Four flavors are available; I found the differences quite subtle. (Naturally I got the variety case to sample the quartet.) The Alta caught my attention because it’s the name of the ski resort where I lived (eons ago) for two memorable winters and one underrated summer. Let’s look at its ingredients to give an idea of what Casamara Club is all about:
Sparkling Water, Lemon Juice, Demerara Cane Sugar, and Extracts of Italian Chinotto, Juniper Berry, Orris Root, Mandarin Orange, Allspice Berry, Clove Bud, and Anise, with Mediterranean Sea Salt.
Very little sugar here; just enough to balance the botanicals. The pinch of salt is a nice touch, too. Speaking of salt, these sodas are wonderful with salty snacks. Popcorn, Doritos, all the crunchy things etc.
If you’re looking to get creative with these amaro club sodas, the options are numerous. Hey, if you buy Casamara Club you’re already showing some flavor initiative. All you need is a bottle opener to become a maestro of mid-afternoon. But I do like the recipe on the website for a N/A drink called Tan Lines, which adds a splash of tea bitters to some Alta club soda.
This cocktail is adapted from Julia Bainbridge’s Good Drinks, a book I recently purchased. The refreshing subtitle is “Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason.” I’m just diving into the book, but I will say I like the recipes have a noted “Commitment Level.” Mix up something on the easy-peasy side, prep-wise or buckle down for for a drink involving some kitchen sessions. Let your mood and motivation be your guide.
Casamara Club Amaro Soda: Can-Do
I should also point out you can get the Alta in cans! Woo-hoo! Break out the can koozies. I haven’t had the Alta in this format, but interestingly the website notes the cans are more mellow in the bubbles department. But you’ll look super-cool with these stylish cans at the beach/lake/park/picnic table so don’t sweat it, ok?
I taste a bunch-o-wine (technical term for more than most people). So each week, I share some of my wine reviews (mostly from samples) and tasting notes in a “mini-review” format.
They are meant to be quirky, fun, and (mostly) easily-digestible reviews of (mostly) currently available wines (click here for the skinny on how to read them), and are presented links to help you find them, so that you can try them out for yourself. Cheers!
Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
Let’s start this week with a really excellent Chardonnay from husband-and-wife Erica Landon and Ken Pahlow, who started Walter Scott in 2008 after emptying their retirement accounts to do so. It’s the kind of tiny family operation that Oregon’s Willamette Valley hosts more than a few of. They make small quantities of excellent wines, with great attention to detail.
Speaking of tiny outfits run by husbands and wives from Oregon, I’ve got a few of the current releases from Big Table Farm, including a couple of very delicious Pinot Noirs, and a deep dark Syrah for those who like their Syrah on the inky end of the spectrum.
Continuing the family-run-theme, and dodging back to white wines for a moment, we’re on to the Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc, a lovely white Rhone blend that’s a pleasure to drink. It features Vermentino, an Italian grape that continues to make inroads in Southern France under the synonym Rolle.
And last, but certainly not least, let’s spend a little time with husband and wife Paul Gordon and Jackie Bracey, who haven’t quite managed to quit their day jobs, but scraped together enough money to buy a vineyard way up in the Yorkville Highlands AVA of Mendocino County. Planted with Syrah (and a lot of love) on decomposed schist, Halcón Vineyards has become (IMHO) one of the best sources for organically-farmed Syrah in California, which until recently I had only tasted in bottles with other people’s names on them. But Bracey has also been making wines under their own label, which I am happy to say are pretty exceptional. I’ve got a few of them to share this week, including their knockout Syrah called “Alturas” which references the 2500 feet of elevation that distinguishes their site.
Before we leave the world of Rhône grapes, I’d like to recommend the latest vintage of the venerable Tablas Creek‘s “Cotes de Tablas” red blend, which is an excellent and reliable homage to a grenache-dominated Côtes du Rhône.
Last but certainly not least, I’ve got two more Steve-Matthiasson-shepherded Cabernet Francs from Ashes and Diamonds, my favorite of which is the 2015, which soars with expressive aromatics that are beginning to emerge as it ages. The 2016 is no slouch either, offering juicy, tart plum skin and green herbs.
Notes on all these below.
2019 Walter Scott “Freedom Hill Vineyard” Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith, melted butter, and white flowers. In the mouth, intensely bright and juicy flavors of lemon pith, lemon curd, pink grapefruit, and white flowers are positively bursting with acidity. Notes of dried herbs, kumquat, and white flowers, tinged with a hint of butterscotch linger in the finish. Crackling, crystalline, and utterly delicious. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2016 Two Shepherds “Pastoral Blanc – Saralee’s Vineyard” White Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of apricots and lemon bars. In the mouth, notes of apricot swirl with herbal flavors of chamomile and warm hay. Hints of pear and kumquat linger in the finish. Excellent acidity, with just a faint sour bitterness. A blend of 45% Viognier, 25% Roussanne, 25% Marsanne, and 5% Vermentino (or should we say, Rolle?). 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.
