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  Before leaving for the States, John Holmes worked in the wine sector for about 10 years with his business, Classic Wines. John and his wife Heather moved to the USA early in the millennium and are currently based in Texas, where John works in the oil industry. He still finds time to indulge in his passion for wines, and in this special update report for wine-pages, gives his own, personal views on wines tasted on a wine tourism trip through the Napa Valley and Sonoma regions of California. Part II also includes his favourite wine finds and restaurants.

a tale of two cities, part I

by John W N Holmes, 2011

This year's article joins together Sonoma and Napa. It had been three years since we had visited Napa and Cabernet stocks were running low! In the end we spent two days in Napa and four in Sonoma. At the end of the article we have included a restaurant review section, which may help prospective visitors.

The past year's economic crisis had undoubtedly taken its toll on the wine industry. This coupled with 'Wild Fires' in some of the growing areas saw production depleted or just sold as 'shiners' (unlabelled bottled sold as bulk). The good news for purchasers however, is that prices are at the same levels as two years ago and a lot more library wines are being released.

As with my previous articles, you will find at the end of this article I have summarised the wines and given my view on the best reds, white and best value wines. The points don't represent any "Parkeresque" system but are mainly my relative markings.

Each year we do this trip we wonder if we are ever going to find something really great as we feel we have hit the high spots already. What this year has told us is that although the stalwart high-quality producers like MacPhail, Inman and Adrian Fog still amaze us there are always newcomers (to us) like Freeman, Fontanella, Keefer and Elizabeth Spencer who keep the competition high and keep us coming back. I can't wait to see what next year brings!!

I welcome feedback and would love to hear your comments on the various wines and tasting rooms we visited.


Adrian Fog

Stuart Dorman continues to produce unique great tasting Pinots and the latest batch is no exception. The '07 Oppenlander ($75) was a great wine when we first tasted in in 2009 and I'm pleased to report that nothing has changed from that first opinion. It is round, full of fruit and with great balance. Stewart's 'Tasting Room' reflects his no-nonsense approach to wine making although he has proudly added a carpet and purse hooks for the ladies to the area! The addition of "Numbers" and the Arissa Jane ($25) range has put Adrian Fog wines firmly on the map.


bella The caves at Bella (right) are an excellent setting for tasting their range of wines. The host was very knowledgeable about the wines and clearly had a passion for the product. Best of the wines was the Hillside Cuvee which is a blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Petite Syrah which at $30 was good value.

Dry Creek Vineyard

Dry Creek Vineyard tasting room offers a warm welcome to any visitor, the tasting rooms are spacious and the only downside was the smoking fire, which would not be present on most days. When we tasted the morning temperature was in the low 30's. The wines are all very drinkable and my favourites were the '07 Beeson Ranch Zinfandel ($34) and the '05 Soleil Late Harvest Sauvignon ($25).

Ferrari Carano

Ferrari Carano is another impressive building with large immaculate gardens. On the entranceway is a wild boar that brings good luck if you rub its snout. Judging by the highly polished snout they have hundreds of visitors. The reserve tasting room is downstairs and is immaculately furnished to match the exterior. The wines on offer range from the yummy '08 Emilia's Cuvee ($36) to the 09 Eldorado Noir ($30), which is made from black Muscat grapes. One great feature was a waiting area for designated drivers with comfy chairs and magazines.


Foppiano offers a warm welcome to visitors with old rail cars as the setting. We arrived right in the middle of bottling but were still well looked after. The Russian River 2008 Pinot Noir was the best we tasted although we bought some of the light refreshing Rose which was reduced to $7.50 and was a steal for those hot summer Texas days ahead.


Forchini Jim and Anita Forchini (winery, right) have been in the wine business in Sonoma since the mid 70's. The style of the wines is mixed with some burgundy influence with the BeauSierra a Bordeaux Blend. The single grape Pinot was very good. My favourite was the 07 Pinot but sadly this is no longer in stock. We didn't try the 08 but if the 07 are anything to go by then the results should be good.


Often recommendations from Vineyards can be real gifts and in the case of Freeman this was really a great story. Set in the middle of the countryside amongst the redwoods and rolling fields Freeman produces some great wines. My personal favourite was the Keefer Ranch Pinot ($46) that had a wonderful long finish and deep fruit flavours. Hot on its heels was the Burgundy style Akikos Cuvee ($52), both scored in the low 90s. The tasting in the caves was excellent and our host Eric was both helpful and knowledgeable, certainly a must visit as its not on the usual tourist maps


Hanna was not a planned stop but was a casual drop in as we had some time to spare on the way to an appointment. It was a pleasant surprise. The hostess was very knowledgeable and made us very welcome. The wines were generally affordable and scored in the high 80's with the pick of the bunch being the very reasonably priced 2010 Sauvignon Blanc at $19. Wonderful pear, lemon and grass flavours. Well worth a drop in on your travels

Inman Family Wines

One of the high points in going to Sonoma is the visit to Kathleen Inman and to see what new taste buds are going to be assaulted next! Since our last visit the new premises are open and are well worth a visit. Kathleen takes the environmental impact very seriously and the whole building is designed and built to minimise this impact. The winery even has a charging station for electric cars! Kathleen has a tremendous following in the industry and her wines are always ranked very highly. This year we liked the 07 Thorn Ridge Ranch ($52) and also the latest 09 Chardonnay, which had great balance and style. This year a Pinot Gris has joined the offerings and initially it showed well.

