Chile's Viña Ventisquero Excels in Camenere

Sometimes extreme growing conditions produce extreme (and extremely good!) wines. The winemaker at Viña Ventisquero, Felipe Tosso, holds this philosophy about why his wines are so exceptional, and I think he is onto something there.

Known for their Carmenere, this winery treated our group of writers-photographers-WineExperts sponsored by WineBow to an unparalleled experience at their property in the Apalta area, in Chile’s Colchagua Valley 160 km southwest of Santiago, with vineyard elevations of 650-1600 feet.

The truck to the top

Our experience began with our boarding something like an old army truck, holding on TIGHT, and chugging up the steep slopes to the top of the property. Not only were the views fantastic, but we tasted grapes from Block 23 while sipping their Carmenere on the mountaintop.

How do you decide when to harvest grapes over a terrain as varied as this? It rises from 200 m to 475 meters above sea level. So many microclimates, so many different blocks at different elevations and facings, so much to lose if you chose to harvest too early or two late. Winemaker Felipe Tosso told us his technique: first, he skips breakfast (well, maybe some coffee…). Then he horserides, motorbikes, or 4-wheel drives up to the block that seems to be getting ready. He takes 10 grapes from nearby clusters, sucks the juice, mouth-macerates the skins, and decides. Go or no go. Whatta guy!

Tosso’s fervor is fueled by his belief in the country’s wines: “Chile is producing exceptional wines and covers a scope of grape varieties that may surprise the world: great aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, round and fruity Syrah, unique Carménère and some New World competitive Pinot Noir,” he says.

Tosso and his crew bumped us back to their wonderful new tasting room where we finally seated our shaken and dusty selves and were treated to an interesting tasting. Ventisquero was founded in 1998 and now owns vineyards located in some of Chile’s best wine regions -- in the valleys of Colchagua, Casablanca Coastal Maipo, and Leyda.

“La Roblería”, the property in Apalta, Colchagua, is 170 acres of vineyards planted in 1999.  Apalta is the source for the Syrah and Carménère grapes used in Viña Ventisquero’s icon wines,  Pangea and Vertice.

I loved the Carmenere and Carmenere blends. And of the many other wines we tasted, I most enjoyed the “Root 1” labeled wines, all from the Colchagua Valley, proclaiming their origin from “Original Ungrafted” vines in Viña Ventisquero vineyards: Carmenere, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vertice 2008 is a blend of 51% Carmenere and 49% Syrah. It is a deep ruby red in color, and has aroma of red and black fruits with a hint of peppery spice. Aged 20 months in French oak barrels, it also has notes of vanilla and chocolate. The black fruit and spice flavors come through to the taste, and Vertice has a nice firm structure, and long finish. The winemaker notes that it is ready to drink now, but has excellent cellaring potential for up to 10 years. 14.5% alcohol , $40 USA retail..

Carmenere Grey 2009, a blend of 85% Carmenere, 7.5% Syrah and 7.5% Cabernet Sauvignon; grapes sourced from the Maipo Valley. Winemaker notes say it all: ”Intense aromas of blueberry, blackberry and strawberry, notes of cherry, bitter chocolate, black pepper and nuances of mint and lavender. A full-bodied well-structured wine with firm but ripe tannins and balanced acidity; concentrated flavors lead to a long fruit finish tinged with a hint of spice. 14% alcohol. $20 USA retail

Early in the extensive tasting, we sampled the Root 1 Carmenere 2010. It is 90% Carmenere, 5% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, “The 2010 vintage was a very memorable one,” said Tosso, “marked by the massive earthquake early in the year. The weather was also cooler than usual.” Tasting notes from Tosso: “Intense violet in color with rich ripe aromas of red fruit and vanilla, combined with soft spice notes. A full-bodied and juicy profile with blackberry, cherry and a hint of smoke followed by supple tannins and a strong finish.” 13.8% alcohol. $11.99 USA retail.

It was always enlightening to travel with the group of experts chosen for this trip by WineBow. At this tasting, I was particularly intrigued by the questions asked by Diane Tietelbaum, who with 30 years experience in retail for private clients, consulting for hotels and restaurants, and wine judging, had some contributions to the sales staff regarding pricing level that would be appropriate for the US market.

