Wine I Purchased for the Label and Why

great label designs for wine and spirits

As a graphic designer of wine and spirits, when I buy a bottle just because I like the label, I get to deduct the expense as a business-related reference material. How sweet is that? With the new tax legislation, a rumor has been circulating that the usual deductions for small business owners are eliminated, but I've recently learned the claim is entirely false. Still, I take nothing for granted and buy “reference materials” with restraint. Usually a photo of an inspiring package design is enough for me to reference when I need a creative boost, but every now and then, I really do consider it necessary to buy the bottle and place it right in front of me while brainstorming. 

For those of you unfamiliar with brainstorming, let me assure you that what I end up developing in a creative exploration looks nothing like the items that may have inspired me. The creative process is fluid and round-about like the whimsical line in the illustration on the La Paca bottle above: you may start out with a hummingbird but end up with a face. 

In this modest collection of wine and spirits purchased last year for their labels, only one has a seriously killer design—The Kraken Black Spiced Rum. Everything is so well done here: the heads down eye catching squid, the dot pattern on the underside of the tentacles, the tiny ship in the upper left corner, the varnish on the brand name to give it sparkle, and the bespoke bottle shape with shoulder hoops. If you appreciate this kind of thing, do take a closer look next time you’re in the liquor aisle.

One bottle in my set has an underwhelming design, but I couldn’t resist the green flying pig. When you want your imagination to take flight, a pig with wings will surely help!

Front and center in my collection is La Peña red wine from Spain. I haven’t been to Spain but I have been to Argentina where there’s a great deal of art similar to the light-hearted, romantic and emotional art on this label. Honestly, I don’t know what this illustration is all about, but it doesn’t matter, because it gives me a happy feeling. For someone who likes to be very clear in my communications, the La Peña label reminds me that evoking an emotional response is of foremost importance in the wine and spirits industry. 

I purchased the Columbia Merlot for its terrific use of photography. Traditionally, photography and wine labels do not mix, but some contemporary brands are pulling it off, especially when the photograph is made to look like a work of art. In this case, the moody and mysterious mountain scene looks like a sophisticated watercolor. The brand name is embossed in gold, assuring the consumer that this wine is worth it. Subtly, the gold connects with the color of the actual bottle and ties everything together. The bottom label gives the impression that each bottle has been signed with the wine maker’s approval. Although the signature is obviously printed, we don’t care; it still looks classy.   

With Uncle Val's Botanical Gin, the batch and bottle numbers actually appear to be done by hand. This label design is all about the details and thoroughly hits the mark in the category of high end handcrafted spirits.

Hanson's Vodka packaging is also full of details but the overall look is not as classy as Uncle Val’s, which is appropriate for certain audiences. The seals, stamps, numbers and letters run every which way but are carefully fit together, communicating that a lot of work went into the creation of this vodka. Still the design is friendly enough to appeal to the millennial. I bet this brand is often the first vodka young couples buy for their shelves.  

Designing to a specific audience and price point is key in any industry. Sand Point's bottle is much better in real life than it is in this photo. Perfectly matched to the price, the design is not too fancy but tasty, with a great use of embossing and varnish. The precious illustration of a quail lingering on a swing gives the impression of a story, time and place where life is peaceful and delightful.

Speaking of a story, the bottles I choose to buy all have one thing in common. They all draw you in with the promise of a story that would be revealed if you were to look closer, if you were to use your imagination and if you were to buy and partake of the wine and spirits.

Mind The Gap: What’s in an AVA?

Petulama Gap became California’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) on December 7, 2017. Though only a tiny sliver of land — it measures 15 miles across — in this case, a little translates into a lot. The AVA contains 4,000 acres of grapevines, three-quarters of which are Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Syrah make up the balance.Petaluma Gap

What’s in a name

Petaluma Gap gets its name from a literal gap in the coastal mountain ranges linking the Pacific Ocean to San Pablo Bay. “The Gap” is home to nine wineries including Chasseur, Ramey, MacPhail, and Wind Gap. It’s also home to dozens of growers cultivating prestigious vineyards, such as Gap’s Crown and Sangiacomo. The Gap’s viticulturalists sell fruit to many marquee wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino including Kosta Browne, Keller Estate, and Schramsberg Vineyards. The region’s mineral-rich alluvial soils are well-known for their high-quality fruit. But until recently, these distinguishing features had not been recognized with an AVA.

To successfully petition for an AVA designation, applicants must make their case to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. A proposed AVA must be a delimited area with a set of compelling distinguishing features, aka terroir, that influence viticulture. In Petaluma Gap’s case, the PGWA, a group of allied wineries and grape growers, worked for years laying the groundwork and preparing their petition for an AVA designation.

McEvoy Ranch Azaya Vineyard Harvest

While situated within the vastness — read misnomer — that is the Sonoma Coast AVA, Petaluma Gap’s unique conditions, specifically the wind and fog that blow in off San Pablo Bay are two factors that impart a distinctive character to this cool climate region — think crisp acidity and highly concentrated fruit. The cooling fog paired with big temperature swings between the warm days and cool nights, promotes the development of complex flavors, bright acidity, and tannin that allows these wines to age. Meanwhile, the maritime-influenced winds keep a lid on yields, boosting flavor concentration. Since the windy conditions mean grapes have to work a bit harder to get ripe than those in warmer areas, fruit grown here benefits from longer hang-time. That’s great for mouthfeel and flavor intensity; it also helps keep structure intact and lessens the chance fruit develops the jammy flavors that come with overripeness.

The value in an AVA

Of course there are benefits to having an AVA beyond giving producers greater ability to distinguish their wines from other regions’ and helping consumers associate wine styles with specific geographical areas. One concerns marketing. Being able to add Petaluma Gap to their wine labels means producers and growers can now potentially charge a pricing premium. And vineyard owners could realize tax savings based on the intangible value associated with this enhanced brand appeal. All in all, when it comes to Petaluma Gap, there can definitely be a lot in a name.

