Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for February, 2007

2007 Toronado Barleywine Fest Winners

Getting tired of beer labels, thought I’d run this photo of
Alaskan Brewing. A beautiful place, indeed.
Credit: 200306Alaska.html

SAN FRANCISCO – I walked out of the 17th or is it the 18th annual Toronado Barleywine Festival Saturday night with my head spinning. I was puzzled. After all, I’d only sampled eight beers and they were three-ounce samples. Hmmm. More in a minute.

This note: The fest continues all week until the beer is gone. If you’re reading this Sunday morning, my advice is go there today, the winners tend to be consumed fast.

Here are the winners of this growing, huge, excellent festival. Toronado proprietor David Keene said in all there were 90 judges (is that right, David?), who spent half a day picking the winners from 54 barleywines.

First Place: Big Nugget 200, Alaskan Brewing, Juneau, Alaska, My tasting notes: A deep copper beer with a thick tan head, toffee aroma. Taste is complex, inititally sweet, but with a growing tartness and warming alcohol. Wow! FOUR STARS. 11 percent alcohol, 75 IBU (International bitterness units). Comparison: Bud, 13 IBU, 5 percent ABV.

Second Place: Angel’s Share, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey, San Marcos.
My tasting notes: An opaque, dark brown, almost still with very little foam, like a real ale, which, of course, it is. Brandy nose from a minimum of six months in brandy barrels. Ahhh the taste. A huge initial sweetness, drowned quickly in a rush of wood, oak, vanilla, brandy and alcohol that fades into a fairly sweet follow with a tang of hops and warmth from the alcohol – 10 percent ABV. FOUR STARS. Best news of the day. This one’s bottled in 750 ml, corked bottles, and can be found as Port Brewing says, “at inspired locations.” For our list of good retail beer outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area, shoot me an e-mail at

Third Place. A tie.

Doggie Claws, Hair of the Dog, Portland, OR. My tasting notes: Brewer Alan Sprints makes this one as his holiday beer. It’s 11.5 percent ABV and 75 IBUs. Hugely sweet from the toffee aroma to the finish with great warming from the alcohol. A real sipper. THREE STARS. ***. It’s great to see this very fine beer recognized by a panel of judges. It’s bottled, but sells out quickly each December.

Anniversary 2004, Uinta Brewing, Salt Lake City, UT. My tasting notes: Another great beer, 9.8 percent alcohol, it’s produced year-round and sold in 12-ounce six packs. Haven’t seen it in the Bay Area, but I’m gonna’ look. Tasting notes: Liquid malty nose, sweet malt taste explodes in your mouth. Sweetness slowly fades into a warming alcohol finish. Wow. THREE STARS.

Also: David Keene said there were five other finalists besides the four winners:

Arctic Devil, Midnight Sun, Anchorage, AK. It was sold out by the time I got to the Toronado. Some way, I’ve never gotten a taste of this perennial favorite.

Bourbon Bigfoot, Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA. Another great beer. Sierra Nevada’s Steve Dresler says Jorg Rupf and Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. asked Sierra Nevada to make a beer that they planned to distill into a (I guess, a Bourbon-style whiskey) and age in barrels. When the project was finished, Dresler got the barrels, put regular Bigfoot in them. Oh my. Power-Bigfoot. Huge Bourbon nose. The wood and whiskey notes blend nicely with the major hops and malts of regular Bigfoot. This one’s a treat. FOUR STARS.

Barleywine, Cucapa’ Brewing Co., Mexicali, Baja California Norte, Mexico. I was fascinated by this one, the first-ever finalist from Mexico. It’s a craft brewer operating since 1999 in the border city of Mexicali. The name’s taken from a small band of native people who live along the Colorado River delta, the first humans to inhabit the Mexicali Valley. I tasted this one and loved it: Compared to some of the powerhouses in this festival, it was mellow. The taste is a bit of a shock, dry initially, then with a rising sweetness that lasts into a long follow. An excellent beer, indeed. THREE STARS.

–John Barleycorn 2006, Mad River, Blue Lake, CA.,

–Old Bluehair, Big Sky, Missoula, MT.

And finally, back to the beer I drank. I figured it out, eight three-ounce samples of beer that was all above 9 percent, one was 11 percent, another almost 11 percent alcohol. A regular California table wine’s about 12.5 percent. So doing a bit of ersatz algebra, I’m guessing I had the equivalent of about five glasses of wine.

