Wine Tasting In Mendocino County ~ Saracina Vineyards

A little piece of Tuscany in my own backyard.
saracina vineyards | whiskandmuddler.comWell, geographically speaking,  perhaps more akin to a neighbor a few blocks over as the beautiful & tranquil Saracina Vineyards is located in Hopland (the southern end of Mendocino County), a scenic 45-minute drive straight up the freeway from where I live in Sonoma County. I’ve driven past this winery dozens of times and have never been able to stop in. So last week, whilst I was doing some work up in the area, I finally popped in for a much over-due visit. Picture a long, Cyprus tree-lined drive with lush vineyards on either side. As you turn towards the sloping mountain where the winery has been dug out of the hillside, there, proudly stands, a small grove of ancient olive trees that make up the over 500-tree collection on site–some close to 110-years old. Surrounding the property are majestic willow trees that casually drape over the buildings and frame the view to the large pond out the back. The vineyards behind the tasting room rise from the ground level up several terraces, seemly stretching up the benchland soils into infinity. Upon arrival, the property immediately gives you a feeling of serenity, as if you’ve been transported to a secluded estate in the hills of the Italian countryside.

saracina cottage sign |
olive trees at saracina |
weeping willow trees at saracina |
weeping willow over building |
pond at saracina |
pond at saracina vineyards |
saracina vineyards |
Saracina is owned and operated by the legendary John Fetzer (of the Fetzer family) and his wife Patty Rock. The ranch is named after a centuries-old farmhouse and vineyards in Tuscany where they spent their honeymoon. Together, John and Patty have dedicated serious time and effort over the years into manifesting their vision of farming the land with a hands-on approach and in the greenest method possible. All with the intention to preserve the land & grapes which have been a part of the family’s heritage for decades. They practice traditional organic techniques on their head-trained vines (although their wines are not classified as ‘organic’) such as tilling under the vine rows to eliminate weeds and other vegetation instead of relying on harmful chemicals, planting cover crops to add natural nutrients back into the vines and composting to create a diverse ecosystem for the soils. Modern practices are also employed to create a healthy biosphere for the ‘beneficials’ (the good bugs that eat the bad bugs) such as cultivating olive and pomegranate orchards, sunflowers fields, and heritage grains. They also have over 3 million bees in 69 hives on the property. Their goats roam the hillsides to eat all the invasive weeds and owl boxes have been installed to control any rodent populations.

The architecture is modern, with a clean lines and lots of natural light in the tasting room –welcoming visitors in a warm and relaxed style. Our ultra-hospitable hostess Bernadette (we had so much fun with her) walked us through an *amazing* selection of wines from the Saracina label (varietal wines) along with a few from the Atrea range (proprietary name for their blended wines). Seriously everyone, I loved EVERY wine I tasted. Yes, you heard right. And for those who know me well, you can attest that never happens. Kind of sound like a wine snob don’t I? But really I’m not–pinky swear! Being in the wine biz for so long, I’ve just been fortunate to have tasted a lot of wines. So by now, I know exactly what I like. And this is a rare opportunity for me to give a shout-out & well-deserved kudos for solid winemaking across an entire portfolio; well done !  What I liked most about their wines was their varietal-correctness, simplicity, and superb quality for the price. Honestly, if you blind-tasted these, you’d peg them easily $10-15 higher per bottle than they are. The winery isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here with some crazy winemaking. They simply allow the expression of vineyard coupled with varietal’s characteristics to, in the immortal words of Jackie from RHOMelbourne, “shine, shine shine”. Highlights of what we tasted coming in just a minute. We also sampled their wonderful estate grown olive oil (traditional Tuscan blend of Leccino, Pendolino, Frantoio and Maurino olives) and the delicious wildflower honey that comes from the estate’s thriving bee colonies.
saracina tasting room |
interior tasting room at saracina vineyards |

saracina wine caves |

saracina vineyard's wines |
Okay, now the best part— the wines!
I’d typically say “here are my standouts”, but in this case, all were fantastic!

