Ketcham Estate

Ketcham Estate winery

Mark Ketcham and his Pinot Noir wines

About Ketcham Estate

This is one winery I had never heard until one of our wine friends arranged for us to meet Mark Ketcham and taste his Ketcham Estate wines. Our friend Pat bid on this special wine tasting with Mark Ketcham at a school fundraiser. We are happy she had the winning bid and even happier she asked us to tag along. The tasting took place in Mark’s fabulous house in the Russian River area near the town of Healdsburg. Mark is one of many successful business owners we find today in the world of wine who, once retired from their successful businesses, decide to start a winery.  As the old saying goes, “To make a small fortune in the wine business, one must start with a large fortune!” Mark Ketcham has long been a wine aficionado, especially of Burgundy wines. When he sold his computer company, he set out to find the perfect spot for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As we sip his Pinot Noir wines, he tells us that he evaluated over 100 properties using a Harvard Business School evaluation method.  His home and his estate vineyard are located at the northern end of the Russian River Valley.  His vineyard is a stone’s throw from J Vineyard and Rodney Strong. But Ketcham has one thing not found at either one of those wineries, and that is water. There is a creek that runs along his property and provides a substantial water table. The clones of Pinot Noir Mark is using grow in a lateral direction. He chose those Pinot Noir clones so they would have some struggles in finding the necessary nutrients, instead of growing strait down into the water table. Mark has hired a full-time vineyard manager and has provided a home for him and his family on the property. Kudos to Mark on providing for his employee.

Mark admits that although he knows much about wine, he would never attempt to make wine. That, he leaves up the specialist. It is rather curious that Mark has had three or four winemakers since the first vintage of 2002. He began with winemaker Mike Browne of Kosta-Browne fame, and we got the vague notion that Mark must be quite demanding in what he expects in his wine. Mark recently hired a new winemaker, Mark Topel. Mark and his wife Donnis own the Topel Winery and have a tasting room in downtown Healdburg. The Topels’ winery is located in Hopland, about 35 miles north of Healdsburg. Mark and Donnis purchase grapes from Mark Ketcham, and I am assuming that is what led to the  Ketcham winemaking stint for Mark Topel. It was very fun to try the three Ketcham Pinot Noirs, different vintages and from different vineyard plots. The Pinot Noirs are well made and very delicious, and I think priced correctly compared to other Pinot Noir wines in the Russian River Valley.

Ketcham Pinot Noir

The bookcase is a secret passageway to Mark Ketcham’s wine cellar.

What we most enjoyed about our visit was when Mark took us downstairs and into his “man cave.” He walks towards a bookcase and reaches behind a book and viola! The bookcase is a doorway that swings open into a fabulous and well- stocked wine cellar. I spotted Burgundys, Bordeaux’s, Napa cult cabs, and even an Nebuchandnezzar bottle of Veuve Cliquot. A Nebuchandnezzar holds 20 regular bottles of wine. Holy smokes!

This was a special tasting for the school fund raiser. Normally all the tastings at Ketcham Estate are by appointment and done in the vineyards. Check the Ketcham Estate Website for additional information.  Should you want to visit other wineries in the area, check our Old Redwood Highway Wine Trail.


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    Wine Country Photographs 2013 – Our Favorites

    In 2013 we probably spent more days in wine country than any other previous year. We spent a full week in the Napa Valley in addition to some two-day getaways to the Valley. We took trips to Sonoma County, Mendocino and Paso Robles. We spent ten days at the North American Wine Bloggers Conference with a pre-trip to Lake Chelan, Washington, followed by the main conference in Penticton, British Columbia. We also spent one week in the Santa Barbara wine country. The highlight of our year in wine country was a four-week trip to France and Spain in October. We enjoyed two weeks in the Rhone Valley and Languedoc wine regions of Southern France and two weeks in the Priorat, Montsant and Rioja wine regions of Spain.

    In 2013 I shot nearly 10,000 photos during our visits to the wine country and these are my favorites of the year. I narrowed them down to 32 photos. They may not all be the best photos, but for us they bring back lots of wonderful memories. These photos are meaningful and delightful for us to view. I hope you also enjoy these photos.

    Wine Country Photographs 2013

    Click on the photo to view gallery of 2013 photos

    Click on the Napa Valley photo to view gallery of 2013 photographs


      Blending wines at Castello di Amorosa

      14 years to complete

      14 years to complete

      Castello di Amorosa

      The last time we had visited Castello di Amorosa was in May of 2007, shortly after it had opened to visitors. The winery was nearly completed except for a few landscaping details. Tours were fun but there were a few kinks to be worked out. Today all looks good as tourists flock to see this amazing castle and winery owned by Dario Sattui. It is a marvel! We were invited to Castello di Amorosa for a media event on Thursday, November 14. It was an event where each member of the wine blogging community tried our hands at blending five wines into a Super Tuscan wine.

