Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Still on the Hill

If you are visiting the Napa Valley and want a different winetasting experience, visit Charbay on Spring Mountain. Charbay is best known for its distilled spirits but also makes wine. When you visit, you'll learn about the distilling process; however, California law prohibits Charbay from letting you taste spirits. You will be able to taste their wine, some of which are unlike any other wines you will find in the Valley. When I visited yesterday, I tasted their Green Tea and Pomegranate Aperitifs, both of which were delicious. I also tasted Charbay's Pomegranate Dessert Wine. When I tasted this wine by itself, I found it a bit cloying. However, once ice was added, it was delicious. I also tried it mixed with egg nog, which was like drinking cheesecake.

Charbay is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For a $20 fee, you'll get an education taste a sample of still wines, ports, dessert wines, and aperitifs. The drive from St. Helena to Charbay up Spring Mt. road is curvy. Allow yourself 15 minutes to get to the winery. Better yet, take a private Napa Valley tour with Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel and we can make Charbay one of our stops. For more information, phone (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kosher Wineries in the Napa Valley

Recently I took some folks on tour who wanted to visit kosher wineries in the Napa Valley. It turns out that there are just two: Hagafen Cellars and Covenant Wines. The two offer contrasting winetasting experiences and have different winemaking philosophies.

Hagafen has a tasting room on the Silverado Trail that is open to the public for drop-in tasting. With an advance appointment, you can take a nice tour of the winery at 11:00 a.m. You'll learn about the winemaking process as well as some of the unique challenges in making kosher wine. Hagafen produces an array of white and red wines and even a little bubbly, many of which you can taste during your visit.

Covenant is a very small producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, and tastings are by appointment only. Since the wine is made in the facilities of a larger winery, your tasting is likely to occur in winemaker Jeff Morgan's home. Jeff and/or his wife, Jodie, will spend about an hour with you teaching you how to get the most out of winetasting and walking you through Covenant's current releases of Covenant and Red C. Jeff may also surprise you with one or two other wines. Even if you are not seeking kosher wine, you'll enjoy your time with Jeff and Jodie.

Hagafen is a much larger producer than Covenant and some of its wine is served in restaurants and at public functions, e.g. at the White House. One of the things that makes wine Kosher is that it is not handled by people who do not observe the Jewish Sabbath when the juice or wine is transferred from one container to another. Therefore, if a non-observant person were to pour kosher wine into your glass at a restaurant or function, the wine would immediately become non-kosher. An exception to this requirement is that boiled wine can be handled by persons who do not observe the Sabbath. Therefore, Hagafen puts its wine through a flash pasteurization process so the wine can be poured by those who are non-observant and the wine will remain kosher.

Covenant is much smaller and sells most of its wine directly to consumers. Therefore, it follows all of the kosher rules but does not boil (flash pasteurize) its wine. This is because most of Covenant's wine is served by the people who purchase the wine to themselves, friends, and family. Therefore, if the purchaser observes the Sabbath, the wine will remain kosher when he/she pours it into the glass.

One side note, I am far from an expert on kosher laws. Therefore, please accept my apologies if my descriptions in the previous two paragraphs are not 100% accurate.

If you would like to take a private Napa Valley tour that includes visits to Hagafen Cellars and/or Covenant Wines, please feel free to contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, December 07, 2009

Coffee in Wine Country

Sometimes a cup of coffee hits the spot in wine country. Fortunately, there are a few options for getting a good cup of Joe or an espresso drink.

In the Napa Valley, you can visit the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company at 948 Main St. in Napa or 1400 Oak Ave. in St. Helena. Good coffee is also available from the Calistoga Roastery at 1426 Lincoln Ave. in Calistoga. Two gourmet groceries also serve good coffee: Dean & DeLuca at 600 S. St. Helena Hwy. (Hwy 29 just south of St. Helena) and Oakville Grocery (corner of Hwy 29 and Oakville Cross in Oakville). Lastly, the Yountville Coffee Caboose opened a few months ago and serves a good cup of hot java and all the regular espresso drinks from the caboose just south of the V 1870 shopping center (6523 Washington St.)

In Sonoma County, Flying Goat Coffee serves excellent coffee from three locations: 324 & 419 Center St. in Healdsburg and 10 Fourth St. in Santa Rosa. The Santa Rosa location is in historic Railroad Square and has the best pastry selection.

