Kenwood Vineyards – Sonoma Valley

Kenwood Vineyards combines two of my favorite things – art and wine. I wanted to visit this tasting room because I was familiar with their Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon. For over 30 years Kenwood has been highlighting paintings by contemporary artists on a select Cabernet Sauvignon release.

Kenwood exterior

The tasting room is located in the original circa 1906 Pagani Brothers Winery building. It sits on over 20 acres of vineyards. The tasting room is open daily and the day we visited they were offering five tastes for $5. It is warm and cozy with a very friendly vibe. There is a good collection of wine-related gift items for purchase as well as posters of the artist series labels. Yes, I was a sucker for these and purchased a print of the 1990 Sam Francis label.

The Artist Series Cabernet releases originated in 1978 when Kenwood Vineyards commissioned a local artist, David Lance Goines, to create a pastel art panel to enhance its 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon. The image Goines created featured a tasteful naked woman reclining on a vineyard slope. When the 1975 “Naked Lady” label, as it was affectionately referred to, was submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for approval it was denied as obscene and indecent. Only 228 bottles with the “Naked Lady” label were permitted to leave the winery. The label was resubmitted with a tongue-in-cheek label featuring a skeleton in place of the woman and was also was rejected. The label eventually approved showed only a grassy hillside with a stream running by, but the notoriety and rarity of the original design launched the Artist Series.

Kenwood Label

Showing how times have changes, the label was resubmitted in 1997 for the 20th anniversary and it was approved.

During its first decade, the Artist Series focused on works by contemporary artists. The 1987 vintage broke with tradition by featuring a painting by Joan Miro, and in the years since, the Artist Series has presented works by other important artists from the past, including Pablo Picasso, Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Henry Miller, Alexander Calder and Paul Klee.

Kenwood Jack London

Beginning in 1976, Kenwood Vineyards was allowed to produce wines from the Jack London Beauty Ranch, which is located in Glen Ellen. Jack London is a famous author, perhaps his most famous works include “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”. Much of the original land was donated to what is now Jack London State Historic Park.  Additional land, a unique red-lava soil that was planted in grapes in the late 1800s, still produces outstanding – Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Syrah wines. These wines are defined by the unique wolf head logo from Jack London’s bookplate. Kenwood has an exclusive agreement to purchase the grapes from the Jack London Vineyard.

Kenwood tasting room

On this gorgeous Napa day, Dennis was pouring for us. We had several yummy wines including the 2010 Yulupa (which means “bright and shiny”) Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines were specifically created for the restaurant community to serve by the glass. Our tour experience came to an end all too soon, but not before we got a quick peak at the original wooden tanks located in the back of the tasting room.

Kenwood Barrel room

Ferrari-Carano Winery – Dry Creek Valley / Sonoma

Ferrari Carano feels like a chateau in the middle of Tuscany

Ferrari Carano feels like a chateau in the middle of Tuscany

 

We arrived at the Ferrari-Carano winery on a sunny, unseasonably warm winter’s day. Even in winter the grounds are gorgeous with camellias ready to burst into bloom and winter pansies adding dots of color. The first one to greet us was “Bordeaux” a statue of a wild boar that had been decimating the garden.

 

Bordeaux is one of many sculptures on the property

Bordeaux is one of many sculptures on the property

He is reminiscent of Pietro Tacca’s Boar, known as “LL Porcellino (the little piglet), that was originally created for the Boboli Garden in Florence in 1612. The winery is resplendent with beautiful art – each with its own touch or amusing story.

On tour with Michelle - she made learning about the wines a lot of fun

On tour with Michelle – she made learning about the wines a lot of fun

We had made an appointment for a 10am tour and were joined by a woman from Tennessee and her daughter. It turns out that she had been married at the winery a few years ago and had stopped in to reminisce. We were greeted immediately and turned over to Michelle for our tour. Michelle has been with Ferrari-Carano for over seven years. She has a great passion for the company and is excited about all aspects. She as knowledgeable and made our tour a lot of fun. She even told us that she answered the phone the day H. Bush called to order wine for a niece’s wedding.

The gardens are gorgeous - I can't wait to see them again in the summer

The gardens are gorgeous – I can’t wait to see them again in the summer

There is so much to do and see on the tour. Michelle encouraged us to touch – touch the cork oak tree, touch the grape vines, feel the coolness of the stainless steel tanks and the smoothness of the barrels. I really liked the fact that the tour took us out to one of the vineyards to see the grapevines growing and then into the facility to see how the grapes are sorted and crushed.  They also have a several videos on Youtube. I like the one that shows the process for their Cabernet Sauvignon. The gardens are spectacular – I can’t wait to see them again in the spring or summer. They employ seven full-time gardeners and have over 2,000 varieties of plants. With goldfish and bridges, waterfalls and statues you can spend quite a bit of time in the gardens.

