Pinot Noir

2004 Cardwell Hill Cellars Willamette Valley Estate Reserve Pinot Noir

2001 Highlands Howell Mountain Black-Sears Zinfandel

2001 Joseph Swan Vineyards Mancini Ranch Zinfandel

2006 Downhill Winery Santa Cruz Mountains Slippery Slope

NV Eagle Eye Napa Valley Voluptuous

2002 Farella-Park Vineyards Napa Valley Estate Merlot

2003 Field Stone Sonoma County Merlot

2001 Silver Mountain Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Alloy

2005 Xumek Sol Huarpe Valle de Zonda Malbec

2005 Smith Wooton Gallagher’s Vineyard Cabernet Franc

2002 Punk Dog North Coast Sophie’s Romp Cabernet Sauvignon

2000 Ardente Atlas Peak Grande Riserva Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Larkmead Vineyards Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2004 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Proprietary Red

NV Alvear Montilla-Moriles Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927