30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 6: Quintessa

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Quintessa was the focus of my sixth day of tasting.  I discovered them through my membership with Flowers Winery and the Huneeus Family of wineries.  Their portfolio of wineries includes a few more that I’d like to visit as well.  Especially Faust who has a tasting room that is opening this spring.  So, maybe a future trip.

My Visit

I admittedly didn’t know much about Quintessa before my visit.  I realized quickly that I’d forgotten to do my homework.  Before each visit, I like to study the winery’s website to understand their selection of wines and their history and have questions prepared in advance.  I’ll even start my post before my visit with the historical details.  Quintessa makes a single cabernet sauvignon every year.  I’m quickly learning that’s a thing!  Theirs is a bordeaux blend consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot.

But, first, I was greeted with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from their Illumination label.  It was quickly explained that the family produced this Sauvignon Blanc for themselves with no intention of distribution.  They would gift it to friends and family.  However, their wine club members quickly learned about this wine and it is now also available for purchase.  I had the opportunity to try the 2018 upon my arrival to enjoy on the winery tour.


Since it was my first visit to the winery my host, Alvaro, gave me the full tour of their production areas, caves, and vineyards.  Their cave sits directly under the lobby of their tasting lounge.  However, it was the vineyard tour I enjoyed most.  We both hopped into a golf cart/UTV vehicle and were on our way!  I joked that we should have taken my Jeep!  I don’t think Alvaro realized I was completely serious.  Speaking of my Jeep, I’ve never had so many folks comment on my vehicle (which have been rentals) on previous wine tastings as I have on this trip!


Since it’s January and quiet, we snuck into one of their Private Pavillions to taste the 2017 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc.  The winery has a couple of these pavilions for tastings.  The views from this hill in Rutherford are incredible!  It rained later in the day so I was incredibly grateful I experienced it before the storms rolled in.  All of their fruit is estate grown on the vines in view on either side of Dragon’s Lake in the photos.

Illumination-Sauvignon-BlancThe photo below is the Private Pavilion…and Alvaro.  All of the glass walls open up so you can take in the views and enjoy the weather on gorgeous days – even without the glass.  Quintessa offers several tasting options when you visit.  Their Quintessential Experience is held in these pavillions and features barrel samples.  I’ll be honest, tasting from a barrel was great the first time.  But, I do not have the experience to appreciate what I’m tasting from that barrel to know the wine’s potential.  But, I still remember that first time.  It was at Beringer 20 years ago.  It was also the slow season between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I was on the tour alone.  My host allowed me to use the “thief” to extract the wine myself.


Quintessa Veritcal

We headed back down to the tasting area – darn- I could have stayed in that pavilion all day.  However, a vertical of Quintessa was waiting for me!  From left to right (though I’m sure they all look the same) is the 2016, 2014, and 2013 vintages.  Alvaro asked if I’d like a plate of cheese – YES!  Always yes to cheese!

The cheeses were Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagonwheel (this is the second time that particular cheese has been paired with wine on this trip and I have some in my fridge), Manchego, and Pine Ridge or something similar.


The 2016 was delightful but young.  All of the 2016 Cabs I’m tasting on this trip are incredible and scored well over 95 points.  I read an article that poked fun at Robert Parker comparing him to Oprah for his 2016 Cab ratings saying “You get a 100, and YOU get a 100 and YOUUU get a 100!”  This vintage is just that good.  I loved the 2013 and seeing what I could look forward to after a little age on the 2016.  Surprisingly, the 2013 was only around $20 or more for the bottle – not a bad price for a library wine.  However, I resisted.  I didn’t enjoy the 2014 at all….until I paired it with that Manchego!  Mental note – a dry Manchego is a perfect pairing for a good, dry wine!

You may be wondering why there was no 2015.  I quietly wondered that to myself.  Alvaro even asked if I was wondering.  So, he produced some 2015 for a full 4-year vertical tasting.  I have a photo of that, but my 2014 glass is empty in that photo and there’s only one slice of cheese left on the plate.  Ha Ha!  This one was prettier.  I’m sure you can easily imagine a fourth, identical wine glass in the photo.

Since I’m a member of Flowers, I enjoyed a few perks here, too.  I’m not sure they were deserved, but I asked and received!  After yesterday’s experience at Merus, I’m not afraid to ask!  My purchases of Quintessa were discounted.  It looks like I paid for my tasting at the time of reservation, but it felt free!

Other Thoughts

Wineries under the Huneeus umbrella know how to “wine and dine” their guests.  A tasting at Flowers is amazing.  They won’t be part of my “30 Wineries in 30 Days” series as the rules I’ve set for myself are:  wineries that are new to me & wineries that are not open to the public.  However, I’m sure I’ll do a write-up about Flowers in the coming months.  It is a must visit if you’re in the Russian River Valley.

While each and every winery has treated me like I’m the only person that’s important to them, being a member at one of their sister wineries helps!

I’m acquiring quite the collection of amazing 2016 Cabs, I really want to do a side-by-side comparison in a few years of these great wines!

