This time of year….

I think the vines like this time of year.  They carry no crop, no heavy bunches weighing them down, sapping their strength.  Their leaves have dried, gone away to crumble into soil.  No small legged things crawling, biting with mouths that chew, no tractors spewing sulphur on them week after week.  The burning sun has faded into a cold memory.  Their canes are free, naked, stark, bare in the morning fog.  It is time to sleep.  I think the vines like this time of year.


Bottling Your Baby

From this winemaker’s perspective, bottling wine is akin to raising a kid then sending him off to college. It’s a big step and a huge investment, and I always wonder if my creation is ready for what is about to happen to it. But let me start this at the beginning.

The winemaker-as-parent process starts long before wine is made, long before the first spring weed. As winter approaches, I set up my injection rigVineyard in Fog and drip in fertilizer to each vine. Then I wait. Spring cracks through winter’s shell. I watch my vines, waiting for that miracle of life renewing itself by some unseen hand. First the buds swell… then break, shoots grow, leaves develop, and by May, as the sun’s warmth reaches deeply into the soil, blossoms open.

A crop develops and I painstakingly nurture the swelling fruit-to-become-wine as it leaves its second trimester. At each vine, we break off any extra shoots that sap vigor, drop excess bunches that can slow ripening, remove extra leaves to let light penetrate. Spring is a busy season in the vineyard.

Summer arrives. The crop is fully formed and starting to show signs of maturity as the heat of July and August bears down day after day. It is here that the first threads of self-doubt begins to worm their way in from the edges of my mind. I question my decision to withhold water to keep berry size at a minimum. It gets hot. I freak out, turn on the pump, calm down, and turn it off. Typical for me.

Zinfandel grapes ripening in the California sun.August, September… pregnancy’s weight saps my strength as harvest draws near. Doubts rise to the surface about my ability to choose the perfect moment for picking. Does this fruit taste really, really good, or is it just that I want it to taste really, really good? I fret and fret, taste the grapes again and again. Finally, I put my foot down. This vacillation has to end! I cut the fruit from the vines and deliver it to the winery. And with the help of some yeast, it transforms into wine.

As the Fermented juice gets pressed off the skins, a baby is born. Fingers, toes…all the parts are there. Is it not extraordinarily beautiful? I taste my precious creation. Well, er… needs to develop. Let’s taste it again next week when the yeast has settled.

This wine, I say to myself, will be the best… it will be perfect. So to this end, I decide I will spare no expense. I buy fancy oak barrels to hold it while it’s flavors grow during its first year. I regularly taste it and monitor it’s development. Check its vitals (ML, SO2, VA, pH) and fuss endlessly about the perfect blending proportions. I pay lab fees. I pay electricity bills for cooling. Nothing is too good for my baby.

Months pass and I realize the flavors are smoothing out. Complexity is developing. Yes, my creation is maturing into a young wine. I wonder, couldIMG_1845 the time for bottling be near? The printer prints my labels and sends me a bill. The cork company ships me corks and sends me a bill. I buy shiny, colorful capsules and write a check. I buy pallets of bottles and think, Good Lord, I can not afford this, but I write the check anyway. I spend thousands and thousands of dollars. That’s okay, I think as I taste it again. My precious wine is going to be the best ever. Everyone will hold this baby and love it as I do.

I check the SO2 levels one more time. A few more tastes. I hold a glass up to the light and admire the perfect hues. I taste the wine again, with friends this time. They nod their heads and concur. (Smart friends always concur.) It is perfect. My adolescent wine is ready.

So the moment to bottle has arrived. Nick of time, too, because my bank Bottling 2account has been stripped. Ready or not, my wine is about to be launched into the world. Into the bottle it flows. I punch in corks. I peel on labels. Self-doubt still plagues from the shadows. How would it taste if I kept it in the barrel for another three months? Is it really ready? Will whoever finds it take the same care if it as I have. Will they love it? Will they keep it at the right temperature? Will they store it on it’s side?

But there is nothing I can do. My wine is on its own now, sitting in bottles, Bottlingpacked in cases stacked on pallets… in a warehouse. Out of my control. And in a few months time, it will be out in the world, in the market. Completely on its own, sitting on a grocery store shelf, competing for that big job at a high-end dinner table with hundreds of other bottles. What came from my hands is now in someone else’s. I shudder to think my job is done.

Ahhhh, but no. Spring is but around the corner. Hmm… better erect that injection rig. Time for some fertilizing.

The Trail to the Beach

Apart from great wine and friendly people, one of the things that draws people to visit us at Heritage Oak Winery is our system of hiking trails.  People enjoy going places where there is something to do and something to see. Tasting wine is enjoyable – that’s why people come here – but if your family and pets can participate in the event, it becomes all the more so. That’s why we opened up our trail.

