Monday, January 26, 2015

Planet Grape’s Top Ten Champagnes of 2014

Glass of Bubbly, Champagne & Sparkling Wine Magazine
Issue 4, December 2014/January 2015

Planet Grape sends me out to host private and corporate wine events, which often include  a Champagne sabering performance (see picture with black French silk hand-feathered gown styled by Material Goods as I saber Krug Champagne for Sinegal Estate Winery’s Harvest Party in Napa Valley) along with a presentation of wines and Champagnes. Throughout the year I also attend as many Champagne trade tastings and luncheons as possible. After tasting hundreds of Champagnes and sparkling wines from around the world, here are my top ten picks of 2014. Happy sparkling Holidays!

Champagne Jean-Pierre & Cedric Bouchard In Florescence La Parcelle Blanc de Noirs Brut nv $103
From the man who is shaking the very foundation of Champagne with his devotion to single plot, single varietal Champagnes, this naturally made 100% Pinot Noir is rich and intense with a deep core of chalky minerality along with pretty red berry fruits and a soft, toasty character.

Champagne Francis Boulard Grand Cru Grande Montagne Extra Brut nv $80
With only 4.5 cases released to California and only very little to other markets around the globe, this is indeed a rare, exquisite beauty. From la petite Montagne de Reims, this 30 to 45 year-old vine Pinot Noir based Champagne is powerful, austere, minerally and intense.

Champagne Collet Esprit Couture Brut Ay nv $120
Handcrafted from vineyard to packaging, this feminine cuvee has notes of vanilla bean, peach, rose petal, and chalk. It is delicate, ethereal almost on the palate. This is newly available in selected markets in the USA.

Champagne Jacques Lassaigne Le Cotet Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut nv $85
The Le Cotet 40-year old-vine Chardonnay vineyard near the gates of Troyes shares a vein of limestone soil with Le Mesnil to the north.  Jacques’ son Emmanuel takes a natural approach and even disgorges his bottles by hand. This is a powerful, masculine, and very mineral-driven style of Champagne.

Champagne Vilmart Cuvee Rubis Premier Cru Rose Brut nv $75
Another great grower Champagne, or récoltant-manipulant – RM for short, this fifth generation family producer in Rilly-la-Montagne farms naturally and uses oak barrels for first fermentation. This 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay blend is softly perfumed with red berry and rose petal notes – a very romantic cuvee.

2004 Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger $90
This “Baby Salon” is a 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Le Mesnil, whose sister winery just happens to be Salon. For a fraction of the price of Salon, and without waiting for years for the wine to soften, this beauty is just the ticket. It has notes of lemon curd, rising bread, chalk and honey and is delicate and fine on the palate.

2004 Champagne Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Reims $90
Rich, bone dry, lemony, minerally and yeasty, this elegant Champagne from a classic vintage delivers the Bruno Paillard signature: “purity, substance, minerality, and elegance.” Bruno is grooming his daughter Alice to be the next CEO.

2002 Bisol Talento Metodo Classico Eliseo Cuvée del Fondatore Veneto $70
This elegant Champagne-method sparkling wine from Bisol in Valdobbiadene, the heart of Prosecco country, is named in honor of the founder, Eliseo Bisol. Talento refers to high quality Italian sparkling wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and Pinot Bianco, which undergo second fermentation in bottle and age a minimum of 15 months on the lees.

2005 Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut $225
Aged on the lees for 10 years before release, this 100% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs is as rich and decadent as they come – think pumpkin bread and honey-coated brioche and fruit cake.

1996 Champagne Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon Oenotheque Brut $319
Cellar Master Richard Geoffroy describes this as a tete du cuvee in its second peak, or 
plenitude of development. With extended aging in the Dom Perignon cellars, this mature Champagne is rich, complex, and very feminine in style with notes of honey and hazelnuts.

Sabering at Sea

Glass of Bubbly, Champagne & Sparkling Wine Magazine
Issue 3, October/November 2014

As Guest Wine Lecturer on Holland America’s MS Maasdam recently, a week-long cruise sailing from Montreal to Boston, I had the pleasure of presenting a flight of wine to guests in the Rotterdam Dining Room with Cellar Master Sasa Grujicic.  The theme was “France vs America,” in honor of our departure from Montreal. I illustrated the differences between the riper American wines and the lighter, tarter, and sometimes earthier French wines in a side-by-side comparison.

Sasa (pronounced “Sasha”) sabers frequently for the guests. When I found this out, I suggested we saber in tandem. He agreed, and at the end of this tasting, we went up to a balcony overlooking the dining room and opened bottles of Moet & Chandon Rosé Impérial with our swords! It was pretty spectacular, and a lot of fun.

Later on in the cruise, I held a more informal tasting in The Mix, a meeting space with three specialty venues: Martinis, Spirits & Ales, and Champagne. From cocktail hour through the wee hours, all three venues were very popular.  Of course my favorite was Champagne, where more than a dozen Champagnes were available by the glass, including the delicious Moet & Chandon Rosé Impérial.

The Maasdam offered daily events in their Culinary Center as well as fine dining options in both the Pinnacle Grill, a Pacific Northwest Steak and Seafood restaurant that features “An Evening at Le Cirque,” in a partnership with the famed New York restaurant founded by Sirio Maccione, and in Canaletto, an Italian restaurant with special dishes inspired by Sirio’s wife, Egidiana.

