Our Incredible First Experience with San Diego's Wine Xplorer

Image courtesy of  Wine Xplorer.

Image courtesy of Wine Xplorer.

It was hard to believe we were in Escondido.

Sally and I dined at a winery, in a beautiful room with 30 guests seated at a long table. An award-winning chef prepared a delicious six course meal. Each course was expertly paired with a different wine, and the winemaker talked about her wines as they were served. An opera singer entertained us throughout the evening.

You'd expect an experience like this in Napa Valley or perhaps Sonoma. Maybe in one of the famous wine regions in Italy, France, or Spain. But Escondido?!

This town just north of San Diego isn't exactly known for wine. Yet we were very surprised after an incredible evening organized by Roberto Avila, owner of the San Diego wine tour company, Wine Xplorer.

The Winery

The winemaker's dinner was held at Altipiano Vineyard and Winery in Escondido, California. It's a small production winery that makes about 1,400 cases of wine per year.

Winemaker Denise Clarke shared a little history with the group. She and her husband, Peter, had grown avocados on the property until their grove was destroyed by wildfires in 2007. Clearing the land gave them an opportunity to start anew, and they planted grapevines in the spring of 2008. Clarke's first vintage was 2012.

Frankly, we had low expectations for the wine coming in. We've tried a lot of local wineries and most that we sampled just can't compete with wines from more established regions. But Clarke was passionate about her craft, and it showed in the quality of her winemaking. (Favorite quote, “I know my own dirt.”)

These wines were good.

We always try to learn from winemakers, and Clarke graciously answered our questions throughout the evening. For example, you often hear about wine aged in French, American, and sometimes Hungarian oak. But what does that really mean? Each type of oak tends to impart different flavors, and Clarke explained that Hungarian oak gives off flavors like “Mom’s apple pie.”

The Pairing Menu

Chef Francesco Basile collaborated with Clarke to create a special menu for the evening.

Chef Basile is the chef and owner at Antica Trattoria, our favorite restaurant in San Diego. While Antica's menu is delicious, we know Chef always takes things to the next level for special events.

First Course: Altipiano Pinot Gris, 2014. Paired with crispy brie and mango mint salsa

Amuse-bouche of crispy brie with mango mint salsa.

Second Course: Altipiano Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013. Paired with duck liver pate and cabernet poached pears.

Duck liver pate with cabernet poached pears.

Third Course: Altipiano Sangiovese Estate Reserve, 2016. Paired with sangiovese risotto with roasted oyster mushrooms, crispy prosciutto, and robiola cheese.

Sangiovese risotto with roasted oyster mushrooms, crispy prosciutto, and robiola cheese.

Fourth Course: Altipiano Syrah, 2016. Paired with ricotta cavatelli with wild boar ragu.

Ricotta cavatelli with wild boar ragu

Fifth Course: Altipiano Petite Sirah, 2016. Paired with espresso-dusted veal loin with petite sirah reduction and prunes.

Espresso-dusted veal loin with petite sirah reduction and prunes

Six Course: Altipiano Primitivo, 2013. Paired with... chef's surprise. Sadly, we missed this one as we had to leave a bit early so we could get home and let our puppy out.

The Entertainment

Tenor Rosario Monetti and his accompanying musician really sent the evening over the top. Monetti sang classic Italian love songs while we dined and engaged the audience throughout. 

Book Your Tour

Avila organized a top notch event, and made sure everything ran smoothly throughout the evening. He was there to greet everyone as they arrived, and spent time with each of his guests to create a more personalized experience. His eye for detail was fantastic.

Avila’s company, Wine Xplorer, offers tours of San Diego-area wine regions such as Ramona and Temecula and also ventures down to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. After our wonderful evening, we highly recommend you book a tour!

Posted on January 27, 2019 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

How to Host an Easy Wine and Beer Pairing Party

It's always fun to experiment with wine pairings. There are equally endless pairing opportunities with beer, too!

So we decided to take things up a notch and host a pairing party. We gave it a "Better Together" theme to acknowledge both the pairings and the friends we were bringing together.

Here's our step-by-step guide so you can host your own wine and beer shindig.

Zinfandel and meatball pairing station for the Better Together party

Step 1: Pick Your Beverages

We were expecting about 20 guests, so we opted for three wines (two red and one white) plus two beers. It's nice to have a variety both because your guests may have different tastes and it allows you to explore some different pairing combinations.