In Graton, which is in the heart of the Russian River Valley, you can get coffee to go at Willow Wood Market.

In the town of Sonoma, Barking Dog Roasters is located just off the plaza at 201 West Napa St. Sunflower Caffe on the west side of the plaza (421 1st St. West) also serves good coffee and espresso drinks. If you're further up the Sonoma Valley, you can get coffee to go at the Glen Ellen Village Market, in the center of town at 13751 Arnold Dr.

When you take a private wine country tour with Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel, you can stop for coffee at any time. For more information, phone (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or send an e-mail message by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Blue Heron Custom Tours Featured on "Wine Time with Tracy"

Check my friend Tracy Logan-Immordino's blog, "Wine Time with Tracy," to learn about our recent tour of the Alexander Valley with concierges from some of San Francisco's best hotels. Look at the December 1 posting entitled "Holidays Along Wine Road." (I'm the guy with the beard on the far left of the photo. Tracy's to my right in the red jacket.)

The Wine Road Northern Sonoma County is an association of wineries and inns in and near the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys. It publishes the best wine country map in Northern California. If you like small, family-run wineries that produce great wine, then you'll want to visit the Wine Road. If you like friendly inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels, then stay at one of their members. For more information visit

Better yet, take a private tour of the Wine Road that is customized to your tastes and interests and wine. For more information contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Best Sonoma County Restaurants - 2009/2010

The new "Zagat 2010 Bay Area Restaurants" and "The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2010" were recently released. Here's an update on the critics' favorite restaurants in the Sonoma County.

The only restaurant Michelin awarded three stars was The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Michelin awarded two stars to four Bay Area restaurants with Cyrus in Healdsburg being the only Sonoma County recipient. Thirty-four restaurants received one star. The Sonoma County recipients are Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, and Sante in Sonoma city.

Only 1 of the 25 most popular Bay Area restaurants according to Zagat is in Sonoma County: Cyrus. Not one other restaurant in Sonoma County made Zagat's most popular list.

The top rated restaurants for food in Sonoma County according to Zagat are Cyrus (29 points), Applewood Inn and Restaurant in Guerneville (27 points), and Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant (26 points).

"The San Francisco Chronicle's" top rating is four stars, which were awarded to one Sonoma County restaurant: Cyrus. Three Sonoma County restaurants received 3.5 stars: Madrona Manor, Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, and Dry Creek Kitchen (Healsburg). Eight restaurants are the recipients of three stars.

Lunchtime on my tours in Sonoma County usually finds my guests in either Healdsburg or the town of Sonoma. My favorite lunch spot in Healdsburg is Willi's Seafood, which features small plates of the freshest seafood. In Sonoma city, I recommend The Girl and the Fig for French influenced California food and Della Santina's for Italian cuisine. If you would like to take a private tour in Sonoma County that includes a meal at one of these great restaurants, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Best Napa Valley Restaurants - 2009/2010

The new "Zagat 2010 Bay Area Restaurants" and "The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2010" were recently released. Here's an update on the critics' favorite restaurants in the Napa Valley.

The only restaurant Michelin awarded three stars was The French Laundry in Yountville. Michelin awarded two stars to four Bay Area restaurants with The Restaurant at Meadowood being the only Napa recipient. Thirty-four restaurants received one star. The Napa recipients are Etoile at Domaine Chandon, Bouchon, and Redd in Yountville; La Toque and Ubuntu in Napa city, Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Terra in St. Helena and Solbar in the Solage resort in Calistoga.

Only 2 of the 25 most popular Bay Area restaurants according to Zagat are in the Napa Valley: The French Laundry and Bouchon. Other Napa Valley restaurants on the list are Auberge du Soleil, Bistro Jeanty (Yountville), Ad Hoc (Yountville), Mustard's Grill(Yountville), Redd (Yountville), and Hog Island Oyster (Napa city).

The top rated restaurants for food in the Napa Valley according to Zagat are The French Laundry (29 points), Terra (27), Redd (27), Etoile (26), and La Toque (26)

"The San Francisco Chronicle's" top rating is four stars, which were awarded to one Napa Valley restaurant: The French Laundry. The following Napa Valley restaurants received 3.5 stars: Bistro Don Giovanni (Napa city), Redd, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and Terra. Twelve restaurants are the recipients of three stars.