2019 Big Table Farm Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, potting soil, and crushed berries. In the mouth, earthy flavors of cherry and raspberry are shot through with green herbs and notes of dried flowers. Lithe, elegant, and quite delicious. Excellent acidity and faint, velvety tannins. 12.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2019 Big Table Farm “Pelos Sandberg Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Eola Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor, dried flowers, and dried herbs. In the mouth, silky-textured flavors of cedar, mulling spices raspberries, and cherries have faint velvety tannins and gorgeous acidity. Quite aromatic, this wine lingers with the scent of redwood duff for a long finish. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2016 Ashes and Diamonds “Number 3” Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley, Napa, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of plum and green herbs. In the mouth, smooth, suede-like tannins wrap around a core of plum and tart plum skin flavors tinged with green herbs. Lovely acidity and balance, with just a hint of nut-skin bitterness in the finish. The fruit for this wine comes from a select few vineyards in the southern part of Napa Valley. Aged for 20 months in 18% new French oak. Made by Steve Matthiasson. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2015 Ashes and Diamonds “Number 2” Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley, Napa, California Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of beautifully perfumed candied plum and roasted nuts. In the mouth, gorgeous plum and dried herbs mix with dried flowers and citrus peel. Fantastic acidity and wonderful length with a faint salinity in the finish to make it extra gulpable. Opening up beautifully. The fruit for this wine comes from a select few vineyards in the southern part of Napa Valley. Aged for 20 months in 25% new French oak. Made by Steve Matthiasson. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2019 Tablas Creek “Cotes de Tablas” Red Blend, Adelaida District, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and blueberry fruit. In the mouth, juicy bright flavors of blueberry and blackberry have a zingy bite, thanks to excellent acidity. Hints of dried sage and dusty road linger in the finish with gauzy tannins that add some texture and complexity. Quite tasty. A blend of 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. 14% alcohol. 1000 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.
2018 Halcón Vineyards “Alturas” Syrah, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of grilled meat, black cherries, and white pepper. In the mouth, white pepper, blueberries, black cherry, and dried herbs have a fantastically saline quality to them and excellent acidity that keeps the mouth-watering. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a gauzy haze in the back of the mouth, while herbs and dried flowers linger in the finish with a touch of white pepper. Killer stuff. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2018 Halcón Vineyards “Elevación” Syrah, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino, California Medium to dark cloudy garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bloody steak, incense, and blackberry fruit. In the mouth, intensely herbal flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and sawdust emerge from a cloudy haze of tannins that seem to fill every nook and cranny of the mouth. Distinctly herbal and slightly bitter notes of licorice root and tarragon linger in the finish. The wine leaves me thinking “maybe just a few fewer stems, please.” A selection from the vineyard of a single “heritage” clone, whole cluster fermented in a neutral puncheon. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2018 Halcón Vineyards “Esquisto” Red Blend, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino, California Medium ruby in color this wine smells of strawberries, herbs, and cedar. In the mouth, juicy strawberry, dried sage, and dried flowers have a citrus-peel brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Powdery, voluminous tannins coat the mouth but remain more of a texture than a force on the palate. Expansive and complex. Quite beautiful. A blend of 60% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, and 20% Syrah. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2018 Big Table Farm “Funk Estate Vineyard” Syrah, The Rocks District of Milton Freewater, Oregon Very dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of iodine and black cherry, cassis, and wet iron. In the mouth, meaty flavors of black cherry and blackcurrant mix with sage and oregano amidst velvety tannins. There’s not as much acidity here as I would like, so the wine ends up being a bit plushy for me. A bit of a change from the lean brightness of Big Table’s Pinots and Chardonnays. The flavors, though, are tasty, with kalamata olive lingering in the finish. 15.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $48. click to buy.
I’m a big fan of Cabernet Franc. My palate tends toward those earthy, olive-laden, spicy and brisk iterations out of the Loire Valley, especially a well-aged one with some dusty tannins. But, living in Washington, DC, I’ve also spent many years browsing Cabernet Francs from Virginia and Maryland, too. There’s a of mediocrity out there, and some weird stuff for sure, but I’ve also found really delicious ones, which I will stand up for if I hear Mid-Atlantic wines disparaged.
California Cabernet Francs for me have been pretty hit-or-miss over the years. I have a handful of favorites, but I’m always looking for someone from somewhere to craft a wine that awakens that Cabernet Franc excitement in me. Well, I’m here to report a “hit” today: Ashes & Diamonds’ Cabernet Franc.
