A Good Designer Offers You a Choice

label design by Gail JohnstonHave you heard the commotion over Hillary’s campaign logo? As a professional graphic designer, I’m happy about the fuss because it validates the importance of what I do. My business is not one of life and death importance, but then again…maybe it is! A good logo, label, or website design, for example, could save the life of a company, and behind every company there are people trying to stay alive in a competitive world.

Anyone can buy the professional software I use: InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere, and other mind-bogglingly powerful applications. But having the right software doesn’t make someone a successful designer anymore than having automotive tools makes one a mechanic. The difference is, it’s easy to tell if a car isn’t working, but not everyone can tell when a design is inadequate.

As in other professions, the best designers feel called to their career. I know I did. When I first started studying design, my tools were French curves, rapidograph pens, lightboxes, rubylith, drafting tables, and a killer set of permanent markers. I could render just about anything with those markers. Since the transition into technology, little of that has remained, but what has survived—what doesn’t change no matter what the medium—is the graphic designer’s drive.

What exactly is this drive? Well, it’s hard to describe. It’s a serious passion to make things happen visually, to put engaging imagery and typography together to form a message that is so clear you know without a doubt that it works­.

One of my present clients is Cobble Ridge, a start-up artisan distillery. After years of big brand clients, it’s a pleasure to work in the craft spirits industry where I meet the owners themselves to discuss their vision. Pockets may not be as deep, but I enjoy the people, not to mention the drink, and believe that every business, no matter how small, should have a professional designer to help make their vision a reality. That’s especially true in the wine and spirits industry where, well…who hasn’t bought a bottle just because they like the label? Image isn’t everything, but it clearly helps with sales.

Here are a few concepts from my first presentation to the owner of Cobble Ridge. I presented eight distinct concepts, but these four are enough to communicate my main point for this article. Even though the proprietor had a single vision of how he wanted to position Cobble Ridge in the world, my designs show a varied interpretation of that vision. There are no formulas to make this happen. Templates are the craze of the day, but they can not come close to what an experienced and creative graphic designer can do for you. Graphic design is essentially art—art with a definite purpose and people to please, but art nonetheless. As such, you can’t punch in the parameters of your project and predict exact results, but a designer can produce an exciting spread of options for you. Each option should speak to your target audience and yet be entirely different.

Label Design by Bay Area Wine Label Designer Gail JohnstonFor Cobble Ridge’s new brand, the proprietor said he wanted to be the “opposite of stodgy.” Since the distillery is located in the Sierra Foothills—Gold Country—we discussed the possibility of using imagery from gold mining and the Old West for his first product, Grappa Moonshine. The goal was to communicate a sense of place and history with a modern twist.

You’ll notice that these four designs immediately differ from each other in that Design A shows a typographic solution, Design B uses photography, Design C uses illustration, and Design D shows a strong graphic approach.

In Design A, the nicks out of each letter is reminiscent of typography of the Old West. The ascenders of the “bbl” in “Cobble” suggest the mountain range of the Sierra Foothills. The downward flow of “Ridge” entices you to tip the bottle and let the moonshine flow. Overall, the feeling is fun and fluid, yet not without weight and balance.

The photo in Design B seems to invite you into the dangerous gold mine and the hard liquor itself. Ordinarily, an image of big gritty rocks would clash with a clear liquid, but filters applied to the photo make it shine. An icon of a pick and ax icon is shown on the cap, offering another element that can be used in brand development.

Design C uses a sketch by Edward Borien (1872-1945), an authentic and prolific cowboy artist. In addition to the connection to the American frontier, the sketch offers a sense of action, spunk, and adventure—all things the client wanted as soon as he saw this concept. The border around the type is a subtle connection to the details on a western saddle. This solution also has “legs” meaning that the client can build his brand using other works by the artist for the products he develops in the future.

Design D is a modern interpretation of a mine shaft. The graphic treatment is intended to grab your attention and pull you in. Moonshine is strong stuff and this uncomplicated bold design makes no bones about it.

Again, there’s no template or software that can produce such an exploration of concepts; you need a real designer on your job, giving you the best chance of building your business with a unique and memorable brand. If you are looking for a designer or creative team, consider whether or not the designer’s samples show a creative range. Don’t hesitate to call references and ask if the designer typically presents a strong set of viable solutions. Having a choice will more likely give you the design that you just know is right. More importantly, your customers will know it too. They will be drawn to it, they will remember it, and they will be back for more.

Oakland Pride: Mountain Vineyards and The NFL

I’ve been fortunate to have attended nearly all the kickoff events for Oakland Wine Festival (OWF). The most recent one took place at Picán in Uptown Oakland. I first went to Pican about four years ago and it opened my eyes to the new and improved food scene developing in that part of Oakland. Southern cuisine from a New Orleans native and a drinks list that features more than 100 bourbons: what’s not to like?

The combination of the venue, the focused tasting of wines from Pride Mountain Vineyards, the presence of representatives of the NFL (yes that one!) one of OWF’s newest sponsors, and the ever-vivacious Melody Fuller promised a fantastic evening. To say that I was looking forward to this is an understatement. Though Oakland’s wine scene has exploded lately, it’s still rare to find wines from Napa being poured in a focused tasting.

In case you haven’t tried them yet, Pride’s wines, made by the Pride family, are terroir-driven collectibles. The vineyards’ high elevation—2,000 feet—and above the fog line means grapes benefit from more sun versus those on the valley floor. Meanwhile, big day to night temperature swings result in complex, age-worthy wines. The winery has the distinction of straddling the Sonoma and Napa county borders in the Spring Mountain district. Some of its wines bear the Napa appellation, some Sonoma, and some carry both.

If you like big, full-bodied wines that speak strongly of their place and don’t overpower you, you need to check these out. That’s if you can get your hands on them. Not only are these wines Presidential favorites, over the past two decades, they’ve been served 30 times at White House state dinners, several wines in Pride’s lineup are mailing list only.