Wine Pairing for Artists

Clay & EarthI sometimes see colors when I hear musical notes. Viewing Vicki Gunter‘s art during Saturday Stroll, I tasted wine. Her themes, “Everything is Everything” and “The Canary in the Coal Mine, The Elephant in the Room” spotlight the interconnectedness of all life. They call attention to the damage humans are doing to this home we share with fellow inhabitants while ignoring the warning signs. As we stood there listening to the music (“Deer Path,” from a dance performance Ms. Gunter choreographed), I suddenly saw myself appreciating her sculptures with a glass of German riesling. Shortly after the thought surfaced, I remembered visiting an art installation at Mercury 20 two years ago. The artist, Nick Dong, had asked me to recommend a wine pairing for that evening’s reception celebrating his Be-longing, En-lightening piece. I had been intrigued, having never previously contemplated art and wine pairings.

Wine Pairing w/Mother Nature

Art Meets Wine Pairing

When I drink wine, I often think of all the effort it takes to nurture grapes from earth to glass. I also think about the link between healthy soils and vines and good wines. A glass of Mosel riesling struck me as the perfect wine pairing for “Clay & Earth, What We Stand On.” Contemplative, with intense layers of clean fruit married with stony minerality, the wine would resonate with the work before us. More specifically, I could picture enjoying a glass of Heymann-Lowenstein’s riesling, rooted as the winemaking is in being in balance with the earth. The winery plants according to the lunar calendar; and wines are the product of spontaneous ferments with indigenous yeasts. Heymann-Lowenstein also generates the vast majority of its energy needs internally.

Art & Wine PairingWine Meets Art Pairing

I had the pleasure of meeting Reinhard Lowenstein and sitting for a formal tasting while on a wine study tour in September. As our group walked through the cellar, I found my attention drawn to a large stone standing in the doorway to the back cellar. Spotlights above it made it impossible not to notice. Finally, I couldn’t help asking him its significance. It was quartz he said. He had initially placed it there because he thought the doorway should have something to call attention to it. Later a visiting winemaker had told him his wines would benefit from the quartz’s energy. Standing in the cellar I thought of the interconnectedness of art, wine, and the earth.

Back in the Oakopolis gallery, the ceramic sculptures were moving and richly detailed. Among the stand-outs were, Tapped Out, a graphic depiction of Yosemite’s retreating glaciers, which supply roughly a third of California’s drinking water. Round-Up, crafted in the form of a Native American dreamcatcher (in reality, a nightmare catcher), depicted the effects of Monsanto’s herbicide on bee populations and its GMOs on humans. A weeping Mother Nature gently cradled our small blue planet in her arms. Weighty and disturbing, the works are a call to action.

“Clay & Earth, What We Stand On” runs at Oakopolis through November 18.

24 Hours in Petaluma

When you only have 24 hours, Petaluma is a great mini vacation destination for those in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you haven’t explored this hip, historic town, consider putting it on your bucket list for a quick getaway. We left our East Bay home at noon one day and returned at 2 the next; my clients barely missed me. I’ll list our adventures during our 24 hours in Petaluma in the form of recommendations because, well, I recommend it all.

Check into the Metro Hotel, a funky, Parisian-circus-themed hotel on South Petaluma Boulevard, just a 5-minute walk from downtown. We stayed in one of the four Airstreams on the hotel's property. I’ve never been in an Airstream before and happily discovered “Bambi” is as shiny and cute on the inside as it is on the outside.

Eat lunch next door at Quinua Cocina, a friendly place serving authentic Peruvian cuisine, another first experience for me. We asked our waiter about almost everything on the menu and he was so sweet and proud to tell all. We chose delicious Fried Sweet Plantains, Ceviche de Pescado, and Arroz Chaufa, but I suspect everything on the menu is stellar. After eating here, you will never see corn the same way again.

Next, walk around downtown Petaluma to enjoy its iron-front historic buildings. Petaluma is one of the few California towns that survived the 1906 earthquake with only minor damage. One of my favorite stores is the Petaluma Seed Bank, cleverly named because it’s housed in the beautiful old Sonoma County Bank building. When we told the guy working there that we were interested in the building, he got excited and took us behind the counter to see the antique gated elevator. After checking to make sure there weren’t other customers around, he took us downstairs to see the original bank safe with its intricately crafted door. The personal small-town-feel of it all was pretty novel.

My favorite gift-type store in town is Field Works, which is like a clever brick and mortar Etsy store. For antique shops, Chelsea Antiques is awesome. Even if you don’t care for antiques, it’s worth looking around the artistically curated selection of goods.

Downtown Petaluma also has a growing choice of places to enjoy tastings of wine, beer, vodka, and even port. We only hit one spot this trip—Barber Cellars located in the historic Petaluma Hotel—but it was entirely satisfying, and, again, friendly. (I am beginning to understand that friendly is the norm for Petaluma.) Barber Cellars is owned by husband and wife winemakers; the husband (in my photo) was hosting that day. One of their unique creations is Dolcezza Zinfandel Chocolate Sauce which was the grand finale of the tasting. Yum! If you’re visiting on a Thursday, live music starts at 6pm. Lastly, while you’re there, be sure to check out the renovated bathrooms in the Petaluma Hotel.  

If Petaluma is also a foodie’s destination with organic-if-at-all-possible dining options. For dinner, we picked Risibisi, which means "rice and peas." While the dishes are Italian, the ingredients are sourced locally from authentic places like Little Organic Farm and Sebastopol Berry Farm. To complete the all-around feeling of health and wellbeing for the day, we had dairy-free ice-cream at Lala's Creamery. I loved this place. One of the arty pieces on the wall showed a picture of a cow with the line, "Live like someone left the gate open."