The trail is divided into two main loops, the Beach/Meadow Trail and the River Trail. Both share the same trail head and overlap for nearly 3/4 of a mile.  In fact, the two trails do not split until you arrive at the edge of the Mokelumne River and have nearly reached the picnic area.  At that point,  I have placed a sign that directs people to go right to one and left to the other.  For the sake of simplicity, I will first describe the trail as if you were walking to the beach, then pick up the River Trail afterward.

The Beach and Meadow Trail: The trail to the beach is three quarters of a mile long. It passes by img_0342vineyards, skirts around our nature area on two sides, and parallels the Mokelumne River just before ending at the West Meadow where the picnic site is. It is a lovely walk. Peaceful, quite, invigorating while not overly strenuous. Active children as young as 3 years old, with a patient adult,  should be able to handle it, though younger ones may have to be carried.  (It might be a little far for that if you don’t have someone to help you with the picnic basket.)  Strollers for small children and gear work if they are the type that can pushed across loose dirt and sandy soil like the stretch of several hundred yards shown in this first photo.

I should mention at this point that we also have several picnic baskets in stock. They are not really baskets, more like insulated cloth bags, but they have everything you need for a simple picnic for two, including food. The food sells for $15 without the wine. When you are finished simply return the basket and the hardware to us so we can restock it and loan it out to the next guest.

When folks come to hike our trail, we ask that they check in with us in the trail-blog11tasting room before they embark on their hike. Since the people are using our property, we consider it polite to make a purchase, especially if they are going to have a picnic. If they wish to taste and purchase afterward, that is also fine.

Frequently arriving visitors have already been to our web site and have made their own copy of the map and have read the Property Use Agreement. If not, we provide copies. The agreement just clarifies a few common sense rules any considerate person would find reasonable (no guns, no fires, etc.) and the map helps people stay on the trail and not wander onto the neighbor’s property.

The trail starts at the huge Blue Oak tree by the parking area. (See the secondimg_11473 photo.)  From there, it heads south between the vineyards. (First photo.)  On the right is one of our Chardonnay vineyards and on the left is a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard. Along the way you will notice numerous nesting boxes. The small ones are for western bluebirds and tree swallows, though many other species also utilize them. The larger ones are for barn owls. All these birds are encouraged. They eat pests, like rodents and insects, and we enjoy watching them.  Some species eat grapes when they are ripe.  This isn’t a problem as long as we get our share.

As you approach the tree line, a sign will direct you to veer to the left and img_1152walk along the bluff. The trail narrows as you pass into the shade of giant oaks that over look the bottom land below. This portion of the trail is a wonderful place to stop and observe birds in the trees both above and below you.

You will notice the land below is not planted to a crop.  Oddly enough, we still consider it productive because of the countless species of animals that thrive there. We refer to it as our nature area. It is about twenty acres in size and is dedicated to provide homes for wildlife. 

The portion of the nature area that is in the floodplain can be divided into two meadows separated by a dense patch of cottonwood and willows.  I call them the East and West Meadows.   

After wlking along the top of the bluff for a short distance, the trail veers to the right and joins a gravel road as it descends into the bottom land below. Follow the road down img_02431through the “Tree Tunnel”. Where the tunnel opens up and the road flattens out, a sign will direct you to make the sharp hair-pin to the right. Ignore the Keep Out signs, cross the cable and follow the road across the bottom land to the river. (If you do not find the hair-pin and continue straight you will come to our grove of oak trees. At this point, to continue straight and pass the grove would put you on our neighbor’s property and make you unlawful trespassers. It would be best turn around and find the hairpin.)

As you cross the bottom land on the road, the East Meadow is on your right. A low marker along the right hand side of the road indicates where you can leave the road to walk a short loop that skirts the meadow. After passing around the edge of the meadow, the loop puts you back on the levee road a few hundred yards from where you left it. This meadow provides another great spot for birding.  Unlike the West Meadow, I do not mow the entire East Meadow.  The only part that is mowed is this trail and access is by foot only.

The East Meadow

The East Meadow

After passing the East Meadow, the road makes a T intersection with the levee that retains the Mokelumne River. When you reach the levee, a sign will direct you to turn right. Before you cross another cable, you will have your first view of the river as it heads west toward Lodi and San Francisco Bay.

View of the Mokelumne River

View of the Mokelumne River

After crossing the second cable, the road gradually bends to the left and the West Meadow comes into view.  Notice the stand of blackberry bushes on your left as you walk around the curve.  These bushes hide the river from view  because they grow so well here.  Full exposure to sunlight and roots that are tapped deeply into the moist soil along the river bank produce the fattest, juciest blackberries you will ever see.  If you like wild blackberries, remember this when mid-July rolls around.  img_02452

If you arrive at the West Meadow during a weekend, don’t be surprised to arrive to find local Boy Scout troops camping and pursuing their activities.  Troops have been coming here for years, ever since our boys were in Scouting years ago.  They are asked to keep to the meadow area, however, and leave the picnic tables by the river to hikers and clients from the winery.

