WanderCurtis Wine

Wine tastings, corporate events, reviews and recommendations

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Blenheim Vineyards, Charlottesville, Virginia , USA

Kirsty Harmon is a local girl turned renowned winemaker.

She grew up across the road of Blenheim and is well acquainted with the local scene.

Her first degree was in microbiology. She then worked as an event and wedding planner and worked for the previous owner of the Trump winery. She stayed on, ultimately becoming head of winemaking and general manager.

She Trained in enology at UCL Davis and won various scholarship for internships.

This took her to Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay New Zealand part of then Family of 12.

She also gained experience at Domaine Faivlely in Burgundy. She was the first intern there since 1837!

Dave Matthew a local celebrity in country music owns Blenheim and many of the labels have his colourful artistic designs.

It’s boutique winery producing 5 to 8 000 cases.

Kirsty with her microbiology background initially had a service lab for testing wines and helped out local wineries.

She has pioneered her wines all under screw cap, somewhat unusual for the US, but having worked in New Zealand and learned of its merits prefers this method of closure.

Blenheim Sauvignon Blanc 2021

100% Sauvignon Blanc steel fermented


Somewhere between new and old world

Goooseberry reductive, some passion fruit and tropical nuances

Blenheim Albariño 2021

Peachy stone fruit

Saltiness mineral

Delicious Albariño very typical

Amazing it shows such typicity and saltiness after such a recent planting in such a new environment

Heavy red clay here with iron which I’d noted when I visited the Trump winery for lunch.

Blenheim gruner veltliner

An interesting story, it was planted very much by chance when their 800 vines of Teroldago didn’t bud and they were offered by the Gruner the nursery!

Slight gun flint

Lean reduced nice acidity

Blenheim Cabernet franc 2020

Interesting Fractal wine label especially liked by the mathematicians

Kirsty prefers to make lighter style red

Enjoys the fruitiness

Full of fruit

9 months barrels

Some whole cluster and natural carbonic

Painter Red Nlend


Lots grapes fresh fruity blend

Tasting with Kirsty reminded me that the winemaking in this region is a mere 30 years old and they are very much finding their feet and don’t know yet exactly what’s going to work.

She has a great pioneer spirit and along with Albariño planting from Mencia in Galicia, (also has clay soils and high humidity).they have planted Garnega, Tempranillo Roussane and Gruner Veltliner are among many others being planted here.

It will be fascinating to see what the future holds. It certainly seems to be in good hands.

Jefferson vineyards

This is an historic site with vineyards first planted by Fillipo Mazzei,Italian architect with the backing of Thomas Jefferson whos Monticello estates is nearby.

Recent plantings date from 1981

I was kindly hosted by Chris Ritzcovan winemaker and met the current owner Attila.

This is Chris’s 10 th vintage. His father made home wine which may have sparked in him an interest.

He trained locally at the famous University of Virginia

Chris mentioned they have a lot of vintage variation and also described the challenges mentioned on other visits

Wines tasted

Jefferson Vineyard petit manseng 2021

Dry, Sugar gets high

Neutral oak

75 cases made (only 3 barrels)

Petit Manseng originally form Jurancon-aromatic, peach honey ginger

High acid

Lovely texture lees ageing

Good balance nice nutty feel almond

Great effort here and shows potential of this grape in the region.

Jefferson Vineyard estate reserve 2019

Viognier, barrel fermented for 9 months in new French oak barrels Petit Manseng 6%

Really rich, full bodied oily with stone fruits, apricot and peach

Slight bitter finish

Jefferson Vineyard 2019 Chardonnay

Barrel fermented 9 months in oak

25 years old vines

Lemon, some vanilla, butter, lees ageing new American, new French and Hungarian oak (lighter spicier influence than French or American)

Jefferson Vineyard 2017

Cabernet Franc

Great vintage, 9 months in oak barrels

Fruit bomb, blue fruits

Plenty of tannins

Mouth and gum tannins integrated, Not green or herbaceous

Jefferson Vineyard 2019 meritage

Merlot and Petit Verdot, cabernet franc Malbec

20 months in oak Hungarian French and American oak

Blue and black fruits good tannic structure

Quite drying tannins

May benefit from more time

Jefferson Vineyard Merlot Réserve 2019

Smooth tannins wrapped with fruit

Chocolate and plum slightly hot

Made with Older vines 100 % French oak

Chris is also growing some Tannat and shows the same enthusiasm for the region as fellow winemakers.


The wines from Virginia are somewhere between new and old world. They are quite European in style. They don’t have the opulence and power of California but they still have more fruit and aromatics than similar wine growing areas in Europe.

It still a young region and experimental.

The current notable varieties performing well are Chardonnay, Viognier, Petit Verdot . Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

However, watch out for new varietals including Albarinho, Petit Manseng and Nebbiolo.

I’d love to visit again and explore other areas, such as Rappahannock, an hour north of Monticello. Perhaps a few weeks earlier, in October to witness the full autumnal splendour.

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Veritas Vineyards and Winery, Virginia ‘as happy as it can be’

The magnificent vista from the sauvignon plots on the high ground at Veritas

I was very keen to visit Veritas. Andrew Hodson, the owner like myself is also an English Doctor. There is a long historical connection with physicians and wine. Amongst many examples is the founder of Penfolds in Australia by Dr Christopher Penfolds who was a member of the society of Apothecaries in London. For more information about this I strongly recommend reading ‘Wine & Medicine: An Enduring Historical Association

Andrew and Patricia bought the land at Veritas 23 years ago and have transformed it into one of the go to destinations in Virginia wine country. Alongside producing supreme quality wines they have onsite luxury accommodation, a lovely restaurant and manage events and weddings. It’s a magnificent property.

Emily Hodson, Winemaker, Veritas Winery

I was lucky enough to be hosted by Emily Hodson, winemaker and daughter of Andrew. It is very much a family run business. Emily’s brother George the general manager also popped in to say hello. We sat over lunch and tried a series of Veritas wines.

After the tasting, Emily took us to explore the land in her 4WD. This led us to the peak of the property at over 1000 feet and to panoramic views over to the blue mountains of the Appalachian range. The Appalachians stretch thousands of miles parallel to the East coast of the United States.

