Category Archives: The Wine Road

The Tuscan Renaissance: Not Just for Art

 By Kareasa Wilkins

            When most people think about the Renaissance in Tuscany, their minds go directly to art: Botticelli, Donatello, Michelangelo. But Tuscany experienced a wine renaissance as well. In fact, perhaps no other wine region in the world has undergone such a significant renaissance of quality as Tuscany has in the last 60 years. Agriculture in central Italy in the early part of the 20th century was long dominated by the mezzadria, or sharecropping system, in which peasant farmers worked land owned by wealthy aristocrats in exchange for 49% of the crops they tended, a supply that helped their poor families survive. When this system died out in the 1960s and landowners received their land back from the sharecroppers working it, they knew little about quality viticulture. In a region where Sangiovese, a finicky grape with hundreds of different clones dominates, the production of wine at this time became one of mass production from high yields and low quality clones that were easy to cultivate. Quantity, rather than quality was the norm. Indeed, by the 1970s, the region of Tuscany was best known for Chiantis that were more valued from the straw fiascobasket they came in than for the poor quality wine inside the bottle. Moreover, laws at the time allowed up to 30% white grapes to be added to Chianti. This often included the neutral tasting Trebbiano Toscana, which, rather than adding character to the red wines, often dulled it down. With the reputation of the region falling apart, Tuscan winemakers began to revolutionize wine production in the region thus paving the way for the high quality wines associated with the region today.

            Perhaps the most significant movement to instigate change in the region was the introduction of “Super Tuscans.” By the late 1960s, winemakers began to follow in the steps of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who eschewed the traditional wine laws of the region to create “Sassicaia” from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (reportedly from vines taken from Chateau Lafite Rothschild) made in the Bolgheri region near the Tuscan Coast. Others, such as his cousin Piero Antinori followed suit, creating wines that were often based on international varieties, or Sangiovese blended with international varieties. But beyond simply going against the standard inferior “Chianti blend” that was losing so much favor in the market, what united these wines was their focus on quality. They were often produced from lower yields, higher quality clones, and aged in new French oak barrels. However, even though the quality of these wines far surpassed the typical wines of the region, and often came with price tags to match, they were forced to be labeled simply as Vino da Tavolawhich was the lowest demarcation for Italian wines, because they failed to meet the DOC laws of the region. The rise in popularity of these wines coupled with the visible quality did lead to the creation of IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a demarcation that indicated higher quality than a basicVino da Tavola. Later, the DOC Bolgheri was added, and as this is where many Super Tuscans are made, they now fall under the higher quality status. The quality minded producers behind the Super Tuscan movement led other regions to ensue, and in 1980 Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montalcino were granted DOCG status. These wines, like the Super Tuscans are now viewed as some of the most iconic wines of quality from the Tuscan region.

            While the Super Tuscans may have been the first wines to inspire a transformation in the Tuscan wine region, Chianti soon upped its game as well. It began with the acknowledgment of its signature grape, Sangiovese, as one that not only has difficulty ripening, but also has hundreds of clones that vary in flavor and quality. This led to an intensive research project that began in 1987 and focused on studying the different types of clones and practices in the vineyard such as rootstock and training methods. Ultimately these studies led to better knowledge and practices in the vineyard and the cellar, such as clonal selection, lowering yields, reducing the amount of white grapes in the blend, and oak ageing in barrique. 

            Not only did all of the research being done in Chianti contribute to better quality wines, but during this time, the Consorzio also recognized the importance of reestablishing the Chianti Classico zone. The Chianti Classico zone was originally delimited in the early 1700s by the Duke of Medici, and included the villages of Radda, Gaiole, Castellina, and Greve. These areas contain a wide variety of soils and mesoclimates, with cooling influences from the Tyrrhenian Sea, and were viewed as producing the top quality wine. Yet in the 1930s, this region was expanded in efforts to capitalize on the name, though many of the wines produced did not match up to the name. Indeed, it was these very wines that were using less and less Sangiovese, and being diluted with the Trebbiano Toscana grape. In 1996, the original Chianti Classico region was granted DOCG status, and no longer considered a subzone of Chianti. The DOCG stipulated lower yields, and higher required amounts of Sangiovese in the wines, thus further showcasing quality. Even more recently, producers in the Chianti Classico region created another quality designation, the category of Gran Selezione, a term for wines made from all estate grown fruit and aged for thirty months before being sold. 

            The Tuscan region of Italy is now considered to be emblematic of quality wine production. Yet little more than a half century ago, this was not the case. But a handful of quality minded producers who dared to take the initiative to prove what the region was capable of paved the way for improvements in the overall production of wine through new laws, regional designations, education and research, and enhancements in viticulture and enology.  

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:






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

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

The Wine Memory: An Ode to Chateau Guiraud

By Kareasa Wilkins

It was January of 2003 and I had just finished a five-month stint living in England. I had recently graduated from college and didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to travel and I knew I wanted to learn more about wine.  Using up almost everything I earned working in England, I bought a month’s stay in Bordeaux at a French language school, complete with my own apartment a few blocks from the school. I could’ve chosen just about anywhere in France to study French, but I chose Bordeaux because I wanted a chance to experience what is possibly the greatest wine region in the world.

