Romantic Wine Getaways in Washington State and Northern California

chateauIt may be too late to plan a romantic wine-themed getaway for this Sunday, but you could still go online or make a few phone calls to make arrangements for later in the year — sort of like a Valentine’s Day I.O.U.

In yesterday’s blog, we offered a few ideas for Western New York and Southwest Michigan. Today, for a few more possibilities, we head west…


Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t rain all the time in Washington. In fact, during the summer, the state’s largest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, plays host to an acclaimed outdoor concert series, and concert goers are encouraged to enjoy a picnic (complete with wine) on the vast lawn overlooking the stage.

The concerts were introduced in 1984, and the full 2016 schedule will be unveiled this spring. Already announced: Josh Groban on August 23 — and it’s already sold out.

Now, you don’t need to wait until the summer to hear great music at CSM. The winery is hosting a series of intimate “Winter Sessions” concerts in its (indoor) barrel room, offering a fun and romantic respite from the cool (and wet) winter and springtime weather.


Few wineries anywhere provide the opportunity to enjoy a full day of romantic activities. But Korbel Champagne Cellars, located in the Sonoma County community of Guerneville, is one — especially during the spring and summer months, when the magnificent garden is in full bloom.

Couples can begin their visit with a tour of the Champagne Caves, a 50-minute excursion through the estate’s historic cellars and history museum. The tour concludes with a tasting of some of Korbel’s finest products.

After the tour, pick up some provisions at Korbel’s Delicatessen & Market, which offers box lunches, snack boxes, fresh-tossed salads, soups, decadent desserts, wine by the glass and espresso drinks. There are plenty of spots on the grounds to sit down and enjoy your wine country mini-feast.

Finally, from mid-April into October, you can walk off (some of) those calories by exploring Korbel’s showcase garden, featuring an impressive collection of roses — more than 250 varieties in hedge-lined beds — along with a wide range of perennials, shrubs, redwood, linden, dogwood and flowering plum trees, plus plants native to the redwood forest.

• Wine makes a romantic gift not just for Valentine’s Day, but any time of the year. Check out Vinesse’s wide array of curated offerings today.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Romantic Wine Getaways in Western New York and Southwest Michigan

Gazebo__Lake21springlakeValentine’s Day beckons, and if you haven’t made your reservations for a romantic evening (or even if you have), perhaps you could surprise your sweetie with a fully planned getaway later in the year. We have four ideas, all with wine as a central theme (naturally!) We’ll share two today and two tomorrow.


Located near one of America’s most romantic destinations, Niagara Falls, Spring Lake Winery is one of the must-see wine estates along the Niagara Wine Trail. Private outdoor tastings are available alongside a spring-fed lake, and Riesling is the specialty of the house.

While visiting the winery provides a romantic interlude, just getting there can be half the fun. A 1940s-era train can be boarded in Lockport, N.Y., and two-and-a-half hours later, you’ll arrive at the winery for a tasting and live music. En route, you’ll stop at and tour the Medina Railroad Museum.

Tickets cost $125 per couple. For $100 more, a VIP package provides preferred seating on the train’s dinner car, a wine-and-cheese plate, and an open bar.


This part of Michigan, an easy drive from Chicago, is home to more than a dozen wineries, some of which feature restaurants.

The best known — in part because of its ubiquitous billboards — is Tabor Hill Winery in Buchanan, where wine lovers can sample locally made vintages in an elegant setting.

There’s a small theater that continuously shows a winemaking video, and visitors may also take a walking tour along the vineyard. Excellent food and wine pairings can be enjoyed at either lunch or dinner at the winery’s acclaimed, not to mention romantic, restaurant.

A good home base for a weekend wine getaway is the South Cliff Inn in St. Joseph, where innkeeper Bill Swisher delights guests each morning with several types of fresh-baked coffee cakes, fresh fruits and custom-blended coffee. The inn sits atop a hill overlooking Lake Michigan, and the sunsets are spectacular.

Speaking of sunsets, for an even more romantic experience, attend the annual Smooth Jazz at Sunset concert, held in an amphitheater on nearby Silver Beach. In 2016, the concert will take place on July 9, and the artist will be announced in March.

