We Forge Our Own Wine Trail, One Chicken Two Fries; Build a Better Burger and Winning Wines

Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma County

So We Thought We’d do a Little Wine Trail of Our Own

We were quite looking forward to a very nice Alexander Valley Winegrowers Association tasting event at the end of August as part of my birthday celebration; damn Covid surge forced another cancellation.

So in an effort to create our own little wine trail event we visited 10 wineries in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties and ended our 22 day journey with a first class Pinot Noir tasting. Hope you enjoy our travelogue; where we visited and what we drank.

With the help of Pam Bell from the Winegrowers Association we booked visits at the well-known Jordan and semi-exclusive Robert Young wineries in, of course, Alexander Valley. We started our first tasting day with a 10 AM with a visit to Jordan, a family owned winery since 1972 where they only make Cabernet and Chardonnay in a European style designed to be very food friendly. It was a bit early to be sampling wine but there were nice bites matched with the wines that only made an early lunch at Catelli’s in Geyserville that much more pleasant.

The Robert Young Winery is located in an area of Alexander Valley new to us and we discovered expansive views of rolling hillsides covered in vines that take your breath away as well as their Cabernet and Chardonnay.

The family history dates to 1858, grape farming began in 1963 and the winery was created in 1973, quite a family history. In fact we were greeted by a fifth-generation member of the family, Robert Young the second, who toured us throughout the extensive rolling hills and vineyards that are part of the Alexander Valley. It was truly an eye-opening experience.

The very next morning we headed north to Hopland and Mendocino County, hardly an hour’s drive from home, and stopped in to visit the Graziano Family of Wines tasting room. As I suspected Greg Graziano was hard at work harvesting grapes – you loyal readers may remember he was a featured interview in the “Whine” several years ago. I still can’t believe the number of delicious wines that he makes, we chose the reserve ’17 Zin.

Just up the road to the Nelson Family Winery and site of a most wonderful outdoor concert event featuring the Tom Petty cover band, “Petty Theft” that we have followed since our arrival in NorCal. Quite an enjoyable evening amongst the vineyards and low mountains of their property, I still get a bit emotional when I thing about the evening.

The Nelsons make a great Cabernet by the way.

Back home the following week and with the harvest in progress we took advantage of an opportunity to visit the Dutton Estate Winery in the Russian River region west of us and took a crush pad tour with Cellar Master German Zaralla who did a great job of explaining how grapes from the vineyards are processed into the juice that will soon become wine.

Dutton Estate is another of the many family wineries in Sonoma County and dates to 1965. And speaking of family Kyle Dutton is an assistant winemaker and the “middle daughter” as she described it, who shared her detailed knowledge of why their dry farming along with mild, seasonal weather has offered up grapes for harvest that are all perfectly in the right balance that will make for a great vintage.

The following week found us with our friends out at Moon Dance Cellars in rural Sebastopol. Loyal readers will remember David Cohen as a “Woody’s Whine” feature just as Covid started. We love his Chardonnay that he only makes because his wife likes it and his fine Merlot.

On Monday we were in the Kenwood region, just east of us, to sample our wine club member selections at the well-known and award-winning St. Francis Winery in their mission style tasting room.  We came away with some good red zins.

So we left one of better-known wineries in the country and drove down the road to a completely unknown winery, Wellington Cellars that is a spin-off VJB Cellars, oh and you’ve never heard of them either, but that’s okay. We’d been given a complimentary tasting card to Wellington Cellars the last time we visited VJB, see how this works.

It’s been a month-long wine adventure, (work, work, work) but we finished in a strong fashion on Thursday the 30th. Peggy’s brother Dan and wife Teresa were in town for a first-time visit so we took them along to our members’ wine pickups at Pedroncelli in Dry Creek, you see their Zinfandels in your wine stores and literally just up the road to J. Rickards next door in the Alexander Valley AVA.

Jim Rickards was accepting congratulations for winning a gold medal in the Harvest Fair completion (another canceled tasting event) for a Grenache wine made from only four rows of grapes, quite interesting.

We all had another fine lunch at Catelli’s and finished the evening strong with a wonderful 20+ winery Pinot Noir tasting at the lovely Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol and ended the night back in Santa Rosa with a casual supper at our not so secret favorite, Rosso Pizza & Wine Bar; nothing’s too good for our visitors, come on out!

 Hardee’s & Carl’s Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Sandwich

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have introduced a new Hand-Breaded Chicken Sandwich that sounds pretty common, potato bun, pickles, mayo and then you see that the chain has taken a que from their “famous Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders” and applied it a sandwich and my heart races as the tenders are really pretty good – alas, the chicken tenders expertise didn’t make it to the sandwich I tasted.

“The Chicken sandwich features a 100% premium white meat breast filet that’s marinated in 13 signature seasonings and dipped in buttermilk before going through a 6-step hand-breading process in Southern-style flour and then cooked until golden brown”.

So just to be fair I had two bites of a chicken tender and was quite impressed and figured I couldn’t get to the sandwich fast enough – wow was I wrong.

You open the wrapper to find a sandwich that looks like someone pressed their hand down on it. You open the smashed bun to find a small smear of oily mayonnaise and a flat, breaded chicken filet – “Where are the pickles?  I say out loud to the other member of the tasting panel and then find them on the bottom of the bun under the chicken along with another small smear of mayo, really poor looking and this is a fresh made sandwich that we ate in the restaurant.

Hand breaded or not it’s a plain sandwich that looks nothing like the PR photo nor tastes anything like it’s claimed to be. A bite of the chicken with a pickle is tasty and the chicken is well cooked, but again it’s the poor execution and the smashed, tasteless bun and odd mayo that actually detract from the chicken. Maybe they were on a break from the “around the clock” breading.