She showed us the Afton mountain gap. This is one of the few gaps in the mountain range which allows for a flow of wind. This helps decide the orientation of the vines on the hilltop. The air flow provides not only a cooling effect from the heat of the Virginian Summer, but also helps to suppress disease which would be prominent in the humid conditions. The Sauvignon Blanc vines were thriving in this environment.

Wines tasted- whites

Veritas Scintilla 2015 sparkling wine

Traditional Method

100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc, dosage 7 g

Aged On lees 7 years. This was the First vintage

Brioche toasted almonds marzipan fresh apple and lemon crisp and refreshing.

Veritas Sauvignon Blanc 2021

Aromatic style, passion fruit. Reductive, cool ferment

Fresh some pyrazine

Grown at higher altitude and benefits from air flow through the Afton mountain gap

Veritas the momentarius collection 2019

Monticello white blend, no rules on what grapes to use or the vilification process

Petit manseng, chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc.

Aromatic Sauvignon Blanc feels the most predominant. Nice balance.

Veritas the momentarius collection 2021

More restrained than 2021 and the petit manseng characteristics come through

Could not make a 2020 vintage as frost destroyed much of the crop in this part of Virginia

Wines tasted -reds

Veritas Cabernet Franc 2009

Bordeaux nose of cedar, tobacco and some aged character coming through, also effects of barrel hints of smoke and chocolate

Soft tannins nicely integrated, fruit dropped out

Initially slight Smokey and sulphurous but this blew off and complexity developed.

Veritas. Cabernet Franc Reserve 2017

As Benoit at Pollak had found the 2017 was a Great vintage. Emily’s description made me laugh out load!

‘As happy as it can be

Delicious ripe cherry a fruit Bomb.

Pot pourri, floral, dry petals, and some dried herbs such as thyme really seductive nose, fabulous.

Veritas Cabernet 2021 franc

Plenty of fruit raspberries, nice balance of oak

More simple candied fruit but delicious easy drinking a bit more Pinot like

Veritas 3 2009

3 winemakers 3 vineyards 3 grapes a collaboration with Veritas, Pollak and King Family

A blend of 3 grapes Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet franc

Fruity fresh, lively, balanced with a Savoury salty mineral element. Chocolate pudding on the finish

Veritas Reserve 2019

Their Flagship wine

Can’t use ,vintners reserve, name due to name protection rights. I suggested Emily’s Reserve which went down well.

Violet chews, floral elements came through.

Veritas Petit Verdot 2019

Aromas of blueberry , Intense colour, deep ruby

Chunky dark thick skinned berries

A bit tight closed needs a decant nice rounded tannins, food wine, some violet notes

Lilies floral improved. Tried over the next few days whist in Washington DC and became more complex.

Veritas Petit Verdot 2017

Blueberry jam lots of delicious fruit a great top vintage clearly evident

Veritas Petit Manseng 2014

Dessert wine Great retention of acidity

Nuttiness slight oxidation 85g/l per litre sugar

Lovely complex most of candied pineapple and hazelnuts very ripe apples beeswax

Really well made, Jurancon like dessert wine

This tasting highlighted the potential in Virginia to establish some novel grape varieties such as Petit Manseng.

This grape in many ways is highly suited here. It ripens late leading to high sugar but retains its acidity

The thick skin helps with disease resistance and the high skin to pulp ratio intensifies flavours.

The 100% petit Verdot rarely found in the Old world seems to work here with the warmer climate.

It was interesting to try along with traditional varieties some more unusual wines such as dry Petit Manseng and 100% petit Verdot.

I managed to pick out some of Emily’s personal characteristics in the wines, such as the violet aromas from the Cabernet Franc and the blueberry in the 2009 Petit Verdot which has parcels of grapes grown on heavier clay soils.

It was also lovely to see the collaboration and friendliness between the winemakers exemplified here by the Veritas 3.

Matthieu Finot, Winemaker, King Family Vineyards

French winemaker Matthieu very kindly networked me in with local winemakers which facilitated my arrangements in Virginia.

I really like the way the winemakers join forces in the wine industry. This is something I have found throughout the world and is a joy to see. In so many walks of life people work against each other, more interested in bettering their own aims. Not so in the wine industry. It’s about sharing ideas, sharing innovations and helping the industry as a whole.

Matthieu was a shining example of this. He is from Northern Rhone and has a vineyard with his brother. He has worked in Bandol, Rhone and also Burgundy.

Matthieu proudly showing off his magnificent range of King Family wines

The wine industry is still relatively new here despite the planting of vines dating back hundreds of years by Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello estate. Matt is carrying on with developments and is planting Nebbiolo here. His favourite wines are Pinot and Syrah, but it’s too warm and wet here and the Clay soils don’t lend to those varieties Cabernet franc red does best being more resilient. The Soil is not right for Cabernet Sauvignon You can also do a lot with Cabernet Franc, such as Rose dessert wine, light style red and more full bodied red. It doesn’t have the acidity of the Loire and doesn’t show the methoxypyrazines shown in the old world. Matthieu wanted to produce a dry rose when he first came here. There was Some scepticism doing a dry rose now it’s the biggest seller.

Wines tasted, reds

King family Crose

100% merlot medium colour 1 day skin contact

Their biggest seller, Sold in cans too

Nice red fruits and balance

King family Petit manseng

I tried a dry petit manseng at Veritas too

High acidity, some honey and nutty notes and candied pineapple nicely crafted

Kings family vineyard Brut Blanc de Blanc 2015 100%Chardonnay

7 years ageing on Lees

Chalky Lemon apple crisp fresh

Kings family vineyard Viognier 2021

Watermelon apricot bitter finish

Not same oily texture as others. Harvested a little early so a fresher style

Kings family vineyard Chardonnay 2021

Barrel fermented with malolactic 25% new oak light citrus fruits fresh smokiness oak