      The Great Room prepared for the blending event

      The Great Room preparing for blending event

      We met in the Great Hall and, as you can see in the photo, the Great Hall features fresco paintings with brilliant images and colors that immediately catch your eye. All the important people were present to lead us through our blending exercise. This included the man himself, Dario Sattui, a very tall man dressed Italian in style. Flanking Dario Sattui was winemaker Brooks Painter, associate winemaker Peter Vellano, consulting wine maker Sebastiano Rosa, CEO Georg Salzner, and VP of Marketing Jim Sullivan. What a treat to be surrounded by all these wine gurus.

      image of brooks painter

      Winemaker Brooks Painter with Dario Sattui

      First we learned what constitutes a Super Tuscan wine. In the 1970’s a group of Tuscan winemakers wanted to produce wines outside of the very detailed restrictions of the Chianti area. They felt they could make better wines by using other varietals along with the Sangiovese grape. They made various blends adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make their Super Tuscan varietal. Today these wines made in Tuscany have their own official designation, IGT. This designation denotes wine of high quality and characteristically these wines are big and bold, and they command steep prices. The Castello di Amorosa winery makes a Super Tuscan Reserve they call La Castellana. We tasted the 2007, 2008, and 2009. They were all very delightful and elegant wines. They are pricey wines but deservedly so. It takes the best grapes, barrels, and attention to make a distinctive Super Tuscan.

      Blending a Super Tuscan wine

      It was our task to take five different barrel samples of the 2012 vintage and make our own Super Tuscan wine. We had a Sangiovese, two different Merlot samples, and two different Cabernet Sauvignon samples. This was my first taste of red wines from the fabulous 2012 harvest. Folks are raving about this harvest as being one of the best in many years. I must say that the barrel samples we tasted were quite delicious and in particular the Sangiovese. I can’t wait to try this wine. This Sangiovese juice will be bottled in June and perhaps released in 2014.

      Because I liked the Sangiovese so much I decided to make it the prominent portion of my blending experiments. In the first try I used 50% Sangiovese and equal parts of Merlot (Carneros) and Cabernet (Rutherford). I made a second blend but this time, 70% Sangiovese and 30% Cabernet from the Rutherford AVA. This one was my favorite and quite excellent in my humble opinion. One thing the blending exercise emphasized to me was that winemaking to a large extent is part art. It is a creative activity requiring expertise in taste, experience, and imagination. All in all, the blending exercise was a great educational experience.

      The blending session was followed by a gourmet lunch and the chance to continue tasting the fine wines produced by the Castello. As we concluded, each wine blogger was presented with a lovely bottle of the 2010 Sangiovese to enjoy at home.

      I was amazed to learn that all the Castello di Amorosa wine is sold online, at the winery, or to the wine club members. That means you will not find the Castello di Amorosa wines in any wine shop. If you want to sample the wines, mostly Italian style of wines, you must visit the winery to get started. The winery at this time of the year is looking spectacular. The fall colors of the vines make the castle look even more brilliant. General admission is $19 per person, free for wine club members, and includes a tasting of five premium wines. Tours are $34 per person, followed by a tasting of five premium wines. The winery is open daily and reservations are recommended. Check the Castello Website for more information.

      Brilliant fall colors at the Castle

      Brilliant fall colors at the Castle


        Grgich Hills and Robert Mondavi 2013 Blessing of the Grapes

        Mike Grgich savors Fume Blanc

        Mike Grgich savors Fume Blanc to toast the harvest

        What a wonderful experience to witness this annual tradition at two Napa Valley wineries this last Friday, August 30th. The blessing of the grapes is a tradition at both Grgich Hills (37th year) and at Robert Mondavi (48th year). Father Gordon Kalil from St. Helena’s Catholic Church gave the blessing at both ceremonies.

        We had the opportunity to be at Grgich Hills at 10:00 for the blessing of the grapes and later at 11:30 for the blessing at the Robert Mondavi Winery. Two ageless legends of the famed Napa Valley were on hand to welcome visitors, staff and members of the media.

        Blessing of the Grapes at Grgich Hills

        At age 90, Mike Grgich may be slowing down a bit physically but his delivery of words is inspirational. In this short video, Mike Grgich gives us his words of wisdom about the Napa Valley and his Grgich Hills wines.

        Blessing of the Grapes at Robert Mondavi

        Still lively and energetic, Margrit Mondavi is the face of the Robert Mondavi winery. She is charismatic and always a great ambassador for the wines and foods of the Napa Valley. We also heard from winemaker Genevieve Jennsens. But it is really Margrit who garners all the attention. In her comments, she made mention that when we sip our Fumé Blanc at lunch the spirit of Robert Mondavi is in that glass of wine. His influence stills rings forth at the winery and throughout the Napa Valley. On a lighter note she quips on the health aspects of wine: “There are more old winemakers than there are old doctors.”

        Following the blessing of the grapes, the invited guests were treated to a wonderful lunch. Even more meaningful is that each member of the staff at Robert Mondavi was also in attendance at the luncheon. It’s a magical scene to sit and look out onto the famed To Kalon Vineyards at Robert Mondavi.

