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Raymond Burr Vineyards annual visit


During our travels through Sonoma three years ago, we happened upon Raymond Burr Vineyards. Since that time we have been returning every year to taste the newest vintage of Chardonnay which is one of my favorites along with the Cabernet and Cabernet Franc, both very good also. This year we arrived at Raymond Burr on the 4th of July weekend and they were having a small picnic celebration with tasting out on the patio. They have a lovely picnic area outside the tasting room with tables under shade trees over looking rolling vineyards. It was a nice day to sit outside, take in the view and taste the latest vintages. It reminded me of a family celebration with a neighbor doing some pouring and old friends helping out. There was a grill fired up with sausage and hotdogs with all the fixin’s. We shipped home our favorites and all agreed it was a great stop to cap off our day in Sonoma. For a more in depth look at Raymond Burr Vineyards and the history behind it, visit our unique U.S. Wineries page.

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Tasting at Locals

We left Stryker for a short trip over to Geyserville and a stop at Locals Tasting Room. Locals is a winery collective, or tasting room that features wines from boutique wineries that either do not have or want tasting rooms of their own. Locals presently features 10 award winning wineries with a selection of over 62 wines. Our reason for the visit was to try a selection of Portalupi wine after meeting the winemaker, Tim Borges at Envy the day before. We ended up doing a flight of wines from several different wineries including Portalupi.

I have to say I am not a regular of collectives as I find the experience somewhat like shopping at a super market. I feel the experience is more personal at tasting rooms on winery property with small groups, also why I stay away from the big wineries that attract large groups of people. I will admit Locals was a different and like able experience for me. Not only were the wines very good, the tasting room was cozy and full of atmosphere. Our host Diane happily provided information on the wineries, winemakers and wines as we sampled them, along with some stories of her time on the East Coast and how she arrived in California working at Locals. After selecting wine to ship home we headed out for a visit to Raymond Burr Vineyards; another old favorite.

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Napa Town and County Fair 2009

The Napa Town and County Fair is an annual celebration of the community, it’s people, talents and agriculture. With entertainment for everyone from great food, exciting exhibits, carnival rides, vender booths, livestock show, auction and much more. The fair, now in it’s 79th year is held at the Napa Valley Expo in the heart of downtown Napa, and runs from August 12th-16th. There will be a preview Gala and Wine tasting held August 11th begining at 5:30pm, with wine tasting and and food sampling from some of Napa’s best wineries. For tickets and more information visit the web site at: Or call: (707) 253-4900
The Gala and tasting is open to adults 21 years and older only.

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Stryker Sonoma Winery

We headed out on our third day over to Sonoma to visit a few favorites such as Raymond Burr and also wanted to explore some new stops as well. If you have ever been to Sonoma you know that most roads have street signs with arrows pointing to the direction of the local wineries. While driving towards our intended stop and looking for a new find, we saw the sign for Stryker. That struck a familiar cord with us as it was one of the first bottles that we received as a gift for our new wine cellar many years ago from our brother in law. We opened it several years later and it was outstanding. It had been purchased in California and we had never tried the wines again until that day. As we arrived at Stryker we thought the rolling vineyards surrounding the building were quite picturesque, but then upon entering the tasting room, the view really took our breath away. As we sampled the Stryker wines we looked through large glass windows that lined the rear of the tasting bar out over the vineyards. The tasting room itself was simple and elegant all at the same time with a cozy looking fireplace at one end for the cooler months. I am not sure if I have a favorite Stryker wine as we enjoyed them all, although the Russian River Zinfandel comes to mind quickly. As a red wine fan, the more I tasted at Stryker, the more I thought I now have another favorite in Sonoma I will need to visit on a regular basis. Stryker offers a small line of white wines (chardonnay and Semillon) and a much larger line of red wine. The red wines are Zinfandels, Merlots, Cabernets, Blends, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. All of the wines are well balanced and smooth with aging potential for years to come. The Stryker philosophy is all about quality, fruit and character and I can attest that it shines through in each bottle.

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Freemark Abbey

Our last stop for the day was at an old favorite, Freemark Abbey. Their tasting room happens to be within walking distance of the Wine Country Inn so it was an easy choice. Freemark has a long history in the valley beginning back in 1886 when Josephine Marlin Tychson became the first woman to build and operate a winery in California. The site where Tychson Cellars once stood is now Freemark Abbey. The winery has changed hands many times over the years and is presently owned by Kendall Jackson Estates. Their tasting room recently went through an extensive renovation complete with a fireplace, 25-foot bar and private estate tasting room that can accommodate 12 people. Most of the Freemark wines are distributed, and the complete line includes selections of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Viognier , summer whites, desert wines, and Library Wines. Also included is a blend called Josephine named after the original owner, a varietal composition of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 13% Malbec, and 5% Cabernet Franc. With our day of tasting over we finished by shipping home a selection of wine not distributed in our area, and headed back to the Inn for the afternoon tasting and appetizer hour.