Kings family vineyard mountain plains 2021

A blend of Chardonnay petit manseng and viognier, third each

Petit manseng does well in the Basque Country humid and clay in Jurançon

Works well here too maintain acidity and high brix. Very high acid good

18 months barrel, pineapple nuts some oxidation

Kings family vineyard Viognier Orange wine

Skin contact Viognier orange wine

Fermented like a red wine with punch down and malolactic

Very interesting complex nose Spicy nutmeg saffron orange, clove

Tannins but soft, served at room temperature fine but bitter tannins

Big wine interesting

Kings family vineyard Cab franc

Light style

Harvest early 12.3% wants fresh light style

Tuesday evening pizza night wine simple fresh light fruity

Bit savoury slightly vegetal

Kings family vineyard Meritage 2019

Flagship red which sells the most

18 Months in barrel

Merlot, petit Verdot, cab franc and Malbec blend

Needs time to develop slight bitter

Kings family vineyard Meritage 2008

Matthieu pulled something a bit older out of the cellar, Unfiltered wine

Showing some Bret horsiness with some fruit and good structure

Kings family vineyard Petit verdot 2019

Blue fruit, deep colour lots tannins full bodied

This tasting highlighted how well some varieties are doing here, such as viognier and petit verdot

I like the style of Cabernet Franc less pyrazined and more fruit forward which can be very green and herbaceous in places such as Chile and also Bordeaux but here seems to be a nice balance between new and old world. In the hands of gifted winemakers such as Matthieu it was also interesting to see the range of wines made and the embracing of new styles such as the viognier Orange wine.

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What’s trending in the Virginia? An exploration with five talented winemakers in Monticello AVA.

Monticello AVA, view from Pollak Winery with the Blue Mountains of the Appalachian range in the background

Blind Mondays in London was the fabulous concept of Guillaume Raffy. A team of wine lovers would meet on Monday evenings in a pre selected London restaurant and bring along hidden wines, following a theme.

I’ll never forget the Nebbiolo evening.

One wine stood out. More full bodied and fruit forward than Nebbiolos I’d had before, but with that lovely seductive perfume and classic structure.

The wine was revealed – Barboursville vineyards, Virginia, Nebbiolo, part of the Zonin family.

That was about ten years ago and I’ve been planning to visit Virginia since.

To further whet my appetite the book ‘Billionaires Vinegar’ helped set the scene.

A bottle of Lafite, with the initials of Thomas Jefferson, dated 1787, was offered to Christie’s by Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine collector . He refused to say exactly where it had come from. Allegedly a hidden cellar in an unidentified 18th century house in Paris, possibly part of a Nazi hoard.

Jefferson spent time in France and was an avid wine lover. He regularly sent wine back to Monticello, his home in Virginia. He set up some of the first Vineyards in Virginia in the 1800’s.

Bottle of Chateau Lafite from Jefferson’s house in Monticello

There are now 1200 hectares of planting and 220 wineries. The AVAs are Eastern Shore, Monticello, Northern Neck, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob, Shenandoah Valley.

I will focus on Monticello AVA and have chosen five wineries to visit based on reviews in Decanter Magazine and from personal contacts in the wine trade.


Suggested places to stay in the area include – The farmhouse at Veritas winery, Afton mountain Vineyards and Boar’s Head Resort, near Charlottesville.

Benoit Pineau – Pollak Vineyards

The supremely talented Benoit with degrees in Oenology and Viticulture from Bordeaux Blaqufort

Winemaker Benoit Pineau took me on a mini safari around the 100 acre property, planted with 34 acres of vines.

It’s a beautiful property with a large decked tasting room overlooking a lake with the blue ridge mountains providing the backdrop.

Benoit discussed the disease pressures here in Virginia. They have high humidity and high rainfall in summer. Up to 900mm to 1000mm annually make it a relatively high rainfall region for viticulture.

Note the mounding at the base of the vines to protect the graft site for the winter

They can’t grow organically as pesticides are required. Furthermore there is a frost risk. In 2020 most of the vine growth was wiped out. Then there’s the small matter of hurricanes, which can wipe out a harvest. Not to mention Deer and Bears necessitating the perimeter fencing . Oh, and netting to prevent the birds stripping the grapes.

It’s a wonder they can make wine here at all!

The soils are mainly clay with silt so Merlot and Cabernet Franc do well here but there’s less Cabernet Sauvignon which ‘doesn’t like it’s feet wet’. They are planting their first Nebbiolo vines which explained the mounds of soil surrounding each vine base to protect the graft sites throughout the winter as in the photo above.

Wines tasted – white wines

Pollak Sauvignon Blanc 2021

French style Sauvignon, French clones, restrained

Neutral oak Crisp fresh

Served a bit cold and then opened up.

Lovely balance

Pollak Chardonnay 2020

Hints of peach, banana apples pear

Beautiful balance again

Pollak Viognier 2021

Floral and apricots.

Lovely texture, Viognier typically has lower acid

Difficult to press as skins thicker often giving a Rich oily texture

Very smooth with good length. Lovely

Pollak Pinot gris 2021

Delicious, ripe pear on the nose

Mouthfeel Is rich and slightly oily, balanced, alive, Skin thicker, Lees 4 months, Little battonage

Award winning wine. Beautifully crafted

(Vin pair voted in top 50 wines of the world)

Wines tasted – red wines

Red wines. Benoit generously served one of their best vintages 2017 which he described as perfect.

The ‘perfect’ 207 vintage selection

Pollak Cabernet Franc 2017

Fantastic with a nose of blueberries, raspberries

Tons of fruit, No greeness No herbaceousness

Delicious ripe soft tannins. Really enjoyed a Cabernet Franc without all that Capsicum greeness.

Pollak Meeitage 2017

CF 60% merlot 24% petite Verdot 16%

Beautiful balance, 18 months 40% French oak

Bordeaux blend

I didn’t realise they have to Pay a dollar case to use the name Meritage!

Ripe delicious tannins, smooth and well balanced.

Pollak smuggler 2017

Merlot 56% cf 24% CS 20%

Slightly more pyrazine and black currant

Beautiful balanced too

More structure more tannic than Meritage

Pollak Mille fleur

100% petit manseng

Petit Manseng is Popular in Virginia following Horton winery winning a competition in California.

It is however difficult to grow, has high acidity but can lose acid fast in the heat.

This was fortified and stored in barrels for 5 years

Really complex, Brazil nuts, Prunes.Delicious

A wine transfusion? Benoit’s creativity demonstrated here with bag of red wine connected by tubing to maintain full barrels

This was a great start to my exploration of Virginian wines. Benoit is passionate and focused and brings experience from working in France, California Australia and even a spell making rum in Guadaloupe! The wines tasted were top quality. It’s a shame I can’t get them at home in the UK!

