Reflecting on Those Special Times: Some Things Never Change

When I was a kid, I loved hiking up Hood Mountain. I tried to make it at least once a week, weather permitting. It is just breathtaking when you’re on top of the mountain – you feel like you’re miles from everyone yet you can see the world, especially from my favorite place on the mountain.  For centuries it’s been know by locals as Gunsight, a big out cropping of rock sitting 2700 feet above the valley floor. It will literally take your breath away, just standing on the edge looking down.

On a clear day, you can see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there just the other morning. I still love going up there every chance I get, which is probably about once a month. It’s best at daybreak, when no one else is ever around. It’s great thinking time.

It takes me about 50 minutes from the parking lot to the top, which I always thought was pretty fast, until my cousin Ken Lambert told me he makes it in 36 minutes!  Being twenty years younger to the day seems to help.

Gunsight-photoFBA while back, our Ledson team wanted to create a really special blend of wine. It was to be the employee wine, an everyday food-friendly wine. One day, sitting around sipping a glass after work, we were taking in the beautiful mountains around The Castle.  And there it was, right before our eyes, Gunsight Rock at the top of majestic Hood Mountain. It’s not only my favorite spot but a favorite spot for many of us at The Castle. The name of the wine came to us naturally – Gunsight.

If you get the chance to visit Gunsight yourself, make sure you stop by The Castle and pick up a bottle of the most recent vintage and a sandwich to take with you. Don’t worry about how long it takes to get up there, just enjoy the walk. (My cousin Ken runs 50-mile races through the mountains, so don’t use his time to judge how long it should take!).

I never reveal what’s in the blend; I like to say, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” I guess I got that phrase from Dad. He and I used to spend hours in the cellar when I was a kid. Dad loved to incorporate as many varieties as he could to make the perfect everyday “go to” blend. Boy, did we make some great wines. When I was growing up on the ranch, and anyone happened to stop by, we poured these blends and Mom would put out a bountiful spread of home-cooked food.

Gunsight wine reminds me of those days of sharing with friends and family. That’s just the kind of wine it is. Every time I enjoy a glass of Gunsight, it takes my mind back over years of my life. I cannot tell you how many times I have been up there or actually how many times I figured out an approach to something that seemed so hard when I was caught in the middle of the everyday hustle and bustle of life. It is nice just sitting there alone, dreaming of all the opportunities life can bring us. It seems like an opportunity can be staring you right in the face and because we are all so busy we may never see it; I guess that could be the difference between being successful and not.

We just released the 2009 vintage. It’s a seductive blend that deserves serious attention. Aromas of dark berry, violet, spice and gentle brown sugar are friendly and charming. A cavalcade of juicy black fruit gives this plush wine a resounding vitality. The finish has smoky blackberry with just the slightest hint of toasted nuts.

Just like there’s comfort food, this is a comfort wine. People seem to be drawn to it. Especially if you include the view.

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2005 Orlando Cepeda Zinfandel “Baby Bull”: A Bottle Etched with Admiration

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and have been a BIG Giants fan. I had the good fortune of producing a wine with Orlando Cepeda “Baby Bull” to raise funds for the Ledson Harmony Foundation for Children. All funds from the sale of every bottle of this wine goes directly to the foundation. With my ongoing faith that the Giants would soon return to a World Series, I held back some cases of this wine for such an occasion!

I gave away my series dugout seats to one of my valued employees for the first game of the series. As much as I would have liked to go to the game myself, I was finishing up harvest, have a new baby, and my wife was tempting me to stay home with a fabulous meal of butternut squash soup, mushroom, veal & spinach raviolis, and tri-tip as a finale.

And to top it off, I opened a very special bottle of 2005 Orlando Cepeda Zinfandel “Baby Bull.” As I was sipping away, the Giants fittingly won the game, 8-3 over the Detroit Tigers.

Throughout the evening, I was thinking a lot about our American baseball hero, Orlando Cepeda, and how he stepped up to the plate to collaborate with the Ledson Harmony Foundation. We produced this wine to support the Foundation, which strives to make a difference in the future of America, our children.

