Vol. 4 No.1
Visits in This Issue:
(Journal and tasting notes from a late Winter tour of the Napa/Sonoma wine country. Tasting notes: each wine was scored using the requisite sight, smell, and taste impressions. Scores use an alpha-oriented rating system. "n/n" indicates no notes taken, and "n/t" indicates the wine was not tasted by one of the tasters.
Having been nearly two years since we'd last been wine tasting in Napa/Sonoma (April '94), we were all looking forward to this visit. We did a couple of things different this time - with mixed results. We'd promised ourselves at the end of the last tour to Napa & Sonoma that, rather than drive the whole distance, we would fly to Oakland, pick up a rental car and head North. Also, since we were going to be staying only Friday and Saturday night, thus visiting wineries during the weekend rush, we made some changes from our usual route of working our way North through Sonoma County and then South through the Napa Valley. We headed first to Napa for Friday's itinerary, including two scheduled winery appointments.
Got a late start from home, picked up MP and headed for airport parking. Took Alaska Air's 8:25 from Orange County to Oakland. An earlier than scheduled arrival in Oakland at 9:40 couldn't make up for the time-sink at the Hertz counter. It seemed to take forever for the line to move. Finally, by 10:35 we were in our '95 Sable and headed to Wine Country.
Arrived at Hess Collection about 11:55. This was apparently the old Christian Brothers Mont LaSalle location, and the winery/tasting room is an impressive sight. With a scheduled appointment for 1:00 at Shafer, we unfortunately had no time for a tour of the artifacts and art collection, so we headed straight for the tasting room. Fee of $2.50 for tasting of two wines (Merlot and Chardonnay). But, as often happens, we hit it off nicely with our pourer which netted us an additional two wines. After a brief browse of the attractive sales room and grounds, headed out at 12:33.
Tasted at Hess Collection:
Arrived at Shafer at 12:56 just in time for our 1:00 appointment. We weren't quite sure we'd left enough time to cover the 15 miles from Hess, but as it turned out we had at least a 10 minute delay while waiting for two late arrivals to join the tour/tasting (shades of a previous Saintsbury visit; see 4/94 issue). Once everyone was present, we assembled out in front of the offices for a less-than-brief monologue about the winery and vineyards. Along on our tour, as it turned out, was two great-grandsons of the original owners of the property, the Bautiste family. Finally, we got underway with the heart of the tour, and what a tour it was. Into the storage caves we went following our guide from the tasting room. At this point, we were introduced to winemaker Elias Fernandez, who proceeded to show us a great time. We sampled the '94 SLD Cab and '95 Sangiovese from barrels, then the'94 Firebreak (blend of Sangiovese and Cab) from the bottling tank. Then the finale, we tried the '94 and '95 Hillside Select Cab from barrels. Fantastic wines! Tour of the caves complete, we headed back out through the fermentation room to the tasting room for new '94 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, and '93 SLD Cab. What a fabulous visit! Left for next stop at 2:05.
Tasted at Shafer:
Arrived at Spottswoode the first time at 2:25, the second time at 2:30, and the last time at 2:44. How could this be? Well, missed directions on the exact location of the winery, caused us to be a little late, but we at least we finally arrived. We went into the faux-Victorian winery office to sheepishly announce our arrival. And, when General Manager, Beth Novall Milliken graciously showed us into side room where we were welcomed by the rest of our small tour group and given a fast-forward on the past and present of Spottswoode, along with a glass of the '94 Sauvignon Blanc. From there, our little group of 6 were led over to the Prohibition-era stone building that serves as the storage facility, for a barrel tasting of the '94 Cab. Afterward, we returned to the tasting room for a side-by-side tasting of the '92 and '93 Cabs. Great conversation and a gracious host kept us until 4:00.
Tasted at Spottswoode:
Having fallen woefully behind on our [impossibly] optimistic schedule, plus having had nothing to eat for the better part of the day, we decided to stop at V.Sattui's deli for some bread and cheese, and examine our options for a final tasting at one more winery. Left for final stop at 4:20.