My favorite lunch spot in the Napa Valley remains Auberge du Soleil. The combination of food, service, and view can't be beat. I've taken many happy guests to this restaurant. If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes a meal at one of these great restaurants, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wine Clubs

When visiting wineries, many of my guests are invited to join the winery's wine club. Few tasters have heard of such clubs prior to their first time winetasting. Most winery's have wine clubs as they provide the winery with a steady source of customers. Small wineries, in particular, are dependent on successful wine clubs in order to stay in business.

The clubs vary slightly but usually do not require a fee to join. Most clubs send their members one case (12 bottles) of wine per year. Some wineries ship two bottles six times per year, others three bottles four times per year, still others four bottle three times a year, and many send six bottles twice a year. Some clubs let you pick the wines you want; others send you a mix of wines selected by the winery. Most wineries include wines in their club shipments that are not available to the general public. Most clubs give you a discount on the wine. The savings on the wine may cover the cost of shipping. If you join the club, most wineries will give you an immediate discount on purchases while you are visiting the winery and will waive your tasting fees. In return you agree to receive a minimum of one or two shipments. After receiving the minimum, you can usually cancel at any time. Most clubs offer discounts on all wine purchases. Many wine clubs have special parties and events for members.

I am a member of three wine clubs and think they are good deal in certain circumstances. The first issue to consider is whether you like the winemaker's style and the variety of wines produced by the winery. If the winery produces six different types of wine and you only like the Cab, the wine club is probably not for you.

Another issue is whether your drinking will keep up with the wine you receive. Be careful about joining too many clubs. If you end up with too much wine that cannot be stored properly, you could end up with a lot of spoiled wine.

Be sure you have your wine sent to an address where someone 21 or over will be physically present to sign for the wine. FedEx and UPS will not just leave the wine on your porch or give you a note to sign. The shippers are required to hand the wine to someone who is of legal age. The best bet is to ship the wine to your business, provided you trust your receptionist not to drink the wine.

I think receiving six bottles twice a year is far better than receiving two bottles six time per year. The fewer shipments, the more you save on shipping. Also, make sure the club does not ship during your hot weather months. You don't want your wine cooking in the shipper's truck as it travels through Arizona in the summer. Most wineries do not ship to club members in the summer but a few do. If you are scheduled to receive a shipment when it's still hot, ask the winery to hold the wine until cooler weather arrives. Most are glad to do so.

A few wineries push their clubs pretty hard. Most use a soft sell. Some don't mention their club unless asked. When you visit a winery, you are under no obligation to join the club or to buy any wine. Only join the club if you will enjoy getting the regular shipments of wine. If you do join the club, have fun. It's fun to get good wine that you won't find in your local wine shop.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 or

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two New Tasting Rooms in Boonville

Over the past few months, two wineries have opened tasting rooms in Boonville: Londer Vineyards and Foursight Wines. Londer's tasting room was just one week old when we visited earlier this month. The building that houses the tasting room was still being worked on and there was no sign of the planned art gallery.

Both tasting rooms are friendly and unpretentious. Tasting fees, if they decide to charge them, are nominal. Both wineries specialize in Pinot Noir. Londer also makes Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Late Harvest Gewurztraminer. Foursight also produces Sauvignon Blanc and Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

Both wineries are family owned, with two generations of Londers involved in their winery and two generations of the Charles family working at Foursight. The winemaker at Foursight is Kristy Charles' husband, Joe Webb, who also is assistant winemaker at Londer and frequently can be found in the Londer tasting room.

Both winery's produce terrific wines, though different. Stop in at both and decide which you prefer. Londer's tasting room is open Thursday through Monday from 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Foursight is open Friday through Monday at the same times.

I've now been to all of the tasting rooms in the Anderson Valley that do not require appointments to taste plus a couple that do. So, if you want to take a private tour of the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast that features the best of the valley, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Barbecue on the Coast

If you travel to or from the Anderson Valley via the coast, you will pass through the small town of Gualala. There's not much to see in town -- just a bunch of shops and small strip malls spread along the sides of Route 1. However, at the south end of town we found a surprise overlooking the ocean -- a barbecue joint.

