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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 22 (February 14, 2005)

Friday, February 4: Rose at 6 am to deal with emails before the car ordered for 7 am. Took no time to get to the airport. At the check-in desk the attendant could not find my booking. I pulled out my electronic ticket and discovered I had arrived a day early. The flight was tomorrow! Somehow I had gotten it into my head that I was leaving on Friday. Took a taxi back home – an expensive morning. At least it gave me the opportunity to do the Friday Vintages tasting for the March release. My colleagues had a good laugh when I told them. Slept for an hour in the afternoon, having rebooked the car for tomorrow. Picked up take-out from a Chinese restaurant within walking distance – called C'Est Bon (!). Deborah and I sat there waiting for 40 minutes. The owner explained there was meant to be one more server but yesterday had been slow so they hadn't called him in. We ate the meal watching In The Heat of The Night. What a great performance by Rod Steiger.

Saturday, February 5: Déjà vu all over again. Car to the airport. The American immigration guy asked me if I had any gifts. I wanted to tell him that with all due modesty that I had written nine novels and twelve non-fiction books on wine, but refrained. Instead I replied, "I have a half bottle of Icewine."

"A half bottle?" he queried.

"It only comes in half bottles," I told him.

"Oh, I thought you drank half."

Maybe they do have a sense of humour.

At San Francisco Airport I rented a Ford Taurus and drove through San Francisco to Santa Rosa. The cherry trees along Van Ness Avenue are in blossom and the sun is shining. The hills, from Sausalito, once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, look like green velvet. What a treat to be out of Toronto's winter. My hotel is the Fountaingrove Inn. A form letter on the floor of my room: "Dear Valued Guest, Welcome. We are delighted you chose to stay with us. We believe that each guest's stay should be as enjoyable and memorable as possible while recognizing the fact that our guests may have widely differing priorities during their time with us. We want to advise you that there will be a social gathering this evening in our Camelot Ballroom and there will be music for dancing accompanying the festivities. The event is slated to conclude at 12:30 am..." 12:30 am means 3:30 am my body time and the Camelot Ballroom is right opposite my doorway... Felt peckish so I drove over to Trader Joe's because I wanted to see the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon up-close and personal. The Charles Shaw line of California wines at $1.99 a bottle has been sweeping California. Trader Joe has it stacked up along the walls in cases – five different varieties – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz. But no Pinot Noir – obviously too expensive for this label. The guy in front of me in the line-up bought a case of Chardonnay and a case of Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought some sushi in lieu of lunch.

Am to meet Nick Frey at 6 pm; he's the executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, and will be my guide. We're dining at Mirepoix, a small restaurant in Windsor, a favourite of Nick's which he says is one of the best in the County. On the back of Chef Bryan Dempsey's card is a definition of mirepoix: "a French term for an aromatic mixture of vegetables, herbs and spices used for flavoring stock, soups and stews. It takes its name from the picturesque medieval town of Mirepoix in the Languedoc-Pyrenees region, where it was concocted for the Duke of Levis-Mirepoix in the 18th century." Travel broadens the mind... Nick had brought along two bottles of Pinot Noir from Russian River producers we won't have time to visit – two of the best whose wines are really hard to get. We start with Dehlinger Octagon Pinot Noir 2000 – quite deep in colour with a sensational nose that suggests a fine red Burgundy. Very elegant on the palate with a soft, silky mouth feel and a flavour of black cherries and violets, quite forward and irresistible. The Rochioli Three Corner Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000 is a bigger, denser more dramatic wine that is a little tight when first approached in the glass. The Dehlinger was soft and fleshy while the Rochioli is muscular and tense. In less complicated times I would have describe the first as feminine and the latter as masculine, but now I mustn't; so slap on the wrist. The Rochioli is dry and meaty with a beetroot note, minerally and tannic. In another two years it will be terrific. If all the Sonoma Pint Noirs I'm going to taste on this trip are as good, then I'm in heaven... For our first course Nick and I shared an order of scallops with a crust of black pepper and clove which picked up the flavours of both wines magnificently. We both ordered the special, lamb shank off the bone on a bed of quinoa, another very tasty dish, followed by Myer lemon pie. Back at the hotel by 8:30 pm. Read the latest edition of The Wine Spectator that carries a story headlined "Research Links Red Wine To Healthier Lungs." I can sleep soundly now – as long as the party next door isn't too lively.