2014 Saracina Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County $23.00
Everything you want an SB to be, but only very few can achieve. Elegance throughout; subtly with notes of citrus, grapefruit, minerality and Jalapeño pepper. Long, limey-lemon finish with the right amount of austerity. Fabulous!

2014 Saracina Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County $18.00
I confess; I’m not really a Chardy fan. You all know that. But this one was really good. Clean, with citrus and apple up front, and soft, round on the palate—even with just the SS fermentation. Purity of fruit with an even, lingering finish. This could possibly make me a Chardonnay drinker (ssshhh, don’t tell anyone!)

2012 Atrea The Choir, Mendocino County $13.00 (no, that price is not a typo). And does this wine sing! An ode to Rhône-style wines indeed. 61% Viognier and 39% Roussanne. Talk about a summer-sipper. Heck, a spring, winter or fall drop too. Lively acidity, bright, clean, and fruit-forward with just enough floral and mineral notes to keep it all in balance. Amazing quality for value.

2014 Atrea Skid Rosé, Mendocino County $20.00
Think sweet strawberries, citrus rind and rose petals. The balance of fruit to acidity is spot on. And what’s unusual about this wine is its blend: 94% Malbec, 6% Grenache. The “greener” aspects of Malbec are no where insight…just the lushness of the varietal and the Grenache lends a wonderful aromatic component. Perfect sipping from Spring through to late Fall.

2012 Saracina Skid Row Vineyard Malbec, Mendocino County $28.00
(this link is for the 2011 but my notes are for the 2012 that was poured). Okay, no question….the BEST Malbec I’ve ever tasted. And I used to work for two wineries that made Malbec, (sorry!). The typical vegeatle notes were so well integrated,  they didn’t over-power. Deep aromas of black fruits like black raspberry and plum partnered with soft vanilla  & savory herb notes. And the finish was incredibly soft and long. There were tannins present, yet so well balanced. Divine!

2012 Saracina Klindt Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley $38.00
(Again, vintage change over- link above to 2011, but notes on 2012 that was poured). Amazing price for this Pinot, would expect to pay $15-20 more. Just the kind of Pinot I like: dark fruits up front with earthy aromatics. On the palate, firm and rich tannins that are in perfect sync with flavors of black cherry, tart fruits and black currants. Strong finish and just the right amount of oak to keep it all in balance. A winner for sure.

To visit:
Saracina Vineyards

11684 US-101 | Hopland, CA | 95449
(707) 670-0199
Open daily 11am – 5pm
To book a tour or tasting
saracina wine collection |

Note: although you’d think this was a sponsored post (due to my prolific gushing about this winery) it was however not. In fact, I owe them money. Joined their wine club for shipments starting this fall you see. Yep, the wines are THAT good!  :>)

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Drinking Bubbly ‘All Night Long’

‘Hello’….yes, it’s you I’m looking for.
Schramsberg Vineyard labelYour wonderful aromas of brioche, honey and preserved lemon. Your tiny, soft bubbles that tickle the tongue. The feeling you give me of the world being right when I have a glass of you in my hand. Sparkling Wine, you’re all I’ve ever wanted, and my arms are open wide.

Or should I say glass? I know, a *really* bad reference to some good 80’s songs right? And a repeat for some of you (sorry!). But it will make sense in just a bit. Stay with me because you’ll want to hear about my wonderful visit last week with the team at Schramsberg Vineyards, high up on Diamond Mountain in Napa Valley. What a treat! I hadn’t been there before, and honestly, didn’t know much about their wines or background either. But after the tour & tasting, I left the winery feeling so fortunate to have experienced a bit of history in my glass. Schramsberg is one of California’s oldest wineries. Founded in 1862, it carries the honor of having the oldest hillside vineyards in Napa Valley (218 acres in total with 43 under vine). The winery was started by its namesake, Jacob Schram back in the late 1800’s. By 1876, he was producing just under 12,000 gallons of wine such as Riesling, Hock, Burgundy and Chasselas. His wines were shipped all across the country and winning awards at American and International competitions. Jacob Schram was truly a pioneer in putting California on the map for viticulture and winemaking. At the turn of the century, Jacob built this beautiful Victorian-era home for his wife Annie, which was added to the National Register of Historic Homes in 1957. It was the home of Jack & Jamie Davies (owners since 1965) and when they both passed, their son Hugh Davies relocated there, and is now the current owner of the historic estate.

