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  • Castile in California's Foothills

    by Dan Clarke

    Vina Castellano Cave Entrance PicmonkeyVina Castellano tasting cave lies behind the doors

    Teena Wilkins says her late father, Gabe Mendez, was known as “Dr. Dirt.” Forty-five years ago he was operating a successful earth-moving and excavating business in Southern California, but wanted a less congested environment for his family—somewhere with fresh air and room for a few animals. When he bought 60-acres northwest of Auburn there were no wineries in Placer County and few, if any, vineyards. Nevertheless, Mendez thought his Northern California property resembled the homeland of his ancestors and had agricultural potential.

    Nearly 20 years ago Teena and her husband returned to California. They had been working in Florida; she in public relations and Craig in construction management. Gabe's business had made him successful, but it had kept him too busy to seriously consider developing his own property. At a family dinner, Teena heard her father mention that he might have enjoyed living the life of a farmer—perhaps working with wine grapes or olive trees. Teena was intrigued. She soon called UC Davis to see what she could learn about grapegrowing and winemaking.

    Teena Wilkins' mother was of Irish and American Indian ancestry—not much wine tradition there, but her father's parents had emigrated from Ribeiro del Duero in Spain. Wine was a part of everyday life in Teena's childhood, served in moderation with most meals and not just on special occasions. “My abuelita (grandmother) made 200-gallons of wine each year, but was using Mission grapes,” Teena recalls. “After moving to Northern California she found better grapes were available to her here.”

    Vina Castellano Teena in Cave PicmonkeyTeena explains cave tasting environment

    When the decision was eventually made to put in a vineyard about 15 years ago, Dr. Dirt “ripped and cross-ripped” the land in preparation for planting, says his daughter. He also excavated a cave which was originally used for barrel aging and later put to use as a unique tasting venue.

    To acknowledge the family's Castilian heritage the new wine estate was named Vina Castellano. Both Teena and her father Gabe felt their Auburn property had a terroir similar to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions and that they could grow the Spanish grape varieties planted there so Tempranillo was included among the varieties planted. “Fifteen years ago nobody had heard of Tempranillo,” recalls Wilkins, who nevertheless planted the Spanish grape. The family's early vineyard consultants had connections to the well-established Clos du Val. That French-owned winery was making mostly Bordeaux-styled wines from Napa Valley grapes. A Gallic influence was felt at Vina Castellano. “We really had more of a Rhône program the first couple of years,” she explains, adding that in addition to the Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache and Mouvèdre were also planted.

    Tempranillo, for all its popularity in Spain, accounts for only 1,000 acres in today's California and there was considerably less of it when Vina Castellano planted it 15 years ago. Other wineries here have begun making Tempranillo, but even now relatively few American consumers are familiar with it.

    In time, Vina Castellano began budding over Cabernet Franc and Syrah to Grenache and Mouvèdre. The latter two grapes are well-known in the Rhône Valley of France, but the same varieties are called Garanacha and Monastrell when grown in Spain. Further, these latter two grapes are often blended with Tempranillo. Redefined, those varieties stayed and the Spanish personality of the Vina Castellano estate was further amplified. As a fledgling operation, “we were coming into a market where we had no credibility and no traffic,” says Wilkins. “We heard from the beginning that we were going to have to be unique to give people a reason to want to visit the winery. Why try to do Bordeaux varieties when the best in the world are being made two hours away in a far different climate?”

    Vina Castellano Teena Victor Derek PicmonkeyTeena, Victor and Derek at onset of 2014 harvest

    As a small winery, Vina Castellano sells most of its wines from the tasting room. Teena's mother, Carolyn Mendez, pointed out that many of their visitors might not be red wine drinkers and that creating a white wine was in order. “I loved Albariño,” comments Teena, and that Galician grape would certainly fit with the Spanish profile, but Derek Irwin, her vineyard consultant and Spanish variety specialist, suggested they introduce Verdejo, a lesser-known Spanish white grape that Teena says has a flavor profile right between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Vedejo is another wine that helps differentiate her winery, feels Teena, who calls it an “educating wine,” allowing her to help consumers “to step out of the box.”