Superbowl Sunday, February 6: It must have been a boring event because I heard nothing. Up at 7 am to a beautiful spring morning. Nick picked me up at 9:50 am. This will be a Russian River winery day. Our first stop is Russian Hill, a pretty estate from whose deck you can see Sonoma-Cutrer, the Saralee Vineyard (some of it terraced) and Martinelli. Ellen Mack is proud of the fact that you can see two hop kilns from here. Proud too of her husband Ed's invention of a hydraulic punch-down machine, the shallow fementation tanks with their double-jacketed bottoms and a hydraulic lift to tip the bins into the crusher that allows preliminary sorting. We taste four Pinot Noirs, the Sonoma Coast 2001, Estate 2002, Tara Vineyard 2002 and Meredith 2002. I liked the Tara best for its dry elegance and well-extracted fruit.

Rod Berglund, the winemaker at Joseph Swan, arrived just as we were about to leave since his winery – an unprepossessing large shack – was locked when we arrived. He complained of allergies. Suddenly there was a rush of visitors as we began tasting, including John Holdredge, a lawyer who has a small winery in Healdsburg. Four wines here: Cuvee a Trois 2002, a blend of three vineyards, Saralee's Vineyard 2001, Trenton Estate 2002 and 2000. Rod is interested in flavour rather than colour; his wines are quite pale but intense and beautifully made. His Trenton 2002 with its spicy, cinnamon and raspberry flavours was one of the best wines I tasted all day.

Tracy Dutton tells me that Sebastopal Vineyards will change its name to Dutton Estate Winery in future – a case of the original name becoming a second label. Dutton Ranch is 1200 acres, of which 600 acres is leased out. She offers their 2001, then the Thomas Road Vineyard 2002, followed by the lovely Jewell Vineyard 2002 (succulent black cherry and minerals, full-bodied and forward). Broke ranks and tasted their Gail Ann's Syrah 2002 – a lovely wine, smoky, leathery with a medicinal note but great fruit with a floral grace note and firm finish.

Lynmar is owned by Lynn and Mara Fritz, who have big plans to renovate the winery and build a hospitality centre. They have architectural models in their tasting room at Graton. Started off with their Vin Gris 2003, a deep rose with a candied raspberry flavour, full-bodied but a little short. This was followed by their Russian River Valley Pinot 2001, hot and heavy, and their Quail Cuvee 2002, which is stunning – pencil lead nose, sweet cherry fruit, spicy and stylish.

Lunch just up the street at Willow Wood Market Café, a funky, hippy restaurant-cum-store. Nick and I had a sandwich.

Dutton Goldfield next in a collective tasting room called The Stone Elephant that also houses the fossilised remains of a behemoth that had been found on the property. Tasted four Pinots – Dutton Ranch 2003, Sanchetti Vineyard 2002, Devil's Gulch 2002 from Marin County and McDougall Vineyard 2002 from Sonoma Coast. The wines here are burly, rustic and artisanal.

By contrast, Rodney Strong is a slick, commercial operation with a well-run tasting room and opulent surroundings. Rick Sayer, the winemaker, adds Syrah to his Pinot for colour and it shows to the eye and the palate. Rodney Strong was one of the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. We taste the Estate 2002, followed by Jane's Vineyard 2001 and 2002 (named for owner Tom Klein's mother). The wines have a smoky black cherry and chocolate flavour. We finish with two clonal selections from Jane's Vineyard, 2A 2003 and Dijon 115 2003 (the first is meaty and thick, Syrah-like, the second, more elegant, spicy black cherry). Sayer uses rotary fermenters to extract maximum colour, but some winemakers feel that the agitated movement of the seeds adds unwanted tannins to the wine.