Finally, to make the experience more real, about midway through the tasting, wines already poured in the glasses showed a small wave pattern. Must have been just a little earthquake. No one else seemed to notice, but then, I live in San Francisco. Happens all the time, and you just get used to the little “Terremotos”...

Chile's Viña Leyda: Maipo River, Ocean Breezes, Granitic Soils

The Maipo River in Chile originates on the west slope of the Maipo volcano in the Andes. It is the main river flowing through the Santiago Metropolitan Region of Chile, and is the major source of irrigation and potable water for the region. From the volcano to where it empties into the Pacific Ocean south of the port of San Antonio, the river runs 150 miles through Chile’s best-known wine producing region.

Many vineyards in Chile have rainfall or groundwater to help feed the vines. But at Viña Leyda, they rely on water from the Maipo. The valley in which Leyda lies is 12 km/8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Leyda produces a range of flavorful wines that our WineBow group tasted with the winemaking and vineyard team at Viña Leyda. ( on our second day of the trip designed to familiarize our group of writers-photographers-wineExperts with the wines of Chile.

After a visit to the vineyards, we went to Leyda’s new tasting room. The wines we enjoyed included Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. All sourced their fruit from vineyards in the Leyda appellation, which is a sub-region of the San Antonio Valley, and all shared a minerality and distinctive influence of the mainly-granitic terroir.

The winemaker is Viviana Navarette.

Notes from the winery about their white wines: “The closeness of the Leyda Valley to the sea makes it a unique spot for viticulture. Its cool conditions during spring and summer due to maritime influence and summer breezes makes it an extraordinary area for the development of white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. “

Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Leyda Valley. This wine is a blend of 3 Sauvignon Blanc clones: 1 Davis, 242 and 107. Winemaker Tasting Notes: “Intense and expressive Sauvignon Blanc full of white fruit and freshness. Strong expression, this Sauvignon Blanc shows herbal and green character together with citrus aromas, limes, mandarins, grapefruit and passion fruit. In palate it is fresh with a sweet texture, fruit concentrated with crisp acidity and juicy ending.” 13.5% alcohol.

Classic Chardonnay 2011, Leyda Valley. Winemaker Tasting Notes: “As a tribute to the varietal pureness, this is a fruit driven style and unoaked Chardonnay. With the purpose of producing a Chardonnay that respects the natural fruit of Leyda’s cool climate, this wine was made in a fruit driven style, showing in nose ripe citrus and semitropical hints of kiwi and cherimoya. Fruit concentrated in the palate, with sweet and leesy texture, balanced with a juicy finish.” 14% Alcohol. $11.99 retail USA.

Single Vineyard Chardonnay, Falaris Hill 2010, Leyda Valley. This is 100% Chardonnay. (Falaris Hill vineyard is a small block located in an south-east orientated slope in Leyda Estate, with a particular low fertility in the soil. It is managed in order to keep low yields, between 6 and 7 tons per hectare, and therefore to obtain top quality wines, notes the winery) Winemaker Tasting Notes: “An elegant Chardonnay that captivates with its salinity, fresh fruit and soft toasted palate. Refined and complex nose. Ripe citrus character like lemons and tangerines combines with almond and mineral aromas. Its fine and integrated oak notes add complexity to the nose. Fresh in the mouth, with a creamy texture in the mid palate and a lively acidity further back, where the minerality stands up providing crispness and length to the wine.” 14.% alcohol. $16.99 retail USA.

Lot 5 Chardonnay 2010, Leyda Valley. (Block Nº5 is managed in order to get the best quality grapes. The production is dropped down to just 1kg per plant, searching for rich concentration of flavours. Canopy management is done in order to protect the grapes from direct sun and then, together with the cool conditions, get a longer and slower ripening period. Even with the lower yield, grapes ripen one week after the rest of the vineyards, notes the winery). Winemaker Tasting Notes: “The lively expression of cold-climate Chardonnay is shown in this elegant and mineral wine. Great mineral character with earthy notes. Light gold coloured, it offers toasted hazelnuts and slightly tropical aromas. Round and creamy, it shows off excellent minerality, lively acidity and a lengthy finish.” 14% alcohol. $19.99 retail USA.

Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé, Loica 2011, Leyda Valley. (Loica vineyard was planted in 1998, in a southwest orientated slope in Leyda Estate. Because of this exposure, sunlight is slightly less in this block and the influence of ocean breezes is higher. Then, the ripening process occurs at a slower rate, contributing to the development of different and special flavours and aromas. The production in this block was 5 tons per hectare, notes the winery). Winemaker Tasting Notes: “Raspberries, cherries and white strawberries’ symphony, an elegant Rosé to enjoy. This Rosé delights with its pure expression of Pinot Noir, showing red berries berries, citric and floral hints. The palate is well structured, fruit concentrated and creamy, making this Rosé an excellent option to pair with food.” 13.5% alcohol. $16.99 retail USA.

Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Las Brisas 2010, Leyda Valley. (Las Brisas vineyard was planted in 1998, in a southwest orientated slope in Leyda Estate. Because of this exposure, sunlight is slightly less in this block and the influence of ocean breezes is higher. Then, the ripening process occurs at a slower pace contributing to the development of different and special flavours and aromas. The production in this block was 4 tons per hectare, notes the winery). Winemaker Tasting Notes: “A great exponent of Pinot Noir, aromatically fresh and complex. A juicy, fruity and elegant wine. Bright colour. Clean and direct fruity nose, with hints of red cherries, raspberries and a subtle wild herb note. Delicate and refined on the palate. Juicy with ripe flavours of berries combined with mineral notes and a lively acidity.” 14% alcohol. $16.99 retail USA.

Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Cahuil 2010, Leyda Valley. (Cahuil vineyard was planted in 1997, with north-east exposure, searching for the least fertile soils and the best exposure to sunlight. The viticultural management was specially orientated to get just a few clusters per plant, small berries and a slow and uniform ripening period. The production in this block was 5 tons per hectare, notes the winery). Winemaker Tasting Notes: “A seductive Pinot Noir that captivates with its toasted notes and silky textured palate. Strong Pinot character, expressive, with red and black fruit such as cherries and plums. Soft smokiness, tobacco and spiciness, with mineral notes giving complexity to the final blend. In mouth it is fruit concentrated, with velvety-creamy texture, soft and sweet tannins with long persistence palate.” 14.5% alcohol. $24.99 retail USA.

Single Vineyard Syrah, Canelo 2009, Leyda Valley. (Canelo vineyard was planted in 2005, up the hill, on a west orientated slope in the Leyda Estate, searching for the best exposure to sunlight. The viticultural management is orientated in order to get low yield production, 4 to 5 ton/há, small berries and a slow and uniform ripening period, notes the winery). Winemaker Tasting Notes: “A unique and provocative Syrah, with a great sense of origin. Expressive, cold climate style of Syrah, with lots of spiciness, black pepper, floral notes (violets) and red acid fruit such as raspberries and bluberries. In mouth, it is fruit concentrated, with nice acidity that enlarges the palate, juicy and fresh, with soft tobacco, mocha notes and minerality showing the maritime influence.” 13.5% alcohol. $16.99 retail USA.

Chile's Cousino-Macul: History, Heritage and Fine Wines

Founded in 1856, Cousiño-Macul (  the only winery in Chile that continues in the hands of its original founding family. It produces limited quantities of fine wines that are world-class and carry the character of the Maipo Valley vineyards from which they are sourced. This is a red-wine oriented winery, with Cabernet Sauvignon as its core business.  Our group sponsored by WineBow visited on Day Two of our Chile wine experience.

The Maipo Valley has a Mediterranean climate with thermal conditions that are subtropical, notes the company literature. “The average maximum temperature in January (the hottest month) is 30 degrees C, with a temperature variation that can reach 20 degrees C between night and day.” To the east is the Andes range, and to the west is the Coastal range.


A visit to Cousiño-Macul should be on the “Must Do” list of every visitor to Santiago who is interested in wine. A visit here offers you a look at a beautiful old winery, a fashionable new tasting room, and a drive through gardens that are a wonderful touch of green in the city of Santiago. As the winery has thrived through the decades, Santiago has seen urban sprawl consume land near the vineyards and the winery, but the owners have worked with successive governments to preserve this landmark winery. Over the years, purchases of other land were made, and the winery now sources fruit from 400 hectares in three locations – Macul, Buin, and Alhue.