• Tomorrow: Romantic winery destinations in Washington state and Northern California.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Red Wine Cake — Perfect With a Red Blend Wine

Cooking timeIn yesterday’s blog, we offered a number of pairing possibilities for chocolate and wine, suggested by members of the Vinesse tasting panel based on years (and years) of experimentation.

(Hey, somebody has to do it.)

Long story short: There ARE pairings that work quite nicely, including the one we’re about to suggest. For this Red Wine Cake recipe, we suggest using a red blend — one that is not too “oaky” — both for making the cake and drinking with the cake.


Cake Ingredients

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup dark cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup red wine (a blend that is not overly oaked)
  • ½ cup light olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Red raspberry preserves

Ganache Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 12-oz. Lindt 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate bar
  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup


  1. Sift all dry ingredients together. Add liquid ingredients and mix well. Pour batter into two prepared 8-inch round pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 27 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
  1. Once cake is cooled, spread raspberry preserves on top of one 8-inch round, then place the other round on top.
  1. In a pan over medium heat, add the cream and chocolate, and stir constantly until melted and combined. Add corn syrup and mix until combined. Remove from heat. Allow to cool about 10 minutes so ganache can thicken. Then spread ganache around entire cake.

• If you’d like some ideas on what wine to use in making (and drinking with) this cake, Vinesse is offering three terrific red blends on sale together this week and you can get special pricing by making sure you’re part of the email savings program.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Wine and Chocolate Pairings for Valentine’s Day

Chocolate Truffles with Red WineNo Valentine’s Day is complete without wine.

No Valentine’s Day is complete without chocolate.

Yet the marriage of wine and chocolate is among the more stridently debated topics in the world of wine.

Some say the two should never be paired. Others suggest that the right wine consumed with the right chocolate can be a match that would make Cupid envious. With Valentine’s Day 2016 just around the corner, we need some resolution to this culinary conundrum.

As with all food-and-pairings, there are no 100 percent “right” answers. It all comes down to individual palates and individual preferences, both of which can vary widely. But over the years, members of the Vinesse tasting panel have had opportunities to experiment with an array of chocolate-and-wine pairings.

Following are a few they’ve liked and recommend…


We’re talking about bars with at least 35% cocoa solids, up to around 70%. Higher percentages will pretty much take over your palate and make pairing with any kind of wine next to impossible. But for those that fall in the 35-70% range, seek out wines with fruit flavors you might normally find in a dark chocolate cream from See’s or your favorite chocolatier: raspberry, strawberry, dark cherry. Such wines include Zinfandel and Port. Another match you might like: chocolate cake with an Australian Shiraz (which typically is more fruitful than a French Syrah).


Think: a thin Ghiradelli’s square. They’re fairly rare, but a Syrah Port — which can exhibit a hint of eucalyptus among its flavors — can nicely co-mingle with the mint.


Here, we’re talking about truffles, not America’s favorite milk chocolate bar from Hershey, Pa. The creamy fat from the ganache on the inside of the truffle makes it a more versatile pairing partner than dark chocolate. Try it with a cream Sherry, a well-aged vintage Port, or almost any sweet wine from the Muscat family of wine grapes.


Even though white chocolate technically is not chocolate because it contains no cocoa (only cocoa fat), some wine pairings you may enjoy include ice wine, Orange Muscat and Moscato d’Asti.

Tomorrow: a recipe for a wine-friendly dessert — Red Wine Cake.

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A Romantic Way to Experience Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail

Santa Barbara wooden sign with winery backgroundAbout a half-hour north of Santa Barbara, the trendy beachside community north of Los Angeles, you’ll find the southern border of California’s Central Coast wine region.

In recent years, Santa Barbara itself has become a destination for wine lovers, thanks to the proliferation of tasting rooms that collectively have come to be known as the Urban Wine Trail. Tucked between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean, the Urban Wine Trail offers both novices and aficionados the opportunity to learn about and taste wines of many different varieties and styles crafted from Santa Barbara County’s best vineyards.