Thank God I took BART. Saludos companeros.

Posted on Sunday, February 18th, 2007
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Wines and Guns!

God bless America. More specifically, the NRA. On the heels of everyone and their dog having a wine club (seriously, you think that sound from the backyard is him slurping on bones?), the association protecting our right to bear arms thinks a fusion of guns and alcohol is in order. Brilliant! Our country has one of the highest rates of alcoholism and homicide in the developed world. Let’s encourage irresponsible drinking and marry the two, feeding the beast a bit more. Can you just see the logo? A rifle crossed with a Burgundian bottle? Or perhaps balancing a cluster of grapes on its smoking tip? Does Heston spit? Would he lead tastings? Is he a Syrah man? Everyone knows that pepper and dark fruit go smashingly well with a 12-gauge shotgun. Post tasting group activities? We usually end up discussing restaurants or watching a movie. But the NRA Wine Club can head out for a round of shooting! Clink. Normally, the site’s currently down so I can’t link to it.

Posted on Friday, February 16th, 2007
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Pomerol, here they come

I just got this email from my friend Shirley, and I’m drooling. Just had to share:

“Last weekend, my boyfriend got his green card and promptly celebrated by walking straight to the wine shop in our ‘hood, Arlequin Wine Merchants (Hayes Valley).

He ended up buying a bottle of 1999 Chateau L’Evangile Bordeaux, a small part of LaFite Rothschild kingdom with grapes grown across a dirt road from Petrus in Pomerol. Ka-ching!

At first I kind of harbored regrets about drinking it right away. (I recently read a quote from a French sommelier who said, “You don’t drink Bordeaux. You store it.”) But since we don’t have a cellar or one of those humidity controlled storage units, we popped the cork (after dinner at CAV, of course! More on that later.)

The wine was pretty insane. Even at such a young age the complexity was so stunning, and so antithetical to New World or California wines as I think the general public knows them (insert comment on overly jammy zin here). It was at turns smoky, smooth, but backed by a distinct mineral flavor, which I would of course more plainly describe as “dirt.”

We drank the wine slowly over two days, and never with food (though it had quite enough tannins to cut through any rich dish). The truth is, we didn’t want to dilute the flavor of the wine. I know some might find that ridiculous, but frankly, I’m not sure when I’ll have a bottle like
that again, considering it probably cost 20 bucks a tablespoon.

We did share a tiny smidge of it with one of my best friends and her husband. She hates red wine, but she took a small swig from a port glass just for kicks.

She said if all red wine tasted that way, she’d drink it all the time. I think that pretty much sums it up.

PS: So the dinner at CAV: right now on the menu is this amazing seafood sampler that includes delicate smoked sturgeon, tender squid with chopped onion and home-cured lox served with cucumber salad and dill cream. We followed with a raclette-based fondue that was passable, but not our favorite. But throw in some vinho verde and Pouilly-Fume and you
have yourself a good time.

Posted on Wednesday, February 14th, 2007
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Rosenblum’s quarterly rager

The last winery we visited over the weekend was Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda. Lucky enough, they were having their quarterly open house. If you’ve been to Silver Oak’s biannual Cab release party, it’s similar, except over a period of two days, four times a year, closer to home and a far greater range and selection of wines. Need I say more? Also, Rosenblum features new releases and barrel samples in addition to current releases. All in all, a whopping 45 wines from some 14 appellations. You really can’t beat it.

We tried to pace ourselves, but it didn’t work. Jenny skips most whites (at least Chards), but Rosenblum makes beautifully crisp, well-balanced Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, tons of honeysuckle and tropical fruit, so we couldn’t resist. The standout for me was the 2005 Viognier Kathy’s Cuvee. Tons of apple and pear. But I didn’t want to pay $18 for it. On the edge of being too much for a white for me.

For all fans of Rosenblum’s San Francisco Bay Zinfandel — the grapes come from Contra Costa County, by the way, as do at least two other wines in their portfolio — the 2005 has a lovely mix of chocolate and dark fruit and a continued testament of the quality of local grapes. However, my takeaway zin was the 2004 Annette’s Reserve. It was gorgeous, with a lot of black tea tannins. But again, I didn’t want to pay $35 for a zin. I liked all the Syrahs, all nine of them.