It was a great day when Orlando came to Ledson Winery for the release of this Zinfandel, signing baseballs and commemorative bottles of wine. Later that evening, we honored him with an intimate dinner among friends and family. Not only is Orlando a Hall of Fame recipient, he is a dedicated humanitarian who has donated hundreds of hours of his personal time to various charitable causes.

The “Baby Bull” wine is a soft yet mature delicate Zin. It reminds me of Orlando’s hands- reputed to be some of the softest ever in baseball. More than that, it’s a keepsake bottle for every Giants fan to proudly display. And these etched bottles will make great Christmas presents to those Giants fans out there!

In addition to the hours of pleasure “Baby Bull” #30 gave me watching him on the baseball field over the years, I’m grateful beyond words to Orlando for giving his time and lending his name to this wine that is helping to change the lives of so many children. It’s all about the kids.

And Go Giants!

‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel

I love old vines. The older, the better. When I was growing up and working with my dad, he always made me aware of the age of particular vineyards. I think he was especially proud of those that had been in the ground for 50 years or more.

I have grown to believe that old vines carry memories of all the fruit they’ve born over the years, right in the DNA. When I walk through the vineyards, I can almost hear the whispers of vintages gone by. The vines have developed powerful personalities that translate into unique wines with complexity, depth, heart and soul.

I just tasted two such wines from Russian River Valley (RRV) that are beautifully woven, powerful and intense.

The 2009 RRV ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel ‘Amy’s Vineyard’ is special to me on many levels. The vineyard is where Amy and I shared our very first kiss. I wrote a blog about that incredible experience, if you missed it.

It’s a little vineyard; the vines were planted by a dear friend of mine, Ernie Bacigalupi, and his father, when Ernie was just a teenager. The vines are close to seventy years old.

This is a classic RRV Zin, brilliant in its complexity and depth. On the nose, discover splendid black raspberries, a hint of cocoa and pie flavors. You could almost stop there and be satisfied, but by all means, don’t! The palate offers up mom’s best berry pie along with an intriguing touch of smoke. The finish transcends into an explosion of overly ripe cherries. Amy and I like to pair it with tri-tip or a nice grilled filet. For us, opening this bottle is a romantic adventure every single time.

The 2009 RRV ‘Century Vine’ Zinfandel Reserve comes from a vineyard right next door to ‘Amy’s Vineyard.’ It was planted by a friend of my father’s, Henry Montafi. Dad said the vines were planted around the turn of the century!

This dazzling Zin has great focus and presence. Aromas of rich lush blackberries and pie crust draw you into the powerful experience. With an incredible mouth feel and textural elegance, you may conjure up images of blackberry cobbler on a summer afternoon. A long, lingering finish of more fruit and pie crust – this is what Zinfandel is all about. It’s a treat for all the senses.

2008 Sonoma County Cepage: A Beautiful Blend from the Vine

When I heard that the 2012 World Wine Championships awarded our 2008 Cepage a Gold Medal and 91 Points, I just had to break a bottle out of my cellar. Not that I really needed a reason! The judges called it “A bold and zesty table wine,” and after an amazing dinner with my wife and Cepage, I totally agree. I’m so happy with this wine.

Last week Amy and I savored the Cepage with duck confit and a side of slow braised red cabbage with crisp bacon and apples. The nutty flavor of the duck, along with the ridiculously delicious cabbage, enhanced the luscious black fruit and chocolate in the wine. One of the most memorable pairings I’ve had in a long time!  Having said that, this wine will complement a variety of sumptuous dishes – it’s perfect to experiment with.

This beautiful blend is from some of our best vineyards in Sonoma County and is made up of the five Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot.

And what a perfect wine for fall! This one is an elegant and dynamic beauty, beginning with blueberry, blackberry and a hint of vanilla on the nose. The palate is complex and rich, with incredible flavors of cassis, dried blackberry, bittersweet chocolate and a touch of soft leather. The finish is mouth-filling and lingers on and on, so you can savor the lovely layers of black fruit and chocolate until you’re ready to embark on that next sip.

If you come up with another mouthwatering pairing for this wine, please share! We’re always looking for new adventures in the Ledson kitchen!

