Winery Reviews

Blessing of the Grapes Mondavi WInery 2012(Above: To mark the start of the 2012 harvest season, Father Ramon Pons, bilingual Associate Pastor at St. John the Baptist in Napa, blessed the first truckload of grapes to come into Mondavi winery yesterday morning—a tradition imagined by Robert Mondavi in 1966. The blessing was followed by a toast from Margrit Mondavi and a few words from director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens.  Many winery employees joined invited guests for a hearty Mexican lunch.)

Yesterday I attended the blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi in Napa. It is a tradition that began in 1966. The gracious artist, Robert’s widow, Margrit Mondavi spoke in the ToKalon cellar…”we always remember Robert Mondavi, and on his cloud, I’m sure he’s winking…” then semi-retired employee and singer Bob “Bobby” Tyson sang America the Beautiful. and Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking spoke. When Margrit introduced Father Pons she misspoke when introducing his church and said, “oh gosh, now I’m sure to be going to hell.” Born in 1926, she’s an absolute delight and had the crowd in stitches.  (NEWSFLASH: her tell-all memoir was just released.) I can not wait to read it.

I tasted in the To Kalon Room (Insider Tip: highly recommend a visit in here, it’s where the reserve and spotlight small lot wines are poured. There is a reservation form on the website but if you decide at the last moment, I recommend just coming in; it wasn’t crowded mid-week, even during harvest.) I had a great time with Janie (a 16-yr pro at Mondavi) and Chris (an engaging 30-something ex-teacher turned novelist and wine collector moonlighting as a wine educator). Every wine I tasted was truly beautiful and well-made. My favorites were:

  • A beautiful Unoaked Chardonnay with refreshing tartness (flavorful yet perfectly balanced) available only in the tasting room ($34) (vintage 2010)
  • 2010 Fume Blanc Reserve, very dry from 1968 vineyards. ($40) Only 1100 cases.
  • All of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons from 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008 were delightful to taste with the 2002 being surprisingly bold still and the 2008 notably different since it is from a different vineyard (Stags Leap) and is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • My favorite was the 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, an absolutely gorgeous wine that I will not soon forget.  One of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve enjoyed from Carneros ever. ($60)
If you love Cabernet Sauvignon and want to enjoy Italian culture in the Fall sunshine of the Napa harvest season,  here’s a party not to miss. Highly recommended.
Highlights: 10 years of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve tasting with Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens and Master of Wine, Mark deVere in the First Year barrel room.  Italian-themed lawn party in the afternoon.





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I’ve been writing this blog for several years now and I’ve have a great time just cruising around sharing my discoveries. travels and food & wine pairings with you. The only way I can keep track of wines I like is to write about them here. I used to write them in a database but I’ve gone public.  I hope you find my notes helpful and interesting.

This is Novas, a Chardonnay from Emiliana, a brand I’ve written about before.  I met them at an industry tasting years ago when one of their representatives peaked my curiosity about their mission to care for the environment and people. At that time I had not studied Chilean wine or visited Chile.  I found the idea of a large organic, sustainable company promoting it’s wines with great pride and outspokenness, refreshing.  With this company, there is a notable absence of defensiveness that I get from some organic brands.  As well, Emiliana’s brand doesn’t come across as pompous because it’s organic; instead their brand exudes confidence like it’s the most “natural thing in the world” to approach wine and business that way.  And most important, their wine tastes good and is well-made.

The 2010 Limited Selection Novas Chardonnay is clean and reminds me of a cool sea breeze.  I am very picky about Chardonnay and I’ve found that some very nice ones are being grown and made in Chile. When I visited Chile’s coastal region in 2010, I learned about the Humboldt current and how vintners were being lured to this area to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since then I have sought out wines from these areas. Emiliana delivers consistently nice wines that I am proud to serve to my friends.  I’m glad that they are widely available and well-priced at around $15. Additionally, they have a terrific website for folks who want to learn more about a biodynamic and organic winery; it even includes an interactive vineyard.