One doesn't usually associate the California coast with barbecue; coastal cuisine predominates. So looking for lunch and finding Bones Roadhouse was a pleasant surprise. Here we found good beer on tap; lots of Texas-style, wood-pit BBQ'd pork, chicken, ribs, and brisket; burgers; the usual sides; and an assortment of bar food. To top it off, you can gaze out over the Pacific while enjoying some pretty good barbecue. You can't do that in Texas!

If you find yourself passing through Gualala at lunch time, give Bones a try. If you're in town during the evening, you might find live music. Bones is at 39350 S. Highway One, but the address is not of much use. Just look for the restaurant on the west side of Highway One, just north of the Gualala River bridge. The phone number is (707) 884-1188.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Sonoma and Mendocino coast and the Anderson Valley that includes a stop at Bones Roadhouse, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 327-4237 (toll free) or at

Monday, August 10, 2009

One Stop for Cheese, Chocolate, Olive Oil, and Wine

Jack London Village in Glen Ellen provides one stop for tasting artisan cheese, chocolate, olive oil, and wine.

Raymond & Co. Cheesemongers provides a unique opportunity to taste cheeses from around the world. Recently, guests sat down with owner John Raymond for an hour-long tasting of an array of delicious cheeses paired with a local wine. Shorter tastings are also available and, of course, you can just stop in to buy some cheese.

Figone's of California Olive Oil and Press always has a large array of olive oils and balsamic vinegars available for tasting. By prior appointment, you can tour the olive mill to learn how olive oil is made.

Wine Country Chocolates offers tastes of at least two ganaches used in their delicious truffles as well as samples of chocolate with varying percentages of cacao.

Finally, if you need some wine to ensure you taste all of the major food groups, you have two options. Jack London Vineyard has a small tasting counter inside of Figone's and Eric Ross Winery is directly across the street. I've not sampled Jack London Vineyard's wines but have enjoyed Eric Ross' Pinot Noir and Carignane.

If you would like to take a private Sonoma Valley tour that includes a stop at Jack London Village, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or I'd be happy to make appointments for you to taste cheese at Raymond & Co. and/or to tour Figone's mill.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

More Than Wine In Napa's Wine Country

The August edition of Blue Heron's quarterly newsletter, "Rick's Tips," covers fun things to do in the Napa Valley in addition to tasting wine. You can see the newsletter by clicking here. If you'd like to subscribe to "Rick's Tips," just send an e-mail to

If you'd like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes some of the sights discussed in "Rick's Tips," contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Zinfandel in the Napa Valley

Sonoma County, Lodi, and the Sierra Foothills are better known for Zinfandel (red, not pink) than is the Napa Valley. Some wineries do offer Zinfandel in the tasting rooms, e.g. Grgich Hills and Rombauer. However, few wineries in Napa specialize in Zinfandel.

An exception is Robert Biale Vineyards. The family moved to Napa in the 1930s and planted Zinfandel grapes. For many years the family was content to sell its grapes but, in 1991, decided to make its first Zinfandel. Four hundred cases were made from the Biale's 60-year-old Zinfandel vines. Today, Biale makes Zinfandel from grapes it grows as well as from grapes purchased from small growers. In addition, the winery makes tasty Petite Sirah, Barbera, Sangiovese, and Syrah.

When you walk into the tasting room, you'll be greeted by a friendly member of the staff who will walk you through a tasting of the available wines. Biale often sells out of its wines so, in the winter months, the number of wines available for tasting may be limited. Tasting is by appointment at Biale. If you're visiting during the middle of the week or during the off season, you should be able to call in the morning for an appointment later in the day. If you're planning on visiting on a weekend during the summer or fall, try to call a few days in advance for an appointment.

If you would like to take a private Napa Valley tour or a private tour that focuses on Zinfandel, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Too Much Wine to Taste in Carneros

The Mondavi family is no longer involved in the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. However, Robert's son, Michael, is still in the wine business through his company, Folio Wine Partners. The company imports a number of wines and produces wine at its Folio Winemakers Studio in the Napa portion of Carneros

Folio also lets other winemakers use the Studio's facilities to produce their own wines. As a result, the list of wines available for tasting is quite extensive. At Folio you can taste Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and other wines.

When you arrive you'll be greeted by the friendly staff and given two lists of wines available for tasting. Decide which tasting you'd like to do, check off the wines you want to taste, and the staff will begin to walk you through your tasting. Take your wine to the deck overlooking the vineyard and you may never leave.