For the next day, I’d like to say we rented a kayak at Clavey Paddlesports for the Petaluma River, but we didn’t get up early enough for that. We did go for a bike ride on a bright yellow tandem bike, offered free-of-charge for those staying at Hotel Metro. A tandem bike is one of those things that’s better in your imagination than it is for real, but nevertheless, it’s a fun way to explore the neighborhood’s Victorian houses and to bike downtown for brunch or lunch. We ate at Wild Goat Bistro

Hopefully, you can match the photo in my slider with its mention in my post. The cute bartender was our waiter at Risibisi, in case that’s not clear and you really want to know. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or, better yet, call the Petaluma Visitors Center. Enjoy!

Oakland Wine Festival: Spotlight on Silverado Vineyards’ Russell Weis

In the run-up to last year’s first Oakland Wine Festival, I had the great pleasure of interviewing several of the leading winemakers and executives involved in the event as honorary Steering Committee Members. This year’s event seemed an appropriate time to revisit some of those conversations. Below are notes from my conversation with Russell Weis, General Manager of Silverado Vineyards:

Silverado Vineyards Tasting

“I would be in farming.”

Having grown up in farming community, if he hadn’t gone into wine, Weis would have made his living on a farm — a great life in his view. His career course changed, he says, when as a child he saw harvest workers moving around on bikes and thought being a winemaker must be a lot of fun.

Philippine de Rothschild

A veteran of Robert Mondavi Winery and Opus One, Weis described sharing a wine from his birth year as one of the most memorable moments in a long career in wine.

“The Valley has meant a lot to me and my family”

Weis has built deep roots within the community. As head of Napa Valley Vintners, the industry’s trade association, he had a front row seat to the damage the recent earthquake wrought, not just to physical structures, but to personal lives. He considered it a “sacred obligation” to be a good custodian of his community; and describes how that community quickly rallied, pledging $10 million to relief efforts. He soon found himself navigating a rapid learning curve in dealing with FEMA and disbursing aid funds, not exactly riding bikes all day but work he feels privileged to undertake given the personal impact Napa Valley has had on him.Silverado Vineyards

Long-term perspective

Weis is equally animated on issues of sustainability and environmental impact. He considers himself blessed to work for a winery whose owners takes a multigenerational perspective. And he becomes tangibly more animated when talking about efforts to reduce consumption. To name one area, Silverado has achieved a thirty percent reduction in energy consumption by changing the lighting in its fermentation room. And by 2017, the winery will have reduced kilowatt usage by a further twenty percent.

MG_0082-150x150Like many at the participating wineries I spoke to,Weis seemed excited to be welcoming new and existing wine enthusiasts in Oakland and to forging relationships both during Oakland Wine Festival and beyond. (For a description of Silverado’s wines, take a look at my Running for Parliament post from last year). As Oakland’s wine scene continues to gain recognition, that’s a sentiment I’m sure we can all toast to.

Martinez Wine & Chocolate Walk

As a wine label designer, I like to attend Bay Area wine events whenever I can. But I quickly realized my experience at Martinez's 2016 Wine & Chocolate Walk was going to be more about the neighborhood than the wine. It started as soon as my husband and I parked on Main Street in front of a quaint clapboard house with an abundant orange tree. As you can see, the sun was shining. Waiting in line for our wine glasses and maps, friendly people told us what to expect from this annual event held the Saturday before Valentine's Day to encourage downtown engagement. As we walked from store to store, each participating merchant poured wine and offered chocolates. At one point, we met a group of local young ladies who raved about Martinez and said of all the places they have lived in the Bay Area, Martinez had the most midwestern small-town feel about it.

Noteworthy around town is the presence of glamorous Marilyn Monroe. Posters abound because she once lived there with DiMaggio. DiMaggio's legacy is less prominent and a little rusty. I happen to like old signs with a story to tell so I'm glad "DiMaggio's Fine Foods" sign is still hanging on.

As for the wine, there were popular brands such as Gnarly Head, as well as relatively unknown picks. Two merchants chose their wine from nearby Viano Vineyards. My favorite tasting of the day was actually Viano's Vintage Zindandel Port. But that's probably because it was served with an incredible chocolate by Main Street Sweets—an expresso bean carmel with just the perfect amount of salt on top. Yes, I would have to say Main Street Sweets makes Martinez a destination in and of itself. 

I've heard people also go out of their way to visit the coffee shops in Martinez, specifically States Coffee & Mercantile on Ward Street with it's red brick walls and stylish merchandise. Down the street from States is another cool space called ARTU4iA (pronounce Art Euphoria). We had a great time chatting with the owners whose creativity and talent is evident. ARTU4iA offers painting classes, daily studio space to rent, and arty birthday parties for kids. Lamorinda parents, take note.

After we had visited almost every store on the map and had our fill of wine and chocolate, we walked a few blocks to the water and witnessed a beautiful sunset. Ah, we are blessed. Wine, chocolate, friendly people, and a sunset on the water—if not a sensational experience, it was certainly low stress and sweet enough for the Saturday before Valentine's Day.

Valentines Day Events: Wine is in the Air

Valentine’s Day pairs well with wine. Many wineries celebrate the day or the entire weekend with something special. I’ve picked five events, all of which are listed below. Choose one or let it whet your appetite for more research.

Rosenblum Cellars Chocolate Dipping

Oakland. On Saturday the 13th and Sunday the 14th, from 2 to 5p.m., Rosenblum Cellars wants to melt your hearts with a chocolate dipping experience. Buy a tasting or a glass of these accomplished wines (Rosenblum is famous for Zins) and then dip away with homemade marshmallows, homemade pretzels, and organic strawberries. Home base for Rosenblum’s tasting room is a classy building with big windows in Jack London Square. It features a view of the water and Ferry Building.

Dutton-Goldfield Winery Reds and Romance Weekend

Winery Valentine's Day eventSebastopol. From 10a.m. on Saturday, February 13th, to closing time on the 14th, Dutton-Goldfield will be celebrating the holiday of love with a tasting of its single-vineyard Pinots paired with local charcuterie. You can reserve a cozy fireside table by emailing Melody. There’s also a Cheese Making Class on Saturday morning hosted by cheesemaker Sheana Davis. The price tag on this class is a bit steep, but not too high considering you’ll have a unique experience in a lush and beautiful place that feels worlds away, even if you’re really just an hour north of San Francisco. For tickets, email Melody.