The wines:

2013 Vintner Select Sonoma County Chardonnay

wine-design-blog-oakland-wine-festivalClean citrus scents the nose. Full-bodied and verging on rich, the palate has nice weight with a lively zing, and citrus, well-integrated oak, and vegetal flavors along with a burnt caramel note. Nice! 353 cases produced.

Former NFL player Anthony Simmons

Former NFL player Anthony Simmons

2013 Napa Valley Chardonnay

Grassy, with wheat and kernel aromas and an underlying floral scent. Lean on the palate, with concentrated fruit and a pleasing smokiness, this has supple texture and a full-bodied rich texture reflecting its fermented in new French oak then rested on its lees, 1,300 cases produced.

2014 Sonoma County Viognier

Beautiful, with a heady floral bouquet, and a confected scent, the nose is classic Viognier. Expressive, with white flowers and stone fruit flavors on the palate, this promises much, but could benefit from more structure. 1,108 cases made.

2012 Napa Sonoma Merlot

Nutty and complex, with flavors of vanilla, leather, licorice, coffee grounds, and bittersweet baking chocolate, this was matured in 100% new French oak. Best of tasting! 5,350 cases made.

2012 Napa Valley Cabernet (84%), Merlot (9%), Petit Verdot (7%)

Angular, and fruit-forward with black and purple fruit flavors of cassis, boysenberry, plums, and blueberry this displays elegance and finesse along with massive structure and a dry finish. 5,566 cases produced.

2012 Vintner Select Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

This 60%/40% Napa Sonoma blend made from the 337 clone featured a big flavor profile paired with an ample frame. Baking chocolate, sweet spice, and dark fruits fill the palate.

Signed NFL footballs at auction

Signed NFL footballs at auction

Give this baby some time to further develop. 592 cases.

The evening continued with great nibbles and a charity auction that included signed NFL footballs and bottles of Pride’s Viognier and Merlot, among other items. Proceeds from the Oakland Wine Festival will benefit several Oakland charities including: Children’s Hospital Oakland, Family House, St. Mary’s College High School, Cameron Fuller-Holloway Memorial Fun Fund, and Alternative Family Services.

Running for Parliament: Oakland Wine Festival’s Silverado Vineyards Tasting

Last week’s tasting at Oakland event space Parliament had all the elements of a great evening: an eager crowd, wines from Silverado Vineyards, a well-known Napa name with a distinguished pedigree; and Melody Fuller: Oakland native, wine, food, and travel writer, and the organizer of Oakland Wine Festival.

Although I didn’t literally have to run to this event, a less than geographically astute Uber driver oakland wine festival signdid mean that what should have been a quick journey and an early arrival, wound up being a nail-biter. But I shouldn’t have worried. I arrived with a few minutes to spare: time enough to appreciate the decor and meet Russ Weis, Silverado’s General Manager, before the evening got under way.

Russ led the group in tasting six of Silverado’s benchmark red wines. I have to confess here that despite many trips to Napa, this was my first tasting of the wines. And they were well worth the wait. Among others, we were treated to Solo, sourced from Silverado’s Stags Leap vineyard and available by mailing list only, along with a debut varietal Cabernet Sauvignon so new, the bottles hadn’t been labeled. We also got a bit of background on Silverado’s history.

The tasting concluded, we moved on to a charity raffle — the proceeds benefit St. Mary’s College High School’s Cameron Fuller-Holloway Memorial Fun Fund — food, and mingling. Just another night in Oakland’s eclectic and diverse wine scene. The evening was like a rich stew that only served to further whet my appetite for the main event.

The wines:

2011 Estate Bordeaux Blend

The product of five different vineyards, and crafted from the five grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) permitted in Bordeaux reds. The nose is expressive, with aromas of spice box, tobacco leaves, tea, dark berries, currants and light earth. Full-bodied and brimming with richly concentrated ripe fruit flavors, this builds in intensity through the finish. Lead pencil, black berries, sweet spice, and savory herbs mesh well with an ample frame.

2012 Oakville Station Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet, from a vineyard vinified block by block. Wet earth and dusty talc on the nose; intense, with concentrated almost jammy black fruit.

2012 Mount George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

This bottling hadn’t even been labeled yet, and is Silverado’s debut Cabernet bottling from its Mt. George Vineyard. Powerful and intense, with coffee grounds, black fruit flavors and an almost chewy texture, this is still tightly coiled and needs time to open up.

Silverado Wines2011 Stags Leap  Cabernet Sauvignon Solo

Made from heritage clones that are the product of massal selection, this was elegant and well-balanced, with licorice flavors.

2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Limited

Dusty notes of wet earth along with menthol and black licorice, scent the nose. The full-flavored and silken-textured palate features concentrated and ripe, verging on sweet, fruit while licorice flavors carry through to a lengthy finish. This is a stunner!

2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Limited

Oakland wine festivalThe nose displays toasty spice and leather notes, while the palate is rich and concentrated: showcasing earth, toasted oak, black cherry and other juicy dark berry fruits. This is lip-smacking and vibrant, with great intensity, and a savory mushroom note in the background.

The tasting was part of a series of kickoff events in the run up to the Oakland Wine Festival, which takes place in July.

Logo Design: What Clients Need to Know

After thirty years of designing logos, I’ve come to realize that my tips of the trade may be helpful to fellow designers and, more importantly, they may benefit clients. It’s not every day that a client needs a logo, so it is understandable that he or she may be unfamiliar with the process and industry standards. Over coffee this morning, I collected my thoughts and lessons learned. Whether you are a client or designer, feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments below.

What Makes a logo?

A logo is a mark or typographic design (or combination of the two) that is specifically designed to uniquely represent a company, product, program, event, personal identity, or service. Sometimes called a logotype, it is a critical aspect of a brand’s overall presentation to the world.

Bacardi spirits company logo designThe level of complexity or simplicity does not automatically determine the greatness of a logo. The Bacardi logo is an example of a complex design. Spirits companies tend to have detailed logos and label designs to imply the level of craft and legacy that goes into their products.