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California Part II – Wine, willingness and wisdom

California Part II – Wine, willingness and wisdom, October 2018

A lot can happen in a decade.  Precisely ten years ago, at the time of an American crisis (September 2008, global economic crisis – Lehman Brother’s collapse), two Kiwis and Englishman rekindled their early adult friendships with a 10-day wine exploration of Napa Valley.  Now exactly 10 years later, and again right smack in the middle of another American crisis (sexual crisis Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Judge Kavanaugh, September 2018), we set off to explore the Central Coast Californian wine growing regions of Santa Cruz, Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles).


So off we went, without an immediate awareness of how much we had matured or what this new wine holiday was going to become – not stuck in the anxious past and needing to relive our 2009 Napa fun, not needing to fixation on hedonistic days of the Blenheim vineyards circa 1994, or even rigidly adhering the antics of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley Sideways movie.


This holiday vacation experience was to become something new, vibrate and refreshingly uncomfortable.  In the process of reflecting upon our past 10 years, both the day-to-day existences and to the extremes of family deaths, personal tragedies and significant life changes, we discovered what was of key importance and meaningful for us as individuals and what connected us as friends.  We found meaning in the suffering and pain of our daily existences, and this holiday was not an escape from any of this, but a reminder of something beyond the highs of a wine drinking holiday.


The wine tour ‘started’ with a pre-wine weekend of pleasure in Santa Cruz.  We drove across the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountain range for a hosted visit to the Ridge Vineyard, made famous for its role in the Judgement of Paris wine competition.


Upon collecting Nick from nearby San Francisco airport, we promptly dispelled the cliché that three-is-a-crowd – possibly because the three of us have been a tight group of friends for many years, but also due to the massive roomy interior of our SUV Cadillac, with plenty of room to lounge about as we blatted down the 101 freeway, straight on to the small community of Carmel Valley. Just like the Napa Valley experiences of small town California, we quickly made meaningful connections with the locals and enjoyed immersing ourselves in the village wine tasting houses  by day, and then  dive bars by night.  There was something wonderfully magical about our meeting of strangers in California.  We would arrive from a relaxed days of winery tasting to then sit in awesome bars and meet wonderful people like Paul-from-New-Zealands’ brother, underwater photographers with names that were anagrams of Jane Fonda and an influential local designer and architect.  One friendly stranger overheard me mouthing off about the highly developed sommelier skills of my good friend Adam – to then produce a Le Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit and challenging us to hours of fun banter as we identified the various aromas from small viles (I correctly identified “mouldy bathroom” from my experiences in my student flats, but struggled to pinpoint the familiar smell of cinnamon).  One of the more lasting connections was the chance meeting with Katy – our language guide (correct American pronunciation you don’t say the “T” Monterey or in Katy), entertainment guide (we were intrigued and obsessed night after night with a fast bar-top dice- gambling game), tour guide (good Big Sur cafe sitting in chairs) and wine guide (recommending the essential Carmel Valley wine tasting highlights and the beachside wine tasting houses of Santa Barbara). But Katy also played into Aaron’s irreverence and cynicism by turning the 2am bar conversation to religion and spirituality.  Much to Nick and Adam’s shock, Aaron took an early morning challenge to be hosted by the congregation of St Dunstan’s Episcopal Church and received a refreshing spiritual burst at 10am the same morning – probably attending to his wish for adventure, curiosity, and a connection to others, rather than any legitimate religious needs.


There must have been something in the Carmel Valley water, as by the second night in the village Aaron and Nick wandered the streets singing the Pink Floyd classic “Wish You Were Here”. The lyrics are not strictly in keeping with our focus on being present and mindful, but maybe 50 year old holiday makers needed some reminiscing as they deal with too many late nights in a row and the impact of late afternoon caffeinated energy drinks.


Like crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the Napa trip, no visit to the central coast could miss the tourist highlight of Big Sur – the coastal wildness region and famous narrow cliff side Pacific Coast Highway.  The Big Sur drive was made into a key friendship moment by blasting and singing the 1960’s classics such as She’ Not There (the band are not actually from California, but from St Albans where I used to live in the UK!) as the cold sea mist raced up the cliff face and onto the road (this is apparent an important feature of wine growing!).


Our third wine region of Santa Barbara was a mixture of the urban tasting rooms in the inner city centre and then the surrounding rural valley’s making up the six American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) within Santa Barbara County.  At this mid-stage of the wine tour, I forgot my commitment to avoid needing to replicate the accomplishments of the Napa trip, anxious that we weren’t going to match the high number of winery visits ten years earlier.  It was already day five of the central coast trip and only five formal wine related visits so far and some mysterious inner force was making judgements on our performance and stamina (thanks to Aaron’s competitive mind).  But then Adam and Nick in their wisdom introduced me to something that was important to them and took me to the early morning swimming and vigorous exercise at the hotel facilities – and I discovered that this could be an important part of my daily routine if I was willing to make it happen (fast forward 7 months – I have attend the gym regularly, and have connected my need for adventure with becoming physically fit).


We exited the city of Santa Barbara north to the dry wine region valleys, to be hosed at the  Margerun Wine Company  in the Santa Ynez Valley and then onto the Bien Nacido Vineyards & Solomon Hills Estates in the Santa Maria Valley.   The whole time Adam coaching and commenting on the different winemaking philosophies, noting the contrasts between those that achieved incredible balance by expert blending and those that let the purity of the soil express their wine.  I was also coaching my friends on a newly discovered approach to wellbeing by being present with the moment (“here we are now, having a time together”), taking action toward what is important (early morning gym workouts) and opening up to unwanted feelings (an especially effective strategic response to feeling ‘homesick’ mid vacation).  Nick has a more subtle coaching style, preferring to demonstrate his skills by casually mentioning that he learned to swim in his mid twenties as he swam 40 lengths of the hotel pool and then working hard on his business tax returns during our downtime in the hotel.


