Beautiful Anderson Valley


Beautiful Anderson Valley

We recently spent a few days in the Anderson Valley (thank you Grammy for keeping the kids) sampling the region’s Pinot Noirs and talking to growers and wine makers.  If you haven’t been there, the area is incredibly beautiful–pastoral and bucolic, almost unreal.  The green hillsides, small vineyards, majestic redwood forests, flocks of sheep, organic cuisine and nice, interesting people make it a fabulous place to visit if you are looking for a quiet place to do wine tasting.  We have stopped there several times in the past on our way to and from Mendocino.  This time we went specifically to spend time in the valley.


top of Raye's Hill

top of Raye's Hill

Pinot producer Raye’s Hill has a guesthouse on the hill with amazing views of the valley where we spent 2 nights.  Dan and Raye Sokolow own the winery and a small vineyard and live on the property.   We enjoyed a bottle of their 2003 Pinot Blanc which was lovely and refreshing.  We also enjoyed the silence surrounding the house.  At night, the only sounds were those of raindrops and frogs.

There are essentially two towns in the Anderson Valley along Hwy 128.  One is Philo, which if you blink you’ll miss it.  The other is Boonville which is also tiny but large in comparison–a couple of good restaurants and cafes, a couple of shops, a school and the county fair grounds.  Many residents seem to piece together various part-time jobs to make a living.  One person who greeted us at the organic yarn and spinning store also sat us for dinner that night at the Boonville Hotel.  Another gal I had noticed sitting in the ice cream “shop” earlier in the day, served us dinner that night. 

Our first wine tasting stop was Breggo where owner/winemaker Doug took time from bottling to talk about the wine and the vineyards.  We loved his Anderson Vally PN as well as a single vineyard PN (also from Anderson Valley) he produces. 

Next stop–Toulouse.  The wine maker, Vern, a former fire captain, talked extensively with us even though he was also in the middle of bottling.  We took home some of his acclaimed estate grown Pinot Noir (2006)–very Burgundian in style.

We stopped at Roederer because I have a soft spot for sparkling wine.  We caught them in the process of disgorging and watched them hand-label their magnums.  That was interesting but it seemed so huge and corporate in comparison to the smaller wineries in the area. 

Navarro is also relatively large but is always a pleasant place to visit.  We stopped there to get a bottle of their dry Gewurztraminer and watch the baby doll sheep roam their vineyards as a natural, sustainable form of weed control.

natural weed control
Navarro’s natural weed control
distinct pruning technique

distinct pruning technique

Next day we met with a Pinot grower and wine maker right outside Boonville.  She generously spent an hour walking thru her vineyards with us, discussing her specialized cane pruning methods and lamenting the lack of rain.  She seems to take great care in the pruning of her vines and of her vineyard workers. Her wine was delicious too. 

Despite the fact that it rained while we were there, everyone was concerned about the water shortages they are experiencing. The situation is so dire there that on our last day communities were gathering from all over the valley holding rain dances in Ukiah, Willits, Mendocino and elsewhere.  We missed by an hour the rain dance gathering in Boonville held during lunchbreak of the monthly permaculture meeting.  According to one source, “A lot of pot (was) going to be smoked there.”  The area is known for its quirky, eccentric residents.  Quirky or not, you decide.  What we confirmed is that there are some amazing Pinot Noir, Alsatian varietal and sparkling wine producers there in that beautiful, beautiful place.

The label of our hobby wine is Domaine Carlotta.  Domaine, of course, refers to a property with vineyards that produces and bottles it’s own wine. We do have a few grapevines in our back yard here in Berkeley but fruit from better wine-growing regions go into our wine.  However, since the wine I’m referring to here is for our own consumption we didn’t worry about the technicalities.  

Carlotta is the name of the street we live on.  In a side note and much more interesting story, Carlotta is also the name of the Belgium-born wife of the Austrian archduke Maximilian who served a term as Emperor of Mexico during the early 1860’s.  His term, during a short French intervention in Mexico, was cut short by his overthrow and assassination.  

,Carlotta Empress of Mexico

Carlotta Empress of Mexico

Our next door neighbor and his friend (both Cal professors of Mexican descent) reminded us of this colorful bit of history while we were discussing current and potential names for our wine.  The Mexicans apparently had nothing against Carlotta, in fact they rather liked her.  They were simply rejecting foreign rule and had no choice but to kill her husband.  Carlotta, as a result, suffered profound emotional collapse and slipped into a state of paranoia upon her return to Europe which haunted her until her death.  That makes for a good story to tell when asked about our wine label; however, truth is, we really named our hobby wine after the street we live on.  

Now we are working on the name and label design for our 2 Pinot Noirs that will be released and available commercially later this year.  We considered keeping Domaine Carlotta; after all, that is where we got started making wine.  Besides, if we needed to spice things up a bit, we had the great story and images of intrigue and drama surrounding Carlotta, Empress of Mexico.  

