California dreaming on such a winter’s day….
Anytime you go an adventure to wine country, a lot of preparation needs to be made. I mean, whatever will I wear with no kids climbing all over me, spilling chocolate ice cream on my white jeans? Wait. I wear white with three kids? Uh, it was an accident – an oversight – and it will never happen again. End of story.
Back to reality with the planning: firstly, you have to figure out whether you’re just dropping in for the longest tasting bar, or whether you actually want to taste wine, figure out what you like, buy some and learn something along the way.
Number one, hire a driver. Its easy, and not as expensive as one would think. You will consume more wine than you think you will. Bottom line.
In general, I try to visit wineries I either know or have an interest in. Are they known for Cabernet Sauvignons? Pinot Noirs? White wine? What is their price range? What is my price range? I map out only three wineries a day – more than that gets crazy, but it depends on your goal.
In Napa, there is a main strip, which can almost seem like an endless bar. If you drop in to those tasting rooms, you could probably visit more than three, although in my mind, three is the magic number.
Focus on one area a day. It’s more enjoyable when you aren’t driving around like crazy. Are you interested in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir? Head over to Sonoma and Russian River, and add a sparkling wine visit to your trip at J Vineyards – they never disappoint. If you’re into red wine and views, I recommend going north towards Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. Well, you get the point – mountains. The tasting rooms are gorgeous, and the wine is just as delicious!
I’m a huge fan of winemakers. I tend to gravitate towards smaller wineries (though sometimes not) that are making good wine, with a lot of thought and care that is evident in the bottle. The industry is dominated by large companies – Gallo, Constellation and the Wine Group: big big players that are responsible for 60% or more of state’s wine shipments, kinda like the Amazons of wine. You might not recognize the names but they represent the likes of Meiomi, Kendall Jackson, Beringer… and the list goes on. They tend to offer branded wines in a range from low-end sippers to premium bottles, with a fairly consistent recipe on the mid-to-low end of the price range. But I like to support smaller wineries when I can.
2011 was a rough year in California, in Napa and surrounding areas there was a cool spring which inhibited the fruit set, the ALL important issue for grape growing when flowers turn to berries. Most vineyard saw a major reduction in crop from this issue. This is like when your five year old opens the cereal and dumps half on the kitchen floor. The issue didn’t get better, with rain and rot in October. Some growers lost 60% of the Chardonnay crops, but good winemakers still pulled off excellent wine. While bad wines may be plentiful, especially in a tough year, the good wines are unforgettable. All that said to highlight what a good wine maker can do for a wine. Which brings me to one of my favorite winemakers, Mike Farmer, who made excellent wine in 2011 and, well, every year after that, specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. He has a smaller winery with fabulous wine. The grapes are grown in Howell Mountain, which is one of my favorite places. (www.euclid.com) There are a slew of excellent winemakers out there that I love to visit and taste their wine when I get a chance. To name a few: Steve Matthiasson, Ted Lemon, Heidi Barrett, Bo Barrett, Paul Draper, and Cathy Corison.
On a side note, California has basically carved out what they call AVAs (America Viticulture Areas), which delineate prime areas for growing California wine grapes, such as ‘Carneros’, ‘Spring Mountain’, ‘Howell Mountain’, etc., and winemakers can put these regions on their labels. According to the ‘laws’, when you see an AVA or county name on your wine label, it means 85% of the grapes used to make the wine have to be sourced from that AVA or county. While Napa and Sonoma are not AVAs, these various special regions are within their boundaries. For example, Pride Mountain Vineyard AVA straddles Sonoma and Napa – there is literally a county line that runs down the property. And Pride is another winery I’ve been visiting for years. They have a solid reputation with excellent wine. Fun fact: the wine has been served at the White house (more than once).
Northern California has a vast array of wineries; essentially for most, you can just walk in and taste/buy the wine – or call ahead for a tour and scaled up tasting experience. The other part is smaller, exclusive wineries who operate on an ‘allocation’ basis, with waiting lists for their wines (given the limited production). Visitors who are ‘on the list’ and have bought into the allocation are encouraged to visit, but these wineries are not generally open to the wine tasting public.
My two concerns with northern California are alcohol levels and soaring prices. I get asked all the time, “why is Napa so expensive?” It’s an excellent question. There are so many theories to this. Most people associate quality with price, plus having smaller allocations of a popular wine can drive up prices, with some hard-to-get wine demanding a $75 plus price point. The cost of making decent wine is high, when you factor in labor and equipment, and the land in Napa is much more expensive than in, say, Oregon, and so is the cost of grapes. You have technology costs, bottling costs, and the list goes on. Bottom line, there is quality out there that won’t break the bank, but savings don’t really happen in the land of Napa and Sonoma. You will really have to look elsewhere, for instance at other wineries starting to produce in other areas surrounding Napa/Sonoma.
ext blog I’ll recap my winery visits to Frias, Barnett, Pride, Red Cap, Francesca, La Sierna, Robert Craig, Failla, and Palmaz and talk about alcohol levels in wine….