Moving beyond Strawberries and Tobacco

A friend of mine recently signed up for a wine tasting class. She contacted me and said she was having a good time but felt hopeless, as she couldn’t tell her “tobacco and leather notes from her vanilla and blackcurrant notes.” It’s easy to see her frustration as we are often bombarded with wine writers’ tasting notes that wax on with eloquent descriptions that make it seem as if we are eating a fruit salad or smoking a Cuban cigar, rather than tasting wine. I fell into that trap, too, to be honest. I worked in the wine industry for a number of years, and for the longest time, I was trying to pinpoint my strawberries, distinguish my blackberries from my olallieberries, my allspice from my cloves. It took me a long time to realize that tasting wine is about so much more than distinguishing flavor characteristics. In fact, if you look at any standard tasting chart for a reputable sommelier’s certifying board, you will find that flavor components are a very small portion of the overall picture. To begin with, before you even stick your nose in a wine, you can tell a lot about it just by looking at it. Beyond red, white, or rose, is it a deep purplish red, or a brownish brick red? Is it a bright pink rose or a salmon colored rose? Is your white wine pale, lemon yellow, or is it deep golden amber? A wine’s appearance can indicate faults, age, and grape varietal. It may even give you hints as to its production methods. When you smell the wine, yes, you are looking for different types of flavors, but also the intensity of the nose. Does it punch you in the face, or can you barely smell anything going on in the glass? Does it smell like wet dog or nail polish remover? Hopefully not, as this indicates a faulty wine! When we taste the wine, we are looking for more than strawberries and tobacco. We taste for mouthfeel—the weight of the wine. As Karen MacNeil famously described it, mouthfeel can be like the difference in texture between skim milk and half and half. Acid, tannin, alcohol, sweetness—these things are arguably more important than distinguishing blueberries from blackberries, for these are the components that ultimately make up the balance of the wine, and creating an enjoyable balanced wine is really the goal of most winemakers. But if you’re still trying to figure out the difference in flavor between a blackberry and a boysenberry, my advice to you is to go to the farmer’s market. Smell and taste everything. Try something you’ve never tried before…Red currants? Go for it. Gooseberries? They say that they are a dead ringer for some Sauvignon Blancs. The more you expose yourself to different aromas and flavors, the easier it will be to find them in wine.



Something To Sip On In Nevada City

The neo-hippie town of Nevada City about an hour northeast of Sacramento is a place to find dreadlocks, vegetarian friendly menus, and quirky street festivals. It may be most famous for its environmental film festival, but it turns out that it’s also a great place to taste wine. Within the city limits are a handful of charming tasting rooms that showcase the area’s assortment of local wines. Beginning with the homey Clavey on Commercial Street, this is a place where you can sip Sangiovese and Syrah while chatting with the winemaker himself. Another family owned operation is the elegantly adorned Szabo tasting room. Here, wine enthusiasts can sit at the long red gum eucalyptus bar and gaze at antiques and local paintings while sampling award winning Rhone-inspired blends. A trip to the Nevada City wine tasting rooms wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the oldest winery in town. What started out as a simple garage project in 1980 is now, ironically, located in the historic Miner’s Foundry Garage nestled in the center of town. Medals and ribbons from wine competitions embellish the tasting room, and a wide range of wines including Gewürztraminer, Dolcetto, and Petit Verdot are all available for sampling. Whether you’re in town for the weekend for antique store hopping, taking a brief respite from the Nevada City Victorian Christmas festival, or just looking for something delicious to pair with your garden burger, the tasting rooms of Nevada City are a delightful way to enjoy this distinctive Gold Rush town.

For more information about visiting Nevada City tasting rooms, go to:

Runquist Tasting Room


I’ve never been much of a Cab and Chardonnay girl. It’s not that I don’t appreciate good ones, it’s just that to me they can seem so ordinary. Maybe it’s because my first wine job was at Bonny Doon Vineyards, a winery that embraced the unusual, and taught me to love Grenache, Syarah, Mourvedre, and even more obscure varietals such as Charbono and Ciliegiolo. Maybe it’s the former punk rocker in me, but I’ve always preferred uniqueness to something adored by the masses. That’s why I was delighted this weekend by a tasting at Jeff Runquist’s winery in Amador County, where my palate was presented an array of distinctive single varietal offerings including Petite Verdot, Tannat, Charbono, and to my surprise the one grape that can truly call itself red, Alicante Bouschet! Runquist makes incredible wines, and what makes the journey to his tasting room in Plymouth really exceptional is the rare opportunity to taste the essence of grapes that are traditionally used in blends. Runquist works with growers throughout California, finding optimal sites to express each grape’s unique personality, and offers numerous bottlings to sample in the tasting room. The tasting room is open Thursday–Monday, and is well worth a trip to try such exclusive wines.

