Howell Mountain Bud Break Tasting: March 23, San Francisco

Regular readers know that I'm in the habit of plugging public wine tasting events for the sole reason that they are among the best ways to learn. Educating your palate through the comparative tasting of 40, 50, or 70 wines over the course of several hours has no equal when it comes to helping you put your finger on a grape variety, a region, or a style of winemaking.

Perhaps the most helpful of such tastings are those that provide a large number of wines of a similar type or kind. Most of the time, such tastings are centered around a particular grape variety. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Rhone varieties -- such tastings abound. Tastings that focus on a narrowly specific place, on the other hand, seem much less common.

And public tastings of a wide variety of producers from one of Napa's most storied appellations? That's rare indeed.

Which is why you should seriously consider attending the upcoming tasting of more than 30 producers who make wine in the Howell Mountain AVA of Napa.

Howell Mountain sits on the eastern side of Napa Valley, north of the palisades that make up Pritchard Hill and the Stag's Leap District. Rising steeply off the valley floor and sitting above the typical level of fog, this hillside growing area has warmer nights and cooler days than the rest of the valley. While it gets more moisture, the soils are also much less fertile, with a higher percentage of rock than the valley floor, resulting in generally drier conditions for the grapes, and therefore less disease pressure. Perhaps too much is sometimes made of so called "mountain fruit" but it is possible to say that the grapes grown on these rolling slopes tend to be slightly higher in acidity, and are often harvested at lower alcohol levels than the grapes on the valley floor.

Howell Mountain plays host to a number of truly excellent producers, many of whom don't have tasting rooms that may be visited by the public. The chance to taste a lot of these wines side by side is a real treat, and one that any Cabernet lover shouldn't miss.

Producers pouring at this event include: Angwin Estate Vineyards, Arkenstone, Black Sears, Bremer Family Winery, CADE Estate Winery, Charles Krug Winery, Cimarossa, Clif Family Winery, Cresta Velia, Haber Family Vineyards, Hindsight Wines, Howell at the Moon Winery, Howell Mountain Vineyards, KrisTodd Vineyards, Ladera Vineyards, Mirror Napa Valley, Moone-Tsai Wines, Notre Vin, Paravel Wines, Pestoni Family Estate Winery, Piña Napa Valley, Pine Ridge Vineyards, Red Cap Vineyards, Red Thread Wines, Retro Cellars, Robert Craig Winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards, Seek, Selah Wines and Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery.

2019 Howell Mountain Bud Break Tasting
Saturday, March 23
1:00 - 4:00 p.m.
Presidio Golden Gate Club
135 Fisher Loop
San Francisco, CA 94129

Tickets for the event are $75 in advance or $100 at the door. They can be purchased online. My usual tips for such tastings apply: arrive well fed and well hydrated; wear darker clothes to avoid the occasional red wine stain; leave the perfume or cologne off; and spit if you want the event to be more educational than intoxicating.

2019 Zinfandel Experience: January 17, San Francisco

I'm not exactly sure how long a particular event has to have been going on for it to be credibly labeled an institution, but whatever that length of time, the ZAP Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco would certainly qualify. For nearly 25 years lovers of Zinfandel have been descending upon San Francisco in late January to celebrate their favorite grape.

While there are now many Pinot Noir festivals, several Cabernet happenings, and more than one event focused on Rhone grape varieties, there has only ever been one ZAP. And while Zinfandel might be poured at other regional tastings, no event ever offered such a comprehensive view into the grape that very nearly became California's official state grape.

But after more than two decades of opening the floodgates of Zinfandel to the masses each winter, ZAP has been in a mode of reinvention. For starters, the event is no longer known as ZAP, it is known as the Zinfandel Experience, or ZinEX for short.

What was once something of a bacchanalia has now become a more understated, more intimate gathering of dedicated Zinfandel lovers. The grape has lost some of the popularity it held during the "fruit bomb" era of the early 2000s. But this is a shame because in some ways there's more good Zinfandel being made than ever in California, as winemakers have slowly retreated to a higher-acid, more drinkable form.