J Vineyard

J is a stylish tasting room, which delivers a great tasting experience. The wines always deliver and we have rarely been disappointed. Their Pinots are always in my collection but on this occasion the favourite was the Ratafia Desert Wine ($42), which gave a great mix of vanilla and peaches all, mixed with a nutty undertone. Great with cheese, believe me!!

Joseph Swan

swan A family owned and run business, which has a great selection of wines and really friendly people. Rod clearly knows his stuff, as the quality of wines produced was excellent. They specialise in Pinot and Zinfandel from single vineyards. We ended up buying the Stellwagen Zinfandel, which was one of the best Zinfandels we tasted this year. Great tasting room atmosphere as well (right)! Be warned though, read the visiting instructions very carefully!

Keefer Ranch

While at Freeman we bumped into Craig Strehlow from Keefer Vineyards. Keefer is one of the sought after grape producers known for quality and great tasting fruit. Craig is currently bottling some of Marcy's 'Keefer' Fruit himself and it is outstanding. We tasted the 08 Pinot Noir ($42) and this was remarkable with deep cherry fruit and a long finish. One producer to keep an eye on for future vintages.


On a cold spring morning we were treated to an overview of the Littorai experience. Without doubt the wines are of the highest quality but when you are spending $60-70 a bottle this is what you would expect. We loved the wines but felt there were better value wines to be had in the area. The walkabout the vineyard was most informative and interesting


An eclectic, unique blend of surfing ethos brought to winemaking. In some cases it works and in others the high prices just do not tie in with the concept. The best wine on offer was the 08 Point Break Red ($21), a blend of Syrah and Cabernet, which had a dark prune undertone. The wines range in price from $21 to $80 for the blackcurrant dominated Rochioli Cabernet, which, although it scored highly was not in the same league as other $80 Cabernets.

James MacPhail

macphail The problem with visiting James MacPhail (right) early in the morning is that you use up all your superlatives for the day. James produces great wines year after year; his latest new venture was as second label wine called "Home Girl" (after Kerry, his Girl Friday) was sold out in weeks and an only $30 a bottle you can see why. We have just started opening some older MacPhail wines (from 03 and 04) and all I can say is that if you have the patience and storage space then these wines will reward you immensely. The wines become beautifully smooth and like good burgundy in style. The sheer quality of these wines makes them benchmarks for all others in the area. Oh, and did I mention the Rose? I won't spoil it for you but you are in for a treat.


Another unplanned visit, this time to an excellent tasting room, spacious and accommodating. They produce an interesting varietal 08 Mourvedre ($32) that was spicy plums and blackberries on the nose. Worth trying, as it is one of the few places in Sonoma County bottling this grape on its own.


I have never been to a vineyard that only has one wine to taste! Well I can only assume the rest was so good that it had all sold out. Disappointing really especially as we had to have an appointment! The single wine we did try was the 07 Cabernet ($45) that was solid quality and was well balanced with blackcurrant being the dominant flavour.


Although the Ramey production point is in an industrial setting the wine tasting room was wonderful. The boardroom table is amazing and something anyone would love to have in their home if they had room. The Ramey collection is all about quality wines, they are on many wine lists in the better restaurants throughout USA and for a good reason. The 08 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($38) and the 07 Napa Valley Cabernet ($50) were the high points of the tasting.


Ridge is without doubt famous for it's Montebello Cabernet but they also probably equally well known for their great range of Zinfandels. At $140 the Montebello is one of the more expensive Cabernets we tried in the week and it is definitely a great wine. Lay this one down for 10+ years to experience it at its peak. Pick of the Zinfandels for me was the 08 Paso Robles ($30) which gave hints of redcurrant jam and Darjeeling tea. Tasting rooms were large and airy.

Rodney Strong

Rodney Strong We visited Rodney Strong two years ago and decided to see if there was anything new on offer. Paradoxically everything was almost exactly the same, which I suppose is a tribute to the consistency. In hindsight maybe I was too optimistic but at least their consistency gives them mass market appeal but we were looking fro something with more zapp or individuality. Best of the bunch was the 09 Estate Pinot ($20) but nothing special really.


This was the nearest winery to the Dry Creek Inn, which was our base in Healdsburg. The tasting room was spacious and accommodating and the host very friendly. The wines were generally good but there was nothing there that shone out as being above average. The cheapest wine was $28 rising to $60 for the San Lorenzo Zinfandel Syrah blend. I didn't feel the San Lorenzo represented good value.

Truett Hurst

When we first visited Truett Hurst to years ago we were excited by the variety of the wines and also the friendly atmosphere. Once again we had our picnic lunch there accompanied by one of their wines. We chose the 09 Southdown($29) Zinfandel this time and this proved to be the best selection this year with the 08 Burning Man Syrah ($33) a close second.


