Tatomer, Trefethen, Hermann Wiemer, Poet's
Leap, Zocker, Stony Hill Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris
PINOT GRIS, etc.
(Alsace/Austria/Germany in the US of A)
Though Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most
popular California white wines, Riesling and Gewurztraminer are certainly worthy
of our attention.
Many years ago California Rieslings were labeled as "Johannisberg
Riesling." This allowed California vintners to associate their
Riesling with wines from a famous German wine.
Some years ago, California winemakers began to drop the
"Johannisberg" from their Riesling labels. But this allowed for
a measure of trickery: the grape known as Silvaner (or Sylvaner) was
allowed to be labeled simply as "Riesling."
The Federal government finally got involved in the mid-1990s and they actually
help sort out the confusing mishmash of "Rieslings."
Sylvaner was formerly allowed to be sold as "Franken Riesling", since it is a
prominent grape in Germany's Franken region.
But, of course, California
wines labeled "Franken Riesling" were mislabeled since they did not
come from Franken vineyards. Calling the wines simply
"Riesling," allowed wineries to play on the more noble and prestigious
"White Riesling," while selling Sylvaner wines.
Wineries such as Louis Martini in Napa, Mirassou in Santa Clara and Parducci in
Mendocino all made Sylvaner wines, once upon a time. Rancho Sisquoc in
Santa Barbara also made "Franken Riesling" many years ago.
Mirassou labeled its Sylvaner as "Monterey Riesling," even though it was not made of Riesling...but the grapes were grown in Monterey.
Parducci called its Sylvaner "Mendocino Riesling," even though it was
not made of Riesling...but the grapes were grown in Mendocino.
In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the more fashionable wines was called "Grey
Riesling." This was not related, precisely, to Riesling and, in fact,
this grape was really Trousseau Gris. It was also known as Chauché
Gris. You might understand why "Grey Riesling," then, was a more
popular way to label this wine.
A U.C. Davis hybrid was developed by Professor Harold Olmo in the 1940s and was
called Emerald Riesling. It was a crossing of Riesling and Sauvignon Vert
(which is also known as Muscadelle and Tocai Friulano). The grape was always called Emerald
Riesling and some suggested renaming it "Olmo" after the famous
viticulturalist. The government, though, rejected this and allows this
name, Emerald Riesling, to stand. Only a few hundred acres are cultivated
at this time, so it's a very minor wine.
Today, Riesling or White Riesling, has fallen out of favor, though plantings of
it along the west coast are on the rise.
In California, government stats showed less than 1,500 acres being in the ground as
of 1999. As of 2011, California has 4,147 acres. Maybe there's hope.
In California, Gewurztraminer today accounts for 1,701 acres. Pinot Gris is
planted on 13,292 acres in California, a big increase as local vintners look to
compete with Italian producers of Pinot Grigio.
For comparison: 95,511 acres of Chardonnay are planted in California. Sauvignon
Blanc amounts to 15,636 acres.
Once upon a time many California wineries cultivated Riesling in vineyards
adjacent to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. They made Riesling simply
because customers demanded diversity, not because they could make great or
There have always been Riesling specialists, not only in California, but
Washington, Michigan and New York.
In California, the longest track record is owned by the Stony Hill Winery in
Napa. Don't let anybody tell you California Rieslings don't have finesse
or the ability to cellar for more than a year or two. Stony Hill can
certainly provide evidence to the contrary.
Despite being known
as "Cabernet Country," there are still good Rieslings made in
Napa. Trefethen Vineyards and Smith Madrone continue to produce Rieslings
of note. Gone by the wayside are Lyncrest and Veedercrest, two brands once
"hot" as Riesling makers.
Chateau Montelena in Calistoga continues to make Riesling, but today buys grapes
The Hagafen winery makes a Riesling, or two, and these are usually quite good.
In Sonoma, Chateau St. Jean made a range of Rieslings and Gewurztraminers under
winemaker Dick Arrowood in the 1970s. The winery produced wines from
slightly sweet to sticky sweet. They even labeled these as "BA"
for Beerenauslese and "TBA" for Trockenbeerenauslese. When the
German trade commission protested, Arrowood claimed "BA" stood for
"Botrytis Affected" and "TBA" indicated "Totally
Navarro Vineyards is a Riesling and Gewurz specialist in Mendocino's Anderson
Valley. Handley and Greenwood Ridge make some aromatic wines, as well.