Writing this today, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, got me thinking back to my days as Windows on the World Cellar Master and Wine School Coordinator with Kevin Zraly, and to my first kitchen job, garde manger, with Chef Alain Sailhac at Le Cirque. You can tell which side of the restaurant I ended up on!

The Best Champagnes on the Market

Glass of Bubbly, Champagne & Sparkling Wine Magazine
Issue 2, August/September 2014

Look for non-vintage (nv) releases including the precise, muscular, yet graceful nv Philipponnat Grand Blanc de Blancs $60, yeasty and deeply toasty with notes of almond butter and lemon crème brulee, the nv Delamotte Brut $50, aka Baby Salon,  elegant, ethereal almost, as it is primarily Grand Cru Chardonnay, and the nv Gaston Chiquet Cuvee de Reserve Brut $70, which offers lovers of mature Champagne notes of honey and lanolin owing to “reserves” of ’01 and ’04 cuvees in the blend. The finish is bracing and clean. The nv Gosset Brut Grande Reserve $70, based on ’05 and made with  Fromenteau, Petit Meslier, and Arbanne, is a lively, layered, very powerful Champagne that is rich enough for Lamb, as are the biodynamically-farmed nv Fleury Carte Rouge Brut $45, a breathtaking, intense cuvee of Pinot Noir, and the powerful, seductive nv Fleury Rosé de Saignée Brut $78. Another must have is the well-loved nv Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut $100, pretty in appearance but book smart underneath -  it is exclusively Grand Cru Pinot Noir.

Finesse is the order of the day with the classic nv Pol Roger Brut Reserve $65, while the edgy, razor sharp non-dosed and therefore bone dry nv Pol Roger Pure Brut $75 is ideal for crudo or that old standby, caviar. Get your geek on – the nv Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres Extra Brut $105 is made from un-grafted 60-year old vine Pinot Meunier, a grape that is getting much attention in Champagne these days, at least when it is old vine. Polar opposite in style is the nv Feuillatte D'Luscious Demi-Sec Rose $59, for those that can’t get enough sweet in their wine.

Are you a Special Club girl or guy? Check out these two Chardonnay-based lovelies - the 2008 A. Margaine Blanc de Blancs Special Club Brut $84, a rare, honeyed, intense Champagne from the Montagne de Reims. The 2006 Marc Hebrart Rive Gauche-Rive Droite Grand Cru Extra Brut $140, a luxury cuvée named for vineyards on both sides of the Marne River, is broad and fleshy - immediately likeable. Named after the barrel it was fermented in, the 2005 Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee 225 Brut $100 is more formal, and offers a Krug-like oxidative note from the base wine’s fermentation in oak.

For only the third time in their long history, Champagne Bollinger hosted a non-local Vin Clair tasting last year in San Francisco, led by the very knowledgeable and dapper Commercial Director Guy de Rivoire. After a flight of vins clairs guests were treated to a  smoky, briney and very muscular 2004 Bollinger Grande Annee Rose Extra Brut $220. The 2000 Bollinger R.D. Brut, in Jeroboam exclusively, was introduced into that market shortly thereafter.

Exquisitely luxurious, just looking at the 2004 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rose Brut $350 feels decadent. But inside is where the real treasure lies – layers of red fruits, peach and apricot, autolytic notes and a rich chalky minerality mingle together discreetly, with breed and class. The 2002 Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Brut $160 also wins kudos for its packaging, designed with a thousand pearl-shaped indentations in honor of the Opera diva who captivated Nicolas Feuillatte. The package converts conveniently to an ice bucket. Take notice, James Bond.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Krug Champagne Brunch with Olivier Krug

Glass of Bubbly, Champagne & Sparkling Wine Magazine
Issue 1, June/July 2014

Recently a handful of sommeliers and wine writers joined Olivier Krug, 6th Generation and Maison Director of Krug Champagne, for a five-course pairing menu at San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel.

As we sipped a gingery, floral and creamy Krug Grande Cuvee, paired exquisitely with Dayboat scallops carpaccio with vanilla olive oil emulsion and citrus gelee, Olivier explained that even non-wine experts can come up with twelve words to describe this extraordinary Champagne.

Beau soleil oysters with Vintage Sabayon and black pearls was lovely with the 2003 Krug Vintage Brut, a tarry, spicy, earthy Champagne – Krug didn’t produce Clos d’Ambonnay in 2003 so this rich, old vine Pinot Noir ended up in the Vintage Brut.

Bomba Calasparra rice “paella” with jumbo prawns in a shellfish nage was delicious with the 2000 Krug Vintage Brut, with notes of honey, crème fraiche, hyacinth, peach, and ginger ale. Olivier described this wine as “rich but not intense.”

A newly released Krug Grande Cuvee based on the 2003 vintage was more savory than the original, and had gorgeous chalky and autolytic notes of brioche and egg custard; spot on with A la plancha Seared Alaska Halibut with fingerling potato and braised fennel gratin.