Apple’s logo is an example of a design that is simple. Needless to say, simple does not mean easy to do. Winning designs havelogo design example of simplicity originality, a concept (is that bite out of the apple a play on a byte of information?), and a certain something that causes the logo to grow on you over time. To the later point, how a company builds their overall brand has a lot to do with the way a logo becomes embraced by the public. The Nike logo was not immediately loved by all,  but the company did so well promoting their brand with bold imagery and relentless consistency that the swoosh now stands alone and has become almost sacred.

CONSISTENCY: Speaking of consistency, if budget allows, hire your designer to put together a Style Guide along with the logo. In my experience, clients have been pretty excited about my Style Guides because they make everything so clear: when to use different file types, what Pantone colors to specify, and so on. If employees come and go, the Style Guide assures brand consistency. Consistency is associated with professionalism. Why this is so is logo design basicsanother conversation, but if a brand chooses to do something really different with their logo, they should have a solid reason and system for doing so, as IBM did for their centennial. (See IBM’s 100 Icons of Progress.)

A WORD ABOUT CLIP ART: Clip art may be useful for embellishing newsletters and blog posts, but it is not logo material. Anything that has been downloaded thousands of times is quite the opposite of original. Simply stated, you deserve better! Stock art, from sources such as dreamstime.com, offers more distinction than clip art, but it is still not customized for a client’s purposes, and the terms of stock agencies typically do not allow their art to be used for logos unless an additional license is purchased.

JPEGS VS. VECTOR FILES: Even if your business is largely a web-based one, eventually your logo will need to be printed on a business card and possibly sewn on a T-shirt or etched onto a wine glass. Someday your logo may be scaled up to five feet for a tradeshow banner. For all these purposes, after your logo design is completed, you will need a vector file. Vector files usually have file names that end with .eps or .ai. Don’t worry if you can’t open eps or ai files; your vendors will love them. On the other hand, for everyday use, jpeg files are great. Jpegs can be placed into Word documents, social media sites, and can work on print materials if they are high resolution enough. But jpegs are not vector files. For more information, you may enjoy 10 Common Mistakes In Logo Design.

Quotes and Kill Fees

QUOTES: I tend to use all these words interchangeably: Quote, Estimate, Contract, Agreement, and Proposal. When a designer takes the time to draft a good quote and the client signs off on it, expectations and conditions are delineated so all parties can be on the same page, relax, and enjoy the process. My quotes, for example, specify that the logo fee allows for three rounds of revisions from the client. These parameters help a client collect and refine his thoughts, rather than randomly send me requests as they come to mind. The parameters also assure conscientious clients (who are concerned about asking too much) that a few rounds of revisions are perfectly acceptable. Additionally, I explain to my clients that requests beyond the stated terms are fine but may require another charge and their approval will be secured before proceeding.

CREATIVE BRIEFS: Creative Briefs, whether produced by the client or designer, clarify such things as the target audience and the competition from which to differentiate yourself. One thing that is particularly helpful on a brief is a description of the “brand personality.” Determining a few choice adjectives that you want associated with your brand—Trustworthy, innovative, friendly, earth-friendly, youthful, etc—is extremely helpful to designers.

ADVANCES AND KILL FEES: When working with a client for the first time, a designer usually asks for an advance, which is a portion of the overall fee to be paid to the designer before work begins. Again, all parties benefit from this step. Here’s why: If a job is “killed” midstream because the client is unhappy with the work to-date or because of unforeseen reasons such as production setbacks, the client can rest assured that the designer has been somewhat compensated for his time and the advance becomes a “kill fee.” Incidentally, whenever a client cancels a job, whatever the designer has produced toward that job still belongs to the designer and the designer alone. In other words, it is illegal and unethical for a client to use a designer’s logos if the client stops the job before it is completed (which is essentially pulling out of a contract). Which leads me to the next point.

Rights and Pro Bono

USAGE RIGHTS: When designers are independent contractors, they own the rights to whatever they design, as specified by our United States Constitution (Article One, Section Eight, if you really want to know). It is only after a logo design is completed and the terms of the agreement are met that the files for that specific design (not for drafts and discarded concepts) are transferred to the client for their unlimited use. All of this usually happens seamlessly, without any hullabaloo, because most people seem to know what is theirs to keep and what isn’t, but nevertheless it’s worth clarifying here and in the terms on a designer’s proposal.

PRO BONO: What about logos designed pro bono? Over the years, I’ve been grateful for a skill that can contribute to the success of a worthy cause, but work done for free is still work, hard work, and there are expectations, conditions, and deliverables that would be best spelled out in writing. (As a designer, it’s so hard to take this extra step after you’ve agreed to do hours of uncompensated work for someone, but I recently learned how important it is.) Who will cover out-of-pocket expenses, for example, such as color presentation materials and fonts purchased? In the past, clients have given me letters stating my in-kind services for tax purposes. This does not work. The IRS does not accept it because the rates of designers are not standardized in such a way to establish a clear write-off. But there are other things a client can offer when receiving pro bono work. The client can write a positive review on LinkedIn, refer business to the designer, offer payment when funds become available, any number of things. Returning to Nike’s logo, the original logo designer was only paid $35, but after becoming a success story, Nike gave her 500 shares of stock. Very classy. Such possibilities can be discussed in the beginning of a pro bono project to further the giving spirit.

Have Fun!

Once details are ironed out and understood, logo development can be very exciting for designer and client. If you are looking for a logo designer, be mindful of the fact that not every designer excels at logos. Someone may be amazing at web design, for instance, but not a master at finessing letter forms and shapes to capture a brand personality. So look around, get referrals, and find a professional designer who will get to know your goals and promise you a variety of concepts from which to choose. You want a choice of viable options. I love making my first presentation to a client. Often, they respond so well to two or three designs that they can’t decide which one to pick. That is a good problem and it always resolves itself well.


Bay Grape: Napa Comes to Oakland

I first met Stevie Stacionis, one of Bay Grape‘s owners, completely by serendipity. I was showing an out of town friend around Oakland. We started with brunch at Camino, one of my favorites, in the Grand Lake area.  Then we moved on to a quick walk around Lake Merritt, before deciding to wend our way to Rockridge. All of a sudden I caught sight of a sign for a new wine store.