Find the picnic area on the beach to the left. There is a swing and several tables to choose from.  Enjoy the solitude.  Be careful if you enter the water, however.  It is always bone-chilling cold.  There are deep pockets in the river bed and the current can be swift.  Shoes or sneakers should be worn because of sharp objects in the sand, and small children should never be left alone in the water.


I will pick up a discussion of the River Trail at this point as soon as I can.  Hope you come out soon.

Persimmon Pudding

Fall is my favorite season here at Heritage Oak. The mornings are cool and crisp. As the sun rises, I p10106243frequently see a light fog sitting over the vineyards. It rained a little last month and now the native grasses have sprouted. Everywhere the ground is green again. It is good to be out from under the blanket of summer heat.

It is already mid-November but the afternoons are still sunny and warm. It’s as if the days don’t want to let summer go. We spend time getting equipment ready for storage, making repairs. This is also a great time to work with the soil. It is slightly moist from the early rains, but also loose and warm. We dig bulbs in the garden around the patio- tulips, iris, daffodils- and spread them into places they have never been. They will wake up in February and shout their color from an new vantage point.

The vines don’t agree with my pollyana outlook. The poor things are exhausted; leaves nov-vineyard-viewmottled, bronzed and dysfunctional from a loss of chlorophyll. Their burden of fruit is gone, but harvest left them battered. They look like they want to be left alone to rest.

And rest they will soon get. With the first heavy frosts of late fall and early winter, they will drop into deep slumber, shedding their leaves with the wind and rain. Then, with winter’s cold fully upon us and the vines dormant, we will enter the fields to prune canes and shape the coming year’s crop.

img_0923The wines have been made and have begun their metamorphosis: a transition where they begin as little else than fruit juice with alcohol in September to emerge in May as adolescent wines, full of hope and promise. During their sleep, I interrupt their solitude with racking and blending, and periodic micro-doses of potassium metabisulfite. They would like me to leave them alone, but I never do.

With the red wines resting in barrels, the white wines now become my focus. They must be stabilized for heat and cold and filtered for clarity, all the while protecting their fragile hue from oxygen, the dreaded beast.

This time of year, the bright spot in the landscape at Heritage Oak are the persimmon trees. We have two of them behind the winery belonging to the img_1178Japanese cultivar hachiya. Their leaves have begun to drop, revealing an abundant crop of fat, orange lobes. Shaped like apples with points, they hang from the branches on short, thick woody stem. With the coolness of fall, they magically ripen and their flesh turns from hard and un-giving to supple, soft, sweet, almost gelatinous. But it is the color and texture of the skin that is most amazing: deep orange with twinges of red, smooth and shiny. There is nothing like them. Nothing in the fall beats the jubilance of a persimmon tree full of fruit.

As they ripen, the birds find them. Flocks of cedar waxwings come through devouring the sweet pulp. We pick them too. People come into the tasting room and see the persimmon trees out back and ask what they are. They go home with persimmons in a bag and recipes in their pockets. Food is always a great thing to share.

Cooking with persimmons is a tradition in my family. My Grandmother Hoffman had a tree in her yard and each year she would make persimmon cookies and persimmon bread. My favorite though has always been persimmon pudding. For me, it is just as important to Thanksgiving dinner as a turkey. Especially when it has a dollop of hard sauce on it.

img_1188Persimmons are amazing because, after they have turned color,  you can pick them any time you want and keep them forever! It is the only fruit that you completely control when it ripens; something you do by simply putting it in the freezer. When you want to use the persimmon to bake something, you just take it out to thaw. The freezing/thawing process takes it from not-quite-ready-to-go to perfectly ripe. I’ve never understood exactly why this is, but the good news is that you can keep them in your freezer as long as you want. Persimmon pudding for Easter is a great concept!

Here is my grandmother’s recipe. If you are interested, we still have persimmons on the tree. Stop by. I’ll loan you my clippers.

Grandma Hoffman’s Persimmon Pudding

 1 cup granulated sugarimg_11861

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 large egg, well beaten

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup milk

1 cup sieved persimmon pulp

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup chopped walnuts

½ cup raisins

In a bowl, beat the sugar and melted butter into the beaten eggs. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Blend into the sugar and egg mixture, and then blend in the milk and persimmon pulp. Stir in the nuts and raisins. Pour the batter into a lightly greased mold or covered dish placed in a pan of hot water to about half the depth of the pudding mold. Bake at 350 degrees F. for approximately 1 hour until it tests done with a straw or knife.

Serve warm with Hot Lemon Sauce, Brandy Sauce, Hard Sauce or whipped cream. The pudding can be prepared several days ahead and reheated lightly covered.

For another recipe and lots of photos visit “Persimmon Murder“.


A small grove of trees

When I was a child back in the fifties, my Uncle Verne operated a hog farm on the property occupied now by the vineyards of Heritage Oak Winery. Many of the old out buildings here, such as the silo, are relics of that era. 