Folio is open daily from 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes a visit to Folio, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

Saturday, June 27, 2009

One Day in the Anderson Valley

The Anderson Valley in Mendocino County is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Napa Valley. Tasting rooms tend to be small, friendly, and less pretentious. If you like PinotNoir, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and other Alsatian varietals, you'll enjoy a day of winetasting in the Anderson Valley.

Seventeen wineries that are members of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers have tasting rooms that are open to the public for drop-in tasting. Over the past few years I have visited all of these tasting rooms except for Brutacao. Here's my list of tasting rooms to visit if I had but one day in the Anderson Valley and did not want to make any appointments.

Navarro Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the Anderson Valley. The wines are terrific and the tasting room is friendly. Navarro produces a wide variety of wines with grapes from the Anderson Valley and other regions in Mendocino County. It's a great spot for a picnic lunch.

Roederer Estate consistently produces some of the best sparkling wine in California. When Champagne Louis Roederer planted its first vineyards in the Anderson Valley in 1982 and released its first wine in 1988, the world noticed.

Toulouse Vineyards is nothing fancy. You just taste some great wines among the tanks and barrels. Plus I'm a sucker for silly mottoes like "Too tense, Toulouse."

Claudia Springs Winery's tasting room makes Toulouse's look pretentious. The tasting room is in an old building with "warehouse ambiance" on the side of route 128. When we visited, Claudia walked us through an array of Claudia Springs and Harmonique wines.

I like folk art as does Milla Handley, winemaker and owner of Handley Cellars. When you visit the tasting rooms, you get to taste some pretty good wine and see part of Milla's folk art collection. Like Navarro, Handley Cellars makes a wide array of wines.

Since five wineries is the most I can visit in one day, I'm going to stop here. I've limited this posting to wineries that do not require appointments. If you want to make an appointment or two, you might check out Esterlina, Londer, or Foursight. If you would like to take a private tour of the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino Coast that includes visits to some of these wineries, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Too Tense? Toulouse

Toulouse Vineyards, a small, family-owned winery, made its first wine in 2002. Today Toulouse makes well regarded Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rosé. The wines had been commended to me so I thought I would check out the winery on my recent visit to the Anderson Valley.

I knew I would like Toulouse as I soon as I saw the sign with the large duck and the winery's motto, "Too Tense? Toulouse." The tasting room is inside the winery and has no pretensions. The staff is friendly and guides you through a leisurely tasting of Toulouse's current releases. When we tasted the rose, we were given a small creme brulee to pair with the wine. I've never been a Rosé fan, but I loved the creme brulee.

If you're winetasting in the Anderson Valley, you'll taste a lot of Pinot Noir and Alsatian varietals. I would definitely include Toulouse as a stop during your visit. The tasting room is open daily from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. If you would like to take a private tour of the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino County Coast, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, June 08, 2009

Northern California: An Explorer's Guide

This new guidebook, written by San Francisco resident, Michele Bigley, was just released on June 1. It's a great resource for travel in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and all of Northern California - from Big Sur to the Oregon border.

Here's what Michele had to say about Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel, "A wealth of knowledge, Rick takes folks on customized tours of the Bay Area, Wine Country, Central Coast, Mendocino, and even the Sierra Foothills. You tell him what you want and he'll create the ideal trip. He knows more about wine and food than most."

Many thanks to Michelle for the nice review. If you're planning a trip to San Francisco, you can pick up "Northern California: An Explorer's Guide" at most good bookstores.

If you'd like to take a tour with a guide who "knows more about wine and food than most," please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me at

Monday, June 01, 2009

Great Breakfast on the Mendocino Coast

As I've written in the past, the small village of Elk is one of my favorite places on the Mendocino coast. There are at least 5 bed and breakfasts sitting on the bluff overlooking the coast.

On our recent trip, we stayed in a vacation rental so had to cook our own breakfast or eat out. We, of course, headed to Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe. This unpretentious restaurant shares an old building with an auto mechanic. When you walk into the cafe, you are likely to see locals and tourists enjoying Queenie's egg dishes, waffles, pancakes, and other breakfast specialties. You'll also notice the fresh made pie sitting on the counter and the many signs on the walls extolling the virtues of being a Queen.