People often ask me how I keep track of notes, and it’s not hard to do most of the time, when a tasting flight is 4-6 wines, a mix of reds and whites. Rosenblum’s event is five hours (noon to 5 p.m.), so we should have taken breaks, you know, between the 10 zins, but we powered through them and my mouth was a battlefield by 3:30 p.m. Note to self for next time: pace.

Also, we had that comatosing lunch at La Pinata. Had we known about the open house and the fabulous food — sausages and other grilled meats, cheeses, homemade wine ice cream — we would’ve skipped the sopes. It’s a great event and well worth it for $30. The next one is scheduled for May 19 and 20. Be prepared, they usually draw about 1,000 people each day.

Posted on Wednesday, February 14th, 2007
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Local fruit wines

The second winery we hit over the weekend was Adam’s Point Winery. It’s on Fourth Street in Berkeley, between Channing and Dwight, in a sort of converted garage. We thought we were going to Rubbisow-Sargeant, but it turns out they’ve moved the majority of their operations to Napa, even though their signage is still up. Adam’s Point has taken up residency in the spot.

Bill Galarneau, the winemaker, specializes in fruit wines (which is really big in the south and east right now, wherever there are orchards, basically). Jenny and I loved the Mango Papaya, it was dry enough to serve as a chicken or fish wine, maybe with the right fruit salsa or chutney on top of the dish. It was clean and crisp and sort of reminded us of the butterscotch wine from Old Lockeford Winery in Lodi.

Another favorite – we bought two bottles as gifts – was the Chocolate Flavored Dessert Wine. It was like melted Scharffen Berger and red table wine. We’re not port drinkers, but we liked it. My dad will love it, and sip it like sherry. As for the other wines, they were of the dessert variety — mango and persimmon. The alcohol was a sky rocketing 19 percent, like a heating pad on my chest going down. If you’re the type to pour sweet wines on cheescake or fruit salad, you should get your hands on this stuff. Unlike almond and raspberry sparklings that “add flavor,” Galarneau’s wines are made with fresh fruit. I was impressed.

Posted on Tuesday, February 13th, 2007
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Lost Canyon Winery

I’ll be blogging about local wineries a lot this week. I leave for Napa next week for a wine writer’s conference, and I want my palate to be nice and fresh for comparison. Here are the basics: There are about a dozen wineries in Alameda County (outside of Livermore Valley, in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda), and only half have tasting rooms. Many use grapes from appellations in Lodi, Napa and Sonoma. They have properties here for all sorts of reasons. For a listing, go to East Bay Vintners.

The first one we hit: Lost Canyon Winery on Dennison Street in Alameda, just on the other side of the U.S. Coast Guard. Jenny and I are troopers. We had plans to taste locally on Saturday, and endured the whole in and out of the car thing (we taste fast and spit a lot) in the pouring rain. Lost Canyon was a pleasant surprise. The tasting room is bright, empty and quiet, and when we arrived it was an attendant’s first day, so we learned about the wines together. They specialize in small lot Syrah and Pinot Noir (my favorite varietals au moment) in the $30-$40 range from Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Los Carneros. They don’t make more than 400 cases of anything.

The Pinots are very elegant and silky — my favorite was the 2004 Los Carneros Las Brisas Vineyard. It had subtle notes of mint and spice. For $40, I’d buy this wine for a special occasion. It’s worth it for a Pinot. As good as their Syrah was, there’s just as good options coming out of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for less. That said, the 2004 Russian River Valley Trenton Station Vineyard had incredible leather and meat. By itself on a cold night? Heaven, even for $35. My suggestion: Go to Lost Canyon, pick up a meaty Syrah then take it to La Pinata on Park Street in Alameda for lunch. Pretty much the perfect day.

Tomorrow: A local fruit wine maker.

Posted on Monday, February 12th, 2007
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Ballast Point Wins Bistro Double IPA Fest Gold

Hey look. Even bloggers get the flu. I’ve been down for four days, managed to crawl into work today (Saturday) at 7:30 a.m., but by afternoon I was just dead and I DID NOT MAKE IT TO THE BISTRO’S DOUBLE IPA Fest in Hayward today.

Hell and damn. It’s about my all-time favorite fest. Love them hops.