Not surprisingly, the richest Champagne of the day was the Krug Rose, paired with Seared maple leaf duck breast with roasted maitake mushroom farro and a huckleberry gastrique. The berry gastrique streamlined right into the red berry notes of the wine and the earthy notes of the duck and the Champagne worked beautifully together.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bat Shlomo Vineyards Israel

Baron Edmond de Rothschild established the village known as Bat Shlomo, or "Salomon’s Daughter" in honor of his mother Betty Salomon von Rothschild, just above Israel’s Dalia Valley on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel. It was settled by Jewish pioneers in 1889. The Baron brought in France’s top wine experts to school them in the art of growing grapes and making wine. Today, local high tech entrepreneur Elie Wurtman, who stumbled upon the vineyard by accident, is replanting it and creating a winery. He spent six years in Napa Valley, and is sharing techniques learned there including the use of an egg-shaped tank.

The 2012 Bat Shlomo Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Old Vines Israel $30 is soft and powdery with notes of lemon meringue pie, peach, apricot, yellow rose, marjoram and thyme. It is medium-bodied, fresh, and softly textured, with a long, lemony finish. The wine is both Kosher and Kosher Lemehadrin for Passover, but is not Meshuval (boiled or flash-pasteurized).

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Enjoying Sparkling Wines and Champagnes

With effervescence and finesse, delicacy and richness, Champagnes and sparkling wines are easy to love. One of the reasons is that they are rarely more than 11.5-12% alcohol. Still whites and reds hover around 14%, and where there is oak-aging involved, headaches often follow. Also, acid levels in sparkling wines are quite high, helping to digest dinner hopefully long before bedtime. As Madame de Pompadour said, “Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.

With effervescence and finesse, delicacy and richness, Champagnes and sparkling wines are easy to love. One of the reasons is that they are rarely more than 11.5-12% alcohol. Still whites and reds hover around 14%, and where there is oak-aging involved, headaches often follow.  Also, acid levels in sparkling wines are quite high, helping to digest dinner hopefully long before bedtime. As Madame de Pompadour said, “Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.

Enjoying Champagne


Store Champagne (can only be named Champagne if it comes from France’s Champagne region) and sparkling wines in a cool, dark place away from heat, light, vibrations and severe temperature variations. Champagne is ready to drink upon release, and, for the most part, does not improve with age. Bottles do not need to be stored on their sides.


Before serving, chill the wine well but do not freeze it. Place the bottle in a bucket filled with ice and and just enough water to make a “thick soup” for 30 minutes. Better yet, always keep a chilled bottle in the fridge just in case.


The pressure in a bottle of Champagne is equivalent to that of a bus tire, or about 90 pounds per square inch. Slant the bottle at a 45 degree angle away from guests. Put a thumb on the cork, untwist and loosen the wire muzzle.

Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess® - sabreuse, sabering champagne!Sabering

In times of triumph French officers under Louis XIV, and later, Napoleon’s gallant soldiers – the Hussars -opened Champagne with a strong blow from their swords.
Napoleon is known to have said, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.”​ The tradition continues, though French cavalrymen often practice on beer bottles first. Once they have mastered the technique, they show their skill by riding at full gallop past ladies holding up bottles of Champagne for them to saber.
This is a spectacular start to weddings, feasts, formal dinners, and other special occasions.​

Want a saber of your own? Check out The Wine Appreciation Guild online. If you don't see what you're doing for (I use the Lagioule saber), give The Guild a call at 1-800-231-9463. Ask for Jim.


Serve in tall flute or tulip glasses at a temperature of 42-47 degrees or to your liking. Pour a small amount into the glass, allow the bubbles to liquefy, then top up to about 2/3 full. An interesting custom involves drinking Champagne from a lady’s slipper or high-heeled pump.
If you enjoy coupes, by all means use them. Gas will dissipate much more quickly, but in this case the taste of the base wine comes to the fore.

What to do with Leftovers

Champagne stoppers are the only way to fully protect the gas. Interestingly, some Champagnes taste fuller and more mellow the next day.


Here are a few recommendations for your every day drinking pleasure:

CA’Rosa Frizzante by CA’Momi California, $16 I love the ripe strawberry and tropical notes of the lightly sweet and easy-going.

Lamberti Rose Spumante Veneto Italy
Lamberti Rose Spumante Veneto Italy, $14 The sexy, coral-colored, has notes of rose petals and tangerine.

2013 L’Antica Quercia Prosecco Brut Treviso DOC Italy
2013 L’Antica Quercia Prosecco Brut Treviso DOC Italy, $22 this subtle, elegant sparkler offers lemon curd, ginger, peach pit, jasmine, and toasted almonds, and is made from certified organic grapes.

Domaine Chandon Brut Rose California
Domaine Chandon Brut Rose California, $15 One to stock up on. The brand is big enough that it is often discounted at large chain stores, so if the juicy watermelon and pear notes and rich structure from its Pinot Noir suit you, this could be your house wine.

Domaine Chandon Etoile Rosé Napa/Sonoma
Domaine Chandon Etoile Rose Napa/Sonoma, $39 If Duck confit or duck-fat French fries are on the menu, this rich, beautifully textured USA Sparkler fits the bill nicely.

Mirabelle Brut nv North Coast California, $22 Schramsberg produces gorgeous California sparkling wines as well. This sparkling wine is Chardonnay-based and fresh, tart, and bracing, like biting into a Granny Smith apple.

