Saturday, February 13, 2016

Don Nunn's Top Ten Wine Picks for 2016

By Don Nunn

Let’s pick some interesting wines for our 2016 Top Ten choices.  It is an impossible task, but an enjoyable one!  To be rational, let’s say these are my Top Ten for non-special occasion evening dining, without any order of preference.   It would be easy to go wild with expensive cult wine choices, but we’ll keep our list affordable.

White Oak Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2014, $26.00.  Founded in 1981, this Vineyard has grown from its roots as a tiny winery to several hundred acres spread out across the Sonoma, Napa, and Alexander Valleys, with a Mediterranean style estate in the Alexander Valley.  The preference for oak or unoaked in Chardonnay is a matter of one’s personal taste buds, but one of the many things that makes for interesting conversation.  This Chardonnay is fermented in French and Hungarian Oak Barrels, resulting in light oak notes, along with tropical fruit and melon, and butterscotch on the finish.

Wild Horse Viognier, Central Coast, 2013, $17.00.  For those looking for an alternative to Chardonnay & Sauvignon Blanc, or a little experimentation with a white varietal, Viognier is crisp and refreshing.  This Viognier is fermented in neutral French oak barrels and aged for six months. Citrus and stone fruit will greet your nose and palate.

Walter Hansel “North Slope” Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2013, $39.00.
A fuller bodied Pinot, it is both rich and muscular, having great cellaring potential, but showing nuance and texture at present.  Dark berries, with shades of licorice and terroir predominate.
This wine is named after the father of current proprietor, Stephen Hansel, who has developed a reputation for placing quality above quantity, while his highly rated wines remain affordable.

Pierre Paillard, Blanc de Blancs – Acte 1, Grand Cru Brut Champagne, $69.99.
This Champagne is 100% Chardonnay, all 2009 Harvest, but not declared as a Vintage.  Bright, clear, crisp lemon zest, and just the right minerality.  Tight, tiny bubbles endlessly rise by the thousands. From the small village of Bouzy in the heart of the Champagne region of France.  One of my two favorite Champagnes of all time.

Rombauer Zinfandel, 2013, $30.00.  Grapes from Napa, Sonoma, and several surrounding counties. All fruit hand-picked at night and sorted in the vineyard.  Fifteen months in American and French oak.  Deep purple color with raspberry , cranberry, spice, and anise.  Not everyone is a Rombauer fan, but if you like your wine aged in oak, you will like Rombauer.  Rombauer fans are loyal.  Their Zin in always a big mouthfeel of jammy goodness, that goes down smoothly and leaves you waiting for the next mouthful.

Cambria Chardonnay, Katherine’s Vineyard, 2013, $22.00.  Cambria Vineyards is located in an east-west valley at the northern end of Santa Barbara County.  Approximately fifteen miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the wines benefit from a long, cool growing season due to coastal breezes and morning fog.  This Chardonnay is bright and crisp, with citrus and stone fruit. A good quality wine at a reasonable price, suitable for a weekday dinner.

William Hill, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012, $45.00.  Located at the Southern end of Napa Valley, 2012 offered relatively mild weather during the growing season.  A Bordeaux style blend, but with 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, and small amounts of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, it was aged in French Oak.  Cassis colored, it is full bodied, with spice and vanilla.

Willamette Valley Vineyards, Estate Pinot Noir, 2014, $30.00.  From one of the older Oregon wine estates in the heart of Pinot Noir country. Smooth, medium bodied, an elegant nose, tasting of raspberry, cherry, and spice.

Masi, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Costasera, 2010, $49.99.   Good Amarone is hard not to like.  There is a lot to learn about Amarone to insure that you are getting one of good quality, but you’ll never be sorry you made the effort.  Ripe dark fruit, spices on the nose like nutmeg and cloves; bold yet balanced.  Rich and complex are descriptions that I associate with Amarone.  A good one like Masi always tastes more mature than its actual age.

Trefethen, Dry Riesling, 2014, $25.00.  Trefethen Vineyards 41st vintage of Dry Riesling.  Riesling in the US is a very much underappreciated wine.  It still carries the burden of its past when thought of purely as a sweet wine.  There are still sweet style Riesling’s on the market, but I am not a fan.  A good dry Riesling, on the other hand is an entirely different thing.  Lots of acidity, crisp, clean, and flavorful, it pairs well with an amazing variety of foods.  This winery obviously has a long history with “Dry” Riesling.  Lime zest, citrus blossom, and crisp golden apple nose and flavors. A great new taste to explore if you haven’t tried or paid attention to Riesling.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seasalt Takes the Lead in Wine Dinners

by Frank Mangio
Sal Ercolano’s Seasalt Seafood Bistro restaurant, along the shoreline of a Del Mar lagoon, is  shaping the wine and dine experience as it enters its 2nd year of serving diners in the San Diego north coastal market. After a number of successful wine dinners last year and an Oregon winery event a couple of weeks ago, Ercolano sees Seasalt as a leading stage for great wines from around the world, paired with his innovative menu. ”I am planning to offer a sensational wine and dinner event each month and present it in one of  Seasalt’s event rooms,” he announced.  “The winery will  bring one of their experts to guide my guests with their choices.”