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MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

Part 2.  Read the back story and meet the wine…

Interview with James MacPhail, Winemaker, MacPhail Family Winery 

When did you start making wine, what was your position and with whom?  I started making my own wine in 2001 (it was a Merlot).  I was working at Pelligrini at that time – and that’s where Merry Edwards was making her wine before she built her own place.  I worked for both producers doing everything and anything that was asked of me.  There really wasn’t a name for it.  I guess “cellar rat” is the closest thing.

When did you start your own label?  2002

When did you partner with Hess? If you mean when was I contacted to be the winemaker for Sequana, that would be in the spring of 07.   If you mean when did Hess and MacPhail Family Wines come together, that would be June of 2011.

 How did that come about?  For 2007, I was on the list to be interviewed for Sequana. I went over with 3 bottles of my Pinot – no resume – and met with Dave Guffy.  We hit it off.  I got a call the next day and was offered the position.  If you mean 2011, that happened at the Taste of Vail event with CEO Gary Bulger – over a beer.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not making wine?  Sleep in, be with my family, go places and relax and soak up the sun.  Swim.  Go out with friends and try new places.

Do you have any goals or dreams in the winemaking business that you have yet to meet? If so, what are they?  I’d love to make wine in Argentina, do more research about this business; I’d like to teach.  It’s a never-ending quest.

Thanks James (& Kerry!), I finally got the answers to my burning questions. Regarding Argentina, interesting…everyone knows it’s my favorite place in the world (besides home). 

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Winter Winelands, Sonoma

As part of my wine education, a few years ago, I spent 2 1/2 years visiting wineries, year-round, four days a week.  I loved talking to wine makers, owners and staff during the winter season.  During that time, and the 5 years before that, when I wasn’t studying, I was home (practicing pairing) so I rarely went to public wine events.

This year, Winter Winelands in Northern Sonoma County caught my attention. It’s one of my favorite wine regions, and although 6,000 people attend annually, the event is spread out over 30 miles including Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley and even some tasting rooms in Santa Rosa. The possible combinations of itineraries is almost endless.

I’ve decided to visit some old favorites in Dry Creek Valley. I’ll miss a few folks over in the Russian River (like John Tyler) but I’m sure I’ll be inspired to come back another weekend to say hello.  My friend Herlinda and I will be in my little roadster starting at Bella Wine Vineyards & Wine Caves. It’s beautiful inside the caves with tasting stations throughout, the perfect escape when it’s chilly outside and the vineyards are bare and boring.  Warmed up, we’ll be ready to hit the red carpet at Dry Creek Vineyard where there are always good deals and a variety of wines to taste. (I’ll be looking for a new vintage of their dessert wine Soleil.)

Then off to a rare public opening of a secret winery that is usually appointment only. Note: Not on the Winelands list but tastings are complimentary for Wine Road participants. Only open Saturday, not Sunday.  From there, a drive up to Michel Schlumberger to see friends, it’s always a great place for a party (inside scoop that they will have some fabulous deals, the more you buy, the more you save).  Might end our day here but I’d love to stop by Merriam Vineyards to taste through their outstanding wines. Merriam’s also serving braised pork and grits. Yum!

Make your itinerary at Winter Wineland, The Wine Road.

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JCB Room at Raymond VIneyards, Napa

Private JCB Room

It all started like a fairytale…

Gina Gallo, the smart, dynamic off-spring of the California dynasty and Jean-Charles Boisset, the smart, dynamic off-spring of the French wine dynasty fall in love.  The couple share a passion for family, food, celebration and wine.

Right before he proposed, Jean-Charles had begun buying special wineries in Northern California for a specific purpose (more on that later).  I met them in May 2011 at Raymond Vineyards, his latest acquisition at the time.

Jean-Charles is vibrant, excited, and talkative. He loves using words like sexy, divine, and sensuous to describe life.  He is a passionate individual and by all accounts, a super savvy and proven businessman.  Gina just did a quick pass-through on her way somewhere else and looked amazingly fit for a woman who gave birth to twin girls two weeks later.

It’s not far-fetched to wonder if this too-perfectly-matched marriage is merely for convenience, but surprise, it is the real deal.  I read somewhere that Jean-Charles knew Gina was the one the first day he met her. After all, they share common experiences and views of the world, so why not?