Located just steps from the tasting rooms, making it ideal as a home base for a wine-focused vacation, is the Hotel Indigo Santa Barbara at the State House, a Euro-style hotel that combines the historic beauty of the area with the architectural sophistication of contemporary design, providing hip, affordable accommodations for style-minded guests.

The guest rooms are cleverly designed to make the most of limited space, and include European-style wet bathrooms. An array of first-class amenities include free WiFi throughout the hotel, stylish rooftop lounges, a fitness facility and fully equipped business center. There also is an Art Library, spotlighting an ever changing array of works through the hotel’s partnership with Santa Barbara’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Hotel Indigo Santa Barbara at the State House sets a new standard for hotels in Santa Barbara, where style, value and environmental responsibility combine for a consummate cultural experience.

Posted in Wine Buzz

Exploring the Napa Valley… From Above

nvaYou may be sharing the space with a few other couples, but there’s something about floating above vineyard-covered hillsides, simply soaking in the scenery, that’s quite romantic.

Napa Valley Aloft, one of the companies that offers hot air balloon rides over the valley, provides such an adventure for as little as $200 per person.

However, if you’re really looking to impress someone, you can experience an exclusive flight for two for $1,200 (or $1,400 on weekends).

And you can throw in a post-flight Champagne breakfast for $20 per person more.

For further information, go to the company’s website:

Need more wine-focused ideas for Valentine’s Day 2016? Then you’ll want to check in with us each day next week. We’ll be sharing:

  • Information on a romantic hotel just steps from the “Urban Wine Trail” in Santa Barbara, California.
  • Wine and chocolate pairing ideas. We’ll let you what types of wines match up nicely with dark chocolate, dark chocolate with mint filling, milk chocolate and white chocolate.
  • A recipe for a red wine cake. Yum!
  • Romantic wine destinations in Western New York, Southwest Michigan, Washington state and Northern California.

Even if it’s too late to make travel plans for Valentine’s Day, you can always book a romantic wine-focused vacation for later in the year, and place a copy of the itinerary inside a Hallmark card.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Tickets Available for Major Las Vegas Wine Tasting

passionate romantic couple kissing in front of las vegas sign.Check the calendar. It’s the month of romance. Specifically, it’s the month of Valentine’s Day. And just because February 14 happens to fall on a Sunday this year, you are still obligated to have a romantic evening with your Significant Other.

Technically, that romantic evening doesn’t necessarily have to take place on the 14th, especially if Sunday happens to be your must-see-TV night for “The Good Wife,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” or “The Simpsons.” But if you don’t go out for a romantic dinner that evening, at least be prepared to offer a romantic gift.

For a wine lover, that could mean any number of things, including reservations for a wine dinner at a local restaurant, airline tickets for a wine country getaway, or tickets to a wine-tasting event.

How about a trip to Las Vegas and tickets to a wine-tasting event? On February 20 — the Saturday after Valentine’s Day — the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino will play host to the 27th annual Splendor in the Glass Wine & Beer Tasting.

The Westgate is the resort formerly known as the LVH, and also formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton, and also formerly known as the International Hotel. One of the reasons it has changed hands (and identities) a few times is that it is not located on the bustling Las Vegas Strip — and that also is one of its attractive qualities; you can get to it without enduring a traffic jam. (As we all know, a traffic jam should never be part of a romantic evening.)

The 2016 Splendor in the Glass promises tasting stations featuring more than 60 wineries and breweries, accompanied by delicious finger foods, plus music provided by a jazz ensemble. Aside from the few hundred people with whom you’ll be sharing the Westgate ballroom, it doesn’t get much more romantic than that. (May we also suggest you book a room for the night so as to avoid any worries about over-imbibing?)

For ticket information, go to:

If you can’t make it to Vegas that weekend, another alternative is to simply stay at home, cook a good meal, and share a bottle of Vinesse wine — perhaps a tasty Italian red, like the ones featured in this latest collection on sale for a limited time.

Remember, the most important element of a romantic evening is not where you are, but rather who you’re with.