Care to assess the state of California Zinfandel for yourself? There's no better way than the Zinfandel Experience.

Starting on Thursday, January 17th, the event kicks off with a dinner for VIP ticket holders at One Market restaurant. Friday sports a guided seminar focused on flights of Zinfandels and a winemaker dinner and auction dubbed "The Grape Gatsby Gala."

The main event, however, comes the next day, when Pier 27 hosts a complete day of Zinfandel immersion. From 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM attendees can wander around and taste Zinfandel to their heart's content. If you're not up for the full six hour affair, you can also purchase a ticket to the general public tasting from 2 to 5 PM.

Now go get your Zin on!

2019 Zinfandel Experience
Gand Tasting
Saturday, January 19, 2019
11:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Pier 27 - Cruise Terminal
San Francisco, CA 94111

The All-day ticket will run you $180 (or $150 if you're a ZAP member) and the afternoon tasting ticket costs $80 ($70 for members). Purchase your tickets online soon, as they may sell out.

Spring Mountain Harvest Tasting: November 18, San Francisco

When most people think of Napa, they likely think of broad swaths of vineyards sweeping back from the edges of Highway 29 towards beautifully manicured lawns and pretty architecture. Certainly, many of the most famous spots in Napa fit this description. Some of their names -- Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena -- have begun to be recognized by consumers.

But there is another side (or more accurately, sides) to Napa, less trodden, less visible, but arguably more interesting from the standpoint of wine. Those sides, of course, are the hillsides -- the mountain terroirs of Napa, where altitude and slope, temperature gradients and well draining soils, shady pockets and hillside breezes make for fresh, powerful wines that can really turn your head.

There are a few such hillside and mountaintop areas of Napa, but perhaps the most significant is the Spring Mountain District, home to some of Napa's most distinctive (and some would argue, undervalued) wines. It's a part of Napa that receives far less traffic and attention than elsewhere in the valley, in part because of the winding mountain roads that must be navigated to reach it.

But not on the weekend of November 18th. Because the mountain is coming to Muhammed. Or, rather to San Francisco.

On Sunday November 18th, a whole bunch of producers from Spring Mountain are showing up to pour their wines to anyone who wants to taste. There will be copious and diverse appetizers on offer as well.

This is a great opportunity to taste your way through a set of producers that aren't often accessible to consumers in a single spot. And a number of them are among my favorites in Napa.

Wineries pouring include Barnett Vineyards, Behrens Family Vineyard, Castellucci Napa Valley, Frias Family Vineyards, Keenan Winery, Luscher-Ballard Vineyard, Paloma Vineyard, Pride Mountain Vineyard, Schweiger Vineyards, Sherwin Vineyards, Smith-Madrone, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Stony Hill Vineyard, Terra Valentine, and Vineyard 7 & 8.

If you're not doing anything the Sunday before Thanksgiving and you love great wine, you'd be hard pressed to find a more interesting place to be than at this tasting.

2018 Spring Mountain Harvest Tasting
Sunday, November 18
4:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Presidio Golden Gate Club
135 Fisher Loop
San Francisco, CA 94129 (map)

Tickets for this event may well sell out, so you should purchase yours in advance online. They'll run you $100 per person.

Russian River Single Vineyard Tasting: November 15, San Francisco

Longtime readers will know that I make it a point to promote events that provide an opportunity to really educate your palate. As a wine lover, nothing teaches you more than getting a chance to taste a lot of similar wines side-by-side. Whether that's learning if you really do like Merlot, or understanding the what kinds of wine a particular region does well, there's no substitute for taking a couple of hours to taste forty wines poured by people who can tell you most anything you might want to know about what you're tasting.

Which leads me to the question: how do you feel about the Russian River Valley? Undoubtedly one of California's most distinct wine regions, the fog-influenced Russian River Valley was ground zero for the rise of California Pinot Noir from obscurity to its near-cult status today. Thanks to producers such as Williams Selyem and Rochioli, the Russian River Valley proved that not only were people were willing to pay $80 for a bottle of California Pinot Noir from a very specific vineyard, but that they'd wait years to get onto a mailing list for that privilege.