As we stood outside gawking, the two women inside called out friendly hellos, introducing themselves as Debbie and Stevie. After learning the store was set to open in a few weeks time, I made a mental note to come back to check it out. I was even more intrigued when the owner mentioned that she was also a wine writer. So how did five months pass before I came back for a proper introduction? Don’t ask me. There is no good excuse, but there was a multi-week sojourn in New York, during which I made it my mission to check out some new wine bars on my wish list: Terroir in Tribeca and Corkbuzz Wine Bar in Chelsea Market. Then there were the holidays, and the usual rush of life.

The other thing is that I’m spoilt for choice. Since my second coming to Oakland nearly 18 months ago, not one but 4 new wine stores/wine bars have opened. I covered two of them, The Barrel Room, and Ordinaire, in earlier posts. In other words, there are plenty of places for a motivated wine lover to explore.

At any rate, I made it my mission to go to Bay Grape on a recent Thursday because I heard they would be pouring Matthiasson’s wines. I’d never tried them but let’s just say the winery’s reputation precedes it. Also on tap, so to speak, was Smith-Madrone, another Napa stalwart I was eager to sample.

Here’s what I tasted.

2013 Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain Riesling

Citrus and stone fruit scent the nose. The smooth-textured palate is dry, with bright fruit flavors and a pleasing buttery richness. Fruity and well-balanced with stony minerality, this is clean and fresh with some residual sugar evident on the finish. A great expression of the variety!  Stuart Smith, Smith-Madrone’s winemaker, described this wine as between the two spectrums of austere Alsatian riesling and the typically sweeter, more accessible German styles. If you ask me, he struck exactly the right balance!

2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon

Gorgeous nose, full of bright black and purple fruit aromas, earth , sweet spice, and an herbal note. The rich palate verges on full and showcases generous fruit flavors but still maintains freshness. Earthy minerality and balanced acidity support an elegant and well-proportioned frame. Flavors of mocha, led pencil, while fruit along with oak and sweet spice notes linger on the finish.

2012 Matthiasson Napa Valley White WIne

This blend of Ribolla Giolla (an Italian variety), Chardonnay, Tokay, and Sauvignon Blanc showed funky barnyard, wet earth, and sulphur on the nose.Light-bodied, with crisp acidity, the palate flavors reflect the nose. vegetal and light nutty flavors along with a marine note linger on the finish.

2011 Matthiasson Red Hen Vineyard Merlot

Sweet spice, dark chocolate, iron and cloves play on the complex nose. The palate is elegant, light, and supple, with savory spice, fleshy fruit flavors well-integrated oak. Coffee grounds, biter chocolate, and earth notes carry through to the finish.

I also got plenty of face time with, Stuart as well as with Jill Matthiasson. Along with walking the vineyards when I can, talking to those who are intimately involved in crafting the wines I enjoy is always such a pleasure. Not only was this a great tasting, but from the staff to the clients, Bay Grape has a great friendly ambiance and an open inviting space. My recommendation: get down there before this place is overrun.

Lodi, Rainbows, and Wine

Lodi wine tasting article by Gail JohnstonIt was a perfect morning for finding a rainbow. Scattered rain with sun rays working their way through cumulus clouds. Sure enough, during our hour drive to Lodi’s Wine & Chocolate Weekend, we saw a full rainbow right in front of us. We would have driven right through it if that were technically possible. It was going to be a good day.

Lodi’s annual Wine & Chocolate event is the weekend before Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t mean you have to go with your sweetie. My friend and I had been curious about the Lodi Wine Trail so we picked this delicious weekend to explore. That said, I imagine any weekend in the winter when the fields are a brilliant green is a great time to visit the “Zinfandel Capital of the World.”

winery-road-signsAs with other wine trails I’ve blogged about, I’m offering our itinerary of wine tasting as a suggestion. There are at least sixty other fine wineries in the area; I’m told you can’t go wrong, even if you just follow the signs, of which there are many!

Our first stop was Oak Farm Vineyards with its stunning new building, giving us a fantastic first impression of Lodi. White wines were poured in their grand tasting room to the sweet music of local band Clerical Estate, and reds were served outside on a porch with expansive views. Fireplaces and people were everywhere, creating a warm and fun ambiance. As a graphic designer with a particular interest in naming, I especially enjoyed their red blend called “Tievoli.” Do you see what it spells backwards?

twinsOur second visit was to LangeTwins, a different experience altogether, but fascinating. If Oak Farm Vineyards reminds you that winemaking is about the art of farming and love of land, LangeTwins calls your attention to the science and technology of it all. At first, their huge facility caught me off guard, but as we walked beside a long infinity pool, I began to feel differently. The water brought out the beauty of the industrial equipment that loomed large. Everything seemed to sparkle. Sitting by the fountain, eating a hot Brie and Chocolate Panini (their event specialty), and listening to “Just My Imagination” playing in the background…well, it was truly a moment.

caricature-LangetwinsInside their tasting room, there was an art show, amazing chocolate samples by Delysia Chocolatier, and head-in-the-hole boards that showcased characters from their label for Caricature. It was also a treat to talk to the twin Lange brothers themselves. I purchased a bottle of their Estate Grown Moscato on the way out.

Next, we drove downtown where you can park and walk between twelve tasting rooms. We had time to fit in just two of them: Riaza for their Spanish Varietals and Jeremy Wine Co. At Riaza, I had another “moment” while eating a dark chocolate and goat cheese bacon-wrapped date. When I first heard about this unusual pairing, I thought that someone was trying too hard to be fancy. Forgive me, for I was very wrong. This appetizer alone is worth putting next year’s Wine and Chocolate Weekend on your calendar.

Lodi wine label designWrapping up the afternoon at Jeremy Wine Co., my friend and I talked with the owners at the tasting bar. It turns out that they used to own a graphic design business, like myself. No wonder their labels are the classiest in town! My photo here isn’t the best, but at least you’ll know who to look for when you visit. Great people.Lodi-with-train

On our way to the car, the sky was too clear for rainbows, but I loved how the California bear on the Lodi Arch shone in the sun. There were people mulling about, a few cyclists, and then came an old train. Lodi is such an interesting place. Historic and happening. Unpretentious and promising. Lots of locals mixing with outsiders like me. Considering the event, I hope it’s not too corny to say that Lodi is lovable. Cheers!