Plan for 1/2 bottle of wine and 2 bottles of beer per person. We bought four bottles of each wine and two cases of each beer, knowing we'd likely have plenty of left over.

Yes, things could get out of hand quickly if everyone actually drank that much. Keep in mind some people may gravitate towards certain drinks while other people will try them all. We could have gotten away with less, but that might mean late arriving guests could miss out on trying one or more pairings. 

We opted to have more than enough of everything.

All of our wine selections retailed for less than $20 and were purchased at San Diego Wine Company. They offer amazing prices by working with their sources to find special deals on outstanding wine.

The beer came from Costco. I probably don't have to explain that one

Here's our lineup:

  • 2016 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier
  • 2015 The Calling Pinot Noir
  • 2014 League of Rogues Zinfandel
  • Pacifico Mexican Lager
  • AleSmith San Diego Pale Ale .394


Step 2: Select One Food Item to Pair with Each Beverage

Our go-to guide to make us smart on food pairing is What to Drink with What You Eat

The book takes the guesswork out of fantastic pairings. Just look up whatever you are drinking and the book will suggest some excellent food pairings. The book also works vice-versa, so you can look up a particular food and select the perfect beverage to go with it.

Truth be told, Chef Sally also spent quite a bit of time researching various cooking magazines and websites for recipes that would appeal to a wide range of palates and go well with our drinks.

We also have a few friends with different dietary restrictions. For instance, we tried not to make every pairing include meat so our vegetarian friends would have plenty to sample.

Here were our pairings:

Chenin Blanc/Viognier with Mediterranean Farro Salad

Chenin Blanc/Viognier with Mediterranean Farro Salad

Pinot Noir with Zucchini Wraps

Pinot Noir with Zucchini Wraps

Zinfandel with Texas Smokehouse Meatballs

Zinfandel with Texas Smokehouse Meatballs

Mexican Lager with Chili Verde Pork

Mexican Lager with Chili Verde Pork

Pale Ale with Buffalo Chicken Pinwheels

Pale Ale with Buffalo Chicken Pinwheels

We also added some cheese, crackers, carrot sticks, hummus dips, fudge, and pound cake bites plus plenty of water and soda.

Pro-tip: Select food that's easy to eat with one hand, so your guests can have a drink in one hand and use the other to nibble.


Step 3: Set Up Your Stations

We put out all of the pairings in distinct stations to make it obvious what food we were pairing with each drink.

It's fun to get your guests' input on which pairings really work, so we also put out white boards and dry erase markers by each station and asked our guests to vote on each pairing they liked.

Pairing station set up with food, beer, taster cups, napkins, and plates.

Here's our supply list for each station:

The TOSSWARE cups were a clutch move.

We didn't have enough glasses to set up five pairing stations for 20 guests and we didn't want to use plastic cups that taste, well, plasticky. The cups are 100 percent recyclable and didn't impart a plasticky taste on the drinks. 


The Winner!

Our party was a success and our guests had a lot of fun. The winning combination was the zucchini wraps paired with the 2014 The Calling Pinot Noir! 

The winner of our Better Together pairing party was The Calling Pinot Noir and zucchini wraps.

People really liked the Pinot Noir. A lot. It sells for $37 at the winery, which is still probably too low for a wine this good. And we got it for less than $20. Wow. 

The pairing was also terrific, with the herbaceousness of the wraps blending well with the slight earthiness of the wine. 

The other pairings also received rave reviews, with the only mixed bag being the Chenin Blanc/Viognier and Mediterranean farro salad combo. Some liked that one while others thought the mix wasn't quite right.

All in all, our guests had a great time and we did, too!  

Posted on May 18, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

First Impression: Wineries in Fallbrook

Our terrible photography skills are on display outside The Rib Shack in Fallbrook.

It started with a quest for barbecue. 

Our friends Alisa and Ken told us about a great place in Fallbrook called The Rib Shack. Another couple we're friends with, Karin and Jeff, recently went there too and confirmed it was legit.

So Sally and I decided to take a Sunday drive to Fallbrook for some barbecue. Fallbrook is an unincorporated community in northern San Diego County, so we thought it might make for a nice ride. And hey, while we were up there, why not check out a few wineries?

First, we're happy to report the barbecue at The Rib Shack is outstanding. Sally is a Texan with a pretty high barbecue standard, and she enthusiastically declared it barbecue she could stand behind.