Our group of writers-photographers-WineExperts was met by Arturo Cousiño, the patriarch of the family today. He conducted us first through the magnificent gardens, so we will start with our journey there…

Today's owner, family member Arturo Cousiño,
greets us to tour through the private gardens


old winery tanks

The basement, where wines are aged in barrels, was built 7 feet down using bricks and limestone held together by a mixture of sand and egg white.  The original fermentation tanks are part of the old winery tour.

After a long day out and about, we tasted many wines, but my favorite by far was the Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. Five thousand cases of this wine go into export of the 80,000 cases produced. Everyone is talking about Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo, and we had an opportunity to see how it has evolved. This is their entry-level Cabernet Sauvignon, selling at $10/bottle US retail. 14.2% alcohol. It has a deep ruby-red color, aroma of berries and plum with a bit of spice, and the taste is fresh, fruity and with firm velvety tannins.

The Merlot 2011 is also a yummy entry-level wine from Cousiño-Macul. Four thousand cases of the 25,000 cases total produced go into export channels. It is well-balanced and has the characteristics of a more expensive merlot. In color, red and somewhat purple. In aroma, fruity with plum and some spice. Taste is rounded with soft tannins and fruitiness throughout. There’s not too much structure to this wine and it is very enjoyable with food. $10 the bottle US retail. 14% alcohol.

The Antiguas Reservas 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the winery’s premium wines, and is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. In color, it is dark red and intense. Aroma is red fruit and black cherry. Taste is nice and fruity with notes of plum. It is ripe, complex and dense. $17 US retail, and 14.7% alcohol.

Finis Terrae 2008 is a hand-crafted blend of the winery’s finest wines – in this 2008 vintage, the blend was Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah (60-30-10 percent respectively). This ultra-premium wine is medium-bodied, with great balance and complexity. In aroma, you find wild berries, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry. In taste, plum and strawberry with a nice sweetness from the Merlot. A nice round long finish, with ripe tannin. It is sourced from the Macul vineyard, from the oldest vines planted on this estate at least 80 years ago. Because the vines were planted less than 1.5 meters apart, it is necessary to tend them by hand. This wine is also made in the original winery in Macul. $25 the bottle, US export price.

Of the 180,000 cases of Cousiño-Macul wines that go into export channels, only 30% go to the US market. They are worth seeking out, as they represent great value and are uniformly wonderful food wines.


As a finish to our visit, the winery hosted a dinner for our WineBow tour group. Many thanks to them!  Below, a few photos to wish you make you wrote about wine for a living; it may not be lucrative (believe me!), but there are perks… like visits to a wonderful winery like Cousiño-Macul.

Chile’s TerraNoble: a big commitment to Carmenere

For the sheer thrill of it all, there may not be as much fun for a Media tour writer-participant than putting orange gloves on and getting your hands around grape-cluster-cutting sheers in a vineyard that’s only 18 kilometeres to the sea in Chile’s Casablanca valley. That’s exactly what our group sponsored by WineBow did on day one of our trip.

The intent of TerraNoble is to be recognized as one of the best Carmenere producers, and to develop new products based on this variety.

TerraNoble (  has a Santiago address but sources its wines from many valleys. “We own vineyards located in the best valleys in Chile,” noted Francisco Matte V, Executive Director of TerraNoble. “Where we don’t own vineyards, we have long term agreements in place to source grapes from specific areas that add value to our wines, for example, in the Maipo valley.”

The growing season is 230 days, and the vineyard we visited is 70 hectares. To demonstrate the soil, Francisco has had a deep trench dug with clear glass on one side.

Like other growers in Chile, labor is an issue as they compete with mining and construction (particularly post-the-2011 earthquate!). Frost is an issue in the valley, and capital investment in towers to force cold air up from the ground is heavy; each tower protects 7 hectares.

The winery produces all single vineyard wines, 2 million bottles of them, and like most Chilean wines, the alcohol is low. The day we visited the slopes of the Casablanca Valley, it was a relatively hot day. This, after all, is cool climate winemaking. On March 19, 2012, it was the hottest day of the year so far, and that meant 80 degrees F on average.

