ON THE WINE ROAD: Close encounters of the vinous kind

I would like to share with you some wine moments which drove home the importance of the people whom you are with while enjoying wine. During the last few months I have had close encounters of the vinous kind and the most impressionable are still resonating in my wine-centric memory.

By Michael Venezia

In late March, a dinner with several wine industry associates was held at Bistro Niko in Buckhead. Our guest of honor was Margo Van Staaveren, winemaker at the important Sonoma County winery, Chateau St. Jean. A veteran of 37 vintages, Margo oversees each step of the winemaking process. One of her many accomplishments is the annual production of the famous proprietary Cabernet Sauvignon wine called Cinq Cepages

This five grape blend of the key red Bordeaux varieties encourages each component of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec to express their exceptional varietal character. Her goal has always been to “capture the signature of the vineyard” and have it expressed in each bottle.

It is always a great experience to enjoy a wine with the person who managed Mother Nature to reward us with what Robert Louis Stephenson called “bottled poetry”. The wine tasted was vintage 1998, and it was fascinating to be enlightened by Margo’s memories of the growing season and harvest protocols for this 18-year-old vintage.

The wine exhibited a fading ruby color but was still bright and clear. Soft and gentle on the palate, creating a velvety red fruit and spice-like flavor.


In April, an invitation from a friend to enjoy a long weekend in Pulaski, New York at his family’s home on the shores of Lake Ontario was enthusiastically accepted. The weekend’s agenda included a fishing boat charter with an experienced captain and mate who would guide us on this beautiful Great Lake. We were advised that large lake trout were being caught and we would likely catch our limit.

Luckily the house was well stocked with spirits and beer sufficient to stave off the brisk, early spring winds funneling across the lake. A mixed case of wine was shipped in advance and this user-friendly grab bag of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz gave us all a chance to simply open what we fancied after the day’s fishing adventure.

Our fishing party departed the Port of Oswego at 5:30 am with anxious anticipation, and within the hour, as the sun starts to reflect on the glassy, calm lake, we were often hollering “fish on.” By 1 p.m., with our limit in the cooler, we made our way back to port.

Our catch was cleaned and filets were packaged on ice for the drive back to the house.

As Chef John Pluschau heated the grills, the trout were left to marinate in lemon juice, olive oil and Chardonnay. Our chilled glasses of Cambria Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay and Cherry Pie Pinot Noir complimented the trout’s meaty flesh, which was slow roasted over alder wood chips. Our merry band of fisherman enjoyed the camaraderie of a meal together with the lake’s bounty on our plates and wines from California in our glasses.

As the sun set on Ramona Beach, we enjoyed the last moments of a perfect day and the exaggerated fish stories of contented anglers.


We celebrated my wife Patti’s birthday at La Grotta Ristorante Italiano in Buckhead. A perfect May evening with cool temperatures and low humidity made our patio table the perfect spot to enjoy their impeccable service and outstanding Northern Italian cuisine.

Birthdays require a special bottle and the red Bordeaux from the Pauillac estate of Chateau La Tour didn’t disappoint. The perfectly mature Les Forts de La Tour 1982, at 34 years old, was remarkably youthful for its age. A reflective, light ruby color shone through the decanter as the liquid was slowly poured into the glasses for our approval. The rim was fading to garnet, and the aromas of dried rose petals, black fruit jam, and subtle earthy notes were largely due to the wines mature age. Its tannins, long ago surrendered to time, had now given way to a velvety texture.

Truly amazing to enjoy a wine which was produced the year we relocated from New York to Marietta.

To compliment the evening, and much to our surprise, the magnificent voice of Daniel Mata resonated across the grotto. His renditions of “O Sole Mio”, “Granada”, and “Venezuela” were magnificent. While enjoying dinner with his family this talented classical crossover performer’s voice entertained all who were lucky to be on the La Grotta patio.

We later learned that he is currently a voice student at Belmont University and has performed solo at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A birthday bonus of song to compliment the melody of the wine singing in the glass.

A birthday celebration etched forever in our wine memories.


I love the Russian River region of Sonoma County for its ability to provide a perfect growing environment to maximize the potential of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming from this cool climate area in the Western part of the county. The river is named for the Russian fur traders who trail blazed the region in the 19th century.

On June 8, after an early morning meeting at the Augusta National Golf Club, I traveled to Reynolds on Lake Oconee to enjoy time with a dear wine friend Joe Aiello, a native of California. Our late afternoon time together was enjoyed with a glass of Gary Farrell Chardonnay 2014. Sourced from a selection of prime vineyard sites in the Russian River, this artfully created blend is made by winemaker Theresa Heredira.

One of the early winemakers to focus on the potential of the Russian River. Gary Farrell established a legacy which is now secure in Theresa’s hands. Balanced acidity, subtle oak, and ripe fruit makes for a very complete, fine quality Chardonnay experience. Great sipping before a tour of the Reynolds Clubhouse bar and then a short golf cart ride to the Ritz Carlton and the poolside bar and restaurant called Gaby’s by the Lake.

Our bartender, a seasoned veteran of this 5 star hotel, exhibited confidence in her description of the food and beverage options, while providing a level of service befitting a Ritz Carlton property. We shared fish tacos, a lobster grilled cheese sandwich, and a mixed green salad.

While traveling back to Joe’s house, we were treated to a family of deer on the side of the road. They were obviously a part of the neighborhood fauna. We then settled into the remaining hours of the evening with the remnants of the Gary Farrell Chardonnay, and watched the Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Golden State Warriors 120-90.

For Joe, the wine eased the pain of his team’s embarrassing loss. For me, it solidified the idea of California as the golden state for wine.


My annual summer trip with my associates to Napa and Sonoma is always punctuated by memorable experiences involving wine people, wine places and a diverse selection of wines made by talented teams working the vineyard and winery to coax out of the grape its hidden messages. Each grape and place has its own story and each harvest is a story retold with a different beginning, middle, and end.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery. It is a significantly historical benchmark marking the first post-prohibition winery to be built in Napa Valley.

Their Oakville Winery is one of the most visited and it continues to be a fitting legacy to the late Robert Mondavi. During the 1990s, I benefitted from several opportunities to be in Mr. Mondavi’s company, and to this very day, his energy and enthusiasm, and belief in the quality of Napa Valley wines, is still felt wherever food, wine and culture come together.

Our dinner of July 19, created by the Winery Chef Jeff Mosler, and hosted by winery executive Dana Andrus, the multi-course meal accompanied by selected wines exalted the freshest ingredients with a fine selection of wines.

I was particularly impressed by the seafood course: Seared Crab Cake Garden Arugula, Cucumber and Avocado Salad, Fume Blanc – Lemon Vinaigrette, 2013 Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard, Fume Blanc Reserve. This Sauvignon Blanc grape variety was planted in the famed To-Kalon Vineyard and many of the vines used to make this reserve wine are over 45 years old.

The wine’s body, due to a selective barrel fermentation regime, adds richness and compliments the crab and avocado to perfection. In addition, using the wine as a component in the vinaigrette also heightened their dressings subtly. The menu was skillfully conceived and wonderfully prepared. For several of my associates, their first visit to Napa Valley, the Robert Mondavi Winery, and the wines enjoyed there will never be forgotten.

All for wine and wine for all

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