The Loss of Another Great Man and Dear Friend

I have known Stanley Denner pretty much all my life. My father went to high school with Stanley and his brother Russ back in the 30s. They stayed close friends, and because of their relationship, I was around Stanley a lot. Especially in the summers – so I have a lot of great memories.

When I was a young boy, I used to run the hay baler on the Denner Ranch. I had a very strong work ethic instilled in me, to the point where it was hard for me to stop work at the end of the day or even take 30 minutes for lunch.

Over the years on the Denner Ranch, when my Dad and I stopped for lunch, we would sit under the big oak tree close to the creek. It had tremendous shade and a cool breeze came off the water. Dad and I used to swim in that creek almost every day to cool off during the summer. Dad knew how to make a day’s worth of work fun.

Those were some great times in my life, sitting under the oak tree with my father and looking back over a morning’s worth of hay baling. My dad was always so positive and inspiring around the work I did. I remember practically inhaling my lunch so I could get back to the baler. Dad always believed in taking at least a half hour nap after lunch; he did so every day of his life.

From early on, Stanley Denner had a great impact on my work ethic. Even before I started running the tractor, I was getting comfortable with it!

I had started running the baler when I was about five years old, moving it from one shock of hay to the next shock of hay, so Dad wouldn’t have to keep getting on and off the tractor. Once I got to be about 9 years old, I couldn’t wait for Dad to finish his post-lunch nap, so I’d jump back on the baler.

Because I was so young, Stanley Denner worried about me running the baler when my dad was asleep. He would drive by right after his own lunch and check to make sure I was ok. And that everything was going according to Hoyle.

(By the way, that phrase, “according to Hoyle,” is one that has fallen by the wayside, sadly. It basically means “playing by the rules” or “things are going as they should.”)

As much as I hated to stop work, I looked forward to Stanley’s daily visit. He was also a very inspiring man and always gave me great praise, not only for the amount of work I’d gotten done, but for the quality of it as well.

I was touched that he worried about me. And I think he may have appreciated my work ethic.

One time I was baling on Stanley’s ranch and the tractor broke down. Dad wasn’t around, and as it always seemed to happen, Stanley showed up at just the right time. We worked on the tractor for a while and we couldn’t get it up and running. Stanley told me to sit tight; he’d go get one of his tractors.

He came back with this big old green John Deere tractor, bigger than anything I’d ever operated. I remember it seemed so tall to me, as I was still a young boy at the time, and it sounded so different from my old familiar tractor. I was pretty nervous, but once I made a few passes around the field I was ok. Stanley stayed and watched until he saw I was going to be fine.

As the years went by and I got older, maybe 12, my father would leave me to run the hay baler all by myself, while he ran the mower or rake on another ranch. But I was never worried about it, because I knew I could always count on Stanley if I needed anything.

It was about that time that I started noticing the girls. I can still see Stanley’s daughter Kathy riding her horse across the beautiful fields all around my hay bales. I guess you could say I had a crush on Kathy. Every time Stanley came by I would ask him where Kathy was, and he’d get a big grin on his face. One time he said, “Do you want me to ask her to stop by?” I remember I was so embarrassed, my face must have turned the color of a tomato, and I said, “No, that’s ok.”

Over the years, Stanley and I remained close; that story would come up from time to time and we always had a good laugh. In fact, I stopped by to see him a week or so before he passed, and I asked him how Kathy was doing. That got a big smile out of him and we both chuckled.

Stanley was a tall, handsome and powerful man. Very firm, but kind. He had huge hands and a grip you couldn’t believe. Not too many men had the work ethic of Stanley Denner. To watch him load the truck of hay was pretty impressive.

When my wife Amy and I were married just three years ago, Stanley and Alma attended our wedding.  My wife and I commented on how young and healthy Stanley looked at that time.  My wife said, “He’s a very handsome man for his age; I hope you hold up that well.”  I said, “I hope so, too.”

When I saw Stanley a few weeks ago, he was sitting in his chair and looked like he would have a hard time even getting up, so I figured he would be very weak. But when he shook my hand with that familiar smile, I was quite surprised that he still had that powerful grip.