What a pleasant surprise this was, having driven in the rain all day we were on the way home and decided to drop in here to see what was on offer. Nice tasting room and friendly staff greeted us and the wines were all very acceptable. My choice here is the 08 Carls Vineyard Zinfandel ($32) closely followed by the 07 Mollys Petite Sirah ($38)



A beautiful estate with fantastic views tucked off a single lane road in the heart of Napa. The Italian Antinori family owns the estate and clearly influence the style of wines. I personally found the wines to be too tannic for my palate and this overpowered the fruit. The tasting room was excellent and the hostess very knowledgeable. There is a local tradition when you visit the tasting room but I won't spoil that for you.

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay starred in the film "Bottle Shock". Although a lot of poetic license was used in the film, the results of the tasting clearly demonstrated how Californian Wines can take on the worlds best and beat them. Sitting in the Japanese gardens sipping the eponymous Chardonnay with a picnic was a blissful experience everyone should experience. Their futures programme makes the wines more affordable.


Darioush The Darioush building (right) is impressive and a good place to taste and they even cover the candles on sale to prevent to smell overpowering the delicate wines. I liked their '08 Viognier ($35) which has a beautiful peach and lemon nose with good balance and structure. The price points of the wines are higher than most in the area but the quality is evident.

Elizabeth Spencer

Each day the driver gets to nominate a 'drop-in' which is an unplanned visit. Elizabeth Spencer was one of these and I am glad we did. Elizabeth Spencer produces some great wines, especially the '08 Wente Clone Chardonnay ($45), a succulent mix of pears, honey, and vanilla with a hint of lemon. The small production and great flavours make these wines sell out fast so make sure you include this on your itinerary.


Jeff and Karen Fontanella have been producing wine for just two years high in the hills on Mount Veeder. The quality of the 1500 case production is impressive, looks like Jeff's background with Opus and ZD paid off. The wines all display incredible depth, balance and character. The '08 Chardonnay ($30) was crisp pears with apples and melon all with a vanilla creamy background. My personal favourite was the '08 Cabernet ($67) made from the grapes from Beckstoffer's George III vineyard.

Grgich Hills

This well known vineyard also lays claim to some of the "Bottle Shock' history. The tasting room was a bit darker than I would have preferred and the wines were pitched at the higher end of the market. They have an excellent reputation for consistency but at $105 for their 03 Cabernet I felt there were better value wines elsewhere. Their wines are available across the USA.


Hall is located on the main road through Napa and is a large producer in the area. The massive car park gets full most weekends. The tasting room was overpowered by the smell of roses, which is not a good start, and the wines were far too tannic for my liking. Tannins in balance are fine but these just overpowered the underlying fruit. Disappointing.

Long Meadow Ranch

Any wine that gets high marks at the Houston Rodeo just had to be tried! Long Meadow Ranch is close to the main road and has a delightful tasting room and knowledgeable staff. The wines represented excellent value, the pick of the bunch was undoubtedly the 09 Sauvignon Blanc ($19) and even the 07 Ranch House Red ($24) represented good value and would go great with BBQ.


Newton The gardens at Newton are really amazing along with the views across the valley. This clever mix of oriental and local features is well worth a visit. The wines were a mixture of filtered and unfiltered with the best being the commercial style (oaked) 09 Filtered Chardonnay ($25). The merlot was a little bit too tannic for my taste and overpowered the underlying fruit; maybe it will improve with age. There was a food pairing with the wines that enhanced the experience.

Round Pond

What a find Round Pond turned out to be, great tasting rooms with lovely balcony overlooking the valley and surrounding areas. The 08 Cabernet ($50) was the star of the tasting and this should, in my opinion, be a keeper wine to savour in years to come. Great balance and style wines, all at a reasonable price. The wine tasting went with food pairings to demonstrate the intense flavours.

Vine Cliff

Vine Cliff sits on the site of an original early vineyard established at the turn of the last century high in the Oakville Hills. Some of the original structures still survive and the whole area is a serene setting for winemaking. The amazing 16 Rows Cabernet scored highly but at $150 was outside our price range. Instead we opted for the excellent 2007 Oakville Cabernet at $75, which just had great blackberry and dark chocolate flavours and balance which should keep for years to come.

WH Smith

If you have three hours spare you really must take the "Wine Sensory Experience' offered by T-Anne. This involved smelling all sorts of things in black glasses so you can't see what they are. Everything from bacon fat to fresh peaches is included and it's not as easy as you think and will give you a great insight into wine flavours. Afterwards you can taste their wines, which are also on our 'must have' list. My favourite this year was the 06 Piedra Hill Cabernet, which has that great blueberry chocolate style which I like!



The sheer number of wines and options at Battaglini are bewildering and can be confusing. We counted 57 varieties. Battaglini has received awards for some of their wines although on the numerous wines we tasted it was hard to discern anything approaching the quality one would expect from a gold medal winner. Their speciality is Zinfandel from the 120+ year old vines on the estate.

go to Part II: Restaurants and detailed wine notes