Brunch and Tasting at Keller Estate Winery

ValentinesDayEventsPetaluma. For a Sunday Valentine’s Day brunch option, consider Keller Estate, a gorgeous property of 650 acres with sweeping views. The brunch will be prepared by Chef Richard Visconte. The flight consists of Brut Bubbles, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The package costs $40 per person, with two seatings: 10a.m. and 1p.m. This always sells out, so if you’re interested, reserve ASAP by calling 707-765-2117. If you’re too late, you can reserve one of Keller Estate’s brunches in the future and make it a gift for your sweetheart.

Retzlaff Valentines Weekend Jazz

Valentines Day at winery Johnston wine and design blogLivermore. Sunday, February 14th, from noon to 4:30p.m. According to Retzlaff’s website, the afternoon gathered around fire pits includes “sexy trumpet playin’ courtesy of Jeff Bordes and the Burnt Ends, Sweetheart wine specials, and drawings to win a basket of love by Andy’s Candy.” Wood fired pizza will also be available for purchase. What I like about visiting Retzlaff is that you feel like you’re one of the locals, even when you’re not. If the weather is good, I’ll be at this event.

Jessup Cellars and Art House Short Film Series

Valentines Weekend Event 2016Yountville. This is not exactly a Valentine’s Day event but it falls on Saturday, February 13th, and makes a great date or night out with friends. In partnership with the San Jose Short Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, and, Jessup Cellars presents indie short films the second Saturday of the month, from December through March. Starting at 7p.m., each seating features four award-winning short films paired with a Jessup Cellars wine and Chef MikeC’s Wok-Popped Flavor-Infused Popcorn. Sounds fun, right? Tickets can be reserved here.

So there you have it: A sampling of Valentine’s Day offerings that include chocolate, cheese making, brunch, jazz, and indie films. You can google your preferred wineries to see what they have going on. If time allows, you might also consider the Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend or look into special events held the weekend before Valentine’s Day, such as the Martinez Wine & Chocolate Stroll.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

*Send in your comments and emails for what to highlight in next year’s Valentine’s Day article! And contact us when you need a new label design or for help with your copywriting and social media content needs.

Unexpected Art & Design in Buenos Aires

My daughter is studying abroad in Buenos Aires this year and refused to come home for Christmas, so we took a few trains, planes and taxis to get to her. Upon arrival, our Airbnb host greeted the four of us with kisses on the cheek, which somewhat eased the pain of the 24-hour trip, as did the pizza and Malbec we enjoyed later that night.

The cultural kisses, good food, and wine were all expected. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d be inspired by the art and architecture of the city. Maybe it was the lens I was looking through, but there is art everywhere: murals in the subways, elaborate street art (graffiti is somewhat welcome in the city), ornate European-style buildings, and unique artifacts in shops and cafés—not to mention art in galleries and museums. On our one excursion out of the city to Iguazu Falls, design and beauty was found in the tiniest butterfly to the most magnificent of falls (and the labyrinth of paths that lead you through them).

Here’s a collection of photos I took to relay the various sources of inspiration in Buenos Aires, the most visited city in South America for good reason.

Wine Tasting in Northern Virginia

So many wineries, so little time. For our one day of wine tasting in Loudoun County, known as DC’s Wine Country, it was tough to choose from the 40+ wineries. Three wineries would be the day’s quota because I was there to visit with family after all, and because wineries in this area aren’t clustered together, like they are on Highway 29 in Napa. A lot of driving is involved, sometimes involving long unpaved roads that make you wonder how anything as civilized as a winery could be at the end of it.

Following is the itinerary we came up with. There are other options that will leave you satisfied at the end of the day, and if you’re out of touch with the fact that Virginia wines have been winning awards across the globe, you’ll be pleasantly surprised no matter what.


Tarara winery tasting roomOur first stop was Tarara Winery. We picked it for its “world class wines” and because they deserve respect for being one of the forerunners of winemaking in the area. Tarara still holds some of the oldest Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc planted in Virginia. Also worth noting is their location by the Potomac River. I just checked online and sure enough, there are outfitters (see River & Trail) that combine paddling down the Potomac with wine tasting and live music at Tarara Winery. What a sweet adventure that would be!

On the country road leading to Tarara, I saw a groundhog pop up and stare us down as we drove by. I also saw fields of sheep and green grass galore. Clearly, this was not California. Once we reached the winery, we were told that the tasting was free that day and consisted of six wines. Yep, Tarara’s wines are world class, especially the final pour —Tranquility 2012 (67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Tannat). This dark crimson wine with massive fruit aromas is one you will want to take home with you.


Fireworks_leesburg_va_wine-tastingA quick word about lunch: we ate on the patio of Fire Works in Leesburg. The Smokey Blue Pizza is AMAZING. If you have the time, wander around this historic town, so full of character.


stonetower_wine_label_designer_blogThe unpaved road leading to Stone Tower Winery was so long that I started to apologize to my companions. I figured we would be the only ones at this remote winery on Hogback Mountain. But just then we came upon a packed parking lot and beautiful building. I literally gasped when we pulled up and saw not just one building but a few, with indoor-outdoor spaces throughout. Kids were running on the stretches of grass, live music was playing, and adults were clustered all over the place. I’ve been to a lot of wineries, but never have I seen one that seemed so much like a park before. One of the tasting areas even welcomed dogs. Everyone looked so comfortable, like they owned the place, gathered around tables of all sizes and settled into high-end leather couches and upholstered chairs, which makes sense since the owners of Stone Tower are also owners of Belfort Furniture.

winery-branding-stonetowerI was surprised by it all, until my brother reminded me that Loudoun County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. (Wikipedia currently ranks it as the highest-income U.S. county by median household income.)

My apologies to Stone Tower, but we spent so much time walking around, that we never got to taste the wines. We only had an hour left and wanted to see a third winery, one that an enthusiastic couple at Stone Tower had recommended.