Arrived at Pine Ridge at 4:34 to just a few remaining people in the room. Of the tasting options available, we decided on the 3 tastes for $3 option; in addition they threw in a taste of the Cab-based Port. The wines were good, but certainly nothing spectacular. In fact, given the conditions under which we were tasting, the wines were quite disappointing. Unfortunately, we arrived just as they were disinfecting tank nozzles in the adjacent storage room with bleach, and the smell just filled the air. If a "closed" wine is tough to nose, try doing it with a cloud of bleach hanging over your head. Finally out at 5:00 and headed to a laundromat, 'er Mustard's restaurant, for dinner.
Tasted at Pine Ridge:
Arrived at Mustard's at 5:11, which was good timing, because anyone arriving after 5:30 is going to have a bit of a wait ahead of them. Finally headed out at 6:30 for our overnight in Santa Rosa. Light rain most of the morning, but we had a great day; managed to get to 4 wineries, 2 tours, and 19 tastes. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to drop 2 wineries from Friday's schedule, but we hope to make these up tomorrow if possible, despite facing another daunting schedule.
Light rain overnight and into the morning. After breakfast, we departed for our 9:00 appointment at Williams-Selyem winery.
(Ed.note: you may be wondering what it's like to taste wine at 9:00am; and, why on earth would anyone want to do it. Come on! It's wine! Look at it as juice for breakfast. We've even coined a suitable phrase, "Wine at Nine, mighty fine," to punctuate the fact that we'll drink [almost] any wine, [almost] anytime.)
I'd always wanted to visit this place, especially given its storied and difficult-to-find vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs. The winery sells mostly through its mail program, where the wait for an allocation can take forever (I'm still waiting). Sometimes the wine will find its way into a consignment section at a wine merchant here and there, but not very often. We arrived a bit early and waited patiently for the appointed time. At the stroke of 9:00, we wandered over toward the office. Inside, we were met by Burt Williams' daughter, Mar-gee, who led us back into the warehouse-looking storage room. There, she gave us a taste of the '94 Russian River Pinot, a little history about how allocated their wines really are, and a stand-in-place tour of the whole storage facility. (Funny place; sort of like visiting your elderly great-aunt and uncle. They seem friendly enough to have you over for a visit, but then don't seem to know what to do with you when you get there.) 25 minutes later we were on our way out when it became apparent that, in silent answer to Peggy Lee's musical question, "yes, that's all there is."
Tasted at Williams-Selyem:
The short duration of the Williams-Selyem visit took us by surprise. So, since our next scheduled stop didn't open until 10:30, we decided to fill in with a stop in the Alexander Valley at Sausal. Even with this additional visit, we were still able to stop for a photo opp, plus had some time to kill before their opening time of 10:00. At the edge of the Alexander Valley, this winery is primarily known for some excellent Zins. they make a Cab too, but it sees little of no distribution other than through the tasting room. Nice hospitality from pourer who poured 4 tastes N/C. Chatted a bit, and pushed off to next stop on itinerary.
Tasted at Sausal:
South into the Napa Valley, we arrived at Clos Pegase, a sort of half museum and sculpture garden, and half winery. Originally, they caused quite a stir with their unusual architecture. But, as in most cases, excesses in Napa appear to be forgivable if you let your wine do the talking. The wines have been steadily improving over the past few years, and we were looking forward to sampling some. Passed on the optional tour and headed for the spacious tasting room. Friendly fellow was pouring 4 wines for $2.50. Out at 10:55.
