Wine tasting is an experience that brings people together

Frank Léal is the owner/winemaker of Léal Vineyards in Hollister.

Wine tasting is  more than taking a swig and gulping it down. For that, there’s whiskey. But for most of us oenophiles, wine tasting is an experience to be savored and enjoyed with all of our senses – an experience that includes selecting the perfect wine, swirling the glass to release the aromas and savoring the flavors. The experience is heightened when shared with good friends or someone special. More than anything, it’s the sharing of wine that brings people together and can turn a special occasion into a night of romance.
Local Winery Buzz
Léal Vineyards in Hollister is the poshest, most romantic destination winery in the entire South Valley. Situated on 50 acres of sheer beauty, Léal Vineyards is the brainchild of Frank Léal, owner/winemaker, who at the age of 28 had the ambitious vision of bringing the romance of Napa Valley to his winery in the South Valley.
After working at a Napa vineyard, Frank decided to start his own winery. In 1998, he sold his fencing company and purchased land in Hollister where the climate has the same number of productive growing days as Napa. The land, rich in nutrients and surrounded by rolling hills, was a blank canvas begging for something spectacular. Armed with only his imagination and a small notepad for his ideas, Frank went to work.
Frank started by building a stone wall that marked the property’s boundary and the beginning of a remarkable transformation. With the help of friends, he hand-planted 27,000 vines in a year’s time; harvesting the first grapes in 2001. Soon a barrel room and an indoor tasting room with a covered patio and bubbling water fountain were added. Another patio – shaded by 60 olive trees and a few steps from the tasting area – was built for evenings of ambiance and includes a full-service cocktail bar, a wood-fire pizza oven, two bocce ball courts and a magnificent fireplace.
Frank imagined a fairytale wedding venue and built that, too. Alongside a tented dining and dance floor, a majestic 200-foot, staircase waterfall leads from a wine cave, cascading into a pond with swans floating by. Five hundred lavender plants fill the air with their seductive fragrance. It’s no wonder that in 2004, Food and Wine magazine listed Léal Vineyards in the top 20 of best new wineries “on the planet.”
I chatted with Frank and David Cox, the man in charge of community events, inside the barrel room where 800 barrels of wine serve as a back-drop for gourmet dinners prepared by Mark Johnson, the full-time executive chef and former sous chef to Gary Danko. Twinkling lights are strung around and through the barrels setting the stage for romance.
Although it’s classy, Léal Vineyards is also fun and unpretentious. Frank attributes the winery’s success to his desire to bring an emotional connection from the wines he makes to the people that enjoy them.
“It’s all about the romance of the barrel room, the bricks and the rocks, the rolling hills and walkways of lavender,” he said.
And it’s also about their luscious wines. Frank said he farms for quality, not yields, and uses his discerning palette to produce the wine styles he likes.
“Turning sugar into alcohol is easy, but what’s not easy is getting that certain taste that I think people will enjoy,” he said.
The Bordeaux varietals include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Godsend, a luxurious Cabernet Sauvignon, is the flagship wine and the only wine I know of that sells “futures” at its release party.
The tasting room also pours estate Chardonnay and other proprietary blends. The 2010 Viognier with a hint of sweetness is a popular favorite. A not-to-miss tasting is the 2010 Saints and Angels Pinot Noir. Not only is this Pinot Noir outstanding, the bottle itself is exquisite with a neck encased in melted wax, infused and scented with lavender from the property. Even before tasting the wine, one’s pulse quickens with anticipation.
Fuel your passions at Léal Vineyards, daily, 11 a.m to 5 p.m.
Wine munchie
Roasted Garlic on Baguette: Take a large garlic bulb and slice off the top so that the individual cloves are exposed at their tips. Place the garlic bulb on 9 x 9 sheet of aluminum foil, drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil, sprinkle with seasoned salt. Close up the aluminum foil around the garlic, twisting the top like a Hershey’s Kiss. Place on a pan, bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or until soft and golden. Dig out the cloves and spread over a sliced baguette. I usually make one garlic bulb per person. Pairs well with any wine from Gilroy!

Friday: Music Under the Stars, Hecker Pass Winery, 6:30-9:30 p.m., $5
Friday: Groov’n N the Grove, Léal Winery, 6-10 p.m., $15
Saturday and Sunday: Lightheart Cellars open for tasting
Saturday: Bottle Your Own, Guglielmo Winery, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., $6/bottle or $5 if you bring your own bottles
Sunday: Wine tasting class with savory snacks, Hecker Pass Winery, 2 p.m., $39
Aug. 8: Two-year anniversary party, Sherman Cellars (downtown San Jose) pouring Creekview wines. Complimentary food/wine, 6-9 p.m