 Sal Ercolano, shown with his wife Carmen,
enjoys his wine events at Seasalt as much as anyone.

I asked Ercolano what he is planning for the next couple of months to match his Oregon event.  He got excited as he revealed that a leading wine estate from Napa Valley, Merryvale Winery, will be bringing their award winning wines to Seasalt Wednesday February 24th.  Then on Wednesday March 23rd, I got excited when I heard that it will be Italian Wine Night with Italian wine celebrity Marco Barat, presenting. his passionate and colorful wine stories, always worth the price of admission.

Speaking of price, Seasalt has been the most reasonable of any restaurant in their price package for their wine feasts.  Here you get a 5 course custom dinner , carefully prepared by an Executive chef. Add to this masterpiece, a minimum 4 generous pours of premium wines, with a professional wine commentator educating guests, for a cost of just $55.

The King Estate wine dinner featuring the Oregon winery was the best especially for red wine lovers. They enjoyed an intensive taste to their reds, led by the King Estate“Signature” Pinot Noir ( $29.) with very much a“Burgundian” flavor profile.  Burgundy, France was the birthplace of  Pinot Noir. A white wine sure to please is the King Estate “Domaine” Pinot Gris, a complex, delicious white wine with Nectarine, Apricot and Orange Blossom honey.  The 2014 is now released.($18.) This wine recently took “best of class” at the recent San Francisco Chronicle competition with over 7,000 entries. Seafood is the specialty of Seasalt. From spaghetti with clams ($17.) to Alaskan King Salmon glazed with honey ($26.), it all comes to life at Seasalt. For Sushi lovers, you’ll find a unique menu with choices as good as any in the area. Sal Ercolano is a seasoned, experienced restaurateur with Seasalt as his crowning achievement. He has tailored his restaurant into a culinary experience that keeps bringing customers back.  Find out more at

4th Annual Vin Diego Wine & Food Festival: April 1 and 2
The hottest wine and food show in town is returning for its 4th annual big day of sipping and sampling.  Vin Diego, with millennial swagger to it, comes again to Liberty Station in Pt. Loma San Diego.  Producer David Frischetti revealed to me that his winery booths sold out late last year.

            Flavorful small bites from the best restaurants are paired with over
75 wineries at Vin Diego in San Diego.

Nearly 75 wineries have signed up with 22 on a waiting list. Apr. 1st from 6 to 8:30pm, a special sunset tasting is planned called “A Passion for Pinot and Reserve Chardonnay.” This will be held at the nearby Grand Ballroom at the Liberty Station Courtyard Marriott. Tickets will be $75. each. Only a limited number will be sold for this exclusive gathering of wineries from up and down the west coast.  Sat. Apr.2nd will be the grand outdoor tasting with over 1,300 wines promised, from 4 to 7pm. Top chefs join award winning winemakers, with a silent auction and live music. The Silent Auction proceeds go to the San Diego Food Bank.  General admission ticket will be $95.  Get all the details and ticket options at

Wine Bytes
A Wine, Cheese and Chocolate event is happening at Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas at a Valentines party Sat. Feb. 13 from 1 to 3pm.  Cost is $75. 6 wines, 6 cheeses, 3 truffles and 3 chocolate bars are promised.  Call 858-442-2749.

Falkner Winery’s Pinnacle Restaurant in Temecula has a Valentine’s wine dinner and lunch event, Feb. 13rd and 14th.  Dinner is a 5 course meal with wine pairings for each. Exec. Chef Gianni Ciciliot presides. Price is $89. ea. for Sat. the 13th, and $104. ea. for Sun. Valentines Day.  Call the winery for an RSVP at 951-676-8231 xt 4.

VINZ Wine Bar and Restaurant in Escondido has a Sun. Feb. 14th Valentines Day event going with guitarists Jimmy Pattton and Enrique as the entertainment.  Great menu, champagne, wine, cocktails and dancing.  Call in for reservations and details at 760-743-8466.

Wiens Family Cellars, home of big reds in Temecula, has a Reserve Zinfandel & Chocolate Dinner, Sun. the 14th at 6pm.  4 port vintages and a reserve Zin are available. Food pairings with a chocolate influence.  $100. ea. for non club, $80. for club members.  Call asap for a place at 888-98-WIENS.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Portugal Wine Adventure - Part II

by Don Nunn
As promised in our first installment on travel and wine in Portugal, this second segment takes us northward from the coastal Lisbon area on the way to Porto, production headquarters for Port Wine.  From the seaside resort of Ericeira, we make our way north on day two up the Atlantic coast, and then inland only a few kilometers to the medieval hilltop village of Obidos, where a dazzling Pousada hotel in a real Castle awaits us.  Obidos was once an important seaport, but by the sixteenth century the river silted up, diminishing its former strategic importance.