After a long day of car travel discussions on wine making, values and life anecdotes we arrived at our fourth and final wine region of Paso Robles.   Walking around the small town and village square, we were reminded of Blenheim New Zealand, sharing a history of developing into a major wine growing industry in the 1970s, and then becoming recognised as a specialise region of a grape variety.  Blenheim internationally known for Sauvignon blanc, but Paso Robles now known for the Rhône varieties – transforming in the late 1990s by the “Rhone Rangers”.  Like Blenheim, there are an intense concentration of vineyards, wineries and tasting cellars within the town and within an easy bike ride of the township. and again, I was invited to join Adam and Nick’s fondness for physical exercise by biking the 30 miles needed as we stepped up to complete our wine tasting requirements on that day.  Although assisted by electric bikes that day, I’ve since harnessed the pleasant memories of warm central coast wine vistas to motivate my spin class exercise.


By the second day full day of visits in Paso Robles region, we thought we were at ‘peak wine holiday’ – completing the tour with hosted visits to the Santa Margarita AVA and experiencing and observing some of the theory and winemaking philosophies Adam had spoken about earlier in trip.   Seeing some wineries working to stay true to the traditional blends and tastes of Europe, others letting their local soils and climate guide their wine variety, or branching out and blending what you want away from the strict expectations of tradition (producing Bordeaux and Rhône Blends!).  The après-wine activities in Paso Robles  adding to this sense of a holiday high – more blending with the locals and other tourists playing pool in the dive bars, random introductions to the guitar making legend Gary Kramer, finally discovering real coffee in American at Spearhead Coffee, and being hosted by a winemaker in her boutique shop for after-work-drinks at the shop counter.


The holiday wasn’t the pinnacle of an experience – not ‘peak wine’ or a great holiday memory, but true to the cliché, just part of a journey.  We love California and small town California.  And meeting people in California.  And drinking wine.  We loved it the first time and we loved at the second time (I suspect I told many late night bar patrons this many times).  But the second time with less attachment to the past or future expectations, well connected with our friends and strangers at that very moment, and with a growing ability to articulate and really know what mattered.  And since then returning home to life struggles and tragedies and highs and lows – but now with a great ability to make meaning from these.


This piece is dedicated to my wine loving (hedonistic) mother in-law and the one person in my life who would have taken the most interest in this blog – but died before she could read it.  I miss her, but I wrote this for her.

Blog courtesy of Aaron O’Connell

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California’s Central Coast (4) – Paso Robles AVA

View towards Paso Robles from Daou Winery

Paso Robles AVA

This was once an area predominantly known for growing Zinfandel with few wineries and not a well known area on the wine map. This has changed dramatically in the last twenty years with hundreds of new wineries. The town of Paso Robles benefits from the commerce with a range of organic restaurants, artisan wineries and my favourite hangout, the excellent Spearhead coffee company. An advantage of the area for viticulture is the considerable diurnal temperature variation which  prolongs the growing season and helps the grapes develop physiological ripeness. Paso Robles AVA is 20 miles by 20 miles with areas as close as six miles or as far as forty from the ocean. The altitude also varies from 200 to 2,500 feet. There are now 11 sub AVA’s to reflect some of the differences.

Tablas Creek

Robert Haas in combination with Perrin family from Chateau de Beaucastel  started this venture in 1989. It took many years of quarantine by the US department of agriculture until cuttings taken from the Rhone  were released virus free.
They were pioneers of California’s Rhône movement and very much sparked the great interest and growth in this area.
They follow dry farm, biodynamic, organic methods.
Initially around 100 Acres the Estate is now 280 acres with a sheep and alpaca farm.
They Searched for 4 years for the best site to plant the vines
This area in Paso Robles was chosen for the Mediterranean climate and limestone chalky soils similar to the Rhone. The particular soils  help in many ways including retaining water and the alkalinity of the soils allowing the grapes to express the terroir. Seven varietals were initially brought in –
Grenache Blanc, Roussane, picpoul, Grenache,  Shiraz, Mourvèdre &Counoise

Wines Tasted

Tablas Creek Patelin De Tablas Blanc 2017
Grenache Blanc,Viognier, Marsanne, Roussane, Clairette Blanche
Classic Rhône white varietal. Marked by its texture smooth mouthfeel no overt aromas in the nose but lovely balanced finish

Tablas Creek Picpoul Blanc 2017
Lipstinger! Zingy acidity and freshness. Calling out for a San Fran Seafood Cioppone

Tablas Creek Marsanne 2017 100% hints of tangerine lavender and aniseed lovely mouthfeel with good acidity

Tablas Creek Côtés De Tablas Blanc 2017
Viognier 44 Marsanne 24 Grenache Blanc 20 Roussane 12
Lemon hint floral mineral bright acids full bodied textural and layered

Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2015
Roussane 55 Grenache Blanc 28 picpoul Blanc 17
Flagship Tablas Creek white. Lovely smooth satiny texture savoury layers richly layered fat wine lanolin concentration.Certainly comparably to Chateau du pape Chateau de Beaucastel

Tablas Creek Patelin De Tablas Rose 2017
Grenache Noir 64 Mourvèdre 28 Syrah 5 counoise 2
Estate vineyard and 7 top Paso Robles Vineyards good crisp Rose

Tablas Creek Grenache 2016 100%
Pale colour red fruits restrained style with good finish

Tablas Creek Mourvèdre 2016 100%
Light red and blue fruits,some earthiness

Tablas Creek Esprit De Tablas 2015

Flagship red Mourvèdre 49 Grenache Noir. 25 Syrah 21 counoise 5
Elegant, violets on the nose, blueberries, fresh concentrated long finish
Needs some ageing.

Tablas Creek Vin De Paille ‘Sacrerouge’ 2014  100% Mourvèdre
Treacle figs coffee chocolate unctuous 225g/l rich concentrated length ++
A truly delicious Vin Santo style

Law Estate Wines

We cycled from Paso Robles along Peachy Canyon road and reached elevations of  their Vineyards between 1600 to 1900 feet. Cycling gave us the best sense of the geology as pieces of calcareous limestone rock were scattered on the sides of the roads.
This is a new no expense spared winery and tasting room which boasts panoramic views of the area.
They pride themselves on low intervention and have a spotless state of the art winery including gravity fed concrete fermenters. They have a multinational wine making team to bring the potential into reality.
The wines are  small production Rhone and Priorat style, powerful and concentrated and certainly have ageability and are showing their sense of place.
We were kindly Hosted by General Manager Oliver Esparham
Most of the wines are already allocated to their wine club members which we found to be common practice in general in California.