        Genevieve and Margrit

        Genevieve and Margrit

        The 2013 Harvest

        Interestingly enough, we heard a contrasting view of the 2013 harvest from the winemakers at Grgich Hills and Robert Mondavi.

        At Grgich Hill, assistant winemaker Ivo Jaramez says that this year’s harvest may even be better than the 2012 harvest. On the other hand Genevieve Jennsens, winemaker at Robert Mondavi, indicates that the harvest for Mondavi may be a challenge; the early harvest requires more attention to the winemaking process. Still, she is optimistic and is looking forward to rest of the 2013 harvest.

        With the blessing of the grapes, we hope that both wineries have a very successful year throughout the 2013 harvest.

        Father Gordon

        Father Gordon


          San Francisco Prep High School churns out Winery Owners and Winemakers

          St. Ignatius graduates who are winery owners or winemakers

          In center Whitehall Lane G.M. Mike McLoughlin Class of 1979

          St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco has produced a very impressive list of alums working in the world of wine. The Alumni Department at S.I. forwarded me this list of graduates affiliated with wineries in the Napa Valley, Sonoma and beyond. I find it fascinating that so many grads from S.I. are owners of wineries and/or winemakers. My guess is if you looked at other high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area you would not find anything close to matching that of the St. Ignatius group. Perhaps in the Napa Valley, where wine folks live and send their kids to high schools such as St. Helena High, you would expect a large connection from its graduates to wineries, but from a San Francisco City school, it is totally unexpected.

          My friend Bob (a fellow alum and retired S.I. teacher and coach) and I paid a visit to Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena, owned by S.I. alum Tom Leonardini. We discussed the guys we each knew from S.I. who owned wineries and that prompted us to get a complete list from the Alumni Department at St. Ignatius High School. The list below shows the name of the winery, the individual, their graduation year, and their affiliation with the winery.

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            Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena – The Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding

            Amid the rain and wind this past Wednesday, we managed to squeeze in a tour and tasting at the Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena. Tom Leonardini and Family have owned the Whitehall Lane winery since 1993. Whitehall Lane is one of the Napa Valley’s earliest wineries with a start date of 1979. The winery is one our favorites, and we’d selected the winery for our Boutique Wine Trail back in 2003.

            This was our first visit since the winery did a remodel and an addition a couple of years ago. Although the building structure has changed, the personnel remains very much the same, anchored by winemaker Dean Sylvester now in his eighteenth year at Whitehall. Our tour leader was Mike McLoughlin, the General Manger who joined the winery shortly after the Leonardini Family purchased the winery. Consistency is good in this case; the Whitehall Lane wines have been highly regarded throughout its history, highlighted many times by the Wine Spectator for its reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

            Dean Sylvester the winemaker at Whitehall Lane

            Dean Sylvester is his lab checks the Sauvignon Blanc blend

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              Robert Mondavi 2012 Blessing of the Grapes

              Margrit Mondavi

              Margrit Mondavi

              What an exciting time to be in Napa Valley wine country when the grapes are harvested and brought into the winery to be made into wine. Even more exciting is to be at the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery for the Blessing of the Grapes, a tradition started in 1966 by Robert Mondavi.

              We were fortunate to be invited to the 2012 Blessing of the Grapes held on Monday, September 17, in the To Kalon Cellar of the Mondavi winery. To Kolan Cellar is a beautiful facility and one that echoes the memories of the great Robert Mondavi. The introductions were made by Margrit Mondavi, a gracious lady, so caring and gregarious. Winemaker Genevieve Janssens spoke about the outlook for this year’s harvest. After two previous difficult harvests, she is thankful that 2012 promises to be an outstanding vintage.

              Invited guests and most of the employees of the winery were on hand as father Ramon Pons blessed the first batch of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. About 50 small bins were blessed, sorted, and sent to the fermenting bin. Afterwards, the entire staff of the Mondavi winery and the invited guests were treated to a delightful Mexican buffet that was paired with Fume Blanc and Merlot wines.

              A short video of the ceremony


                Mike Chelini is Longest tenured winemaker in the Napa Valley at Stony Hill Vineyard

                Last week we toured three completely different Napa Valley mountain wineries. We visited Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain, Ladera Winery on Howell Mountain, and Nichelini Winery at the summit of Sage Canyon Road. This will be the first of three posts comparing these Napa Valley mountain wineries.

                Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley and one steeped in tradition. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the land in 1943 and released their first vintage in 1952. In 1972, young Mike Chelini began his stint as winemaker at Stony Hill and he continues in that position to this day. He loves his work, the land, and the owners. As he says “Life is good here at Stony Hill Vineyard.” When we asked Mike Chelini if he is the Valley’s longest-running winemaker, he says: “I think I am tied with Bill Sorenson over at Burgess.” Bill Sorenson began his stint at Burgess in 1972, so who knows who started first. Nevertheless, these are impressive careers for both these winemakers.

                Winemaker Mike Chelini Stony Hill Vineyard

                Winemaker Mike Chelini

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