I recently tasted three vintages of this Napa producer’s Cabernet Franc, and have to say, they are fantastic. We’re talking structured tannins, vibrant acidity, moderate alcohol (around 13%), tangy fruit, and a bunch of earthy, savory, spicy tones to unpack. The wines have old-school Napa vibes, the kind of wines that leave freshness on the finish and beg for a big spread of food and a group of friends.
This project was founded by California native Kashy Khaledi, a media and advertising executive, in 2013. At the winemaking helm is renowned winemaker Steve Matthiasson and Diana Snowden Seysses, enologist at Domaine Dujac and winemaker at Snowden Vineyards. The several vineyard sources seem like truly special sites, from the gravelly, clay and loam soils of the Ashes & Diamonds Vineyard in Oak Knoll to the thin, rocky soils of the Mountain Peak Vineyard in the Atlas Peak appellation.
Using fruit from Carneros, Oak Knoll and Yountville districts, winemaker Steve Matthiasson has made something really special with these three wines. They will reward the patient in the cellar, and would be a delightful addition to any wine dinner with your Loire nerd friends.
I received these were as trade samples and tasted them single-blind.
2015 Ashes & Diamonds Cabernet Franc No. 2– USA, California, Napa Valley SRP: $75
This is so wonderful on the nose: airy elements of tart cherries and red currants, with savory notes galore (tobacco, portobello mushrooms, black pepper, sage) along with tones of clay, rocky earth and graphite. On the palate, this is a vibrant and tangy wine, structured well tannin-wise, with nice grip, but rounded edges. The balance and freshness are fantastic and there’s lovely concentration of tart red and black cherry fruit. Such a racy and spicy wine with pepper, paprika, mushroom, soy and sage. There are these mineral, graphite and iron tones that add complexity. Lively, vibrant, with a lot of time ahead. This really is exceptional, and something I’d personally prefer to drink over so many Cabernet Sauvignons that cost quite a bit more. Includes 15% Merlot, aged 20 months in 25% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. (95 points IJB)
2016 Ashes & Diamonds Cabernet Franc No. 3– USA, California, Napa Valley SRP: $75
The nose shows deep cherries and tart plums, along with complex tones of campfire, scorched earth, tobacco, iron, pencil shavings. Deeper fruit than the ’15 but still so fresh and inviting. Velvety on the palate, structured but no harshness, tangy acidity, again, the balance is great. A compote of black cherry and plum fruit meets complex notes of iron, smashed rocks, tilled soil and pencil shavings. Complexities of violets, clay and black tea come out with time. Great depth and concentration, this could use at least two or three years and will reward the patient even more. Includes 20% Merlot, aged 20 months in 28% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. (93 points IJB)
2017 Ashes & Diamonds Cabernet Franc No. 4– USA, California, Napa Valley SRP: $75
Beautiful aromas of red plums, red and black cherries, along with a host of interesting nuances: rich earth, iron, campfire, cigar box, along with some rosemary, oregano, hints of cedar. On the palates this gushes with ripe but tangy cherries, solid tannic backbone met with vibrant acidity. The fruit is laced with notes of roasted red peppers, clay pots, clove, earth – gorgeous. There are these black olives in brine with violets, potting soil, all sorts of stuff that gets more expressive with air. Gorgeous balance and texture, this is a long-ager for sure, but still exciting and delicious at this point. Aged 19 months in 30% new French oak. 13% alcohol. (94 points IJB)
A pair of hands (and palate) hard at work doing cooper trials at Favia Wines in Napa. Cooper trials involve tasting the same wine aged in different barrels made by different cooperages. One of the more personal and subtle aspects of winemaking, winemakers often develop strong feelings about which barrels are suited for the fruit from specific vineyard sites. Favia Wines is the personal label of consulting winemaker Andy Erickson and his wife Annie Favia.
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CNN reports on Tastry, a California startup that taught a computer to “taste” wine using artificial intelligence. “Axelsson agrees that Tastry is not a substitute for a sommelier. But she says the scalability of her product makes it possible to analyze more wines per year than a human could ever taste.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague reports on sommelier Yannick Benjamin’s new restaurant, Contento, which aims to be accessible to everyone. (subscription req.)
In Eater, Brooke Jackson-Glidden reports on Oregon’s new winery, Cho Wines. “In recent years, some of the new generation of winemakers in the Willamette Valley have moved away from making pinots, dabbling in less-represented varietals or blends. However, the Chos wanted to experiment more with pinot noir grapes, to expand what people expect of the varietal.”
How do you capture the spirit of an entire wine region? This isn’t just an academic question, it’s something that many people wrestle with, from regional wine associations to those who make a living trying to educate consumers about what makes the places that wines grow so special.
And then there are those who write books about wine regions. Such efforts are particularly tricky because they are out of date nearly as soon as they are published. Books about wine regions seem to come in three flavors and three corresponding sizes.
