Italy 2017: daytrip to Chianti

There are many, many options to explore the Chianti region via daytrips from Florence. We immediately ruled out any that involved being on a bus with 50+ other people, so that left small van tours and private tours. In the end, we decided to spend more money and booked a private tour with Avventure Bellissime for the four of us that included visits to two wineries and three hillside towns. A good mix of scenery and wine tasting!

Simon, our driver, picked us up promptly at the hotel at 9:30am and we drove just out of town to Michelangelo Piazza where we had uninterrupted panoramic views of Florence. Stunning.

view from Piazzale Michelangelo

The road transitioned from city to green countryside very quickly, with many charming villas and valley views as we climbed into the hills south of Florence. Our first stop was Montefioralle, a tiny hilltop village, where we walked around and got a little history of the area.

Montefioralle

Montefioralle  Montefioralle

How do you know a wine is officially a Chianti Classico? Look for the black rooster on the label!

A quick stop in the nearby town of Greve in Chianti allowed us an hour to shop at the Saturday market and people watch. I picked up a couple tea towels for a few euros but I thought the painted pottery was too expensive for the quality.

Saturday Market - Greve in Chianti
scooters and modern art  meat shop in Greve in Chianti

Simon stopped to let us take some photos and then it was on to our first winery of the day (and lunch) at Castello di Monterinaldi.

Tuscany views

Tuscany views

Upon arrival, we had a brief tour of the winery which included large concrete fermenters (as opposed to stainless steel) and a look at their extensive barrelling caves. The dessert wine stays in a barrel for 5 years!

Castello di Monterinaldi

concrete vats @ Castello di Monterinaldi  wine barrels @ Castello di Monterinaldi

Castello di Monterinaldi

The grounds were very well landscaped with lovely views, and they even had a two story chicken coop. But enough exploring, it was time for lunch! We were shown into a private room with a huge platter of antipasto and the hostess poured us our first taste of the rose. The antipasto was followed by tagliatelle bolognese, a chicken dish with dessert wine reduction, and an apricot tart for dessert. Everything was really tasty and paired well with the Tuscan wines. Even though there was another group with us on the short tour, we had separate rooms for lunch, so it really felt private and special.

pre-lunch @ Castello di Monterinaldi 

Our last hilltown of the tour was Castellina in Chianti – a charming little town with old walls and wine cellars. We walked through the Via delle Volte, a stone arched passageway, and did some shopping in the main square.

Via delle Volte in Castellina in Chianti  fountain in Castellina in Chianti

Castellina in Chianti

Our last stop of the day was a wine tour and tasting at Casa Emma.

Casa Emma

views from Casa Emma

The weather was fine, so we were able to sit out on the balcony overlooking the vineyards while we enjoyed our four wines accompanied by bread and cheese drizzled with their house balsamic vinegar. Our notes are below…

  1. Chianti Classico (90% sangiovese) – paprika smokiness, cherry and leather (2014). Nice tartness, residual smokiness. Lt.caramel. Goulash ready.
  2. Vignalparco Chianti Classico (100% sangiovese) – jammier, dry finish. Much less smoke. Preferred #1
  3. Chianti Classico Riserva #3 – reserve, quite refined. Much less acidity. Could definitely sit for a few years.
  4. Soloìo I.G.T. (100% merlot) – berry and floral, quite light and pleasant. Very interesting.

Overall, I was happy with our choice to do the private tour. Simon was a knowledgeable guide and we never felt rushed. I don’t know how hard it would be to schedule wine tastings in this area without a guide, but I think that’s something we may explore on our next visit.

Seattle 2015: Woodinville Wineries

Most of the wineries we visited had a $10 tasting fee that was waived with purchase. No one minded if we split a tasting and more often than not we also had a chance to try a few extra unlisted bottles that were open behind the counter.

Friday

Novelty Hill Januik – As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we realized that we had been here before but it had been several years. On this visit Eric tried the Sauvignon Blanc, Rousanne, Rose, and Riesling. I sampled a few of the reds, one from each section of their tasting list: Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and a Sangiovese. The wines were OK, but the tasting fee waiver was the highest we saw on this trip, with a three bottle purchase needed to cover one $10 tasting fee.

