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Wine, Food and Sustainability at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery

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Nestled on the southeastern edge of the Santa Maria Valley along the long and winding Foxen Canyon Road you will find Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. Established in 1973, the property provided Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to local Santa Barbara County Wineries. Over the years Riverbench became a prominent name in the area due to the quality of the grapes that were produced. In 2004, a group of local wine enthusiasts purchased the property and decided to start producing their own wine label, thus creating Riverbench Winery. In the beginning, the vintages included estate and reserve chardonnay and pinot noir, but since 2004 the portfolio has increased.

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Riverbench has one of the most inviting properties you will find along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. The tasting room is located in a completely renovated farm house on the edge of the Vineyards. When we visited Riverbench, the cost for a tasting was $10 and below is a partial list of the wines we tasted:

Estate Pinot Noir (2008)
“The vivid burgundy color is slightly darker than 2006, thanks to an almost textbook perfect harvest in 2007. The wine is commanding and ripe but not over extracted. Sumptuous favors of strawberries and cherries coat the tongue, but the finish still holds our signature smoke and clove; it perfectly complements grilled cornmeal crusted quail or a wild mushroom pizza.”

Estate Chardonney (2007)
“There’s something enviable about a Chardonnay that is able to show balance between rich fruit flavors and a delicate buttery note; an oaked Chardonnay isn’t hard to find, and there certainly exists a fine line between luscious and overdone. When you find a wine this well-adjusted, you won’t want to let it go. Our Chardonnay is truly luscious, showing tropical fruit flavors typical of our vineyard while being luxurious and substantial enough to boast a lasting finish with lingering hints of honey and apple. Perhaps you’ll enjoy this one evening with grilled halibut, or as the perfect accompaniment to she-crab soup. Either way, keep a bottle in the closet for those important dinners- you’re sure to win over the boss’s wife.”

We purchased the Chardonney; it had a very nice flavor and reasonable price.

Mesa Pinot Noir (2007)
“There’s a special section, deep in the vineyard, that’s been affectionately termed “The Mesa” for many years now. The fruit from these vines is remarkably different Pinot Noir; there is a liveliness that refreshes the palate and stirs the senses. One taste of these grapes and it was obvious that we needed to try this section on its own.”

In the summer of 2008, the barrel samples revealed we had something special on our hands, and now that it’s had some time to age in the bottle, we’ve decided to introduce it to you.

This wine is surprisingly soft and feminine on the palate, yet its elegance and brightness are balanced by a lift on the palate and a more assertive finish. In other words, this is no wimpy wine. Earth tones match the red fruit flavors, and the oak plays subtly in the background. Try this one of a kind representation of Riverbench with cranberry glazed Cornish game hens or beef Wellington.”

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If you like what you find after a tasting, be sure to join the Riverbench Wine club which offers some really great benefits that include:

Complimentary tasting for up to four people in the tasting room or Members-Only Wine Room.

Select Member discounts on wines and merchandise.

Limited Production wines delivered right to your door three times annually.

A club that fits your preferences with various tiers and options.

Member exclusive events and specials.

Complimentary email newsletter.

Access to Club member VIP Day at the Winery, private events including a tour, private tasting, and winemaker’s lunch for up to 6 people.

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Aside from wine, Riverbench takes it a step further by adding food. On the Riverbench website under their “Food & Wine” section, you will find a wide variety of recipes with wine pairings. From Braised Rabbit and Herbs with 2007 Estate Pinot Noir to Truffle and Crab Mac and Cheese with 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, you are sure to find a recipe that will temp any palate. They also offer events at the vineyard that couple great Riverbench wines with food. The week after we visited, Riverbench hosted a St. Patrick’s Day event that offered green chardonnay and homemade pizza.