Just talked to Allison Cook at the Bistro and got the winners, chosen from a list of 50 Double IPAs by a panel of professional judges in a lengthy blind tasting Saturday morning.

Here are the results:

Gold Medal Winner: Ballast Point double IPA, Ballast Point Brewing, San Diego.

Silver Medal: Pliny the Elder, Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA.

Bronze: Hop Stoopid, Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma, CA.

Honorable Mention: White Knuckle Double IPA, Marin Brewing Co., Larkspur, CA.

People’s Choice: Pliny the Younger, Russian River, Santa Rosa.

The place was packed, Allison , who was holding down the bar tonight, said. The good news is the beer is still flowing. Vic Kralj, Bistro proprietor, will keep all the IPAs on tap until they’re gone.

Hint: Go to Hayward this afternoon. The Bistro’s at 1001 B St. in downtown Hayward.

Posted on Saturday, February 10th, 2007
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Get Thee to the Bistro Double IPA Fest This Saturday

OK, I’ve been under the weather with the flu for the last four days, but I’m coming out of the fog. Lots of things happening in the beer world. But something great’s happening here in the San Francisco East Bay tomorrow: The Bistro’s Double IPA Fest.

It’s the kickoff for the Bay Area Beerapalooza. This column ran two weeks ago in MediaNews papers:

Beer Season in February? Why Not?

FEBRUARY is the dark heart of winter — and even here in the Bay Area, where the sun usually shines, however coldly, historically it’s a lousy time to drink beer. No wonder. Who wants to drink a light, fizzy lager when there’s frost on the lawn or a cold, gray rain’s blowing off the bay?

The craft beer movement, which mostly eschews light and fizzy, has changed that in a big way. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Bay Area, In fact, we’ve become a destination for beer lovers around the world.

David Keene behind the bar at the Toronado.

It all began with the annual Barleywine Festival at the Toronado, a San Francisco bar that’s truly a mecca for those of us who like beer. Sometime back around 1990, proprietor David Keene noticed that he had several barleywines on tap. These beers are so strong that they’re approaching the strength of table wine, which averages about 12 percent alcohol by volume.
Why not have a little festival, he thought. Why not? It grew from there. This year, which David reckons is about the 17th or 18th annual, he expects upwards of 50 barleywines, from West Coast craft brewers, from the East and the Midwest and abroad. There’s professional judging, and beers remain on tap until they’re gone.

The next step in the transformation of February into a strong beer wonder-month happened in Hayward. Vic Kralj, proprietor of The Bistro, has a similar story, but with a different beer. Kralj says he began receiving so many over-the-top, uber-hoppy, uber-strong entries to his annual India Pale Ale festival that he decided to hold a separate fest: The Double IPA Festival. Like the Toronado’s Barleywine festival, it was a shot heard’round the brewing world.

Credit for the third element to our beery Bay Area festival goes to Tom Dalldorf and his Hayward-based Celebrator Beer News, the national, bi-monthly publication covering the craft beer movement. He noticed all the beer-filled events around the Bay Area in February — nearly every brewpub and good-beer tavern has events planned — and coined a word for it.

It is, he proclaimed, a “Beerapalooza.

And to cap the month, the Celebrator holds its own Beerapalooza anniversary party-beer blast after most of the other major events. One warning: All of these events feature strong beer. Bring along a designated driver or plan to take public transit or a cab. Interested? Here’s a list of major events:

– Feb. 1 through Feb. 28, fifth annual Strong Beer Month. There’s strong beer wherever you can usually find good beer in the Bay Area this month — at brewpubs and taverns. But Shaun O’Sullivan, co-founder and head brewer at 21st Amendment Restaurant and Brewery, 563 2nd St., San Francisco, and Dave McLean, founder and head brewer at Magnolia Brewery & Restaurant, 1398 Haight St., San Francisco, have made it their own. Each has brewed five strong beers. The idea is to visit each pub repeatedly during February, sample all 10 brews and win a prize. I have no idea what the prize might be. I’m not sure they do. I know there are special glasses and yes, T-shirts. I talked to Dave and Shaun the other night at the Toronado. They said the whole idea of strong beer month, beerapalooza and the fests have turned business around in February.