Caricature and Lodi photos by Gail Bravos

Sweet Sonoma: Wine Tasting Math

My father grew up in Sonoma, but then moved East where he raised his own family. As a girl in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, I imagined my dad as a California boy, picking plums from trees and running in fields of wildflowers. When the California wine industry took off, my romanticism of the area intensified, and I headed west as soon as I could.

Now, years later, I’m still enamored with Sonoma. It’s as sweet as it ever was. There may not be as many poppies growing wild, but the vineyards add acres of beauty, and the occasional winery on a hill (i.e. Viansa) or castle (i.e. Ledson) are aesthetically awesome.

Last Sunday, my husband and I wanted to spend the day there wine tasting. According to Sonoma County Vintners, there are 450 wineries in Sonoma County. After consulting a mathematician, I learned that if you wanted to visit just three of them on a given day, you would have 15,086,400 different combinations of wineries from which to choose, irrespective of the ordering!*

If you find this overwhelming, feel free to use the itinerary we put together. It did not disappoint.

GunBun wine label designer blog1)   Our first stop was Gundlach Bundschu, a good place to start since it’s the oldest family-owned winery in California (a true fact!). We enjoyed driving down Denmark Street, taking photos of their old car, and wondering what road to take next. Once we found the cozy tasting room, we were served by Jen Beasley who had absolutely no airs about her and was really fun to talk to. After our tasting (the 2012 Tempranillo was our favorite), my husband and I walked around the lake outside. We felt as if we had the place to ourselves, one of the advantages of winter wine tasting!

picnic-at-landmark-wine-label-designers-blog2)   Next, we went to Landmark Wines where we had box lunches waiting for us. (We reserved them the day before online.) We ate side by side on a picnic table in the courtyard, tasted their amazing Chardonnays, contemplated the Mayacamas Mountains in front of us, and felt incredibly blessed.

3)   It’s always nice to include at least one winery in your itinerary where you are pretty sure the owner himself (or herself) will serve you. En Garde was our choice for the day. Winemaker and owner Csaba Szakal poured for us and answered our questions. We heard bits and pieces of his story: He grew up in Hungary and remembers how his teacher threw their EnGarde wine label designhistory book away the day the Berlin wall came down. Even with the 450 wineries aforementioned, I’d like to go back and visit En Garde again. We loved all their Gold Winners (it’s fitting that their wine labels are cut in the shape of a ribbon), and we purchased their port, called “Magdalena.” Checking to see if it is available online (it is), I see that the port’s description includes a few food tips: “Try drizzling Magdalena over vanilla ice cream.” Yum.

4)   Lastly, we drove to the little town of Glen Ellen (famous as the last home of Jack London) and stopped at Pangloss. We wanted to see the historic tasting room. The wine host kindly told us all about it—how the original building was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt in brick, but brick buildings (I know this firsthand) don’t hold up will in earthquakes so it was destroyed again. Ever an optimist, the owner rebuilt again and named the winery Pangloss, a reference to the optimistic character, Dr. Pangloss, in Voltaire’s satire Candide. For a relatively young state, California has a lot of fun history in the wine industry. We didn’t actually do a tasting this visit, so our plan is to return to Pangloss after a day of hiking in nearby Jack London State Park.

I hope this itinerary is useful for those visiting Sonoma, but remember it’s just one of over 15 million! And you really can’t go wrong—hospitality and winemaking expertise flourishes throughout.

*To better wrap your head around the mathematics of combinations, see here.

Contagious Review by a Creative

Contagious book review for creatives

After reading a few reviews (New York Times and Storyboard), I had a pretty good grasp of the principals in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, but I still wanted to buy it and make sure I didn’t miss anything. So to unwind from the holiday rush, I curled up with Contagious for a long day of reading this well-developed and organized book. The author, Jonah Berger, must be an excellent teacher and now we can all be his students in a way. Surely entrepreneurs, marketing professionals, and anyone who’s curious why a video on shucking corn goes viral will benefit from this book.

Here’s an example of the interesting research that Berger lays out so clearly. Researchers Adrian North, David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick examined how the background music in supermarkets affects buying behavior. They discovered that: “When French music was playing, most customers bought French wine. When German music was playing most customers bought German wine. By triggering consumers to think of different countries, the music affected sales.” You may have guessed as much, but now you know there is research to back it up! And I’m guessing this chapter called “Triggers” will make the biggest impact on our world moving forward.

Skipping to the Epilogue, in the book’s final pages Berger speaks ever so briefly about the initial spark needed for something to take off. He says that the spark is only one small part of the story; that no one would claim that the size of the fire depends on the initial spark. Good point, but still, the spark must be there. There is nothing without the spark. And more sparks may be needed to advance each STEPP (Berger’s acronym for the principles that make things go viral). I am grateful for STEPP, its practicality and guidance, but as a creative professional, I must say that the creativity and ingenuity needed in the first place is critical, and, thankfully, still somewhat mysterious.

The First Wine Trail in the Country

Did you know that the first organized wine trail in America is in upstate New York? The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail in the Finger Lakes Region makes the claim as the longest running wine trail in the country. But it’s not the easiest place to visit, especially for a Californian. Fortunately for me, my husband and I were in the area visiting our son at college, so we enthusiastically extended our trip to spend a day wine tasting.

Will, host at Sheldrake

Will, host at Sheldrake

Oh, I wish we had three days, as did the people we first met on the trail. We were sitting at the tasting bar of Sheldrake Point Winery, enjoying our host, Will, sipping a delicious dry Riesling, when the people beside us explained their schedule. They visit each year from Philly and spend their first day on the Cayuga Lake Trail, their second on Seneca Lake Trail, and their third on Keuka Lake Trail. In just three days, they said, they buy their wine for the entire year ahead. Not a bad system.