After spending an afternoon with Jean-Charles (JC), I believe Gina and JC are quite alike. This quote from Gina is almost identical to the way JC talks about wine: “Wine is pleasure. It has to be beautiful to look at, beautiful to smell, and astonishing to taste. I don’t make obvious wines. I like depth. I like a little mystery, but I want some ‘wow!’ in there somewhere, too. Wine should make you smile.” San Francisco Bride’s Magazine

The second chapter in the fairy tale is Jean-Charles’ empire-building in California.  He currently owns three California estates, Deloach in the Russian River AVA, Buena Vista in the Carneros region and Raymond in Napa Valley.  Each are iconic historical wineries that showcase the terrior of their regions. Jean-Charles has an intriguing reason for buying these particular estates.  He says his plan is to make great wines from these places and bring them to France to prove that great wine can be made in California. I love the sentiment and the fact that it is coming from a French man.

The three wineries are traditional favorites for visitors but I encourage you to revisit them.  Raymond is newly exciting for a few reasons, first Stephanie Putnam (formerly of the Napa Valley cult winery Far Niente) is the new Director of Winemaking and has brought excellence to the Raymond wines. Additionally, Jean-Charles has gone crazy decorating the place.  Years ago, I went on a media tour and was shown a tiny lab and a drab barrel room. That space is now (literally) a party tasting bar with fashionable mannequins staring down from the catwalk and a Baccarat crystal store headlined by a (priceless?) crystal chandelier.

If you really love the fun life, score an invite to the JCB room (pictured above) and sip Jean-Charles’ impressive (limited quantity) private label, JCB, while lounging on gold lamé couches, with Michael Jackson videos on the big screen.  You’ll look sexy and divine in the real candlelit wall sconces and yes, your wine will be enjoyed with the added sensuousness of Baccarat crystal decanters and glasses.

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White Oak Winery

White Oak WInery

When I want a quiet wine tasting day, I go to Alexander Valley.  There’s something about it that encourages me to slow down, look at the scenery and linger at the wineries.  Visiting this area means you will taste many wines from Napa, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and other AVAs as well as the Alexander Valley.  It also means that each winery will be a special place unto itself–places that easily feel like a second home to guests.

1st Stop Jordan Estate (11:00 a.m.)

Reserve your spot for the Winery Tour & Tasting, available Monday – Saturday.  If you’ve been to the Dry Creek Valley with it’s modest and farm-like wineries, Jordan may seem a bit stuffy from appearances.  But don’t be fooled, the owners and staff are some of the most warmhearted, welcoming and just plain nice people in the industry.  They make one Cabernet Sauvignon and one Chardonnay every year.  While I always enjoy whatever they are pouring, the library wines (older vintages) whisper to me as soon as I walk into the library.  I also wish I could just live in the kitchen with their full-time Chef who makes gorgeously presented small bites to go with the wines. John Jordan continues his parents’ desire to share an estate experience with visitors.  I highly recommend joining their Estate Rewards program.  It is the only way you’ll get an invitation to private events and be able to stay in one of the amazing suites. Tip: Jordan wines are found in many restaurants and retail shops around the world.

2nd Stop Jim Town Store (12:30 pm)

Enjoy the brief drive up-valley to the only place to eat in the area.  You can’t miss the vintage building with an old faded-red truck parked next door.  Tip: It’s a small ordering area so if you peek at the current menu online, you’ll be prepared to order exactly what tickles your fancy.  And take your time, Jim Town has a wine country gift shop, lots of goodies in the cold case (I recommend the uber-rich chocolate pudding) and a wine shop.  Although you can eat in the indoor/outdoor colorful dining area behind the store, I recommend you move on over to your 3rd stop for a more private setting.

3rd Stop White Oak Winery (1:00 pm)

I suggest picnicking at White Oak because the wines are fantastic with food, very reasonably priced and high quality and there are several varietals so you’ll be able to get something to please everyone.  For whites, they make a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, both from the Russian River AVA.  For reds, they make a Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and a Cab/Merlot from Napa grapes and a Zinfandel and a Bordeaux blend from Alexander Valley grapes.  I find White Oak’s wines to be made in an elegant style yet refreshingly accessible.  The staff is friendly, accommodating and will make you feel welcome.  Call ahead if you have a large party to reserve a picnic spot.