At Sapphire Hill I taste winemaker Tim Meinken's Estate Pinot Noir 2002, very Burgundian – dry, raspberry flavour (although the woman behind the tasting counter says she prefers to call it Classic style, rather than Burgundian. What is Classic style if not Burgundian! Is this another case of Freedom Fries?). This tasting room also pours Holdredge. I taste John's 2002 Pinot Noir made from Saralee and Renhop Vineyard fruit. Very disappointing with its volatility and drying fruit. Camellia Cellars is also part of this compound.

Around the corner in Healdsburg is the tasting room (they call it a Tasting Lounge) for a new winery called Thumbprint.Cellars. The owner made wine for friends and would mark the varietal name on the bottle with a gold pen. One day, in a hurry, he smeared the writing and left a thumbprint on the bottle. That's his label (which has been electronically altered in case the police put it on file, I guess). The 2002 I tried was sweet candied raspberry, firmly structured but marred by a touch of volatile acidity.

At Aldberbook, tasted two Pinots: the 2002 and the 2001 Reserve. Rather commercial style, sweet and ponderous. The 2001 had a volatile note.

Armida, a gorgeously sited winery south of Healdsburg, set high above the valley floor, offered me two wines: Castelli Pinot Noir 2003 (oaky, plummy, dry and tannic with a green finish) and the named Bacigalupi Vineyard 2002, which unfortunately did not live up to its euphonious name. Sweet plummy fruit with a roasted note, probably left to hang too long.

Belvedere Vineyard: an organic 2001 Russian River Pinot Noir – sweet and plummy, high alcohol with a coked note.

We dropped in on Rochioli, one of the great names of Russian River Pinot Noir. Tom Rochioli, a banker turned winemaker (there's salvation for you) wasn't there, but we had a chance to taste his 2003 Estate Pinot noir. The flavour was ripe cherry, beautifully balanced with a velvety mouth feel and a tannic lift on the finish. Rochioli uses Sauvginon Blanc skins in their Pinot fermentation to help extract more colour and to stabilize it, a technique called co-pigmentation. Other winemakers in the County use Chardonnay skins.

From here to David Bynum, one of the pioneers of the region. The wines were frankly disappointing, including one corked wine at the tasting bar which had obviously been poured for several people already. The 2001 Russian River Valley was lean with a green finish. Lindleys Knoll 2001, sinewy, raspberry and firm. Three Vineyards 2001, stewed and pruney. Le Pinot, from Rochioli's oldest block, had sweet black cherry fruit but was already showing its age and had a sharp tannic finish.

Porter Creek was something of a revelation. Situated next to the MacMurray Ranch, which I will visit tomorrow, this is a certified biodynamic vineyard. George Davis' son Alex makes the wine. He studied in Burgundy and it shows. His Pinots are the most individual I've tasted so far. Fiona Hill Pinot Noir 2002 is minty, licorice and fresh mushroom on the nose with a spicy red berry flavour, firmly structured, tense and muscular. Hillside Vineyard Old Vine 2002: perhaps the most Burgundian Pinot yet – light, lean and elegant, redolent of raspberry and violets with a firm finish. Half the production here of 3,500 cases is Pinot Noir.

I am booked to have dinner with Greg Lafollette, the winemaker at De Loach. When I arrive Greg is barbecuing dinner for his six kids at the winery's guest house (which has a pool and a hot tub). Greg doesn't look old enough to have done 21 vintages. He has worked at Davis Bynum, Beaulieu Vineyards, Hartford Court and Flowers. He now has his own label, Tandem. Pinot Noir is the most honest grape, he says, because it speaks most of terroir. He is passionate about Pinot and approaches his winemaking with the scientific dedication of a molecular biologist. He complains that many winemakers are using enzymes to extract colour in their Pinot Noir rather than letting the wine express itself. He uses dry ice during a longish cold soak to get colour. We taste Deloach 2001 Estate made by his predecessor – pencil lead and minerally, elegant but rather tart and green on the finish. The OSF 2002 was much better, earthy and rich black cherry flavour with an note of orange peel on the finish. We drive to a processing plant which is now a collective winery where he makes his Tandem wines. We taste several from the barrel, different clones and then, by nine o'clock, return to the guest house for dinner. But there is no food in the refrigerator. Greg rustles up a loaf of bread, some cheese and some fresh mushrooms he'd picked with the kids that afternoon. And we stood at the kitchen table munching on these while drinking his Tandem Keefer Ranch 2002 – a very forward wine, richly extracted with sweet, spicy fruit. I ask him who he thinks are wines to watch for Pinot Noir. He tells me James McPhail, Londer in the Anderson Valley, DuNah and Lookout Ridge. He loads me up with bottles of his single vineyard wines to taste at home.