On to the wine.

There are only a few wineries that are open for public tastings on the weekend. (A few others do tastings by appointment only.) Our new friend, Marcia, at Toasted Oak Winery gave us this cool hand drawn "Almost a Wine Trail" map of wineries that are open for walk-in tastings on the weekend. Most are open 12pm-5pm.

Fallbrook Almost a Wine Trail Map

You can download a PDF of the map here. The Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce also has a more extensive list of wineries available on its website. 


Toasted Oak Winery

There's a cool story behind the name. The entire property was burned by the 2007 Rice Canyon Fire and only one oak tree survived. That's the toasted oak you see here.

The surviving oak tree at Toasted Oak Winery.

Owners Marcia and Roger bought the property in 2008, but just opened their tasting room in April, 2017. The winery consists of two acres and they produce approximately 200 cases per year.

Marcia was our host in the tasting room and she was a lot of fun! It's clear that she enjoys sharing wine, just like us.

One thing I really appreciated is Marcia didn't try to give us tasting notes before we actually tried the wine. (Huge pet peeve!) In fact, she asked us what tastes and smells we were getting from the wines and compared them to her own notes. That's truly the way to taste wine since there's no right answer, and it made for a great experience.

We also enjoyed listening to Marcia's stories about running a small winery. She explained how the high price of oak barrels has made them rethink their oak program and even consider using flex tanks for future vintages in an effort to keep costs down. Winemakers will often add barrel staves or oak chips to impart oak flavor despite not using oak barrels.

Sally and I generally aren't fans of this winemaking style, but you can easily understand why a winemaker would choose to do this. The wines were all priced at either $25 or $28 per bottle and its hard to keep those price points at a small production winery.

It was also fun to hear how she and Roger navigated a lot of ups and downs that come with running a small winery, such as a bought of a grape fungus called botrytis that wiped out 75 percent of their crop one year and the scare of a big fire last fall.

This winery is definitely worth a visit if you decide to tour the region!


Estate d'Iacobelli Vineyards and Winery

This experience could not have been more different than our visit to Toasted Oak Winery. 

Our host didn't know much about the wines she was pouring and didn't seem to care. We tried asking a few questions, such as how the wines were aged and were consistently met with a flat "I don't know."

It's okay to not know. We never expect anyone to be an expert and it's perfectly fine to look something up or ask someone. But it's a huge bummer when the person pouring your wine doesn't even care and can't be bothered to try.

Strangely, many of the current releases were from the 2010 vintage, which is unusually old wine for a winery to be pouring for tastings right now. You expect a little brick coloring on wines as they age, but the 2010 Sangiovese was extremely brick in color. It had a distinct raisin taste, which usually suggests the wine may have been "cooked" or overheated at some point.

We asked our host if the brick color was normal and she again replied, "I don't know," before adding, "I don't really pay attention to the color of the wine." Yay.

The lack of any enthusiasm was a little disappointing. The good news is there are more wineries in Fallbrook for us to try the next time we go on a barbecue run!

Posted on February 25, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences, Adventures.

A Visit to Napa Valley After the Fires

Note: This post was originally published on the Inside Customer Service blog.

"I didn't know if I'd have a job to go back to."

That's something Sally and I heard over and over from winery employees, restaurant servers, and other customer service professionals we encountered in Napa Valley.

We visited during the first week in November. By then, the multiple wildfires that spread throughout the valley in October had been extinguished. The loss of life and property was terrible.

Now locals faced another potential disaster—job losses.

An estimated 9,000 people lost their jobs due to the October fires throughout Northern California, including Napa Valley. Many are worried that job losses are yet to come as the local economy deals with the aftermath.

My wife and I consistently heard one message while we were in Napa. "We're open for business. Please come to visit."

The view outside  Benessere Vineyards , makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

What Actually Burned

It's tough to follow a disaster on the news. Print and television media often confused the basic geography of the area when reporting on the fires.

As a result, people I've spoken to from around the country saw coverage of the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties and assumed everything was burning. In reality, there were multiple fires that were large and devastating, though the majority of Napa Valley emerged unscathed.

That's not to say the damage wasn't extensive.