Want to read more about my “3o in 30” adventure?  Click here to see all of my wineries.


30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 5: Merus

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Okay.  Confession.  I don’t fully remember how Merus made it onto my list.  I have my suspicions.  And I was blatantly honest when Sean asked me what brought me to Merus.  However, I believe it came about while I was seeking out something other than Pinot Noir.  I figured I’d pop over to Napa a few times and check out some phenomenal, tiny producers of Cabernet Sauvignon.  And my guess is that while perusing the Wine Spectator magazine, I stumbled upon their impressive rating for their 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon.  And they certainly fit that description.

MerusMy Experience

I enjoyed another completely private tasting.  I do not expect this trend to continue forever.  Though, it is January and I’m going to some small wineries.  However, at Merus, they do private tastings.  Two per day.  Your party is the only people you will taste with.  And, if it’s just you….it’s truly private.

Merus makes one wine.  One.  It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Period.  However, the facility is shared with another Foley brand – ALTVS.  I had the opportunity to try the wines from both labels today.  Sadly (for me).  This is the last vintage where ALTVS will be making a Chardonnay.  They’re going to begin using those grapes in a sparkling wine starting with the 2018 vintage.  I was grateful I had the opportunity to try the 2017.  It was quite lovely.

Merus-WineI was thrilled to learn that the 2016 Merus Cab was still available.  And while it wasn’t part of the flight, Sean made sure it became part of the flight since it is what brought me to him.  I cannot wait to see how that ages and matures over the years.  They design their Cabs to be ready just a year after release.  I kinda want to wait longer.  I don’t have any specs on their 2016 vintage.  However, only 1,052 cases of the 2015 Cab were produced.  I’m gonna guess it’s relatively comparable.  So, we’re talking pretty small volume.

Since I’m now geeking out over barrels, I was shocked to find out that Merus uses 100% New French Oak.  Every year.  Every barrel.  The lines of barrels lining the walls of their caves were pretty pristine.  I took absolutely zero photos on the winery and cave tour.  Sorry about that!  I should have.

ALTVS vs Merus

It was also interesting to compare the two labels.  They’re very similar.  The grapes are sourced from the same locations.  So, essentially I’m drinking about the same wine.  To be honest, to my novice palate, I thought the 2015 ALTVS and Merus were REALLY similar.  In my old age I’m getting bold….so I asked.  Why on earth (I didn’t say “on earth”) is the 2015 ALTVS $75 and the 2015 Merus is $205???  I should have asked it the other way around – why is the ALTVS only $75?  Anyway….when it comes to the Merus, the 2015 instantly became a library wine when the 2016 was released and increased in price by $45.  The ALTVS stays at $75 no matter the vintage.  Okay…..fair enough…..but we’re still taking an $85 price difference at release.  Again, I don’t have tech sheets so I can’t speak to specifics.  But, Sean explained that the Merus is aged in barrel longer.  It requires more management.  And the bottles are thicker.  Hmmmm…..  I kinda want to taste the 2016 ALTVS now.  That 2016 Merus was pretty spectacular.  It received 96+ ratings from both WS and Robert Parker.  And, yes, it did go home with me.

Other Comments

Here’s where it’s kind of funny and I’m pretty lucky.  Last January while visiting Foley Sonoma, I said “yes” to joining the Foley Food & Wine Society.  I still don’t fully understand it.  It’s not a membership.  I didn’t pay for the card.  But, I earn points for my wine purchases.  And apparently get complimentary tastings – even if the tasting fee is $85.  Happy surprise!  And since I was the only one of my friends to sign up for the card, all of my friends’ purchases were associated with me that day.  Thanks to them, I had a $40 credit towards wine purchases.  And, somehow the wine was even discounted.  I saved a lot of money.  So, my friends, lesson learned – sign up for the Foley Food & Wine Society.  It’s free.  There’s no commitment.

If you want to read more about my 30 Wineries in 30 Days Journey, click here to follow along.


30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 4: Hanzell

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Hanzell-LogoI feel like I went back in time today when I visited Hanzell.  I don’t think I knew what I was in for when I made this reservation!  It was a winery that had been mentioned to me by two respectable sources.  The first was a winemaker who came to town to co-host a wine dinner.  He makes some great wine in the Glen Ellen area.  And when I asked him about his favorite Pinot Noir, I instantly regretted it.  He doesn’t grow Pinot.  And he explained he’s not a big Pinot fan.  But, when he drinks Pinot Noir, he prefers Hanzell.  Noted.  Another friend of mine also mentioned wanting to visit their winery on his visit this month.  Two mentions by people I respect, immediately earned Hanzell a spot on my list.

What I’ve learned today is how important this little winery was for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay!  The winery was founded back in 1953 with a goal to make Burgundian-style wines.  Only a few hundred of acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were even planted in all of North America at the time.