For more information about Jeff Runquist’s wines and the tasting room, go to:






Pizza with Mushrooms, Broccoli Rabe, and Calabrian Chilies with Ridge Kite Hill Zinfandel

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Making homemade pizza is a passion of mine. I love the smell of the dough rising and the various topping combinations you can make. My husband keeps trying to get me to me to make an all meat pizza, but for me, that would be a heart attack waiting to happen. Plus after overindulging during the holidays and eating and drinking our way through Europe, I’ve been trying to cook things that are at least mildly healthier than our usual gluttonous feasts. So tonight I went vegetarian and topped the pizza with some quickly blanched broccoli rabe, sautéed cremini mushrooms, and finished it off at the end with some spicy Calabrian chilies. I always like a good Zin with my pizza, so I had the opportunity to open a recent wine club selection from Ridge, the Kite Hill Zin. Kite Hill comes from a section of the York Creek Vineyard in Napa Valley. This is the only vineyard Ridge sources from in Napa, and it’s a good one. They usually bottle a Zin called “York Creek,” but apparently this year the wine deviated from the typical flavor profile of York Creek, so they dubbed it a different nomenclature. Indeed it did taste quite different from any Ridge York Creek I’ve had in the past. Missing was the characteristic black pepper that I find in many Napa Zins. It did still have the depth, structure and dark fruit from the Petite Sirah, but it seemed much riper in style, leaning toward mixed berry fruit compote on the palate. While both the wine and the pizza were enjoyable, they may not have been ideal complements. The pizza had a bit of an earthiness to it with the mushrooms and the bitterness of the broccoli rabe, and therefore might have been better with a more rustic wine from Italy or even a Zin that wasn’t quite as fruit forward. Yet the fruity component did help mellow out the Calabrian chilies—those little bastards were SPICY! Still, not every wine pairing is ideal, but it’s always fun to experiment.

Old Ghosts and Old Vines: An Interview with Steve Felten of Klinker Brick Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins


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When Creedence Clearwater Revival bemoaned the fate of being “stuck in Lodi,” they clearly weren’t drinking Klinker Brick Zin. Klinker Brick is making wines, particularly old vine Zins that are making Lodi a destination worthy of visiting.

The Purple Tongue Press recently spoke with Steve Felten, president of Klinker Brick wines.

PTP: Tell me a little bit about the history of Klinker Brick.

SF: Klinker Brick is a family owned estate. We are part of the 6th generation of wine grape growers here in Lodi. The family began growing wine grapes in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that we began making our own wine. We were still selling it to other producers at the time, then in 2000 we began bottling our own. Our total annual production is about 85-90,000 cases with the Klinker Brick Zinfandel being our flagship wine.

PTP: Lodi is becoming more recognized as a quality wine-producing region. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SF: Lodi has always been a big area in terms of wine grape production, but it has only been in the last 15 years or so that growers started making wine. Before 2000, there were less than 10 wineries in this area, but now there are over 100. Lodi was recently honored as Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year. Klinker Brick was the first winery from Lodi to pour at Wine Spectator’s Grand Tasting, and we also won a trophy at the New World International Wine Competition. The atmosphere in this region is a lot like it was in Napa 40 years ago, and a lot of that has to do with the exceptional Zinfandel that’s grown here.

PTP: What is special about Zin grown in this area?

SF: There is more old vine Zin grown here than anywhere else in the state. Klinker Brick works with a number of old vine vineyards, including one that is over 120 years old. The soils and the climate in Lodi contribute to very fruit driven wines. We have a longer growing season than other wine regions in the state, which allows longer hang time for the grapes. There are a lot of myths about Lodi, particularly that it’s too hot for quality wine. But we’re in the north end of the valley, and we get a lot of cool Delta breezes at night. The temperature can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees from day to night, and we get great concentration of flavor in the grapes because of this. We get really ripe fruit, but the wines are still well-balanced. They’re really popular with consumers because they’re easy to drink. You don’t have to lay them down for a long time. Pretty much as soon as they’re released they’re good to go. They’re vibrant and fresh with a ton of fruit that makes them really enjoyable to drink.