Though the operation was large and covered many acres, the focal point was the vicinity just behind where the winery stands today.  There were two farrowing houses where the sows delivered and nursed their young.  I remember it always being dark in there, with heat lamps over each pen to keep the small pigs warm.  Down the road from the farrowing houses were the boar pens.  There enormous male pigs lay about all day in moist earth waiting for an opportunity to put sperm, manufactured in half gallon-sized testicles, to work.  My uncle also had a feed processing facility.  Grain was received, stored, then ground and bagged to be used here or sold to other hog farmers. 

At it height of production, it was a size-able operation with perhaps hundreds of hogs.  Behind the buildings, where our 8 acre block of Sauvignon Blanc field stands today, was an open field where hogs roamed.  Other hogs were kept down in the bottomland. 

There is a grove of oak trees in the bottomland.  It lies on a small rise at the base of the bluff.  The narrow road that descends from the upland splits as it approaches, passing around the grove on two sides.  There are eleven trees standing, all very large with massive trunks.  Most of them are Valley Oaks with one Live Oak.  For me, this small grove of trees has always been a special place.

One of my first memories of the grove was of the pig pens down there and the little tee pee shaped shelters that were scattered about the pens for the pigs to go into.  I suppose it was a good location for the pens as the trees provided necessary shade for the hogs.  Hogs do not have the ability to perspire and therefore have difficulty regulating their body temperature.  I guess a nice shady grove of trees would be a perfect spot to keep them.

I remember sitting in the shady grove by one of the oddly shaped shelters one summer day a few years later.  I was older then, and the hogs were no longer kept down there.  Being eleven years old with little else to do, I began to carve my name into an old wood board one of the shelters was made of.  “Tom H was here'” I carved.  Then dated it: something-something 1962.  My uncle found that board when the pens were torn down and kept it for years in his barn on Dustin Road.  He was going to give it to me someday, he told me later, but it burned along with the rest of his barn before he’d had a chance.

I spent many an afternoon in the grove as I grew up.  There was a colony of ground squirrels that lived in burrows among the roots of the trees, so the grove was a perfect place to hunt.  Ground squirrels are fairly organized, as critters go, and it is hard to sneak up on them.  One squirrel, usually a large male, will take the job of sentry.  He will climb a fence post or sit on a stump where he has a view point.  If he sees danger, he barks a warning and all the others dive for cover. As long as the sentry is quiet, the other squirrels come out to forage of food or play.  That’s right, play.  If you have watched squirrels like I have, you would know that young squirrels can get pretty, well, squirrely. 

What I’d learned was if you are real still, the sentry won’t notice you.  It’s like you are invisible.  That’s the secret about hunting ground squirrels.  You can’t move.  So I’d sit with my back against a tree trunk and wait: knees bent, elbows on knees, arms propping up my loaded single shot .22 caliber rifle.  Because you need to be motionless, you hold this position until you can get a shot in.  As you can tell, I’ve done this a lot. 

After I’d shoot a squirrel, I’d pull off the tip of its tail and stuff it into my pocket.  When I was done for the day, I’d walk a mile back to where my grandparents lived and pull the tail tips out and count them.  Grandpa would pay me fifteen cents a squirrel.

A few years later, maybe I was in high school by then, I remember going down to the grove.  Amid the high pitched sound of chain saw motors, I saw piles of firewood.  Several men were sawing while others operated a gas powered splitter. Grandpa was standing there in the dust and summer sun in the middle of all this racket.  I asked him why he was cutting down the trees.  “Money,” he replied.  “Fire wood is twenty-five bucks a cord.  There’s probably several thousand dollars here.” 

This bothered me.  Some how I’d always thought the trees belonged to everyone and had never imagined them as a commodity that anyone had the right to sell.  I went home and told my parents what he was doing.  They too were concerned.  My dad called his sister and I talked to my cousin Bob.  His mom was my grandparents’ only daughter, and, as I learned, the son of a daughter can put pressure where the the son of a son, like me, can not. The next thing I heard was that the tree cutting would stop.  That was a pretty big victory because my grandpa  was not the kind to backed down from a position.  The idea of saving a grove of trees for future generations to enjoy was pretty radical.  And to stop a stubborn man like him with a nostalgic notion like that was nothing short of amazing.

Today, the grove still thrives.  Over the years, it has served as a picnic spot, a camp site for Boy Scouts, and always a place to rest from the hot sun.  Tall cottonwoods, willows and a few young oaks have grown up in the places where Grandpa had cut a few down.  The many branches and canopies of leaves are home to countless birds, from the tiniest Bushtits and Yellow Throated Warblers to mighty Red Tail Hawks and Great Horned Owls.  And, yes, the ground squirrels are still there.  There’s one now.  Shhhh…… don’t move.

