Wines of El Dorado “Earning a Reputation “

Once a small but booming industry around the turn of the century, El Dorado wine had essentially disappeared following prohibition and the end of the gold era. Growers re-discovered this region located at the ascent of the foothills in the 1970’s and El Dorado County is once again finding itself noted for it’s many wines. The reason is simple. Area winemakers, consumed with a spirit of experimentation are learning which varieties grow best in each vineyard much like the French have done over the last several hundred years. El Dorado’s climate has been compared to the Northern Rhone valley of France. Sloped vineyards and widely fluctuating daily temperatures due to the high elevation help the grapes reach ideal physiological maturity resulting in great wine. These intrepid explorers have also learned to keep crop levels down concentrating flavors and coaxing the maximum richness out of each grape. The soils of El Dorado vary dramatically and range from volcanic ash to nearly solid granite that must be blasted with dynamite before vines can be planted. What once was has now come full circle.

At a time when grape prices have been dropping throughout the state, the price per ton of grapes in El Dorado County have remained relatively steady. Others have seen the popularity of the Sierra Foothills and are purchasing El Dorado fruit for their own use. One major California winery has begun using the name Sierra on one of their lines, exploiting the popularity of the region as a marketing tool. While this practice may be legal, the grapes used in these wines are not from the Sierra Foothills and may lack the complexity and enjoyment of the real thing, much like gluing a Cadillac emblem on a Yugo

he rich and robust zinfandel the area is known for is now sharing the spotlight with several European varietals. As you wind your way into many of these wineries the lush green gardens and grounds will brighten your soul even before you take your first sip. On a recent trip we tasted many wines that have found their place and many others that will continue to evolve. The zinfandel, syrah, barbara and sangiovese were wonderfully structured, with spicy red berry and cherry fruit flavors with underlying notes of minerals indigenous to the region’s soil. The sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and marsanne offered good acidity, fruit and floral tones redolent of a citrus grove in the spring. (Danger: Addictively delicious!)The wineries are spread throughout the county with friendly tasting rooms and complimentary wine tastes. In total, there are of over 20 family wineries that make up the El Dorado Winery Association.

A short drive over the hill will find you in wine lover’s paradise and we have no doubt that after your visit, you will be singing the praises of El Dorado After a few glasses, you may be singing a few old miner’s songs too.

For more information and maps, visit

HI HO Syrah

Most wine lovers have probably never heard of the winery association known as the Rhone Rangers. We can assure you that it is not a renegade vigilante group aspiring to police the wine world. The Rhone Rangers is a consortium of American wineries producing wines made from the traditional grape varieties of France’s Rhone Valley.

The Rhone’s white varieties include viognier, marsanne and roussanne. The red wines are primarily made from syrah, petite sirah, grenache and mourvedre in addition to several minor varieties used in blends.

Every year the group hosts a tasting giving the wine trade and press a chance to taste hundreds of current releases and barrel samples. This year’s tasting reinforced what we have known for some time, Rhone varietals are well suited to the climate of the west coast. The diversity of the wines was astonishingly different depending on the climate where the grapes were grown. Syrah grown in cool climates, as a general rule, offered notes of fresh dark fruit with good acidity plus hints of mineral and spice. Warm climate syrah was more about ripe berries and big fleshy wines. While different, there were dozens of great wines in each style.

Of the three white varietals, viognier is our consistent favorite. Marsanne and roussanne have typically used as blending grapes to add complexity but there are a few wineries producing great wines exclusively with each varietal. Viognier is known best for its floral aromas of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. It makes a great accompaniment to spicy dishes such as Thai and stir-fry. Viognier is a wine that should be drunk young as it often begins to lose its aroma profile within a year or two from bottling.

Try a few Rhone varieties and you don’t even need a mask.

Wine Judging

7/18/07 Michael McCollum/The Record Colleen Stockton, of Carson City, Nevada, sniffs, tastes, swishes, and expels wine being judged for the California State Fair Wine Competition at Wine and Roses in Lodi Wednesday afternoon.

Imagine having 35 glasses of wine placed in front of you, each labeled with a number waiting for you to decide whether it is worthy of an award. The only information you will be given is the grape variety and the vintage. Repeat this scenario three or four times a day for three days strait. Yes, you must spit out all the wine, even the good ones! Major wine competitions require panels of four or five judges to evaluate over a hundred wines each day giving the best wines medals of gold, silver or bronze.  


Each year over 2000 wines are submitted to the California State Fair of which only a few hundred will receive medals. Judges are wine professionals who must pass a rigorous all day test involving the identification of wine quality, faults and varietals. The competition is exhausting but one we enjoy.  

Wineries submit wine to these competitions hoping to gain the marketing advantage a medal brings. There is an old saying in the wine industry that “gold means sold!”A medal winning wine must be free of faults, balanced and typical for the varietal.

A gold medal tells the consumer that the judges felt the wine was exceptional. Silver is given to very good wine lacking the completeness of gold quality. Bronze indicates an enjoyable wine, free of faults but without complexity.  