4th Stop Robert Young Estate Winery (2:30 pm)

Drive across the pretty valley enjoying photo opportunities along the way until you see a two-story white farmhouse and white barn.  You’ll be drawn to the house, but alas, that’s not the tasting room.  Pass the flowers and antique farm equipment and enter the intimate tasting room.  You will immediately feel welcome by the staff and most likely make new friends with other guests.  The wines are surrounded by ribbons and awards and you’ll enjoy several Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons and an Estate Merlot–whatever they have on hand. They make about 5,000-7,000 cases a year, so visiting may be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to taste these exceptional wines.  There is a 3,000 sq ft’ cave on the property and you may be able to get an impromptu tour if they aren’t busy; otherwise, make a tour appointment.  However, just hanging out, tasting the wines and casually chatting with the staff is really all you need to enjoy the estate.  Ask lots of questions, they have a great story!

Back to Healdsburg (4:00ish)

You’ve just enjoyed a kick-back day in Alexander Valley and perhaps you’re not quite ready for a brief siesta before dinner.  I suggest one more stop in town at Hawley Tasting Room & Gallery in downtown Healdsburg across the street from Fideaux, the dog & cat gift shop. Hawley wines are consistently some of the best I’ve ever tasted and the tasting room is open daily until 6:00 pm.

PS: My favorite place to stay in Healdsburg.  My favorite place to eat.

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Magic in Their Hands

Marita's Vineyard, Coombsville, Napa

I’ve traveled the world experiencing insider tours of wineries and enjoying the most amazing luscious wine and food extravaganzas.  I’ve sipped with superstar wine makers, had my picture taken with celebrity winery owners and gawked at one-of-kind car and crystal collections.  I love all of it of course, but one thing I’ve learned is when it is all stripped away, winemakers and winery owners want you to love their wine.  It doesn’t matter if it is $150 a bottle, $3,000 a magnum or $200 a case, creating great wine is about capturing magic in a bottle.

I recently experienced magic in a bottle and called the winemaker to find out more.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this luscious, perfect wine was made by two brothers whose souls have been intertwined with grapevines their entire lives.  Bulmaro and Manuel Jr. Montes, owners of Marita’s Vineyard were born with the magic in their hands.

Their father, Manuel, starting working for Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1973 and didn’t stop until he was 90 years old. His son, Bulmaro, worked for Joseph Phelps Vineyards for over 30 years.  Seasoned vineyard managers are considered to be rock stars in the wine world.  And both Manuel Sr. (deceased) and Bulmaro are highly respected in Napa Valley. Manuel Jr., a mechanical engineer and rather famous water witcher (douser) also worked for Phelps.

The fabulous wine that I tasted came from a special bit of microclimate in the Coombsville area of Napa.  Bulmaro told me that he knew exactly what he was looking for when he bought his 2.6 acre bare parcel in 2002­­­­­.  After all, he had access to every vineyard in California when he purchased grapes for JPV.  And after traveling many times to France, he knew that it was possible to make great wine from a tiny vineyard. He called it Marita’s Vineyard after his youngest daughter.

It generally takes 3-4 years for a new vineyard to mature enough to make good wine; as well, the vineyard’s readiness is especially important to winemakers who believe strongly that great wine is made in the vineyard not in the laboratory.  Bulmaro and Manuel’s magical hands are the only ones to touch the vines; they plant, prune and nurture every vine themselves.  Consulting winemaker, Kurt Niznik, is also part of the winemaking family.

Marita’s Vineyard’s first harvest was in 2004 and although Bulmaro bottled it at the insistence of his excited daughters, he never released it.  He and his brother worked their magic with the vineyard for another year, and in 2008, they released the 2005 Marita’s Select Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It is sold out except for a few bottles available for library tasting. (Parenthetically, Wine Enthusiast rated it 95 points, pretty amazing for a first release.)