Pousada Obidos

The Pousadas de Portugal serve the same purpose as a hotel chain (providing accommodations and meals), but are as different from a hotel chain as night is from day.  If one wants to travel with the dual objective of both living in style and simultaneously immersing oneself in the culture and history of Portugal, Pousadas are your cup of tea, or in the case of this writer and our readers, your cup of “vinho”!

Pousadas are operated by the Pestana Hotel Group.  While Pestana owns other hotels in Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere, the Pousadas are a collection of more than 30 hotels throughout Portugal that have historic or  cultural value, or especially atmospheric settings, all possessed of  enormous character.  Approximately half of the Pousadas have been converted into five star hotels located in ancient castles (Obidos being one), convents, or monasteries that have been completely restored, while at the same time being fully furnished with modern amenities.  They come not only with all of their historic charm, but also with all of the comfort desired by an upscale traveler.  With so many historic structures to renovate, the restoration specialists are true modern day craftsmen.  They install modern plumbing, electricity and other conveniences in such a manner as to render them entirely unnoticeable, thus preserving intact their historical appearance.  Although Pousadas are top of the line hotels, Portugal is truly affordable in comparison with all of the other central and northern European countries.

Obidos Village

     Arriving at Obidos it was easy, as is frequently the case, to view from a distance the approximate location of Pousada Castelo Obidos.  Traveling by car, one arrives at the base of the medieval village.  Typically the ancient fortifications encircle the medieval village on the highest point in the surrounding area where the original town was sited for defensive purposes, outside of which over the ensuing centuries, the modern town or city has spilled downwards.  The Castle is always situated at the very top, with the other important structures of the era generally situated nearby.  Convents and monasteries, were typically also situated in a prominent location with a commanding view over the countryside below.

Knowing the Castle was now the Pousada hotel itself, it was therefore evident that my destination would be found at the very top of medieval Obidos village.  Possessing that understanding, and executing it successfully, are sometimes two entirely different things.  As anyone who has ever visited a medieval European hill village has learned, the “roads” almost never have a straight portion.  The main routes wind up and down the hill in a generally circular fashion, while the side “streets” or alleys intersect in all manner of angular arrangement, none of them possessing any reasonable resemblance to a 90 degree turn.  Further, the routes of ingress and egress were originally constructed for horses, carts, and foot traffic, making them exceedingly narrow, and poorly suited for an automobile.  Happily, on this particular occasion, I was able to negotiate the climb to the Castle without any memorable misadventure.

Obidos Castle

The archway through the 14th century walled ramparts into the old village signified that the Pousada was at hand.  It is pleasurably convenient to arrive by automobile at one’s castle hotel for the night, parking steps from the hotel entrance (in this instance under a several hundred year old plane tree) where only the hotel guests are permitted to park, while the other tourists are wiping their sweaty brows struggling on foot up the steep cobblestone streets from their distant public parking lot, wondering why they didn’t know that it was possible to spend the night at the top in the castle.  Many times the only non-resident vehicles permitted to drive and park in the medieval villages are those of the registered guests of the lodgings situated in the interior of the villages.

There is something undeniably mystical about spending the night in a historic structure.  Character and atmosphere are words that come to mind in the course of enjoying a regionally themed evening meal in a dining room ringed with, and physically supported by, ancient arches constructed of huge blocks of local stone, artfully carved with impeccable precision by unknown craftsmen.  The magnificent edifices conceived and constructed by the talented medieval architects, engineers, and artisans with the tools then available to them, cultivates immense respect.  An awareness of ancient unknown memories fills the air, not in the manner of an apparition, but rather with a curiosity concerning the history which the ancient stone walls have witnessed, and all the lives that have passed through, now mostly unremembered.

The mantra of the Pousada management is to “faithfully reflect the architectural, decorative and gastronomic characteristics of the regions where they are located”.  At Obidos Castle, they got off to a good start.  Our joint selection for the main course at dinner was roasted duck breast lacquered with honey lime and orange juice, accompanied by a bottle of Piteira Reserva (2013).  From the Alentejo region, Piteira is a red blend of five Portuguese varietals, namely Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro Preto, Aragonez, Moreto, and Trincadeira.  If that sounds like a mouthful, it most certainly is.  While none of those names are familiar to U.S. consumers, they become a little more recognizable upon learning that Aragonez is Tempranillo and Alicante Bouschet is itself a blend of Grenache and another Portuguese grape varietal.  The Piteira possessed the desired medium depth and body, pairing well with the duck breast.