In the tasting room
The Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2011 that we tasted reflects this coolness. These grapes were harvested at night. “We like the edgy style of this wine. You can feel the acidity,” noted Gonzalo Badilla A., the company’s Asia & America Export Manager. (The winery exports to 17 different countries at the present). This Sauvignon Blanc had aroma of grapefruit, and taste was grassy and with a minerality. The wines are produced from a free run of the juice after maceration, whcich gives them nice texture and a great freshness. 13 percent alcohol, retails in the US for $11.99

Outlook from new visitor center
 TerraNoble presented a 2010 Pinot Noir for tasting. It’s similar in style to a Russian River (California) or Marlborough (New Zealand) pinot, with flavors of cherry, and a nice light and fresh taste. 13.5% alcohol, retails in USA for $13.99.

We also tasted our way through their Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc blend and a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon that has a touch of Syrah for additional complexity.


But now for the Carmenere, because, after all, this is where I started to learn to love its chocolately, earthy taste! Gonzalo noted that this is a variety that is relatively new for them, and the first export was done in 1997. We first tasted the Carmenere 2010, which has a deep color, a silky style, soft tannin and a good texture. A bit of acidity – but then acidity in wine is important for a wine you’d drink with food. 13.5% alcohol, and $11.99 USA retail price.

The Carmenere Andes 2010 is a new project for TerraNoble. The vines for this wine were planted in 2008 in the Colchagua Valley, a warm climate foothill region of the Andean range. TerraNoble has worked with the label design to give a sense of a rolling mountain range. 14.3% alcohol, $13 USA retail.

The Carmenere Costa 2010, also sourced from the Colchagua Valley, shows influence from the coastal clime of the vineyards from which it is sourced. It is spicy, with more tannin. 14.2% alcohol.

The Grey Carmenere 2009 sourced its fruit from a single block. It is earthy, herbal, redolent of black fruit, and with a touch of smoke or leathery. 14% alcohol. $20 USA retail. This is my pick of their Carmeneres.


Other new projects from TerraNoble are their Lahuen labels.

The Lahuen Red Label 2008 has a Carmenere base, with Syrah and Grenache . It’s an interesting wine, with pepper, mint and a bit of frizzante at the side of the tongue. 14.55 alcohol. Soon in the US market; price still being considered.

The Lahuen Blue 2009 is 80% Syrah and 20% Merlot, and very tasty. My pick. 13.% alcohol. Soon in the US market, price still being considered.

The Magical Media Tour: Part 1

Day One: We pick grapes at TerraNoble ~
a great way to get a taste of the terroir in Casablanca Valley, Chile

The magical media tour is coming to take you away,
Coming to take you away.

The magical media tour is dying to take you away,
Dying to take you away, take you to Chil-ay.

With apologies to the Beatles, and hats off to that first-class wine importing company WineBow, I am the very happy participant in my very first (hopefully not last) MediaFam tour. For those of you who are uninformed… as I was, until very recently… a MediaFam tour is short for “Media Familiarization”. If you are a wine writer, travel writer, lifestyle writer, or a photographer or editor who works in those areas, or a certified Wine Expert (like a Master of Wine) or well-along the WSET path, you may, if you are very very lucky, be invited to let somebody like WineBow take you away.

I am a very very small potatoes wine writer, although it seems that my WineTime column in The Tahoe Weekly has a following of sorts. I am a fairly dedicated blogger however, and when WineBow ran an essay contest at the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2010 about how to make American consumers more aware of Malbec, my essay was selected and I was invited to a week at Malbec camp in Mendoza. Rebecca Rader of WineBow got in touch with me and said, ahem, perhaps you should rethink being in a barracks with field hands for a week, and would you consider waiting for a MediaFam tour in a year or so, we’d go to both Chile and Argentina?

You bet your sweet arse I would! (that’s not quite what I said, but you get the gist).

So here I am in the Sheraton (Club Floor) in Santiago, Chile, pulling the drapes against the strong sunshine so I don’t have the glare on my laptop screen, and fighting late-night-dinner-fatigue and chunking down Prilosec before yet another fantastic wine tasting. The Prilosec is winning the battle, thank goodness, as in the past 48 hours I have tasted no fewer than 50 wines from 4 wineries, and that doesn’t include the bottles that WineBow Brand Ambassador Alfredo S. Bartholomaus orders at dinners.