Wente Brothers used to make some nice Rieslings in the 1970s, even producing
late harvest rarities. They got their fruit from Monterey, which should
still produce good Rieslings. Claiborne and Churchill make a nice Riesling
The Santa Cruz Mountains had some good Rieslings. Storrs periodically has
a good rendition. Years ago there was a winery called Felton Empire and microbiologist
Leo McCloskey was the winemaker.
We recall finding a case of their wine in our storage area which had flipped
itself over as the bottles, packed cork-down in the box, re-fermented in the
bottle. The thrust of the corks pushing out of the bottles actually flipped the
case and this explained why I was sniffing wine near the office but didn't see
any broken bottles.
Sales rep Bill Gibbs called one day to ask if we had any inventory remaining, as
it seems customers had been calling to complain about these self-opening
A few vintners in Oregon make Riesling, but Pinot Gris seems to do better on a
winemaking and commercial level.
Washington State is a large source of Riesling. The Ste. Michelle brand
bottles significant quantities of Riesling and California's Bonny Doon Vineyard
has a winery in the Pacific Northwest devoted to Riesling. We're fans of
the Long Shadows winery and their Riesling carries the Poet's Leap brand....
figured anyone who's devoted his brand of wine and winemaking to
California Riesling has to be nuts. And, so, I may have been
Young Graham Tatomer has ties to Burlingame, too, by the way. His
Pop lived in town and worked on his studies as a psychiatrist many moons
Graham attended U.C. Santa Barbara and while there he got himself a job at
the Santa Barbara Winery. And while working there he saw great and
unfulfilled potential in the locally-sourced Riesling grapes he worked
with in the cellar.
This ignited his passion for Riesling. I recall numerous vineyards
in the "new" mother lode of Santa Barbara were devoted to
Riesling when that region was in its nascent stages. Had consumers
not become so fixated on Chardonnay, Riesling might have gained more than
a toe-hold in Santa Barbara (and perhaps the Santa Cruz Mountains, for
Tatomer began making token quantities of Riesling and was able to sell a
little bit of wine here and there. Along the way, of course, he
encountered some benchmarks: wines from Deutschland and Austria and
then Graham had a moment of epiphany...he realized he needed to go to
Europe and get some "hands on" experience working with Riesling
in a place where Riesling was king, not merely an after-thought.
so Graham packed his bags and headed to Austria where he enrolled in the
University of Riesling at the Loibnerhof campus of Emmerich Knoll.
He did his bit of industrial espionage, learning about lizards, falcons
and the other important features of the Wachau wine region's viticulture
and enology. He ended up working a couple of harvest seasons with
the Knoll family.
And then he returned to California and began, anew, with his Tatomer wine
adventure. Sort of...sommelier, cellar rat...and he then, thanks to
a friendship with our pal Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, was able to
launch his own production in a small way. ((Adam, by the way, makes
a nice Riesling from Santa Barbara-grown fruit...but when we've opened
bottles of Ojai Rieslings, they are way too young and totally
undeveloped. I'm betting when Adam's Rieslings have three or four
years of bottle aging, they'll show their stuff. And nicely,
too. But they are so quiet and unassuming right out of the gate...))
We liked Tatomer's rendition of Riesling from the Kick On Ranch.
This is a smallish vineyard site west of the town of Los Alamos, along the
San Antonio Creek.
Currently in stock is Graham's 2009 Kick On Ranch Riesling. Here's a
lovely dry white (yes, it's dry...trocken...not sweet...dry) which is
comparable to good Austrian Rieslings. It's got a mildly floral note
at this early stage and there's a fairly good stony aspect to the
wine. And it's dry, so pairing it with some smoked pork chops, ham,
chicken or Asian-styled foods is ideal.
And we think this will continue to blossom with a few more years of bottle
Currently in stock: 2009 TATOMER Santa Barbara
"Kick On Ranch" RIESLING $29.99
Trefethen family has been making Riesling since the 1970s and we're
pleased to report they're even better today than they were back then.
The current vintage is 2009 and this, of course, comes from
Trefethen's estate vineyards in Napa's "Oak Knoll District."
This is just north of Carneros and south of Yountville.
The wine is low in alcohol by California standards and a tad high by
German measures. It's 13.0%. The residual sugar is less than 7
grams per liter. For most palates, it will taste rather dry.
We like the floral, citrusy and mildly petrol-like notes on the
A bottle of 2007 paired with the fritto misto in the photo was grand!
It also paired well with a plate featuring smoked trout and salmon tartare.
The 2009 is stellar...a bit brighter, fruitier and floral.
Currently in stock: 2009 TREFETHEN Napa DRY
few Californians know there's good wine being made in New York state,
we've long been fans of the Finger Lakes region.