In our next Post we drive one hundred miles north and a little inland to reach the fabulous Bussaco Palace Hotel (which was in the past an actual Royal Palace), visiting along the way Portugal’s largest church, the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça, and then the following day heading to Porto.

Taste of Wine TV's newest travel/wine writer, San Diego (Poway) resident Don Nunn has traveled to many of the world’s most prominent wine producing regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Tuscany, Napa-Sonoma, & Alsace, other areas known to wine enthusiasts, such as Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, the Willamette Valley, Oregon, the Rhone region of France, and the Piemonte region of northern Italy, as well as lesser known wine destinations, such as the Jura, Croatia, Slovenia, Guadalupe Valley in Baja, Mexico, and the Kocabag Winery in Cappadocia. 

Don’s travels have taken him to France, where he has tasted and evaluated wines in virtually every wine producing region.  Italy, western Germany, Spain, Portugal, all of the wine producing regions of the US West Coast, as well as all of the areas mentioned above have been on Don’s itinerary as he visits tasting rooms around the world. E-mail Don at:

Merlot is the Queen of Red Wines

by Frank Mangio

Cabernet Sauvignon is without a doubt the King of red wines. It is the biggest seller in California and my educated guess is that it is produced in more countries that make wine than any other varietal.
So if Cabernet is the King, which varietal would receive the honor of Queen of red wines?

I can be a contrarian by my very nature.  If the herd is going one way, I tend to take the less traveled path.  So when I saw the movie of some 10 years ago, “Sideways,” all I could think about was how Merlot took such a hard landing in a blizzard of four letter words. Merlot comes from the French term “little blackbird.” According to the new Wine Bible, it’s actually a close cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon.  In Bordeaux France, one of the greatest growing grounds for red wine, the left bank of the Gironde Estuary produces Cabernet, and the Right Bank of the Gironde is Merlot country.  The Merlot pedigree is long and deep, especially in the St. Emilon and Pomerol districts.  A closer examination reveals that more than 60% of the grapes grown in Bordeaux is Merlot. Some 30% are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc.

Duckhorn Winery in the Napa Valley enjoys prominent success as
the acclaimed Merlot on the West Coast, thanks in large part
to its chief winemaker Renee Ary.

Dan Duckhorn founded his Napa Valley winery with his wife Margaret in 1976.  Prior to that date, the Duckhorns traveled many times to the Right Bank and fell in love with Merlot.  “Fundamental to our tradition was the early decision to focus on the production of Merlot,” Duckhorn revealed.  “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color, the fact that it went with a lot of different foods.”  Today, under the leadership of chief winemaker Renee Ary who was appointed to this position in 2014 after an 11 year apprenticeship, Duckhorn has 7 estate vineyards located throughout the Napa Valley , as well as the magnificent slopes of Howell Mountain . Each has several different flavor profiles.

The current Merlot vintage is the 2012, a blend of 88% Merlot and small amounts of other varietals. ($47.99). Some low production select vineyards command $95. per bottle. Other noteworthy Merlots would be led by the famous Chateau Petrus from Pomeral Right Bank in France .  The current 2010 vintage, if you can find it, sells for $2,799. Back in California , delicious fruit-forward names include:  Sonoma ’s Dry Creek Pedroncelli 2013 Merlot with rich flavors of black cherry ($17.) and Stag’s Leap 2013 Napa Valley 2013 Merlot with elegance and age-worthiness. ($45.)  Up in Washington , my choice would be Leonetti Cellars Walla Walla 2013 Merlot with black cherry/blackberry and hints of dried apricots, ( $ not available ) with a 4 year wait list for their wine club.

Mathew Allen, the wine manager of the huge COSTCO wine department in Carlsbad California , probably said it best when he commented that Merlot  overcomes the beaten-down effect of “Sideways,” every time a consumer buys a blend, which is a lot of today’s sales.  Either with a 100% Merlot, or with a blend, Merlot fittingly wears the Queen’s crown.

The Right Glass for the Right Wine
Riedel, the wine glass company from Austria , has just come out with their latest wine glass.  It’s a combination Cabernet/Merlot. ( see above story for the connection).  Decidedly French, it has a thin glass skin with a thinner rim for maximum flavor profile.  Does it make any difference which wine glass you choose for a wine tasting?  You bet is does.  With all Riedel glasses, a generous bowl guarantees a healthy swirl to open up the wine and get it aerated.  The only caveat is don’t put it into the dishwashing machine to clean it.  Do it by hand and it will reward you with years of service.

Wine Bytes
A Taste of Napa Valley is the theme for a wine tasting planned for the Forgotten Barrel, Sat Jan 30 from 12 to 6pm in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego. Six wines for $10. per person, from Chardonnay to Cabernet from the 2013 vintage. Details at 886-620-8466.