My Visit

I really had to trust my GPS today.  It steered me wrong yesterday on my way to find an Amazon Locker so it needs to regain my trust.  Yesterday I ended up deep in the middle of a forest.  I was sure that was what was happening the last few miles of this journey.  I turned into a residential area and onto a one-lane, no outlet road that gave no sign that there was a winery up ahead.  A few times I was sure I was driving up someone’s driveway.  Nope, just a one-lane road.  And, just when I thought I was at the end of the line, I spotted the small sign!


And I followed several more of these little signs the whole way up the hill until I was sure I’d gone back in time – or to Europe.  Either was a possibility at this point.  Don’t worry….I’ll show you the view from the top of the mountain soon.


I was greeted by my host for the day while I was out and about taking photos of the estate.  I feel terrible that I can’t remember his name!!!  I’ve done so well up to this point.  Okay, it’s only day 4.  But I thoroughly enjoyed my hour and a half visit with him.  He immediately put a glass of Sebella Chardonnay in my hand.  The Sebella label is crafted from their younger vines as well as fruit from “select Sonoma vineyards”.  I even checked the tech sheets.  There’s no hint as to what those vineyards may be.  He then led me up to a balcony that overlooked the vineyards and valley.

What you’re looking out upon are rows of Old Vine Chardonnay.  Okay.  Ummm.  Wait a minute.  OLD VINE Chardonnay?  Those are some words I don’t think I’ve ever heard together at least at any winery in North America.  Old Vine Zinfandel, sure.  The average lifespan of Chardonnay, according to my host, is about 30 years.  These vines are pretty gnarly as you might expect.  They aren’t producing the volume of fruit as vines at their peak.  But, they do produce wine!  I believe he said they’re 67 year old vines.  And that math would be correct if the original vineyard was planted in 1953.  The first 25 rows or so are Chardonnay.  The next rows are Pinot Noir of the same age.  And, yes, I know that Old Vine Zin can be MUCH older than that.  But I felt like I was looking at history.

The Wine Cave

We then walked through their winery and cave.  You may remember that there was some political drama in the news a little bit ago about a certain Wine Cave Dinner.  It makes me giggle.  It’s not some top-secret Illuminati room.  If you’ve been out to Napa or Sonoma, you’ve likely been in a cave or two.  Today I was actually in two (because I really visited two wineries today).  The Hanzell caves aren’t actually that old!  They were only built…er…dug in 2003 and finished in 2004.  But, I love the smell of a wine cave.  And we wandered through a maze of hallways all lined with gorgeous, oak barrels (from a mix of coopers).  We joked about that political wine cave dinner so he made sure to show me their wine cave dining room.  I don’t think they’ll be serving many dinners in that “room” in the near future.



The Tasting

Okay, okay….you want to hear about the wines?  We headed back into the tasting lodge to a private room to experience three more wines.  Wait a minute, three?  If you’re familiar with Hanzell, you may not realize that last fall they released their first Cabernet Sauvignon….well….the first in a little while.  I’m going to apologize up front that I’m going to butcher this story.   Hanzell changed ownership in the early days quite a few times.  One of the owners loved Cabernet Saugivnon and Bordeaux blends.  So they planted a small block of Cab.  When she died or they sold the winery (either is possible), they immediately ripped out that Cab.  Ha Ha!  However, in 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted in two of their vineyard blocks.  2016 was their first vintage.  And I’m one of the last to taste this vintage as it was the very last bottle they plan to open.  It’s made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (three different clones), 12% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot.  I giggled at the tech sheet.  I paused and said, wait a minute where’s the Merlot?  Then I looked at the sheet which states (and I quote):  “No, we have nothing against merlot.  We actually like merlot, but with three different clones of cabernet sauvignon and all the other varieties, we simply ran out of room.”  I made an audible “ha” when I read that.  Anyway, the Cab is young.  And I truly struggle to appreciate what a great Cab will become.  I regret not buying any.


But, let’s go back a bit…..I got ahead of myself.  We started with their 2017 Chardonnay.  Remember how I mentioned the 1953 Chardonnay vines?  The average age of the vine by volume in this bottle is 38 years.  It was nice.  The friend who recommended Hanzell asked if the Chardonnay lived up to the hype.  Maybe.  However, it’s not the typical style of Chardonnay that I typically go for.  But, in Kristin ratings, some came home with me.  I’m excited to lay it down and see what it becomes.

Next up was the Pinot Noir that I’d come for.  And I absolutely fell in love with it.  The nose was absolutely delightful – that’s about the most you’ll get out of me.  I could have smelled that wine for hours without taking a sip and been very happy.  This bottle also has some of that old vine pinot in there.  Some of this definitely came home with me.

Other Comments

If you know me, you know I do not shop organic.  Friends have told me that I’m single-handedly killing the environment.  But, I have the utmost respect for their organic approach.  And maybe it’s not unique, but they have a herd of farm animals that can be seen grazing in between the vines – apparently I was two weeks too early or you’d see photos.  However, the animals eat the undergrowth between the vines.  Their fertilizer…well….fertilizes the vines.  And at the winery, and on their website, the display photos of this team of pigs and sheep and ducks and chicken and their two livestock guardian dogs.  There’s just something that makes me happy to think that at times you can look out on that view and see animals grazing.  (Insert shoulder shrug emoji.)