A medal is no guarantee that you will like a wine but you will know that someone did.


12th Annual Pinot Noir Summit

After twelpnsve years in San Francisco, the annual Pinot Noir Summit found its way to Reno, Nevada where the best pinot noir winemakers around the world came to dazzle wine lovers with their creations. It’s an amazing idea to bring together the fussiest of pinot producers, hold them in suspense for three months while judges taste through more than 500 entries before the top 96 wines move on to a final grand shootout featuring a consumer/gender judging mayhem. The Pinot Noir Shootout is considered one of the toughest competitions in the world to earn a medal, giving the winning winemakers something to brag about.

For those attending, there were no disappointments. Not only did participants get to taste great wines, there were two educational seminars where winemakers talked about the difficulties of producing great pinot noir and why the grape expresses itself differently in each region it is grown. The secret to great pinot is location and passion. Known as the “heartbreak grape” among winemakers, great pinot noir takes patience and attention to detail when growing and selecting a harvest time. After a scrumptious lunch, participants were divided into two groups to blind taste 46 wines and pick their own winners which were announced at the evening grand tasting. So much fun for consumers to then see how their picks aligned with the judges choices at the end!

So….without further ado here are the winners:

Best of Show: TR Elliot Vineyards 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

Second Place: Handley Cellars 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir Summit is produced by Affairs of the Vine, one of many top notch events they produce every year. Chief Wine Evangelist, Barbara Drady is well known in the wine industry for her seminars on aroma identification and wine blending in addition to large tasting events. Drady teamed up with Atlantis, Reno’s cellar master, Christian O’Kuinghttons to create the memorable event. The Atlantis chefs pulled out all the stops to create food offerings that paired well with the incredible wines. “Pork Belly Lollipops”, “Ponzu and maple glazed goat cheese and wild mushroom crostini with white truffle oil” and “steamed buns with Asian duck confit” were just the beginning of a fabulous spread.

If you missed this years event, make your plans now to attend next year

The Wine Couple

Our wine journey has been one of exploration as we continue to learn and experience new wines. Each new vintage brings something new and unique that will never be duplicated again. The excitement of constant new discoveries is the catalyst behind the column as we travel the world’s wine growing regions, sharing our experience with our readers.

Austria – A New Taste of an Old Wine Region

If you think that Austria is about Mozart, Strauss, the Sound of Music and Arnold Schwarzenegger you are missing out on one of wines best-kept secrets. Austria produces less than one percent of the worlds wine but most who taste it believe it to be some of the most interesting and exciting wine ever to traverse their taste buds.

For those looking to tangle their tongue, look no further than pronouncing the names of Austria’s native grape varieties Gruner Veltliner, Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Rotgipfler and Schilcher. These indigenous varieties are staking a claim internationally and the emphasis is on big fruit, good acidity and early drinkability.

No newcomer to wine production, Austria has a winemaking history that dates back to somewhere around 700 BC. It is the quality of the wine, however, that has lead to the wine worlds rediscovery of this tradition rich region. Situated south of Germany, Austria’s continental climate, many rivers and fertile soils make the land ideal for wine production.

The majority of wine produced is white and overwhelmingly, Gruner Veltliner, an aromatic and flavorful wine showing lively citrus and peppery spice yet crisp enough to be one of the food-friendliest wines available. If you are looking for the perfect wine to pair with sushi or Mexican food, here it is. The best examples are grown on the steep hillsides of the Wachau and Kamtal regions along the Danube River on terraced vineyards that are not for the acrophobic. Storybook villages dot this breathtaking landscape making it easy to understand why Austria inspires so many great artists. In addition to the Gruner Veltliner, some of the greatest Riesling we (and many wine critics) have ever tasted can also be found here.

Red wine production accounts for 25% of the total wine produced but thanks to modern winemaking practices and a new generation of winemakers, the ratio is becoming narrower each year. In the Eastern wine regions of the Burgenland, red wine accounts for over 50% of the wine produced. St. Laurent, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch (known as Lemberger in Washington State) are the rising red stars of Austria. St. Laurent is often similar in taste and aroma to Pinot Noir. Zweigelt offers seductive cherry fruit with velvety spice and for those looking for a more powerful wine, Blaufrankisch typically offers notes of dark berry, licorice with rich tannins.

Sweet wines to die for are predominantly made near the shore of Lake Neusiedlersee. This huge shallow lake creates conditions perfect for the formation of Botrytis or “Noble Rot”, shrinking and concentrating the grapes to make sensuous dessert wines that don’t need dessert. The region’s first official Trokenbeerenauslese (a sweet wine) was made in 1526, the last of which was drunk in 1852 (326 years later). Talk about aging potential!

If you visit Austria, prepare yourself to fall in love. From the opera houses of Vienna to the small country inns called “Heurigen”, there is something for everyone (even if you don?t drink wine).

You may have trouble finding Austrian wine locally but it’s worth the effort.