    Perhaps Vina Castellano chose to specialize in Spanish grape varieties primarily because of the family heritage, but the results seem to justify the decision from a grower's perspective, too. In addition to their Tempranillo bottling, the winery has produced wines dubbed “Abuelita” and “Abuelito” in honor of Teena's grandmother and grandfather. The former is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Garanacha, and Syrah. Comprised of Tempranillo, Garanacha and Monistrell, the Abuelito garnered a Double Gold at the 2014 California State Fair Wine Judging. It also was deemed the Best of Region for the Sierra Foothills and honored as the Best Other Red Blend in all of California.

    Gabe Mendez succumbed to prostate cancer in 2011. While he wasn't a lifelong farmer, he took an active role in the operation of Vina Castellano, frequently traveling to Spain to compare notes with vineyard owners there. His daughter Teena runs things now, with invaluable help from Derek Irwin and Victor Brambila, the vineyard manager and cellar master. Teena's husband Craig has a full-time job with DTR Construction, she says, but he and their two sons play the “weekend warrior” role with both vineyard and winery chores.

    How would Gabe Mendez have felt about the realization of the vineyard and winery he inspired? His daughter comments that she thinks he felt “it was a dream realized, maybe more than he expected. I think he was gratified that he had provided opportunity for his family.”

    Editor's note: Vina Castellano is one of 20 wineries in the fast-developing Placer County wine region. You can find links to the websites of all these wineries, as well as links to hundreds of nearby Lodging and Dining options in the Gold Country listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

  • Streaming Radio Launches “Bottle Talk”

    Rick Kushman and Paul Wagner PicmonkeyRick Kushman and Paul Wagner compare programming strategies

    TASTE News Service September 18, 2014 - Joined by some of the top names in the world of wine, award-winning writers Rick Kushman and Paul Wagner have launched a new streaming radio show that aims to break new ground in conversations about wine. Recorded at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, the show includes questions from listeners, interviews, wine recommendations, and an all-out assault on wine snobs everywhere.

    Kushman and Wagner are both well-known for their friendly and light-hearted communication styles, and they say they understand that every new wine show or blog pledges it'll be different. "But we're going to be different," Wagner said. "No, really," Kushman said.

    Kushman is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Barefoot Spirit, the story of the founding and unique marketing of Barefoot Cellars. He is an award-wining journalist and the wine commentator for Capital Public Radio, Sacramento's NPR affiliate, as well as a regular guest host for the station's highest profile show, "Insight."

    "Wine shouldn't make you feel as if you're being tested to join a secret Skull & Bones Society," says Kushman. "People who make wine too snooty should be sentenced to drinking boxed prune juice."

    Wagner, an industry veteran, teaches wine courses at Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. With Liz Thach and Janeen Olsen, he authored the book, Wine Marketing & Sales, Strategies for a Saturated Market, which won the Gourmand International Award for the best wine book of the year for professionals and he's is a regular columnist for Vineyards & Winery Management Magazine.

    "It's pretty easy to get started in wine," says Wagner. "All you need to know is which end of the bottle to open. Most people we run across can figure that part out. After that, it's all fun."

    Among the guests slated for the show are Warren Winiarski, whose 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the great Paris tasting of 1976 against top French Chateaux; Traci Dutton, Sommelier at the Culinary Institute of America; Master Sommeliers James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks of Texsom and the Dallas Wine Competition, and Ricardo Riccicurbastro, the President of the Federation of DOCs in Italy. Kushman and Wagner are currently trying to contact the booking agents for Pliny the Elder, Dom Pérignon, and Keith Richards, who they are pretty sure drinks lots of wine.

    "Bottle Talk with Rick & Paul" airs a new show every Thursday at 10 a.m. Pacific time at http://www.rickandpaulwine.com/. Prior shows are available on the site, as is information about sponsorship.

  • New Book Traces Holiday Traditions at San Diego Landmark

    Hotel Del Coronado holiday lights PicmonkeyHoliday lighting at The Del

    TASTE News Service September 18, 2014 - “Hotel del Coronado's holiday celebrations have always reflected the spirit of America itself,” according to author and Del historian, Christine Donovan. “For example, when the hotel opened in 1888, the nation was experiencing a renewed interest in the first Thanksgiving, which helped popularize our bountiful, Pilgrim-inspired harvest meal—a tradition that has held fast for more than 100 years.”

    The resort's original vacation season, when guests from Eastern cities spent the entire winter season at the hotel, mirrors today's current holiday season of Thanksgiving through New Year's. At that time, Hotel del Coronado helped put San Diego on the map, touting, “We are picking roses in the West, when you are freezing in the East.”