There's nothing like visiting a wine region to get a feel for it, but a close second is having the chance to taste a lot of its best wines in a single sitting. And that's precisely what you'll have a chance to do if you attend an event called Russian River Valley Single Vineyard Night on November 15th in San Francisco.

Dozens of wineries from the region are bringing their single-vineyard designated wines to the Presidio Officer's Club for a walk-around tasting. So if you're interested in learning more about the Russian River Valley, what grows best there, and what it tastes like, or if you're a super-fan and want to go gargle with some of your favorite juice, you should consider checking it out.

There will be food, music, and a silent auction as well.

Some of the wineries pouring that night will be:

ACORN Winery, Balletto Vineyards, Benovia Winery, Campana Ranch Wines, Char Vale Winery, Christopher Creek Winery, Croix Estate Winery, Davis Bynum, Gary Farrell Winery, Kanzler Family Vineyards, Inman Family Wines, La Crema Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Limerick Lane, MacPhail Wines, MacRostie Winery & Vineyards, Maritana Vineyards, Matrix Winery, Paradise Ridge Winery, Russian River Vineyards, Tara Bella Winery, Ten Acre Winery, Thomas George Estates, Tongue Dancer Wines, and Wren Hop Winery.

So have a late lunch, go taste some good wine, and then have a late dinner.

2018 Russian River Single Vineyard Night
Thursday, November 15th
6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
Presidio Officer's Club - Ortega Ballroom
50 Moraga Ave
San Francisco, CA 94129 (map)

Tickets for the event are $85, but if you pay $100 you can get in early, hobnob with winemakers, and get to taste limited-edition bottlings and other "rare" wines. This event will likely sell out so get your tickets soon.

20th Annual PinotFest Tasting: November 17, San Francisco

One of the longest running wine tasting events in San Francisco is also one of its best. While the city often plays host to really huge public tastings like ZAP, Family Winemakers, and PinotDays, some of the better tastings are more intimate and focused. Both words appropriately describe PinotFest, a low-key event held every year at Farallon Restaurant. Despite practically non-existent marketing or announcement, PinotFest quietly pulls together 60 or so top producers of West Coast Pinot Noir every year for a dedicated crowd of Pinot lovers in San Francisco. This year will be the event's 20th annual incarnation. Attendees get nibbles from Farallon's kitchen, and access for a few hours to many hard to find Pinot Noirs that often don't appear at the larger public tastings. This year's wineries will include: Alma Rosa, Au Bon Climat, Big Table Farm, Bonaccorsi, Byron, Calera, Charles Heintz, Chehalem, Cobb, Costa de Oro, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin, En Route, Ernest, Etude, Failla, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Foxen, Freeman, Gary Farrell, Gloria Ferrer, Handley, Hartford Court, Hitching Post, Joseph Phelps, Keller Estate, Kendric, Kosta Browne, LaRue, Littorai, Lutum, Marimar Estate, Melville, Merry Edwards, Nicolas Jay, Paul Hobbs, Paul Lato, Peay, Radio Coteau, Saintsbury, Siduri, Sinor LaVallee, Soter, Talisman, Talley, Testarossa, Tendril, Thomas Fogarty, Twomey, Wayfarer, Whitcraft, WillaKenzie, Williams Selyem. While, at $125, this tasting may be expensive for some, it is only the price of approximately 1.5 bottles from most of these producers, and by far the least expensive way of getting a chance to taste a lot of them in one setting. This year's event will also feature a pop-up tasting of some of Australia's finest Pinot Noir producers, courtesy of friends at Wine Australia. It's a great event and one that no California Pinot Noir lover should miss. PinotFest 2018 Saturday, November 17th 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM Farallon Restaurant, 4th Floor 450 Post Street San Francisco, CA 94108 Tickets are $125 per person (a price which hasn't gone up in years and years) and can be ordered online or by calling 415-956-6969. This event will almost certainly sell out. I recommend arriving exactly at 3:00 PM, wearing dark clothes to minimize spills, eating a hearty lunch ahead of time, and swallowing only a few wines so you can taste a lot more.

Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting: September 24, San Francisco

In the villages of Champagne, harvest having taken place more than a week ago, the wine is already through its fermentations and resting in tanks or barrels waiting to be bottled with the yeast and sugar that will give it the bubbles we all love so much.

What better time to begin thinking about one of the best wine tasting events each year in San Francisco. The Champagne tasting put on by the Institute for the Masters of Wine.

Very few opportunities exist to taste a lot of Champagnes side-by-side, even if you are a member of the trade. As a consumer, such opportunities are incredibly rare, especially Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting: September 24, San Franciscocompared to the relative frequency of opportunities to taste, say, as many Zinfandels as you want, or a lot of Pinot Noir.

If you are interested in giving yourself a little education when it comes to Champagne, or if you're educated already and simply want to soak yourself in a few bubbles, then you ought to be in line at 6:00 PM on September 28th at the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf here in San Francisco.

This event serves both as a fundraising opportunity as well as a general outreach event for the institute, but more importantly, it offers an incredible opportunity to taste some of the world's best Champagnes, poured by some of the world's most knowledgeable wine experts.

The last one of these tastings I attended, many of the top cuvées from Dom Perignon, Taittinger, Bollinger, Roederer and more were on offer. The Institute claims that this tasting is "the most prestigious tasting of Champagne in North America," and who is going to argue with...The Institute?

This year's agenda includes seated guided tastings of older prestige wines before each walk-around tasting. Unfortunately the seated tasting AND the first tasting session of the afternoon are sold out, but tickets still remain for the evening tasting. Get them while you can!

Also of note, this year's event lineup includes a smaller, BYOB dinner after the event at the Cantonese banquet restaurant R&G Lounge in Chinatown, which likely will be a lot of fun.

14th Annual Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting
Monday, September 24th, 2018
Seated Seminars: SOLD OUT
Session 1: 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM - SOLD OUT
Session 2: 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
BYOB Dinner: 8:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf
555 North Point Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

Tickets for this event are $80 for the only remaining session (6:00 - 8:00), or $100 for the BYOB dinner, and tickets should be purchased in advance online (this event always sell out, as there is limited capacity). If you're interested in the dinner, you can purchase tickets for that separately. Proceeds benefit the Institute for the Masters of Wine, and in particular their scholarships for aspiring students.

Parking can be crazy in Fisherman's Wharf, and if you're going to swallow any of those bubbles, it would serve you well to simply take public transport to the tasting. Also, please leave your perfume at home.

56th Annual Napa Wine Library Tasting: August 26, Napa

Dedicated wine lovers in the San Francisco Bay area get several opportunities each year to indulge their passions for wine. Large, themed tastings like the ZAP Zinfandel Festival are great opportunities to get a sense of a certain varietal and the quality of the recent vintage in California.

It is quite rare, however, despite the nearness of the appellation and the saturation of wine in the Bay Area, for consumers to get the opportunity to get an in-depth or comprehensive look at the wines of Napa Valley. Perhaps it's just because Napa wines don't need much marketing help, or perhaps it's because the Napa Valley Vintners association can only put on a few major events each year, but there just isn't a real good opportunity for members of the public to survey the breadth and depth of wines from the Napa valley.

Unless, that is, you happen to be a member of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association (Hint: you can become a member for just $100).

The Wine Library is just what it sounds like: a library with books about wine. Started in the early Sixties by a group of winery owners that realized the irony of having a public library in the heart of Napa Valley that possessed virtually no literature or resources about wine, the library association was built on donations of money and books from Napa's wine families over four decades. Now occupying a special section of the St. Helena public library and even owning a small 56th Annual Napa Wine Library Tasting: August 26, Napavineyard out behind the building, the Wine Library Association is a membership organization that gives its members access to these materials, some of which are rare and historic, as well as to annual tasting events.

These tasting events have been going on for more than fifty years, offering members the chance to sample wines from producers all over the valley. This year around 70 wineries will pour vineyard designated wines from 17 different AVAs in the grove at the Silverado Country Club. If you've never been to the grove at the Silverado Country Club, it is an idyllic place for a wine tasting, even during a hot Napa day.