Ferrari-Carano has a wonderful rich history. Don and Rhonda Carano are second-generation Italian-Americans hailing from Reno, Nevada. Don is an attorney and Laurie has a degree in nutritional science. In 1973, they opened the Eldorado Hotel and Casino. For them it was all about hospitality and making it a place they themselves would like to visit.

The barrel room was still decorated from the holidays on the day we visited

The barrel room was still decorated from the holidays on the day we visited

Then in 1979, on a wine buying trip for the casino, they purchased Home Ranch – 60 acres (30 of which were planted in grapes) in the Alexander Valley. The winemaking bug bit, but unlike many other winemakers who may have started haphazardly, Don and Laurie took classes at UC Davis. They wanted to get off on the right start. In 1985 they purchased the site of the present day winery and in 1987 they opened the tasting room.

The production facilities are very impressive

The production facilities are very impressive

After an informative tour with Michelle, we were turned over to Patrick for some tasting. I found it very interesting that Ferrari-Carano has two winemakers – Aaron Piotter, who makes the red wines and Sarah Quider, who makes the white wines and Pinot Noir. It makes a lot of sense, but I had not heard of this before. There are two tastings to select from. They are both very good. The first is upstairs in the gift shop (definitely worth checking out – many unusual items). For a $5 fee you get to select four wines from their Classic wines. The 2012 Fume’ Blanc and [SS1] the 2009 Zinfandel are especially noteworthy. Another guest tasting while we were there told a wonderful story about the Fume’ Blanc. She said she had been a flight attendant in American Airlines first class and they were allowed to take the not quite empty bottles after a flight. She loved this wine and always took this with her.  She went on a date with her now husband, who is a self-confessed wine snob and he pulled out what he said as one of the best white wines to come out of Sonoma. She had to laugh it was the Ferrari-Carano Fume’ Blanc! She knew he had good taste.  J

Downstairs in the Enoteca you can find the limited release wines. A tasting fee of $15 for four selections will be refunded with an $80 purchase. Interesting wines here include the unfiltered 2010 Emelia’s Cuvee’ and my favorite the 2011 Fiorella which is a limited production of Napa grapes. It spends 15 months in French oak and is really delicious. The 2010 Sky High Ranch Pinot Noir is also wonderful with lots of berry flavors. A couple of other limited release wines worth mentioning are the 2008 Eldorado Gold – it is 100% Semillion but very reminiscent of a sauterne. I can just imagine it paired with blue cheese or cheese cake or maybe a crème brulee.  The 2012 Eldorado Noir is 100% black muscat. It would be amazing served with bittersweet chocolate or a berry tart.

The production facilities are very impressive
There are two tasting rooms. You will want to visit them both

There are two tasting rooms. You will want to visit them both

I love the fact that Ferrari Carano maintain their employee’s long term. The vineyard manager has been there for more than 25 years and is a fourth generation Napa farmer – that is how you make excellent wine. It is a family vineyard. The employees feel like family and seem to bottle love with the wine. They are proud of what they do and how well they do it. Michelle proudly told me that Rhonda did all the design for the Vintner’s Inn and the tasting room. She also said that all the recipes they use and on their website are also Rhonda’s. It is in an area called “Rhonda’s Kitchen“.  I am eager to try the Cappellini with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Arugula..

Another story I heard was that a couple came in for a private tasting. The gentleman was handed a special bottle of wine and the server stepped out of the room for a moment. He turned to his girlfriend and asked her what she thought of the label….it said “Please Marry Me”. The entire winery heard the answer. It is these types of special touches and memory-making events that make Ferrari-Carano such a special place.

You will certainly want to visit and make sure you plan plenty of time to explore the gardens and vineyards. They are open to the public, but if you want to take this terrific tour you will want to make an appointment.


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Château l’Hospitalet: A Unique Hotel in the South of France

With a few extra days to spend in France I scoured the internet to try to find an interesting little inn or a B&B to surprise my husband.  I happened across several postings about Château l’Hospitalet, a hotel on a working vineyard. The reviews I found online were very mixed, but our love of wine won over and I booked one night to give it a try. Unfortunately we decided it was way too short of a stay and we cannot wait to go back.

We arrived late at night.

We arrived late at night.