But it’s not all about the wine and food, at the end of the day it’s also about sustainability. As the world becomes “greener”, many wineries are looking to become more sustainable in order to preserve the environment that they operate in for years to come. After speaking with Laura Mohensi, General Manager of Riverbench Winery, she explained that “we are really proud of what we’ve put together in only a few short years, especially the “green” aspect.” The tasting room is a Santa Barbara Green Business the only one to be certified and the Vineyards are on track to be SIP certified later this year. You can learn more about it at www.sipthegoodlife.org

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If you find yourself along the Foxen Canyon wine trail be sure to stop by Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. They are located at 6020 Foxen Canyon Road Santa Maria, CA 93454. If you can’t make it there in person, be sure to visit their website at http://www.riverbench.com/index.php

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Chaddsford Winery

I have often wondered why the big wine publications pay so little attention to the many excellent small wineries located in regions around the United States. Test my theory, pick up any of the top wine magazines and almost all the articles will be about the big wine regions, California, France, Italy, Australia, you get my point. While I understand that some great wines come from these regions, hence the interest, I just feel more must be done to promote some of these less celebrated regions here in the U. S., that well deserve some attention. That leads us to report on another unique U. S. winery.

The beautiful Brandywine Valley in southeast Pennsylvania is home to the Chaddsford Winery. The setting is a small country estate in the historic town of Chadds Ford, the winery itself is housed in a renovated 17th century colonial barn once owned by William Penn. Founded in 1982 by Eric and Lee Miller, Chaddsford enjoys the title of largest winery in the state. The location was chosen on their belief the climate, soils and growing conditions would be ideal for producing premium European style wines. Their Miller Estate vineyard in nearby northern Chester County is planted with over 30 acres of grapes.

Their first release was in 1983 and they have grown from around 3000 cases to over 25000 annually. Even with the increase, Eric’s passion to create the very best wines without losing sight that they must contain the signature of the local land, soil, climate, etc. shines through in each bottle of wine he puts his name on. Eric has been a huge influence with farmers in the area with regard to grape growing and strives to inspire other local wine makers that they too can make their mark in the wine world.

Eric Miller’s interest in wine began at an early age, spending a good portion of his youth growing up in France and near many of the famous vineyards of Europe. Returning with his family to the U. S. in 1970 they settled in New York’s Hudson Valley and founded the state’s first farm winery, Benmarl Vineyards. As a grape grower and winemaker Eric used many of the European grape varieties and pioneered wine types that are still used current day in the Eastern wine making region. He spent ten years at Benmarl perfecting his skills as a vintner before starting Chaddsford along with his wife Lee who he met in 1978 and married the following year. Lee became involved in the wine business as a journalist, she was a co-founder of the magazine “Wine East” in 1981, and the following year co-authored the first book about wineries east of Mississippi, titled “Wine East of the Rockies”. Lee also has many other published works related to wine and grapes of the east. Together they share a wealth of wine knowledge, and a goal to establish the Atlantic Highlands as a top American wine district.

We had the pleasure of meeting Eric recently at the Chaddsford location. We had tried their wines on a previous trip to their tasting room in Peddler’s Village in Hope PA, and were so impressed we made plans to visit the winery location. Upon arriving at the winery, we felt as though we were visiting one of the Napa Valley’s newest tasting rooms, everything was all about wine, from the décor to the gifts for purchase to the tasting rooms… and the picnic tables outside overflowing with patrons enjoying a glass of their favorite Chaddsford wine. It was the Brandywine trail passport weekend, meaning pay one price and visit all of the local wineries with tasting included in your passport price and Chaddsford was a packed house. The winery was celebrating complete with a band that happened to be playing in the barrel room due to the occasional rain that day. However, I would like to mention that the Chaddsford staff must be well accustomed to crowds of that size as they were as professional as could be. Moving on I will highlight a few of the wines, but let me preface that by saying I will not do them all justice as I can confidently say there is a Chaddsford wine for every taste and my tastes are unique to me.

For example, Naked Chardonnay… a Chardonnay that Eric decided should not have all the additional oak flavors, just plain old “naked” Chardonnay. Check out the Chaddsford winery website for a picture of Eric in the vineyard demonstrating just how he makes naked wine. Of course Chaddsford has your traditional Chardonnay as well. While completely different, both are outstanding. There is also a Proprietors Reserve white blend that we enjoyed very much. While Eric enjoys wines made all over the county, including Napa, he stays true to the region and knows outstanding wine can be made almost anywhere and he is living proof. While we enjoy white wine, we are truly Red wine drinkers and had enjoyed some of the red wines that we had previously sampled at the Peddlers Village tasting room. Eric produces some of what I affectionately call the “traditional” reds such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and even Syrah, which can be called somewhat traditional these days. We loved all of the wines we sampled but our favorite was the Due Rossi blend, an Italian style red made from Sangiovese and Barbera grapes.