Pierre Paillard Blanc de Noirs Bouzy Grand Cru nv, $50 The 100% Pinot Noir-based French Champagne is an intense, minerally, smoky, and very serious one It is newly imported to the US and is worth seeking out.

Pierre Moncuit Rosé Le Mesnil Grand Cru
2002 Paul Bara Grand Cru Special Club, $110 This spicy, sultry, and complex Champagne is from another lesser-known producer, but it could become your new best friend. Champagne’s Special Club, or “Treasures of Champagne,” has 26 grower-producers, or Recoltant-Manipulants (RM) who use only their own vineyards, use a very low sugar dosage and all use the same crested bottle, though they can own-label it. At Fine Wine retailers.

Pierre Moncuit Rosé Le Mesnil Grand Cru, $55 This is another outstanding value in French Champagne is a blend of 80% Chardonnay from the same vineyard used by Salon and Krug, Le Mesnil. It is layered and complex with rich chalky and brioche notes and pristine, delicate raspberry notes. At Fine Wine retailers.

Krug Grande Cuvee Brut
Krug Grande Cuvee Brut, $ 169-180 Since this article is about affordable sparkling wines, I’ll cap it with a gingery, floral and creamy Champagne, which was paired exquisitely with Dayboat scallops at a recent luncheon with Oliver Krug. Olivier explained that even non-wine experts could come up with twelve words to describe this extraordinary Champagne.

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Which Wine Glass?

If you think the perfect stemware is a must-have for your wine of choice, think again. Every day wines taste great in the park, or at the beach, places where ideal glassware is not usually at hand. Genuine wine lovers care less than you might imagine about glassware. The wine itself is key. Everything else is a minor detail, except, of course, the company.
Think of wine as the little black dress, or the basic three-piece suit, and the glassware as the scarf or necktie. There is no question that certain glassware enhances the experience. However, the best glass in the world cannot raise the innate quality of the wine.
George Riedel, whose Riedel glassware company markets some of the finest wine stemware in the world, says using his glasses is like “putting on your Sunday suit and going out for a ride.” In this case he is putting a suit on a suit, but he is European, so what do you expect?

How does Chateau Lafite-Rothschild taste in a tumbler?

I can tell you it tastes pretty darn good. And as more than one sommelier will tell you, wine tastes pretty good right out of the bottle in the wee hours! But, in this case, you may enjoy the first growth Bordeaux in a large-bowled, long-stemmed glass. Also keep in mind that some glass shapes lend themselves towards a more glamorous, sophisticated experience.
Even if you have the cash and the cupboard space, if you buy the good stuff, you end up getting so protective over it that you and your guests aren’t comfortable using it.
The glassware needn’t be pricey Austrian hand blown crystal from Riedel at $20 or $30 per stem. In fact, Riedel has glassware at several price points, as do other stemware providers, like Spiegelau.
Well-stocked wine shops carry specialty glassware, but they are not alone these days. Check the shelves at places like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Cost Plus, and Pottery Barn. I love fellow Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson’s “The One” glasses, available in a petite and medium triangular bowl shape. The larger ones are great for Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir, and are the official glassware of the San Francisco Wine School.
Go with what feels good in your hand, not what you think will impress your friends. Always buy two to four more glasses than you think you’ll need. If you want one all-purpose glass, choose a larger white wine glass or a smaller red wine glass. Fill it less than half-full and practice swirling the wine around to unleash the wine’s aromas. Practice swirling on a flat surface such as a tabletop, and then gradually build up to a mid-air twirl. Wearing black helps.

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sommelier Panel at ZAP

ZAP glassOn February 2, 2013, hundreds of press, trade, and then consumers filled San Francisco’s Concourse Pavilion for the 22nd Annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) Festival. ZAP has other events, including one in Calgary in June, but this 4-day event in San Francisco is always their main event. ZAP’s mission is to unite winegrowers, winemakers and wine enthusiasts in the preservation and recognition of Zinfandel as America’s Heritage Wine. In addition to the walk-around tastings, where most tables were hosted by winery owners and winemakers, several educational seminars were held, including one on terroir. New to the event this year, a team of sommeliers first manned their appellation booths, and then gave short presentations on their areas along with their top picks. Under the direction of writer and former national wine director Randy Caparoso, the Sommelier Team consisted of:
Napa Valley – Cassandra Brown, The Chocolate Grape
Sonoma County – Christopher Sawyer, Carneros Inn
Dry Creek Valley – David Glancy MS, San Francisco Wine School
Paso Robles – Paige Post-Bindel, Peppoli at Pebble Beach, Carmel
Lake County & Mendocino County – Catherine Fallis MS, Planet Grape
Sierra Foothills – Ron Plunkett, Hakkasan San Francisco
Amador County – Gillian Ballance MS, Cavallo Point, Sausalito
Contra Costa – Rob Renteria, La Folie, San Francisco
Lodi – Ellen Landis, Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn, Half Moon Bay
Zinfandel, short version - round, warm, jammy, and spicy to opulent and hedonistic
Zinfandel, long version - Zins offer generous notes of blueberry, raspberry, and boysenberry. The best maintain natural acids to balance their rich fruit and high alcohol levels. While many of the world’s benchmark wines are in France, the best Zinfandels in the world are, without a doubt coming from the state of California. This is why it is called an all-American grape even though its origins are in Croatia. It is related to Crljenak there and Italy’s Primitivo. The best Zinfandels come from California’s Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Napa Valley, Contra Costa’s sandy-soiled Oakley area, Lodi, Amador County, and Paso Robles. In all but Paso Robles, there are 70 to 100-year old vines, giving depth of character and exquisite balance impossible to attain from young vines. Lighter Zins pair well with BBQ or roasted meats, poultry, or grilled peppers. Richer Zins pair well with game, red meats, or cow’s milk cheeses.
grape goddess® recommends:
Storrs Zin2007 Storrs Zinfandel Rusty Ridge Vineyard Santa Clara County $30
From an old vine vineyard near Morgan Hill on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this complex, layered, and very elegant Zinfandel really caught my attention. With notes of blueberry, blackberry, and cedar, and at 15.8% alcohol, it was certainly a big, bold Zin, but a combination of its age and higher, if not necessarily perceptible acidity gave incredible depth and balance. The vineyard yields fruit with very low pH so acids are high and the wine takes longer to develop.
St Amant Zin2011 St. Amant Old Vine Zinfandel Mariani’s Vineyard Lodi $24
The Spencer family consistently turns out some of the finest (and most underpriced) Zins in the state. The Mariani’s is bold, deep, plush and layered, and even at 15.8%, beautifully balanced. This would be an excellent premium by the glass option.

