Julia has been swirling, sipping and swilling wines throughout California and beyond for more than two decades. Her passion is discovering big wines in small places. So, come with her and fill your glass.

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Every wonder why something that causes such pain is so beloved by so many?

Yes, it’s those little bottles on most restaurant and café tables… hot sauce.

Denver Nicks’ new book “Hot Sauce Nation” – American’s Burning Obsession – has all the answers as he pursues the history and scientific lines to understand how the fiery craze conquered American’s taste buds.

Be careful, it's hot

The author asks the question, “When did the country’s love affair with capsaicin (the searing substance in chili peppers and the hot sauce it derives from).

Nicks traces the history of chili from its likely origins in a small area of Bolivia to its introduction to Europe and the rest of the world by way of Christopher Columbus. In one chapter he even dares to sample some of the hottest varieties in the world, including a scorpion-pepper tincture that tops out at 3.3 million heat units.

Adding so much heat to the dinner table, presents a special pairing quandary for wine drinkers.

Master Sommelier Steve Morey has some suggestions and explanations.

“These food items are a problem for most wines,” he said. “The biggest problem with most wines would be higher levels of alcohol, tannins and oak treatment. This eliminates a large segment of California wines.

“At the very extreme, if you had to shoehorn a wine into pairing with hot peppers, you may choose a Beaujolais, with a little chill. The Gamay grape is high in cleansing fruit acidity, low in tannins and alcohol. A refreshing beer would be my first recommendation, but if you had to choose a wine, this may be it.

“I should mention that a wine with high fruit character may be a candidate, but typically a wine with high fruit extraction, Zinfandel, Malbec or Syrah, would also be high in alcohol. This would truly be a case of fanning the flames.”

 

If you are ever on the TV show “Jeopardy” and it’s your turn, Alex says “The first distilled spirit in the American colonies.”

Hit the buzzer and shout, “What is applejack?”

You would be right! In fact, before we had rye, rum or moonshine there was applejack. It is a key ingredient in many iconic cocktails but today there are very few producers.

But, there is an exception: Arkansas Black Straight Applejack made in California.

Design your own cocktail
Design your own cocktail

“The recipe for this ‘high octane’ spirit pays homage to my great-grandfather Arthur ‘Skipper’ Ford,” said company co-owner Samantha Collins with John Collins. “He had an apple orchard where he grew heirloom varieties for cider and applejack. The favorite apple was the Arkansas Black.

“Every bottle contains about 25 pounds of fresh apples and nothing else. The apples are carefully crushed and fermented before being placed in the pot still where they are distilled before clarifying the cider to preserve the fresh apple flavor,” she said. “The distillate rests for two years in used French oak and additional year in new American bourbon barrels to add sweetness.”

The resulting 98-proof California Applejack entices with apple skin, vanilla, brown sugar and Christmas spice aromas. Rich apple skin, burnt sugar and vanilla aromas seduce the palate and linger in a warm, rich finish.

Arkansas Black Straight Applejack is delicious on the rocks, a specialty cocktail or in any libation that calls for brandy, rye or bourbon.

 

Portugal’s Aveleda S.A. winery knows how to make great wine, they have been doing it for more than 140 years.

The iconic wine house recently released an addition to their portfolio of Vinho Verde selections: Casal Garcia Sweet.

As the sunny summer memories of grilling outdoorsThey are high fun and forays into the backyard start to dim, there is time to add some sweetness to those memories with a new taste adventure. Casal Garcia Sweet is light and fresh and exploding with fruit surprises. (It’s also under $10 and low in alcohol.) Open the slightly chilled bottle and wait for an avalanche of candied and citrus aromas.

Because of the 9 percent alcohol content, it’s the perfect wine to drink at business lunches and neighborhood get-togethers.

Enjoy this with grilled shrimp kabobs and peach tarts.

Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Aveleda’s wildly popular Vinho Verde for the party too. Fans will attest to the dry and crisp mouthfeel that evokes freshness and minerality. Try this standard selection alongside tuna tarta

re and salty cheeses.

True Myth, a specialty appellation winery from California’s San Luis Obispo County, released two exceptional varietals with intriguing labels that mirror the exquisite words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Adopt the pace of nature: Her secret is patience.”

The 2014 chardonnay ($18) from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard, respects Mother Nature’s magic and omnipresent influence in the vineyard on the Central Coast.

Learn the secret in the bottles
Learn the secret in the bottles

“This is a classic-styled chardonnay showcasing pineapple, pear, white peach and

wet stone aromas,” said winemaker Christian Roguenant. “Flavors of beautiful tropic fruit with mineral undertones and creaminess are balanced with refreshing acidity, a hallmark of the Paragon Vineyard that keeps the wine lively and fresh. The selection is topped off with perfect compliment of vanilla bean and toasted oak.”

Pour this delicious chardonnay with cracked crab, drawn butter and slabs of garlic buttered sourdough.

The journey continues with the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) from Paso Robles.

Both varietals are inspired by the idea that “the one True Myth is Mother Nature.”

Deep red purple in the glass, the cabernet slept 18 months in French and American oak to achieve its muscular magic.

“For Paso Robles, this rich and smooth selection is loaded with elegant aromas of blackberry, blueberry, pepper and cassis,” winemaker Roguenant said. “A first sip explodes with dark red fruit flavors with hints of cedar spice, cocoa powder and caramelized oak. These enticing flavors create a long, lingering finish.”

Open this chewy and enjoy with grilled steak topped with blue cheese.

 

 

The next time you visit the Livermore Valley’s Wine Country on weekends; there is a must stop on the wine road.

At the Singing Winemaker, yes, that’s the name, enjoy sipping plus live entertainment at no extra charge.

“Out of 3,800 wineries in California, this is the only one with a winemaker that sings in the tasting room,” said troubadour and winemaker Steve Powell. “I have entertained professionallyThe Singing Winemaker at work all over the world but this venue is special.”

The winery- part of Tesla Vintners- pours a list of unique wines: flavored sparkling wines, white and red wines to port and chocolate.

“I have around 200 songs in my repertoire and sing mostly music from the 70s. The list includes, the Eagles, John Denver, Rolling Stones and more.” Powell said. “Most of the time the whole tasting room is singing along.

“I just want to bring joy to life and bring it home.”

The folks at Barbed Wire Wines don’t mind getting a little dirty to make great wine and two recent releases showcase that mission.

“For over 20 years, the team and I have been making wine in California’s North Coast, but just recently Barbed Wire has become a passion project,” said lead winemaker Seth Turbow. “These wines represent the best reflection of the North Coast AVA we all love most: Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lake and MThe wines are big, the price is smallendocino Counties. In the rugged and rural part of this area, we know the most interesting vines are usually behind the gnarliest barbed wire. We’re not afraid to follow that wire, jump the fence and get right up close to the grapes.”

The 2014 Red Wine Blend ($12) is big and robust as the North Coast. The red garnet hue in the glass bursts with inviting scents of ripe berries and warm spices. Juicy plum, crushed cherry and blackberry dance with hints of herbs and vanilla. Barbed Wire Red is delicious anytime but really shows off with paired with grilled salmon and pizza topped with spicy sausage and mushrooms.

The winemaking team sent scouts out on a mission to find the best grapes in Sonoma, Napa and Lake County and discovered an incredible block of cabernet vines in the Alexander Valley and blended it with a tough of merlot. The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) is dark ruby hued with intense black cherry and mocha aromas. Black cherry and blackberry flavors explode on the palate with a hint of bittersweet chocolate. Pour this exciting selection with smoked ribs and blue cheeseburgers.

 

Flora Springs Family Estate has created a cabernet sauvignon and a red blend that celebrate winemaking skills and define elegance.

Your time swirling and sipping these incredible selection is long past due.

The original “Trilogy” – a combination of Bordeaux varietals cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc – goes back 32 years ago when Flora Springs Estate set out to craft the best wine possible from wine lots selected from its vineyards.  Over the years their wine wizards have added other Bordeaux varietals to the original blend that displays huge structure and rich fruit.

Here are two to enjoy

Its 2013 Trilogy ($80) combines cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and petite verdot from  estate vineyards in Rutherford and Oakville appellations in a heady, muscular wine. (Warning: this “big boy” is not for newbies. It is ferocious and, albeit, subtle.) It is a bliss in a bottle.

Open this seductive wine about 20 minutes before serving to allow aromas of Bing cherries, sweet cassis and blackberry to start the show. Then swirl and sip dark licorice, mocha and dark chocolate flavors that explode on the palate and exit in a long, luxurious finish.

Pour this “big” wine with “big” foods such as prime rib, bold burgers and meat laden pastas.

Winemaker Paul Steinauer says this enticing, robust red wine can be enjoyed through 2025; but why wait?

Grapes for Flora Springs’ 2013 cabernet sauvignon ($40) were sourced from mid-valley vineyards in Rutherford and Oakdale. The fermented wine slept 18 months in small French and American barrels. Small portions of merlot, malbec and petit verdot added complexity and color to the completed wine. This muscular deep purple varietal opens with enticing blackberry and cassis aromas and set the stage on the palate for blackberry, currant, licorice and spicy flavors.

Enjoy this muscular wine with lamb, portabella mushrooms and a fall fruit pie.

 

Pizzorno Family Estates representatives came to San Francisco recently to spread the word about their legendary big wines from Uruguay.

The small country on the Atlantic coast boasts great wines and white beaches. It’s also home to one of the rarest grapes: Tannat. (In fact, it is the main producer of Tannat in the world.)

Pizzorno Family Estates and its Don Prospero label have several reds to get your attention and provide education about the country’s famed grape. Basque immigrants took the robust grape to Uruguay in the 19th century where the locals claim, “It has kept our blood red and our insides cleaned.”  Tannat grapes produce a wine with deep red color, wild berry flavor with tannic qualities.

Pizzorno wine associates Andrew Allen, left, Jemma Jorel Lester and Francisco Pizzorno introduce wines of Uruguay
Pizzorno wine associates Andrew Allen, left, Jemma Jorel Lester and Francisco Pizzorno introduce wines of Uruguay

Don Prospero Tannat-Malbec is a rich blend of 50 percent tannat and 50 percent malbec that showcases both varietals. Spicy aromas cascade from the glass with cassis, plum and chocolate flavors. The malbec contributes a fruity character and the tannat provides a firm tannic structure.

Pour this robust blend with roast beef with autumn vegetables and grilled steak.

Tannat shares the spotlight with a fruity and refreshing sauvignon blanc. It bursts with tropical fruit aromas with peach, kiwi and stone fruit flavors.

Serve this chilled with grilled or marinated white meat fishes.

Pizzorno wines range in price from $15 to $50.

Three Sonoma County wines announced their arrival recently with fall fanfare and a dollop of history.

Madrone Estate Winery is one of Sonoma Valley’s most historic estates, the longest operating facility in Glen Ellen. Grapes have been growing on this site for over 150 years. The first commercial wine business was established here in 1863.

Fast forward to today and that same sense of place is reflected in two varietals.

Sonoma County’s Mediterranean climate and plentiful sunshine drove the enviable style of the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($22). This opalescent hue shows scents of white peach, papaya and soft honeysuckle on the nose. On the palate, peach follows ripe melon and lemongrass. Pour this slightly chilled with salty cheese or chicken Marsala.

You can't just pick one

Bright red fruit and hints of white pepper highlight Madrone Estate winery’s 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel ($35). Aromas of sweet, red berry fruit, white pepper, anise and brown sugar entice the senses. Cinnamon, allspice and cherry cordial linger on the palate. Enjoy this dynamic selection with barbecued foods like chili burgers and fried chicken.

Lake Sonoma Winery’s 2014 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($30) is 40 percent oak barrel fermented with partial stainless steel fermentation. This varietal highlights the Valley’s cool climate with candied ginger lemon rind, orange blossom and lightly seasoned oak aromas. Rich, lemon cream embraces the palate with lingering toastiness and a satisfying finish. Pair this opulent wine with strong cheeses and any poultry.

 

 

If you are ever on the TV show, “Jeopardy” and the questions is: “The most prominent peak in the Napa County.”

Push your buzzer and yell, “What is Atlas Peak!”

Yes, that is correct. Located high above Napa Valley, the Atlas Peak Appellation is home to Napa Valley’s most elevated, rugged and stunning landscape. Not for the cautious or faint of heart, this challenging region of Northern California wine country has been producing fine wines since 1870.

Known as a mountain appellation, the region ranges in elevation from 780 to 2,663 feet.

There are 15 member wineries tucked into the rocky landscape. Hidden within Foss Valley or perched in and around Atlas Peak itself and they all love to entertain visitors.

The views are stunning too
The views are stunning too

They include 4088 Winery, Acumen, Alpha Omega, Antica Napa Valley, Dos Lagos Vineyards, HALL Wines, Hill Family Estate, Krupp Brothers, Lagniappe Peak Vineyards, Lobo Wines, Ripe Peak Winery, Rivera Vineyards, Stonum Vineyards, Trinchero Napa Valley and VinRoc Wine Caves.

Once known primarily for zinfandel, the Altas Peak appellation produces top varietal used to create Bordeaux style wines: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, Malbec and merlot. These reds showcase concentrated berry and cherry fruit with firm, supple tannins. The chardonnay is crisp, aromatic with stone fruit and distinctive pear-mineral flavors and bright acidity.