Monday, November 18, 2013

Volcanic Vineyards on Mt. Etna

This post contains breaking news:

A wine from Mt. Etna, Sicily
It’s a well-known fact that volcanoes are great places to grow wine grapes. It’s also a well-known fact that volcanoes erupt. Just this weekend Mt. Etna decided to erupt. Fortunately, the activity settled down as of this posting, and no one was hurt or evacuated. Video footage this morning shows massive smoke rings puffing out of what is thought to be a new vent in the side of the volcano.

Mt. Etna, rising 11,000 feet on the island of Sicily in Italy, is an active volcano in Europe with at least 60 eruptions since 1600AD. Sicilian winemakers have been living with this reality for thousands of years, living on the edge, if you will. The Biondi family has been growing grapes on Etna since 1693 (this is not a typo!). Vines are literally growing amongst the ruins of an ancient Greek city that was blown apart. There are clay shards littering the vineyards, still. The tradition of vineyards here dates back to the Greek settlements in the 8th Century BC. On the bright-side, the vineyards benefit from goodness that the volcano “gifts” to the topsoil. Volcanic soil with its varying characteristics can be sandy, rocky, or silty, providing a rich environment for grapes that offer intense minerality and depth to their wines.  The vines are grown at a very steep altitude and enjoy a lot of light, as well as, ventilation from the breezes that move around the slopes. The rising fog keeps the air very cool and the grapes seem to enjoy the suspense of living on the edge, ripening just before the frost sets in. The indigenous Sicilian grape is Nerello Mascalese; the small berries produce an elegant wine with powerful acidity. These are often blended with another grape to balance the intense tannins and add additional color, as the Nerello Mascalese is on the lighter side. If you want to try some of this unique red wine, 2008 Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso, made from Nerello Mascalese, is a great way to enjoy the terroir of an ever-changing landscape(see picture). There are also other terrific Mt. Etna wines to try.  Graci wines are made by winemaker and owner, Alberto Graci . And an aptly named, Magma 8Va by Frank Cornelissen from the vineyard that carries his name.  The white grape is called Carricante, again highly acidic and has a reputation for being “unique,” aka not for the faint of heart or your average taste buds. But we say, if you are a grape, lucky enough to be born on one of the most majestic and active volcanoes on earth, you can be as bold as you want to be, as you are lucky to be here at all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A very special wine from Portugal

There is an ancient Portuguese wine that has defied nature and continues to
DOC Colares wine
DOP wine from Colares
be among the most subtle and sought-after wine by connoisseurs. The supply is limited by the number of acres remaining planted, only 50 and decreasing. Often compared to the Pinot Noir grapes of Burgundy, the red grape varietal is called Ramisco. And there is also a white grape grown, called the Malvasia de Colares. The vines ‘snake’ along the ground as a natural outcome of growing in shallow soil, actually sand, and of avoiding the high-winds that prevail along this windswept coastline north of Lisbon. Growing among the sand dunes of Colares (Ko-larsh), Portugal, these ancient vines are sturdily protected from being overtaken by sand, by bamboo fencing, wind-barriers made of stacked stones, and disbursement among orchard trees. If it were not for these barriers, the grapes would be blown right off the vines or the vines themselves lifted from the sands. The winds from the Atlantic Ocean are steady and relentless. The rugged home for these grapes also resisted the philloxera pest because the sandy soils kept the aphid pest from thriving. This was a primary reason that Colares wines were introduced to the best households in Europe in the 19th century, as the rest of the European crop had been decimated by philloxera. Colares is one of the oldest winegrowing regions in the world. The grapes have never been grafted onto American rootstock; they remain some of the only non-grafted grapes left in the world and hail from as far back at the middle of the 12th century. The acreage along the coast of this area is highly threatened by land development and large homes encroaching this prime oceanfront real estate. Still the wines are being produced by renowned winemakers from storied Portuguese families. The area is a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) the highest wine designation in Portugal. You can buy these wines in the US and if you happen to see a Colares wine on the menu, be sure to try it as some day there may be none. As of 2012, there were about 50,000 bottles made.