Wine tasted

Law Estate Rose 2017
GSM and Carignan blend
Lovely acidity and balance strawberries and watermelon nose

Law Estate Beguiling 2015
Grenache 85% Shiraz 15%
Good depth richness and concentration hints of black pepper and blueberries

Law Estate Audacious 2015
Interesting blend of Grenache Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon and petit Syrah
Powerful wine Very good core of black fruit with baking spice and chocolate on the finish
Law Estate Beyond Category 2015
Tempranillo Carignan Mourvèdre Grenache
Another very interesting blend full of blue fruits with lovely spicy, tobacco and lavender notes

Seriously good wines which will age well

L’Aventure winery  Willow Creek AVA

Set up by Frenchman Stephan and Beatrice Asseo founded in 1998 producing Bordeaux and Rhône Blends. South West of Paso Robles 127 acres
Beautiful setting with a new winery and tasting room, solar powered sustainable agriculture low yield.
We were looked after by the engaging Leanne and later fortuitously met Beatrice in her boutique shop in Paso Robles and we shared a nicely chilled bottle of her Estate Rose to celebrate Friday evening.

Wines tasted

Estate Rose 2017
GSM and petit Verdot 100% tank ferment
Lovely crisp delicate and refreshing subtle red fruits

Optimus 2016

Syrah 50 Cabernet 30 petit Verdot 20
14 months barrel 60 new French oak
Deep ruby rich concentrated blackberry touch of violets savoury textured
Delicious though has a long way to go. A baby.

Cote à Cote 2016

Grenache 55 Mourvèdre 25 Syrah 20
Concrete tank amphora and oak barrel
Loads of ripe fruit full bodied lots of ripe tannins
Phenomenal potential again needs tucking away for 10 years if you could keep your hands off it

Estate Cuvee 2016

Syrah 52 Cabernet Sauvignon 32 petit Verdot 16 100% new French oak 15 months in barrel. Full bodied concentrated deep colour great structure cassis cedar graphite

Stephan’s wines are very much my style.
Rich concentrated well balanced big wines with great ageing potential. Some of my favourite in California and I highly recommend arranging to visit if you’re in the area.

There are now hundreds of wineries in Paso Robles AVA and it’s hard to choose where to visit.

Other notable tastings and visits for us were-

Ranchero cellars – highly talented winemaker Amy doing some terrific things with Carignan

Venteux boutique winery with a lovely selection of wines making only a few hundred cases each dry farmed estate.

Daou vineyards
Well worth a visit for the panoramic mountain top views and immaculate grounds food and wine pairings available


Santa Margarita AVA


Ancient Peaks

The southern most AVA in Paso Robles.
Santa Margarita AVA with fve different soil types, one of Paso’s coolest regions due to marine influence of the ocean.
Kristin marketing director of ancient peaks gave us a wonderful tour of Santa Margarita ranch. They have 14,000 acres mostly a cattle ranch one of the oldest in California. First planted with vines in 1780 by Franciscan missionaries. In 2005 Ancient Peaks winery established. A wide array of grape varieties now grown.

Wines tasted

Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Closer to the aromatic Style than we’ve had so far lovely touches of white flower jasmine and citrus

Ancient Peaks 2017 Chardonnay
Guava good acidity

Ancient Peaks 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon

Good core of fruits mainly black and plum

Ancient Peaks 2016 Merlot

Rounded fruit hint of spice alcohol a little prominent

Ancient Peaks 2016 Zinfandel

Black cherry and fruit some fig raisin and dry fruit

Ancient Peaks 2016 Renegade
Dark ruby pepper cherry plum

Ancient Peaks 2014 Oyster Ridge
More rich and concentrated
Vanilla chocolate spice good texture and good tannins likely to age a few more years


Our visit to Paso Robles was memorable. We were impressed by the wide variety of wines, terrain and climactic conditions. The locals warmly welcomed us. The town has everything you need to make it an ideal base. I would love to return for one of the special festival weekends.

Aaron’s top wines of the central coast tour-

M5 Margerum  red/Ridge Montebello Chardonnay/Law Estate Audacious 2015

Nick’s top wines

Ancient Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2017/L’aventure Grenache Rose/Tablas Creek Late Harvest Mourvèdre

Adam’s top wines

Au Bon Climat Pinot Runway/M5 Margerum white/L’Aventure Cote a Cote 2016


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California’s Central Coast (3) – Santa Barbara County

Vines were first planted here in the 1700s by Spanish missionaries who travelled up  from Mexico and set up missions along the Californian coast. Prohibition set things back and it took until the 1960s for grape growing to take hold. The Santa Maria valley produced the most grapes for the likes of Gallo. Santa Ynez valley remained more boutique and reached global attention after the blockbuster film ‘Sideways’ in 2004. We discovered on this tour many wineries have chosen to have their tasting rooms in towns such as Los Olivos, Buellton and Santa Barbara. Whilst this is clearly a good commercial and practical option for the individual business, it takes away the interest and romance of tasting on site and getting the full experience terroir and all.

Downtown Santa Barbara, Anacapa St

Au Bon Climat

Established by the famed Jim Clenenden in 1982 Au Bon Climat (a well exposed vineyard) is renowned as one of the best producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California.They use sites from various areas of central coast including Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria and their own Au Bon Climat Vineyard in Santa Maria ValleyThe wines tasted had great purity and exposed typical Pinot Noir characteristics and also showed the variation in styles depending on site selection.

Wines tasted

Hildegard 2015
Pinot Gris Pinot Blanc and Aligoté, aged 2 years in French oak
Lemon, lime nose subtle with good balance and acidity no major oak influence  nice texture

Los Alamos Pinot Noir 2015
Red fruits medium intensity lively

Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir 2014
From parcels in Santa Rita Hills, bright red  berry fruit, spice and mineral notes

Runway Pinot Noir 2015
From a site near Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria. My favourite of the tasting intense rich red fruits with an earthiness and spice  long length. Classic Pinot with great balance that I’m sure will age for years if you can keep your hand off it.