Oh the chicken tenders are really good, juicy, nicely breaded and cooked well and “The spicy sauce is wonderful”. I think I see a tenders tasting in the future, look out Chick-fil-A.

Fry Not – Wendy’s Hot & Crispy Fries, Go with “Guys”

“What we’ve done is balance the cut of the fry and kept a little bit of the skin of the potato on the fry to be able to drive flavor,” said Wendy’s President Kurt Kane. “We used a batter system that allows us to be able to maintain crispiness, both when they’re fresh and hot out of the fryer as well as several minutes later.”

Wendy’s claims that a new cut style of fry adds flavor and travel time – that didn’t seem to work out on our sample day as only the drive thru was open as the restaurant is being remodeled.

Well I’d like Mr. Kane to try the fries we had, they were shriveled and tasteless and looked like crap by the time we got home. Nothing to see or eat here.

On the other hand;

I came across an online article at UPROXX where a hungry reviewer sampled fries from 23 quick serve restaurants. He reported Arby’s in last place at 23, Burger King at 19, In ‘N Out at 15 and McDonalds in second. He said that in his opinion Wendy’s went from 11th to fifth with their new fries – he must have tried them on a different day and at a different place.

He rated 5 Guys Burgers and Fries as best overall and the tasting panel heartily agrees; “Totally fresh potatoes that totally taste like potatoes. It’s really a treat to taste fresh food cooked right at a quick serve restaurant”. The other member of the tasting panel went so far as to say, “At MacDonald’s the word potato doesn’t jump out.”


I had previously rated 5 guys as a top spot for their burgers several years ago when the “Whine” then appeared in a local suburban Chicago newspaper.

Our “Fry Reporter” figured he’d get a lot of blow back dropping Mickey D to second and offered this salient defense; “If you have a problem with non-frozen, freshly peeled hand-cut potatoes from a host of ever-shifting Idaho-based farms, double fried (the way French Fries are supposed to be) in high quality peanut oil, I question your ability to taste. I know they’re not McDonald’s but when seasoned right and eaten fresh they’re the best French fries you can ever hope to get in a brown paper bag.”

Wonder what he really thinks?

How a Better Burger is Built

You may not remember MacDonald’s McDLT sandwich from 2012 but I bet some of you remember their marketing jingle, “We keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool”. The idea was the first recognition of how a burger’s assemble effects how we taste it as we have various receptors in our mouth that sense different tastes. So keeping the tomato, lettuce and mayo away from the hot patty and cheese is a good idea.

The Sonic folks are the latest to market the concept standardizing their burger build. They start with the bottom bun topped with melted cheese, followed by the hamburger patty which is topped with mayonnaise, then the pickle, onion, lettuce, ketchup, tomato and the top bun, in that order and going so with their butter burgers that they then add a second slice of cheese that is melted over the butter that’s placed directly onto the burger patty.

Scott Uehlein, the vice president of product innovation and development said there’s a reason for all of this: Placing the cheese between the bottom bun and the burger ensures it melts properly and sandwiching the ketchup between the lettuce and the tomato means the lettuce is essentially dressed by the ketchup, and the ketchup also enhances the sweetness of the tomato.

We are Sonic-less in Santa Rosa at the moment but one is sort of under construction as you read this so of course I’ll have a report in the near future.

Culver’s has a similar formula for its award-winning Pretzel Haus Pub Burger. The sandwich features two beef patties topped with sliced Wisconsin cheddar cheese and cheese sauce, pickled red onions, bacon and “Bistro sauce” – made with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and horseradish – on a pretzel bun, I can atest to its tastiness but I see a taste off in the future.

Food science and it works.

Harvest Fair Winners

The Sonoma County Harvest Fair began in 1975 and the highlight of the fair is the professional wine competition, one of the largest regional wine competitions in the nation.  What makes it unique is that all wines submitted must be from grapes grown in Sonoma County. Unfortunately the grand public tasting was canceled again this year as you might imagine.

Here are a few gold medal winners that you should be able to find in your local stores:

2020 Simi Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc <$14

2020 Dry Creek Sonoma County Fume Blanc (SB) <$12

One click better being from a designated area is the Dry Creek – Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc <$15 and yes it’s tastier

NV Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs < $24

Reasonable Wineries to Visit

I’ve shared my frustration with the rising costs of winery visits and tours and at least someone is listening. The Sonoma County Vintners trade group has partnered with Visa Signature and Visa Infinite to offer buy-one, get-one tasting deals at approximately 50 wineries, if you use one of those credit cards. Go to sonomawine.com/visa-signature for the list of participating tasting rooms and other perks, among them $1 ground shipping through December.

I’ve gone too long here already but here’s an example of a winery trying to stay reasonable with their costs and a good one too. There are eight more on the list so email me and I’ll send it to you.

Alexander Valley Vineyards: This east-of-Healdsburg winery offers a tremendous tasting bang for the buck, or less. The Estate Tasting is free.

Tours of the 25,000-square-foot underground cave are free. A sampling of Reserve-tier wines is just $20, and the cost is refunded if you buy one of those wines. Who does this? A winery that was among those that poured complimentary samples decades ago and sees value in continuing to do so.

Even the splurge experience here is a very fair $60 and includes a guided hike through the vineyards, wine and a boxed lunch (weather permitting). 8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-7209, avv.com Great place to visit!

That’s my Whine and I could be wrong…

My recipes for Beef Sirloin Roast with a Mustard and Mayo Sauce & A Sweet Pepper Stew are just a click away, enjoy!

Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, writes, drinks and matches wine and food in Santa Rosa Sonoma at www.woodythewineguy.com