"That's all well and good," you may be saying, "but this is a members-only event and I'm not a member of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association." That's true. But a check for $100 sent in advance, or brought with on the day of the tasting will do the trick.

Sound like a steal? It is. Unless you're a member of the trade that attends Premiere Napa Valley, or someone willing to pay in the hundreds or even thousands for a package at the annual Auction Napa Valley, there is generally no other way to get the opportunity to taste so many Napa Valley wineries in a single setting. If you're serious about learning more about Napa wines, especially if you're interested in some of the less famous wines of the valley, this is an event you don't want to miss.

If you're interested in the wines on offer, you can find the list on the Napa Wine Library web site.

2018 Napa Valley Wine Library Association Member Tasting
Sunday August 26th
4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
Silverado Resort and Country Club
1600 Atlas Peak Road
Napa, California 94558

Annual membership dues for the Association are $100. Only checks and cash will be accepted, I believe, so stop at an ATM or bring your checkbook. Additional details on how to get membership in advance can be found on the Association's web site.

Taste of Sonoma: September 1, Rohnert Park

Most people, when they come visit me in the San Francisco Bay Area and ask to be taken to wine country, assume that they're going to Napa. But at least half the time, that's definitely not where we end up.

My well meaning friends aren't the only ones who seem to forget that Northern California has many different "wine countries." Napa casts a long shadow, as it were.

I've got a bit of love for every piece of wine country we've got here in California, but there's a special place in my heart for Sonoma County, both because it is the place of my birth, but also because I think sometimes it gets short shrift compared to its more famous neighbor.

Sonoma County is several different wine regions rolled up into one -- from the chilly fog of the Sonoma Coast and Carneros, to the cool Green Valley and Russian River Valley, to the warmer climes of Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Alexander Valley, and the Sonoma Valley -- many different micro-climates and many different wines, from sparkling to Pinot Noir to Zinfandel to Cabernet.

The main problem, however, is that all these regions lay spread out over a wide area, much wider than the relatively (in comparison) compact Napa Valley. So experiencing the breadth of Sonoma can be time consuming, no matter how fulfilling it usually ends up being.

So while it's a good idea for wine lovers to pay more attention to Sonoma in general, there is one event each year when any self-respecting wine lover should be thinking of nothing but Sonoma. It's gone through many incarnations over the last 10 years, but is now named Taste of Sonoma.

It's a single day chance to experience the breadth of Sonoma County's wine AND food offerings in all their glory (and a damn fine way to spend a Labor Day Weekend).

Held at the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University, the event features seminars and a grand tasting of hundreds of Sonoma County wine producers and dozens of Sonoma County restaurants and food providers.

Find out everything you need to know on the event web site.

Taste of Sonoma 2018
Saturday September 1, 2018
Green Music Center
Sonoma State University
1801 E. Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA 94928 (map)

Tickets for the grand tasting, which can be purchased online, range from $150 to $255 per person, with the higher end ticket including seminars and early admission to the tasting, as well as access to a VIP lounge experience with more exclusive wines and bits of food.

2018 Family Winemakers Tasting: August 26, San Francisco

I continue to post news of large public wine tasting events because they are quite simply the single best way for a curious wine consumer to educate his or her palate in a short period of time. Tasting dozens of examples of the same grape grown in different places and made in different ways is both a way to learn to recognize its specific qualities, but also to form the critical judgments that are the wine lover's first step to enjoying more of what you drink. The better you know what you like and what you don't, the more you'll enjoy your exploration of wine.

Regular readers know that the Family Winemakers tasting, now in its 28th year, is one of my favorites. While the definition of a "family-run" winery is stretched a bit to include behemoths like Jackson Family Estates and Gallo, the organization consists mostly of smaller, family-run wineries, many of whose wines are made in such small quantities that they do not receive wide distribution. The chance to taste the wares of these wineries remains the single best reason to attend this tasting. Because of the scope of the tasting, a trip around the room also becomes a very good way to get a sense of recent vintages from all over the state of California.