Decades ago we visited the area and tasted wines at the winery of
Konstantin Frank, Glenora, Bully Hill and Hermann Wiemer.
Konstantin Frank was a real pioneer there, planting Riesling in
this region which had been more known for its labrusca varieties and
French-American hybrids. Hermann Wiemer was born in Germany's Mosel Valley
and his father was involved in viticulture. Wiemer came to the Finger
Lakes and started cultivating Riesling and other interesting Vinifera
grapes in the 1970s.
Aside from growing grapes and making some good wines, today the company is a big
time "nursery" for grape vines...they sell hundreds of thousands of
grafted vines annually, both to wineries and "backyard farmers.
Hermann came to the US and found some land in the Finger Lakes region. He
knew that grapevines could be grown in places where cherries were cultivated and
Wiemer bought about 80 acres of land near Seneca Lake.
Wiemer had an assistant named Fred Merwarth and he took over the vineyards and
cellar operations in 2003. Wiemer finally retired in 2007 and today
Merwarth is assisted by an old school pal who's an agronomist.
The wines, especially their Rieslings, are well-regarded and much
sought-after...if you're "in the know." Here in California, far
from New York, there are a few Wiemer Fan Club members, but few customers know
there's good wine being made there, frankly. Fewer still have any clue
about the virtues of Riesling. C'est la vie.
The 2010 vintage "Dry" Riesling is a delightful
wine...really capturing the character of Riesling and even showing some
stony/slatey notes as you'd find in good German wines.
Currently in stock: 2010 Wiemer Dry Riesling $19.99
Stony Hill winery is a fabled little estate in northern Napa Valley.
They've been making Riesling forever as every winery in Napa made Riesling
back in the old days.
Stony Hill continues to make good dry Riesling. And their wines age
magnificently. We had a bottle of an early 1990s vintage not too
long ago...what a splendid bottle of wine and it did not show itself to be
old or tiring!
The 2008 is the current offering. It comes across the palate as dry,
though the wine has about 10 grams of sugar/liter. Balance is the
key, though. And it's balanced.
Currently in stock: 2008 STONY HILL RIESLING $22.99
A bottle of 1994 Napa Riesling consumed in 2011...still alive and kickin'!
Lots of ripe peach or peach pie sorts of notes with a bit of petrol.
Zocker label is rather new and it's the work of the Niven family in the
Central Coast's Edna Valley region. The winemaker is Christian
In Deutsch, the word "zocker" refers to wagering or gambling and
they definitely gambled by planting Gruner Veltliner. The grape of
Austria, we were actually a bit shocked to find they'd actually captured
the spice notes and grapefruit elements of good Gruner Veltliner. In
fact, we compared their wine to that of F.X. Pichler, one of Austria's
most esteemed vintners and while the Pichler was the better wine, the
Zocker was not embarrassed in the comparison.
It seems they also planted a bit of Riesling. The soils are
well-drained and of volcanic origins. They have less than 4 acres of
Riesling on this site and are producing about 800 cases of dry
Riesling. The 2009 is showing marvelously, worthy of
comparison to good German, Austrian, Australian, Alsatian, New York or
This is a most pleasant surprise!
Currently in stock: 2009 ZOCKER Edna Valley
State has numerous outstanding sites for Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
There are several "foreign" collaborators in winemaking
escapades in Washington. One is Chateau Ste. Michelle's "Eroica"
project, aided by wein-meister Ernst Loosen.
Another is that of Long Shadows...a label called Poet's Leap.
German wine authority Armin Diel, who co-authors the annual Gault-Millau
German wine guide, is a partner in this project. Diel also has his
family's wine estate and makes wonderful wines in Germany's Nahe region.
They planted various clones of Rieslings at Herr Diel's suggestion.
They've now made several vintages of Poet's Leap and it's routinely been one of
our favorite west coast Rieslings. They blend Riesling grapes from
vineyards in several locations and manage to nicely capture some of the
minerally notes one finds in good German wines. The wine is "off
dry," having around 10 grams of sugar per liter (most people find 5 grams
to be "dry")...
Currently in stock: 2009 POET'S LEAP Riesling (List
$25) SALE $19.99
don't have too many customers looking for Australian Riesling as few of
the locals have Riesling on their radar screen and, fewer still, would
know anything but Shiraz and maybe a Cabernet are even grown Down Under.
Yet Australia is a fantastic source of Riesling.