An $8000 bottle of wine

Over the weekend, Carmela and I left the Heritage Oak tasting room in the hands of trusted friends and went to Carmel, California. There we hooked up with Beth, David, Bob and Peggy, also from the Lodi area.  We had a picnic at the beach, walked up and down Ocean Avenue and did the tide pool thing.  It was all great, even the part where Bob and David tried to teach Carmela and me how to play poker.  I guess some things you just have to learn at a younger age.

One of the highlights was dinner Saturday night.  David took us to Cantinetta Luca, located on Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh.  It is a casual Italian restaurant but with a beautiful ambiance.  The food was wonderful and service fun and engaging.  I had a pizza shaped as a crescent with arugula salad placed in the inner part.  This was probably one of the top five pizzas of my life.  I had a real hard time sharing it with anyone at the table.  (“How’s the pizza, Tom?” “Mmmuh,” <Chewing sounds> “It’s okay.”)

I was fascinated by the wine list.  It was thicker than the menu, six or eight pages long.  And it was all Italian wines, listed in Italian by wine region.  Cantinetta Luca has gone to great lengths to collect wines from every wine producing region in Italy. 

The prices were humbling.  I think less than half of the wines were under $100 and, (I’m guessing here), the average price was above $200.  We asked the sommelier for some assistance. He was a friendly guy, with an obvious passion for what he does.  He helped us select a white and red that we could afford.  He knew these wines, where they were from and what they tasted like. He was pretty much right on the mark with his description of the flavors.  

What really caught our eye was one bottle listed for $8000.  Something like that naturally stands out, right?  We asked the sommelier about it and he said it was a three liter bottle of white wine, the equivalent of four of the standard 750 ml bottles.  He told us the vintner took extreme efforts to make this wine, carefully laying the ripe bunches on straw for several weeks until the sugar intensified.  They were then crushed and made into a wine that had an alcohol level of about 17%.  It was of very limited production. He agreed that it was a pricey bottle, but said he had tasted it before and it had been an experience he would never forget.  The fragrance, the texture, the finish, everything about it was incredible. There is no other wine like this one, he said.  And yes, he had sold one of these bottles before.

We all agreed buying three liters of liquid for a sum that could feed an entire African village for two years would be experience no one would be likely to forget.  And if anyone did, their spouses would most certainly remind them.  So this got me thinking.  Who decides what a bottle of wine is worth?  Why is this three liter bottle worth so much more than any other three liter bottle? 

The answers are complicated.  On the surface, it comes down to the value of the wine being determined by an agreement between the vendor and the customer.  If the former proposes a price and the latter agrees to it, then there you are.  It is set.  That is the value. 

However, there is more to this than simple rules of negotiation and trade.  Craftsmanship certainly has a lot to do with it.  If you are going to put a tag like that on your bottle, you’d better know what you are doing. You’ve got to know how to make “an unforgettable experience” out of grapes.  Then you’d better be darn sure what you are putting into the bottle is the same thing your customer is going to pour out.  Unintended bubbles at that point, for example, would not be good.  

Scarcity is another thing.  Not only do you have to make a wine that no one else is making, you’d probably want to keep your own production on the light side.  And your success will unavoidably attract a lot of attention, so keep your $8000-a-bottle recipe a secret.  It is the type of secret that could drive you crazy.  (Don’t tell your wife.  Don’t tell your kids.  Better be listening when they are talking to the neighbors.  Check their emails.   Slip out of bed and sneak over to the neighbor’s and tap his phone.  While you are over there, might as well duck into his winery and see if he is copying your secret.  Don’t worry about those snakes crawling on the ceiling.  Its normal to see those.)  You’ll need a plan for keeping your sanity.

Another side to this is who you are.  To charge and receive $8000 for a bottle of wine, you personally have to have reached celebrity status.  You can’t just have a name, your last name has to be an everyday household term.  You need to be THE guy, the one they are making statues of to put in the park.  You need to have a villa on a mountain top.  No, several villas.  With high walls and big gates in front where tour buses slowly drive buy with speakers squawking: “The is the palace of renown wine maker Jose Guillermo Comosellamaba” 

So the price of your wine boils down to who you are, how much you know, and what you are doing at a time when no one else is doing it.  Getting to that point is the hard part.  At some moment, you’ve got to step away from the crowd.  You’ve got  to go with your gut and not listen to the others.  Don’t be afraid of risks or taking chances.  You’ve got to whip the competition.  No Mr. Nice Guy. You’ve got to learn how to play poker and know the game so well that there isn’t anybody that is better than you.  

I’m a ways off that mark.  For one, I’m just like anybody else.  For two, I’ve never claimed to know what I’m doing and, for three, there are 300 other bottles of wine next to mine on the shelf in the supermarket. But at least now I’ve got a starting point.  Poker.  Didn’t we used to have a deck of cards around here somewhere?