Come with an appetite as the portions are huge. But don't come if you're in a hurry. Each dish is individually prepared by Queenie herself so your breakfast may take some time to come to the table. Just remember that you're on vacation and good food is the top priority. Also, people watching on the Mendocino coast can be interesting. To paraphrase Dorothy, you'll know that you're not in Kansas anymore. When the food arrives at your table, you won't be disappointed.

Queenie's is open for breakfast and lunch from Thursday through Monday. Elk is located on California Route 1 about 20 minutes south of the town of Mendocino. Queenie's has a street address but it won't do you much good. Just look for the sign on the inland side of the road near the southern end of Elk. If you're coming from the Anderson Valley, take the Philo-Greenwood Road and turn right on Route 1.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Anderson Valley wine country and the Mendocino County coast that includes one of Queenie's meals, please contact contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Enter the Zip Code for Nome, Alaska

This is the greeting you get when you call Frog's Leap Winery and get their answering service. It's just one example of Frog's Leap's efforts to not take itself too seriously.

Frog's Leap produces an array of excellent reds and whites, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes the winery a great place to visit when you have some folks in your group who prefer whites and others who prefer reds.

Visiting Frog's Leap is a very casual experience, no over-the-top Napa Valley ego here. You'll get a hint of Frog's Leap's style when you see the sign on the driveway that points to the left for "Work" and to the right for "Play." You'll want to head to right and enter what looks like an old farmhouse. The building is actually just a few years old and is built with many recyclable materials. If it's cold outside, you'll want to sit in the main "living room" by the fireplace. If it's warm and sunny, the deck is a nice place to relax for a few minutes.

The tour and tasting at Frog's Leap lasts about 90 minutes and includes a walk through the gardens and winery. You'll sample some of Frog's Leap's current releases along the way and learn about the winery's history and philosophy. There is no charge for the tour and tasting but a prior appointment is required. During the busy summer and fall months, tours can fill up so try to make an appointment well in advance. The winery is open Monday through Saturday.

If you would like to take a private Napa Valley tour that includes a visit to Frog's Leap Winery, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4137 or

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

More Than Wine In Sonoma Wine Country

I haven't had a chance to post recently. However, the May edition of "Rick's Tips" is about Sonoma County's wine country. To see the newsletter, click here.

If you would like to subscribe to "Rick's Tips," please follow the link in the newsletter. If you would like to take a private, custom tour of Sonoma's wine country, please call Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wineries with Gardens

Yesterday, a guest inquired about visiting wineries with beautiful gardens. I hadn't really thought about this but, after a little thought, my top three recommendations were Matanzas Creek, Ferrari Carano, and Kendall Jackson's Wine Center; all in Sonoma County.

Matanzas Creek lies east of the city of Santa Rosa in Bennett Valley. The winery is surrounded by a spectacular lavender garden. If you visit in June, when the flowers are usually at their peak, you will see hillsides covered in purple flowers surrounded by native grasses and olive trees. Matanzas Creek is located a fair distance from other wineries, so you have to make it a destination. If you enjoy beautiful lavender, you will not be disappointed. The winery is open for tasting daily from 10:00 to 4:30. Tours are available by prior appointment at 10:30 and 2:30 from Monday through Friday and at 10:30 on Saturday.

Ferrari Carano is located at the northern end of Dry Creek Valley. Formal French/Italian gardens surround Villa Fiore, the winery's visitor center. When you arrive at the winery, you can stroll along the paths and bridges among the more than 2,000 species of plants in this very sculptured garden. The garden includes over 10,000 tulips and daffodils. If you phone (707) 433-5349 in the late winter/early spring, you can find out if the flowers are at their peak. Ferrari Carano is open daily from 10:00 to 5:00 for tasting. Tours are offered by prior appointment at 10:00 from Monday through Saturday. Appointments may also be made for private tastings for groups of six or fewer from Monday through Saturday.

Kendall Jackson's Wine Center is located in Fulton, between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. The tasting room is surrounded by culinary and sensory gardens. The sensory gardens are divided into sections containing flavors found in the various wines produced by Kendall Jackson. The Red Wine Sensory Garden has sections devoted to Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and other red varietals. The White Wine Sensory Garden includes sections featuring Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and other wines. The Culinary Gardens include a variety of vegetables and hers. Complimentary tours of the gardens are offered daily at 11:00, 1:00, and 3:00, weather permitting. There's not much to see during the winter months, so try to visit between March and October. The tasting room is open daily from 10:00 to 5:00.