EfesteEfeste – We had a great tasting here, so much so that we ended up joining the wine club! Our wine pourer was the owner himself and as we got chatting about the wine, he started giving us samples of various bottles open behind the counter. Afterwards, we even sat down and chatted in an otherwise empty tasting room because the rain had scared all the locals away. Their loss! Our pours: Lola Chardonnay (little oak, big mineral-ness), 2013 Evergreen Riesling (lemon zest with minerals), 2013 Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc (drinks like a Chardonnay, rich & full), 2011 Nana Bordeaux Blend (tobacco & fruit), 2011 Ceidleigh Syrah (evergreen & black pepper), 2011 Upright Merlot (berries, chocolate, tasty) 2011 Big Papa Cabernet Sauvignon (chewy & big), 2014 Old Field Estate Rose (strawberry) and Final Final Red (big & fruity). Definitely recommended.

Elevation Cellars – We had a quick tasting here and found the wines to be just okay. Unfortunately they didn’t have their flagship Riesling open for tasting. Our pours: 2014 Sauvignon Blanc (raisin, honey-melon), 2011 Jammin’ (‘pizza wine’), 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (dry, high tannins), 2011 Merlot (fruity w/ a bite), 2010 Monolith (inky, rich & fruity).

Saturday

Sparkman Cellars – We were a bit disappointed in our tasting here. Parking was difficult but we found an opening around the corner. The tasting room itself was relatively quiet, with an odd selection of country music playing. More importantly though, the wine just didn’t impress us, as we found it priced quite high compared the flavor. We asked for a quick try of the Riesling since it was open and that was the bottle we wound up getting to offset the $10 tasting fee. Our pours: 2014 Apparition (dry and mineraly), 2013 Wilderness (brown sugar, light pepper), 2012 Ruby Leigh (violets!), 2013 Holler Cabernet (fruity but ordinary), 2013 Darkness Syrah (inky black, mild sweetness), 2014 Birdie Riesling (light & flinty).

Ancestry Cellars – I knew this place had a few more whites to choose from so we headed here next. It’s a small tasting room shared with another winery and the winemaker/owner was pouring our tasting for us. Our choices: 2014 Rejouissant Savignon Blanc (balanced, some acid), 2014 Reunion Chardonnay (clean, a bit nutty), 2014 Le Cortege Chenin Blanc (light peach, apricot, lemon), 2013 Reminiscence Riesling (German nose, peach, medium sweet), 2012 Di Donato Sangiovese (dry & spicy), 2011 La Soer (violet & tobacco, 2012 Le Frere (fruity, semi-dry), 2011 Reserve Cabernet (brown sugar and fruit). We really enjoyed out tasting here, definitely recommended.

Davenport CellarsDavenport Cellars – Once again, the owners were working the counter here, and we enjoyed our conversations with them. Of note was the Fume Blanc taste comparison –  Leandra preferred the creamier 2012, Eric the more acidic 2013. So good that we returned for a glass each as our final stop on Sunday (along with some Seattle Seahawks on the TV). Our choices: 2013 Meritage Blanc (medium acidity, some mineral-ness), 2012 & 2013 Fume Blanc (2012 was creamy w/ coconut; 2013 was crisp and tropical), 2012 Zinfindel (fruit & spice, brown sugar), 2010 R.D.H. (pepper & tart cherry). Additionally, the winemaker recommended J&A’s across the parking lot, so Eric scooted out to give them a try while I went on to the reds.

J & A’s Winery – I eventually joined Eric at J&A’s (just when the rose was being poured because my timing is good like that). He was really impressed with the whites on offer and I enjoyed the Tempranillo. After discovering they could track down a cardboard shipper for us, we wound up buying 9 bottles, rounded out by Venture Cellars (below). Our pours: 2012 Sirius Sipper (tropical & crisp), 2013 Roussanne (white peach, pineapple, star fruit), 2014 First Blush (strawberry & passion fruit), 2011 Riesling (earthy), 2014 Chardonnay (nice fruit).

Venture Cellars – Sharing the space with J&A’s, we tried their lineup and really liked what they were doing too. I don’t have tasting notes for this round but we did leave with two bottles of the 2013 Chardonnay and one bottle of the 2010 Barrel 72 (red).