Isabelle Pinot Noir 2015 Composed of the best barrels of the vintage limited release dark rich complex beautiful balance and finish.

Great wines, I’d like to take a case of this and Runway home!



Santa Barbara County – Santa Ynez Valley

Margerum Wine Company

Founded by Doug Margerum restauranteur who worked with Jim Clenenden and Bob Linquist before starting up Margerum and now focuses more on Rhone varietals. Their winery is in Buellton 1 hours scenic drive on route 9  up the valley from Santa Barabara. We were lucky enough to arrive as the harvest was in full swing. Julia Weinberg gave us a fantastic tour of the busy winery including a traditional punching down caps of the grenache, smelling the yeasty, sulphurous, Carbon dioxide emitting from the open top fermenters and tasting fresh chilled  Marsanne juice. We were lucky to meet the congenial Doug. They seemed to have an excellent team spirit and have a mandatory stop for lunch every day catered by their in house chef.

Wines tasted

Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Restraint white flower jasmine great balance and texture.

M5 Los Olivos District 2017   Grenache Blanc, Viognier,Marsanne, Roussane and Vermentinto
Nice texture hint of nuttiness lovely mouthfeel white flower delicious

Barden Santa Rita Hills. 2016
12months sur lié French oak, Butter toast vanilla subtle nose lovely toasty notes

Barden Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2015
Red and darker fruits strawberries also baking spices clove long finish spiciness
Minerality. Cold soak free run 10% whole cluster.

M5 2016 Santa Barbara county Mourvèdre counoise Grenache Shiraz cinsault. Lovely front of blueberry with savouriness. Amazing balance 14.6% but don’t feel the alcohol as concentration tannin acid fruit is such balance. Brilliantly integrated wine length +


Uber Syrah 2016 Santa Barabara county

Co ferment of lots of parcels, Subtle blue fruits some spice Great concentration.

Margerum wines were some of the most outstanding of my tour. It was the incredible balance of the wines. I feel Doug’s skills and prior intimate knowledge of the food and restaurant industry helps in the  complex process of blending  five grape  varietals in the M5’s with superb results. The benefits of working cohesively as a team is invaluable.



Bien Nacido Vineyards & Solomon Hills Estates – Santa Maria Valley.

This visit was very kindly arranged at late notice  by  Master Sommelier Will Costello who works as the Estate Ambassador. He told me afterwards the only way to arrange the visit at this very busy winemaking time was to say we were interns who had come to help. They must have been disappointed when we arrived! We drove North East from Buellton  to  Santa Maria Valley and Bien Nacido Vineyards. It is one of the major viticultural nurseries, much of the Chardonnay in California came from BN cuttings. Fruit from Bien Nacido is used for Jim Clenendens and Bob Linquist wines. Assistant wine maker Anthony hosted us with a tasting table right in the middle of the working winery.

Wines tasted

The wines displayed a great purity and balance with a real sense of place and I shall be seeking them out from our main supplier, Armit Wines in London

Bien Nacido Chardonnay 2016

Solomon Hills. Santa Maria Valley 2016

Solomon Hills Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 2014

Bien Nacido Pinot Noir 2013

Bien Nacido Syrah 2014 x block




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California Central Coast(2) – Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands

Route 101 South from San Jose took us through the fertile plains of the Salinas Valley known locally as  the ‘salad Bowl’ of California. We were greeted by fields of endless ripe orange pumpkins, lettuce in pristine rows and the sulphurous aroma of fields of brassicas. Then a turn South on the route 68 and we climbed into the Santa Lucia mountain range. Most of the  tasting rooms are in the small town of Carmel Valley one of the eight sub AVAs of Monterey AVA. In the 1960s A.J Winkler and Maynard Amerine from UC Davis produced the Winkler scale, a classification system describing the climate of wine regions. It characterised Monterey County as comparable to Burgundy. Due to its proximity to the Pacific and Monterey Bay it is blessed with cool days throughout the growing season.

Talbott Vineyards

Wines tasted

Sarah Case Chardonnay 2014

From Sleepy Hollow Vineyard thirteen miles South of Monterey Bay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Golden colour, very oaky nose, coconut, butter, some stone fruit, brioche butterscotch 90% new French oak barrels. Delicious but this one is for the full oak lovers.

Diamond T Chardonnay 2014  

A vineyard site in SL Highlands closer to the ocean eight miles from Carmel Bay and more cool climate in character. Crisper more mineral and Burgundian some Meyer lemon notes, Crème brûlée finish.

Audrey Chardonnay 2014

From a highly selected parcels of the Diamond T Vineyards deep honeyed colour Creamy buttery oaky.

Sarah Case Pinot Noir 2015

From exceptional parcels in sleepy hollow Vineyard lovely notes of ripe red fruits red cherries strawberries soft tannins long length like a concentrated cherry bonbon

Diamond T Pinot Noir 2014

Cherry plum spice more spice than Sarah case crisp soft tannins.


We dropped in to other tasting rooms and also liked some of the Pinot’s from Bernardus. The Wine House is a good place to go and relax in their gardens and have wines by the glass recommended by their sommelier they also have some interesting bin ends from around California.




I was  impressed with the Pinot’s which showed the high quality which can be obtained from the cooler areas of Central Coast such as Santa Lucia Highlands. The Chardonnays were perhaps over buttery and rich, but I still enjoyed them as the fruit still showed and the quality was obvious.





For evening entertainment we headed to the old Cowboy bar ‘The Running Iron’. The locals were very welcoming and entertaining. Their 805 beer went down well with a six dice game called One Four Twenty Four introduced by Katy and Casey.  When one of the regulars turned up with a version of  Le Nez De Vin with forty aroma essences I was in my element!

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California Central Coast (1) – Santa Cruz Mountains

This much overdue return to California with my longstanding Kiwi mates took us  south of San Francisco. A decade earlier we had indulged in the well known excesses of Napa, Sonoma and Russian River. The plan this time was to explore the main Central Coast wine regions including Santa Cruz Mountains, Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles. What better place to start than Ridge Vineyards, Monte bello.

Ridge Vineyards, 17100 Monte Bello Road, Cupertino


In with the vines which produced the famous 1971 Ridge Monte Bello.

