Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wines I'm Drinking: Windy Hill Estate Winery in the Petaluma Gap

Made an impromptu visit to Windy Hill Estate Winery in the Petaluma Gap today. Tasted some interesting wine. This is the winery up on the hills overlooking Highway 101 (on the left, going south) at the north end of Petaluma (although, officially, the winery appears to be in Rohnert Park). I've watched the number of vines on the hills increase over the years and always been curious about what was going on up there. On the way back from the city today, I decided to stop for the first time, lured by the hand-painted plywood signs offering wines from $6 to $11 a bottle.

There is little to see at the winery--except the view over the hills to the highway and beyond (see photo). It's just a small warehouse with a tiny tasting room on the side. There's a shed and there was a large bladder press sitting outside. The tasting room is nearly bare and painted pumpkin color with a low table and some chairs in it. When I walked in, a couple was sitting, talking to Bill (the only name I got), who was pouring and selling wine, seated behind the table. Except for the wine, I felt like I had walked in on a job interview.

The conversation was relaxed and lively. Bill mentioned my Alfa Romeo t-shirt and the conversation veered away from wine momentarily, running off in the direction of old cars before getting back to wine and the story of what was going on at Windy Hill Estate. I'm a bit sketchy, but it seems the winery was founded by a couple that has just divorced (the plywood signs mention that a divorce sale is going on). Whoever has been making the wines for the last seven or eight years doesn't seem to have had much interest in selling them. Apparently the warehouse is full of wine that needs to be moved. The 2006 and 2007 wines haven't even been bottled yet. Because of the divorce or a lack of space (or both), the winery is now getting serious about moving some wine--hence the low prices.  

I tasted a 2001 Chardonnay and three Pinot Noirs, a 2001, a 2002, and a 2003. The 2002 was a trifle too oaky for my taste. The 2001 was attractive and quite drinkable, but a bit light. The 2003, however, I thought an excellent wine and a steal at $9 a bottle. I bought several bottles and will be going back for more. 

According the winery's Website, this hill is where Christo's Running Fence installation began its run to the sea. Interesting.

I opened a bottle of the Chardonnay with dinner last night and a bottle of the 2003 Pinot Noir later. To be honest, I liked the Chardonnay less well than I thought I would based on first impressions, which is why when I reviewed wines professionally, I never based a recommendation on anything but a slow sit-down with a full bottle and a meal. Still, in the right circumstances and with the right food, this is an interesting wine and a good value at only $6 a bottle. I suspect that it will not appeal to those unfamiliar with the flavors typical of an older white. 

It was a brilliant, medium-deep golden color--very pretty in the glass. Powerfully scented--the sort of wine that comes up from the glass to greet you. Toasty scents, pepper (odd in a Chardonnay, but present), butterscotch, toasted grain--oatmeal biscuits, I finally decided was the truly characteristic scent. Very concentrated on the palate. Dried pineapple. Very long. Dry, but momentarily gives the impression of sweetness because of the concentrated fruit. A bit low in acid, although it finishes with a little tartness. Not multi-dimensional, but surprising persistence on the palate. The age is apparent in some sherry-like hints. With garlic-roasted pumpkin, very ripe melon and prosciutto, or similar foods, quite attractive, but, ultimately, doesn't sustain interest very long. Begins to feel a bit heavy-- although, for a California wine, it is comparatively low in alcohol, at 12.5%. I'd be interested to taste younger vintages, but I'm not sure they are still making Chardonnay.

The 2003 Windy Hill Estate Pinot Noir: At the winery, I liked this wine best. I still liked it after a leisurely tasting. It was a medium-garnet color, showing a bit of age. It had attractive red fruit scents (strawberries?), the scent of violets, and the scent of dried figs, with subtle oak. There were perfume-like floral scents besides the violets, but nothing I could pin down. Later, hints of cola and cinnamon. Good presence on the palate, fine tannins. Fairly soft, but with attractive acidity. Chocolate and dried figs again. Overall, balanced and satisfying, if not terribly complex. I suspect this will improve further. Definitely worth buying at $9 a bottle. I will be going back for more. I have heard that the 2005 is very good, but that does not yet appear to be available.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Music I'm Listening to: San Francisco Symphony

Going into the city tonight to hear the San Francisco Symphony. We'll be hearing music from L'Arlisienne by Bizet, Poulenc's Organ Concerto, and The Lark Ascending and Symphony No. 4, by Vaughan Williams, an interesting and unusual program. I know the organ concerto from a recording I've had for years. It should be fun to see/hear it performed.

[Update: After the concert]

I really enjoyed watching guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Very dynamic--actually jumping up into the air once or twice. I don't know if it was him or the orchestra was just having a particularly good night, but the players were in top form. There was a particular crispness and tightness to the playing tonight. The only exception was the very first of the Bizet pieces, which felt a trifle loose, but it was an excellent concert overall. It was a lot of fun. I recognized the conductor's name immediately, and, as I suspected, he's the son of the famous French cellist Paul Tortelier, whom I know from recordings. 

The organist for the Poulenc was wonderful--and, again, a lot of fun to watch. Playing with his back to the audience, it was easy to see every move of his feet on the pedals, to see his hands moving over the multiple keyboards, and to watch him pulling and pushing the stops. I have always liked the piece, although it's a rather obscure one. I should dig out my recording of it and listen to it again. It was a lot of fun to hear live. The soloist, Paul Jacobs, was impressive.