The owners/winemakers for both J&A’s and Venture were very gracious to stay past their normal closing, and we heartily recommend a visit to their operations.

Sunday

Laura Ashton Cellars – Nice tasting room with a view of courtyard (and fall color). We decided to split a Reserve Tasting for $10 (waived with a $30 purchase). Our choices: 2013 Riesling (pineapple, light mineral-ness), 2013 Roussane (zesty w/ good acidity), 2012 Semillon (good richness and honeysuckle), 2011 Cuvee Estelle (black currants, very aromatic), and 2011 Reserve Syrah (black pepper and herbal lavender).

Laura Ashton Cellars

Gard Vintners – Our pourer at Laura Ashton gave us a free tasting card for Gard, so we headed there next. The main focus of the tasting room was the big screen showing the Seattle NFL game but the wines were enjoyable too. Our pours: 2014 Freya (apple & cinnamon), 2013 Viognier (clean, mildly floral), 2013 Pinot Gris (creamy, good value at $14), 2012 Grand Klasse Riesling (oak, white peach, dry), 2012 Grand Klasse Pinot Gris (oak, pineapple, flinty), 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (dry, pepper), 2012 Vaucluse Red Rhone Blend (rich & fruity), 2012 Malbec (dark fruit & leather).

Locust Cider – Located next door to Gard, we decided to take a break from wine and try some cider. We choose a tasting tray of four options: Original dry, Dark Cherry, Thai Ginger, and the Aged Washington Dessert apple ciders. My favorite was definitely the Thai ginger as I thought the original was too light. Eric liked the aged cider best.

Locust Ciderour purchases on the trip!
our haul for the trip — two cases!

Auckland wineries: Warkworth region

Our first choice for the day, Mahurangi River, was not open due to a private function, so we headed to Brick Bay. This is quite the site, with sculptures, gardens, sheep and a very modern building all in one. We started at the restaurant where we enjoyed a quick wine tasting, then decided to share a glass of rose on their pond-facing patio. While enjoying the view of the pond the weather cleared up, so we decided to pay for the sculpture garden walk. At $12USD/pp it took us about 90 minutes and offered some lovely views and creative pieces.

Brick Bay Winery

pond behind tasting room

posing w/ 'Reflective Thinker - Gnomes 1 & 2' by Gregor Kregar  'Tobias and the Angel' by Terry Stringer

'Aphasia' by Anton Parsons

'Mahoe' leaf by Jeff Thomson

Japanese Torii Gates with Eric  'Utopia' sign by John Reynolds

Our second stop, Omaha Bay Vineyards, started out fine. We enjoyed the tasting, and after seeing the nice deck, ordered two glasses (cab franc / chardonnay) to enjoy the weather and view. However, when we went to pay she charged us $10 per tasting in addition to the glasses. We countered that we split a tasting since Eric had the whites and I had the reds but she said we had more than five wines each so it was two tastings. No mention was made at any point of a charge for tastings and nothing was printed on the tasting list – I found this dishonest and it spoiled our otherwise good time here. Definitely wouldn’t go back or recommend this vineyard based on our experience.

Our third winery of the day, Ransom Wines, offered a nice tasting. All the wines were estate fruit and Eric found the whites to be especially interesting. We left with a bottle of the Cosmos Chardonnay.

We decided to make a stop at Tahi Bar for a quick drink before heading back to Auckland — I had the English Breakfast cider and Eric had the Farmhouse Pale Ale. Their tap was also one of the most unique we’ve ever experienced!

Porsche tap

A brief rainstorm pushed us inside where there wasn’t much space, but it was a good final stop on our daytrip.

Auckland wineries: Henderson and Kumeu regions

Wednesday

After landing in Auckland and checking into our hotel, we took a 30 minute drive up to Babich Wines. Being a Wednesday afternoon it was not busy; in fact, the tasting room was empty! Once we figured out how to contact the wine taster (a small doorbell near the cash register), we had a fun tasting with some interesting wines. Many of them are available in the US, so we focused on the varietals that would be harder to get overseas. In general, I thought the wines were solid and reasonably priced. I would have bought more if we lived here – they only charge $5 case for shipment anywhere on the North Island.

wine tasting @ Babich
quite the lineup!