It used to be a slow month, Shaun says. No more. He told me one of his specials, a Belgian-style strong ale, was blended with 10 gallons of Lindemans Framboise, a Belgian lambic ale, made with wild yeast and fresh raspberries. The Lindemans had first been aged in an oak barrel. Whew.
Strong beer here

Feb. 10, seventh annual Double IPA Fest, The Bistro, 1001 B St., Hayward, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Music, food. Outdoor patio, tent. $20 admission buys five tastings. Call (510) 886-8525 or visit There will be professional judging and medals will be awarded.

Feb. 14, Beerapalooza Beer and Cheese Tasting, Rogue Ales Public House, 673 Union St., San Francisco. Craft beers, some rare and unusual, paired with craft cheese from Northern California cheesemakers by Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection, Sonoma. Doors open 5 p.m., pairing begins at 6. Tickets: $30 advance, $35 at door, if tickets remain. Call (415) 362-7880 for reservations. Hint: This event is becoming extremely popular and most likely will sell out, so if you’re interested, make a reservation now.

– Feb. 16, Beer and Chocolate Dinner, Cathedral Hill Hotel, San Francisco. This one’s sold out. A first for beer chef Bruce Paton, whose regular beer dinners have become increasingly famous. To get on the mailing list so you don’t miss the next dinner, e-mail Bruce at Late word: Bruce says the dinner is sold out. Damn.

– Feb. 17, Toronado Barleywine Fest, 547 Haight St., San Francisco, 10 a.m. until closing, and onward during the week until the beer runs out. Beers are listed on a chalkboard, pay by the glass. No cover. Hint: This is a total mob scene. Best to come late or on Sunday. However, the fest is professionally judged and the beers of the top five winners tend to go fast. Call (415) 863-2276 or visit

– Feb. 18, Celebrator Beer News 19th Anniversary Party, Trumer Pils Brewery, 1404 4th St., Berkeley, 4-8 p.m. At least 15 breweries will be pouring beer, live music, including the Anchor Brewery band, Cajun and barbecue food. Free shuttle will run continuously to and from the Shattuck Avenue BART station, $40. For tickets call (800) 439-BEER.

Posted on Friday, February 9th, 2007
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Fave zin: Cline Big Break 2003

Have we talked about Cline yet? I’ve never been a huge zin fan. Besides the annoying play on the word (sin vs zin never seems to get old for some people; why don’t more people play on shiraz. Like you bet shiraz!). Anyway, I’ve resigned to the fact that I just don’t have a palate for Smucker’s. I even prefer my jams less jammy than most; strawberry preserves with a hint of basil; blackberry jam simmered in brandy. But Cline knows how to make zinfandel to my palate. Bold, peppery, almost inky like a shiraz, and then wham — almost green. As I approach my 31st birthday, I can’t help but remember what my friends surprised me with last year — a limo ride to a day of wine tasting in Sonoma. Ah, my happy place. We had a private appointment at Cline and I’ll never forget the 2003 Big Break — it was minty! Gorgeous soft tannins and an intriguing finish. A friend recently asked me where my favorite place was for tasting in Sonoma — I’d have to go with Gloria Ferrer and Cline. The latter has free popcorn too. Word.

Posted on Friday, February 9th, 2007
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V-day gift for female wine lover

So, your girlfriend, wife, sister or mom loves wine and wishes she could splash it on herself instead of her usual perfume. Unfortunately, no one’s come up with fragrances by varietal yet. But I have the perfect gift for her anyway! Buy her a bottle of Caudalie Fleur de Vigne. If she likes fresh, energizing scents over heavy eau de toilettes, she’ll love it. The fragrance is made from the grape blossom and also has bergamot, black currant and green mate. It’s more aromatherapy, and it’ll remind her of all your favorite trips to wine country. The whole line of Caudalie is actually made using vinotherapy. The Kenwood Inn over in Sonoma has the only spa in the country that focuses on skincare and massage using grape seed extracts and other wine-related goodies made by Caudalie. I stayed there last year and all I can tell you is that it’s a real wine lover’s retreat. Sprawling wine country close enough to Gloria Ferrer and far enough away that you don’t know quite where you are. I bet they’re booked through the holiday but get a rain check. She’ll love you for it. Oh, and the fragrance is only $30 at Sephora, so you can STILL get her that bottle of Opus One. Cheers!

Posted on Wednesday, February 7th, 2007
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