The smallest books, but perhaps the toughest to write, given the need for accuracy, completeness, and compactness, are what I’ll call the field guides. These little tomes hope to be your sidekick as you roam around wine country, telling you just about (but never more than) what you need to know in order to find your way from winery to winery and have a good visit. They’re light on spirit, heavy on data.
Authoritative regional guides tend to be thicker, and are not written with the idea that you’ll carry them around in a pocket. Instead, they’re reference works, designed to capture and elucidate everything you’d need to know about a region, its wines, and its producers. These books talk about geology, they talk about history, and they capture spirit through narrative, as they literally try to tell you everything there is to know about a place, expecting a comfortable place on your lap when they’re not shelved amongst your other wine books.
Then there are the coffee-table books, which don’t so much guide as they do celebrate, and often show just as much as they tell. What they lack in facts and figures, they make up for in sweeping vistas, intimate portraits, and often lots of personal stories, and in the case of two recent examples, in pure heft.
Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County represents an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the Santa Barbara wine region in its entirety, through the cooperative efforts of its authors Matt Kettmann and Macduff Everton over the past three years. Kettmann is a longtime wine editor for the Santa Barbara Independent and a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine with a focus on the Central Coast, while Everton is a photographer who has worked for National Geographic and Conde Nast, among others. Everton has been photographing the wine industry in Santa Barbara since 1990, and Kettmann has been writing about the wines for more than two decades.
Their massive, 642-page, 7.6-pound tome features more than 1000 images by Everton interspersed with Kettmann’s essays covering the history of the region, its geology and microclimates, as well as the basics of how wine gets made.
But the heart of the book are the 94 winemaker profiles covering everyone from the pioneers of the region like Richard Sanford to the younger generation that have brought a hipster cred to the region in a post-Sideways era. While these 94 don’t even constitute half of the wineries in Santa Barbara, they nonetheless represent a healthy cross-section of the region (and it must be said, pretty much all my favorites are included).
Kettmann’s writing is deft and intimate, offering a studied familiarity with the place and the people that makes his subjects (and their life’s work) come alive with charm and warmth. Everton’s photographs are mostly journalistic in style, punctuated by an unusually inspired portrait here and a lyrically gorgeous landscape there. What the images might lack in curation, they make up for in sheer comprehensiveness—there’s not a moment of the yearly life led by winemakers that Everton has failed to capture or include in the book. The reader is left with (along with possibly some sore arms or loss of circulation in the legs) the sensation of having experienced the place and the process behind Santa Barbara wine, a not-insignificant achievement for any book, no matter its size or weight.
Kettmann and Everton tried to throw their arms around the whole of Santa Barbara, but Julia Pérez has taken a slightly narrower tack in her book The Winemakers of Paso Robles, though the results are no less weighty. Though only 325 pages in length, Pérez’s book is significantly larger in format, a decision which provides some real impact (not to mention storage complications) when it comes to the 56 individuals that she and writer Paul Hodgins profile inside the 7.4-pound volume.
Pérez is an Argentinean photographer who learned her craft in Spain, and whose professional career has taken her around the globe with an emphasis on travel photography. Hodgins is the wine columnist for the Orange County Register.
Other than a brief introduction that, in a few pages, touches on the history of Paso Robles and some of its characteristics as a winegrowing region, The Winemakers consists solely of individual portraits and written profiles of winemakers, arranged alphabetically by last name. Each begins with a studio-lit headshot and a written profile telling their story, illustrated with candid shots from their wineries sometimes including spouses and children.
While a wine region is more than the sum of the people making wine there, without the people there would be no wine region. Reading through the individual profiles, Paso Robles’ spirit of rugged individualism comes through loud and clear, as does the joy that these winemakers take in their chosen profession.
Both of these books have unquestionably achieved their aims, which is ultimately to celebrate and spotlight the winemakers of their regions. My impression is that both books were funded, in part, by some or all of the winemakers that they feature. Indeed, in interviews about the book online Pérez has made it clear that one of the goals of her book was to develop a business creating such volumes for wine regions around the world.
The costs of designing and printing large, high-quality, photo-based books such as these remain incredibly high, even in an age of digital presses and overseas printing (something I know from first-hand experience). Consequently, neither of these volumes comes cheap. But then again, neither does really good wine. If you’re a lover of either Santa Barbara wines or Paso Robles wines, you’ll be able to spend many an hour leafing through these two efforts with pleasure.
There’s only one thing you’ll probably have to do first: reinforce your bookshelves.
Matthew Dennis Kettmann and Macduff Everton – Vines and Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County – Tixcacalcupul Press 2020, $80 (hardcover). Purchase a copy.
Julia Pérez – The Winemakers of Paso Robles – The Winemakers Series 2017, $95 (hardcover). Purchase a copy.