Grape Vines Colares, Portugal
Grape vines in sand. Colares, Portugal. photo: David Lincoln Ross

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pinot Noir and autumn fare, the perfect duo.

It’s autumn and naturally our thoughts turn to hearth-side foods.  We don’t cook from the hearth much anymore but our instincts still carry us to that ancestral place in our DNA. Then because we love wine, we think about our red wine options. If it’s not quite cold enough where you are for a heavier red wine such as a Cabernet or a Merlot, why not experiment with some Pinot Noir along with some early fall food flavors; rich poultry such as turkey, pheasant, duck, pork; root vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and pumpkin; autumn fruits, like apples and plums; hearty soups.

Duck Confit  Photo Credit:

For a quick appetizer, purchase a duck confit or a pork terrine (Fatted Calf Charcuterie in San Francisco and Napa carries these or go to your local specialty foods store.) to spread on a slice of toasted baguette.  Pork roast or chops, especially with a nice edge of fat roasted to a brown crisp, are terrific pairings with Pinot Noir. Why? The blackberry and strawberry flavors prominent in Pinot Noir highlight the richness of this traditional fall fare. Add some roasted squash and don’t forget a piece of warm crusty bread with butter. Hey, you’ve suddenly got a perfect Pinot Noir dinner going for you! The innate minerality of Pinot Noir (these grapes thrive in cooler climates which raises the acidity of the grapes) helps cut the richness of the fat and deliciously compliments the richer flavors on the palate. Heard of the French Paradox? The French enjoy supremely rich foods and yet, don’t have the heart-disease rates that American’s do. Burgundy wines, named for the Burgundy region of France where they are produced, are made from Pinot Noir grapes. 

It’s an easy choice with us: You can get Destination Pinot Noir 2010 or 2011 vintages directly from our cellar shipped to you. It is time to start thinking about fall entertaining. How much wine do you need for a party? A table of 8 can easily consume 3 bottles (approximately 2 glasses per person) based on the measure of five 3 oz glasses per bottle. Check out Sean Q. Meyer’s wine tasting notes at and then place an order. It could not be easier!  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

We've got a crush, on wine.

Pinot Grapes at Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley, from the grapes' point of view. Photo: Sean Q. Meyer

Sean Q. Meyer, winemaker, crushes grapes by hand.
The “crush” in wine-making is the process of the breaking open of the grapes immediately after the harvest is concluded. The grapes, stems, and other pieces are then separated and sorted for quality and desirability. The most desirable grapes are then broken up by hand, some left with or without stems, and others separated in bunches or clusters. (Yes, you might unknowingly be drinking stems with your wine; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.) The different sorts are then placed in a “crusher.” The crusher is basically comprised of adjustable rollers (that the grapes pass through) and operates either, by hand or by motor. The distance set between rollers delivers just enough pressure to “pop” the grape. Destination winemaker, Sean Q. Meyer, uses an extra-gentle crush process, literally crushing with his hands (see photo on right), to enable the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grapes to “pop” themselves. Our hand-crafted wines are made in small "lots” or batches, and nurtured along carefully. We take our time. 

Grape vine rows. Destination Pinot Noir harvest 2013.
The vines. Photo: Sean Q. Meyer
Sean's first-hand account from last week’s Pinot Noir grape harvest in the Santa Maria Valley of California, as told to us:

“Grape harvest started at about 2AM and we brought the fruit to the winery around 8 am on the morning of the Harvest Moon.  The fruit was cold from having been harvested the previous night which allowed us to have a nice cold soak period to begin.  The fruit looked great coming in off the vineyard.  One interesting thing about this vineyard this year is since the rows are East/West oriented and due to the trellising, the fruit on the south side of the vine is slightly riper than the north side.  For now, I am enjoying the blend of flavors from the two slightly different levels of sugar ripeness.  In future vintages, we may have to watch it closely and go through the vineyard twice, picking the south side of the vine in each row a few days before the north side.  We broke this year’s harvest up into 4 small fermentations, trying something a little different in each to see what we like the best and to add complexity to the final blend.”