Quattro GoombaQuattrogoomba-winery-sign is about five miles down the road from Stone Tower. I love the “Be Italian” sign in their window. Quattro Goomba is Italian for four close friends, but “goomba” to me is simply a fun word that embodies the unpolished, relaxed nature of the brewery, pizza shop, and winery there. That said, there’s nothing unpolished about the wines. I cannot praise them enough. The Piney River White (made from Vidal Blanc and Viognier), the Vino San Pietro (100% Zinfandel), the peppery Curico (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah) and the Tradizione (Cabernet Savignon, Malbec, and Syrah)—were all fantastic.

Funny, I moved to California partly for the lure of the vineyards, yet here in my home state, a beautiful wine country has surfaced, tempting me back.

For an entire list of Virginia Wineries, see

When You Come to a Fork in the (Wine) Road, Take It

North Fork wineryAdmittedly our North Fork weekend happened sort of by default. Dedicated Riesling fans that we are, our original plan had been to go to the Finger Lakes for a no holds barred “It’s all about Riesling” weekend. So we were disappointed when calls to multiple B&B’s, tense searches on Kayak and Expedia, and even an appeal to American Express’ Platinum Concierge did not produce a single hotel room. No, we definitely hadn’t expected the region to be full to capacity in late October.

Being resourceful and determined to taste good wine, my thoughts turned to other options. I’d been to the North Fork nearly a decade ago on a wine-tasting day trip. What had stood out for me then was the area’s natural beauty and the fact that I’d never before encountered varietal Cabernet Franc. Located 2 1/2 hours east of New York City on the East End of Long Island, the North Fork got its name because it’s here at a town called Riverhead that this area of land splits into two parts that are separated by Peconic Bay: the left or South Fork (known as the Hamptons) and the land to the right or North Fork.

The plan was to base ourselves at a beachside B&B for the weekend and to devote Sunday to touring and tasting at several local wineries.

Dispatch from New York’s North Fork

Old Field Winery

Old Field Winery

From all I’d read, since my inaugural visit to the area, the quality of the wines has improved to the point where they’re getting increasing attention and winning awards not just in regional competitions and publications but also from outside the region including from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast (’10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2013’) and Wine Advocate (“There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived.”). There’s no danger of unseating Napa just yet, but it’s clear this is an area on the rise.

The North Fork wine industry got its start in 1973 when Louisa and Jim Hargrave set up Hargrave Vineyard. Today the North Fork is home to 40+ wineries cultivating 3,000 acres of vineyards. They are located in many of the towns that make up the region including Mattituck, Cutchogue, Jamesport, and Southold.

So what do North Fork wines taste like?

Though North Fork vintners cultivate both white and red varieties, in general with some exceptions (noted Riesling producer Paumanok for one) to date it’s been most successful commercially with blends of Bordeaux’s red varieties.

For Sunday’s winery visits, we chose Vintage Tours. As a wine connoisseur—let’s be honest, geek—I wanted to go with someone who knew wine in addition to understanding the lay of the land. Jo-Ann Perry’s tour sounded perfect. She’s an area native and wine industry veteran who has been leading tours of the area’s wineries for quite some time.

Our first stop was Old Field Winery, a 63-acre family-owned winery that’s been in business since 1996. The owner and winemaker (a member of the fifth generation of family owners) was our guide. She painted a vivid picture of the challenges and rewards of working in wine. Unlike Napa, which is blessed with low pest pressures, a moderate climate, and consistent bountiful harvests, New York vineyards have to contend with the seasonal swings in temperature that result from its maritime climate (winter can see lows of 5°F while summer temperatures can rise above 80°F). Frost, thunderstorms, hail, hurricanes, and garden variety spoilers such as mildew and raccoons are all in the mix.

Mattebella Vineyards

Mattebella Vineyards and Tasting Notes

We had lunch at sustainably-farmed Mattebella Vineyards where John, the tasting room Manager, led us through the flight. Given his obvious passion, we weren’t surprised to learn that before landing at Mattebella he’d spent years teaching wine before finally giving in fully to his muse and setting up shop on the North Fork. Here we had our most sophisticated tasting. Wines were paired with a menu of small bites designed to complement the wines including crostini with fig jam and blue cheese, and chocolate.

McCall Wines was the stop I found most interesting from a tasting perspective. While it lacked the intimate vibe we’d enjoyed at Old Field and Mattebella—the owners were visible but didn’t interact with our group—the wine lineup was superb. Long-time Atlanta-based wine distributor Russell McCall set up his winery near his family-owned farmland in Cutchogue. He was so enamored of Pinot (something I completely understand!) that he imported cuttings from French clones sourced from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Full disclosure: I have a very high bar when it comes to Pinot and my yardstick is Burgundy.

I tasted Ben’s Bordeaux Blend and three Pinots including the 2013 Hillside Select. Pinot’s trademark earth and spice notes were there as were the delicate red berry and floral aromas. The pale ruby color was true to form. But what really got me going was the great balance of elegant, clean fruit framed in bright acidity that carried through to the lingering finish. I only bought one bottle but could so easily have left with several.

Harbes Family Farm

Harbes Family Farm

Our last stop was Martha Clara Vineyards. I remembered this one from my long ago trip to the North Fork. This was probably the most “professional” of the tasting rooms we visited and the most familiar looking. Frequent visitors to Napa would recognize the limos parked in the parking lot, the tasters clustered around the counter, and the somewhat harried tasting hosts who did their best to impart the background for each wine while keeping everyone’s thirst slaked.

The food could be its own post. Not only is this agricultural area farm-to-table country, October is prime time for apple-picking, pumpkin harvesting, tasting delicious sweet corn, and heirloom tomatoes among other fall bounty. In fact, one of the many high points of our day was a stop at Harbes Family Farm. The family’s history on the East End goes back 13 generations.