Château l’Hospitalet is located very convenient to Narbonne, France – about a 15 minute drive. A unique property for Europe, there is a 38 room hotel, a tasting room / store and a simple restaurant that provides local cuisine. It is beautifully nestled among the rolling hills covered in vines.

The next day our surroundings were a pleasant surprise.

The next day our surroundings were a pleasant surprise.

The property sits among the grapevines of a working vineyard.

The property sits among the grapevines of a working vineyard.

The history is very interesting. Château l’Hospitalet was once owned by the monks of the Narbonne hospice who used it to grow vines. The first mention of the name Château l’Hospitalet was in 1561.  It fell into disrepair and in 1991 it was restored to a chateau and the vineyard was developed. In 2002 Gerard Bertrand, a well-known rugby team captain, purchased the property. Bertrand owns six wineries in the Languedoc region of France.

With so much to see and do along the way we ended up arriving at the hotel quite late. Getting a bit lost in the dark, the hotel staff was very nice, giving us additional directions and waiting for us to arrive. Our room was clean and simply furnished. A complimentary bottle of wine in the mini-fridge was a very pleasant surprise. We had arrived so late the kitchen was closed at the restaurant, but we were able to enjoy a glass of wine and small snack on the outdoor patio. We were told jazz music is usually played on the weekends.

The next morning we explored the grounds and met some of the very friendly staff. Even though it was only 9am we were offered a wine-tasting. There was a graduate student interning for a year from England. She was very excited to be able to speak English to us. She was bubbly and fun as well as extremely knowledgeable about the wines of the region.  She poured quite freely encouraging us to try some of the wines produced by Gerard Bertrand’s other wineries. We found several that we really enjoyed and purchased a couple of cases at very reasonable prices. After an hour of tasting we opted for a quick nap by the pool before having to head back to Narbonne to catch our flight.

The restaurant is simple and charming.

The restaurant is simple and charming.

I have since learned that Chateau l’Hospitalet is one of the most important vineyard sites in the whole south of France. Recently the place has been named ‘European Winery of the Year’, as well as ‘Red Winemaker of the Year’. It was much too short of a visit both to Chateau l’Hospitalet and the Languedoc region. On our next visit we will plan a much longer stay.

We had a wonderful time tasting so much delicious wine.

We had a wonderful time tasting so much delicious wine.

If you are in Barcelona, Freixenet is not too be missed.

On one of our visits to Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma we had a fabulous tour guide who had just returned from a trip to Spain to visit Freixenet S.A., the sister company of Gloria Ferrer. She marveled at the sheer size of the wine caves and told us how charming the surrounding village was. We decided if we ever visited Spain, Freixenet was on our “must do” list.

About six months later, we had the opportunity to visit Barcelona. We discovered that Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the Catalonian municipality famous for the Spanish sparkling wine called “Cava, was only a 40 minute train ride west of Barcelona and an easy day-trip.  95% of all  Cava is produced in the Pendes area of Catalonia and the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia is home to both Freixenet and Codorniu.

The train station is conveniently located across the street from Freixenet. I made a reservation via an email that I obtained on their website and we were able to join an English tour group. Wine-tasting in Europe is not as commonplace as it is in the states. It tends to be an organized event at larger wineries and you often have to have an advance reservation.

Freixenet Entry

Freixenet Entry

The Freixenet tour is one of the best tours I’ve experienced; beautiful interiors, lovely flowers and greenery and antique Freixenet-themed cars and motorbikes – perfect for a few photographs.

The tour begins with a short film of the Freixenet story in a small theater. Then we were led to an elevator to descend the multiple stories down into the old cellars for more details. There are several stop-off points with DVD presentations and tour-guide explanations. The cellars also serve as a museum with many antique tools and machines displayed that are used in making Cava. Our tour guide was entertaining, knowledgeable and very passionate about Cava. Freixenet produces more than 90 million bottles a year.

The cellars are vast and cover multiple levels.

The cellars are vast and cover multiple levels.

The cellars (caves) are spectacular! They are vast and store 150 million bottles of Cava – very impressive. The last part of the tour takes you from the old cellars to the modern cellars via an electric train. The cellars are so large and cover multiple levels so this is the most efficient way to get around. There are also several beautiful works of art on display both in the cellars and throughout the buildings.

A small train carries visitors through the new caves.

A small train carries visitors through the new caves.

To finish it off the tour we enjoyed a complimentary glass of delicious Cava in a very modern tasting room with a very nice view. Further drinks and snacks are available to purchase. Freixenet is known for their Carta Nevada and Cordon Negro.

Freixenet Entry