This year's San Francisco tasting will be held at The Midway event space San Francisco, down by Pier 80, near the Dogpatch neighborhood.

This year's tasting offers a shot at tasting hundreds of wines from more than 100 different California producers. Some you will have heard of, others you won't recognize. Every year more small wineries pop up on the scene, and these can be where you find your newest under-the-radar wines that become your favorites.

So set aside a few hours on Sunday August 26th, buy a ticket, and enjoy some of the best that California has to offer.

2018 Family Winemakers Public Tasting
Sunday August 26th, 12:00 PM until 5:00 PM
The Midway Event Space
900 Marin Street
San Francisco, CA 94124 (map)

Tickets cost $60 in advance (they've actually come down in price!) and are only available for purchase online. If you want to spend $90, you can get in at Noon and spend an extra two hours tasting with the trade, which is generally less hectic.

Parking can be tricky around there, but there is some street parking. I suggest using a carshare service especially if you're going to be drinking. Because this is usually a large tasting I also recommend planning which wineries you want to visit using the list on the web site.

2018 Calistoga Uncorked Tasting: July 12, San Francisco

For most people, the name "Napa" on a bottle is all they need to know if they're interested in wine. Studies even show that the word literally makes people enjoy the wine more than the same wine without the word. Psychological quirks aside, increasingly, the most sophisticated wine comsumers are starting to become aware of not only Napa, but its sub AVAs -- the smaller regions within Napa that have been designated as distinct growing regions, or American Viticultural Areas. There are now 16 of them (much to the dismay of a winery that named itself Thirteen when there were only that many - it has since changed its name).

One of the hottest, and I'm talking temperature, not trends, is the Calistoga AVA. In fact, the AVA has the most consistent and even climate profile of any Napa AVA. Sitting at the northern end of the Napa Valley, Calistoga is something of a heat sink, boasting temperatures that on average exceed everywhere else in Napa, along with roughly 30% more rainfall anually than any other region of the valley. Lying in the shadow of Mount Saint Helena and hemmed in closely on the west and east by mountains, Calistoga's soils are almost completely volcanic in origin, having eroded from the volcanic peaks that surround it.

Calistoga is home to more than 50 different wineries who, thanks in part to the microclimate of the region, grow a wider variety of grapes than many of the other, Cabernet-dominated sub-regions of Napa. In Calistoga you'll find more Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah than elsewhere in the valley.

As consumers begin to recognize names such as Calistoga on their Napa wine bottles, so too are the individual AVAs of the valley beginning to individually promote themselves apart from the wider Napa community. Which brings me to the Calistoga Uncorked event coming up on July 12th in San Francisco. Next Thursday afternoon, 30 winemakers from Calistoga will be pouring their wines at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio. Many of these wineries aren't normally open to the public, so this tasting represents a unique opportunity to taste what the AVA has to offer.

Participating wineries include: 2880, Amici Cellars, August Briggs, Baldacci Vineyards, Ballentine Vineyards, Barlow Vineyards, Bennett Lane Winery, Bragg Vineyards, Canard Vineyard, Chateau de Vie, Chateau Montelena, Coqueral Wine Estate, Fairwinds Estate Winery, Hindsight Vineyards, Huge Bear Wines, Jack Brooks Vineyard, Jax Vineyards, Jericho Canyon Vineyard, Kenefick Ranch Vineyards, Knighton Family Vineyards, Larkmead Vineyards, La Sirena Wines, Lava Vine/Von Strasser, Next Door wines, Poggi Wines, Phifer Pavitt Wine, Romeo, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Switchback Ridge, The Grade Cellars, Tom Eddy Winery, and Weppler Vineyards. Light bites will also be served.

2018 Calistoga Uncorked Tasting
Thursday, July 12th
4:00 PM to 7:30 PM
The Golden Gate Club
Presidio of San Francisco
135 Fisher Loop
San Francisco, CA 94129 (map)

Tickets for the event run $75 and should be purchased online in advance, though some may be available at the door. My usual tips for such tastings apply. Come well hydrated, well slept, wear darker clothing in the event of spills, skip the perfume, and if you want to learn something, spit!