Other wineries have pretty gardens, but these three are at the top of my list. If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes visits to these wineries, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Casual Lunch in the Russian River Valley

Graton is a small town in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Its business district is one block long but houses two nice, casual restaurants for lunch: Willow Wood Market and Underwood Bar and Bistro. The similar names are no coincidence; the restaurants have the same owner.

Both are good, but I prefer Willow Wood. I like both the atmosphere and food a little better at Willow Wood. I also like the option of dining outside. Willow Wood's lunch menu features a number of excellent salads, sandwiches, and dishes featuring polenta. My favorites are the smoked trout salad and roast pork tenderloin sandwich. On Sundays, Willow Wood also serves brunch, with a menu that includes many egg dishes. Willowwood Market serves lunch from Monday to Saturday from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. On Sundays, brunch is served from 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

Underwood's menu is a little more substantial than Willow Wood's. The lunch menu includes a selection of oysters, salads, sandwiches, fish and pasta selections, and other hearty dishes. Underwood is open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.

Nearby wineries include Lynmar, Iron Horse, and Dutton Estate Sebastopol Vineyards.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Russian River Valley that includes lunch at Willow Wood Mark or Underwood Bar and Bistro, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bocce, Fresh-Baked Bread, Olive Oil, and Even Some Wine

Preston of Dry Creek is a family-run, organic farm and winery in the Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma County. Lou and Susan Preston bought their first land in the Dry Creek Valley in 1973. At that time, there were more prunes on the land than grapes. They produced their first wine in 1975 - Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then the winery has grown and downsized. Today the winery focuses on Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault, Viognier, and Rousanne, as well as Zinfandel.

Preston is a fun, casual place to visit. For five dollars, you can taste four wines from the menu. Some freshly baked bread is usually for sale, so bring some cheese and other food and stay for a picnic. The tasting room also sells olive oil, olives, and organic produce from the garden.

Want to have a little fun after you taste Preston's wine and enjoy your picnic lunch? Try your hand at a game of bocce - the Italian bowling game.

Preston is at the northern end of the Dry Creek Valley at 9282 Dry Creek Road. The tasting room is open daily from 11:00 - 4:30 p.m. If you would like to take a private tour of the Dry Creek Valley that includes a stop at Preston, please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bubbly in Mendocino County

I'm cheating a bit on this post. Since my last two posts were on bubbly in Napa and Sonoma, I thought it would be good to do a third on bubbly in Mendocino County. However, I wrote about sparkling wine in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County 9 months ago. Therefore, I'll just include a link to the old post:

Since I'm talking about the Anderson Valley, this coming weekend, February 21 and 22, is their International Alsace Varietals Festival. For more information, visit

If you would like to take a private tour of the Anderson Valley, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bubbly in Sonoma County

The Russian River Valley is the place for sparkling wine in Sonoma County. This wine region produces world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two of the three grapes used in Champagne. (The other is Pinot Meunier.)

The three principal producers of sparkling wine in the Russian River Valley are Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards and Winery, and Korbel. All three are well worth visiting.

Iron Horse has a simple, outdoor tasting area atop a hill covered with vineyards. Tasting bubbly on a sunny day while gazing out over the rolling hills of vineyards is an only-in-California experience. Don't expect any fancy dump buckets here. Just throw whatever you don't want to drink onto the grass. The winery offers flights of still or sparkling wines at various prices from 10:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Tours are offered by prior appointments on weekdays. Iron Horse can get crowded on weekends, so try to visit on a weekday when you will get more personal attention.

J Winery provides a nice contrast to Iron Horse. The tasting is much more upscale looking. A flight of four still and sparkling wines is offered daily. In addition, J recently started a tasting of their small-production wines in their main tasting room. For a special experience, visit the Bubble Room on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. With a prior appointment, you can taste J's white, red, and/or sparkling wine paired with delicious foods.

Korbel is the westernmost tasting room in the Russian River Valley. It's not near other wineries, so make sure you want to invest the driving time to get to Korbel. When you arrive, you'll find beautiful brick buildings, a nice cafe with indoor and outside dining, a large gift shop, and more types of sparkling wine than any other producer in Sonoma or Napa County. Korbel also offers regularly scheduled tours.