    A new book paying tribute to Hotel del Coronado's 126 years of festive celebrations. Hotel del Coronado Holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's is filled with vintage photography and printed pieces, including Del menus, invitations, and guest activity brochures. Also featured are authentic Victorian greeting cards and other vintage holiday artwork.

    The 160-page volume also sheds light on more recent traditions such as how the exterior lights are installed (thankfully, professional steeplejacks still exist) to what it takes to construct a seaside skating rink (besides a 40-ton crane). In addition, sections of the book detail decorating the interior of The Del (14 Christmas trees alone) and the history of the annual collector's ornament.

    Historic sidebars offer information on everything from the turn-of-the-century tradition of playing football games on Thanksgiving to how Victorians ensured the safety of their homes at a time when trees were illuminated with candles. A handful of vintage holiday recipes, as well as a Del-themed version of “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” round out this keepsake collection.

    Hotel del Coronado holiday book PicmonkeyAmerican Christmas history owes its roots to the Victorian period. Before then, Christmas was a relatively humble holiday, but by 1888, the country had become enamored with European-style celebrations. Drawing mostly from German and English traditions (and influenced by the popularity of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol), Christmas in America became more festive and children-centered. Christmas trees, greeting cards and even songs came into vogue, as did one very special person: St. Nick.

    Although many of America's Christmas traditions were established during the Victorian era, the nation's post-World War II prosperity put a new spin on the holiday with mass-produced holiday decorations (including artificial trees), a plethora of Christmas-themed merchandise, and the pile of toys under the tree increased proportionately.

    New Year's celebrations have also evolved. In 1888, socially-prominent Americans attended private or public balls, where dinner was served near midnight (as late as 1930, The Del's celebration started at 10:30 pm, with “supper” served at 11pm). New Year's Day, meanwhile, was reserved for “calls,” whereby society matrons and their unmarried daughters hosted single gentlemen for brief visits, a tradition that was also practiced by vacationing Del visitors.

    “The Del's holiday history is among its most requested,” concludes Donovan. “Our guests love learning how its traditions have evolved through the years as they make their own holiday memories at the resort.”

    Editor's Note: The Hotel del Coronado is one of the country's most storied properties. More information about its history and the holiday book can be found at the hotel's website. You'll find a link to it in San Diego's Coronado listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

  • Korbel Toasts Friendship of Five Military Friends

    Korbel Girlfriends Picmonkey Adrienne Dennis, Emilia Fernandez, Shannon Wilson, Rhonda Anderson and Kawryne "Tilly" Tillman

    TASTE News Service September 17, 2014 – American soldiers recently celebrated their friendship at Korbel Champagne Cellars in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. Korbel has been a part of life’s celebrations for more than 132 years and on this occasion they were hosting a celebration for the winners of a Girls Getaway contest.

    Across the country, women submitted toasts about their friendships and explained why their group of friends should be chosen to win the getaway.

    Major Shannon Wilson, from Countryside, Ill., shared a toast about the special bond she has with her fellow soldiers and how deployment of a year together built their enduring friendships. She tells how being thrown into the very hectic and different situations of deployment can bond friends so easily just like with her group of now lifelong companions.

    "My girlfriends and I toast life every day – and we have much for which to be thankful. I am thankful myself just to have them,” said Wilson. “Finally, a year is up, driving up to our Armory in Chicago while the Fire Department hoses our bus down to welcome us home and we are crying, laughing and hugging. We exit the bus and find three bottles of Korbel Rouge waiting for us! With our special Rouge, we toast to friends and life!”

    Wilson and four of her fellow soldiers and girlfriends – Kawryne “Tilly” Tillman, Emilia Fernandez, Rhonda Anderson and Adrienne Dennis – received four days of VIP treatment at the Korbel Winery. The trip included airfare and accommodations along with behind-the-scenes winery tours, working the crush with the winemakers, and gourmet meals prepared by the winery chefs, as well as poolside spa treatments at the winery.

    “This year is special because not only did we get to toast five great friends but three American soldiers whose service and dedication to our country makes us so grateful,” commented Gary Heck, owner and president of Korbel Champagne Cellars.  “Korbel is raising a glass to the special relationships women share with one another and the celebrations they share whether large or small.”