So if you will kindly stay tuned over the next 8 days, I’ll try to give you a feel for the Magical Media tour, the wineries, the countryside, the people and mention a few of the wines that I like.

So far I’ve discovered that my palate is most similar to that of Tim Teichgraeber, who writes about wine and spirits for the San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, Tasting Panel, Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine, Cooking Club and City Pages. That could change; we disagree on Sauvignon Blanc from the Ledya Valley. We do agree on pisco sours. We agree a lot.

Everyday I try to sit next to someone new on the bus and learn from them. Most people are patient. Leela Cyd Ross (you must see her portfolio at
) is an absolutely brilliant photographer. Her perceptions blow me away. She is doing a dreamlike series with her trusty Diana camera that I hope some lucky magazine will commission. And Leela is kind too. I have a Canon Elph that I bought for the trip but didn’t take time to read the instruction book, and she gave me some hints about how to use it.

So far the group dynamics are great. A little bit of sniping here and there. But hey – this is the wine business, right?

From Wine Lover to Wine Maker: Sierra Foothills' Synapse Wines Makes the Transition

Randy & Debbie Knutzon
How do you get from tasting wines on the consumer side of the table, to pouring wines on the winery side of the table?  The short answer is:  persistence and passion.  The longer answer involves career-switches, determination, experimentation, finances, continuing education, partners, and creativity.

You’ll have your chance to meet a husband-and-wife-team who made this transition during the El Dorado Winery Association Passport Weekends, coming up on April 14-15 and April 21-22
(click here for ticket info).   If you can’t wait until then, go to the Synapse Wines tasting room in Placerville, El Dorado County, to chat with Debbie and Randy Knutzon.   
The journey from one side of the table to the other did take a while. The first time I met Debbie Knutzon of Synapse Wines, she was pouring wine a few years ago at a Sample the Sierra event at South Lake Tahoe.  Her enthusiasm just brimmed over, and she was honest about her wine beginnings.  She noted the help she’d got from more experienced winemakers in the Sierra Foothills, notably John MacCready of Sierra Vista Winery.       