Given that so much goopy, sweet, flat, syrupy red wine comes from
Australia, it's difficult for some folks to acknowledge there are numerous
sophisticated Rieslings in the Southern Hemisphere. We've tasted a
number of wines which we're certain our German friends would find worthy
of a second pour.
Pikes is a name with history going back to the late 1800s. And the
brand is run by Andrew and Neil Pike who founded this Clare Valley
enterprise in 1984.
We have the 2009 vintage in stock and this is wonderfully fragrant and
intense Riesling. It's fresh and fruity, with citrusy, lime-like
notes shining brightly. There's a hint of sweetness, but it's really
only a hint, because the wine has zingy acidity and finishes with some
nice 'snap' on the end...It may even develop into a wonderfully complex
wine with bottle aging, but since most customers by a bottle in the
afternoon for drinking tonight, well, it's not likely much gets saved for
Currently in stock: 2009 PIKES Clare Valley
CHATEAU ST. JEAN
in the 1970s, three "fellers" from the Central Valley thought it
would be a swell idea to start a winery in Sonoma. And they named it
after one of the feller's wives, Jean.
What was especially amusing is that most people gave it a French pronunciation,
"Chateau Sahnt Zhann." But the woman's name was
They hired a smart and skilled winemaker, Dick Arrowood, who was known in
those days as "Richard." He was really a wizard at making
Rieslings and the winery was immediately "on the map" as a
source of some remarkably good wines.
When the economy hit a bump in the road, the fellers ended up having to
sell the winery and it was bought by a Japanese company. They ran
into money problems after a number of years and today the winery is owned
by the behemoth "Foster's Wine Group." If you
visit their tasting room, you'll wonder if they actually make wine there
in Sonoma or if it's mainly a gift shop selling clothing, dishes,
calendars and, every-once-in-a-while, a bottle of wine.
Wine geeks don't take this brand seriously, but they actually make some
decent wines. Some are better than decent. Riesling is quite
decent, but not upper-echelon-decent. It's correctly fruity and
mildly floral, with enough residual sugar to satisfy those folks who find
dry wines too "austere" or even
While they used to get grapes from relatively cool climate areas of Sonoma
County, the winery web site indicates the grapes come from the Alexander
Valley...this may allow them to get a bountiful crop to achieve sufficient
sweetness to permit making a 12% alcohol wine with a residual sugar and
modest acidity. Perfectly pleasant, but not a
Currently in stock: 2009 CHATEAU ST JEAN Sonoma Riesling $12.99
very first wine we purchased from Chateau Montelena was a 1972
"Johannisberg Riesling" and I think it was offered for sale
to us in 1973...
I used to drive up to Napa to pick up various wines and it was always
fun to see this old chateau and taste upcoming releases.
In those days, the wine was from vineyards reasonably close to the
winery. These days, they get the grapes in a much cooler region,
Mendocino's Potter Valley.
The fruit comes from the McFadden Ranch and the 2011 is a
delight. The aromas are fruity and floral, with hints of apricot
and ripe melon. I suspect it will develop the classic fragrance
of "petrol" if you hold this for a few years, but it's such
a delight right now...and the acidity certainly balances the slight
amount of residual sugar here, so it finishes clean.
- Currently in stock: 2011 CHATEAU MONTELENA Potter Valley
- You might have a look at these pages in pursuit of good, aromatic
Traminer grape is thought to have originated in the Alto Adige (which is
today part of Italy, though it's sometimes been Austrian).
It's a lovely variety which tends to ripen with a reddish color
as you can see, perhaps, in the photo above.
The famous Hungarian enological Johnny Appleseed, Agoston Haraszthy, is thought
to have brought the aromatic and spicy version of Traminer to California.
Some clones are less distinctive and the more "intense" Traminer seems
to produce wines which have aromatics reminiscent of rose petals and
grapefruit. Some tasters find notes of lychees in Gewürztraminer and, in
fact, research shows the grape to have some similarity to the lychee 'fruit' (or
In the days before Prohibition, both the Charles Krug Winery and Gundlach
Bundschu Winery were somewhat highly-regarded for their Gewürztraminer
The Charles Krug Winery, run by the Mondavi family, was still a good source for
Traminer in the 1950s and the grape may have reached the height of its
popularity by the end of the 1970s when there were close to 5,000 acres planted
in California. According to current statistics, there are 1590 acres
planted in California today. Of the 3000 new acres of white wine grape
vineyards planted in California in 2008, not a single one was Gewürztraminer!
Today, there are not many wineries noted for Gewürztraminer.
The top sources for this variety in California would include Lazy Creek, Thomas
Fogarty, Claiborne & Churchill, Navarro, Stony Hill, Londer and Arista.