PTP: Can you tell us a little bit about the Zins that Klinker Brick produces?

SF: The Klinker Brick Old Vine Zin is our flagship wine. It’s made from a blend of 16 different old vine vineyards, the average age of which is 85 years. This wine has a lot of bold fruit and a nice black pepper character to it as well. Our Marisa Vineyard Zin is produced from an 88-year-old vineyard block. This one has really good structure to it, firmer tannins and a lot of berry fruit. Then we have the Old Ghost. This is our reserve Zin. It comes from the best lots of our old vines, and it’s a rather atypical Zin in that it’s a lot more elegant in style. It’s a wine that really lingers on the palate from front to back. We also do a Zin blend called Tranzind. This is a blend of old vine Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet. It’s a great house wine and is currently being marketed through chain sales.

PTP: Do you have any favorite foods to pair with Klinker Brick Zins?

SF: Anything with spice or pepper is great with them. Mexican, Thai, barbecue, pizza, you name it.

PTP: Is there anything else you would like the public to know about Klinker Brick?

SF: Just that we are a family owned winery making premium wines in Lodi. Our wines are incredibly consumer friendly, and in addition to the old vine Zins, we have a number of excellent wines in our portfolio, including some special limited edition wine club wines.

Klinker Brick’s tasting room is open 7 days/week. For more information go to

Steve Felten, along with winemaker Joseph Smith will be pouring Klinker Brick wines at ZAP’s Zinfandel Experience. For more information go to

A Taste of Alsace in Anderson Valley



By Kareasa Wilkins

The bucolic, yet tortuous Highway 128 snakes through the sleepy towns of Boonville, Philo, and Navarro—towns known for their slow-paced way of life, and for the cool northerly climate that supports California viticulture at its extremes. Anderson Valley is perhaps the only California AVA that specializes in the aromatic white wines most commonly associated with Alsace, and the annual Alsace Varietals Festival is a grand affair for showing off the amazing depths these wines can reach in this region and beyond. Low on the radar for most wine connoisseurs, the Alsace Varietals Festival in Anderson Valley is probably one of the most neglected, yet enjoyable tasting events in California. Held every February at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville, the event brings together producers of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat from around the world.

The event always kicks off with a morning educational seminar that often includes technical information on growing and producing Alsace varietals led by fermentation science professors from UC Davis, tasting flights, and sessions on food and wine pairings put together by renowned chefs, wine writers, sommeliers and cookbook authors. This year’s event will feature John Winthrop Haeger, author of the upcoming book Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. Following the morning seminars is a cooking demonstration featuring culinary whiz and former Anderson Valley resident, Chef Francois de Melogue. De Melogue, who has worked in celebrated restaurants from Paris to New York has an affinity for the food friendly Alsatian varietals, and shares delicious recipes to pair with the wines.

After the cooking demonstration, the grand tasting begins. Wineries from Anderson Valley are prominently featured, yet while local wineries represent a significant portion of the producers who showcase their wines at the festival, it is an international event, and exceptional examples of the classic Alsatian varietals can often be found from Oregon, New York, New Zealand, and, of course, Alsace itself. The grand tasting is accompanied by a profusion of classic food pairings for the wines, such as oysters, glazed pork belly, tarte flambeé, and choucroute alsacienne.

While the grand tasting ends at 4:00 p.m., the festivities continue well into the next day. In the evening, some restaurants and wineries offer winemaker dinners or special menus to pair with Alsatian varietals. This year, the Anderson Valley luminaries at The Apple Farm will offer a locally sourced organic feast to pair with Alsatian varietals, while Scharffenberger Cellars is presenting a private dining experience with the winemakers.   On Sunday, many of the local wineries open their doors to the public and provide food, music, special offers on wine, and an all around good time. For anyone looking for a memorable wine experience, The Alsace Varietals Festival in Anderson Valley is not to be missed.