Here’s Debbie’s story:
“ Randy and I moved to Sacramento in 1987.  I had a masters degree in Molecular Biology.  Randy had a brand new medical degree from the University of Iowa, ready to begin his radiology residency at UC Davis.  We were relative newbies to the wine world, however our appreciation for wine soon increased, as did the frequency of our winetasting trips to Napa and Sonoma.
 I don’t recall when or why we made our first winetasting trip to El Dorado County, but once we did we were hooked on the casual atmosphere, beautiful country and delicious wines.  I’m also not sure how I first heard about the Passport Weekends.  The first year, just Randy and I went.   We had a great time – loved the concept.  Although we tried hard, we couldn’t get all of our passport stamps; we missed a few wineries.  So, the second year we went to the Passport Weekend,  we got a few friends together and also a designated driver.  From then on, our Passport Weekend excursion became a looked-forward to event, with friends coming in from out of town, and a limo… 
The Partners: (l-r) Randy, Debbie, Alisa, Bruce
Some years went by – Randy finished his medical training as a neuroradiologist and joined a group in Roseville.  In the spring of 2000 Randy went to a medical meeting in Atlanta.  When he came back, he told me that he had met up with Bruce Ginier who was practicing neuroradiology in Fresno.  Bruce had also done his radiology residency along with Randy.  Randy came home and recapped the meeting…“and by the way – we decided to start a vineyard in El Dorado county”  (or something along those lines)    Basically they had gotten to talking about “wouldn’t it be cool to retire and own a small vineyard / winery”. 
Bruce and his wife, Alisa, really like the foothill region – Alisa has family in northern CA and they had actually recently been up looking at properties in the foothills. Turns out that one of the properties Bruce had been looking at just outside Somerset was a 40 acre parcel with a beautiful south and west exposure sloping down to the canyon of the north fork of the Cosumnes river.  The bad news was that it was raw land – no power, water, roads, or anything.    The good news was that it was not being marketed as “vineyard potential” so the price was right.  
One thing led to another and before we knew it we were having soil samples taken and drawing up a purchase offer contingent on drilling wells and finding water.
Retirement was still a ways off, but since it takes a while to get a vineyard established we boldly charged ahead. We planted our first vines in 2002, - approximately 6 acres of syrah.  The initial plan was to sell the grapes until retirement, but as we got closer to having our first crop we got the winemaking bug and decided to try our hand at it. (Besides that, the market for grapes was pretty much in a trough).  Again, one thing led to another and soon we were building a winery building. 
First Crush!
Our first crush was in 2005 and we made five different styles of Syrah, all the way from a Rose to a dessert wine. 
In 2007 we took out some of the syrah and grafted on Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. 
At less than 1000 cases, our annual production is quite small, even by El Dorado standards. We still produce 5 different Syrah-based wines in addition to Zinfandel, Grenache, and Mourvedre. 
April 2010 Tasting Room Opens
The vineyard and winery are quite remote – they lie back on almost 2 miles of steep gravel road, so having an onsite tasting room was not an option.  We chose a site on Main Street in downtown Placerville next to the Cary House Hotel.  We opened up on April 16, 2010. 
Grand Opening May 2011
It’s been a 10 year journey, but we have gone from being consumers of wine to dreaming a dream, developing raw land, becoming grape farmers, becoming winemakers, becoming business owners, and actually getting to pour our wine for consumers to enjoy and purchase!  The learning curve has indeed been steep. 
Even more exciting is that we have finally joined the ranks of the “big boys and girls” of the El Dorado Winery Association.  We are extremely excited to be a part of the 2012 Passport Weekend event.    Life truly is an adventure – never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would one day trade in my research career for one in the wine business. 
We are often asked for the rationale behind our name – Synapse Wines.  As neuroradiologists, Randy and Bruce spend a good chunk of their days looking at nerve cells and the connection between them – the synapse.   Synapse Wines symbolized the connection between the two families to create the vineyard and winery, and also the value that we place on connecting with family, friends, food, and wine.”
(Thanks, Debbie, for a great story!  nb: Barbara Keck)
Visit Debbie, Randy, Bruce and Alisa at the Synapse Wines tasting room,  304 Main Street, Placerville.
The El Dorado Winery Association Passport Weekend offers a lot to see and do.  Plan ahead;  there is a printer-friendly map on the association website, click here to get it.     
Here is the list of participants, click on the winery name to go to their website for more information on the winery background and varietals produced.   Or click here for a short description on the Association website.  Ah yes…. try to line up a designated driver.     

Cab for The Cure: Foothills Wineries Support Important Women's Health Cause

Talk about a good idea that contributes to a good cause -- Holly Dismukes has created a hop-on-the-bandwagon concept that can benefit both wineries and breast cancer research. It’s the “Cabernet For The Cure” event to be held for the third year with the participation of 7 good-hearted wineries in the Fair Play AVA (El Dorado county).

Holly lives near Sacramento, and she says that although she is not in the wine industry, “I absolutely love wine.” She and her husband Brian and her brother Casey Steel have been going to wineries in the Sierra Foothills for 15 years or so. Holly’s job as a staff accountant at Sysco gives her leisure time on weekends to enjoy the wine tourism that’s become such an important part of the Sierra Foothill areas near Sacramento.

The concept development for Cabernet for the Cure was simple. “I’ve been doing the Walk for the Cure for a few years in Sacramento, and so when I go wine tasting in the Foothills, I’ve asked wineries from time to time to donate to the Susan G. Komen cause. Three years ago, Single Leaf, Iverson and Windwalker helped me formalize this idea with the first Cabernet for the Cure event. More wineries join in every year.”

20 – 50 – 150 people and, now, 7 wineries

Holly is not herself a breast cancer survivor, but she believes this is a good thing to be doing for all the women who can be affected. The first year, 20 people showed up. Last year, 50. And now, all 150 “tickets” (tee-shirts) to the afternoon barbeque that keynotes the event at Single Leaf Winery are sold out, ten days before the deadline.

Wine lovers can still participate in the tasting/donation part of the event by asking for a pink ribbon at the tasting rooms of the seven wineries, or by showing a print-out of the poster. The wineries will donate between $2 and $5 a bottle for each bottle of their wine purchased. (Linda Neal of Mellowood, who alerted me to the event, tops the pack by donating $5 per bottle. Atta girl, Linda! Good on you!)