Having barely scratched the very beautiful surface, we’re already planning our next trip to the Fork

San Francisco Vintners Reserve at the Metreon

vintners event in San FanciscoThe Metreon was a winning venue for the soldout gathering of Cult Wineries and Reserve Wineries, by SF Vintners Market, One Brick, and The Mercury News. The size of the hall is big enough to give you an adequate rush, but not so big that you can’t get a handle on it. San Francisco was glistening that night, and the view outside the fourth floor of the Metreon made it all the better.

I go to these events partly to meet the owners and winemakers and hear them talk about their wine, in addition to tasting it. A passion for wine and winemaking is behind all they do, but the dedication and stamina of these people inspire me. I met one winemaker that night who drove to SF from Sebastopol, only to discover that his wine hadn’t showed up as planned. He quickly got in his car and drove all the way back to Sebastopol to collect a few cases and then again to San Francisco—a total of six hours of driving. The follow-through of any passion takes perseverance, usually in ways a person never anticipates!

What follows here are a few tastes I want to remember and tell others about, along with a little praise for my favorite wine label designs of the night.

SF Vintners EventMy first taste was a Cabernet Sauvignon by S.R. Tonella. It was so perfect, I worried that the rest of the evening would be downhill. Then I remembered I was in the land of milk and honey, as far as wine is concerned, and went on to enjoy pourings by Oak Cliff Cellars, Spoto Family Wines, and Spring Mountain Vineyard. Ahhhh.

Then I tasted something really different from Spicy Vines. The composition of their ‘Original Blend’ is Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache, and brandy, with natural infusions of fruit and spice. The aromas of spiced chai and orange were intense. A Gold Medal winner in the 2013 Pacific Rim Wine Competition, a lot can be mixed with this wine, but I think it’s fantastic on its own.

Later at the table of Smith Story, I found a beautiful Riesling from Rheingau, Germany. (While Smith Story’s Riesling is from Germany, their other wines are from Sonoma and Anderson Valley.) In the business of design and branding, “story” is a hot word, especially in the wine industry. Would you believe that “Story” is the last name of the founders? This couple has good fortune and a golden touch.

Then it was time for port, and I found a really dreamy one by Hawk and Horse Vineyards: their Gold Medal 2010 ‘Latigo’ Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s available for purchase on their online store and would make a lovely gift. Why not share the dream?

best wine label designAs a graphic designer, I’d like to say something about label design, which contributes immensely to the sales of any wine. What stood out to me at this showing was the understated, charming, sophisticated, and color-coordinated labels of Gregory James. The owner, Greg Adams, is the man on the tractor and he has the ‘story’ to back it up.

I’d also like to call out Innovatus Wine for the elegance, detail, shape, and texture of their labels. Innovatus is owned by Cecil Park who struck me as entirely competent and kind, not to mention that her Cuvée Red Blend is silky smooth.

label designLastly, Rubissow’s icon is lovely. You may not know the story behind it but you can feel it. Note the lines of the flowing vineyards in the icon. Also note that I don’t just brag about my own label designs, but give attention where attention is due :)

gail_johnston_sf_designer_vintners-wine-glassFinally, I stopped at the table of PeaceLand Vineyards. Someone I met at the other side of the hall pointed me to PeaceLand, so I was predisposed to liking their wine. Incidentally, this is a part of branding: putting a good feeling in people’s heads before they experience the product. PeaceLand did not disappoint, their Rosé of Syrah being especially memorable.

And I have a glass to help me remember it all. Until next time, thanks to everyone who shared the fruits of their labor at this great event!

Branding for Houston Family Vineyards

Hayward California vineyardPaul Houston is a new client. He is not from Napa, nor Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, or any number of places known for wine production. Paul is from Hayward, California, where he is doing something new. He is harvesting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from his own vineyards, just a few miles from his home.

Hired to design Houston’s wine labels, my challenge was clear. Now was not the time to be flashy and wild. Rather, a traditional look would be best. Houston Family Vineyards needs to look believable and communicate that, Yes, Hayward has vineyards. Yes, Hayward has elevation. Yes, Hayward has terroir! And it’s actually quite good.

wine label design for vineyard in Hayward CaliforniaHere is the classic label I designed for Houston’s Pinot Noir. Note the seal I developed using the city’s historic Hunt’s Cannery water tower. I figured I’d might as well brand Hayward too!

There’s no shortage of amazing wine in California, but every now and then, it’s nice to enjoy a wine that is so clearly from one person’s passion—especially when he has the courage to plant somewhere new.

Craft Spirits Carnival 2015

Spirit Crafts Festival 2015 highlightsI attended the Craft Spirits Carnival again this year, held at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. It was hot around the Bay, which means it was absolutely beautiful in SF. But I get plenty of the city; let me tell you why I go to this carnival. In this world of buy-everything-on-amazon, it’s a real pleasure to meet the passionate people behind the products. This event allows you to rub shoulders with the “creators.” The craft spirits movement in general reinforces individual ingenuity. I love seeing so much tenacious creativity in one place.

Personal Highlights

Following is a brief description of my tasting highlights. Keep in mind that I am a graphic designer. I am a connoisseur of fine design, but not of liquor, so my impressions of the day are closer to what the average person would experience. One reason the following products have lingered in my mind is because I visited with their makers, as previously implied. Also keep in mind that I’m only one person—this list represents a small percentage of what the carnival holds. Still, it gives you a taste…

Alquimia Organic Tequila

tasting tequila at SF Spirit Crafts CarnivalI mention the “World’s best tequila” with its countless gold medals first because where else can you sample a flight of the highest quality tequila? The mother/daughter team generously served their tequilas while sharing their commitment to organic everything. I had a really nice feeling about these two people, aside from the effects of the tequila. I wish them continued success.

St. George Absinthe Verte

Tasting St. George Absinthe Verte is one of those incredible experiences where the world keeps turning but you know something has changed. I can’t say that I bought I bottle, but I’m warming up to it.