The Millers also produce other red blends, Merican (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc), and Rubino (Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese). While I highlight the traditional reds and whites, Chaddsford truly has something for every type of wine drinker. Although I have not sampled them, there are also sweet and seasonal wines that I am sure are made to the same quality standards as the Chaddsford wines I sampled.
After our visit and talking with Eric it was apparent to me that while he has long ago surpassed his goal of making excellent, premium wines. He is not about to stop striving for perfection in his wine making. I sense his passion has not wavered and his involvement in every facet of his operation is proof Eric will not let success go to his head. I remember in conversation he said “it is after all just grape juice” yet, I know he works hard every day to make that grape juice fill bottles that will always be better than the last and bring smiles to the faces those who drink his wine.

Chaddsford Winery is open 7 days a week for tours and tasting from 12:00pm to 6:00pm. They also have a tasting room and wine shop in Peddler’s Village located in New Hope PA.
For information and directions visit their web site:
http://www.chaddsford.com/

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Unique U.S. Wineries

Alba Winery and Vineyard

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The state of New Jersey may strike you as an unlikely location for a vineyard and winery. Even more unlikely is the fact that New Jersey touts 29 wineries. One of these wineries fits our criteria of a unique U.S. winery.
Alba Winery and Vineyard, located in the historic Village of Finesville. Alba states on their web site “Our goal is to be recognized by the discerning consumer as a producer of quality wines.” We have visited Alba many times and suggest they add high quality wines to that statement. Alba’s tasting room is located in an old historic barn built in 1805. Trust me you will not feel like your in an old barn once inside. The building also houses the winery, and the Musconetcong Art Gallery. The tasting room is located in the oldest portion of the building, along with a complete selection of their award winning wines, all of which are produced on the premises. A selection of gift items and a large array of past and present awards as well as other items are also on display. The tasting price includes an Alba wine glass. By the way Alba was awarded winery of the year at the 2006 New Jersey wine competition, and they boast a long list of local, national and international awards. Let me say the tasting room and winery building reminds me of several rather famous ones in the Napa California area, so much so that I love to return often to hold me over on memories until our annual Napa trip. Of course let me also mention their excellent wines also bring us back. One of our favorite Alba wines is a very reasonably priced everyday Red.
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Old Mill Red, tasting notes describe Old Mill as a blend of mostly Marechal Foch and Chambourcin with a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, all are aged and fermented separately until blending. Aging takes place in small American Oak barrels for 8-10 months then bottled. I can tell you this is a fantastic everyday wine priced very reasonable, that drinks like a higher priced wine. Old Mill is priced at $8.99 a bottle or $97.09 per case, Alba also offers mixed case discounts.
Alba has far too many wines for us to list here including whites, reds, sparkling and desert wines. They host numerous events through out the year, most based around holidays. Tasting and tours are always available during hours of operation. Hours are Sunday-Friday 11:00am-5:00pm and Sunday 11:00am-6:00pm. I have to tell you Alba is a must visit whether you live in New Jersey or get the chance to visit. You will not be disappointed!
Check out their web site below:
http://www.albavineyard.com/