Carneros, which lies in both Napa and Sonoma Counties, also produces excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Gloria Ferrer, the American outpost of the Catalan cava house - Freixenet, produces high quality bubbly in the Sonoma side of Carneros. The tasting is pretty simple at Gloria Ferrer. Walk up to the counter, order a glass of bubbly, and take it to a table in the tasting room or on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. Gloria Ferrer offers tours, but call first to make sure they will be offered on the day you plan to visit.

If you would like to take a private tour of Sonoma County's sparkling wine producers, please feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bubbly in the Napa Valley

While the Napa Valley is best known for Cabernet, some world-class sparkling wine is produced there. Three of the French Champagne producers have long had outposts in Napa. The first was Domaine Chandon, part of the Moet Chandon empire. This was followed by Mumm Napa, a sister winery to GH Mumm and Perrier Jouet in Champagne and part of the Pernod Ricard group, and Domaine Carneros, which was founded by Champagne Taittinger in 1987.

Of the three, my favorite to visit is Domaine Carneros in the Carneros Region of Napa County. Table service is provided on the terrace in front of the Chateau, a wonderful spot to enjoy bubbly on a sunny day. You can also pair cheese, caviar, and other foods with your wine.

Mumm Napa also offers table service on a sunny terrace overlooking the vineyards. They also have a photography gallery with rotating exhibits and photos by Ansel Adams. Mumm does not offer food pairings, but does have a free tour of the winery. Domaine Chandon tends to get crowded. While you can enjoy your wine at a table, you need to take your glass back to the bar when you are ready to move on to the next wine.

Two wineries best known for Cabernet also offer bubbly. Frank Family in St. Helena is one of the last wineries in Napa not to charge a tasting fee. However, that does not mean the wine is not good. Your visit to Frank Family will start with a tasting of their current release sparkling wines, followed by a tasting of their still wines. Frank Family has one of the friendliest tasting rooms in the Valley. Try to avoid Saturdays as they do get crowded. When Cliff Lede bought S. Anderson to open his eponymous winery, he inherited about 10 years' supply of S. Anderson's bubbly. If you visit Cliff Lede within the next year or two, they should still have some S. Anderson sparkling wine available for tasting.

Schramsberg is one of the premier producers of California sparkling wine. The winery is at the far northern end of the Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Your tasting comes with a tour of the winery that includes a visit to caves built by Chinese laborers in the 19th century. Schramsberg is very popular and tastings, which require advance appointments, tend to fill up early on summer weekends. So plan ahead if you want to see this historic property.

If you'd like to take a private Napa tour that focuses on sparkling wine, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dining at a Winery

Most visitors to wine country are surprised to learn that it is nearly impossible to dine at a winery. To protect the agricultural nature of Sonoma and Napa Counties, the areas outside of the towns and cities are zoned agricultural. As a result, restaurants are prohibited in the agricultural parts of the counties.

Some wineries do wine and cheese pairings. V.Sattui, in the Napa Valley, has a delicatessen where you can pick up food to take to the winery's picnic area. However, in Napa County, only one winery has a full restaurant.

Domaine Chandon has had a restaurant since its visitor center opened in 1977. Its restaurant was allowed to continue when the zoning restrictions where enacted. Etoile serves upscale California/French cuisine in a refined dining room. On a nice day, enjoy the garden view while lunching on their terrace. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday - Monday, except in November in December when it is open from Thursday - Sunday and in January when the restaurant is closed.

Only two wineries have restaurant permits in Sonoma County. Francis Ford Coppola bought the old Chateau Souverain winery a few years ago. Along with the winery came a restaurant permit. The winery is now Rosso and Bianco, where Coppola produces his mid-priced wines. When Coppola took over ownership, he started serving very good Italian food in the winery's restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant, still unnamed, is closed for remodeling. Hopefully, when the restaurant reopens, the food still will be good and diners will once again be able to enjoy a meal on the terrace overlooking the vineyards.

In the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, the old Topolos winery had a restaurant. The winery, along with the restaurant, closed a few years ago. The property was sold and is now called Russian River Vineyards. The tasting room is open, but the restaurant has not yet reopened.

Many wineries have permits for private events. If you are coming to wine country with a large group, you can arrange a private meal at many wineries, some of which have spectacular settings.

If you want recommendations for wineries to host your private meal or wish to take a private tour of wine country, please feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.