Lodi Amateur Vintners Assoc. Annual Blind Tasting

Price seems to be a major factor in establishing our expectations of enjoyment of a wine. “You get what you pay for,” is a phrase everyone has heard. But after splurging on a fancy bottle of wine, we are frequently reminded that the price on the bottle more truthfully reflects the winemaker’s expectations of earnings than any enjoyment the consumer might derive from it.  What is the relationship between the price a consumer pays and what they receive?  Can wine enthusiasts effectively distinguish between budget wines and premium wines when tasting blind? 

These were two of the questions that were addressed at the Lodi Amateur Vintners Association annual blind tasting held here at Heritage Oak Winery Thursday, July 24, 2008.  This year the theme was “Pleasure vs. Price.”  The line up included wines in two price categories: those under $10 found at a local supermarket and those over $30 from a local wine specialty store. 

About 40 people participated in this activity, though some couples worked together.  Participants were asked to complete a five question survey while tasting the wines.  The questions were used to determine how the taster perceived the quality of the wine,  their level of enjoyment of the wine, and the taster’s willingness to serve this wine to “an important dinner guest”.  Most importantly, however, the tasters were asked  in two separate questions, to say whether they felt each wine would be found selling for less than $10 at a supermarker or whether the wine would be sold for more than $30 at a wine specialty shop.  To each of these last two questions dealing with price category, the tasters were asked to respond either Yes or No.  A “No” response meant that the wine belonged to another category of a different price range not specified in the question. 

The wines chosen were all of the variety Zinfandel, though the appellation and the vintages varied. Each bottle was bagged in plain brown bag and numbered. Foil capsules were completely removed. Tasters did not know the name of the producers or the price of the individual bottles.  They were only told that the wines were all Zin and cost either below $10 or above $30.  Three bottles of each wine were provided.

The six wines were served in the following order: 1)  Seghesio 2004 Sonoma Old Vine Zinfandel purchased for $32; 2) Ravenswood 2004 California Zinfandel purchased for $8.99; 3) Fetzer Vineyards 2004 Valley Oaks California Zinfandel purchased for $8.99; 4) Lucas Winery 2003 Lodi Zinfandel “ZinStar Vineyard” purchased for $29.99; 5) Barefoot Non-Vintage California Zinfandel purchased for $5.99; and 6) Michael-David “Lust” 2005 Lodi Zinfandel purchased for $56.99.

Results: After all the wines had been tasted, the participants were asked to show their responses by raising their hands.  The results here, in percentage terms, describe how the group felt as a whole.  Individuals may have responded differently to any particular question.

By a majority vote, the participants were able to correctly categorize 66% of the wines, or four out of the six. The four that were correctly pegged were the three budget wines and the Michael-David “Lust”. 

The Seghesio Zin ($32) gave the tasters trouble.  While 81% felt this wine was of good to superior quality, the tasters were split on whether this wine would sell for less than $10.  However, only 16% correctly identified this wine as one that would sell for more than $30.

The Lucas Zin ($29.99) was also misidentified, partially due to the fact that one of the three bottles had a slight corky aroma. 65% felt this wine was of superior quality and 60% agreed it was enjoyable, however only 35% correctly identified this wine as belonging to the premium wine category.  The same percentage said it belonged to the budget category. To each of the two category questions, 65% felt the wine should be in a category in between budget and premium.

The Fetzer and Ravenswood wines were both identified as being budget wines with 70% of the votes.  Neither of these two wines received accolades on the enjoyment or quality questions.

The Barefoot Zin ($5.99) was one of the big surprises. 85% of the participants found it to be of superior quality with 75% saying the wine was highly enjoyable.  When asked if this was a budget wine, only 50% responded yes.  When asked if it was a premium wine, 40% said yes.  When asked if they would proudly serve this one at a fancy dinner party to “important” people, 70% said yes. 

The Michael-David “Lust” was identified by 100% of the group to be a superior quality wine.  90% stated they would be proud to serve the wine to someone important.  Only 10% felt is was a budget wine and 90% correctly identified this as a premium wine.

Conclusion: In most cases, the group was able to determine the price category of the wine by tasting.  They correctly identified categories of two thirds of the wines.  This may say more about the budget wines than the premiums, however, because 66% of the lower category were identified where only 33% of the premium wines were.  One might conclude that it is easier to spot a cheap wine. 

However, in terms of enjoyment and appreciation of the quality of  the wines, the group enjoyed/appreciated all three of the premium wines to a greater extent than the three budget wines.  This statement includes the two mis-identified premium wines, which the group agreed were both enjoyable and of high quality. 

So maybe you do get what you pay for.  But the truth is, you can spend all you want, but there are some darn good wines out there for $5.99.

Hummingbird Central

There is something about this piece of land here at Heritage Oak that attracts an impressive variety of wildlife. It has a lot to do with the presence of the Mokelumne River, which boarders the property for a mile on the south and south-eastern sides, and our twenty acres of native oak woodland.  Wildlife is so prolific here that one Mothers’ Day a few years back, I spotted and listed over fifty species of birds alone.