Stanley and his family worked hard for more than a hundred years farming their ranch through some very hard times, and because of Stanley and his brother Russ’ work ethic, they have been able to keep their ranch while so many families couldn’t. The Denners originally had a 100-head dairy cattle business, along with hay and vegetables. Today they also grow wine grapes and produce about 350 tons of Chardonnay!

It is men like Stanley Denner that made this country the great country it was. Losing Stanley Denner, a man as honest as the day is long, with an integrity no one would question, a man who stood tall and proud and respected his neighbors, who had the common sense to figure anything out, is a huge loss. And it’s a loss not only to his family, but to everyone he touched.

Over the last 10 years or more I have been honored to host the Santa Rosa High School class reunion at our winery for the classes 1930 thru 1938.

Stanley, I believe, attended them all except this last one. I always hate to look out over the crowd and see that one of my friends is not there, and that was the case this year when I looked for Stanley.  During those reunions I got to share a lot of great moments with Stanley and his classmates. I loved nothing more than sitting there chatting it up with Stanley, reminiscing back on all those great times growing up in Sonoma County and all the things I did as a kid on the Denner Ranch. I was able to relive a lot of great memories talking to Stanley over the years, and I wouldn’t trade those chats for all the tea in China.

I am honored to be able to say that Stanley Denner was a friend of mine and I feel very strongly that I will meet up with him again someday.

On the Road Again: The Southern Experience

I always love hearing people’s life stories and of course I enjoy sharing mine as well.

A few weekends ago I was in Louisville, Kentucky doing private tastings and dinners on both Friday and Saturday nights. The events were hosted by long time wine club members and dear friends Mike and Debbie Edlin in their incredible, truly exquisite Southern mansion on a beautifully designed Arnold Palmer golf course on Arnold Palmer Drive. It doesn’t get any better.

Assistant to the Winemaker, Sam Cant

Mike and Debbie invited some of their closest friends and business associates to share these special evenings with me and my assistant, Sam Cant. We started each event with a two hour private tasting of some of our most sought-after wines, many of which are so limited in production that they’re usually sold out prior to bottling. Afterwards, Debbie cooked the most unbelievable dinners that paired absolutely beautifully with our wines. I felt like I was in a five-star Southern restaurant! She’s an amazing chef and they are truly a generous couple.

In fact, I don’t think anyone has experienced true hospitality until they’ve had dinner cooked by a ‘Southern Belle’ like Debbie and served in a Southern mansion like the Edlin’s. Nobody understands hospitality like the South!

In life, you never know who’s sitting next to you. I was quite surprised to discover that I was sitting between Al Gore’s cousin and the inventor of the gift card. But you wouldn’t have noticed anything different about them; they were just ‘one of us’. Isn’t that what truly makes people special?

2009 Sonoma Valley Barbera

Last week we tasted the 2009 Sonoma Valley Barbera – that was one of my mother’s favorite varietals. It’s amazing!  The key to a beautiful Barbera is to bring out the richness in the fruit to balance the acidity. And that same acidity is what gives the wine such nice structure and makes it so easy and fun to match up with all kinds of food, like pizza, pasta, grilled poultry and meats.

The Sonoma Valley Barbera vineyard is special to me. It’s a very small block, only three acres. The wood that we grafted for these vines is from an old, old vineyard, about 100 years old! Even though it’s not considered “Old Vine” because it’s planted on new rootstock, it has the character and complex mouthfeel of an “Old Vine” Barbera.

This wine is a beauty. Bold dark fruit with lovely aromatic undertones of vanilla and rose petals make for a gorgeous nose. On first sip, you notice the silky mouthfeel and then the bold black cherry, chocolate, cola undercurrents and mild black licorice.  On the finish, lingering black plum so delicious it’s almost like biting into a piece of fruit. This wine is so layered with flavor, and the acidity is so perfectly balanced by the rich fruit, it will pair with almost any Italian dish.  My favorite is classic Italian lasagna. There’s nothing better for lunch than a good old plate of Mom’s lasagna and a glass of our Sonoma Valley Barbera.