Clusters of Pinot Grapes. Santa Maria Valley.
 Destination Pinot Noir clusters. Photo: Sean Q. Meyer

Friday, September 13, 2013

How are the Destination Pinot Noir grapes doing? They are just fine, thank you.

The climate in the Santa Maria Valley is cool in the mornings with a morning blanket of fog from the ocean, and then lots of sun after that. Life is good for grapes on the Central Coast of California. The vineyard manager is taking multiple sugar readings per day, otherwise known as the Brix measurement. Brix (named for Adolf Ferdinand Wenceslaus Brix, a German mathematician and engineer who was born in 1798), is a percentage measure of raw sugar by weight vs. a measure of specific gravity in wine or another liquid solution, such as juice or honey. If you really want to ‘geek out’ on this, see Wikipedia entry on Brix. Additionally, the winemaker and vineyard manager taste the grapes for ripeness. They sample throughout the vineyard and look at the grape clusters, or bunch, and break open a grape or two from different sides of the vines (the grapes can differ due to different sun angle during day) to see the color inside and to feel the texture of the grape skin. There might even be a mini-crush to test the ripeness before the rest of the fruit "aka" grapes are harvested. This is where science and intuition come together, and the final decision of when to start the harvest is the winemaker’s call.

Last week, our Destination and Honor winemaker, Sean Q. Meyer, got a reading of 22 Brix on the Pinot Noir grapes he’s going to be harvesting for Destination wine.  To better understand the range: the lower the Brix, the dryer the wine. Negative 1 Brix is almost fully fermented and 30 Brix, for example, is generally too high for table wines as this represents about 19% alcohol content.  Most Pinot Noir wines range from about 12% to 15% of alcohol. The measurement 22 Brix means there are 220 grams of residual sugar per liter (g/l).  And while 220 g/l is a good estimate, it isn’t necessarily the whole story. There are various methods used to check sugar levels in grapes. Either way, the grapes are ripening and the days are getting shorter. There won’t be much more time to wait, the Destination Pinot Noir 2013 harvest is near.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Our harvest journal begins...

Photo: APS

Pinot Noir grape vines in Napa Valley, Sept 5, 2013

The red wine grape harvest in Napa Valley and Sonoma County is fast approaching – about three weeks away. Vintners are excited to see the “fruit” aka the “grape,” become the perfect little sack of juicy goodness, while anticipating the labor-intensive picking of the grapes. Grapes are picked very early in the morning, when it’s coolest, because grapes begin to ferment if left too long in the heat after picking. And the grapes must be treated with care because if the grape skin is broken, fermentation is also accelerated. One of the wine maker’s goals during harvest is to control the rate of fermentation or bring it to as close to a halt as possible by keeping the grapes cool until he or she is ready to control the fermentation process after the “crush.” (We’ll cover the “crush” in our next post).  If the vineyard is a small one, the proprietors may pick their own fruit with the help of a few friends. If the vineyard and winery are large, much of this is done by machine with the help of large picking crews. It’s an exciting time here in wine country, the energy is palpable. Our own sommelier, Sean Q. Meyer, will be harvesting Pinot Noir grapes for Destination wine. We’ll be updating this blog regularly, on what he anticipates, as we approach the harvest!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Keep Up With Napa Valley Harvest 2013

Harvest is well underway in Napa Valley and it's fascinating to watch the process and see how much hard work goes into it.  You can't always be in the vineyard with a front-row view, so the Napa Valley Vintners Association has put together a portal with updates, facts, and everything you've ever wanted to know about harvest time.  They're calling it "The Grapest Story Ever Told" and it can all be found at

Photo: Napa Vintners

Harvest Facts:
  • Grapes need a dry, warm summer for uninterrupted ripening.
  • Winemakers pray that it won't rain right before or during harvest.  Not only can the grapes rot, but there typically aren't enough vineyard workers to support a rushed harvest.
  • No matter how old a vine is, grapes only grow on stalks that are one year old.  Because of this, vineyard managers have to prune back their vineyards every year.
  • The goal of the vineyard manager and winemaker is to grow concentrated, flavorful grapes.  They focus on quality over quantity, which sometimes means sacrificing part of a grape crop.

Harvest Infographic via Snooth.  Click for large version