Ultimately we decided, heck, you know what, we have our own genuine, even intriguing, female figures in our own interesting family history.  This is what inspired our entry into winemaking and eventually inspired the name we’ve chosen for our new release:  Stomping Girl Wines.  We founded Stomping Girl last year in honor of Uzi’s grandmother who started the family winemaking tradition and recruited Uzi’s sister, then a child, to stomp grapes during harvest.  Nowadays, we don’t stomp the grapes, of course. Rather, Stomping Girl is used more in a figurative sense represented by our daughters and myself, involved in the winemaking alongside Uzi.  We are confident it represents our family and our wine as well.



Boy, was Christmas a bonanza when it comes to books! I have been reading non-stop thanks to my in-laws, Kathryn and the Berkeley Public Library.  (By the way, re: Kathryn’s and my friendly disagreement, I agreed to only purchase books I consider as reference books, or a classic must haves, and use the library for the rest.)

The books I read over ‘winter break’: 

The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, thank you Eric Cohen ( for the recommendation.  I could not put it down, gone in 72 hours.   The book traces some of Bordeaux’s Chateau Lafite bottles that were supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and were sold at record prices at auctions and privately.  It has everything–mystery, international intrigue, and obscenely rich people paying obscene amounts of money for very old wine.  There are elaborate wine auctions, multi-day wine tasting, gourmet dining extravaganzas with all the big names in the wine world–critics, writers, collectors and winemakers.  The amount of detail is mind boggling.

Red White and Drunk All Over, by Nathalie MacClean.  Loved it. The woman loves wine and it shows.  I mean, not just the whole lifestyle nonsense with the semi-euphoric fruit bowl descriptions you get from some wine writers.  She is funny too.  Check out her instructions on how to properly open up a bottle of  Champagne.  And her lovely recounting of her experiences in Burgundy, starting with a Domaine De La Romanee Conti private tasting; thru her experiences as a sommelier and finally to a ‘damn the torpedoes’ dinner with Jay McInerney.  Reading this book is like listening to a good friend telling entertaining stories.   Part way through the book I had a nagging suspicion that Ms MacClean has been snooping around my house. How else could I explain that I have just about every book she mentions?  I can almost understand the references to several of the wine books I own and Kermit Lynch etc. etc., but, when she mentioned the Long Tail by Chris Anderson,  I knew something was up! Fess up Nat!

The Emperor of Wine , by Elin Mccoy ,a fascinating tale of how an unknown lawyer from  Monkton, Maryland, Robert M. Parker Jr., became the most influential wine critic in the world.  Creating an almost religious following, he changed the way wine is made and eventually created what appears to be a backlash movement (see The Battle for Wine and Love)  against his preference for big, fruit forward, high alcohol wines. Very detailed and thorough writing by McCoy who used to be  Mr. Parker’s editor  at Food & Wine magazine and hence had unprecedented access to him. Regardless of which side of the Parker debate you fall, this book is a must read.

The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World From Parkerization, by Alice Feiring; I had high hopes as I walked down to Kermit Lynch and bought the book (I missed the book signing in August, darn!)  While a good read, I came away slightly wanting.  Given the ambitious title, I was hoping for some convincing arguments to be made.  Instead, most points came down to a difference in taste preferences. Based on the title, I had hopes that Ms. Feiring would use the opportunity to make a good case against the homogenization of the wines currently underway, in her opinion, to impress the mighty palette of Mr. Parker.  I was hoping she would make a logical and convincing case against the creation of McWines and in support of diversity of wine styles.  She didn’t in my book.  For me, the book was also too diluted by anecdotal stories of her love life. Maybe that was the point of her approach, that wine is like love—you may encounter many disappointments before finding your one true love.  Not sure.  But it seems the search is still on for someone to save the world from “Parkerization.” 








Too wet and rainy to drive up to Napa or Sonoma on the weekend? Don’t despair, you can still visit a winery and support your local community .There has been a proliferation of wineries right here in the Bay Area. In the East Bay alone we have 17 wineries that are members of the East Bay Vintners Alliance.

A good write-up about the newest East Bay wineries was done by Contra Costa times writer and blogger Jessica Yadergaran.

Across the bay, last Thursday, the San Francisco Wine Association inaugural tasting event was held at Crushpad in San Francisco.  Sixteen member wineries participated. The driving force behind SFWA is John and Sharol Tarabini of Damien Rae. A crowd of a couple hundred people was definitely enjoying the event along with me.  The event was described in a Wine and Vine article and by a local SF blogger, a Wine Brat by her own account, in a post titled when the lights go down in the city.

Given that we live in Berkeley but make our wine in San Francisco,  maybe we should hedge our bets, enjoy both worlds and join both organizations. Any opinions?

Last Saturday, our friend grower/owner of Sonatera Vineyards, Debbie Friedenberg, told us about Siduri’s  annual holiday open house in Santa Rosa.  Siduri is a producer of multiple highly acclaimed, single vineyard designate Pinot Noirs. Adam and Dianna Lee, the owners of Siduri, are an inspiration to a lot of up- and-coming boutique wineries, such as ours.

The wines came from (in geographical order) Sonoma Mountain’s Van Der Kamp, Amber Ridge, Hirsh Vineyard, Sonatera, Sonoma Coast, all the way down to Santa Lucia Highland’s Pisoni. Impressively, many of the tables were staffed by the vineyard growers themselves, such as Sonatera and Van Der Kamp.  This gave us an opportunity to ask detailed questions about the vineyards and find out what makes them unique.

