Count Your Blessings and Live Every Day to its Fullest

Over the holidays, we think back on the great times, the not-so-great times, and make resolutions for the next year. But sometimes we forget to focus on today.

HappyHolidaysDebby and John Silliman, dear friends of Amy’s and mine and club members for years, were at The Castle in August for a private tasting, and as always, we were delighted to see them. They really appreciate good wine and everything that goes with it. After leaving Sonoma, they went to stay in a Bay Area hotel.  While lying by the pool, as it was such a hot day, John got up from his lounge chair, and suddenly without warning, fell backward onto the concrete, hit his head, and went into a coma. He was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in San Jose, where he stayed for several weeks with swelling on the brain. Nobody was sure what the outcome of this trauma to John’s head would result in and everyone wondered if he would come out of it and still be the ‘old John’ we all know and love?

The reason I’m sharing this story with you is that we recently found out that that after six long months of doctors, hospitals and wondering what his life would be like going forward, John is finally okay. In fact, he is 100% okay. Naturally, he’s been told to take it easy for a while. In fact, John and Debby just came out for a visit last week. And they’re back to enjoying wine after a six-month hiatus!  During their visit we were able to get together and enjoy a bottle of 2008 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel Reserve in celebration of John’s recovery. And life!  John makes his own maple syrup and sends it to us every year – it’s always a highlight for us, and boy is it delicious. And we know it comes with love. John probably won’t be sending any Maple syrup this year, but I’m sure next year he will be right back on it.

Just cherish every moment, every day that you have, because you never know when something’s going to happen.  You never know the outcome – sometimes we are fortunate and other times we are not. You just never know.

We are so thrilled for John’s recovery and wish John and Debby the greatest days and years going forward. And we wish you the same.

Happy Holidays, friends.  Savor every day.


‘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.

2009 Sonoma Valley ‘Ancient Vine’ Zin Rated “Impeccable” by Ledson Winemakers and Sommeliers

As many of you know, the 132-year-old ‘Ancient Vine’ Zinfandel estate vineyard in Sonoma is one of my favorite vineyards and produces one of my favorite wines. It’s interesting how I know the age of the vineyards; one my father’s closest friends Joe Degrassio’s sister married into the family that planted the six-acre vineyard in 1880. Although I don’t know specifics about the clone, it’s quite likely that it came from Italy in a suitcase, as so many clones did back then. If only these vines could talk! Well, I suppose they do tell their stories – in your glass.

This wine is for the serious Zinfandel enthusiast – certainly not for the timid! Everything a Zin should be and more. On the nose, a delightful spectrum of strawberry, blackberry, bittersweet chocolate, fig and hints of white pepper. The lush palate is complex and lovely, with intense chocolate, cocoa, blackberry and blueberry spice. The finish is seemingly endless, with an ocean of black fruit slowly receding from a wave of blackberry, chocolate and fig. Ruby majesty!

If you happen to have a bottle of this wine around, beef spareribs or a nice rib eye steak are incredible pairing ideas. My mouth is watering just thinking about the possibilities! It’s a gem of a Zin.

The Marriage of Veola’s Two Favorite Varietals

Last Friday, our talented panel of palates tasted one of my grandmother’s favorite wines, Veola. We all agreed that the Zina Hyde Cunningham 2008 Estate ‘Old Vine’ Veola is without doubt an impeccable wine. It warms my heart!

Veola is a bold, explosive blend of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The wine is incredibly dark in color, almost black. On the nose, intriguing aromas of dark jammy overly ripe crushed blackberries are tantalizing. In the mouth, rich and stunning notes of chocolate evolve into dreamy soft cocoa, in perfect harmony with an abundance of luscious blackberry fruit, followed by a slight touch of clove and a bit of spice. All the while the palate is treated to an amazing velvety texture.

The fruit for Veola comes from our ranch in Redwood Valley. You may have read my recent blog, “Success: The Win/Win Approach,” where I wrote about the old man who put all his passion into making those very vineyards the best in the valley, achieved his dream, and then lost it all as he grew older. But after a lot of work, a dedicated team, and a generous amount of love and care, I’m seeing the vineyards thrive and they’re producing some really exceptional fruit! Every time I drink a wine from these vineyards, it’s like I’m tasting history.

As a lot of you know, Veola is named after my grandmother Edna Cunningham’s sister. Veola’s two favorite wines were Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. You can imagine how she would love the two together! And this wine highlights the best characteristics of both varietals – robust complexity from the Petite Sirah and spicy, jammy fruit from the Zin. I’d say this wine is a fitting tribute to our Veola!

The Cunningham Winery was started back in the mid1800s by my late great-great grandfather Zina Hyde Cunningham. Sadly, it was closed during prohibition by my great grandfather William Cunningham.

One of my closest friends and dear cousin, William (Bill) Cunningham, reopened the Cunningham Winery in 2004, naming it Zina Hyde Cunningham. Bill and I’ve always had an extreme passion for family and for carrying on the family tradition. I lost my dearest friend in 2008 to cancer, but our friendship and all the wonderful experiences we shared are still alive, as if he were here today.