Witching Stick Zin
2010 Witching Stick Zinfandel Fashauer Vineyard Anderson Valley $24
Knowing my palate, Randy Caparosa suggested I check out this new tiny producer. What a pleasant surprise – their old vine Zinfandel was dry, tart, balanced, and fresh with lovely cherry and red currant notes.  At only 12.8%, it is a very elegant, European style. Owners Van Williamson and Anne Fashauer were also pouring an extremely fruity yet bone dry and crisp “Rossato” of Zinfandel. Love love loved it!

2009 Amphora Zinfandel Timber Crest Vineyard Dry Creek Valley $32
Owner/winemaker Rick Hutchinson crafts big bold wines, including this deep, intense, muscular Zin. At 16.3%, the wine could easily be hot, but Rick has a way of keeping everything in check.
Noceto Zin
2009 Vino Noceto Zinfandel OGP Amador County $29
Winemaker Rusty Folena knows a thing or two about the Original Grandpere Vineyard. He has been working with it since the early 1980’s. Own-root vines grown here on this isolated, plot of sandy soil are disease free, and the plants are an incredible 160 years old! Rusty does minimal handling, including a long, slow, and never hot fermentation. The alcohol is 15%, and the wine has beautiful, accessible fruit and incredible depth and balance.

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wine for Wheelchairs on Moon Mountain

Wine Chair donations in BelizeI had the pleasure recently of joining the sommeliers of Redd, La Folie, and Boulevard, writers including Deborah Parker Wong of The Tasting Panel and Randy Caparoso of Sommelier Journal, and founders of a wine start-up, Block 122, at Lookout Ridge Winery, nestled atop the Mayacamas Mountains, for a sunset wine tasting. After twisting and turning up the mountain and driving on unpaved, rocky roads, I was yearning for the four-wheel drive SUV I used while working on vineyard mapping for Oz Clarke’s Wine Atlas. From this perch on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder, currently within the Sonoma Valley AVA but soon to be within the new Moon Mountain appellation, you could see a thick fog bank all the way down to the Golden Gate gap, and to the north and east, a sunnier, greener view including the gorgeous Sugarloaf Ridge one hillside away.
Lookout Ridge bottlesLookout Ridge is not your ordinary winery. It is the vision of Gordon Holmes and his family, a philanthropic endeavor to provide wheelchairs for children, teens, and adults in need around the world. Gordon works with highly recognized winemakers including Marco di Giulio, previously of Lokoya, Andy Erickson, previously of Screaming Eagle and currently with Favia, Ovid, Arietta and Dancing Hares, Greg LaFollette, founding winemaker at Flowers and Hartford Court, now with La Follette Wines, Cathy Corison of Corison Wines, Ehren Jordan of Turley and Failla, Richard Arrowood of Arrowood and Amapola Creek, Brian Maloney of Deloach,  Drew Neiman of Neiman Cellars, Aaron Pott, formerly of Quintessa and now with Huis Clos Wines, and Gerhard Reisacher of Delectus. All vineyards are managed by Phil Coturri. Wines are $100 to $125 per bottle for library wines. One wheelchair is donated for every bottle of library wine sold. In December 2009, Gordon and Marco delivered 300 wheelchairs to Belize. In total, Holmes states they have changed the lives of 10,000 people so far.
© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Secrets of Wine & Cheese Matching

