Palate Pleasing San Benito and Mendocino Wines

Linda Milks

Linda Milks

Linda Milks, a former English teacher, is a food, wine and travel writer living in Southern California.  She has been involved in the culinary arts throughout the years. She publishes on a variety of sites including this one and She has a passion for sharing her experiences with her readers, “Tasting excellent wines from some of California’s smaller wine regions is a tough job, but someone has to do it.”


WinePairingEvent[1]A few weeks ago the Wine Review Council sampled eight wines* from the Mendocino and San Benito areas. (The Mendocino region is about 45 minutes north of Napa, and the San Benito region is about 2.5  hours south of Napa.) Our assignment was to reflect on the wine itself and the possible pairing for each wine.

Most of the wines we sampled were red wines, but we started the evening with a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Paul Dolan Winery in Mendocino. The grapes for this wine were grown along the northern banks of the Russian River, well known for growing remarkable grapes.

The Paul Dolan Sauvignon Blanc wine proved to be light and palate refreshing with flavors of kiwi and Meyer lemon. The nose was an aromatic lemongrass perfume. This 2013 was selected as a Class Champion Gold at the 2015 Houston Livestock Show Wine Competition. We agreed that this wine, priced at $18, was a winner and paired well with the Sweet Balsamic, Cheese and Sliced Mushroom Quiche brought by one of the council members. In addition, it paired well with an Elote appetizer (grilled corn mixed with salt, chili powder, butter, cheese, lime juice, mayonnaise and crema). The natural sugar in the Elote balanced well with the crisp acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc.

Next, we compared the 2012 Paul Dolan Pinot Noir ($30), a Mendocino wine, with a Pietra Santa 2013 Pinot Noir from San Benito ($18).

All of the Paul Dolan wines use native yeasts and are organically grown grapes that truly demonstrate the terroir of Mendocino. We found the Pinot Noir to exemplify the classic varietal expression of strawberry-rhubarb flavors with a hint of lavender and aromas of leather and sweet cocoa dust.
Our hosts provided us with some delicious Marich Chocolates from Hollister, CA, and the Chocolate Covered Cherry was a perfect complement to this Pinot Noir.

We found the Pietra Santa Pinot Noir, featuring environmentally sustainable farming practices of grapes from the Cienega Valley, to be much earthier and less fruit forward while still having a subtle strawberry flavor. The vineyard benefits from a maritime climate with cool coastal breezes as well as granite and limestone soils (coming from the vineyard location on the San Andreas Fault). Our tastebuds were happiest when the Pietra Santa Pinot Noir was paired with foods containing natural sugar as found in the sweet-flavored corn of the Elote appetizer, and we liked it with the carmelized onions featured in another appetizer. It was the consensus of the group that the Paul Dolan Pinot could be enjoyed on its own while we preferred the Pietra Santa Pinot with meals.

AntipastoPlatter[1]Sangiovese ranks high with me as one of my favorite varietals, so I was eagerly anticipating the Pietra Santa 2010 Sangiovese ($18). The rocky limestone soil just 25 miles east of Monterey Bay provides the perfect terroir for Sangiovese. With tastes of cranberry, Bing cherry, anise, and white pepper, this wine has a “dance in your mouth” quality. The perfect pairing was an Antipasto Platter. Wine Enthusiast gave the 2010 Sangiovese 91 points, and I heartily agree.

DeRose Winery Owner

DeRose Winery Owner

The surprise wine in the group, a wine new to us that delighted all of us, was the DeRose 2011 Cabernet Pfeffer ($27). DeRose Winery is the “oldest existing winery” in California. The word “Pfeffer” is German for pepper, and when we sipped the wine, we first noticed a nose of white peppercorns followed by flavors on our palate of Bing cherries, pomegranate, soft tannins, and vanilla. This wine is a natural paired with cured meats and cheeses as well as garlic cheese bread. To our surprise, the yogurt apricot bits from Marich Chocolates of Hollister brought out the vanilla in the Cabernet Pfeffer.

After trying the DeRose Cabernet Pfeffer, I did a little research about DeRose Winery and learned that it sits on terraced hillsides on deep sandy-loam soil, and the winery dry farms its grapes. This property’s largest cellar covers four acres in area and was at one time the world’s largest covered wine cellar according to the Guiness Book of World Records.

PorciniMushroomandTruffleRavioli[1]We found the DeRose 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($26.99), our next tasting, true to typicity with flavors of cherry, black pepper, oak, toast, and a great spiciness. If Cabernet Sauvignon makes your soul delighted, this Cabernet will surely be one to try. The pairing for this wine was a Porcini Mushroom and Truffle Ravioli smothered in Carmelized Onions. The earthiness of this appetizer enhanced the flavors of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our seventh and eighth wines were the Paul Dolan 2012 Mendocino Zinfandel ($25) and the DeRose 2012 Dry Farmed, Cinega Valley Zinfandel ($26).

Once again, we discovered a difference in the two wines of the same variety. We found the Paul Dolan Zinfandel to have flavors of blue fruits, cracked black pepper, and a slight hint of orange marmalade, while not extremely jammy. This wine was given 90 points by Wine and Spirits Magazine.

On the other hand, the DeRose Zinfandel tasted of current jam, followed by chocolate, then raspberries, and finally coffee. Sounds like dessert, doesn’t it? Both paired nicely with the Baby Burgers with Angry Onions (a slider of Cajon-spiced baked onions atop a burger with bacon, dill pickle, and a tomato slice) served by a fellow wine taster. Both wines were hits, but we would definitely pair the Paul Dolan with food while the DeRose Zinfandel sips well by itself.

Our conclusion, after our arduous task of wine tasting, was there are some amazingly delectable wines at a reasonable price from both the Mendocino and San Benito regions. These wines will definitely be on my shopping list in the future.

*Wines were provided by the wineries reviewed above. Opinions are solely the author’s.

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