We had enough time to visit another winery before closing, but our choice, Landmark Estates, didn’t seem to have a tasting room – at least we drove around and never found it!

Thursday

Soljans Estate — a Croatian family-owned vineyard with a large tasting room. The young woman giving us the tasting didn’t seem to know that much about the wines but we liked their selection. The Pinotage, in particular, was a pleasant surprise. Eric’s favorite was the Kumeu Sauvignon Blanc.

Kumeu River Wines — Eric loved the Chardonnay here! Our pourer was friendly and had clearly just come in from picking grapes to talk about the wine in the small tasting room. I found their reds very drinkable and a great value. Definitely one of the top tastings we had in NZ, it was hard to leave with only a half bottle of the 2008 Hunting Hill Chardonnay. Next time!

Coopers Creek Vineyard — Our hostess didn’t normally do wine tastings so she was a bit flustered at our presence; oddly, she also didn’t want to pour the reds for me while Eric was trying the whites so we were there twice as long as we needed to be. On the upside, the winery dog, Molly, was VERY friendly. This place sources their grapes from several places all over the country and we both thought the wines were pretty ordinary.

Sunday

West Brook Winery – Beautiful setting with a big lawn area around a pond, we were surprised to be the only tasters on Sunday morning. The reds were okay but the whites were quite good. Wine was not available by the glass (?!?) but our hostess poured us a big ‘sample’ of whatever we wanted and we enjoyed it down by the pond on a picnic bench. We also scored a local area wine map which helped us pick out two more places to visit.

On our way to Matua Valley Wines we stopped in at a tiny vineyard, Twin Totara, that only grows cab franc and merlot. We had the opportunity to taste a four-year vertical of the reds and two vintages of the roses. Very interesting wine, and the winemaker himself was pouring. We had to make space in the luggage for a 2007 – it was a crazy good value at ~$14! If we had been in the US we would have left with a whole case. Easy.

West Brook Winery

Matua Valley Wines were solid — they had a free tasting of four reds and four whites so we each took a side. I absolutely loved the 2010 Merlot so I spent the $16 and got a glass to go with the very last of my liver pate and enjoyed both on the wrap-around balcony out back. Eric got a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and joined me with some caramel corn. The beautiful views were blocked for several minutes by a pop-up rainstorm but we were protected.

Matua Valley Winery 

It was a wonderful way to end our time in New Zealand. Can’t wait to get back!

Sonoma County: Russian River Valley wine tasting

Porter Creek Vineyards — On our second visit to this charming tasting room we had an equally lovely visit. Jonathan was a friendly host full of suggestions and stories. Given the small tasting room they can get crowded quickly but on this morning we had the place to ourselves. We bought a bottle of the 2011 Carignane “Old Vine” (mild tannins, easy to drink) and a 2011 Zinfandel “Old Vine” (big and bold, would be good w/ stew).

Porter Creek tasting room

VML — This winery is relatively new (opened in 2011) by well-known winemaker Sonoma Co. Virginia Marie Lambrix. The outdoor seating area with tables and umbrellas was very relaxing and the landscaping was beautifully manicured. Even though we were outside the entire time, our host, Cameron, never let our tasting glass stay empty for more than a few moments before he appeared with the next wine. We left with two bottles each of the 2012 VML Sauvignon Blanc (slightly sweet, lime, passion fruit and peach) and the 2012 Bradford Mt Red Field Blend (cherry, bit of smoke, good value). Highly recommended and I can’t wait to get back here.

VML Vineyards

Moshin Vineyards — Another vineyard we’ve been to twice now, Moshin is always a good time with friendly staff and nice wines. The last time we left with a case of zinfandel and this time we got a case of the Promoshin white blend. Our other favorites were the 2012 Pinot Gris (crisp green apple and pear) and the 2009 Petite Sirah (chocolate-covered black cherry).

pinot noir tasting at Moshin

Korbel — Situated less than five minutes away from our B&B we decided to stop in after passing it numerous times on our way to other places. Eric tried a sparkling flight while I opted to try some of their still selections. There are a ton of champagne-style wines available here with varying degrees or sweetness and dryness. Eric stuck to the ones we couldn’t find by us and I was fairly impressed by their whites and reds. Eric’s favorite was the LePremier, a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, and mine was the Pinor Noir (medium dry w/ nice pepper and spice). The prices are good here so I think it would be a great place to pick up some wine and bubbly to drink with dinner or back at the B&B.