Ficks Cocktail Fortifier

ficks-cocktailI have to mention Ficks because it’s the answer to so many headaches, literally. Ficks provides a vitamin boost, similar to what you might add to your Jamba Juice. Its goal is to restore the nutrients that alcohol diminishes, thereby diminishing the chance of a hangover, while adding complexity to your cocktail. A brilliant idea. I bought a bottle and feel healthier already. It’s available online but can also be purchased at a few unexpected places like Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters.

Quady Apértif Wines

Vya-cocktail-spirits-graphic-designer-blogSpeaking of cocktails, while most of the exhibitors offered appropriately small tastes, some served actual cocktails. Quady handed out a cocktail of equal parts Vya Extra Dry and Vya Sweet Vermouth on the rocks with a twist of orange. Nice! You can find more Quady cocktails here.

Do Good Distillery 3 Mile Rum

Do Good Distillery at SF Craft Spirits CarnivalI only mention the 3 Mile Rum from Do Good’s product line because I was winding down and it’s all I tasted from their table. I’m a 3-mile runner so the name appealed to me, although the 3 miles is actually a historic reference to the distance off the coast of California where the international waters became a staging area for bootlegging ships carrying rum during prohibition. But now everything Do Good does is on the up and up and their rum is mighty good indeed.

Cocotutti Chocolates

chocolates-johnston-graphic-designI’ve blogged about great chocolates before but Cocotutti Chocolates are my new favorite. Each piece is a work of art as well as taste. It hurt me to see people at the carnival casually pop samples in their mouths without stopping to savor them. I suggest eating these with eyes closed. Looking at Cocotutti’s website, the “Everything” box would make an amazing gift. Also consider buying a box of Florentines which are “caramel infused with citrus and topped with roasted almonds.” Seriously delicious.

Final Three

Three more distinctive products that I loved:


Cannella Spirits Cinnamon Cordial: Cannella is the owner’s family name and means “cinnamon” in Italian. The fun background story is told on the website, where you can also find cocktail recipes, but I like the idea of sipping Cannella after a special meal all by itself.

Ventura Limoncello, a gold medal citrus liquor handcrafted from a 3-generation old Italian family recipe. This is such a delightful taste. I tell you, Italians really seem to know what they’re doing in this industry.

Barrow’s INTENSE Ginger Liqueur, which is perfectly named, so intense. If you like ginger, this is something to pursue. It’s comprised of 200 lbs of ginger per batch, 1/4 lb per bottle!

Two tips for next year’s carnival

Without wanting to state the obvious, don’t go to the carnival hungry. You can buy lunch there, but there’s so much to taste and such little time, you may not want to stop :) If you go on Sunday, you can buy food ahead of time at the farmers market at Fort Mason. Secondly, bring cash. It’s just easier with some of the purchases you can make at the tables.

Oh, one more thing. If you want to buy something that tends to sell out like Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey, you have to go on Saturday and be there when the doors open. My husband wanted Angel’s Envy for his birthday but I didn’t realize how hot it was and now he’ll have to wait until next year. See you there!


East Bay Tasting Itinerary With Absinthe

When my friend Suja came to the Bay Area on business, she asked if I would prepare “one of my blog adventures” for us to do on her free day. Well of course. Sticking close to her hotel, here is what we did and I heartily recommend it for an awesome afternoon in the East Bay.

Dashe Cellars

dashe-brand-image-winery-oaklandWe started with a tasting at Dashe Cellars, located a few blocks from Jack London Square. Dashe is Oakland’s largest and only fully functional winery, a fact that was apparent as soon as we stepped inside the expansive space. But like any great host, Limor made us feel warm and cozy and eagerly started us on the flight. It was “Zinfandel Day” so she poured one great Zin after another, while talking about the grapes and their biodynamic beginnings and casually mentioning that she had run 17 miles that day. Wow to everything.

As a wine label designer, I have to mention the winery’s unique brand image—a monkey riding on the back of a fish. The monkey represents founder Michael Dashe who is from Tarzana, CA, and the fish represents Anne, his wife and cofounder who is from a fishing village in France. Together, they are going places and they encourage others to do the same with their monthly Monkey & Fish Photo Challenge.

Nido Kitchen & Bar

Eating is always a good idea after a generous tasting. Fortunately, Nido-oakland-restaurant-wine-design-blogNido Kitchen & Bar is right around the corner from Dashe. Suja was happy to find vegetarian options on the menu, including $3 grilled veggie tacos. Walking into Nido, it’s hard not to feel happy regardless. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to take photos, which we did—my friend here with the agreeable hostess. “Nido” means nest in Spanish, a fitting name for the friendly feel and their farm-to-table Mexican food.

St. George Spirits

StGeorgeSpirits_wine-label-designer-blogNext up, St. George Spirits, a 10 minute drive away. St. George Spirits is in Alameda’s up-and-coming Spirits Alley. Check the website ahead of time to book the 5:30 tour and tasting—a must-do. Our fast-talking tour guide sorted out the entire spirits industry in just one hour! At least it seemed that way. Most interesting is the story she told about absinthe. It’s a sad story about a bad aphid that destroyed the vineyards of France and robbed the Parisian bohemian culture of its beloved wine. Absinthe rose to the occasion and became the new favorite drink. Somehow, absinthe got mixed up with sugar cubes and opium and was eventually banned in Europe and the U.S.

However, what really happened, our guide explained, is that the vineyards started to produce grapes again, but people were too happy with absinthe to want wine. So a plan to ban absinthe was concocted and it worked. Wine was soon back in demand.

Absinthe-alameda-spirits-johnston-design-blogThat was about a hundred years ago and absinthe is now legal. St. George Spirits was actually the first distillery in the United States to commercially produce it again. This photo shows the three mandatory ingredients for the spirit: Star Anise, Fennel, and Wormword. Wormword scares me but I’m told that while it is responsible for the color of the green fairy, it is not a hallucinogen.