The French lessons turned out to be grueling (I was the only person in my class who had never had a single French class before) and the port city of Bordeaux with its neo-classical architecture, lush parks, and enticing patisseries, though charming, was freezing in January. I spent most of my days running back to my apartment from school to huddle under a warm blanket. But my first weekend there, I discovered Bordeaux’s office of tourism, which offered jaunts to the local wine regions. I signed up for the tour of Barsac and Sauternes followed by a tour of the Medoc the next week and, for my final weekend in Bordeaux, a tour of St. Emilion. I remember riding in a small white tourist van with travelers from Japan, England, and Scandinavia. The skies were gray, and the trees were bare, and as we left the vast expanse of the city, to the rural French countryside, there was little more to see than the miles and miles of barren vines laid out before us. Our final destination on the day of the Sauternes tour was Chateau Guiraud. A wrinkled old man, perhaps the winemaker, or perhaps simply a tour guide, took us into what appeared to be an old barnyard packed with oak barrels. He poured us some sweet nectar and spoke in gravelly French about the beauty of noble rot. I was so seduced by the liquid gold in my glass, I spent what little money I had on two 750ml bottles. Back at the apartment I put one away in the closet to bring home with me, and the other I put in the refrigerator. I bought a wedge of Roquefort at the Carrefour market that day and for the rest of my stay in Bordeaux lived on bleu cheese and Chateau Guiraud Sauternes.  Everyday after my French lessons, I would stop at the patisserie next door to my school, buy a baguette, and go home to lunch on a few slices of Roquefort and bread with my glass of Sauternes. That month I was cold and lonely, and despite spending five hours a day learning the local language knew barely enough French to get by. But somehow my glass of Guiraud each day made things bearable. When I smelled the aromas of honey soaked pears I always seemed to get Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose stuck in my head and I’d think of the wonders of Europe, and remind myself that even though it was a bitter winter in Bordeaux, I was lucky to be there leading a life of the mind and the vine.

Once I returned to the States, I kept that second bottle of Chateau Guiraud in the back of my closet for years. Sauternes age brilliantly, and I wanted to save it for a special occasion. In 2009, a co-worker of mine who was studying for the WSET hosted a dinner party, and I opened the bottle, a 1998 vintage. The wine was every bit as unctuous as the one I savored in my small Bordeaux apartment and had taken on a rich complexity of stone fruits and lingering sweetness. I was home again, but in that moment I was transported back in time to the days when I was living on nothing but bleu cheese and noble rot.

Last night my mom and I were in Palo Alto to go see the performance at the local theater. Afterwards we went to a restaurant/wine bar that had Chateau Guiraud by the glass on its dessert menu. It was a 2006 vintage this time, but I couldn’t help but order a glass for memory’s sake. While the food at the restaurant was only slightly above average quality, as soon as I smelled the brown sugar sweetness of the Sauternes, I wanted to linger there all night, with Edith Piaf playing the background noise in my head, remembering that little piece of my life spent in the old world, that Southwesterly part of France that has so much history, the place that introduced the world to quality wine, the place that arguably made wine not just a beverage but a commodity, and the place that gave my dreary January days a little bit of sunshine.

If you have a wine memory you’d like to share, please post it in the “Leave a reply” section.

Ponzi Wine Bar

By Kareasa Wilkins

Set in the heart of downtown Dundee, the Ponzi Wine Bar is a must stop when tasting and touring in the Willamette Valley. The hallway leading into the wine bar is adorned with a photo/essay collection called “The Oregon Trail of Winemakers,” which documents the pioneers of Oregon winemaking. The bar itself offers a cozy atmosphere where you can chat with the wine servers at the bar or opt for a private table.  The Ponzis specialize in high quality Pinot Noir, but they have a brilliant selection of white wines as well, including Arneis, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, and all are available to sample. The Ponzi wine bar also supports other local vintners, and offers rotating flights of other producers’ wines in addition to their own. When you’re done tasting, you can grab a bite to eat next door at the Dundee Bistro, which is also owned by the Ponzis and has great food and a great wine list to boot.

Elk Cove Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins

A visit to the Elk Cove winery in the beautiful Yamhill-Carlton AVA of the Willamette Valley can’t fail to put one in an overwhelming sense of calm. The pristinely manicured gardens and breathtaking views of the valley make this winery the perfect place to relax and enjoy a sip of Pinot Noir. Be sure to take the time to wander around by the pond and enjoy the garden and vineyard surroundings. Established in 1974, Elk Cove is one of the oldest wineries in the valley and offers a wide range of Pinot Noirs and white wines, such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling in a serene setting. The winery is also has catering and event space available, making it a picturesque place for a wedding.

Wilson Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins

Wilson Winery, located in northern Sonoma County on Dry Creek Road, is always one of the most popular stops during Russian River Wine Road weekend events. Wilson is a must for Zin lovers, as they make an array of delicious single vineyard Zinfandels that are named after family members. But Wilson’s portfolio extends beyond Zinfandel, and they also offer a slew of good Bordeaux and Rhone-inspired wines as well. Tasting events at Wilson are always enjoyable; they have a huge patio that overlooks the Dry Creek Valley where you can often find a staff member grilling up their famous tri-tip recipe to compliment the wines being poured.