For me, however, the most incredible wildlife population is not along the river or in the oak woodland.  It is the hummingbirds found on the patio at the winery itself.

  This time of year, in mid-July, we have up to four species.  The most common one is the Black-chinned Hummingbird.  He’s a feisty little guy with a green back and black throat.  Because the Black-chinneds nest around here, the majority of the hummers we have right now are their young, like the one shown on the left above.  Anna’s Hummingbirds are also frequent visitors.  They are a little larger and have green on their backs and wings. Though they nest here, they are out numbered by the Black-chinneds by about ten to one. 

The other species we have here in July is the Rufous/Allens’s hummingbird.  These are migrants and are here for just a few weeks.  They stop by for a break enroute from summer breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada and the California coast to their favorite winter vacation spots in Central and South America. They arrive tired, hungry and with absolutely no patience for my lazy, go-nowhere Black-chinneds.

Carmela has done a wonderful job with the garden.  She seeks out plants that attract hummers and butterflies.  However, it is my job to take care of the feeding stations.  The population has grown to the extent that I employ four of the 30 ounce Perky Pet feeders in separate locations about 10 yards apart, and this time of year the birds are emptying three of these feeders a day. ( I estimate our hummingbird population to be around thirty birds on the assumption that each bird consumes about three ounces a day for a total of 90 ounces.) It is part of my morning ritual: make a cup of espresso, read the paper, mix up a batch of nectar for three feeders. I put one cup of sugar to every 30 ounces of hot, hot water, then stir until it is all dissolved.

This is the kind of hobby that takes space and effort. Our eleven feeders occupy an entire shelf in the kitchen.  I need a large supply because some are always dirty, some are in the washer, some are hanging on the patio and I need to have some to replace empties. Everyday I have to tend to my feeders and spend a fair amount of time washing, rinsing, sterilizing, mixing, filling clean ones and replacing  the empty ones.  When shopping, we look for sugar on sale and stock up.

Visitors to the tasting room get a kick out of watching our hummingbirds zip backand forth as they chase each other with threatening screeches and angry chirps.  Occasionally they launch into aerial displays, diving in wide arcs at breakneck speeds while coming perilously close to the ground.  On a pleasant afternoon, people frequently buy a bottle of wine, borrow some glasses and sit on the patio just to enjoy the entertainment.  I find it ironic that people find it peaceful to watch a these tiny, hostile, impatient critters, whose lives are anything but peaceful, zoom about on wings that beat 80 to 120 times per second.

Our hummingbirds are such a fixture around here that we have an event every other Friday evening based around them.  It goes from the end of May until the first of August. Carmela makes dessert, I play the piano, and people come to sip wine, watch the hummingbirds battle it out while the sun goes down.  We call it Wine, Music and Hummingbirds.  Not a poetic name, but it fits.  Wine and dessert are $5 each. Music, sunset and feathered entertainment are free.

Blackberries are ripe!

This past weekend we had a Hoffman Family reunion here at the winery.  About 60 people from all over came to the event.  It was great to see all the aunts, uncles, cousins, their children and their children’s children. After lunch, most of them went down to the beach with the intention of floating down the river and playing baseball out in the meadow. But almost everyone got side tracked by the  blackberries. It was fun watching them get buried in the blackberry bushes while they gorged themselves.

Picking blackberries has always been a summer tradition for me.  One of my fondest childhood memories of my Grandma Hoffman was joining her to pick them one summer morning.  We started out early in the morning and walked out past the barn and corral where the sheep were kept, and turned south down the lane that led toward the bottomland.  I remember her wearing a wide brimmed straw hat that tied under her chin with a scarf.  She took with her a pair of gardening gloves and I soon learned why.  The berries were growing along the fence line there in great profusion.  She chattered away as she picked, instructing me on how to go about the task.  I’m sure most of the berries I conquered ended up in my mouth.  I remember being somewhat intimidated by the task, but Grandma knew what it was all about. In no time we had enough for a pie. 

That was the start of a long relationship with blackberries.  They were also part of my life as a teenager.  We lived in town then, but the family farm was just a few miles away.  I remember using the promise of the sweet, savory fruit to entice any girl I happened to fancy to join me on an outting.  If I got turned down after mentioning the need for long pants and sleeve shirts to keep the bugs and stickers off, I figured she probably wasn’t the girl for me anyway.

As an adult, I’m proud to say that my two fine sons were raised on blackberry pie.  Fresh fruit pie is a tradition in our family and we eat it anytime of day.  We’re talking scratch here.  We’ve got an unspoken rule that says no store-bought crusts are allowed in the house. Apple pie is great, but when  blackberry season arrives, I’m the first one out the door, bucket in hand.  I use a cherry picking bucket with a harness that holds five of those little green plastic berry baskets. That way I can use both hands to get the fruit.  I go armed with clippers to get the extra canes out of the way, and wear plenty of clothing.  Grandma Hoffman taught me well.