Monday, February 7: My first stop is Gary Farrell. You approach the winery, set high above the valley in Forestville. I am to meet my friend Pooch here who runs the California State Fair Wine Competition and writes for the Sacramento magazine. The bronze gates at the entrance to the winery are designed to mirror the line of the hills behind. Gary Farrell sold to Allied Domecq and is mightily relieved to be out of the office and back in the cellar. Gary started making Pinot Noir at Davis Bynum in 1982 (50 cases) from the Rochioli and Allen vineyards. In '86 he helped to design the Rochioli winery and made their wine, training Tom Rochioli for three years. We start with Gary Farrell Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (a rich, full-flavoured with sweet grass and kiwi flavours); then on to two Chardonnays, '03 Russian River Valley and the Cresta Ridge '03. They are both mouth-filling wines with pineapple and citrus flavours. The Cresta Ridge from Green Valley has a more mineral edge with a butterscotch finish, a lovely wine. Next, Star Ridge Chardonnay 2003, a big, creamy wine with a citrus and white pepper finish.

The on to the Pinots, what I'd come for. "After 25 years I've come up with my barrel recipe for Pinot Noir," he tells me. Medium toast French oak, mainly Allier, from several coopers, namely Francois Freres, Seguin Moreau, Rousseau. One-third new, one-third one-year-old, one-their two-year-old oak. Russian River Valley Pinot spends 10 months in oak, vineyard designated Pinot, eleven to twelve months in oak.

We start with the Rochioli, a deeply coloured wine with a peppery, black cherry nose, full-bodied with a floral note, very elegant with soft tannins and an orange peel finish. Then his Allen Hillside Block 2002: leaner and more acidic, very firm and delicious. Next Gary's largest bottling, the Russian River Valley Selection 2003 (he makes 5,000–6,000 cases of the wine). Minerally, strawberry flavour, firm and fruity with a lively acidic spine, good length. Next, Star Ridge Pinot Noir 2003: deeply coloured, vanilla, wet earth and black cherry on the nose, a licorice note on the palate, again lively acidity. We finish the tasting with his Dry Creek Valley Maple Vineyard Tina's Black Zinfandel 2002 (a field blend of grapes) – it's dense purple, spicy and floral with blackberry and black pepper flavours, again with the signature acidity.

On to Gallo's MacMurray Ranch, a 1700-acre property that Gallo bought from Fred MacMurray's adopted daughters in 1996 (the Hollywood actor, who died in 1991, used the farm as a retreat from the glitz of Hollywood, inviting his friend John Wayne for weekends). The property was settled by the Porter Family (whose descendants run Porter Creek next door) in 1856. MacMurray bought it in 1944. The Gallos are only the third owner of the ranch. Kate MacMurray was invited to return to live on the property. The old horse barn has been converted into a training and education centre and is used for meetings. Fred MacMurray's office has been recreated here with his own furnishings, typewriters, adding machines and photos of his prize-winning cattle. He was also an artist, and there's one of his paintings on the wall. We were hosted by Sandi Lucchesi, whose card reads "Senior Wine Ambassador." I like that. We taste three Pinots – Two Rock Sonoma Coast 2001, smoky, tarry, fruity with evident oak, a simple style; then MacMurray Ranch Sonoma Coast 2002 – deep ruby in colour with a minerally, tarry, blackcurrant nose, spicy and fruity, medium-bodied, easy drinking. Followed by the MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley 2001: deeper coloured with an iodine note, earthy black cherry flavour and rather tannic.