Korbel

Hanna Winery — Our last winery of the trip, we stopped here because I was eager to try a place known for their whites, specifically sauvignon blanc. Alicia, our wine pourer, was very nice and we had the tasting room to ourselves on a sunny Sunday morning. We liked the sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noirs but the 2013 rose really impressed us. We didn’t have any more room our shippers, but we made room for a bottle in our suitcase!.

Hanna Vineyards
Hanna Vineyards tasting room in Sebastopol

Sonoma County: Dry Creek and Alexander Valley wine tasting

Though we have been to Sonoma County a few times now, we really hadn’t explored the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys,  so on this trip we set out to remedy that issue. Zinfandel is king here and you can easily tell this by the rows and rows of beautiful old vines that line Dry Creek Road.

Dry Creek Vineyard — Our first stop in the valley, we had a free tasting card from our B&B and decided to stop here for wine and snacks. The tasting itself was pretty good — besides their mass market wines they also had quite a few wines that are unavailable in the east coast market. Our major complaint was the best two wines we tried were only available for wine club members. Not discounted, you really couldn’t buy the wines without joining the club. After the tasting, we purchased a glass of wine each (Old Vine Zinfandel and Foggy Oak Chardonnay) and sat in the sunshine enjoying some cheese and bread from Oakville Grocery and sweets from Moustache Bakery in Healdsburg.

lunch tables @ Dry Creek Vineyards
sitting area with picnic tables

Sbragia Family Winery — Continuing up Dry Creek Road we heard a few mentions of this place and decided to stop in for the views and the wine. Unfortunately, the views were much better than the wine. We thought the white wines had a strange bitterness on the finish and, unfortunately, the rose wasn’t available for tasting. My favorite red was the 2007 Monte Rosso Cab but at $80/bottle there are much better values in the valley.

Gustafson Family Winery — The following day, we continued even further up the valley and wound our way through some fantastic scenery to this out-of-the-way winery. The views were spectacular and this time the wine lived up to the views. We had a lovely tasting and our pourer even gave us a generous pour of the wine of our choice to enjoy at their picnic spot behind the tasting room. They also had a few deals going on so we took advantage of a mixed half case white deal and a six-bottle 2009 estate Heritage Zinfandel deal. We would definitely recommend this place to anyone with a few days in Sonoma.

Gustafson Family Vineyards
the view from the rentable guest house

Gustafson Family vines
vines down the hillside with Lake Sonoma in the distance

Geyser Peak Winery — This winery is large with several of their bottles found all over the US, but much like Erath in Oregon, we were very impressed with their smaller batch stuff. We had a free tasting card from the B&B again (it pays to stay somewhere that has this perk!) and our host was happy to go off script and let us try a bunch of different bottles that were open. With good shipping prices, we are considering joining the wine club at some point to get access to some of their boutique offerings. We left with a 2012 River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (peanut, grass, nice acidity); 2009 Knight’s Valley Malbec (fruity, rich); and 2012 Pluto’s Fury Pinot Noir (classic pinot, hints of leather and jam).

entrance to Geyser Peak Winery
shady entrance to Geyser Peak

Field Stone Winery — This winery was our last stop on the second day so perhaps we were a little wined-out but we found the wines to be just okay. The tasting room itself is pretty cool (and mentioned in the recommendations we heard) as you walk into a barrel storage area built into a hill and taste the wine underground. I personally found our pourer to be a bit pushy about the wine club; I lost track of how many times he suggested it to us in our twenty minute visit. Still, they were running a special so we bought a “Staten Family Reserve” Viognier (apricot and peach) and a 2011 Merlot (sugar and fruit).