Schramsberg Historical Home
Schramsberg Historical Home 2
Jack & Jamie Davies purchased the much-neglected winery in 1965 after over fifty years of it being shuffled around by several owners since Jacob’s death in 1905. The Davies family uses 1965 as the ‘start date’ of the modern Schramsberg Vineyards, and 2015 marks their 50th anniversary. Definitely a cause for celebration indeed! Today, the winery is producing over 25 different bottlings of sparkling (with only a handful available commercially), along with a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon under their secondary label of J. Davies Estates. You’ll need to visit the winery to taste their range of wines and tastings are by appointment only, and after the one-hour tour.
jack and jamie davies
schramsberg vineyards- 50th
schramsberg vineyard pond
Before I begin sharing photos of the tour, I should mention that it was tough to get good shots throughout my entire visit. So pardon the blurriness and over-exposures. The sunlight kept toying with me in what’s already a heavily wooded area, and it was very dark in the caves. Oh, and to top it off, my camera battery was almost dead upon arrival. Must buy a spare! So I didn’t get all the shots I wanted to, but figured you’d understand, and still enjoy seeing the remarkable work that has gone in to preserving this iconic cellar and grounds.  :>)
schramsberg visitor center
castaways from the bottling line
Kari, our guide for the visit, took us on a great tour consisting of a walk deep into their long network of caves stretching two miles into the hillside. Dark and low ceilings make up the cellars, which were dug from the mountain’s porous tufa rock. A constant 58F temperature year-round ensures the sparkling is kept in optimum storage condition. What I found most amazing though, is how they stack the bottles. Once the finished bottles come off the bottling line, they have a crew of cellar hands racing with full carts through the cellar (literally, no joke) to deliver the bottles to the aging area, where they will sit to age for years to come. They’re cruising at a pretty good clip too; I have no idea how they don’t loose any bottles along the way.  At the aging area, another crew stacks them into “walls” like mad-men. Once fully stacked, it will be 10-12 feet high by 8 rows deep.  Wow! Then the bottling crew races back with empty carts to collect the next batch of readied-wines. The noise and vibration of the commotion echos for hundreds of yards throughout the labyrinth of tunnels.  A well-organized chaos. Was so fun to see it all in action.
schramsberg main entrance to caves schramsberg bottles aging

schramsberg bottles aging 2
The Cuveé, or finished blend of grape varietals going into the bottle, is comprised of several lots of fruit from varied vineyards. Schramsberg is best known for their Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay fruit) but also makes a dreamy Brut Rosé (Pinot Noir & Chardonnay) and a lovely Blanc de Noirs (all Pinot Noir).  Plus many more special blends for their wine club that can only be purchased as a member. This handy chart showed all their vineyard properties and contracted-fruit partners. As most of you are probably aware, Napa is far too hot to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to its best expression. So most producers look at the Carneros region (southern Napa), Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) or further south down along the southern Sonoma & Marin coastlines to select their ultra-premium grapes.
schramsberg vineyard map
At the riddling area, we were shown how they age the wine ‘sur lees’ or ‘on the yeast’ using the méthode champenoise process. Their Master Riddler will turn the bottle only 1/8 of an inch for the first few days of aging, then gradually increased the turning radius over the months and years until the sediment (or dead yeast cells) have all lined up in a neat row, ready to be disgorged (a chilling process which removes this yeast from the neck of the bottle). It’s a true labor of love. Every bottle of Schramsberg sparkling has been touched by human hands dozens and dozens of times over the years—making their winemaking process expensive, and of highest quality and tradition. All in all, a fabulous visit and new-found appreciation for the wines at Schramsberg Vineyards.
schramsberg- sur lees aging
(the white sediment above is the lees. It has been riddled  (turned) for years to coax the lees into a single line. Eventually, it will all fall to the neck of the bottle and be removed).

kelly from schramsbergWe tasted four wines– all delicious! Here’s some notes from the winery on the vintages:
2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine – $38.00
Bright and fresh aromas of grapefruit, lime, green apple and white apricot. The fragrance is complemented with hints of yeast, white flowers, spicy ginger and fresh honeycomb. The lime, tangerine and pear flavors are tart and refreshing on the palate with a crisp, lingering acidity.