The wines were all outstanding with the vineyard and appellation differences clearly coming thru in the wines.  Unfortunately we had to rush through the tasting as we had only an hour to spare but it was a great opportunity to try Pinot from some of the best vineyards of California (and one from Oregon) side by side.

I was thrilled when Dianna Lee, dressed in black with a royal tiara on her head due to the theme of the open house, took me on a private tour of the barrel room for a barrel tasting of the 2008s.  First, we chatted a bit about our respective kids.  It is hard to believe Dianna and Adam are raising three young kids while running such a phenomenal winery.  Then we talked a bit about the wines we make and started tasting her 08s. First was the 08 Sonatera (Debbie Friedenberg and Marne Coggan’s  vineyard.) Although it is just three months old, a baby wine that just finished Malo, it is already off to a great start with great aroma, color and fantastic mouth feel and flavors. Not a surprise, given that the 07 single vineyard Sonatera we tasted on the floor was our favorite.

Since I also make Santa Lucia Highlands, Dianna was very kind to let me try a couple of the Santa Lucia Highland barrels from Garry’s and Pisoni’s vineyards. Now we have a reference point for greatness.

It was very gracious of Debbie to introduce me to Dianna and for them to spend some time with me during the hectic open house. Thank you to you both!

Next time you are near Santa Rosa, give Siduri a call to schedule a visit, you will not regret it, especially if you are a Pinot fan (or a Dallas Cowboys fan as you will appreciate the Wine Tank names.)

During a recent conversation regarding our wine-making endeavors, I overheard a comment implying that Pinot Noir is purely a fad. My wife, taking offense to this comment, countered that we have been drinking, loving and making Pinot long before the Movie came out.  Obviously, many Pinot and Burgundy lovers have been drinking wine made from this grape for centuries; long before the Movie came out and long before the advent of modern marketing.  bellbottom

However, I do agree that part of the current Pinot craze we are experiencing is a fad. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that many current Pinot releases are made to please the palate of a non-Pinot drinker.  I am referring to the heavily extracted, high alcohol, fruit bomb, over the top Pinots I have encountered recently. They resemble a Syrah or Merlot rather than the delicate, perfumed, silky, nuanced wine that we came to love.

Now, there is no black and white in my wine world.  There is no wine that is better or worse than others.  There is only time and place; as in, every wine has its time and place. But I am a sucker for a good Burgundy.  We live a stone’s throw from Kermit Lynch (god bless him) and that has spoiled us.  It also has exhausted our yearly wine budget at only mid-year.  Our palette grew accustomed to Burgundies and we did not drink any serious California Pinot until 1995 when we tried Acacia while wine tasting in Carneros. The wine was pure and elegant; we were pleasantly surprised and grateful to find we enjoyed some Pinots made closer to home.  And our palate grew richer for finding it. 

Over the years we’ve discovered other styles of winemaking that take place in other regions–Russian River, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, Anderson Valley, Chalone and Willamette Valley, to name a few.  Some of the most exquisite and intriguing we’ve had were made by Calera in the Gabilan mountains, on Mt. Harlan—far away from Napa and Sonoma and even farther from Burgundy (at least, geographically.) Each one of these regions is different and wonderful in its own way and each winemaker imparts his or her own style on the wine.  My advice is to be open minded, to try new wines and not get closed in.  I’ve learned to listen to my own palate since I am the one spending my precious running-out time with the bottle, not the reviewer or whoever else is providing opinions.

As we have been making our own Pinot for five years, I have developed a much greater appreciation for a superb one when I encounter it. In my experience, winemakers that allow wines to make themselves usually produce the wines I appreciate and enjoy the most.  It is difficult to restrain yourself, step back and let the wine make itself. After all, you might mess up the whole vintage and have to wait another year to try it again. The urge to do something and ‘fix’ whatever problem you think the wine is having is very strong. But we learn to live with what we are given, to try not to make a ‘perfect by-the-numbers’ wine, to appreciate the differences year to year.  Sometimes Mother Nature hands you a ‘non-typical’ year, such as the frost then heat of 2008 in California, or the unmatched heat wave of 2003 in Burgundy.  I’ve been in involved in agriculture and agriculture products for a long time myself, I know it is no use to fight it.  Instead you make the most of what you got, you work with it and if it gives you a highly extracted, high alcohol, juicy wine, so be it! It is better than manipulating it to the point where it is no longer itself in order to have it represent a ‘typical’ style or region for the sake of consistency.

So, is the swell in Pinots a fad?  Yes, it is a fad for some people, but it is a good thing. It is a good thing because we now have so many new wine consumers being exposed to this varietal.  Yes, some of them will look for their beloved Cabernet or Syrah attributes in there, but others will try wonderful and honest Pinot Noirs and will appreciate their nuanced elegance. Some of them will discover the great artisanal Pinots being made all over the world, not just Burgundy or Carneros or Russian River. And some of them may turn this ‘Fad’ into a permanent appreciation. And we will all be better for it.

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