Want to read more about the wineries I’m visiting?  Click here to see my summaries of all wineries in my tour.


30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 3: Flambeaux

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Flambeaux-Wine-LogoFlambeaux is definitely a winery I’ve never heard of before this trip!  I stumbled upon them in the September 2019 issue of Sonoma Magazine.  There was a one-page spread called “likewine”.  It showed four Sonoma County wines – a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, a Right Bank Red, and a Cabernet and basically said, if you like this pricier wine, you may like this cheaper wine.  What caught my eye was that the pricier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines were from two of my favorite wineries.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was a Dry Creek Cab from Flambeaux.  And I like Dry Creek Cab – as well as the more popular varietal from that area, Zinfandel.

So, off I went to research all of those wineries.  Today I’m tasting Flambeaux.  Their family (three generations) came from Mississippi to Dry Creek to make limited production artisan wine celebrating the rich diversity of Sonoma County, California terroirs.  Sounds good to me!  They’re a pretty new winery.  They only just started making wine in 2014!  That’s slightly different than the first two wineries on my journey.

Their winemaker, Ryan Prichard, has worked at some of my favorite wineries.  He’s spent some time at Williams-Selyem (which I wrote about on day 1 of my journey) and is currently the associate winemaker at Three Sticks.  His wines during this short time have grown from being a few hundred cases to an emerging name in Sonoma County wine!

My Visit

Flambeaux is located at the Grand Cru Custom Crush facility in Windsor.  It’s basically in an industrial park.  I’ve visited their facility several times in the past year.  It’s gorgeous – for being in an industrial park.  Grand Cru Custom Crush partners with around 20 different wineries.  It’s a “co-op wine production business”.  It’s new and fresh and modern.  They work with wineries to produce over 25,000 cases of wine annually.  But, it’s not just a production facility, they have well appointed tasting rooms for the wineries to host guests.

Acquiring an appointment is pretty simple.  They also use an online booking tool via the winery website or the facility’s site.

I met with Art Murray, member of the family and President of the winery, who conducted my tasting.  He walked me through five of their wines – three from their own vineyard and two from purchased grapes.

The Wines

The first was their Rose.  It’s a Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  I don’t know if I’ve ever had a Rose of Cab!  I know I’ve had a Rose of Zin over at Mauritson.  In the Russian River most are going to be Rose of Pinot Noir.  I’d drink this Rose all year long.  I thought it was a bit – the word I want to use is “beefier” – than other Roses.  Probably because it’s made from Cab and Zin!  It was delightful.  And the last thing I need in my house right now is more Rose, but a couple went home with me!  Flambeaux will tell you that it has “refreshing tastes of strawberries and lemon zest (that) form around a decadent Bing cherry core”.

Next up was their Chardonnay.  Since their vineyards are in the Dry Creek Valley, they’re not planting Chardonnay.  It’s just too dang hot!  So, they’ve purchased these grapes from the Sonoma Coast AVA.  It was nice.  I could easily drink it all day long.

Then came the reds.  First up was their Zinfandel.  Awarded 92 points by Wine Enthusiast, I loved this wine.  I’m just gonna blatantly copy their tasting notes:  The 2017 Flambeaux Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel offers flavors of bright candied cherries with a dusting of baking spice framed by warm, toasty, cedar box notes. 100% estate grown, Flambeaux Wine’s first vintage of Zin strikes a wonderful balance between fresh and rich.

Side Note:  A friend said to me recently that a friend of his lives in the world of yum and yuck when it comes to wine.  And others can pick apart the layers of flavors and complexities.  I’m 100% honest here – I live in the world of yum and yuck.  I either like a wine, or I don’t.  I’m not ashamed of that.  I wish my palate was developed enough that I could pick apart the different nuances.  Maybe someday….after I try a few more wines.

Next were their two Cabernet Sauvignon.  The first was their 2016 Redwood Hills Cabernet Sauvignon.  Only 86 cases were made.  And the story makes me sad.  The vineyard was from the Fountaingrove District.  And, yes, I said “was”.  The vineyard was mostly destroyed by the fires of 2017.  This wine will never be made again.  You can read more about it on their blog – here.

The second Cab was my favorite – their 2016 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s from their property in Dry Creek.  I liked it.  It came home with me.  Right there – that’s a Kristin wine review.

Other Thoughts

I absolutely enjoyed my visit with Art.  I could have stayed there and chatted all day.  As his family is relatively new to the area, he gave me several suggestions of small wineries that he’s come across.  You better believe I took notes then!  Hopefully I can squeeze at least one of them into the end of this visit.  But we all know there will be future trips and my “to visit” list is growing!

It was so easy to feel his passion for wine through our conversation.  It was also fun to see the camaraderie between the member wineries.  At one point during our tasting, another vintner tucked away a bottle of wine behind the tasting bar – just for Art.  A gift.  It must be so fun to work in that environment with 20 other vintners sharing lessons learned and celebrating great vintages.