2011 Schramsberg Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine – $43.00
Generous aromas of strawberry, cranberry and watermelon. It’s fruitful nose is complemented by notes of candied ginger and warm pastrydough. On the palate, flavors of mandarin orange, pomelo, pineapple and strawberry. Bright acidity with a long refreshing finish.

2011 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine – $40.00
Showcases the sustained aromas of cherry, strawberry and tangerine, which gradually layers with the fragrance of warm bread dough and toasted almond. The palate is bright on entry, with lush flavors of Rainier cherry, juicy orange and wild berry. Subtle acidity but enough to carry the lengthy finish.

2006 Schramsberg J. Schram Sparkling Wine – $110.00
Opens with bright aromas of green apple, ripe grapefruit and sweet pineapple followed by nuances of mango, guava, panna cotta, and toasted almond. On first sip, tangerine and Kaffir lime are present, which are accentuated by layers of tart pear and Fuji apple. The palate’s texture is viscous and savory on entry. Delicate and soft finish.

To Visit:
Schramsberg Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Road | Calistoga, CA 94515
Tour Reservations: (707) 942-4558

Okay, here’s the explanation of my crazy song references. Bet you know who I’m talking about now right? So, I was coming up to the Visitor Center to check in.  This person (pictured left) held the door for me as I had walked in right behind him (not recognizing who it was at that point). Then a minute later,  it hit me. So I popped back outside for a few snaps. Their tour guide and VP of Marketing (shown) said he & his guest were so nice. And from the looks of it, very interested in learning how to saber bubbly. There’s more to see in Napa than just grapes folks!  ;>)
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(click on photos to zoom in)

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“Have Fun Storming The Castle”

For all of you 80’s movie buffs, you know exactly what scene that line is from and how wonderful the now iconic movie is.Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

It’s one of my all-time favorites. I even own this one—and nope, not afraid to admit it either. Bet this is secretly one of your favorites too. Great, so we’re in good company then. Watching it once or twice a year still makes me giggle, laugh out loud, tear-up, and well, what can I say…. it’s just a plain old good time getting reacquainted with each of the characters we’ve come to love so much. I never seem to tire of the infamous quotes & one-liners this movie created. Not sure which movie I’m referring to? Keep reading. But if you get stuck–spoiler alert–movie title at bottom of post.