But my husband and I had much less time; we were there to live in the moment and enjoy the differences between these wineries and those we know well in California. Here is what we noticed about the New York wineries:

1- Their tasting fees are just $5.

View from porch at Toro Winery

View from porch at Toro Winery

2- Sometimes grass grows right up to and through the rows of vines. This is beautiful to behold, especially for my husband who grew up in grass-deprived California.

3- It rains. Okay, it rains in California too, but not enough. Our day on the Cayuga Lake Trail was a bit wet, and that was fine with us. We ate outside on the vine-covered porch at Knapp Winery so we could watch the rain.

4- There are no traffic jams getting from winery to winery. If you’re lucky, you will have to share the road with a horse and buggy driven by a Mennonite.

5- Unusual varieties. Some, like Aromella at Goose Watch Winery, aren’t sold anywhere else in the world. Unique varietals are available on the Cayuga Trail due to the grape-breeding program at Cornell University, only a mile or two away.

One similarity between East and West Coast wineries is the hospitality. There’s friendliness all around. Some people may think the wine industry is uppity, but that is far from my experience. Whether I’m visiting as a tourist or creating a wine label design for a client, if there are any generalizations to make, I’d say the industry is full of earthy, hearty, and generous hard working people.

In case you are reading this post to plan your own adventure to the area, here are three more highlights you might want to remember:

Doobie at Swedish Hill Winery

Doobie, Swedish Hill Winery

• The gorgeous lake view at Toro Run Winery, a recent addition to the trail. I loved their Grüner Veltliner too.

• The Rieslings were wonderful everywhere, especially the gold winners at Swedish Hill Winery. No doubt Doobie, the owners’ old miniature donkey, sweetened the experience for us. He met us at the fence and ate a few bar crackers out of our hands.

• The menagerie of tastes at Montezuma Winery. In all my tastings as a wine label designer, I have never seen such a crazy long menu. Of course, I can only comment on what I sampled, but, wow, you have to try their Sparkling Rhubarb.

I’m sure there is more to say, but, again, we only had one day. If you would like to add more to the list, please do so in the comments!


Oakland Art Gallery with Raffle Offering

Arte VerissimaSince I previously wrote about Oakland’s First Fridays, I’d like to call attention to an art gallery in Oakland that is off the beaten path, yet still close by.

Arte Verissima Gallery is top-notch. You won’t find any art here that makes you wonder what’s the matter with you. That’s not to say that the art here is predicable or typical, but rather, it’s simply good. Yes, I know some things are subjective and I don’t mean to get into the philosophy of art (as much as I love it). I simply want to be clear that Arte Verissima is worth your time to visit.

The gallery is in a quaint house in Piedmont with roses leading to the front door, on a street that is perfect for strolling (i.e. there are plenty of restaurants). The opening receptions are truly for everyone—all are welcome. The next one will be the evening of December 6th, a group show with amazing artists, including gallery owner and sculptor Bruce Wolfe, Golden Gate Atelier Director Andrew Ameral, and portrait artist Scott Wallace Johnston.

Carol Tarzier paintingWhat’s showing now? Carol Tarzier’s beautiful landscapes, still lifes, and a few of her sculptures. I love her work! She is raffling the painting I am showing here (my photo does not do it justice). As much as I’d rather win the raffle myself, I’m kindly sharing the details with you because, well, the artist deserves as much. If you visit the gallery during their hours—Friday to Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.—you can enter to win this original painting. Raffle tickets are each $35. The show is up until November 23, but I’m not sure exactly when the drawing will be, so plan your artistic outing soon. Or, if you attend this weekend’s Saturday Stroll, just stroll a little farther to 4432 Piedmont Avenue.

Seavey Winery: A Hidden Gem In Napa

It was a friend’s request that prompted me to finally visit Seavey Winery. He was at a loss as to where to take a visiting friend on a first trip to Napa. So I offered to put together an itinerary for a great day of tasting in Napa. Along with a major commercial winery that boasts a stunning art collection and a tasty lunch, I knew I also wanted to showcase a hidden gem. Seavey, family-owned for nearly 40 years, had been on my radar screen for awhile, but I had not made time for a visit. A huge oversight on my part.

Seavey-photo-brighterI first heard about Seavey from a colleague who’s been in and around California’s wine business for more than a decade. If anyone knows the ins and outs of great Napa wine, it’s Christina. So on a sunny weekend a few weeks ago, we set out to visit Seavey. We were hosted by Dorie Seavey, who now runs most of the winery’s day-to-day operations.

As we toured the fermentation room and cellar, Dorie gave us a detailed overview of the wine production process. Seavey hand harvests its vines, then ages its wines in new French oak barrels, a labor-intensive, and expensive investment, especially given that new French barrels run about EUR750 ($1,000) each. Well-known French winemaker Philippe Melka consults. Melka is a world-class talent, with accolades from Robert Parker among others, whose prior experience includes stints at some of the greatest Bordeaux names, including First Growth Haut Brion as well as a host of blue chip Napa names.

Tasting with a view of rolling hills

Our tour complete, we started our tasting. Sitting just outside the historic stone building that houses the tasting room, with a panoramic view of the vineyards and the rolling hills that dominate the property, we enjoyed a full lineup.

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather, a more pleasant and engaging host, or a more impressive range of wines. In addition to serious, age-worthy wines that don’t overdo it on either alcohol or ripeness (unlike too many Napa Cabernets), the whole experience at Seavey is so different from that of many other tasting rooms. It’s authentic and personable and you come away with a sense of a family business, one that is closely tied to the land.

I consider these wines to be some of the region’s great buys: with a high value to price ratio. These are accessible, handcrafted, small production wines sold at prices that frankly, could easily be 10-20% higher. My recommendation? Grab a spot on the mailing list while you can. Better yet, head up for a visit.

2012 Chardonnay
Grapefruit, peach, and talc aromas along with floral aromas of honeysuckle play on the lively nose. Chalky minerality and a mouth coating full-bodied, just verging on rich, palate. Ripe fruit and a note of light smoke emerges with air.

