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.

A recent development in wine bottle closure that I almost hope takes hold is the screw cap.

Life is easy

Life is easy

I have to admit, I am as old fashioned as the next guy, when it comes to wine in any case.  I love hearing a cork being pulled out, it’s the sound of happiness for me. When I hear it in a restaurant I usually exclaim ‘Mazal Tov!’  I also love to play this little game with my wife, without her knowledge.  This is how it goes:  She is quietly reading in the living room at the end of the day.  I secretly pull out a bottle a wine, insert the corkscrew, turn it, turn it and then quickly pull out the cork to make as loud a popping sound as possible.  I can almost feel her ears perk up to that familiar sound as she wonders what bottle I just opened.  Inevitably, she stops what she is doing and saunters into the kitchen.  Ah, the games we play.

So, with all these fun and games, why do “I love screw tops”? This one is for you, Daddy Winebucks. One evening last week we are sitting around the kitchen island, our usual hangout.  Kathryn is busy at the stove, I am reading, Hannah is playing with her bunny and Ben also has his head buried in a book. By the way, before you get all Steinem on me, we usually take turns around the stove and Ben often makes pancakes for Mommy on his days off from school.  So, Kathryn says, “Honey, can you get me a glass of wine?”  Before I have a chance to respond, Ben opens the fridge and takes out a bottle of white wine.  He proceeds to screw open the cap, fill up a wine glass, hand it to my wife and then he says, “Is this ok, Mommy?”  My wife is flabbergasted…and pleased. Now Ben is a smart and dexterous guy, but he is only seven and he cannot do that with a bottle that requires a cork screw.

This beats the romantic sound of a cork popping out any day!

Kathryn, my lovely wife, sometimes gives me a hard time about the pile of books I have collected over the years that sit by my bed side.  She thinks that rather than buy these books, I should better utilize the libraries we fund so generously here in Berkeley (a topic for another entry) and she decries the sheer numbers of wine books we have.  I need your help.  Am I being unreasonable in my obsessions?  Collecting and reading so many wine books?  Or is this a realistic number of wine books a reasonable wine lover and winemaker would have?

 Adventure on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch. This is a tale of Kermit’s travels throughout the wine regions of France in search of the best wine to import. Kermit Lynch, besides being our favorite local wine merchant for the last 25 years, is formidable figure in the wine world.  He is also one of the few Americans to receive France’s highest honor:  the Légion d’honneur. This was in recognition of his influence in bringing about some changes for the better in French wine making. He is also one of the first importers to start shipping wine in refrigerated containers.  Some of his stories are funny and some are sad (buying wine in Burgundy was no picnic 20 years ago.) Once we got turned on to Chevillon’s Nuits St Georges, there was no turning back. A must read.

 Romanee Conti by Richard Olney

What can I say that hasn’t been already said about DRC or Olney?  Just read Olney’s book and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Olney’s description of the Vendanges alone is well worth the book’s price. The description of the Pinot Noir grapes, the vineyards and the wine making methodologies of the most celebrated domain of Burgundy are pure poetry; the description of the food procession during the harvest, mouthwatering.

The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell

About how a Texan, T.V. Munson, saved the French wine industry, no really! In 1869 France, as well as most of Europe was devastated by the Phyloxra bug.  You see this habit of saving France started way earlier than you think. The book reads as good as any mystery novel.

 Knowing and Making Wine, by Emile Peynaud.   A very technical book that is at times a bit dated, but never the less a superb, thorough enology manual by one of the most renowned wine educator in France.  A classic.


I could go on….

Winery Technology and Operations by Yair Margalit

The House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler

The Heartbreak Grape by Marq De Villiers

Techniques in Home Winemaking by Daniel Pambianchi

The Way to Make Wine Nicely written by our neighbor and fellow winemaker Sheridan Warwick

Vineyard Simple How To Build And Maintain Your Own Small Vineyard by Tom Powers

The Grape Grower by Lon Rombough

Pacific Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger


What’s your vote?  Overboard or reasonable?  Any titles I have forgotten that you recommend?  Please feel free to comment.

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