California CheesePart of the bounty of Northern California is its plethora of artisanal cheeses, which are featured proudly alongside the traditional European choices in shops and farmer’s markets. You might see the parallel with our local wines. Are the local cheeses better? We have the happy cows after all, and maybe the happy goats.  As with wines, a happy compromise is to agree they are simply different styles.
At Lodi’s 9th Annual ZinFest last month, a popular wine festival held on the grounds of Lodi Lake, part of the Mokelumne River and the network of deltas that bring cooling winds and marine influence from San Francisco Bay, I was fortunate enough to have been  tasked with pairing local wines with cheese: “Secrets of Wine & Cheese Matching with grape goddess® and Cheese Central”, Lodi’s premiere artisanal cheese retailer with the incredible talented Cindy Della Monica at the helm.
ZinFest Wine SchoolThe playing field was Lodi wines, and any cheese Cindy had in stock. She widened the field by telling me she could get just about anything from anywhere in the world. Where to begin? Local wine expert Randal Caparoso helped  me narrow down the pool of wines, and Cindy sent me a large assortment of her best cheeses. After an intense session in the lab, and with taking Cindy’s excellent recommendations into consideration – she knows her local wines – the shop is surrounded by 30 wineries after all – we came up with these pairings:
2011 St. Jorge Winery Verdelho Seco Lodi
and Fleur Verte France
From a Portuguese family, the wine was rich with baked apple pie and lemon crème notes, and had a lovely starfruit tartness to the finish. The thyme, tarragon and pink peppercorn-coated Chevre (goat) was creamy, tangy, and slighlty sweet with the wine. It  enhanced the wine’s fruit and mirrored its silky textural quality. The wine cleansed and refreshed the palate.
2012 McCay Cellars Rosé Lodi
and Ossau Iraty France
This Rosé of old vine Carignane had notes of watermelon, quince, lemon peel, strawberry, cherry and yellow rose and had a hint of residual sugar. The medium firm sheep’s milk cheese was earthy, almost barnyard-like, a note toned down by the bright fruity personality of the wine. The wine also intensified the nuttiness and dairy characters of the cheese, and kept the flavors of the cheese on the palate longer.
2010 Stelline “Chiara” Old Vine Zinfandel Estate Grown Lodi
and Barely Buzzed Beehive Creamery Utah
I have to say I was intrigued from the get go with the name of this cheese – Barely Buzzed. I love also the way this pairing illustrated both the “contrast” and “bridge” elements of pairing. The wine was rich, almost intense, with a raisined, port-like fruit concentration and a hint of pepper spice. The sweet cream and coffee bean smoke of the semi- firm cow’s milk cheese was a nice contrast to the fig and port notes of the wine. Espresso bean slivers and lavender in the rub formed a bridge to and mirrored the wine’s butterscotch and caramel oak notes, and, to top it all off, the cheese supercharged the fruit of the wine, bringing it to a whole new level. Buy on apples, sell on cheese, Stelline, this cheese.
2012 Sorelle Muscat Canelli “Sogno Dolce” Lodi
and Pepato Petaluma
This pairing is all about contrast. The pleasantly plump, soft, fragrant and delicately sweet Muscat, “Sweet Dreams”, with notes of orange blossom,honeysuckle, and  red delicious apple, worked wonders with the semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese, which was generously studded with whole peppercorns, Sicilian style. Like a grizzly old man who lives alone, it was a bit pungent, especially when crunching down on the peppercorn. Then, out of the blue, comes a naturally beautful young woman, whose hair has the scent of spring blossoms, and whose smile lights up the room. The wine enhanced the creamy, buttery notes, played down it’s roughness, and left the palate with a subtle sweetness.
Zinfest Vintners Grill with Skye Morgan of Charles CommunicationsCindy was a wonderful co-host, though she took me to task for mentioning “Velveeta” in one of my stories. She said firmly and with great emphasis, “Catherine, that is not cheese.” Cindy also invited everyone in the audience (and you for that matter) to come visit Cheese Central and taste as much as you like ( I gently reminded her she was inviting a tent-full of  more than barely buzzed folks for free cheese, but hey, it’s Lodi, and they sure are friendly here!

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Pesticides in French Wine

french mandatory pesticides
Photo Courtesy David Glancy MS, SF Wine School

I can hear a soulful Edith Piaf lamenting, “Mon Dieu”. With the French Paradox we learned that drinking wine in moderation, with even a rich meal, may be beneficial to our health and lower chances of coronary heart disease. With Mireille Giuliano’s book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, we learned that wine was not necessarily even fattening. So why are we now getting barraged with negativity about French wines?
Within the country and all over Europe in fact, there has been a paradigm shift from “days of wine and roses” to heightened regulation at all junctures. At one point, the French required their journalists to add a disclaimer to every article that wine may be harmful to the health. Now, the country is creating even more ill will by trying to force even organic growers to use pesticides.
While French and other vineyards since the 1950’s have been struggling with the bacterial disease flavescence dorée, transmitted by leafhoppers, which causes leaves to yellow and grapes to shrivel, there is no clause that allows farmers employing natural, sustainable, organic, or even biodynamic methods to escape the French Ministry of Agriculture’ requirements to spray Pyrevert, a pesticide, in attempt to stem crop loss. Rather than working on regulations to promote natural grape growing, it seems the Ministry of Agriculture is more intent on creating a PR nightmare. They have even threatened to send one non-complying Burgundian producer to jail.
The law applies to the grapes only, and doesn’t take into account what happens when they are fermented. Recent tests of wines from Bordeaux and Southern France showed as many as 9 separate pesticides. While individual levels were within allowable limits, it is unclear what happens as they combine or accumulate. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones said “Groups of pesticides may have so-called “cocktail” or “synergistic” effects-that is, a pesticide mix may be more toxic than the sum of its parts.”
As with sustainable farming practices here in California, there is also concern for the health of the vineyard workers. Clusters of Parkinsons’ and other diseases are being aligned to the spraying of pesticides.
© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Manton Valley Approved as Tehama County's 1st AVA