I will absolutely be returning to Flambeaux in the near future.  Today’s visit to Flambeaux and yesterday’s visit to Gary Farrell made something abundantly clear (and we even chatted about it) – it’s all about the people.  A winery may serve incredible wine, but it’s your experience there that’s memorable.  I’ll remember chatting with Art for 45 minutes more than I’ll remember anything specific about his wine.  Please don’t get me wrong!  That’s not saying anything bad about his wine.  I loved it.  I can’t wait to enjoy what I purchased and go back to buy more!  I quickly proclaimed when I left the winery that I had a new favorite winery.  And, he’s invited me to taste up at the vineyards on their property.  I can’t wait to do that – and ask SO many more questions on a future visit.  Oh, and bonus points – he liked my Jeep!

To read more about my 30 Wineries in 30 Days, click here to read on!


30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 2: Gary Farrell

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Gary-Farrell-WineryToday I visited Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery.  They also weren’t on my radar and probably should have been.  They were pouring at PinotFest as well, but I honestly can’t remember if I visited their table.  They’re on my list because one of my friends, Rod, told me they should be!  So, here I am!

While Gary is no longer making their wine (I’m like a decade or so too late), they’re still a well-respected name in Pinot Noir.  They claim that their winemaker, Theresa Heredia, is an expert in small-lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Perfect!  Many of their recent vintages have scored well over 90 points.  And, their winery was named one of the Top 100 by Wine and Spirits Magazine last fall for the 12th year.

My Visit

Securing reservations at Gary Farrell is easy and required.  They use an online booking tool – no emails or phone calls are required.  However, I wasn’t able to book the tasting I might prefer – the Inspiration Tasting which focuses on the single-vineyard wines – as they required a minimum party of two and I’m traveling alone.  I’d previously learned that it may be possible to bypass this requirement with a quick email or phone call as I did at one other winery where I was determined to get the tasting experience I wanted.  At Gary Farrell, I settled for the Exploration Tour and Tasting which is just a tasting of five of their wines paired with a cheese plate – and was perfect for me.

The winery shared this brief video of the experience I received, so I thought I’d also share it with you!  I’m pretty sure the gal in the black sweater at the start of the video is the same person who greeted me this afternoon!

She greeted me upon arrival with a taste of their 2016 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay and was allowed to wander around the tasting area and terrace.  I was the only person there and I enjoyed being nosy while my tasting host, Ramona, was finishing up an Instagram photo shoot for an upcoming event!  Their tastings are all seated.  It felt very homey.  I wanted to take most of their artwork and furniture home with me!  My tasting was done in a dining room/conference room off to the side.


Their tasting room sits atop a hill and has stunning, sweeping views of the Russian River Valley.  Unfortunately, it was around 3pm in the afternoon and western facing, so getting a good photo of the full view was not ideal.  But, I had fun trying to spot my rental house from the terrace.  I’m located directly across the street/river from them.  It’s so wooded that it would be impossible to find any of the homes in my neighborhood through the dense trees.  I am in Forestville!


Before we began the tasting, Ramona led me on a tour of their production facility.  While Gary Farrell produces some amazing Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, it was instantly obvious the differences between Williams-Selyem and Gary Farrell.  Nothing bad.  Just different.  For example, Gary Farrell uses a mix of coopers for their barrels.  A mix of toasting levels.  And, I imagine that’s more common than rare.  But, you better believe I’m going to be paying close attention to those details over the next month.  I want to understand those little differences and the impacts they have on the wines.  Their chardonnays never see stainless.

Gary Farrell hand-picks their grapes.  But they do use more machinery in their production.  At least for their chardonnay they use a mechanical press to crush the grapes instead of doing it by hand.

The Tasting

After our tour, we sat down at the tasting table.  I do love that they poured all of the wines in advance.  I personally prefer that to getting them served one-by-one allowing me to taste them side-by-side or revisiting them.  The tasting was also paired with a variety of mostly local cheeses.


Technically the second wine of the day was the 2016 Durell Vineyard Chardonnay.  I generally like chardonnays from the Durrell Vineyard.  They paired it with one of my favorite cheese from Cowgirl Creamery – Mt Tam.  After I finish writing about all of my winery experiences, I’ll be sharing about some of the other great restaurants and things to do.  For example, I’ve visited the Cowgirl Creamery so be sure to look for that next month!

Then we moved into the Pinot Noirs.  And there were four:

  • 2016 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir paired with Chevoo – Fennel Pollen & Orange (local from Healdsburg)
  • 2015 Hallberg Vineyard Dijion Clones Pinot Noir paired with Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagonwheel
  • 2016 Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir paired with Essex Reserve Beemster Gouda
  • 2016 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir paired with Essex Reserve – Comte

I was thrilled they poured the Rochioli Pinot.  That’s where Gary Farrell got their start!  Apparently Gary was gifted Rochioli Pinot Noir grapes in the early days.  And they’re still producing it today.  It’s on their Member Exclusive List, however, I was allowed to take some home with me.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.  Ramona allowed me to be as chatty as I wanted and move at my pace.  Since my tasting hosts are the only human contact I’m receiving each day, they have the benefit of my chattiness.