Bill was just a few years older than I am, and an extremely bright individual. He was an assistant to the Governor of California for the Board of Education for eight years. But wine was in Bill’s blood, and he saw his dream of reviving the family winery come to fruition.

Bill and I enjoyed many bottles of Veola together, and every time I take a sip of it, I can picture the smile on Bill’s face, and the old stories start to roll through my mind.

The Story of ‘Amy’s Vineyard’

Well, last Friday was another fantastic day for our tasting panel as we tasted the 2009 Russian River Valley ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel ‘Amy’s Vineyard’. This is a very special wine, not just for my wife Amy and me, but for our entire staff and all of our long time club members! It is definitely one of our most sought after wines. Wow, what a beautiful intense ruby color.  Aromas of fresh squeezed blackberries lured us in and we sipped. As the wine settled across our palates, the blackberry became more pronounced, leading to overtones of black plums and juicy cherries, coupled with a slight toastiness and a bit of white pepper and clove, giving this wonderful Zin the right amount of spice that really makes a great Zinfandel.  It reminds me of every morning at 4:00 a.m. when I have my first meal – fresh blackberries and blueberries crushed over plain yogurt, topped with pieces of honey crisp apple and glazed pecans. Yum, I can’t go without it.

And every time I taste Amy’s Zin, I’m reminded of how that particular vineyard came to be ‘Amy’s Vineyard.’ It’s a story that I’ve wanted to share with all of you from a very important time in my life. 

Back in 2001, Amy was working for me, managing all of our commercial space in my development company.  One Friday I rode my Harley to drop off the payroll where Amy worked.  As I was walking away from her office, I heard her say in a soft “not sure if she if she really wanted to ask” voice, “That’s your Harley out there, right?”  I turned around and said, “Yep.”  She said, “I was wondering if you were ever going to take me for a ride.”  Somewhat shocked, I said, “Sure, when?’  She laughed, “Right now. But I have to work, so how about tomorrow? It’s Saturday.”  I said, “Great, I’ll meet you here at ten.” She smiled that contagious smile of hers.

All night I pondered whether or not this was a good idea. Dad always said, “Don’t date anyone who works for you.”  I said to myself, it’s not like this is a date, but I was wondering, does she think it is?

At 10am sharp I pulled into the parking lot and she was already waiting.  My heart started to beat faster, and I thought, what I am getting myself into?

She climbed on the back and off we went. We were not a block away and I felt she was hanging on pretty tight so I asked her if it was her first time on a bike and she said no.  I said, “Well you’re hanging on pretty tight there, girl.”  She said, “You’re not ok with it?”  I said, “Oh, I’m just fine.”

Amy had told me that her favorite wine was Zinfandel, so we headed out to the Russian River to taste at a few of my friends’ wineries where I knew we’d find some great Zins.  As we were leaving Martinelli’s Winery, Amy asked, “Don’t you have Zin vineyards around here somewhere?”  I told her I did, and asked if she wanted to go see one.  She said she’d love to, so I headed over to an old vineyard that used to belong to a dear friend of my fathers, Ernie Bacigalupi.  Ernie had planted this vineyard some sixty years ago and had sold it to Tom Fenney, and I’d been leasing it from him for some time.  I was always excited about this one block that sat on top of the knoll overlooking the beautiful Russian River Valley.

We rode the Harley through the ranch to the top of the knoll and parked; as we got off I started to point to different blocks and talked about how, when I was a kid, my Dad and I would stop by to see Ernie.  I realized I was talking a mile a minute, nerves I guess, but not quite sure why. Anyway, I just kept telling story after story. 

Amy said it was too bad I didn’t think to bring some wine. “I could really enjoy a nice glass of Zin right now to go with this beautiful sunset.”

 “You’re in luck,” I smiled. “I just happen to have one in the saddle bags.” I explained that while it wasn’t from this particular block, it was from this ranch.  As we sipped the wine and watched the sun slowly disappear into the night, I talked about how much I loved this vineyard and all the great times I had experienced here as a kid with my father. I could tell she was really listening, looking intently into my eyes.

I was thinking, ‘what a nice lady’ and figured she was thinking the same thing, ‘what a nice guy’.  Right then she said, “Steve, you know something?” I thought, here it comes, something really nice about me.

 “You know,” she smiled. “I really enjoy. . .” (my heart started to race) “. . . this wine.  It’s incredible! I just love the flavors, like a jammy blackberry pie.” 

“I get that, too,” I said, laughing. I realized maybe I’d had enough wine and we’d better get going.

As you can imagine, we hold a very special place in our hearts for this little vineyard on the top of the knoll, this little slice of God’s Country. I have extreme passion not only for my wife, but for the wine we’ve produced from Amy’s vineyard over the years.  Back in 2004, we started keeping this one block as a separate lot, and Amy and I have made some incredible Zins from it ever since.

I like to say that Zinfandel is not a sedan or a plow horse – it’s a sports car and a racehorse:  Flashy, exciting, fun. When it comes to this wine, however, Zinfandel is romance.