Calaveras County – 41 Wineries, 3 traffic Lights

With his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain brought attention to this small region in the heart of the Sierra Foothills. A century and a half later, Calaveras County is celebrating its notoriety as one of California’s premium wine growing wine regions, now home to 41 wineries.Visiting the sleepy little town of Murphy’s will conjure up images of an earlier time when fortune seekers filled the saloons and boarding houses during the height of the gold rush. A handful of immigrants brought grape vine cuttings along with their gold pans and sluice boxes, soon realizing that they could make more money selling wine to the miners than with the back breaking work of prospecting.

In 1870 there were over 100 wineries operating in Calaveras County. Eventually, the mines played out and prohibition put an end to this once thriving industry leaving the majority of the old vineyards unattended for the next 50 years. The current renaissance began in the 70’s, as new vineyards were planted and the old vineyards were brought back into production. “Old Vine” zinfandel is some of the most intense and complex wine found on planet Earth and Calaveras County is home to a handful of vineyards over 100 years old!

A visit will reward you with great wines, friendly tasting rooms and a touch of history at no additional charge. You might even catch one of Dan’l Webster’s relatives and see how far he can jump!


Don’t Fear the Wine List

If you’re like most people, you are handed a nice leather bound restaurant wine list and panic begins to set in as you try to choose what to order. It is likely that everyone at the table shares the same fear and are quite content letting you shoulder this heavy burden. A few simple rules will have you ordering wine like a pro while your dinner companions admire you as some sort of “wine god”.

If the restaurant has a sommelier (Soh-mell-yay), the proper name for a wine steward, ask them to guide you through choosing an appropriate wine for your meal. A good sommelier will know which wines on their list pair well with their menu items. If not, ask the waiter what they recommend. Even if the extent of their knowledge is that they have both white and red wine, they should know what is popular. If this fails, you may wish to look somewhere in the middle of the wine list price range and select a variety that you like. If you’re still confused, a safe bet is cabernet sauvignon or merlot for a hearty red and chardonnay or pinot grigio for a white.

Now that you have ordered the wine, the real fun begins. You are ready to show the waiter and your guests that you know wine! When the waiter brings you the bottle he/she should hold it for you to inspect the label. Make sure that it is the wine you ordered.

The waiter will open the bottle and may hand you the cork. Many experts advise against smelling the cork but since you are paying for the wine, it is up to you. The waiter will pour you a small sample that you should hold at a 45-degree angle and inspect the wine for clarity. Ponder the wine for several seconds while looking intently at the wine against the tablecloth. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it will impress everyone!

Next, swirl the glass for about three seconds and take a really good sniff of the wine. If the wine smells clean and “fruity” you can taste the wine and nod for the waiter to pour it for the table. If the wine smells of moldy hay or wet cardboard, send it back. The wine is “corked” and even the best wines can be affected. Cork taint is caused by contaminates in the cork, not the wine. This is a valid reason for asking for another bottle.

You now have the basic tools you need to stand up to the snootiest waiter and show the world that you will not be intimidated by a 10-pound wine list.

It’s Time to Open that Bottle

Go ahead and admit it, you are one of those people who have a bottle or two of wine sitting on top of your refrigerator or tucked away in a closet waiting for the “right” time to open it! It is a common myth that all wine gets better with age when in reality, very little of the wine made today is destined for long aging, save a handful of very expensive cabernet sauvignon or the sweet desert wines coming from Sauternes, Germany and Austria. Even these require near perfect storage conditions where temperature and humidity allow the wine to age slowly such as in a good wine cellar. While there are a few other exceptions, most wine is made to be enjoyed as soon, or at most, a year or so after you purchase it. Storing wine in a warm place such as the top of the refrigerator may add style to you kitchen but will cause the wine to age rapidly, giving it a “cooked” taste which is fine for Marsala but nasty for merlot.

With summer now in full swing, its time to grab your corkscrew because what time could be more right than now? Summer wine parties are a great way for building new friendships and renewing old ones. You can choose a theme where everyone brings the same varietal or just have everyone bring a bottle of wine and a favorite dish to see how each wine enhances (or diminishes) the taste of the food. You could also throw a costume party where everyone dresses up as a bunch of grapes and brings a six pack of beer, but where is the fun in that!?

Have each guest bring a bottle of wine and before opening them, place each bottle in a paper wine bag and write a number on each bag. Some of your guests will be surprised that their favorite wine of the evening was not theirs and only a few will be likely to guess which wine they brought.

These “blind tastings” are a great way to improve your palate and sensory skills and it is amazing how many different aromas and tastes a group of people can derive from a single wine.

Glassware cannot be overemphasized for serious tasting. It is not necessary to run out and spend $50 each on special tasting glasses but choose ones that are tulip shaped with enough volume to swish the wine thoroughly volatilizing as much aroma as possible. If you do not have enough glassware to go around, have everyone bring a few of their own so you can evaluate several wines side by side. Keep the pours small, 2-3 oz., which is enough to analyze several wines without having the alcohol make you think more of placing a lampshade on your head instead of the wine.

Most importantly, wine is made to enjoy so what are you waiting for?