30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 1: Williams-Selyem

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I’m not exactly sure how I was lucky enough to score a tasting at Williams-Selyem.  Maybe I caught the right person on the right day.  Maybe it’s because I’m visiting in January during a slow period.  Maybe it’s because I contacted them a month and a half in advance.  Maybe it’s because I signed up for their waiting list the day before they confirmed my tasting.  But, whatever it is, Williams-Selyem is one of the wineries I’m most excited about during this journey.

Side note:  During this journey you’re going to see just how much more I have to learn and experience!  While I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to Pinot Noir, I was REALLY new.  REALLY uneducated.  (And I’m typing this section before I actually visit any of the wineries on my list.)  I don’t claim to be an expert by any means.  And I don’t expect I’ll be close to being an expert at the end.  I’m just a fan of Pinot Noir and wanted to document my journey.  And, hey – maybe you’re interested in following along!  So, I’m blogging about it!

Embarrassingly, I’d never heard of Williams-Selyem.  They have a cult-like following.  They tell me they are still the only winery who has produced a 100-point Pinot Noir in North America.  Their waiting list has been known to last as long as 2-3 years!  When I joined last fall, I was alerted that the current waiting period was only 5-9 months.  As of today, I’m officially on the list!

My Visit

I’ve driven up and down the Westside Road countless times.  I’ve often wondered what wineries sit behind those locked, iron gates.  Those are the ones I want to experience.  One less mystery exists today.  There is no name on the gate.  Just a number on a rock wall and an intercom off to the left-hand side.  Now, I’ve been to other wineries who have freely given me the code to their gate.  Not Williams-Selyem.  I had to push a couple of buttons on the screen and then talk to someone before the gates magically opened for me.  I was also told that Greg would be meeting me in their tasting lounge and would be my host.


I drove up the lane to their majestic tasting lounge.  It’s a gorgeous building.  I was only sad that it was slightly overcast today.  Sure enough, Greg greeted me at the top of the stairs and welcomed me inside.  The first part of my visit was a seated tasting with Greg in their “lobby”.  It looked like there were several areas for various sized groups.  As we were getting started, a young couple caught my eye at the front door.  Greg explained that they’d just gotten engaged at a winery down the street earlier in the day.  Ah, young love.  That winery called and secured them a tasting at Williams-Selyem.  So, I wasn’t the only non-member visiting today!

Williams-SelyemThe Wines

Greg started me off with a lovely 2017 Vista Verde Chenin Blanc which is only available at the tasting room.  It’s not available through their allocation list.  The wine is fermented solely in a concrete egg and never sees stainless or oak.  I got lots of green apple and pear on the palate (at least that’s what the tasting notes say I should have gotten and I’m pretty sure I did).  He explained that they focus on small lots.  Incredibly tiny lots.  They make 43 different wines.  I believe he said 25 of them are Pinot Noir of which 19 are single vineyard wines.  He rattled off the figures so quickly, I couldn’t scribble fast enough.

Williams-Selyem-TastingNext up were two different Chardonnays.  The first was my favorite – but that may be because I’m learning I prefer Chardonnays from the coast.  And, this one was their 2017 Three Sisters Vineyard Chardonnay grown about 4 miles north of Fort Ross Seaview.  Aha!  It was so super creamy.  The second was their 2017 Williams-Selyem Estate Chardonnay grown in the Russian River Valley.  Also nice, but I preferred the first.

We then transitioned into Pinot Noirs.  The reason for my visit!  I had two to experience.  First was the 2017 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir.  It’s AVA designation is labeled “Sonoma County”.  Maybe that’s because they don’t want to put Dry Creek on the bottle?  But the vineyard is located just north of the Russian River Valley but still shares so many distinctive RRV characteristics.  It was my favorite of the two.

The second pinot was the 2017 Block 10 Mass Selection Estate Pinot Noir.  It’s from a tiny block of about 3 acres within eyesight of the tasting room.  It contains 18 (I believe) different clones of Pinot Noir!  The selection of clones gives you so many different layers of flavors.

The Tour

It was at this point that we got up from our tasting area and he led me into the belly of the building.  They make, bottle, and age all of their wines at that facility.  The first room, which was rather small, is the entire barrel room for their single-vineyard pinots.  Considering just how many they produce, it was shocking to see just how few barrels there were.

Greg explained, in far more detail that I’ve ever received, about their barrels.  Only one cooper.  3 years air dried.  Toasted on the sides AND tops (I didn’t even realize that was an option).  That helps keep the “green” flavors from being overpowering.  All grape picking is done by hand.  All crushing is done by hand.  All bottling is done on-site.  Since they produce so many different wines, bringing in a mobile bottling solution doesn’t make sense.  And they get to retain full control.  I had read that they are control freaks and attention to detail is key.  It became abundantly clear through the tour.

