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On Saturday morning, Laura and I joined our new friend DeAnna Morrison for breakfast at the Cowgirl Cafe downtown. We had a full day of wine tasting ahead of us, so a hearty breakfast was in order.

cowgirl cowgirl laura DD

We had our handy bible PR Wine Guide 001 with us, so while we were enjoying our breakfast, we mapped out our day. We decided the first stop would be at Brian Benson Cellars. As his blurb states “I’m the only employee, I’ll be there to enjoy them with you”. Sure enough, Brian was behind the counter and we had a nice visit while tasting his phenomenal wines. His ‘05 rated a WOW from me, and the ‘06 Zin got an OMG. His total production is less than 1,000 cases a year. By the way, Brian is 26 on has been making wine since he was a little boy. His folks, who have Dark Star Cellars next door, gave all their children little barrels at an early age and had them try their hand at making wine. Brian took right to it and actually had to wait until he turned 21 to open the doors and release his first vintage.

brians 1st barrel

This also gave us an opportunity to make good use of our Wine Country Outings Journals. DeAnna came up with this clever idea, which gives you entry spots for 32 “outings” with room to make notes of which wineries you visited, which wines you drank and what you thought of them. You can also get them stamped like passports at participating wineries who also offer free tastings with the journal, so it’s a great investment at $19.99. wco journal

Our next stop was simple. We walked through the door into the tasting room of Dark Star Cellars. Norm and Susan Benson are Brian’s parents. They produce around 3,000 cases annually. Norm is the winemaker and he produces Bordeaux and Rhone blends and stand alone varietals. The ‘06 Zin and ‘05 Merlot got high marks for me and I thought the ‘05 Ricordati (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) was outstanding. Ricordati is Italian for “always remember” and is dedicated to the memory of those who have left our lives. Norm learned the business by working in wineries and is a hands on winemaker.

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We stayed on the west side of 101 on went just a bit down to road to Caliza Winery. Carl Bowker is the winemaker and I have to say he flat out makes one of the finest Syrahs I have ever tasted. The ‘06 is simply a masterpiece. We also thoroughly enjoyed his ‘06 Azimuth blend. Carl says his wines are like his children and it’s hard for him to pick a favorite.

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DeAnna had never been to Fratelli Perata, so it was our turn to show her one of our favorite places. When you visit Fratelli Perata, odds are pretty good you’ll find Carol Perata behind the tasting counter. Carol is a delight. She’s as low key and down to earth as they come and she pours one outstanding wine after the next. We tasted eight wines on our visit, loving the Super Tuscan “Bambino Grande” and the ‘05 Sangiovese. Their just released ‘07 Zin has hints of nutmeg and is delicious.

If the name Terry Hoage rings a bell with you, you may remember him from his years as a safety in the NFL, where he spent time with the 49ers, Oilers and Cardinals. Nowadays, Terry and his wife Jennifer are the hands on winemakers and owners of Terry Hoage Vineyards. Terry developed a taste for fine wine during his time on the road and he and Jennifer are making some very tasty wines of their own. They have 17 1/2 acres and everything is estate grown. The ‘08 “Bam Bam” rose is full of strawberries and we enjoyed the ‘06 “The Hedge” Syrah and ‘06 “5 Blocks” blend as well. The wines all bear names that reference Terry’s playing days.

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It was nearing 4:00 and it was definitely time for a bite of food. We headed south to the Templeton Market & Deli and had some of their scrumptious deli sandwiches. From there it was east to Creston where our first stop was August Ridge Vineyards. The Templeton and Creston areas are magnificent, with plenty of open land. As you head up the driveway to August Ridge, you’re struck by its austere beauty. In the tasting room we met owner and winemaker John Backer. Wife Jill was tending to a sick child. The tasting room has been open for two years and is very comfortable. Arneis is a white varietal you don’t often see and we found the ‘08 vintage to be a tasty and complex wine. He also poured the ‘06 Nebbiolo, a classic Italian varietal and the ‘06 Sangiovese. We were impressed by both. At that point, John pulled out his thief and we did some barrel tasting: ‘07 Sangiovese (needs more time in the barrel) and the ‘07 Cab (shaping up very nicely). We also fell in love with the ‘06 Barbera and ‘05 Sangiovese.

august ridge label august ridge winemaker thief august ridge august ridge barrels

We weren’t done yet. Our next to last stop was at Cass Winery. We found Steve and son Bryan Cass sitting at a table on the patio and we joined them for a tasting and a visit. Steve’s tasting room is incredible. There’s a full kitchen and the entrance into the barrel room is made to the exact proportions of a wine barrel. On a visit to South Africa, Steve was struck by the quality of the wines he tasted, and he wound up hiring a South African winemaker, Lood Kotze. Chef Jacob Lovejoy prepares lunch from noon to four and is on hand to cater special events. All of the wines at Cass are 100% estate grown. We tasted the ‘08 Viognier, Roussane and Oasis Rose as well as the ‘06 Syrah, thge ‘06 Rockin’ One Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Grenache blend and the ‘06 Cab Franc and Cab Sauv. Lood makes some very tasty wines and you can’t beat the setting at Cass.

cass tasting room steve cass 2 brian cass 2

From there it was time to head back to Paso for Pear Valley’s charter member wine club party. Tom & Kathleen Maas opened Pear Valley Vineyards earlier this year and they have done a sensational job. The tasting room is elegant, contemporary, spacious and light. They are producing fine wines, with their first vintages of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and their “Distraction” blend showing tremendous potential. There was a good sized group on hand and we all enjoyed the wines accompanied by a delicious dinner. Add Pear Valley to your list of Paso place to see on your next visit. Coming up, the last day of our unforgettable visit.

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