Cedar Crest's vineyardsLeland Stanford planted vineyards at Vina in Tehama County in the mid 1800’s, but it wasn’t until August 1, 2014 that the area was recognized as an official American viticultural area. The new AVA, Manton Valley, east of Redding and Mt. Lassen and overlapping Tehama and Shasta counties in northern California’s eastern foothills, is 11,178 acres, 200 of which are currently planted to varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. The soil is shallow, nutrient poor, and volcanic in origin, giving a particular minerality that could set these wines apart from others in the state. This soil also offers good drainage and controls plant vigor and crop yield.
Manton Valley AVA mapManton Valley AVA lies within an east-west valley and is bordered by the north and south forks of Battle Creek, a major tributary to the Sacramento River. While the area is hot in summer, cool breezes cascade off Mt. Lassen, giving respite to the vines in the evening. It is ranked as a moderately warm Region III, while both Chico to the south and Redding to the west are Region V. Vineyards are planted at altitudes of 2,000 to 3.500 feet, similar to those in the Sierra Foothills to the south. High altitude allows for a slower, more even-keeled ripening season. The combination of altitude and cool breezes delays the harvest until late September or early October, and it often continues well into December.
Eleven commercial vineyards and six wineries exist thus far. A mini wine trail along Forward Road makes it easy to sample multiple local wines. Alger Vineyards, Cedar Crest Vineyards, Indian Peak Vineyards, Shasta Daisy Vineyards, and Mount Tehama Vineyards all have tasting rooms open on weekends.  Albireo Winery is on Wilson Hill Road and is open by appointment only.
Cedar Crest Claret
Mark Livingston of Cedar Crest Vineyards proposed the AVA along with other local vineyard and winery owners. The final AVA ruling is effective on September 2, 2014.
Feel free to contact Mark for more information or to set up a visit to the area:

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The History & Future of Wine in Livermore Valley

Livermore Valley AVA
The Livermore Valley AVA located in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Map courtesy of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association.
Livermore Valley was once one of California’s prime sources of grapes. In 1882, Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Chateau d’Yquem in his Cresta Blanca Vineyard. The 1884 Cresta Blanca made from these grapes won the Grand Prize at the 1889 Paris Expo, becoming the first American wine ever to win a prize in France. More recently, Hugh Johnson wrote about what a prime spot this valley was for Sauvignon Blanc due to its well-drained, gravelly limestone soil, similar to what is found in Bordeaux. The gravel, comprised of egg-sized stones deposited from rushing waters in now dry arroyos are easily visible. Along Tesla Road, they are as large as a melon or a basketball.
Yet with all of this early recognition, the potential of Livermore Valley wines has not been fully realized. A major challenge has been the fact that like Silicon Valley, much of Livermore Valley transitioned rapidly from rural ranchland to housing developments and strip malls. And like the Santa Cruz Mountains, many wine producers turned to Monterey County for fruit once their vineyards were gone. Today however there are 4,000 vineyard acres planted here.
Carl Wente
Carl H. Wente founded his winery in 1883.
Livermore is a wide spot in a long chain of identical valleys running N-S behind the East Bay Hills, and is the warmest valley from Southern Monterey to San Francisco. Marine influence is mostly blocked by the East Bay Hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains so the days are warm, but gaps in the hills allow evening cooling with fog from the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. The Altamont Ridge blocks much of the San Joaquin Valley heat. Harvest starts and ends later than it does in Napa Valley, and there is less rainfall. Livermore is cooler than the northernmost points in Napa Valley.
Carolyn Wente pioneered the San Francisco Bay AVA to help the area gain worldwide recognition, which did help in export markets, but Livermore Valley only now is trying to earn a reputation as a truly fine wine destination. Joining Amador and San Ramon in the “Visit Tri-Valley California” marketing group has helped draw attention to the fact it is only 33 miles from San Francisco. This should help drive folks to tasting rooms and wineries. But what would help even more would be a focus on terroir, on specific vineyards, and perhaps a tendency towards a couple of varietals at which they excel. On that list, I would definitely include Sauvignon Blanc.
Ghielmetti Vineyard
One of the prized Livermore Valley vineyards, Steven Kent’s Ghielmetti Vineyard, produces tremendous Sauvignon Blanc.
I asked respected wine writer and educator Fred Swan, owner of NorCal Wines, to comment on the local Sauvignon Blancs. He said, “My favorites, aside from Steven Kent and not in order of preference as that changes from vintage to vintage, are Wente Louis Mel, Murrietta’s Well Los Tesoros (which also comes from the Louis Mel vineyard, but is small production at just 8 barrels), Concannon Reserve Assemblage Blanc (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon), and Occasio Winery Del Arroyo Vineyard.”