2011 Merlot
Perfume notes, and coffee grounds scent the nose. The palate shows lifted and slightly tart dark fruit flavors (prunes), elegant, with good balance, and sweet spice

2011 Caravina Cabernet
Sweet spice,oak, steed fruits and minerals scent the nose.
Slightly tart red and black fruits; this shows great structure; approachable, now it’s already drinking well.

2005 Caravina Cabernet
Chalky, with coffee, and prominent licorice aromas
Full-bodied and rich, with mocha, prunes, and concentrated dark fruits; good structure

2009 Seavey Cabernet
The nose features blueberries, currants, dark, brambly forest fruits, nutmeg, wet earth, and a woodsy note.

Seavey-photo2Rich and juicy on the palate, with a full and expansive mouthfeel and fine-grained tannins. Classy and elegant, with finely tuned structure, expressive dark fruit flavors, mocha, lead pencil, and oak spice notes. Builds in intensity on the palate, leading to a lengthy, juicy finish.

And 2 days later, fruity & ripe, with lasting bright fruit flavors; nutmeg, and other sweet spice notes.


San Francisco’s Craft Spirits Carnival

SF Spirits Fair Fort-MasonI am a picky drinker and a frugal spender. As such, I’m the perfect candidate for San Francisco’s Annual Craft Spirits Carnival. Here’s my reasoning: there’s no way to know exactly what I like if I can’t taste it and I’m not going to buy a lot of spirits just to sample. This event allows me the opportunity to sample away and purchase only my favorites. Which I happily did.

If you missed it this past weekend, I’ll fill you in on a few highlights. You see, the other really good reason to attend this fair is to discover what is new in the world of spirits. You’re not going to get this kind of information from the sample counter at Trader Joes. For example, the first table I approached offered me a small cup of Pür Spirits Blood Orange Liqueur with one exquisite “premium cocktail cranberry” floating in it. Upon tasting it, I had the grand reassurance that I was in the right place at the right time. Lounge Attire actually introduced the garnish a year or so ago, but considering that we’ve had the maraschino cherry and olive since the 1800s, the cranberry—or rather this particular late harvest (i.e. sweet) cranberry—is very exciting.

SF spirits fair-golden state ciderAnother happening fruit is the apple. At a popular table in the back of the hall was one of the good humored creators of “Golden State Cider,” and he was filling our sample glasses as fast as he could. This cider is seriously easy to drink. Soon it will be available in a can so watch out. I’m pretty happy about this product. Clicking through the website, I suppose I fit the target audience: an active, health-conscious Californian.

The second drink I tasted that is made exclusively with apples was Arkansas Black Straight Applejack, much more intense than the cider but still crisp in a way. The woman standing beside me said, “I didn’t know apples could taste this good.”

I’d like to briefly mention two other new products that absorbed my attention. The first is C & B’s Old Fashioned Quinine, which is an organic syrup to add to soda water for a fantastic drink. You can add alcohol if you want, but it’s complex enough without it. You can also sample it at Napa’s Oxbow Marketplace, but an 8 ounce bottle is affordable enough to just go for it and buy online.

SF-spirits-carnival-chocolateAnd finally, I’ve come to the chocolate. A mother/daughter team has done something brilliant together. They make “Wine & Cheese Pairing Chocolate” that is wrapped in colorful foil and packaged with pairing instructions. I sampled their Dark Chocolate Salted Pistachio with goat cheese. So delicious, even a tiny sample was thoroughly satisfying. Talking with the mom, I learned that they sold out the day before and worked into the wee hours of the morning to make their chocolate for Sunday. Checking back at the table an hour later, I saw that they had sold out again. Success, albeit with a little sleep deprivation.

Every exhibitor seemed to be enjoying success, although the event wasn’t uncomfortably crowded. But even it it was, you only had to step outside and gaze at the ocean of sailboats and seagulls with SF-spirits-fair-seagulAlcatraz in the distance. It’s about time I mention that the event is held at Fort Mason Center on the waterfront. Reason enough to be there!

The dates for 2015 Crafts Spirits Carnival? August 15-16. Check it out.


A Day in Napa Itinerary

With over 500 wineries, there are countless itineraries you can come up with, but if you have limited time to plan and you want a sure path to a great day, here is one itinerary you can follow. My husband and I constructed it for our anniversary day in the Wine Country, and we loved every step of it. You can follow it verbatim or use it as a launching pad for your own discoveries.

what to do in Napa, Artesa1) Artesa Vineyards & Winery was our first stop. It is worth going here for the sake of beauty alone. Take your time climbing the stairs and drink in the views from the top. Then taste their fabulous wines inside.

2) An empty stomach does not work well with wine tasting, so after Artesa, we took the backroads to Oxbow Public Market. What a sophisticated market! It is unique, bustling, and a different kind of aesthetic experience. Be sure to look UP every now and then. You’ll see a rowboat suspended above Hog Island Oyster Co., for example, and lovely chandeliers at Napastäk. napastak-oxbow-napaFor lunch, I ate at Pica Pica and my husband had his first duck taco from C Casa. I don’t expect you to follow our itinerary down to the duck taco, but if you do, you won’t be disappointed.

3) Every trip we make on Highway 29 seems to include a stop at Oakville Grocery. As the oldest continually operating grocery store in all of California, it deserves a quick visit. We usually wander around, looking at their creative selection of wines and dips and then enjoy a latte outside in their picnic area.

4) A well-rounded trip to the Wine Country should include as least one boutique winery. We chose Sullivan Vineyards and loved the calming lake, vintage Thunderbirds, and stellar sense of style. Smaller wineries often require a reservation for tasting. Regrettably, we hadn’t made one, but now that you know, you can do better.

day-in-napa-itinerary-hall-rabbit5) Hall Wines was next. The enormous rabbit sculpture beckons you from the road and interesting art continues to engage you throughout the extensive grounds. But I suggest you go straight to the tasting bar like we did, so you can walk around while you sip. Or, after tasting, buy your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon and enjoy it by their reflection pool (see last photo).

6) With a little time left before our dinner reservations, we visited Ma(i)sonry on Washington Street in Napa. This historic manor is more than an art gallery, but whenever we are in the area, we stop for the art, which is always top-notch and fun to ponder and discuss.