We drive to Healdsburg for lunch at Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, where we meet Roger Riccardi, Gallo of Sonoma's Marketing Director. He has a bottle of Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2003 from Marlborough, a winery recently purchased by Gallo and a Tuscan Chianti.

Next stop La Crema, a winery with two women winemakers, Melissa Stackhouse and Elizabeth Grant-Douglas (who used to work at Inniskillin). They make five Pinot noirs from Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Carneros and a blended wine called "9 Barrels." "When you make Pinot Noir," says Melissa, "you have to make it as if you're a small winery. I really didn't want to make Pinot Noir. I wanted to make Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. I had a little 'come to Jesus.'" We tasted two Chardonnays before the Pinots (both very good, the 2003 Russian River and the 2002 9 Barrels) and then the 2002 Russian River Pinot Noir: fresh mushroom and cola nose; intense, firm, black cherry flavour; still tight but well extracted and vigorous. La Crema Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2003 (inky, cherry, minerally nose with notes of tea leaf behind the blueberry and cherry fruit with good acidity). Carneros Pinot Noir 2002: dense purple, fruity, black raspberry and mushroom nose; earthy, chunky mouth-feel with a rich, clovey finish. Then my favourite of the tasting – the 9 Barrel Russian River Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002 – a complex nose of mushroom, rust and tomato leaf and pencil lead; rich, sweet fruit, full-bodied and concentrated, with a firm structure.

Drove to the north end of Green Valley to Hartford Court, where winemaker Mike Sullivan served the best Chardonnay I've had on the trip in the winery's elegant dining room: Hartford Court Seascape Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2002, succulent sweet pear and apple flavours that morph into pineapple and tangerine and linger forever. Then into the Pinots: Hartford Court Sonoma Coast 2003 from the Seascape Vineyard: mushroom and cherry nose, rich and warm, full-bodied and well structured. Then the 2002, a great wine: smoky, tarry, funky nose of oyster shells, almost Syrah-like but soft and velvety with beautifully integrated tannins. Next was an Anderson Valley wine, Velvet Sisters Vineyard 2002: high-toned, slightly medicinal nose, Rhone-like with a caramel note on the finish. Next, Carneros fruit – Seven Bench Vineyard 2002: very elegant, minerally sweet red cherry, soft mid palate but firm on the finish. Finally the Russian River Valley Arrendell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002: dense ruby colour; minerally, firm with the characteristic Russian River black cherry and earth flavour.

Dinner at Iron Horse in Sebastopol. Nick Frey and his wife meet me in the parking lot. Joy Sterling and Forrest Tucker have invited another couple. (Joe Madalena is a location manager scouting prime film sites in Northern California.) Confession: Iron Horse has always been my favourite California sparkling wine house. We star with a series of their wines, including a rosé, but by this time I have put my notebook away because the wines are delicious and I'm having far too good a time to take notes. It's such a pleasure just to sit back and enjoy the dinner party conversation without analyzing everything.

Tuesday, February 8: My first visit this morning is Schug. Walter Schug has been making Pinot Noir since 1973, when he was winemaker at Joseph Phelps (the first wine through the crusher, Walter tells me, was Pinot Noir. In 1974 he made the first Syrah in California). When Phelps dropped Pinot Noir from the portfolio in 1979, Walter left to start his own winery. What is it that captivates Walter about this grape? "The delicacy, the finesse. There's hardly a wine that expresses it better than Pinot Noir." He planted his vineyard in 1990. The wind factor in Carneros is what makes the distinctive difference here. Winds up to 30 miles an hour that can pull end posts out of the ground make for thick-skinned berries and shut down the leaves in the afternoon. This gives extra hang-time for the grapes, says Walter, and makes them spicy. Here in Carneros he gets an earlier spring because of the influence of the Bay; the wind factor prolongs the fall. Fog in the morning makes the leaves inactive, then the wind comes up, giving a short window for growth. The longer hang time allows the colour in the skins to fully mature. "You have to handle Pinot Noir like a silk blouse," he says. "Pinot Noir is such a hothead when it starts fermenting there's hardly any stopping it." He ages his wines in larger casks than other Sonoma producers, some as large as 800 gallons (old German ovals).