I love touring a gorgeous castle and savoring a meal prepared by a Michelin-star chef but sometimes, when the fanciness of Napa is stripped away, it’s the best experience of all. The Montes family Ranchito is nothing fancy, it’s not a faux chateau nor surrounded by exotic gardens, imported statues and sybaritic fountains.  Unpretentious and welcoming, guests can taste the Marita’s Cabernet Sauvignon with homemade Spanish-influenced food. And it is smack in the middle of the vineyard.

Tasting Notes: 2006 Marita’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

A rare wine that will please experienced and inexperienced palates alike.  It’s complex and interesting, tempting a second sip, and a third until the oenophile is finally satisfied that it is as wonderful as they suspected, and then they just sit back and enjoy the lingering finish and soft yet structured tannins. The non-oenophiles are there after the first taste, giggling and smiling and saying, wow, this is different, it’s accessible…I get it.

$150 Available exclusively from or at the tasting room.

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Harney Lane Vertical

Harney Lane Vertical

I’ve had a fondness for this inky, silky, complicated grape since 2001.  If you are new to Petite Sirah, look for it in your local grocery or wine shop and try it out. Bogle makes an entry level Petite Sirah for around $10. Because such a small amount of PS is being made, you’ll find more of a selection in the over $20 section.  Learn more via my other posts.

The wines below were my favorites at 2011 Dark & Delicious event, here’s my picks from 2010. They fit my criteria—structured, juicy, complex and food friendly.  Coincidently, they are all from producers who specialize in Rhones, Spanish and other interesting varieties.

Alana’s Insider Tip:
To taste these wines (all from small producers), your best strategy is to call the wineries directly. I’m a big fan of spending at least an 1½ hours at a winery, off-season or mid-week and getting to know the wines and the terroir, but if you can’t swing a visit, ask them if they distribute in your state or ship to your state and which events they are attending this year.  If you’re really a Petite fan, join their clubs to ensure that you have access to their wines.

Twisted Oak Petite Sirah 2007 Calaveras County, $24 non-club price
Follow Jeff Stai aka “El Jefe” on Twitter and Facebook and you’ll quickly meet bloggers and new-school wine enthusiasts who love him and his wines. His fun, irreverent brand is cool but bottom line, his wine rocks. Jeff also bottles Rhone-style and Iberian wines. for a multi-state distributor’s list or purchase online or at the winery. Winery Tasting Room 4280 Red Hill Road at Hwy 4, Vallecito, CA Open Sunday-Friday 11:30-5:30, Saturday 10:30-5:30 Murphys Tasting Room 350 Main Street, Murphys, CA Open Friday and Sunday 11:30-5:30, Saturday 10:30-5:30

Harney Lane Petite Sirah 2007 Lodi, $24
At only 189 cases, this is a killer deal, especially if you want to lay down a few bottles.  This family run operation has been farming wine grapes in Lodi since 1907 but starting bottling their own wine in 2006.  They are collecting fans and awards like fruit flies on grape must so it will be interesting to see if they become one of the bigger producers of Petite Sirah over time.  Current releases also include Primitivo, Old Vine Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Albarino, Chardonnay and a Dry Rose Blend (Zin, Petite & Tempranillo).   Winery Tasting Room 9010 East Harney Lane, Lodi, CA, Phone:(209) 365-1900 Thurs – Sunday 12-5pm or by appt.  Purchase online or at the winery.

David Fulton Winery Old Vines Petite Sirah Estate 2007 Napa Valley, $45 (Also available in half-bottles and 1.5 liter)
This private winery doesn’t have a commercial sign so you have to look for the address on Fulton Rd in St. Helena. You’ll probably meet the 4th generation winery owner and you’ll definitely meet Stephanie Trotter-Zacheria, Assistant Winemaker and a fountain of knowledge and experience in small family wine making operations in the Valley. Dry-farmed, they make Petite Sirah, extremely small-lot limited production wines and Sweet Petite, a fortified wine.  Visit for a list of wine shops and restaurants that carry their wines or order online or at the winery. Winery Tasting Room 825 Fulton Lane, St. Helena, CA Tele (707) 967-0719.  Call and make an appointment, they’re very accommodating and friendly and have a lovely outdoor deck.