7) Our last stop was R+D Kitchen for dinner. The prices are right, the kitchen crew amazing, and thday-in-napa-itineray-hall-reflection-poole atmosphere perfect. After dinner, we sat by one of the fire pits outside and wondered if Napa could do anything wrong. Even after an earthquake, the place seems so put-together. Moreover, the wineries, shops and galleries are so gracious, with hospitality being an obvious value.

The Wine Country wants us to visit and happily we oblige. Stay tuned for other sample itineraries to come!

Eating, Tasting, and Spitting at Fort Mason


SF Food and Wine Festival at Fort MasonI’ve always loved San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. For one thing, its location can’t easily be topped. It sits on the edge of San Francisco Bay, with beautiful sweeping views over the water and the Golden Gate Bridge; fog permitting. Not only that, the complex itself is striking. Part of the National Park Service, it sits on 1,200 acres and encompasses theaters, a chapel, museums, a bookstore and cafe, to name just a few of its attractions. It’s my favorite spot in the Bay Area and was at one time a working fort.

On Saturday, August 2, it was host to San Francisco’s Eat Drink SF food and wine festival. I don’t make it to many of these types of events; they tend to be overpriced and overcrowded. But given the venue and the program, tasting and learning more about Oregon Pinot Noir and Washington (the other Washington) wines, this one seemed to be a no-brainer.

First up, was a session on Washington wines, led by wine writer Sean Sullivan. The lineup consisted of 5 wines that showcased the region’s range. We tasted two white varietals: a Riesling and Chardonnay from the 2012 vintage, and three red wines: a Merlot, a proprietary red blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 2011 vintage. Washington has yet to become associated with a signature variety, a la “California Cab.” But its reputation for producing stellar Rieslings and red blends that retail for significantly less than their California peers do, is both well-known and well deserved.

Next, we moved on to my absolute favorite red variety, Pinot Noir. It’s hard to adequately describe the charms of great Pinot. It my mind, it’s a combination of a sensual, mysterious, complex and ultimately unknowable wine, that not only leaves you wanting more, but lingers in the memory long after you’ve tasted it. Of course, Pinot Noir reaches its pinnacle in Burgundy, its homeland. Though there are great Pinots to be found in many New World wine regions, too often I find myself disappointed in California’s examples. I often wince on sight, the wine’s inky darkness a clear statement that this is not the one. Pinot you see, is a thin-skinned grape that produces medium-bodied, light-colored wines with moderate acidity, not the purplish-hued, full-bodied red wines we associate with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Erath-wine-CorksI knew that Oregon has a great reputation for producing quality Pinots, a suitable climate, and has even attracted investment from major French names: Lafon and Drouhin to name just a  couple, so all was promising. The setup was great: 6 wines from a range of Pinot clones, varieties of the grape, and from different vineyards. The producer, Erath, has a reputation for wines that display purity of site expression along with the region’s classic bright and expressive fruit flavors. A special treat was having Gary Horner, Erath’s winemaker, lead us through the tasting along with Master Sommelier Rob Bigelow, of Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Erath wine served at SF Wine Festival at Fort MasonWow, what a lineup it was. All were high quality, well-made wines, but 2 stood out for me. My best of tasting were a 2010 Leland Pinot, made from old vines and a 2010 La Nuit Magique, the winery’s flagship bottling. Both featured two different clones as their primary components: Pommard in the Leland and 667 in the Magique.

And have I mentioned that only about 30 people attended the Pinot Noir session, and fewer than that for the Washington one? Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning!

For more on these wines, you can view my tasting notes here.

Bike Riding and Wine Tasting

Bike-riding-oakville-loop-napa-valleyLast Saturday, four of us rented bikes from Napa Valley Bike Tours & Rentals where a nice guy named Buck gave us a map and explained an easy ride we could take. We had a beginner cyclist with us, so the 12-mile “Oakville Loop” would be perfect. Besides, this is an area in which to take your time. As highend as Napa is, there is much charm, beauty, and quietude. There are roosters, sheep, apple trees, blackberry bushes, and acres and acres of well-tended vineyards. And naturally, there’s Oakville Grocery, the quintessential market of Napa, conveniently situated at the halfway point of our ride.

Oakville Loop Bike Ride and Napa Valley TrainBut before I talk about lunch, let me tell you about our race. To get to the market, we had to bike for a short stint on busy Highway 29 where the picturesque Napa Valley Wine Train started gaining on us from the other side of the road. The train must have had a bath recently because it was positively shimmering in the sunlight against a backdrop of green. Jennifer, an 18-year-old, decided to race it (while staying in the bike lane, of course). Quickly and unknowingly, she flew past the market and got smaller and smaller as she sped away. The others stopped as planned, but I decided to try to catch up with her, to make sure she knew where we were when she finally had enough, and to add to my exercise for the day. The wind was strong, the train noisy, and Jennifer was way too far away to hear me yell, so I chased her hard as she chased the train. It felt like we were in an old-fashioned movie. And Jennifer actually kept up with the train! Which means I must have been going even faster because I finally gained on her enough to yell, “Stop! Winded yet satisfied, we made our way back to the market with a new appetite.

At Oakville Grocery, we liked the Turkey Panini with Apple Butter best, but everything’s great. While there, it’s nice to reflect upon the fact that people from around the world visit this place. They should have a guestbook.

Biking through vineyardsAfter lunch, we rode past Opus One, Silver Oak, PlumpJack, and Paraduxx, to name just a few of the wineries along our route, but we sadly didn’t have time for tastings. So the next day, a friend and I decided to visit Viano Vineyards, which is closer to home, and a fair substitute. I would say that Viano is the best kept secret of the East Bay, but that is cliché and I don’t want to slight other gems. In any event, the tastes were delightful, my favorites being Hillside Pink (only $5 a bottle!) and their award-winning Reserve Petite Sirah. I just looked at a map and drew up a 16-mile bike ride from my home to Viano. I think I’ll call it the  “Viano Loop” and give it a try next time.