Well, last week I got my Buttercup on and had a blast storming this castle over in Napa Valley. Okay, “storming” may be a wee bit of an exaggeration perhaps. There were no Cliffs of Insanity to scale, no Pit Of Despair to escape from— just a gorgeous drive on a spring day through the back roads of Sonoma County, over Calistoga Summit dropping down into the northern end of Napa Valley.  All the vineyards throughout the valley are in full-leaf right now, making it the perfect day for a special VIP / behind-the-scenes access to one of wine country’s most well-known landmarks– Castello di Amorosa Winery in Calistoga. Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Moat at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Castello di Amarosa, Napa Valley
I lucked out on this exclusive, private tour through a chance meeting with Patrick (formerly of Castello, now with its sister winery V. Sattui), at a recent wine industry event. Patrick had been with “The Castle” (as the locals refer to it) since it opened in 2007 and he graciously invited my dear friend, Miss LJ, and I up for a visit. Since both of us are in the wine biz and have only heard tell of this amazing place–we were very excited to finally see the winery in person. Patrick knows every square inch of this place inside and out. He shared with us all the mind-boggling details of how a piece of Italy was reproduced, stone by stone, here in California wine country. It was 14 years in the making and no matter what other winery folks tell you– it’s definitely well-worth a visit. Do yourself some favors though and 1) get there early to beat the crowds (opens at 9:30am daily), 2) book the tour and the tasting ($35/pp) otherwise you’ll miss out on most of the castle if you only do the self-guided tour and 3) wear comfortable shoes. It’s a real castle people. And it’s huge! There are heaps of stone stairs, narrow cobblestone walkways, sloping pathways into four levels of dark cellars….you get the idea. So much fun! Oh, and bring your camera too. The views of the valley from the turrets are stunning.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa ValleyDSC_0084-2
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Where to begin- there is so much to share. I’ll give you the highlights and then you’ll just have to hop on a plane to experience the rest of this majestic place for yourself. The Castello was built to period with a combination of 13-14th and 16th century castle architecture. There’s not one specific castle in Italy it was modeled after,  rather a collection of Tuscan villas, castles and alike that owner Dario Sattui found inspiration from. There are eight levels (four above-ground, four underground) with 107 rooms. In total, 121,000 square feet of medieval artistry. He has recreated every detail with incredible accuracy and (needless to say), expense. All the iron work for the doors, walls, hinges, light fixtures was hand-forged by Italian artisans. The mural in the Great Hall is a replica from a fresco in Siena; hand-painted by artists he flew in from Umbria. The centuries-old salvaged cobblestones near the draw bridge (yep, told you it was a real castle) were shipped over in hundreds of containers from Italy. The upper courtyard (the bailey) has beautiful natural Carrara marble walls and bar-tops. The rectangular gaps (crenels) in the walls were engineered to the exact angle a guardsmen of the day would have needed to deftly launch his deadly arrow through to kill an enemy, yet protect himself from return fire.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
We walked through a myriad of wine cellars, the Armory, the Torture Chamber, Member-Only tasting room, fermentation and barrel aging rooms. In all—four levels down from the main courtyard, about 70-80 feet beneath the earth. We even got to meet Lancelot (the cat). His sister Guinevere was off sunning herself on one of the outer walls. The entire property is in keeping with a real working-castle of the day with their stable of animals– chickens running in & out of vineyard rows, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks and geese in the moat, and a stately peacock near the entrance to greet you.

Private Tasting Cellar- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
After a 1.5-hour journey underground, we finished up in the large main tasting area for a sip or two (or three!) of their signature releases. Patrick offered his suggestions from their expansive collection of wines- ranging from sweet whites and reds to dry, aromatic white blends to several well-made reds and a few tasty dessert wines. There is a wine here for the novice drinker up to the expert. My favorites were:
2014 Castello di Amorosa Gewürztraminer, Mendocino County– amazing spice and rose petal on the nose. Dry, mineral-laced and bright stone fruit on the palate. Vinified in an Alsacian-style. A nice drop. $25.00

2014 Castello di Amorosa Pinot Bianco, Sonoma County-you don’t see too much of this varietal produced around here. Light, crisp, tropical fruit but not heavy-handed. Would be ideal for a brunch or just for sipping on a lazy summer day. $26.00

2011 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese, Napa Valley– all the bright acidity you’d expect from a Sangiovese. Loaded with cherries, dark berries, mocha, bit of earthiness too. Perfect with an antipasti plate. $29.00
Family Tasting Area- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Patrick & Miss LJ at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Many thanks to Patrick for the expert tour and his wealth of knowledge. We now have a deep appreciation for the talents and hard work contributed by the hundreds of skilled artisans that constructed this jaw-dropping and unique winery. In admiration of their work, all we could say was “inconceivable!”.

What’s your favorite line from the movie? ;>)

To visit:
Castello di Amorosa
4045 St Helena Hwy, Calistoga, CA 94515 |  (707) 967-6272
Several tour, tasting, food pairing options available. Tour & tasting information
Open daily 9:30am-6:00pm March-Oct | 9:30am-5:00pm Nov-Feb

-Movie title= The Princess Bride (1987)
-Header Tag Line= scene with Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane) wishing Westley good luck as he embarks on a journey to save Buttercup from Prince Humperdink.
-Plan to spend at least 2 – 2.5 hours here. You will need every minute of that if you are doing the tour & tasting, plus you’ll want time to wander the grounds.
-Scenes from Adam Sandler’s movie Bedtime Stories (2008) were filmed here. Their production crew scouted 19 sites world-wide before discovering Castello.