Stage Left Cellars Russell Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2006 Paso Robles, $40
I didn’t expect the first wine I tasted at D&D 2011 to make my top five. Located in Oakland, this super boutique winery works with a dozen low-yielding, sustainable vineyards, even trucking some grapes from Oregon.  They are Rhone Rangers and make small lots of Grenache, Viogner, Mouvedre and a cool climate Syrah.  You can taste their wines in the tasting room and then join a mailing list (not a club) to have access to their wines on a first come, first serve basis. Winery Tasting Room is open the first Saturday of each month 11am – 5pm and by appointment.  Call 510-434-9930. for a list of restaurants and event schedule.  Purchase online or at the winery.

Jazz Cellars Eaglepoint Ranch Vineyard, Mendocino 2006 $38
I tasted their very first vintage in 2008 and I haven’t missed one since. If they are still pouring the ’06 and ’07 Eaglepoint Ranch Petites definitely taste them side-by-side.  Jazz Cellars wines always strike me as well blended and easy on the palate; however I found the ’06 to be much more complex than the ’07. Their wine is available at quite a few restaurants especially on the SF Peninsula and they attend a lot of events.  See the list at You can also order the wines online.  Get on their mailing list to be notified about their new tasting room coming this summer.

411 on Dark & Delicious

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Family Friendly Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting with Kids

Many farm/wineries are fine for mom & dad to visit with their kids in tow.  Here’s how you can determine if a winery is a good choice for your family and tips for making it a great day for everyone.

  1. Look for farming wineries with areas for kids to roam safely (age appropriately of course). For instance, there are often gardens & farm animals within range of outdoor tasting tables.
  2. Avoid bar tastings, always choose a seated tasting–outdoors is best for kids.
  3. I saw a group once in the heat of the day in the middle of a vineyard with a newborn baby; ultimately you must use common sense.  If the situation isn’t what you expected, back out and move on.
  4. If you talk with your kids in advance about each place you are going to and what’s in it for them, it will put them (and you) at ease.  As my Mom would say, if they choose to be bored, so be it.
  5. If you take a vineyard tour, being in a vehicle is better for distracting the kids just in case the guide drones on about viticulture.
  6. As I always recommend, kids or no kids in tow, visit 2 wineries max before taking a break. Enjoy lunch as a family; giving them your full attention or even spoiling them a little with an unexpected treat will create a positive memory for everyone.

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Hawley Winery

John Hawley & Sons made this bar out of barrels.

Jay (Vine Rover Tours) introduced me to Hawley’s in 2009.  The ten acres of vineyards and one small barrel room is truly an “insiders” spot. Unless someone takes you, you’ll never know it’s there.  Visiting small tucked-away wineries is fun but discovering that they make really good wine is even better.

John Hawley has a rich and fascinating winemaking pedigree that is even more interesting because he left the glamor jobs (at Clos du Val & Kendall Jackson) to sweat in his own vineyards. Winemakers who are owners, especially those that make lots of different wines, are like whirlwinds moving from one task to another.  John is no different.  His sons, Paul & Austin work with him.  Paul is a film maker as well, he co-wrote and produced the movie Corked with Bella Winery’s Ross Clendenen.  I don’t want to embarrass Austin, but he has lots of female admirers who have begged me to take them to “see Austin.”  Both men are very personable and welcoming, and you’ll probably see one or another in the tasting room.

In Spring 2010, the Hawley’s opened a tasting room and art gallery (to showcase paintings by Dana Hawley aka Paul & Austin’s mom) in downtown Healdsburg.  I highly recommend a visit.  They make nine wines, all small lots (under 500 cases each) except for their Viogner and Merlot. Currently, Paul & Austin’s first Sauvignon Blanc (2009 Dry Creek Valley) is a favorite of mine.  I’m also a huge fan of their Viogner and Late Harvest Zinfandel.  The Viogner is a consistent medal winner. The Late Harvest Zin (2008 Dry Creek Valley) pairs very well with bread pudding.

Go see them when in Healdsburg & tell them you were sent from Girl with a Glass!  You can also try their wines by buying them online.

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