Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beautiful Carneros Winery

When you head to the Sonoma or Napa Valley via the Golden Gate Bridge, the first winery you come to is Ram's Gate Winery.  Over the past couple of years, I watched the old winery being torn down, new vines being planted, and finally the construction of the new winery and tasting room.  I had long wanted to check out Ram's Gate's tasting room and wines and finally had an opportunity earlier this week.

Ram's Gate has one of the prettiest tasting rooms in wine country.  As you head up the driveway, you will circle behind the winery and tasting room.  When you walk into the building, you enter a large open air space filled with tables and chairs.  We were greeted by one of Ram's Gates' concierges who directed us to the tasting bar.  Being a warm, sunny day, the wall separating the tasting room from the central veranda was open.  Visitors have the option of tasting at the bar, at one of the tables on the veranda, or on a patio.

Ram's Gate offers a flight of six wines, including one sparkling wine and a late-harvest Zinfandel, for $20.  Food pairings are offered with each wine that can be purchased separately.  Ram's Gate offers additional tasting experiences that are described on the winery's website.  If you want to sit down, relax, and enjoy some wine and food, you won't find a better spot than Ram's Gate.

Ram's Gate's tasting room is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.  The kitchen is open between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.  Reservations, especially if you would like a seated tasting, are highly recommended for weekends.  We were at Ram's Gate on a quiet Monday morning.  I suspect, during the weekend, the tasting room is much more crowded.

If you would like to take a private, wine country tour that includes a visit to Ram's Gate, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at 1 (866) 326-4237 or  Full and half-day options are available.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Must I Buy Some Wine?

Guests frequently ask me whether they are obligated to buy wine when visiting a winery.  The short answer is, "No."  The long answers is, "It depends."

Wineries want to sell wine through their tasting rooms, but you should never feel compelled to buy wine.  However, there are some instances where you might want to thank the tasting room staff and the winery for taking the time to pour wines for you by buying a bottle or two.

If you visit a tasting room that is open for visitors to drop in, you should not feel obligated to buy any wine.  You have probably paid a tasting fee, and these wineries are very accustomed to having visitors not buy wine.  If you feel you have received exceptional service from the tasting room staff, give him/her a tip.  He/she will be pleasantly surprised.

The same applies to many of the wineries that require appointments to taste.  These wineries see a good number of people every day and know that not everyone will want to buy wine.

Where it gets murky is when you make an appointment to visit a small winery where the owner or staff takes time out of her/his schedule to spend some time with you.  Many of these wineries do not charge for tastings or have a minimum tasting fee.  Some see very few visitors and are opening wines just for you.  Here, you might want to buy some wine as a way to thank the winery for the time and effort to see you.  I have been in many wineries where I wasn't crazy about the wine but felt like I needed to buy a bottle or two.  If you don't really like the wine, give it as a gift!

I hope this is helpful.  If any readers have views on this subject, please comment.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mendocino Restaurants

Since there is little lodging in the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast is so beautiful, I stay along the coast whenever I go winetasting in this area.  There are some good restaurants in the town of Mendocino and nearby villages.  Recently, I had the opportunity to retry a couple of favorites and to try a restaurant for the first time that's been around for 25 years.

955 Ukiah Street has been welcoming guests in the town of Mendocino since 1987.  It had long been on my list of restaurants to visit.  About three weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to eat there.  Like most fine restaurants in the area, the meal is not cheap with entrees in the $25 - $35 range.  The setting is casual and the service friendly.  The food was good and both of us enjoyed our dinners but I cannot put 955 Ukiah at the top of my recommendation list for first time visitors.

We returned to two old favorites and were not disappointed.  For the past six years, I think Cafe Beaujolais has had the best food on the Mendocino County coast.  (See my caveat below.)  Ever since David LaMonica bought the restaurant in 2006 and started cooking at Cafe Beaujolais, I believe the food has been a touch above the other good restaurants along the coast.  The prices are similar to 955 Ukiah but the preparation and service are slightly more sophisticated.  If food is your top priority, then this is the place to go when you visit Mendocino.

If you prefer to combine good food with a beautiful ocean view, the Albion River Inn is a terrific choice.  The restaurant (and inn) sit on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Albion River, about 15 minutes south of the town of Mendocino.  For years, the restaurant has been turning out very good food in a casual setting.  When Mother Nature cooperates, the sunset over the Pacific is beautiful.

My caveat to all of the above is that I only get to the Mendocino County coast about once a year and only get to eat at each restaurant once when I do get there.  Last year I ate at another favorite, Ledford House; another restaurant that combines good food with a stunning view.  For years, I thought it was the equal of Albion River Inn, but last year I thought Albion River Inn had slightly better food and much better service.  The Moosse Cafe is another good restaurant in the town of Mendocino but it would not be my first choice for an excellent meal.  The Restaurant at Stevenswood, south of the town of Mendocino, consistently gets good reviews, but we were disappointed when we dined there about five years ago.  We'll need to try it again.  McCallum House Restaurant also is well reviewed, We dined there long before the current chef took over the kitchen so we'll have to give this restaurant a try next time we visit.

As you can see, there are a number of good dining options when you visit Mendocino.  You won't go wrong at any of the above.

If you would like to take a two-day, one night tour of the Anderson Valley, the town of Mendocino, and the Northern California coast, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Yet Another Good Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Producer

At the western end of the small town of Philo in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County is a complex, called The Madrones, that houses four tasting rooms.  On a previous visit, we stopped in at couple of the tasting rooms.  On this trip, we tasted excellent Pinot Noir at Lula Cellars.  We were served by the owner, Jeff Hansen, who told us about his experience making wine in the Napa Valley, the history of his current winery - Lula Cellars, and how much he enjoyed living on the Mendocino coast.  Being a small producer, Jeff has a good problem - he sells out of one year's vintage before the next year's wine is ready to be released.  Fortunately, we were able to taste his Pinot Noir before it sells out for the year.  Jeff expects to have some wine to pour through sometime in June.  Then the tasting room will be closed for a few months until the next year's wines are released.  But don't fear, if you stop by and Lula Cellars is closed, at least one of the tastings rooms is sure to be open. 

Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel offers a two-day, one night tour from San Francisco to the Anderson Valley, the charming town of Mendocino, and the stunning Mendocino and Sonoma coast.  For more information, visit the Blue Heron website, phone (866) 326-4237 (toll free), or e-mail

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Yucatan Food in Healdsburg

One of my frequent complaints about Bay Area dining is the lack of quality Mexican restaurants.  Yes, there are scores of taquerias where you can get tasty tacos, tamales, and burritos, but Mexican food is much more complex.  Recently, I had the chance to dine at Mateo's Cocina Latina, just off of Healdsburg's town square.  

I had been hearing about Mateo's tasty Yucatan-inspired food ever since it opened about six months ago.  To start you can choose from the drinks list, which includes a long list of tequilas and margaritas as well as micro-brews on draft and, of course, wines.

The menu uses mostly locally sourced ingredients to produce some of the tastiest Mexican food around.  We started with a black bean puree tacone.  Mateo's offers a variety of these small, ice-cream cone shaped appetizers but one was enough for us.  We also enjoyed a delicious seafood cocktail, a huge duck tamale, and a jicama salad.  There were many other dishes we wanted to try but one can only eat so much at one seating.  I'll just have to return to continue my way through Mateo's appealing menu.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes a stop at Mateo's for lunch, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or