Demarest Hill Winery and Vineyard

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As we try to do as often as possible, this past weekend we traveled our state and New York State to visit and taste at local wineries. Our last stop in the afternoon was Demarest Hill Winery and Vineyard. Nestled on a hillside in lovely and historic Warwick New York. This place for lack of better words is a find. After a scenery packed drive through Pine Island, known as the black dirt capitol of the world and Warwick. We drove up a long driveway to the top of a lovely hillside. After parking we walked up to a beautiful home perched on top of the hillside. The tasting room is attached to the house, and as you walk up, just behind the tasting room is the most spectacular view of rolling hills and farmland.
As we rang the bell, an older gentelman rode up on a quad to greet us. We later learned this was Francesco Ciummo, the owner and Master Vintner, who at the young age of 73, still works his dream daily. Francesco was born in Molise Italy and learned his wine making skills from his father. As the story goes, after years of hard back braking labor in jobs around the world. Francesco set out to build his dream in America, and what we happened upon is the result.
Francesco welcomed us, complete with his still strong Italian accent and happy demeanor.
Entering a lovely tasting room we were amazed at the selection of wines and distilled beverages before us. All are made and bottled by Francesco himself, of course with a little help. We tried a selection of ten red wines, all of which were very good. At Francesco’s suggestion we also tried several of his distilled selections. I am not a big fan of Grappa, yet I can tell you his Grappa was the smoothest I have ever tasted. At 105 proof, that’s saying alot. His tropical blended liquor, appropriately named “Mamajuana”, a must try if you visit, was so good some actually came home with us. Another liquor well worth mentioning was the Limoncello, again one of the best I have tasted. I would be remiss if I left out another Francesco suggestion, the Basamico, a Balsamic Vinegar touted as the best in the United States on his web site. I am not a vinegar expert so I can not confirm this as truth, but I will tell you we loved it and again some came home with us. My two favorite red wines were the Warwick Black Pearl Local, and the Bacchos Noir Local. Without a doubt this is a unique winery and a must visit! The trip is well worth your time, and if you plan a day trip several other wineries are in the area. Brotherhood Winery, the oldest working winery in the United States is about a half hour drive from Demarest. Be sure to ask for Francesco when you visit Demarest.

http://http://www.demaresthillwinery.com/

Ehlers Estate Winery

A very unique winery located in Napa Valley, is Ehlers Estate Winery. It is a very old winery started by Bernard Ehlers in 1886. It happens to be the only winery in California that is non-profit. All profits are donated to cardiovascular research. They have a lovely tasting room housed in the original 1886 winery, a rather big stone building with alot of history. The tasting room is very rustic and low key with many wine related knick knacks around. You would almost think you walked in the door and went back in time to 1886. Bernard Ehlers was a grocer from Sacramento who started his winery (as the story goes) with $7000.00 and a gold coin. Mr. Ehlers planted olive trees along with the grapes and today the remaining trees produce fruit for the winery’s own Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Mr. Ehlers passed away in 1901 and his wife took over. In 1923 a local resident named Alfred Domingos purchased the land from her. This was during the prohibition era when only home winemaking was legal. Among many stories told, one was that alot of bootleg wine was sold by Mr. Domingos during the era.
The current owners, the Jean Leducq family eventually purchased some of the the land in 1985. They began producing wine under thier own name, then after purchasing all of the remaining property in 2000, went back to the Ehlers label.
The Leducq Foundation, established in 1996 by Jean and Sylviane Leducq, is a non-profit philanthropic entity whose purpose is to support international cardiovascular research. The foundation serves as the beneficiary of all profits from the winery. The vineyards are biodynamically farmed. And today they produce three red wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a Cabernet Franc, all of which are produced from grapes grown on the Ehlers Lane property, by the way all are excellent wines. Also produced is a Sauvignon Blanc, their only white wine, which is produced using grapes from the Oakville and Pope Valley region. The wines are award winning and this is one trip worth making. The winery is located in historic St. Helena on Highway 29.
Jean Leducq passed away at the age of 82, and today his wife Sylviane still watches over the foundation.

http://www.ehlersestate.com/

Raymond Burr Vineyards

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In our travels around Sonoma last week, we happened upon a small wooden sign that read “Raymond Burr Vineyards”. We all thought, could it be the Raymond Burr from Ironside, and those of you a few years wiser, the Raymond Burr of Perry Mason?
Our curiousity got the best of us, and we dialed the number that displayed the words “appointment only” underneath it. Sure enough when we asked could you accomodate a tasting for four like…right now, cause we are at the end of the driveway, the voice said “come right up”. What a great little find. Off the beaten path, a long driveway up to Raymond Burr and his partner, Robert Benevides piece of paradise. The grounds were beautiful, a greenhouse growing prize orchids sits off to the left of the driveway. The tasting room full of Raymond Burr memorabilia, even his two Emmy awards, big as life, right there to touch. The walls contained every TV Guide cover that featured Mr. Burr all the way back to the sixties. Now, mind you this impression is all without having tasted a drop of the premium wines the lovely tasting room manager was about to pour. The wines were excellent, and our pourer told stories of the man, a legend in our minds. As you know Mr. Burr has since passed away, but let me tell you the view from his desk, where we are told he spent his last days is breathtaking. Hard to describe. That is the one of the reasons we have decided to start this page with historical notes from what we consider unique wineries with a history. Below are some historical notes from the Raymond Burr Vineyards website. We hope you enjoy reading the notes and we will continue to post as many unique winery stories as we can.