Nadya Tichman was the soloist in The Lark Ascending, which was well played, I thought

The (rather long) program ended with the Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 4. I noticed Joseph Edelberg, concertmaster of the Santa Rosa Symphony, among the violins in the last piece--which employs a huge orchestra including no less than five French horns. I was interested to see that the Poulenc piece is scored for strings only, aside from the organ and a single tympanist. Funny that I had never noticed that in listening to the piece. There are no woodwinds or brass in it at all.

Dinner at Absinthe afterwards. After the concerts, we always seem to end up there. I guess it's because they serve late and usually have room. I like the food generally, the wine list is not bad, and the service is generally attentive, but it can be VERY loud. Had a really good beet soup and oysters with a glass of Vermentino di Gallura--a nice dry white from Sardinia (Gallura, in the north of Sardinia, to be specific).

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. 

Miscellaneous: Erotic Cactus Flower

Cacti are blooming in the big garden. I've never been able to identify these, but the flowers are spectacular. I snapped this shot with my iPhone. I hadn't noticed at the time, but, looking at it now, it seems wonderfully erotic.

Is it just me? 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Music I'm Listening to: Green Music Center

I had the pleasure of touring the Green Music Center today, still under construction, in Rohnert Park, a few miles south of Santa Rosa. It promises to be a very big improvement over the Luther Burbank Center (also known as the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts) in Santa Rosa. It will be the new home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, when they finally finish building it. I think the tours were designed to encourage new donations, as money appears to be an ongoing problem. I must say I was impressed. I'll probably donate again, so I guess the strategy worked.

It reminded me very much of Casals Hall, in Ochanomizu, Tokyo, but it is modeled after Tanglewood. Like Tanglewood, it has a back end that opens to allow outdoor listeners to enjoy concerts in good weather. The woodwork is beautiful. The stage is maple, the floors fir. The floor will not be carpeted, which is good for acoustics, but every moved foot, every dropped pen will be audible--along with the usual cough drop wrapper accompaniment, no doubt. (I'm sure I'm not the first to think of it, but I want to compose a short piece for cough, candy wrapper, shuffling feet, and program page.) That aside, it sounded good from what we could hear. The echo is terrible at the moment, but there are no seats in place yet, there was no audience, and every new hall takes a year or so to "tune." It promises to be very good. A pair of clarinetists was on hand to demonstrate the sound. They seemed enthusiastic about the hall from the performer's point of view.

No expense has been spared. The new hall seems to have everything, from world-class facilities for guest soloists and conductors (including rooms with private baths), to computer-controlled risers for the orchestra seating, and a climate-controlled area for storing instruments. 

In addition to the main performance hall, there is a spacious lobby (itself designed as an event space with enough seating to allow the entire orchestra to serenade the room from a second-floor balcony), a recital hall seating 250 (the main hall will seat 1,406, slightly fewer than the 1,560 the Luther Burbank Center seats--I hope I got the numbers right), classroom space, and more. The seating capacity is the one thing that is disappointing. I would have expected more seating, rather than less. The guide pointed out that the outdoor space will seat 3,000, but that will not be usable all year long, nor is the sound likely to be ideal.

Still, I'm optimistic. The facilities seem likely to attract some of the world's best performers. I just hope prices don't rise so much that it becomes unaffordable for all but the rich. They've already said parking will no longer be free (as it is at the Luther Burbank Center--sorry, Wells Fargo Center). The arts should be for all. That said, someone does have to pay for the arts. Here's to hoping that our community and surrounding communities can sustain this place. 

The guides said that special tours can be arranged for out-of-town or overseas guests. Come visit me. Let's go. Art is all around. Let's drink it in.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Plants I'm growing: First Blooms--Columbine, Trillium

Other flowers just coming into bloom yesterday included the yellow columbines and the Trillium at the back side of the house, as well as the Peruvian verbena at the front. The Columbine is a very large, long-purred variety that freely crosses with the native columbine I grow (Aquilegia formosa). The crosses are very pretty, but don't come true from seed, of course. Wish I could propagate them. 

The Trillium, another of those woodland wildflowers that remind me of Ohio, do very well in the rather different climate here. I need to figure out what species this is. Clearly not one of those that lives happily in the much wetter East.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Plants I'm growing: First Blooms--Roses and Phlomis Lanata

The Phlomis lanata in the garden started blooming today (pictured) as did the "New Dawn" climbing rose on the back fence (pictured) and the rose "Cocktail." Nearly all the roses are going strongly now. I'm not especially a rose fan, but the old-fashioned single-petaled ones remind me of the wild roses I saw as a child in England, in Somerset (Taunton). I like these very much. "New Dawn" is an old-fashioned climber with quintessentially rose-like buds--chaste almost.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Miscellaneous: Farmers' Market

Went to the Saturday farmers' market in Santa Rosa this week, as I try to do when I can, usually shortly before closing at around noon. Bought oysters for dinner tonight, checked out the tomato plants (found "Purple Plum," one of my favorites), and talked to the beekeepers. There was a man with a display hive--not a usual feature of the market--the sort with honeycomb between glass, so you can see what's going on inside. It reminded me of the one that used to be at the Dayton Museum of Natural History. On visits to Ohio from New York to visit my Grandmother, the museum was always a highlight. Last time I saw the museum in Dayton, they had destroyed the place.

I took some photos at the market. I liked the colors of the eggs for sale and I almost always pick up some of the wonderful smoked fish, like the pepper smoked salmon in the picture here. No sea urchins this time.
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