In the underground cellar dug cruciform into a hill behind the winery we taste, with his son Axel and winemaker Michael Cox, his Rouge de Noirs Brut, a pretty, deeply coloured rosé made from Pinot Noir. It tastes of raspberries with an aftertaste of almonds. Schug Carneros Chardonnay is very Burgundian in style, with a nose of fresh mushrooms, apples, and citrus fruits; buttery on the mid palate with a caramel and tangerine finish. The Heritage Reserve Chardonnay 2003 is even better, with flavours of orange, apples and spicy. Carneros Pinot Noir 2003: purple-ruby colour; violets, leather on the nose, very elegant but powerful and sustained with firm strawberry fruit. Carneros Heritage Reserve Pinot Noir 2002: really speaks to the vintage – spicy fruitcake nose, elegant blueberry and blackcurrant flavour, richly extracted with great length. We tried three different clones as barrel samples of the 2004 vintage, which really showed the diverse expression of the soils in Carneros. Then Mike went to the cellar to bring back two older vintages. 2000 Carneros Heritage Reserve is elegant, but I found the fruit to be drying out. By contrast, the 1998 vintage of this wine is still rich and spicy with that blackcurrant note I found in the 2002.

Gloria Ferrer is just down the road from Schug. You can see the old cellars from Schug's vineyard. Best known for their sparkling wines, Gloria Ferrer began making still wines in 1991 and now makes 22,000 cases of Pinot Noir alone. It was good to see my old friend Eva Bertran, who lined up five of the company's Pinots for our tasting.

Etesian Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2003 is named for the Mediterranean wind. It's an easy-drinking wine with an oyster shell nose and a floral raspberry and red licorice flavour.

Carneros Pinot Noir Estate 2002 has a soft mouth feel with an earthy taste of raspberry and violets. Rust Rock Terrace Carneros Pinot Noir 2000 is a lovely wine: smoky, medicinal, coffee bean nose, dry and the initial rush of fruit with a spicy currant and blueberry flavour and a velvety mouth feel. The Gravel Knob Pint Noir that followed had a tawny note in the colour with a nose of rust, earth and tomato paste. It showed a touch of ageing. We finished with Gloria Ferrer's flagship Pinot Jose S. Ferrer Selection 2000, a blend of the best barrels of the vintage. Again that marine oyster shell nose, mature sweet, malty, caramel-flavoured fruit, soft on the palate, full-bodied with a great tannin structure that carries the flavours to a lingering finish.

Eva took me to lunch at a famous truck stop called the Schellville Grill that dates back to the 1920s, formerly Lazy D's and then Yo's Triangle. On the balcony outside our window I could see piles of sandbags. These are used, apparently, against flooding from the nearby Sonoma Creek. On the table next to the ketchup is a box of well-thumbed Trivial Pursuit cards. Eva brought along a bottle of Late Disgorged Brut. Her husband David joined us and he and I ordered the chili, which was delicious.

Sheep graze next to the vineyard at Donum Estates (Buena Vista bought Robert Stemmler and Donum is under the same umbrella). Anne Moller-Racke oversees 90 acres of vineyard. I wasn't crazy about the Robert Stemmler wines we tried, 2001 Carneros, Nugent Vineyard Russian River 2002, Ferguson Block Carneros 2001 and 2002. But the Donum wines are fabulous. Donum Carneros Estate 2001, spicy vanilla and minerally nose, rich sweet and intense fruit flavous that dissolve into caramel and violets. The 2002 was even richer, with sweet chocolate and white pepper flavours, beautifully sculpted.