Catherine Fallis
Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

ZinFest Lodi Wine Festival 2014

ZinFest 2014
Celebrating ten years, this weekend’s Zinfest kicked off with a casual outdoor dinner on the breezy shores of Lodi Lake. Wine lovers from as far as Vancouver and as near as Palo Alto and Sacramento and presenters including Fred Swan, Ellen Landis, and of course local Ambassador Randy Caparoso, joined local winemakers to honor the growers. Many of the growers volunteered to drive the golf shuttles and pour wines before sitting down for an amazing dinner of “airline” chicken and gigantic slabs of bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Crisp local Vermentinos, Albarinos, Pinot Grigios, dry rosé wines, and naturally a plethora of old vine Zins were generously poured and re-poured, including the 2010
Lange Twins Centennial Zinfandel, of which only 16 barrels were produced. It was hard to know what to try next, but there was plenty of time between dancing, a dessert buffet, and what I like to call the “cigar stroll.”
Zinfest Barrel Boat Regatta Winner Tim Holdener of Macchia
Zinfest Barrel Boat Regatta Winner Tim Holdener of Macchia
Saturday’s main event, ZinFest Wine Festival, offered 250 wines from 50 Lodi wineries, local provisions and souvenirs, strolling and main stage musicians, and an outdoor piano bar under the shade of very tall trees. For the inquisitive, they offered ZinFest Wine School and ZinFest Cooking School presentations, which included Chef Tony Lawrence’s Chocolate Salad paired with the 2012 St. Amant Marian’s Zinfandel, a wine I gave a 100 point score to recently. The “Up in Smoke” BBQ Demo and Barrel Building Demo were popular attractions!  New this year was the highly entertaining ZinFest Vintner’s Regatta. Six winemakers crafted “boats” from wine barrels. As “Admiral” Camron King, Executive Director, Lodi Winegrape Commission, dispatched the six vessels to the starting line, only three sailed without a hitch. One toppled over as one of its sailors concentrated more on his water gun than sailing.  Another lost an oar-hold and oar and a third took on water and sank. Tom Holdener of Macchia pulled off the win, despite a rough start, which entailed a return to launch point to bail water and water balloons out of the hull of his dinosaur-themed craft.
On Sunday participating wineries offered special Open Houses, including an Oyster and
Sausage BBQ on the lawn at Borra Vineyards, and live bluegrass at Harney Lane Winery.
Lodi Wine Grape Commission
For more information, visit
© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sassicaia’s Flying Wine Maker Dottore Sebastiano Rosa

Sassicaia is a wine known and loved the world over. From a beautiful coastal hamlet in Tuscany, this Super Tuscan blend is hands down Italy’s most famous wine. It is also the world’s second most counterfeited wine after Chateau Petrus.
So what is behind this success story? In 1948, the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta began a revolution in Tuscan winemaking, and not in the traditional wine region of Tuscany, Chianti Classico, but at a large farm in the village of Bolgheri located close to Tuscany’s Mediterranean coastline in the southwestern part of the province.
It was here, at Tenuta San Guido, that Incisa decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vine cuttings that he had received from his buddy at Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux. The Marchese made a non-traditional wine from these non-traditional grapes planted on a non-traditional site. The wine, Sassicaia, which Incisa made for his family and friends, was aged in non-traditional French barriques – small French oak barrels – not the classic old Slavonian oak casks preferred by Tuscan producers
Incisa’s brother-in-law, Marchese Niccolò Antinori and his son, Piero, realized the commercial potential of Sassicaia. Working with Mario Incisa’s son, (also named Niccolò), Antinori winemaker Giacomo Tachis, and Bordeaux-based enologist, Emile Peynaud, the Antinori family brought Sassicaia to market in 1968.  It was wildly successful, and the “Super Tuscan” era had begun.
Dottore Sebastiano Rosa, stepson of Niccolò Incisa della Rochetta, was born in Rome in 1966 but by 1968 was living in Bolgheri. As a young adult, Dr. Rosa came to California to study at UC Davis, graduating in 1990. While in California he worked at Jordan and Stag’s Leap Winery. In 1991 he spent at year at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, and for the next decade he worked with Giacomo Tachis, the father of the renaissance of Italian wine, as General Manager at Tenuta di Argiano in Montalcino at the invitation of owner Contessa Cinzano. Today both Principessa Noemi Marone Cinzano and Dr. Rosa’s brother Piero Incisa della Rochetta operate neighboring wineries in Patagonia, Argentina – Bodega Noemia and Bodegas Chacra.
From 2002 to 2011, as Technical Director of his family’s estate, he created the second and third labels for Sassicaia – Guidalberto and Le Difese. In addition to his ongoing role in International sales and marketing, he has embarked on a new joint venture in Sardinia, Agricola Punica, with Giacomo Tachis, Tenuta San Guido and Sardinian producer Cantina di Santadi, producing Super Sardinian wines including Barrua, based on the indigenous grapes of that Mediterranean island blended with a touch of Bordeaux varieties.
While Dr. Rosa lives in Bolgheri with his wife Elena and stepson Edoardo, he returns frequently to California to work with Brooks Painter and Peter Velleno in making the delicious Tuscan-style wines for Castello di Amorosa. Castello di Amorosa is a 121,000 sq. foot 13th century medieval Tuscan-style castle and winery built by Dario Sattui in NapaValley.
Have you tried the 1st, 2nd or 3rd label wines from Sassacaia?  How about Noemia, Chacra, Barrua or Castello di Amorosa? Have you tasted a difference in the style or quality of Sassacaia over the years or with Dr. Rosa’s rise to winemaker?

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.