The tour ended in the tasting room. Tasting spirits is different than tasting wine. Don’t swirl the glass. Take a sip, taste, and then blow the alcohol off your tongue so the best flavors linger. Sip, taste, blow. That’s the drinking style introduced to us at St. George and I like it, especially with their amazing Nola Coffee Liqueur which was my final taste for the day.

Well, not really. After St. George Spirits, we walked down the “alley” to visit Building 43 Winery where winemaker Tod offered us a taste of his Bomber Red. This area has a lot going for it with stunning views of San Francisco and a surreal feel. I encourage you to check it out—and subscribe to this blog if you’d like other ideas for a good time delivered to your email every now and then.


Playoff Wines: Hestan Vineyards Kickoff

The occasion: Oakland Wine Festival’s kickoff tasting and party.

wine-label-design-blogTo be honest, I hadn’t heard of Hestan Vineyards until very recently. With more than 500 wineries in Napa County, even the most dedicated wine geek can have trouble keeping up. All the more reason to learn about the winery and the wines during Oakland Wine Festival’s Kickoff event on Tuesday, June 16.

In the run-up to this month’s festival at Mills College, starting in February each month has seen a tutored tasting held in a different Oakland venue, showcasing wines from one of the winery members of OWF’s Honorary Steering Committee. That night’s winery focus was Hestan Vineyards.

In addition to showcasing some of the leading wineries participating in OWF, all of the kickoff parties include an auction designed to raise proceeds for each of OWF’s featured charities.

The setting: Oakland’s Waterfront Hotel on Jack London Square.

The hotel is part of the Joie de Vivre group, a San Francisco-based boutique  hotel chain. That evening, a band of dedicated wine lovers showed up. Let me explain what I mean by dedicated; that night Oakland’s home team, the Warriors, competed against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA playoffs.

Hestan Vineyards

The background: Stanley and wife Helen founded Hestan Vineyards in 2002. It was originally intended to be a personal project, supplying wine for the couple and friends. Thirteen years later, the Hestan brand has become known for quality wines that win praise from critics. The Napa Valley estate sits on 41 acres. Grapes for the red wines come from the Napa Valley, while Hestan sources its Chardonnay from the vast San Francisco Bay appellation.

Hestan produces 3 different wines; a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Bordeaux blend. In an unusual twist, Hestan employs two different winemakers. I’m not taking about a resident winemaker and a consulting oenologist: I mean two different winemakers producing two different wines. Thomas Rivers Brown makes the flagship Cabernet and Hestan’s Chardonnay. Jeff Gaffner crafts its Stephanie line of reds: a proprietary red blend, a Merlot, and a Cabernet.

The lineup: Six of Hestan Vineyard’s wines

Leading the tasting was Emily Floyd, a wine country native and current Consumer Direct Manager for the winery. Host and Oakland Wine Festival organizer Melody Fuller kept things lively by leading us in tasting some of the wines blind.

Hestan Vineyards Kickoff Tasting

Tasting highlights:

2012 Hestan Chardonnay

Unfiltered, and aged in French oak, 50% new. 500 cases produced.

Moss, wet stone, and dusty notes plus stone fruit, pear, and citrus scent the nose. The palate shows clean citrus, tropical fruit, and cantaloupe. flavors. This is mouthwatering, with good acidity,  medium body, and a slight confected note on the  finish.

2012 Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon

The nose shows sweet spice and pepper, along with an herbal note. Lead pencil, blueberries, cassis and other dark fruits feature on the full and concentrated palate. This is elegant, with precise structure, high-toned fruit flavors, and silky tannins. Well-integrated oak presents itself in light nutty notes. This is a full-bodied, but never heavy wine.

2009 Stephanie Napa Valley Proprietary Red

A blend of 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller portions of Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot

Nutty with sweet spice, vanilla, earthy wood notes, crushed berries, and baked fruits. The palate showcases slightly tart fruit, black pepper, and a fleeting background floral note. This is full and mouth-coating, with supple tannins and an almost chewy texture, before ending on a slightly sweet note. To give you an idea of this wine’s intensity, one taster described it as “the one who came home and I didn’t want  him to leave.”

It was a great evening and a nice preview of the celebration to come on 7/19.

Uptown Oakland for Craft Spirits

In pursuit of the memorable craft spirits that I sampled at the annual Craft Spirits Carnival in San Francisco, I booked a reservation last Saturday night at Duende in Uptown Oakland for a double date. Duende is interesting all-around, inside and out, but its claim to fame is their tapas. The four of us were seriously taken aback at the wonderful flavors. Diverse, intense, satisfying, each plate completely different from the next.

Having the perfect drink in hand didn’t hurt either. Tariq is the expert mixologist at the bar. He made me a “Red Vesper” with Botanica Spiritvs Gin per my request. Without wanting to overdo my adjectives in one post, I’ll simply recommend that you visit Tariq and request this exact drink.

label designs for amaroI was very happy at Duende with my drink and tapas, but since we had big eaters among us (tapas are small plates after all) and due to the fact that we don’t get to Uptown Oakland very often, we decided to visit two other places. First we walked a block or so south to Bar Dogwood. There, I wanted to have an Amaro but didn’t know which one to choose. In a split second, the bartender gathered the options for me. She was so cute and cheerful, I asked her to pose for a photo. Later I found out that her name is Molly. I love when a name fits a person so well. Molly poured me a neat Amaro Nonino. It was sweet, smooth, and so nice to sip.

Our last stop was at Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café, again just a walk away. Rudy’s co-owner is Mike Dirnt from Green Daythis video will tell you all about it. At Rudy’s you can fill up with hearty breakfast burgers and omelets, which we did. The cool thing is, Rudy’s also has a full bar with those craft spirits that had inspired our night out in the first place. I noticed the Botanica Gin was on the menu, this time mixed with orange and grapefruit juice. I shared the refreshing cocktail with my brother-in-law who had no complaints.

On our way to the car, we talked about taking BART next time. The 19th Street station is right there in the heart of this happening area. How could I have lived so long in the Bay Area and not know this? I’m not sure, but now I do, and you do too.