San Diego Wine Company is tasting wines from Napa to Sonoma , Sat. Jan 30, 11 to 4pm for just $10.  Get some names by calling 858-586-WINE.

Catena Wines from Argentina have the spotlight at Capri Blu in Rancho Bernardo, Wed. Feb. 3rd at 6pm.  Call 858-673-5100 for details including price for this great wine dinner.

Bankers Hill Restaurant in San Diego has a 4 course Cru Beaujolais pairing dinner, Thurs. Feb. 4th at 7:30pm.  $120. all inclusive.  The chef and wine director will be spotlighted.  Get the details at 310-387-5104.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Owners at Witchcreek Winery will Revitalize Carlsbad Village

by Frank Mangio
Carlsbad’s my hometown. The city has more success stories than any other in the San Diego County area by anyone’s yardstick.  Beautiful beaches, resorts, restaurants, a state-of-the art water purification plant and we’re on the threshold of a new Nordstrom’s with accompanying pristine shops and open trails.

Shifting the focus to the downtown area of Carlsbad , a big piece of this puzzle has been put in place when news broke exclusively to TASTE OF WINE that a sale had been finalized for Witchcreek Winery on Highway 101, the Coast Highway , just a few blocks from the beach and downtown Carlsbad Village . The wine community knows the new co-owners well, and the fit is perfect to revitalize this urban winery and the village.

Skip Coomber and Mayur Pavagadhi are the new
owners of Witchcreek Winery on the gold coast of Carlsbad . 

The co-owners are:  Mayur Pavagadhi, Carlsbad’s affable restaurateur and owner of PAON, PAON Wine Bar, 83 Degrees and Barrio. All are in Carlsbad Village and just a few blocks from Witchcreek Winery.  Skip Coomber has guided Coomber Family Wines to its place as the premium San Diego based wine, with Cabernet grapes the he sources from the most famous vineyard in Napa Valley . Combined, these two entrepreneurs are setting the bar high with their ideas for a new and greater Witchcreek.
As Coomber describes it, “Mayur and I have a growing friendship. One day last summer he called me with this opportunity and wanted me to be a partner and build on the current legasy of Witchcreek.

We both agreed that it was a solid business as the oldest urban winery in Southern California, (20 years at the Carlsbad location) with a young and passionate winemaker in Ryan Scott, who had come in from the Mira Costa College wine program as an intern in 2011 and taken charge in 2013.

He has been producing  24 different wines a year, with about 19 varietals sourced from throughout California and the Guadalupe Valley in Mexico. Mayur is adding a Master Sommelier, Gino Campbell from PAON to advise, along with Steve Barr for operational help.” I asked him what improvements he sees on the horizon. “We need better lighting along with bigger bar space.

Witchcreek winemaker Ryan Scott and new co-owner Skip Coomber display the winery’s
popular 2013 Zinfandel El Dorado, shown in front of the wildly attractive
“Sleeping Tiger” outdoor wall mural.

We have a 7 foot chandelier on its way, along with much more table space inside and out for wine education, tasting and small bites, along with space for us to produce and build on our current 750 member wine club. The Carlsbad Village Beautification Committee had a colorful ‘Sleeping Tiger’ mural painted on our outside wall and we want to create a new label of wines named after it.”
Witchcreek has had a long history of making quality, small production wines, many of them old-world varietals not that well known.

A good starting point for your introduction to this urban winery would be their Zinfandel with grapes from the up and coming El Dorado wine country near Sacramento .  The 2013 had only 115 cases made.  It is a lush full-bodied Zin balanced to perfection ($40.).

TASTE OF WINE will be reporting more on this vital new urban winery, now raising another star in the Village of Carlsbad .  Call for more at 760-720-7499 or visit

Wine Bytes
 The first great event of the year in the Temecula Valley  happens Sat and Sun Jan 30 and 31 from 11 to 4pm.  It’s the Annual Barrel Tasting, a self-guided tour where guests will enjoy barrel tastings, new wine releases and food sampling, offered at each of the wineries over a 2 day period. 16 different wineries per day. Sat or Sun  tickets are $78. ea.  2 day tickets are $128.  Click on to for details and to purchase tickets.

Ticket pickup is by will-call between 10:30am to 1pm each day. Information also by calling 800-801-WINE.

Stehleon and Vespar Vineyards urban winery in Escondido are presenting a cellar tasting with the winemaker, Sat Jan 23rd from 12:30 to 2pm. Taste wines at various stages of aging.  $25. ea.  Call 760-741-1246.

Vittorio’s Trattoria in Carmel Valley has a wine dinner featuring Seghesio wines of Sonoma , Thurs. Jan. 28th at 6pm.  Cost is $49.50.  RSVP at 858-538-5884.