Raymond Burr and Robert Benevides had met, as professional actors, in the middle 1950s on the television program which was to make a legend of Burr, “Perry Mason.” Motivated in the beginning by friendship, the Burr/Benevides relationship was bolstered and advanced by their individual interest in, and knowledge of, the cultivation and hybridization of orchids. In the next several years this shared hobby began to grow until the obvious resolution was to make it a commercial venture. And so, Sea God Nurseries was born, becoming in the 20-odd years of its life an international presence with ranges in Fiji, Hawaii, the Azores Islands and in Southern California. During this period, the partnership was responsible for over 1,500 new orchids added to the world-wide catalogue.

Simultaneously, Benevides had become Executive in Charge of Production on Mr. Burr’s very successful television series “Ironside” and together they managed an island in Fiji they had bought, where they raised copra and cattle.

In 1976 Benevides, on the advice of his father, had purchased an eminently desirable farm in the Dry Creek Valley and in the following months, as the nine-year “Ironside” drew to a close, Burr and Benevides traveled in northern California, the scene of both their young lives (Burr was raised in Vallejo, Benevides on the Peninsula, both attended school in Berkeley). Benevides took Burr to see his property in Sonoma County.

Around this time, the Dry Creek Valley was in transition; having for a long while produced hops, and then prunes, the area was just beginning to be recognized as the prime terrain for grape-growing that it now is. By 1980 the Burr/Benevides partnership had moved their orchid nurseries to the valley and work on the manzanita covered benchlands began…the clearing, the tilling, the sterilization; the wells dug, the drip-systems installed, the Roman drains, the French drains, the trellises built, the wires strung…all while the two men were actively engaged in the Viacom presentation of the new adventures of “Perry Mason” which over a period of five years was filmed in Denver, Colorado, Paris, France and Toronto, Canada!

The grapes were planted in 1986: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and, for the proprietors, a small section of Port–the bareroot stock imported from Portugal. (The Port, originally intended for family and friends, has somehow found its way onto the Cartes du Vin of a couple of upscale San Francisco restaurants, and in 1996 took Double Gold at the wine fair there.)

In 1990 the beautiful south-facing vineyards produced their first vintage. Carefully hand picked, they were carried down to the Pedroncelli Bonded Winery where they were handed into the wise and gentle hands of John Pedroncelli, a second-generation winemaker and inheritor of the Sonoma tradition. After 18 months in small French and American oak cooperage, the wine was bottled in November, 1992, released in 1995.

Fully matured vines and a perfect growing season in the Dry Creek Valley in 1991 produced a bigger and more complex wine with a potentially extraordinary cellar-life.

By 1992 the vineyards were in their prime — and Raymond Burr�s health was failing. At a time when he could have legitimately retired to �watch his garden grow� he made — primarily to protect his 200+ crew — four more of the six-week-shooting-schedule two-hour Perry Mason television films and found time to watch, to protect, to nurture the splendid grapes. Found time to confer with the winemaker, to taste from the barrels the 1992, and finally, a few days before his death, to watch the harvest.

By some coincidence, and not a little skill, the 1992 Raymond Burr Cabernet Sauvignon is very like the man; big, full of gusto, complex and jubilantly alive. On a television documentary about Northern California wines he made several years ago he remarked that “…probably one of the most important things in a vineyard are the footprints of the grower between the rows…” And if those big, wide-paced footprints are actually no longer visible in the earth, they are imprinted certainly in the memories, and hearts, of the vineyard people.

POSTSCRIPT: Raymond Burr didn’t want the vineyards named for him. But Robert Benevides, his partner, colleague and companion of 35 years, after much struggle and thought, decided that, in this case, the parallels of man and wine could not be separated; it is not so much a memorial to Raymond Burr as it is his living, breathing presence.

Visit them at: http://www.raymondburrvineyards.com/