Anne gave me the best comparative description of Russian River versus Carneros Pinot: "Russian River is milk chocolate while Carneros is dark chocolate."

Chateau St. Jean: La Petite Etoile Fume Blanc 2002: straw coloured, sweet passionfruit and caramel with lively acidity. Sonoma County Chardonnay 2003 (Chateau St. Jean's largest production)– sweet pear and pineapple flavour, full-bodied and well structured. Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay 2001 (Alexander Valley): sweet fruit, caramel and butterscotch flavours.

Pinot Noir 2003 (Russian River and Carneros fruit): earthy black cherry, firm structure but a little short.

Durrell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002 (Carneros): shy nose, richly extracted, full-bodied and juicy.

Pinot Noir Reserve 2002 (Carneros): rich, spicy, firmly structured but slightly green on the finish with obvious tannins.

Dinner with Mike and Mary Calhoun at Landmark Winery. I have been a fan of their Outlook Chardonnay and was looking forward to their Pinot Noir. We started with the 1999 Grand Detour – very elegant, with sweet succulent fruit and lively acidity, one of the best Pinots I've tasted here. This was followed by the 2002 vintage, which showed very well with a soft sweet palate and beautiful balance.

Wednesday, February 9: Checked out of the hotel and drove across the mountain through Calistoga to Yountville. Had a coffee with Jim White, my old Toronto buddy, at Gordon's restaurant. Jim has relocated to Napa (and started and is now in the muffin, brownie and bagel baking business. While his house in Bella Oaks Lane is being remodeled completely he's rented a place in Yountville for a year. Back to the Villagio for lunch and a meeting of the Masters of Wine North America advisory board and then drove to San Francisco, where I booked into the Orchard Hotel near Union Square. At 7 pm Pooch and his girlfriend Heidi picked me up and we went to dinner at a Spanish restaurant, B44 Catalan Bistro. We ordered a bottle of Alvaro Palacio Les Terraces 2002 (delicious, which we consumed with pleasure with a series of tapas dishes. Then on to Masas where we sat at the bar and drank a half bottle of Chateau Loudenne 2000.

Thursday, February 10: Flew back to Toronto. The weather when I left San Francisco was delightful – warm sunshine and blue skies. Everyone on the plane groaned when the Captain announced it was minus 6 degrees in Toronto... It pays to be honest. At Customs and Immigration the woman behind the desk asked me if I had any alcohol. I said I had nine bottles of wine. "Do you travel often?" she asked. Yes, I replied. "Then you know you're only allowed 1500 mL of wine duty free." I said I knew this and was willing to pay the duty on the rest. "How much were the wines?" They had been given to me by the wineries to taste at home so I didn't have the exact price. "They averaged about $20," I said. She signed my form and I didn't have to pay duty. Had I said, "Oh, they were $8 each" I'm sure she would have made me pay the duty.

Friday: February 11: Just what I need after a trip – today is a Vintages release tasting and Karen emailed to say that she is on night shift at the Niagara Casino restaurant and can't make it to the tasting. And it's a big one. This evening I'm conducting a tasting for the Ferrari Club of North America at the Scarborough Golf Club. They gave me a pin – a yellow maple leaf with a black Ferrari symbol in the middle. I would have preferred a Testarossa.

Saturday, February 12: The Victor Fenn Group at Scotia McLeod held a client appreciation lunch in Oakville in the test kitchen at the back of a kitchen supply store. Chef Gurth Pretty cooks a meal and I match it with wines. He and I have done several of these events for Victor over the years and they're always good fun. We were 18 altogether. Started off with Codorniu Clasico Brut (Spanish cava) with hors d'oeuvres, followed by Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc 2004 from New Zealand with a delicious fennel soup; then pecan crusted salmon and polenta with stir-fried carrots and green pepper with Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2002 from Chile; a selection of Ontario cheeses; and ended with chocolate mousse with Mountain Road Vidal Icewine 1999. That evening Deborah and I drove to Caledon to have a pre-Valentine's dinner with our friends Frank and Patti-Ann Daley.




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