Mastro’s is the Maestro of Palm Desert

by Frank Mangio
One of my top ten views is the one coming off the peak on Highway 74 to Palm Desert .  It’s an E ticket ride with its figure eight 2 lane highway that seems like 1½  lanes with the shear mountain walls on either side.  Once on the Palm Desert side, you’ll want to find the nearest wine bar and toast your driving skills.

Palm Desert is one of my favorite get-a-ways with its other-world look and feel.  Sipping a Cabernet with a dish of risotto and fresh Italian bread, gazing at the Santa Rosa Mountains that look like you could reach out and touch them, is my idea of relaxation.  There are 125 hotels and resorts and many of them can boast that feature. Plants and flowers are year-round drought tolerant.  They have to be…only about 5 inches of rain falls on Palm Desert .

The city has about 48,000 residents but that goes up about 31,000 in the winter as “snowbirds” fly  in from the north and Canada to warm up with the warmest winters in the western U.S. at an average 75 degrees. There are over 348 days of sunshine for the year. Yes it does get up to 108 more often than not in the summer, but it’s a dry heat, and with air conditioning around every corner, you can forget about the heat outside. El Paseo is the main shopping district in Palm Desert with 150 shops and restaurants.

Shopping and dining are my two not-to-miss pastimes and both are spent on El Paseo, the pristine, sophisticated avenue with over 150 shops and restaurants.  The biggest names will show you desert fashion that you’ll want to be wearing the next day. At the center of the El Paseo action is Mastro’s, the classic steak house for locals, visitors and celebs.  I like to call Mastro’s the Maestro of fine wine and dining in Palm Desert. The music, the atmosphere and the steaks sizzle nightly in the bar and dining rooms. Yes, one of the first things I noticed and loved was the number of semi private rooms with  lots of room between tables so the chefs can roll out the entire entourage of food at the same time.

 Executive Chef Erik Wepfer of Mastro’s in Palm Desert presents a “Branzino”
whole Mediterranean fish  with his 4 course menu.
The night our group was there, the menu selections included:  Smoked Salmon, French Onion Soup, an 18 ounce Bone-In Filet that was shared and a Mediterranean Sea Bass that was called “Branzino” with skin and tail in coated sauces that allowed for consuming the skin, which I found surprisingly delicious.  When you go be sure to order the dessert that Mastro’s has become famous for.  The general manager, Natalie Stern, who has been with the restaurant group for some 9 years, who helped open this location 3 years ago, swears that customers come in just to feast on the warm dessert butter cake with whipped cream and powdered sugar.

California Cabernets dominate the wine list with no finer selection in the desert.  Names like Bryant, Opus One, Joseph Phelps, Dominus, Pahlmeyer, Caymus, Silver Oak and many more are in abundance. If your passion is for exotic drinks, try the Apple-tini with dry ice.  It’s smokin’ good!
To learn more about this elegant place to dine, visit or dial up 760-776-6777.

Wine Bytes
Il Fornaio with 2 locations in San Diego County is presenting the special food and wine of Lombardia Italy , now through January 24.  It’s the original land of Il Fornaio which began in Italy in 1972.  A favorite is the Filetto di Blue al Gorgonzola.  Restaurants are in Coronado and Del Mar.

Firenze Trattoria in Encinitas welcomes Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles for a wine dinner, Thurs. Jan. 21 at 6pm.  Meet Andy Miner, President of Niner, and enjoy wines like the 2011 Fog Catcher with Short Ribs al Cabernet.  $85. per person.  RSVP at 760-944-9000.

Wiens Family Cellars in Temecula Wine Country has a Wine Blending Party Fri. Jan. 23 at 6:30pm.  You’ll be blending and tasting 4 different varietals of wines.  The experts at Wiens will be there to coach you and you’ll be bringing home your own blended bottle.  Light food will be served.  $100.  Club members pay $80.  Find out more at 888-98-WIENS.

San Diego State University will be holding an open house for its Certificate in the Business of Wine program Mon.  Jan. 25, 6 to 7:30pm at Splash Wine Bar, 3043 University Ave. in San Diego. Meet instructors and students.  To RSVP this no-charge event, call 619-594-1138.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Screaming Eagle Winemaker Nick Gislason – Napa Wine Valley ’s Wine Making Genius

by Frank Mangio
My jaw dropped as I uttered something like “could you say that again, only slower,” as we sat in a swank Dallas restaurant and the Sommelier presented a bottle of Screaming Eagle from Napa Valley, original vintage released in 1995, for “only” $10,000. per bottle. He  had two others he could sell me for the same price.