Not far from the town of Santa Cruz over the Santa Cruz mountain range and overlooking Silicon Valley we arrived at the iconic Ridge Montebello Vineyards at 2,300 feet altitude. Dr Osea Perrone first planted vines here in 1885 but the vines were abandoned during prohibition. Famed for the Ridge Monte Bello 1971 which was one of the top wines at the famous 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting organised by Stephen Spurrier.
Since then they are known as producing some of the best wines in California.
In a re run of the competition to mark it’s 40th anniversary in 2006, Ridge Monte Bello 1971 came top. Ridge also has an estate in Sonoma, Lytton springs.

Wines tasted

Monte Bello Chardonnay 2015
Sourced from the lower altitude Klein Vineyards
Very Burgundian in style nicely balanced with good acidity, malolactic with lees contact generating lovely texture and clear minerality. Delicious Chardonnay.
Limestone and greenstone subsoil with sandy loam

Geyserville 2016                                                                                                                                                            Zinfandel Carignan Petit Verdot Alicante Bouchet spice, herbs, good acid

Lytton Springs 2016
Zinfandel Carignan Petit Verdot Mataro, Black fruits savoury concentrated

Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Green pepper cool climate feel, restrained.

Ridge Monte Bello 2015
77% Cab sav 11% Merlot 7% Petit Verdot 5% Cabernet Franc
Cedar mint good structure blackcurrant long finish smooth tannins

Ridge Monte Bello 2006
Left bank Bordeaux style with some tertiary developments, would be hard to tell from a classed Bordeaux in a Blind tasting.

Ridge Monte Bello 2007
More complex than 2006
Cedar liquorice spice cocoa good structure and long  finish

The wines whet our appetites and we headed down the mountain  to San Jose’s Western suburb of Cupertino to the impressive ‘Counter Burger’. Here you can tailor make your own burger. Highly recommend the Half pound Bison burger with gouda.





Beauregard Vineyards

It’s a  Scenic drive along West Cliff road onto Route 1 from Santa Cruz followed by a climb up into the Ben Lomond mountains parallel to Santa Cruz Mountain range. Our oversized Cadillac SUV led us comfortably to the beautiful Beauregard Vineyards in the coastal redwood forests of Bonny Doon.
This winery was Started in 1945 they possess 65 acres in this area on mainly sandy loamy soils. We took a leisurely  stroll in their redwood forest and picnic gardens.

Wines tasted

Beauregard Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Very sharp acidic lacking florality, some minerality lees aged

Beauregard Sauvignon Blanc 2017                                                                                                                                    hints of tangerine less tart nice texture

Beauregard Pinot Noir rose 2017
Touch of colour raspberry cherry aftertaste good acidity

Beauregard Pinot Noir 2013 Santa Cruz Mountains
Red fruit sharp oak coconut stands out

Beauregard Pinot Noir 2015 Beauregard Ranch Ben Lomond Mountains
Red fruit forest floor savoury more complex perfume

Beauregard Zinfandel 2016 Beauregard Ranch Ben Lomond Mountains
Dark raisins dry fruit prunes oak chocolate coffee peppery

Beauregard Syrah 2014 Zayante Vineyards Santa Cruz mountain range
Dry farm organic Syrah
VA dark fruit pepper violet


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Napa Valley, California

Wandering Wine

Three guys, a hard-top convertible, and a week in Californian wine country. And all with a determination to have a great holiday (or “vacation” as the locals corrected us), possibly trying to relive some of our Marlborough vineyards experience and the origins of our friendship 14 years earlier. Our trip was driven by Adam, the man with a passion for wine, the palate to support us, and the surprise 40th birthday gift organised by his wife. The plan was simplistic – the two UK based lads (Adam &Nick) to meet the kiwi (Aaron) at San Francisco airport, collect the Pontiac – and drive to wine country. It was only good fortune that found somewhere to stay on the first night. Not because the region is short of a wide range of accommodation options, but because of our decision to drive directly to the vineyards and get into the tasting before the 4.30pm closing (we landed at SFO at 1pm). The trip was easy after that – locals eager to advise you, all sites within easy driving or biking distance, and plenty of fine fine wine.

The Napa valley itself is small in terms of geography and wine quantity, but “Napa” is synonymous with fine American wine – and origin of Robert Mondavi’s mission to produce the best wines in the world from California. The valley is about to feature in the upcoming film, Bottle Shock, the Hollywood dramatisation of how the American Napa wines raided the French wine scene. This positive view of the California wine industry is contrasted in the 2004 film Mondovino, which shows Mondavi as part of the American multinational force, challenging (ruining?) French wine traditions. Our trip took us to both the narrow valley of Napa and the adjacent Sonoma valley districts of Russian river and Dry Creek, with the majority of the trip centred around Yountville – a small Napa Valley tourist village with a disturbing high number of gastronomic restaurants.

Each region is defined by its own idiosyncratic climate and geographic characteristics, and suits different grape varieties. We started with Cabernet Sauvignon’s of the Napa Valley, and then onto Zinfandel’s of the Dry Creek, Pinot Noir’s of the Russian River (after a 3 hours canoe cruise down the placid Russian river), and back to the Napa for a less disciplined recap of the Napa. The experience was divided between some of the big names of Napa wine (Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, and Beringer) and the more boutique or character operations (Preston, Ehlers, Rutherford) – with varied and unexpected tales at each stop…the behind the scenes tour of the meticulous production of Opus One, the generous servings at Robert Mondavi, the afterhours barrel tasting at Ehlers, personalise tasting by the Rafanelli family, or the delicate tasting platter at Robert Sensky.

In seven days we tasted at 18 wineries, sampling a range of mostly reds at each stop. So what can three blokes learn on a glorified pub crawl? The most obvious reflection was the discovery that a week of intensive wine tasting will improve your palate, and enhance your appreciation of fine wine, and help get beyond the hype of the wine scene. And there were other more personal lessons about friendship and mates. That three blokes can share a week drinking – and still discuss serious emotional issues, can spend days appreciating the nose of a exceptional Pinot – and then mix it up with the boys playing pool in one of the local dive bars. Wine is good.

Adam, Aaron and Nick’s trip was made possible with endorsement of Hillcrest Fine Wines, Hamilton. Thanks.