Field Stone Winery
semi-underground tasting room – very hobbit-like

Woodinville wineries

We split up our winery visits over two days, Friday and Sunday. Unfortunately, this meant we missed a few that were only open on Saturday, so I have them on the list for next time. All the wineries in this area have a tasting fee between $5 and $10, but everyone refunds this fee if you purchase wine. Of course, this meant that we bought at least one bottle at each place! Sharing tastings with your significant other was happily encouraged by all the tasting rooms pourers.

Brian Carter Cellars—Our first stop on the trip, these wines were interesting as they had red blends based on the styles of different regions in Italy and France. Eric thought the whites were pretty good, but we both thought the Italian-style red was the winner here. The woman behind the counter made several good recommendations for other nearby wineries to try.
Purchased: 2006 “Tuttorosso” Sangiovese / Cab. Sauvignon / Syrah (1)

The tasting rooms for the next three are all in the same area behind the Historic Schoolhouse. It’s a converted garage with tables and artwork and all the areas had a TV (with the Seattle-Chicago football game playing on Sunday).

J. Bookwalter—Our second stop on Friday, we really enjoyed the tasting room, hostess and wine here (as you can see by the amount of wine we bought). We tried six wines, 2 whites and 4 reds, with some interesting varietal blending going on.
Purchased: 2007 “Conflict” Merlot / Cab. Sauvignon / Malbec / Cab. Franc / Petit Verdot (2); 2009 “Tercet” Rousanne/Marsanne/Viognier (2); 2009 “Anecdote” Riesling (1)

Mark Ryan Winery—Our starting point on Sunday. When we arrived just after noon, Stan was just opening up the reds and directed us to Joan for the two whites, a Viognier and Chardonnay. I thought the Viognier had more complexity and creaminess, so we picked up a bottle there. All the reds were lovely, drinkable now but clearly ready for a bit more cellaring too. The reds ranged in price from $32 to $95, which was a little steep for bulk purchasing :) Apparently, the two most popular red blends were sold out, so we’ll have to come back another time. Stan made a great host and we shared many stories of the endless politeness of Seattle folk compared to transplanted New Yorkers. Eric didn’t disagree.
Purchased: 2008 Viognier (1); 2008 “The Dissident” Cab. Sauvignon / Syrah / Merlot (1)

Ross Andrew Winery—Kiersten gave us a lovely wine tasting on two whites and two reds. This place sources grapes from Oregon so it was no surprise that we really enjoyed the Pinot Gris and white blend. The winemaker releases wines when he thinks they are ready to drink, an approach we appreciate, so both reds were very approachable and drinkable now.
Purchased: 2009 Pinot Gris (1); 2006 Syrah / Cab. Sauvignon (1)

JM Cellars—Though on our list last year, we never made it, so when it was recommended to us for both the wine and the setting we made it our next stop. The large tasting room is the ground floor of a lovely modern-ish house (the owner’s parents live upstairs). In addition to the eight-plus wines available for tasting, you could snack on salami, cheese and crackers and take a short stroll to a small lake on the property. I thought the Syrah was the best value of the reds we tried here.
Purchased: 2008 Syrah (1)

tasting at JM Cellars

Gordon Brothers Cellars—In general, we thought the wines here (especially the reds) were a little young to be tasted. Plus, for some reason they weren’t pouring the entry level wines, although you could purchase a glass if you wished.
Purchased: 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (1)

Covington Cellars—This tasting room was a bit hard to find as it’s tucked away at the end of a row of warehouse space, but once inside I can see why someone would want to have an event here. Not to mention that the wine was great. We had already filled up our 12 bottle shipper, so thankfully, they generously gave us a six-bottle shipper with our wine purchase. Eric did the standard tasting flight, 2 whites, a rose and the dessert wine, and I got the reserve tasting flight of all reds—the only one we didn’t split on the whole trip. Eric really enjoyed the Rose and Viognier and the Super Tuscan won out for me again.
Purchased: 2009 Josie Rose (2); 2009 Viognier (2); 2007 “Prima Miscela” Sangiovese / Cab. Sauvignon / Cab. Franc (1); 2007 Sangiovese (1)

As usual, we had a great time wine tasting in the Woodinville area, and we can’t wait for a next trip back!