If you happen to read this before the end of July, come out and help yourself.  Stop by the tasting room and I’ll tell you how to get to the best spots.

Thanks to my son, Robby, for the photographs. He’s a pro, literally. Visit his website at for more of his stuff.

Lodi Amateur Vintners host Riedel glassware tasting

The Lodi Amateur Vintners Association brought Tanya Seibold, the Northern California Winery Sales Manager from the Riedel Glass Works, to make a presentation to club members about Riedel stemware at their regular meeting on June 18, 2008. The event was held at Heritage Oak Winery, with the business portion held in the tasting room and the presentation held in the covered area in back. About thirty people were present.

For the presentation, Tanya used four pieces of  variety-specific stemware fromCabernet, Pinot noir, Riesling, Chardonnay Riedel’s “Vinum Extreme” collection, including pieces designed for Cabernet Sauvignon,  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling.  The four examples used were leaded pieces of machine-made stemware.   These are shown here.  From Left: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay. 

My first impressions was the unusual shape of each piece.  “”Harumph! Moonware!” I thought when I first saw them.  I picked up a glass. The lead obviously added a surprising amount of density, but it felt good to hold.  It was well balanced and very comfortable in the hand.

Tanya had set a place for each person with a place mat, and on it had put each of the four Riedel glasses plus one more. The fifth glass was an empty 9 ounce tasting glass which she referred to as the “joker”.  Each of the Riedel glasses held wine.  The Chardonnay glass held Chardonnay, the Cabernet glass had, well, Cabernet. (You can see where this is going.)  Can anyone tell me what was in the  Pinot Noir glass?  But here’s a surprise: The Riesling glass had Zinfandel.  I guess it also doubles as the piece for Zin.  She instructed us to swirl the wine, breathe in the aroma, then taste the wine.  At that point we were encouraged to describe the experience.  She helped a lot.  A lot of heads were nodding while she talked about the flavors and aromas. 

Tanya then asked us to pour the remaining Chardonnay into the joker glass and repeat the process.  Most of those present were pretty much dumbfounded.  What had been a fairly elegant wine in the first glass became an ordinary one in the second.  The same procedure was repeated with each of the other three wines, with the resulting discussions being pretty much the same.

“What if you have Zinfandel in the Chardonnay glass?  someone asked. 

“I knew someone would ask that,” Tanya said.

We went back to the Zinfandel and re-tasted it.  She then directed us to pour the Chardonnay into the joker and replace it with the Zin and taste it again.  Here the difference was not as striking as when comparing the Zin glass with the joker glass, but there were subtle differences.

“How does Riedel make a glass that improves the enjoyment of wine?” was the next question.

Tanya explained that each bowl was engineered to enhance the wine in a variety of ways. First, because these pieces were made of leaded crystal, they have tiny, imperceptible bumps and protrusions on the inside of the bowl.  As the wine is swirled, it is volatilized by the protrusions, making the bouquet more pronounced. 

Next, the shape of the bowl, perhaps the most obvious feature of each piece, does several things.  Its design effectively captures the bouquet and retains it so that it can be thoroughly inhaled and appreciated. Each is large enough to allow the taster to inhale the aroma of the wine while tasting it.  That’s right.  You get your lips on the rim and your nose in the bowl, engaging not only the five flavors the tongue picks up, but bringing into play the 100,000 separate scents the human nose can detect. 

Finally and most interestingly, the bowl of each variety-specific piece is designed to deliver the wine to that portion of the palate that will be most perceptive to the flavors of this specific wine.  For example the Chardonnay glass delivers wine to the middle and then down the sides of the tongue to emphasize first the richness and body of the wine and secondly the acidity and fruit components.  The Cabernet glass delivers the wine across the tongue to the back of the palate, where the tannins are perceived.  This notion still amazes me. I thought that if the wine glass got the wine to my mouth, and across my lips, its job was done.  Apparently Riedel stemware also directs traffic.

“How much does one of these glasses cost?” This question Tanya answered with a stunning piece of logic: People think nothing of spending $25, $30, $50, sometimes $80 or more on a bottle of wine. They then take it home and store it in a temperature controlled cellar that costs anywhere from several hundred to thousands of dollars, and then spend more money on energy to keep the wine under optimum conditions.  But then they turn around and serve it in stemware that costs five dollars.  What does that do to their investment in wine?  It seems the nice folks at Riedel will tell you the quality of the stemware should match the quality of the wine.  If you routinely serve wine that you paid $50 for, you should be serving it in stemware that matches that price per glass. “A worthwhile investment for life-long pleasure”, she says.

Each of the pieces used in the presentation sells in a box of four for around $118.

LAVA President Jim Schweickardt summarized the presentation, saying “This is nothing short of astounding.”

I agree that the difference the Riedel pieces make is remarkable.  Now my problem is where am I going to put all these pieces of fancy stemware I need to buy.

If by chance you read this and would like to try the experience yourself, contact Tanya at