Lives and homes were lost, which is the most tragic consequence. We saw images like these throughout certain parts of the valley.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The hills surrounding parts of the valley were also extensively burned as the fire raged unchecked through the backcountry. For those who haven't visited the area, Napa Valley is quite rural in places.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

One stroke of luck was the grapevines themselves acted as a natural firebreak. Many wineries were saved when the fire was stopped at the edge of the vineyard. At William Hill Estate Winery, one of our favorites, the signed was burned and the flames crept up to the side of the winery.

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Images like this might discourage you from visiting, though the wine was flowing, the wine room and surrounding garden were still intact, and the hospitality was still warm and friendly.

Even parts of the area that didn't burn were impacted by a thick cloud of ash and smoke that hung over the valley for several days. Some wineries lost grapes not from fire but from the air. Wine made from grapes exposed to smokey air can develop a distinctly unpleasant smoke taste.

Everywhere we looked there were remnants of soot from the fire. Workers at the Soda Canyon Store told us it took them three days to clean the store before they could reopen. I'm happy to report the store is now clean and the sandwiches are as delicious as ever.


The Economic Impact

Sally and I rented a house in downtown Napa for a week-long working vacation.

We secured the rental months earlier. A week or so before our trip we weren't sure if it was still a good idea to go. I emailed the property manager and asked.

She quickly replied and asked us to please come. The house had experienced a number of cancellations during one of the busiest times of the year. Her business, like so many others in the valley, could really use the revenue.

The valley is still sorting out the long-term economic impact of the fires. There will be costs to rebuild houses and businesses as well as replace burned out vehicles. 

We consistently heard about cancellations. The upside is we often had personalized tasting experiences like this one at Saintsbury.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

That was good for us, though not so great for the winery. The Napa Valley Register shared a recent story indicating many wineries have seen the number of visitors decline considerably over this same time last year.


How to Help

The best thing you can do is plan a trip to Napa.

The area is beautiful. Most of the wine and wineries are perfectly fine. The fall can be a special time of year as the leaves on the vines change. Some places are just magical.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

You can also buy Napa wine if a trip is not in the works. Your local wine shop is sure to have some great selections. You can also buy directly from a favorite winery and have it shipped directly to you.

Finally, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. This is an organization that works closely with other local nonprofits to funnel money to areas where there's the greatest need such as food, shelter, childcare, and transportation.

The area will recover. This is a close-knit community that became even closer in the wake of a disaster. One of our winery hosts told us, "We're farmers. Farmers help each other."

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Posted on December 3, 2017 and filed under Adventures.

First Impression: Texas Hill Country Wine

Sally is from Texas.

This means we have friends and family from Texas. Which, in turn, means we've been exposed to a few bottles of Texas wine. We're fans of any wine that tastes good, and some of it definitely tastes good.

So a recent family wedding in the Texas Hill Country town of New Braunfels gave us the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the local wine region. With Sally's mom, Mabeth, generously handling the driving duties, the three of us set out to taste some wine.

We were lucky to find two gems on a three winery tour. Not bad for any day of tasting. You can find these and other wineries on the Texas Wine Trail website.


Sister Creek Vineyards

Much of the wine we discover comes from shared bottles. Longtime family friends Robin and Dick Hesse shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sister Creek Vineyards. It was really good, so we added the winery to our list.

The visit started with a self-guided tour of their winemaking operation. Next, we did a flight of several wines, including a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and several Cabernet Sauvignons.

Prices were reasonable at $13.95-$39.95, which seemed right because these were everyday drinking wines to our palate. Good mellow flavors, a little acidic (which is great with food), and not too much heat.

Oh, and the winery was in an old barn that used to be a cotton gin.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Bending Branch


Mabeth picked this one out, and it turned out to be a wise choice.

The winemaker, Bob Young, smartly chose grapes that were well-suited to the Texas Hill Country climate such as Cinsaut, Charbono, and Tannat. These grapes tend to fare better in warmer summers than cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The 2012 Texas Tannat was a standout for us. It's what Sally calls a "fighter grape" because the vines' roots had to work hard to find water in the soil, which leads to smaller grapes but more intense flavors.

This one had big tannins, with a splash of bright fruit up front along with some mushroom and earthy undertones.

And of course there was this pick-up truck parked outside!


Bonus Knowledge

The Texas Hill Country consumer loves sweet Muscat. Every winery we visited sold it, and our host at each one said it was one of their top sellers.

It's not our style, but you can't argue with them for knowing their customers!

Posted on March 14, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.