We finished up our tasting back in the “lobby” where Greg pulled out a Russian River-grown Zinfandel and their very first vintage (2016) of their Beckstoffer Vineyard (Georges III) Cabernet Sauvignon.  I was pretty surprised by the Beckstoffer Cab.  Beckstoffer Cabs are something I’m focusing on later this month.  So I was absolutely thrilled to try theirs.  Did you know that winemakers who purchase fruit from a Beckstoffer Vineyard must price their wines at a certain level?  Price them too high, and the owner will come back to the winery for more money!  This is the first Beckstoffer Cab to be added to my collection – and I’m pretty dang excited about this particular bottle since it was this winery’s first!

Williams-Selyem-BeckstofferWilliams-Selyem History

As usual, the history of the winery is outlined on their website, but I’ll provide some highlights that I found interesting.  Burt Williams and Ed Selyem started out by making wine only for themselves in the 1970s.  The winery grew during the 80s and 90s with a couple of notable highlights in the 90s.  In 1995 their wine was served at the White House.  And, in 2009, the 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir was awarded a score of 100 points – making it the first Pinot Noir in North America to receive a perfect score from any major wine publication!!!

While I was wine tasting the first day of this trip at one of my absolute favorite wineries, Dutton-Goldfield, the gal in the tasting room shared that Dan Goldfield trained Williams-Selyem’s current winemaker, Jeff Mangahas, before he joined their ranks.  Now, I haven’t read that anywhere.  I’m just passing along a piece of trivia I have no reason to believe isn’t true.

You’ll notice that I haven’t linked directly to their website.  I’m not legally allowed according to their fine print.  You’ll just have to google them!

Forestville Airbnb Porch

30 Wineries in 30 Days – Day 0: How and Why

By 30 Wineries in 30 Days 6 Comments

Welcome to the beginning of our journey – 30 Wineries in 30 Days!  After spending many long weekends in California’s Wine Country in 2018 and 2019, I realized that I was only allowing myself enough time to visit my favorite wineries (to restock) and finding one or two new wineries.  It just wasn’t enough time!

It was around that time I learned that I may be forced to take a two month break from my employment.  We won’t get into those details!  However, I hatched a plan to immerse myself in the Russian River Valley area of Sonoma County and absorb as much information as I could about my favorite varietal – Pinot Noir.  Ultimately, I wasn’t made to take off those two months.  But I’d gotten so excited about the idea that I put my immersion into motion anyway!

I’m fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to work anywhere.  Why not work from California for a few weeks?  So, I began the search for housing by turning to Airbnb.  I wanted my own private space, not just a room in someone’s home.  I needed a full kitchen.  I needed a washer and dryer.  I needed a good workspace.  I wanted it to be in the heart of the Russian River Valley.  And, I found it!

Forestville Airbnb PorchTucked away up a windy one-lane road in Forestville, I found my oasis – and for the right price!  When I travel, I’m slightly afraid of commitment.  I love flexible cancellation policies.  However, due to the extended stay nature of my reservation, my oasis was 100% non-refundable and payment was due at the time of reservation.  Warning bells went off everywhere, but I pulled the trigger.  The trip was happening!  I’m more of a last-minute girl.  Fully committing to a trip five months in advance is not in my nature.

The Planning

Two to three months before the Adventure began, I started to plan.  It was then that I stumbled across PinotFest.  It was there that I had the opportunity to discover a large variety of new-to-me wineries – all of whom are well respected in the industry.  You may laugh when you read the list and think – duh, Kristin, where have you been?  I was just living under a rock and pretty new to the world of Pinot Noir.  I’d visited many of the popular, open-to-the public wineries in the Russian River Valley and surrounding areas.  But I craved more – something more intimate.

I had a goal when I attended PinotFest – try some of these harder to acquire wines and make connections.  And, I did.  While chatting with the wineries and winemakers, I explained my goal – to try them and visit my favorites in January.  One winery in particular (which shall remain nameless) flat out told me they would not allow me to do a tasting at their winery.  Their tastings are restricted to their members.  And I wasn’t a member.  Period.  I guess I should have been grateful for the opportunity to taste at the event.  But it was late in the day and I’d been sampling Pinot Noir for two hours straight.  I can’t tell you a single thing about their wine – except that I didn’t hate it and I was determined to schedule a tasting.

Spoiler alert – I will be tasting at that winery on this journey!  I didn’t take “no” for an answer.  I reached out after the event anyway.  I’m persistent.  And it’s paid off.  Granted, it didn’t work in every instance.  There are a few who still remain on my list of “to visit” wineries.

The Wineries

Where am I headed?  I debated sharing the list in advance and keeping you in suspense.  But, I’m terrible at keeping secrets!  Here’s the list, generally in the order in which I’ll be visiting them.  Plans may change.  I may get a stomach bug that wreaks havoc on my body causing me to postpone a tasting (it happened).  Who knows.  Another winery also threw a wrench in my plans by calling me last week to reschedule my very first appointment of the trip.  I just laughed when they wanted to move it to the next day.  My calendar is a well-choreographed masterpiece!  Ha Ha!  However, I’ve purposefully kept some days open for some suggestions that I’ll surely receive along my journey.  As we get to each winery, I’ll explain the “why” behind how they made my list.  I hope I can remember them all!  I realize now that I should have made some notes.  Oh well!  And, yes, there are 31 listed.