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Envy Estate Wines

One of the things you find out in the valley is many times there is a connection between wineries. Well known winemakers will help out other wineries and vineyards by do consulting work for them. Smaller vineyards or locations without sufficient property often do not have crush pads, tanks, or storage areas and will work out agreements for sharing facilities. Sometimes it may even come down to a trade type agreement, you work for me and I work for you. There is also the making of friendships with either money or talent to start a new venture. Remember growing grapes and making wine is not an easy or inexpensive under taking, and not something the inexperienced should try alone. Our next stop suggested by Lin at Venge Vineyards was one of these joint ventures that we were excited to try. Envy Wines was started by a well known Napa name, Nils Venge (a widely known, busy winemaker in the valley) and his friend Mark Carter. Carter is an innkeeper who owns Carter House; a group of four beautiful Victorians perched alongside Humboldt Bay in Old Town Eureka. Carter and Venge were introduced by a mutual friend back while Nils was making wine for Groth Vineyards where he received a perfect score of 100 from wine critic Robert Parker for Groth’s 1985 Reserve Cabernet. Nils became a regular at Carter House after starting his own Saddleback Cellars, and attending the first winemaker dinner hosted there. As the story goes Carter had an extensive wine list at his restaurant and began bugging Nils about making a wine he could call his own. Nils Venge would later help Carter make his first wine in 1998 and Carter Cellars was born. Their friendship would endure and they eventually teamed up to launch Envy Wines. Together they purchased the former Calistoga Cellars property off of Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. The property includes 11.2 acres of Cabernet and Merlot vines, a tasting room and wine making facility. After taking possession of the property last December, Envy is already off and running with the tasting room selling wine from their inaugural release. The tasting room is a small, stylish building that offers a bit of a homey feel to it with a table and chairs nested in the middle where you can relax if you choose. A dog (and his owners) was welcomed into the tasting room while we were there. A woman came in who was hosting a party at her home that evening and simply had to purchase a case of wine from Envy for her party. We too had to purchase a case of wine to ship home to the East Coast as well as a few bottles for consumption on the remainder of our trip. We sampled whites, a Rose, and several Reds. We loved all of them but I think a group favorite was Bee Bee’s blend. Another great stop and some new Envy customers will be back to purchase again.

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Touring Schramsberg

After our visit to Venge with Lin, she was able to get us a quick tour at Schramsberg as her husband Ron works there and luckily had some time to fit us in. We appreciated that very much as two members of our party had never been to Scrhamsberg and were looking forward to it. They were looking forward to it partly because of how we had described the uniqueness of the champagne caves and partly just due to the vast amount of history the world famous Schramsberg has to offer. As we waited for our appointed time with Ron, we stood outside by the lily pad frog pond and observed the beauty of nature in action.


The pond has lots of frogs, plenty of tadpoles and bright colorful flowers bursting off lily pads with the most fascinating bugs flying around the area. In the middle of the pond is the frog holding the champagne glass to the sky, a replica of the wine maker holding the champagne glass to the moon to see if the wine is ready, as the story is told.


We then saw Ron in the doorway and quickly headed over to begin our tour. We made sure to take a look at the various presidential pictures and memorabilia, such as menus from White House dinners where Schramsberg wines were served that adorned the walls before heading into the caves. Ron first poured us some champagne to take along for the walk, so we sipped while learning about the champagne process and viewing the caves. A massive amount of bottles line the walls of the cave, rows and rows all stacked neatly resting for their time. If you can allow yourself to imagine long dark caves with moss and mold growing freely almost anywhere it can attach itself, you have an idea of what we were viewing. Very old hand dug caves dating back to the 1800’s travel what seems forever with various alcoves off the main cave walkway. There are areas nicely decorated for tours and tastings along the way as well as the occasional stain mark where the pressure had built up to the point that the bottle broke dripping liquids down the row.

While we had previously taken a public tour, this tour was more of a trade tour and allowed us to get a more in depth view of just how long the champagne making process is. We learned that Schramsberg is one of the few places to still perform hand riddling of the bottles, a time consuming process. This tour also allowed us to view more of the facility including the bottling area which was fascinating. All of the Scramsberg champagnes were outstanding. Although we did not get to taste it that day, the J Davies Cabernet is also incredible if you can get a hold of a bottle. Ron did a fabulous job and we look forward to visiting again. As the history of Schramsberg is so extensive, I would also recommend you visit their website to learn more about the property the winery is located on.


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Back from Napa

Getting back to work after a week in Napa Valley is certainly challenging. You go from the serene, beautiful, relaxing wine country back to the hectic pace of everyday life. Not to mention there is no afternoon wine tasting at my office, but I find one of the hardest things to do is not run down stairs into your wine cellar and sample all the treasures you have shipped home. Maybe it is an attempt to recreate vacation, I’m not sure. It may be a bit of recreation on our part, but also because we ship what we cannot buy at home so there is some intrigue to make sure none of our purchases were what you would call an “impulse or moment” purchase. You know you are having a great time, but somehow the wine doesn’t taste nearly as good when you get it home. Luckily, we have pretty much grown out of those type purchases over the years and we have gotten much better at letting our purchases sit so that we can enjoy those special bottles throughout the year.