For more information on the Anderson Valley Alsace Festival, go to

Zin at 2500 Feet



By Kareasa Wilkins

These days Napa Valley is hardly synonymous with anything but Cabernet. Indeed, California’s most famous wine region has come to rest its laurels on its lush, powerful rendition of the Bordeaux varietal that has dazzled and delighted the critics and the masses. While a multiplicity of grape varieties once graced the slopes of Napa Valley, grapes considered “less noble” are constantly being uprooted for new plantings of the big money-maker. With the average Napa Valley Cabernet bottling being well-over $50/bottle, and ultra premium “cult” wines commanding astronomical prices, it’s no wonder that many producers hardly dabble with alternatives beyond perhaps a Bordeaux-style blend or a white offering.

Needless to say, I was surprised at ZAP 2015, the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producer’s grand tasting, when the Zinfandels that stood out most to me, came not from the usual suspects in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley (though there were a number of stars from those regions), but from a small vineyard within Napa’s Howell Mountain AVA, the Black Sears Vineyard.

Howell Mountain is no exception to the Napa Cab craze. With names like Dunn, CADE, O’Shaughnessy, and Robert Craig, this AVA is clearly prime Cab country. Yet at the very tip top of Howell Mountain is a vineyard where Zinfandel shines just as bright as any of the brilliant Cabernets. The Black Sears vineyard, owned by Joyce Black and Jerre Sears is situated 2500 feet above the valley floor, and its unique geography and well-tended vines are generating some of the most distinctive Zins in the world.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Jambois, Joyce and Jerre’s son-in-law, who, along with his wife Ashley, oversees much of Black Sears’ vineyard maintenance. Chris shared some of the reasons he believes Zinfandels from Black Sears Vineyard are so special. “This vineyard has so many unique soil types that professors from UC Davis and other top research universities are always coming to study it,” says Jambois. “We’re above the fog line, which produces warmer nights than are seen on the valley floor, though the  growing season usually starts a good 2-3 weeks later than the rest of Napa, and our Zins tend to be among the last to come in during harvest. Our Zins are dry farmed, and the wines that come from this vineyard are always incredibly complex and spicy. You get a lot of black and white pepper notes that you don’t find in Zins from other regions.” Jambois poured us a sample of the 2012 vintage, which was deep and brooding, and highlighted these qualities. The Estate Zinfandel is crafted by winemaker Thomas Brown, who took over the reigns after Ted Lemon left in 2006. Yet as exceptional as the Black Sears Estate Zin is, the quantity is limited. Of the 24 acres of grapes planted at Black Sears, only 17 are planted to Zin, and Jambois notes that they sell 75% of their fruit. Top producers such as Turley, Robert Craig, and T-Vine all have Black Sears Vineyard bottling of Zin. The vines at the Black Sears Estate are tended using biodynamic methods, and Jambois remarks that since they began farming this way in the early 2000s, buyers have really noticed improvements in the health of the vineyard and the quality of the fruit produced. This is important, particularly with Zinfandel, which can be difficult in the vineyard. “Zinfandel is a true artist’s grape,” says Jambois. “A lot of people talk about Pinot Noir being so challenging in the vineyard. But the same could be said about Zin. It’s a notoriously uneven ripener, and it’s prone to botrytis. It’s really difficult to make a complex Zin, and only the true artists are successful at it.” He also seeks to dispel common myths about the grape. “There are a lot of myths about Zin—that it can’t be complex or elegant, that critics won’t give it more than 95 points.” Yet as the Black Sears Estate is demonstrating, when grown in optimal conditions and crafted in the hands of caring individuals, Zinfandel can be nothing less than extraordinary.

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For more information about the Black Sears Estate, go

Black Sears Estate, along with many wineries that produce a Black Sears Vineyard Zin will be pouring at ZAP 2016. Find out more at

Pistachio Crusted Chicken with Mustard Herb Cream Sauce and Fire Road Sauvignon Blanc