  • Williams-Selyem
  • Gary Farrell
  • Flambeaux
  • Hanzell
  • Merus
  • Quintessa
  • Joseph Phelps
  • Failla
  • La Jota
  • Matthiasson
  • Laurel Glen
  • Lewis Cellars
  • Tor
  • Kistler
  • RAEN
  • Talisman
  • Paul Hobbs
  • Dehlinger
  • Littorai
  • Smith Story
  • Goldeneye
  • Stewart Cellars
  • Adobe Road
  • Kosta Browne
  • Viader
  • Keller Estate
  • Ramey
  • Stonestreet
  • Hirsch
  • Occidental
  • Aubert

Lessons Learned

If you’re planning a trip such as this, here are some of my lessons learned (some of which may be obvious):

  • The majority of my tastings are at “by appointment only” wineries.  Do NOT contact them all at the same time!  Know when you want to visit.  Have a plan.  Reach out to two or three at a time.  Wait for them to respond.  Lock down the appointment.  Then reach out to the next on your list.  It took me about three weeks to compile my list.  Every day for three weeks I emailed and called many of these wineries.  Some had the option to schedule your appointment directly online which made it easy.  Most of them did not.
  • Don’t plan tastings every single day.  I love nothing more than striking up a conversation with other folks in the tasting room.  We were both drawn to this winery for a reason.  We may like similar wines and styles.  Find what some of their favorites are and add them to the list.  A few of mine fell into this category from previous journeys.  I kept an entire week at the end of my trip for such referrals I expect to receive over the next month.
  • While I’ve been known to visit 8-10 wineries in a day, don’t pack your schedule too full.  You’ll possibly experience palate fatigue.  Even if you’re spitting and dumping and taking notes, you’re not going to remember them all.  I chose to visit one winery per day after I finish my work day.  I planned two to three on weekends.

Castelli Vineyards

By Wineries No Comments

I stumbled upon a little pamphlet somewhere along the way during one of my trips to Sonoma County.  It’s called the West Sonoma County Field Guide.  It lists 20 “Wineries with a Thoughtful Approach”.  It claims that these wineries use hand-harvested grapes and a gentle touch to craft wines with memorable flavors, true character, and great depth.  Well, doesn’t that sound like a “to-visit” list???  And that’s exactly what it became.  On my next trip I knocked off six of those 20 wineries and Castelli was quite possibly the most memorable one.

Castelli Wines

It’s easy to drive by this little family owned winery.  I sure did – about four times before building up the courage to drive up the unmarked driveway – the one with the “Private Road No Trespassing” sign.  It’s otherwise completely unmarked.  It offered absolutely zero indication that a winery could be found at the end. 

What caught my eye about this winery was that not only were they making Green Valley Pinot, but Emilio was also growing Nebiollo in the Green Valley.  The brochure claimed he was “an expert in Nebbiolo”.  For a region that produces such amazing Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, I just had to taste this Nebiollo – and of course his Pinot Noir!

I pulled in and just sat in his driveway.  There was a large, window-less barn to the left and a house and a few vehicles.  But it didn’t look anything like a winery!  If I had spent just a few more moments on Emilio’s website and read about the barn, I would have immediately known I was in the right place. 

A few minutes later Emilio emerged from the house and we headed into the barn for a tasting.  It was obvious from the first moment that he was passionate about growing grapes and making wine.  His wife popped in for a visit a few minutes later.  I soon learned that it was at his wife’s suggestion that they put their name in the little West Sonoma County Field Guide and that it has brought them a nice amount of visitors. 

There are small production wineries and then there’s Emilio!  He produces around 500 cases of wine “on a good year”.  That’s cases.  Not barrels.  That’s only 6,000 bottles of wine – per year!  He’s sitting on five acres of land in the Green Valley which he dry farms all by himself.  We spent the next hour chatting about his land and vines and his history.  I could have spent the entire afternoon learning from him.

The makeshift tasting area was a small cart in the middle of the barn.  I was able to taste just a few of his wines – remember he only produces 6,000 bottles per year.  We tasted his 2014 Estate Pinot Noir from the Green Valley, his 2013 Estate Nebbiolo from the Green Valley, and his 2013 Nebbiolo from the Paso Robles area.  I definitely preferred his Green Valley Nebbiolo. 

Because I was wearing a rose wine themed t-shirt, he gifted me a bottle of his rose which he doesn’t offer for sale.  He makes it just for his family from grapes that run along the boundary of his property – his neighbor uses “different” farming techniques so these vines provide a barrier between their land and his vines.

I highly encourage you to reach out to Emilio and plan a visit to Castelli Vineyards the next time you’re out that way!  You can look forward to a relaxed and educational journey through his history and wines while enjoying some tasty wines.

Castelli Vineyards
9760 Green Valley Road, Sebastopol, CA, 95472 USA
+1 707-827-3048
Tastings by Appointment Only