These vintners tend to make dry to just off-dry versions.
The Fetzer winery makes loads of Gewürztraminer, but it's less distinctive for
varietal character and noted more for being simply fruity, sweet and
low-priced. Sutter Home, the famed White Zinfandel producer, also dabbles
in Gewürztraminer and makes a wine rivaling Fetzer's.
We typically have a few Gewürztraminers from France's Alsace and one from
Germany. The most impressive and intense, is an Italian wine which is
vinified "dry" and made by the leading co-op winery in Italy's wine
village called Tramin. The Cantina Tramin has a special bottling called
"Nussbaumer" and this, for us, remains the reference point for Gewürztraminer.
LAZY CREEK WINERY
is a smallish, highly-regarded estate in Mendocino's Anderson
Valley. It's a winery founded by a Swiss couple back in the
1970s...he'd been a waiter at San Francisco's legendary "Jacks"
and later at the "Blue Fox" restaurant (now long
Hans Kobler and his wife, Theresia, bought a property in the
boonies (literally...it's near Boonville) and he planted Gewürztraminer
and Pinot Noir. The Gewurz was planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstock,
since Hans didn't listen to the advice of experts who suggested AxR1
rootstock. The neighbors took the expert's advice and all had to replant
since AxR1 turned out not to be so phylloxera-resistant!
As a result, Lazy Creek still has some of the old Gewürztraminer in the
The winery was sold by Kobler in 1998 to another couple and they grew weary of
the challenge a decade later. Today the winery is owned by the
It will be interesting to see what changes take place and if the wines retain
their originality and relatively high quality.
We have some 2006 vintage Gewürztraminer in stock...lots of
spice notes and aromatics reminding me of poached pears...it's dry and fairly
full on the palate.
Currently in stock: 2006 LAZY CREEK
This is a remarkable fellow with an amazing story...his
father was some sort of engineer and young Fogarty was hardly a scholarly
student as a kid...he was admitted to Xavier University by an admissions
officer on a probationary basis.
Well, Fogarty went on to medical school and became a leading
cardiologist. But wait! There's more!!
As a teenager he tinkered with a a clutch for his scooter and
actually invented an automatic centrifugal clutch which motorcycle builders
routinely use to this day. He invented something called an embolectomy
catheter for use in heart surgery (and this was before he was even a medical
doctor!). The man holds scads (that's a technical term) of patents for
various doohickeys (another technical term).
Back in the late 1960s he helped a medical colleague in a small winemaking
project and then embarked on his own home-winemaking adventure. By the
early 1980s, thoroughly bitten by the wine bug, Fogarty planted vineyards in the
Portola Valley zip code, up on Skyline Boulevard south of Alice's Restaurant in
He hired a good winemaker, Michael Martella and the two are a formidable
team, routinely producing top Gewürztraminer from fruit grown in Monterey
I recall visiting the winery in the late 1980s or early 1990s and hearing Doc
Fogarty mention how the winery was not hugely profitable and that he had to keep
his "day job" to generate enough money to keep the winery going!
The place is gorgeous...and it has, on a clear day, a
spectacular vista of the Bay Area.
Gewürztraminer routinely displays lots of spice notes.
And they actually vinify it "dry," as this vintage has less than half
a percent of residual sugar (drier than most California Chardonnays, for
We like this wine with all sort of foods...Asian-styled seafood makes for a
Currently in stock: 2007 FOGARTY Gewürztraminer Sold
kid who's making the wine at Bethel Heights took a trip to Alsace and came
back with ideas on how to produce Gewurztraminer.
His bit of industrial espionage paid off, for he's made a terrific wine
from fruit grown well south of the Willamette Valley in the Rogue
Valley. Nice spice and rose petal aromas. Dryish, too.
They only made about 8 barrels' worth of this.
Currently in stock: 2007 BETHEL HEIGHTS
And if you want to taste the most intense Gewurz, pick up a
bottle of the Tramin winery bottling from Italy...Nussbaumer, it's called.
There is not a winemaker on the planet who would not be proud to call that wine
We feel this is the benchmark for the variety, coming from a special vineyard
site in the hills above the town of Termeno (Tramin in Italian)...
Other interesting Gewurztraminers:
2009 ENGEL (Alsace) $15.99
2009 DOMAINE WEINBACH (Alsace) $29.99
2009 PAUL BLANCK (Alsace) $25.99
2009 BOECKEL (Alsace) $17.99
2008 PFEFFINGEN (Germany) $27.99
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