Pistachio Crusted Chicken with Mustard Herb Cream Sauce is possibly my favorite thing in the world to cook. It’s one of those dishes that I no longer need a recipe for because I’ve made it so many times. The first time was with my good friend Jenny when I was a junior at UC Santa Cruz. I lived in the newest apartment complex on campus which was well-equipped with a big kitchen. Jenny and I had just discovered, and we loved trying out new recipes. This one was a hit, and since then I have cooked it for friends from New Mexico to Panama, and it usually finds its way to my dinner table at least a couple times per month. While there are a number of crisp dry white wines that go well with this dish, my favorite is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Who doesn’t love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? It’s like the loveable puppy of the wine world. It’s so easy to drink, so vibrant and pleasure-inducing, that it’s hard not to drink a whole bottle at one sitting. The wine I chose tonight was Fire Road Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. This is a great bargain wine that my husband and I often buy by the case. It’s vibrant acidity and lovely passion fruit and gooseberry notes are a delicious welcome to any dish that requires a dry white wine. It works particularly well with the pistachio crusted chicken as the racy acidity cuts through the creaminess of the herb sauce, and the fruit flavors complement the pistachios and herbs nicely. This meal is fabulous served with a side of roasted potatoes and sautéed greens, and matched up with the Fire Road is bound to put a smile on anyone’s face.



Here’s the link to the recipe:

ZAP’s 25th Anniversary Tasting

By Kareasa Wilkins

One of the most highly anticipated wine tasting events of the year is always the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) tasting in San Francisco. Zinfandel lovers are a carefree bunch, and each year ZAP brings them together to revel in the pleasure-inducing, tongue staining, sumptuous sipper that is Zinfandel. This year marks ZAP’s 25th anniversary, and it will be a bacchanalia like no other, so get ready to swirl, sniff, and sip your way to Zin bliss.

The three day festival will kick off with a 25 year tribute party at the lavish Bentley Reserve, the former San Francisco Federal Reserve building. Guests will have the opportunity to mingle with ZAP’s founders, and toast the winemakers while sipping on rare and exclusive bottles of America’s heritage grape. The party continues with The Heritage Supper Club, a showcase of the world’s best Zins perfectly paired with an extravagant meal. The supper club will be accompanied by celebrated crooner, Margaret Belton, the star of ‘Always…Patsy Cline.”

Friday’s “Flights—Forums of Flavor” boasts the occasion to stimulate your inner wine geek with a seminar and themed flights exhibiting the distinct characteristics of Zinfandel. This year’s seminar features the Historical Vineyard Society, a non-profit organization made up of a team of some of the most famous names in the wine industry dedicated to preserving historical vineyards and educating the public their importance.

Friday night = fabulous as we return to the Bently Reserve for the Silver Anniversary Spectacular Winemaker’s Auction and Dinner. Magnums will be popped open to accompany a special farm-to-table dinner, while patrons can bid on the best of the best in the world of Zin.

Saturday’s Grand Tasting is the tasting extravaganza that we’ve all been waiting for. This year the illustrious event will take place at the recently revamped Pier 27. With over 150 producers showcasing their finest Zins, among them some of the most important personalities behind Zinfandel rise to fame, this is the perfect opportunity to experience the regional distinctions of Zin and chat with the producers making the magic.

With a line up of exciting events and rare opportunities to taste some of the most refined Zins on the market, the Zin Experience is bound to please wine lovers from the novice to the expert. The Purple Tongue Press will be part of the experience, and you can too.

To find out more about the world’s largest single varietal wine tasting, go to

To buy tickets, go to!tickets/c1hae

To learn more about becoming a member of the Heritage club, go to!heritage-club/c8hl

Pan-Seared Halibut with ValdeSil Godello Sobre Lías


By Kareasa Wilkins

After overindulging the week of Thanksgiving, I was ready for something healthier. The local Whole Foods had some good looking halibut, and I had some farro and spinach on hand, so tonight we did pan-seared halibut with preserved meyer lemon farrotto, and spinach salad. The wine: the 2013 Valdesil Godello Sobre Lías. Godello, a relatively obscure grape variety native to Spain once was on the brink of extinction, until winemakers in the Valdeorras region, just east of Rías Baixas, began reviving it in the 1970s. Though it still accounts for a small percentage of Spanish wines produced, Oz Clark, in his seminal Grapes and Wines: The Definitive Guide to the World’s Great Grapes and the Wines They Make declares it a contender for “Spain’s most interesting white grape.” Valdesil is a family-run winery that’s been dedicated to the Godello grape since the late 1800s. The Valdesil Godello Sobre Lías sung with the pan-seared halibut, offering notes of apricot blossoms, honeycomb, and a slight minerality. The wine had a decent amount of acidity, though not as much as Spain’s other white wine gem, Albariño, and the opulent weight of the wine worked well with the firm white fish. For anyone looking to try something new, or just have something nice on the table to pair with fish, the Valdesil Godello Sobre Lías is an excellent choice.