All donations flow through directly to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. What does Holly Dismukes get out of this? Pennies in heaven, I hope.

The participating wineries are Busby Cellars, Iverson Winery, Mellowood Vineyards, Perry Creek Winery, Sierra Oaks Estates, Single Leaf Winery, and Windwalker Vineyard. Click on any of the winery names to go to their websites.
To make your tour to Fair Play easier, here are the winery addresses:

Busby Cellars
6375 Grizzly Flat Rd
Fair Play, CA 95684

Iverson Winery
8061 Perry Creek Road
Fair Play, CA 95684

Mellowood Vineyards
2979 Mellowood Drive
Fair Play, CA 95684

Perry Creek Winery
7400 Perry Creek Rd
Fair Play, CA 95684

Sierra Oaks Estates
6713 Mt. Aukum Rd
Fair Play, CA 95656

Single Leaf Winery
7480 Fairplay Road
Fair Play, CA 95684

Windwalker Vineyard
7360 Perry Creek Rd
Fair Play, CA 95684

What Were They Thinking? My Mom said, "Get A Room..."

What Were They Thinking?
"We had the first customers of the day come to the tasting room, Teri and Rick Girard and they brought a friend along. I’m pouring a glass of my Syrah and my wife Melissa is there with me. The Girards are what I call “alpha customers”. I met them at another winery, and after they came to see us, they started bringing in their whole family to discover us. Our combination of wine and hospitality really resonated with them.
I grew up as a winery brat. My parents dragged me through Napa Valley from the time I was 8 years old. My dad was the controller at Gallo Wine in Modesto. I went to school with the Gallo kids. The first batch of wine I ever saw being made was in a barn in Modesto with a bunch of Greek guys. I was 11. It was awful; really oxidated white wine made from Colombard. When our family moved to Pollock Pines in the late 70’s, we started making a few barrels of wine under our house. In 1988 I took it over with a group of friends as a kind of co-op. When we got to 22 barrels under the house, my mom encouraged us to go get a room.
So that’s what I did. My “room” here at Crystal Basin is bigger this year; we added a space that made it kind of V shaped. This is the first season for the remodeled room. Melissa runs the tasting room, and she really is the face of the winery and has grown the wine club to 1300 members. We’ve been married for 19 years, and we moved to the Sierra Foothills from Silicon Valley in 2006. We’d been making wine at Gold Hill Vineyards in Coloma since 2000 and wanted to see if we could scale it up. We did; from 700 cases to 6500 today.
Not that long ago, Melissa wanted to kill the winery. She thought it was distracting and a boys’ drinking project, which it was. In 2007 she switched horses. Now she’s pretty excited about the bistro that we’re opening; tapas-style. The Girard’s other brother and sister were coming up later that day to help us with the bistro.
We were enjoying this wine right before the big storm hit, and we were all really giddy about seeing the weather show up."



I'm a sucker for great headlines. What writer isn't? And most readers appreciate them too. So when I got this email from Mr LoneHat ( John Thomas, from JJ Cedar Company), who could resist opening it? I'd like to think that John was listening to my brief "how to do better PR" presentation to the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association last week, but I think he's just got a natural talent... and I was compelled to read the whole HORROR story! You can too...and thanks, John.

The Subterranean Horror Popillia japonica
Adults surfacing in June/July

Adult Popilliajaponica (Japanese Beetle)

The adult beetles feed on the foliage and fruits of more than 250 kindsof plants, but grape is one of the preferred hosts. The larvae areC-shaped grubs found in the soil, and are serious pests of grass roots.

PCO Choice kills Japanese Beetles andits Larvae. PCO Choice kills the adult insect. The biosolvent influenced cedar oil will dissolve insect egg and larvae by eroding theexoskeleton and cuticle, promoting rapid dehydration. Egg-layer cycles arefurther interrupted by pheromone interference with the insect’soctopamine neuro receptors, and the next generation of arthropod is therebyeliminated.

Because this pest has one generation each year, it may be possible toeradicate them from your vineyards. Creating a 15ft boundary around thevineyard can help stop this subterranean destroyer from re-entering yourplanted areas.

PCO Choice concentrate

For more information contact: jthomas (at) or visit