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A Lesson Learned in the Pacific Northwest: All Great Wines Begin in the Vineyard

rural Oregon landscape, Willamette ValleyThere are certain grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon (among reds) and Chardonnay (among whites) that take well to barrel fermentation.

There are others, such as Riesling, that would have their aromas and flavors obliterated by exposure to oak, and thus are aged in neutral stainless steel tanks.

Other winemaking techniques can be undertaken in the cellar, such as malolactic fermentation, the temperature and length of the fermentation, and whether specific lots of grapes are blended immediately or kept separate and blended later.

But regardless of the cellar techniques or the skills of the winemaker, there is one thing all vintners agree upon: There never has been a good wine made with inferior grapes. In other words, what ends in the cellar must begin in the vineyard.

Hard to believe, but there are around 10,000 different grape varieties used to make wine, although the number utilized in any great quantity is far, far fewer than that. Still, like any agricultural product, each variety has its own set of specific requirements in order for it to attain its full quality potential.

In planting a given variety, the farmer/grower must consider the type of soil, sun exposure, water availability and overall climate. For instance, some varieties fare better in soil that’s depleted in nutrients and generally lacking in water, a combination that forces the vine to work harder, resulting in grapes that are extremely concentrated in aromas and flavors.

Other varieties prefer cool climes, which extends their growing season and enables them to attain full maturity. Still others require almost desert-like weather and air temperatures in order to strut their stuff.

All of these factors help determine which varieties should be planted in a given vineyard, or whether that plot of land should be planted to wine grapes at all. Over the years, as more has been learned about matching specific varieties to specific climates, many grapevines have been grafted with other varieties, or with other clones of the existing variety.

I remember traveling through the Pacific Northwest when the wine industry there was still in its infancy. It wasn’t unusual to encounter Cabernet Sauvignon planted in areas that were too cool for the variety (mainly in Washington state), or the wrong clones of Pinot Noir being used (mainly in Oregon).

But over the years, the grape growers and winemakers — through both education and experimentation — made the necessary adjustments. Today, some great Cabs and Merlots are coming out of Washington, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon rivals Burgundy as one of the world’s great producers of Pinot Noir. You can taste how far things have come in the Pacific Northwest by savoring the wines in Vinesse’s PNW collections and clubs.  If you’re lucky enough to be a subscriber of our regular wine deals, check your inbox today!

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Posted in In the Cellar

Planning a Wine Vacation? The Pros Say: Head to Austria

DanubeBoatThe Travvy Awards are described as the Academy Awards of the American travel industry, and at the 2016 Travvy Awards, Austria was selected as the best wine tourism destination in Europe.

I am not surprised. During my before-the-wedding honeymoon in October of 2014, my bride-to-be and I took a day trip from Vienna to the nearby vineyard lands. The trip included an excursion on the Danube on a boat much like the one in the accompanying photo, and a highlight on that boat ride was getting to see Austria’s famed terraced vineyards up close.Figlmuller

The trip also included a visit to a winery and still more vineyard sightseeing in a small van.

But our Austria wine experience wasn’t restricted to that single day trip.

We began our time in Vienna by having dinner at the famous Zum Figlmuller — a giant schnitzel that covered a plate, accompanied by a delicious potato side dish, and all washed down with glasses of light and refreshing Gruner Veltliner wine.

And we finished our trip with a visit to Vienna’s Grinzing neighborhood, which is home to a number of winery tasting rooms. Grinzing is easily accessible by the city’s public transit system, and we found the tasting room personnel to be welcoming and eager to tell us about their wines.

So, if I were one of the 39,000 travel agents, tour operators or other travel professionals who took part in the voting for the Travvy Awards, I would have given Austria the nod as well. Congratulations to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board on a well-deserved honor.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

Exploring the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route

Close up of Zebra grazing dry meadowIt’s a leap year. What will you do with your extra day?

Well, since much international travel involves “losing a day” either to time in the air or making up sleep, you might want to consider targeting 2016 as the year you finally take that big wine-focused trip.

If South Africa has been on your radar, an amazing wine experience awaits a mere hour’s drive north of Cape Town.