Nick Gislason is not a boy.  He’s in his early 30’s, but by all appearances he could pass for one.  I think it would be safe to say he is a young wine making genius for Screaming Eagle, the most iconic, enigmatic winery in Napa Valley and possibly the world.  Like being shot out of a cannon, he went through the highly regarded wine viticulture courses at UC Davis near Sacramento , all the while picking up wine jobs at leading wineries in Napa Valley like Harlan and O’Shaughnessy.

Nick Gislason is the winemaker for Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle,
where a bottle of the current 2012 release reportedly sells for $850.

In an interview with Wine Enthusiast, Gislason revealed that “in my last few months at Davis, I was looking for jobs and it occurred to me that I should talk to Andy Erickson, (Screaming Eagle’s then winemaker). We sealed the deal and I became Andy’s assistant February 2010. But he left Screaming Eagle about  a year later.  I knew there was a chance I would get the  winemaker job although there were many candidates that were older and more experienced.  I was chosen for the job.” Wine Enthusiast then asked Gislason how he would describe himself and he answered “I’m somebody who’s charging 100 miles and hour and loves every single minute of it.”

The 57 acre Screaming Eagle was founded in Oakville , Napa Valley , in 1986 by a former real estate agent, Jean Philllips. The first winemaker was Heidi Barrett. The vineyard was replanted for Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in 1995 for a Bordeaux style of wine after noted wine critic Robert Parker awarded Screaming Eagle 99 points, securing it as one of the most celebrated and expensive wines in the country.

In 2006, the vineyard was sold to Stanley Kroenke and Charles Banks for an undisclosed sum described by Phillips as “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” Kroenke, later would get complete control and according to the Denver Post, “one of his first decisions at Screaming Eagle was to pour roughly $3.3 million dollars of fine  Napa Valley Cabernet, the 2005 vintage, down the drain. The wine’s cult-like fans would have happily bought it, but he believed  it was not up to their standards.”  Kroenke was linked to Walmart wealth and later would become co-owner of the Denver Nuggets and St. Louis Rams, as well as vast holdings in real estate.

Nick Gislason is in his 5th year as winemaker with Screaming Eagle, and has gone through a tough 2015 season, although when I met him and tasted the 2012  at a luxury wine tasting during the harvest, he was ever the vibrant, youthful winemaker that his bios had predicted. According to a Wine Spectator report, about 17% of the 2015 crop was lost  due to drought and high winds, but a vineyard source predicts that quality will be excellent .  Shipping will be May 2018 but will be less cases, quite a bit below the current 900 cases from the bountiful 2012 vintage.

Screaming Eagle is difficult to get a hold of and purchase. The best thing to do is place your name on a “waiting list” at the web site.  There is no tasting room and no visitors are allowed.
To learn more about this iconic wine, visit

Wine Bytes
Rising San Diego wine star Skip Coomber will appear at North County Wine Company in San Marcos Fri. Jan. 15th and help pour his wines.  Call 760-653-9032 for details.

The first of the 2016 series of San Diego Restaurant Week will happen Sun, Jan. 17th to Sun. Jan. 24th.  Dining specials are offered from over 180 restaurants in San Diego County .  Three course prix-fix dinner menus for as little as $20. per person.  Details at

Seasalt, my favorite new restaurant for 2015, has a royal night Wed. Jan. 20th at 6pm when King Estate from Oregon  comes to Del Mar for a specially crafted wine dinner. From Pinot Gris to Cabernet, you’ll enjoy the best of the Northwest. Reserve your seat at 858-755-7100.  Cost is $55.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

RAISE A TOAST TO 2016! Champagne Suggestions for New Years Eve

by Don Nunn

The tradition of celebrating the New Year with a Champagne toast has a long and storied history.  As with most customs associated with cultural continuity, this tradition developed in starts and stops, bits and pieces, over many centuries.  It evolution includes the gradual acquisition of knowledge by wine makers over the centuries concerning what made wines “fizzy” (simply put, the combination of yeasts fermenting grape juice and the creation of carbon dioxide when fermentation occurs in a closed container), the coronation of French Kings, continual progress and improvement in the craft of wine making, and the marketing expertise of the producers of sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, among many other factors.  A subject requiring its own in depth discussion, we are today, nevertheless, the beneficiaries of the of hundreds of years of learning that is contained in each bottle of the bubbly elixir that we raise to toast the passing of the old year and the arrival of la nouvelle année.

  Since there is a good chance that the New Year’s celebration you will be attending will feature both Champagne and Sparkling Wine, and that a significant percentage of the celebrants will not be acquainted with the precise difference between the two, the following elucidative information may just make you the connaisseur or connaisseuse of the evening’s festivities.

  All Champagne is Sparkling Wine, but not all Sparkling Wine is Champagne.  It is not uncommon for any wine that has bubbles to be referred to generically as Champagne.  However, in point of actual fact, only Sparkling Wine that is made within the AOC designated (geographic) region of Champagne in France by the process known as méthode champenoise is legally allowed to be labeled Champagne.  Everything else made no matter where or by what process is Sparkling Wine, but not Champagne.