There is one winery that we visited for the first time this year that I have to say, we haven’t been very good at following our rules with their wine. In fact, we have already decided that we will just have to order another case when we run out as it is damn good wine and we want to drink it now! That winery is Stryker in Sonoma. In particular we love the old Vine Zinfandel and drank our second bottle last evening. It was the 2005 Russian River that offers lots of ripe fruit with just enough spice to offset the fruitiness for a perfect balance. There are hints of oak as the wine spent 15 months in French oak. Stryker makes several different Zinfandel wines, but this Russian River Zin has a case production of only 198 cases.

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Visit to Venge Vineyards

Venge Vineyards

Our first full day in Napa Valley was one I was looking forward to as we would pay a return visit to one of my favorites, Venge Vineyards. The day began rather early for me at around 5:45 am breakfast and coffee was not yet available so I decide to make a trip down to the hot tub and pool at the Inn. A twenty minute sitting in the hot tub then a swim in the cool morning water of the pool and I was ready for a great day. As always we had a nice full breakfast before leaving the Inn and then it was off to the local St Helena Sunshine Market to pick up a picnic lunch. The Venge appointment was for 10:00am and we arrived right on time to their new location in Calistoga. A short ride up the driveway past rows of vineyards and you arrive at a large beautiful ranch house complete with a wraparound porch, lush gardens and a waterfall out front.




We stepped inside and our host Lin gave us the grand tour of the building and described the plan for a future tasting salon. You may remember if you followed our last year trip report, we met Lin at the old Venge location, the Rossini Ranch property, and happened to be the last group to do a tasting there as they were closing to make the move to the Calistoga property. It was a visit we all will always remember, as we first learned of Venge’s fantastic wines and watched Lin close the cave doors for the last time. Lin described plans owner/winemaker Kirk Venge has to convert the existing ranch home into tasting salon, with caves, a new production facility and new vineyard plantings. Of course they are awaiting county approval on the plans before the work can begin.

After the tour we sat down at the long wooden tasting table that survived the move and tasted a selection of Venge’s line up with Lin filling us in on news from the last year. We started with the 2008 Champ des Fleurs Proprietary white, a blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Chardonnay, and 10% Viognier. A refreshing white wine, with flavors of tropical fruit and citrus and a hint of white peach. We then tried a selection of reds including my favorite Scout’s Honor, a red blend of primarily Zinfandel at 68%, Petite Sarah 15% and Old Vine Charbonno 17%. The blend of this wine may change from year to year but I am a big fan of the last two vintages. I will not give descriptions on all Venge’s selection of reds which includes Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. For tasting notes visit their web site at We completed our tasting and update on the past years news, and of course ordered a nice selection to be shipped home.

Lin then arranged an appointment for us at Schramsberg for a tour of the famous Champagne caves which was not easy as remember the day was July 4th and Schramsberg was rather busy. Well, she does have a connection, her husband Ron who was actually our tour guide. It was Ron who made our appointment with Lin at the old Venge location last year after we visited a winery he previously worked at. I can tell you we feel almost like family having swapped many stories of our past, viewed wedding photos of their son who married this past year and the of my granddaughter who was born just before our trip, after some group pictures and hugs it was time to say good bye and head over to Schramsberg.

A funny note: the Wine Country Inn has their daily afternoon tasting and appetizers with the tasting handled by a different local winery each day. What a surprise when we walked in one afternoon later in the week and there was Lin pouring the Venge wine, more laughs, hugs and another fond memory. We will definitely be in touch with Lin throughout the year.

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A view of the Far Side of Eden

If you read my last wine babble post you will recall I talked about the reading “the far side of Eden” a story about the Napa Valley. Well, I just returned from a week long vacation in the far side of Eden. Let me tell you, it is beautiful country out there. Not only is it wine country, it is true country, ask almost anyone you can find, they will tell you they are farmers first and wine makers second. If you think about it, wine is truly all about farming as you need to be able to grow the grapes first in order to make good wine. There is also a tremendous amount of olive oil produced in the valley as well as other types of fresh produce. While I have only visited the valley during certain seasons, this is one of my favorite times. I would imagine with the mountains surrounding the valley floor that almost anytime of year would offer a tremendous view, but I personally find this time of year to be breathtaking. The golden backdrop beautifully highlights the bright green perfectly planted rows of grapes, full of life with large clusters of grapes waiting to ripen, the tree tops also offsetting the golden backdrop with their green leaves. A palate of blue sky with golden ground and green life offer a sight that one doesn’t want to look away from for too long. Along the Silverado Trail one also catches a glimpse of the occasional palm tree and bright flowers adorning either a vineyard or personal driveway and the very colorful wild flowers that grow almost anywhere along the roadside. A sight we do not see all that often on the East Coast of New Jersey with most of our plants dying off for the winter, a fact that just keeps me staring longer at the beauty of the valley. As enticing as the scenery is also the wildlife, the people, and of course the wines make this a trip that you must take once in a lifetime if not multiple times.