Post-apartheid, the first wine region of South Africa to gain widespread attention was Stellenbosch. But thanks to a group of quality-focused vintners in Swartland, visitors now have more options when planning a wine-focused vacation.

Swartland is an ideal day trip destination from South Africa’s largest city, while tourists heading toward the West Coast, the Northern Cape or Namibia along the N7 will find a detour along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route a delightful journey of discovery.

The 20 members of the Wine & Olive Route include cooperatives, private cellars and wine merchants. Visitors can explore the winemaking history of the region at some of the historic estates, or enjoy exquisite wine experiences at modern tasting rooms. Smaller wineries present intimate wine tastings in rustic cellars, while family concerns dating back generations will welcome visitors with the customary Swartland warmth and cheer.

The Swartland area of the Western Cape encompasses a uniquely diverse geographic region, from the undulating hills of the Paardeberg in the south to the rolling waters of the Berg River in the north. There lie the charming, historic towns of Malmesbury, Piketberg and Porterville, and the twin villages of Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West, nestled on the slopes of the looming Kasteelberg.

Sweeping wheat fields — golden in summer, mint-green in winter — are punctuated by azure dams on working farms, and sheep and cattle dot the landscape. Huge swathes of natural vegetation are everywhere, and the resident birdlife is complemented in spring by migrants, with steppe buzzards and black-shouldered kites commonly seen atop roadside fence posts.

In this little corner of the world, fruit orchards abound, vineyards carpet the slopes, and olive groves nestle around unexpected corners. It’s a quietly charming place of abundance and color that welcomes visitors to be cosseted in guest houses and B-and-Bs, to feast on fresh and deliciously prepared local produce and, above all, to sample a wide range of palate-pleasing wines.

The Swartland wine region is divided into four sub-regions.

The Paardeberg (“horse mountain”) divides the Paarl and Swartland regions. This hilly, off-the-beaten-path area offers delightful surprises around every bend. The climate during winter is very cold. Summer is typically very hot during the day, with cooler temperatures at night. Some of the highest vineyards above sea level in the Swartland region are found there. Vines are planted on the slopes of the Paardeberg in relatively deep soil consisting of decomposed sandstone, granite and some clay.

Nestled in the protective shadow of the Kasteelberg (“castle mountain”), the villages of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel are the perfect retreat for any city dweller. You can take your time discovering the wineries, restaurants, shops and art galleries. The vineyards of the Riebeek Valley stretch along the lower contours of the Kasteelberg. The soil is mainly Malmesbury shale, with loamy soil on the higher grounds and sandy loam lower down the slopes, interspersed with rich Hutton soils. The climate is perfect for viticulture, with the low-rainfall summer months tempered by cool afternoon breezes, and the cold winters allowing the vines to rest and build up reserves.

The wineries situated close to Malmesbury, the main business center of the Swartland, range from a large company to small, privately owned cellars. Spread out over a large area, the wineries produce diverse wines thanks to the differing soils and microclimates of the area. Although summers are typically very hot and dry, some farms catch the cool sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and hence have a cooler climate. Soils range from sandy (ideal for Rhone cultivars) to deep red and fertile (perfect for dry-land vineyards), while others derive from granite.

The wines of the Berg River region are made from grapes cultivated from a vast, climatically variable area, stretching from the banks of the Berg River to the foot of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains in Porterville. Local foodies agree that this is an area not to be missed. Small owner/chef-run eateries, cozy coffee shops and larger-scale restaurants offer a huge range and variety of meals, most prepared with fresh produce sourced in the area and many made to old family recipes.

Regularly scheduled farmers markets and street markets bring out the locals in droves, and there you can buy anything from homegrown veggies in season to free-range eggs and poultry, homemade cakes, sweets, savory dishes, freshly baked bread and olives in every shape and form — from oils, pickles, spreads and tapanades to soaps, creams and shampoos.

From tiny B-and-Bs to luxury hotels, there’s an accommodation option along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route to suit every taste and pocket. No matter what type of lodging you choose, the famous Swartland hospitality will make you feel right at home — and the quality of the wine will make you wish you’d planned a longer trip.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log
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