  Even if produced in the designated region of France, Sparkling wine still is not permitted to be called Champagne unless only the permitted grape varietals are used, the grapes are handpicked, and processed and bottled in compliance with the multitude of strictly enforced French government criteria.  Quite clearly, all of this complexity results generally in both a superior product and an augmented price.

  However, all you need to know to get your bonus points as an expert during the party chatter is a little geography (the Champagne region is about an hour and a half east of Paris), and that the wine must be grown in the Champagne region and be made in accordance with strict government regulations in order to be called Champagne.   In this instance, it really is a case of a little knowledge goes a long way.  If you know some, or all of the details, you risk being viewed as a boorish snob, so better to stick with just that little bit of uncommon knowledge that will set you apart from the other celebrants.

  Effervescent, crisp, light, cheerful, and refreshing, Sparkling Wine in general, and Champagne in particular, is my hands down favorite for that celebratory midnight toast.  Besides, watching those bubbles magically appear and ascend is simply fun, is it not?  Did you know that, in general, the better the product, the smaller the bubbles?

  Before we close with a brief mention of a couple of other worthy toasting considerations, the James Bond fans out there might be interested to learn that Bollinger has just released a limited edition 2009 “James Bond 007” Brut Champagne to “celebrate” the release of the new Spectre movie.  It is available for around $200.00 for a 750ml bottle (with a fancy case), but likely won’t be around long.  I have 3 bottles coming, which I plan to lay down for several years.

  One final Champagne note (making the discussed distinction from Sparkling Wine), and having become a Champagne aficionado over the last few years, coupled with a 2013 visit to the Champagne region around Reims, Epernay, and Ay, is that although the big houses (Roderer, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moet Chandon, etc.) make outstanding Champagne, it is très cher, due in large part to their respective reputations, general availability, and the familiarity of their names to US consumers.  By contrast, the small Champagne houses are virtually unknown in the US, except to serious collectors, yet in the opinion of this writer many of them equal or exceed in taste the big house productions at a third to half the price. That said, they are difficult to find because they have a smaller bottling, are better known in Europe, and many of them have no need to ship to the US, as they are able to sell their entire inventory in the European market.  Therefore it is necessary to look a little harder to find them here.  There are importers, however, who have established relationships with some of these smaller producers, and are able to acquire allotments for their US customers.

  The best bottle of Champagne I have had to date was Roy Soleil (Sun King) from Champagne Philippe Gonet in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a small village in Côte des Blancs area of the Champagne region with Grand Cru terroir.  It cost only 32€, purchased in person at the Tasting Room.  I managed to get two bottles home in my checked luggage, and sadly, they are both long gone.

  Other worthy considerations for your raised glass at midnight include Kir (originally Kir Aligoté), Kir  Royale, and the Bellini, all served in a flute glass.   Kir is a mixture of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and white wine.  Kir’s more sophisticated sibling, Kir Royale, substitutes Champagne or Sparkling Wine for the white wine.  In either case, it is important to pour the Cassis first, topped by the wine or Champagne.  Poured in reverse, the beverages do not mix properly or uniformly.  Although the ratio of the mixture is flexible according to taste, generally it would be one measure of Cassis to 4 or 5 measures of the other beverage.  Too much Cassis makes the drink too sweet, and ruins the light pink color that denotes the properly proportioned cocktail.

  A Bellini is a first cousin to the Kir and Kir Royale.  It consists of a mixture of Peach Purée (or nectar) and Prosecco.  The Bellini is poured the same way as the Kir Royale (Prosecco topping the purée), and in roughly the same proportion, adjusted to taste.

  It is difficult to go wrong with any of these choices.  Of course when one is faced with a crisis of indecision, sampling a couple of the foregoing options is an effective way to resolve the dilemma.     Happy New Year!!

Taste of Wine TV's newest travel/wine writer, San Diego (Poway) resident Don Nunn has traveled to many of the world’s most prominent wine producing regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Tuscany, Napa-Sonoma, Alsace, other areas known to wine enthusiasts, such as Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, the Willamette Valley, Oregon, the Rhone region of France, and the Piemonte region of northern Italy, as well as lesser known wine destinations, such as the Jura, Croatia, Slovenia, Guadalupe Valley in Baja, Mexico, and the Kocabag Winery in Cappadocia. 

Don’s travels have taken him to France, where he has tasted and evaluated wines in virtually every wine producing region.  Italy, western Germany, Spain, Portugal, all of the wine producing regions of the US West Coast, as well as all of the areas mentioned above have been on Don’s itinerary as he visits tasting rooms around the world. E-mail Don at: