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Vintners who win your heart

These vintners and winemakers think, dream and believe in the power and romance of wine—and the creative side of life, two things that go together like love and marriage.

 

Amelia Ceja, Ceja Vineyards
Ceja bubbles over with the love of wine and sharing it with friends and family. Her story of the creation of the winery is iconic: journey to America from Mexico as a young girl, meeting her future husband picking grapes at Robert Mondavi’s Tokalon Vineyard, working hard, and starting the winery with her husband’s family. The first Mexican American woman president of a winery, Ceja has broken many glass ceilings and livened up many parties in her life.

 

Known for their Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, she conceived of a wine’s name and presented it to her winemaker brother-in-law Armando Ceja: Dulce Beso (Sweet Kiss). In time, after noble rot hit the cool, Carneros vineyard, Ceja crafted the sauvignon blanc–semillon blend, Dulce Beso Late Harvest White Wine 2009.

 

On Valentine's Day, Amelia and her husband Pedro Ceja will dine at a restaurant which will be a surprise. Her plan: “We'll bring a bottle of our 2011 Pinot Noir from our Carneros vineyard (one of Pedro's favorite) and a bottle of Dulce Beso. Our Pinot Noir is a work horse—it will pair well with everything, and the late harvest white will be the perfect ending with artisan cheeses and seductive conversation.”

 

David Duncan, Silver Oak Cellars and Twomey Cellars
I first met Duncan at a wine dinner at a local Ruth’s Chris House. Dressed in a suit with a quiet, well-mannered demeanor, I thought, well, here’s the buttoned up president and CEO of one of Napa’s early cult wineries. I knew he was innovating with Twomey Cellars and proud of the Twomey Pinot Noir and new Twomey tasting room in Healdsburg. But sitting next to him during dinner, he was more interested in hearing about my recent travels to Italy than giving me the polished talking points on his wines. My initial impression melted by the second course of seared sea scallops with Twomey Pinot Noir.

 

By the time we sipped Silver Oak Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon with osso bucco ravioli, I learned about his participation with the Silverado Pickups. No, not the Chevy sort but his wine industry buddies who live and work around the Silverado Trail in Napa and all play music. They’ve played in Nashville, warmed up for Leon Russell and for Tim McGraw where he met Faith Hill. The Pickups have gained acclaim at BottleRock music festival in Napa with their original song, “Wine Country Cowboy.”

 

As for what he is drinking this Valentine’s Day, here’s his plan. “My wife and I are celebrating with a bottle of 2002 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet.  Not only is it drinking well now, but this was also my first vintage as a member of 'The Whole Bunch,’ aka our winery team, as CEO."

 

Robert Sinskey Robert Sinskey Vineyards
I held another misconception about a Napa Valley vintner. I’ve met Robert Sinskey a few times and recently interviewed him for an article on cabernet franc. The vintner replied in a straightforward, yet in a philosophical way about matching terroir with the grape that ripens too quickly in most of Napa. He seemed to hold a heartfelt, yet scholarly approach to thinking about wine.

Little did I know that this week I would receive a press release from his winery about a new wine. And what name does this release have, timed for Valentine’s Day and for the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Why, Orgia, of course.

 

The press release writer brought it on with little foreplay: “Orgia is a sensual wine…It excites the palate with notes of orange zest, pear, honey, almonds, dried herb and sea salt with just a hint of a sherry-like quality for complexity. It starts bright then envelopes the tongue with a velvet mid-palate and finishes with a firm back bone of tannin…”

 

Mmmm….velvet mid-palate. My personal read on Orgia is ideal timing as an after-dinner drink après movie-going.
 

Mari Wells Coyle The Winemaker’s Table
But for those staying home for a Valentine’s Day celebratory dinner, I guessed that Mari Wells Coyle, owner of Wells Wines by Mari, winemaking consultant and former head of winemaking at David Girard in El Dorado Hills, could serve up some seductive ideas. I read her correctly.

 

At her recently launched Winemaker’s Table she introduces wine lovers to the added attraction of flavoring food to match the wine. Knowing that her husband loves dark chocolate and red wine, she dreamed up a “sexy” dessert for him to pair with her Wells Wines Rhone blend. She’ll stir up a warm dark chocolate fondue and add a dash of vanilla-lemon flavored Tuaca liqueur.  The bright citrus notes of the Tuaca and dark earthy tones of the fondue, said Coyle, will balance with the Grenache-led blend. “I’ll bring strawberries and nuts to dip coupled with a cheese plate to top off the romantic night. After all, I’m more savory than sweet,” she added with a smile.

 

Suzanne Groth, Groth Vineyards
What happens when Suzanne Groth, owner of Groth Vineyards and daughter of the founders marries Chef Kimball Jones? The food and wine flows. After thirty two vintages of producing Oakville cabernet sauvignon, the Groth extended family meals of a “slab (of meat) and a cab” are renowned.

 

The family also produces well regarded sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. But on Valentine’s Day, Suzanne Groth reaches for the 2006 cabernet sauvignon. “Kimball and I would definitely stay home. Valentine’s night is so busy for our customers. I’m thinking duck. It's gamey and can be served as confit over lentils to go with the cab. Next course might be roasted duck in a winter citrus sauce to pair with our favorite pinot noir under the Richard Grant the label, grown next door grown by Dick Peterson.”

 

But Jones has other ideas. He informed me he may cook veal chops for the main course with chanterelles, thyme, cipollini onions and 2005 Groth Reserve cabernet sauvignon. Ah, the secret to good pairings is always compromise and sensory seduction. Especially on Valentine’s eve.

 

Chad Melville,  Melville Vineyards and Winery
Speaking of dinner, the way to a wine writer’s heart is through food with a well-crafted Santa Rita Hills pinot noir. Chad Melville knows how to grow grapes and knows every step his expert winemaker Greg Brewer takes in the cellar to make their wine. He personally leads periodic morning vineyard tours to share his knowledge and love of winemaking. And he is a marvelous cook.

 

For dinner he prepared roasted, free range chicken with lemon, sage, salt and pepper which paired beautifully with what he calls his “lemon blossom, oceanic” Melville Estate Chardonnay. “Oceanic” refers to the terroir of alluvial sea deposits and closeness to the Atlantic Ocean. The short ribs, braised with some bacon to add a salty note, bay leaf, and wine for acid, then a little bit of chocolate to match with the syrah. The pairings worked.

 

During dinner Melville was more interested to talk about what we were working and the world at large on than give the party line on his wine. This sensitivity and respect shown in his treatment of guests and his close relationship to Brewer also manifests in the vineyard. Riding around the vineyards in his pickup truck, he knows the soil variations in each plot. “I listen to what each block is trying to say about optimum crop load and soil amendments. Every block has its own language. Melville Sandy’s Estate Pinot Noir has a floral bouquet and high acid—definitely a feminine side to this wine,” said Melville.

 

I like that. A vintner who is not afraid to show his feminine wine.

 

Dieter Cronje,  Presqu’ile Winery
And how about a Santa Barbara neighbor up Highway 101 in Santa Maria who also speaks of the vineyard when he shares his wine. Dieter Cronje is South African and Californian by choice. Why did he relocate to make wine here in 2006? “The West Coast is nearly equal to the Pinot Noir we made in South Africa. I liked the Murphy family who own Presqu’ile. And here there’s eating and drinking, surfing and golfing.”

 

Clearly Cronje is thriving in Santa Maria. His Pinot Noir is elegant and balanced, and his sauvignon blanc excels with a luscious mid-palate. But it’s the Presqu’ile Pinot Noir Rosé, fermented with native yeast and aged for five months in stainless steel, that won my heart.

Each of these winemakers bursts with creativity, whether it’s on stage or a skateboard, in the kitchen or the cellar. What do they have in common? Meticulously made wine, big hearts and a set of winning smiles, enough to light up 50 cases of wine. Here’s a prime example from Cronje during our cellar tour:

 

                                                                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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