Tasted at Clos Pegase:
Arrived at Flora Springs winery shortly before Noon. Beautiful grounds. It appeared that, despite signage and written media to the contrary, they prefer to have guests make an informal appointment for tasting. We had none, but were assured by the staff that they would accommodate us just as soon as they were finished with the current group. (Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often that we get turned away at the door, albeit temporarily. Resolute, we decide to wait it out, despite some misgivings.) We poked about the grounds and took some photos while waiting for our turn. Inside the medium-sized room, we were well served by family member Matt Komes. He apologetically explained why they handle the tastings in this fashion, but made no mention of altering either the signage or the misprinted info in the Spectator Guide. Onto the wine. 4 pours N/C. They weren't pouring the Trilogy, but they did have some very memorable wines. Left about 12:20 and drove back to St. Helena for some lunch at Giugni's Deli.
Tasted at Flora Springs:
After lunch, headed over to Silverado Winery to pick up one of those missed visits from the day before. Arrived in light rain at 1:15 to a semi-packed house. Owned by the Disney family, the stone-faced winery/tasting room sits in lovely surroundings, perched on a hillside well above the Silverado Trail. Attractive tasting room. Poured 3 wines N/C, plus we took 2 additional at $1 each. Left at 1:37 in the midst of a downpour.
Tasted at Silverado:
Rain had stopped by the time we reached Niebaum-Coppola, just 20 minutes later. Now open to the public without an appointment, the original Niebaum grounds and buildings are historic as well as beautiful. Although he has held much of the original Gustave Niebaum property, Francis Ford Coppola had acquired the remaining former Inglenook estate from Heublein just last year for a reported $10 million (keep makin' those movies Francis). Some building restoration was underway, but the whole site is just imposing as hell. It's a trip into Napa's past. We had an appointment for a tour, but decide to cancel it in favor of tasting and just looking around the busy tasting room (they even had one of Coppola's Tucker automobiles inside). Although the Rubicon, the Edizione Pennino Zin, and the Cabernet Franc are all I've seen in the stores, the tasting room was loaded with a myriad of other labels. Poured 6 wines for $5. Took ample photos outside, and departed about 2:30, stopping momentarily to jeer at the Wine Train.
Tasted at Niebaum-Coppola:
Just 10 minutes back up the road, we arrived at Whitehall Lane Winery. Tasting of 5 wines for $3. Known for some pretty solid Merlots and in particular for its Morisoli Vnyd stuff, this was another place I'd always wanted to visit. But, big crowd and tight room made for a noisy place. They really ought to build a new room. Interestingly, to the left of the tasting bar was a small laboratory-looking setup, complete with microscope. It felt a bit like a medical lab, and I was playing the role of a wine rat. Pressing on, we left for quieter pastures about 3:10.
Tasted at Whitehall Lane:
Up the Oakville Grade, arrived 10 minutes later at Vichon, part of the Mondavi holdings. Very busy place, but we lucked into a great pourer in Kelly Pepper (sounds like a stage name, but who knows). Tasted 8 wines N/C, and had a great time. Interesting stuff. In my opinion, the SLD appears to be the standout of the lineup, but I was left wondering what they had done to the '84 Eisele. How could this wine have come from those grapes? Finally left about 4:00, and drove over the beautiful Oakville Grade and into Sonoma County.
Tasted at Vichon:
Arrived at Wellington about 4:25, to a small house that was reminiscent of many of the smaller tasting rooms in Paso Robles. Wellington has a real electic lineup, and usually scores quite well with many varietals. Pouring 6 wines N/C. Quite a mix of product. Out at 4:50, and headed for our overnight in Santa Rosa.
Tasted at Wellington:
Stopped at motel to freshen up, then headed to John Ash & Company for dinner. Now located in the Vintner's Inn, this restaurant should not be missed for great food and wines. Yes, I know it seems a bit like carrying sand to the beach to indulge in wine at dinner after a long day of tasting the stuff. But luckily, they have a very wide selection of 375ml bottles. Had another great day: 9 wineries, a semi-tour, and 43 tastes. Memorable: Merlot at Clos Pegase, the grounds at Niebaum-Coppola, the Silverado Cab and Merlot, the noise at Whitehall lane, the wait at Flora Springs, and the SLD Cab at Vichon.
Still light rain, on and off, as we headed North to Dry Creek Valley. Arrived at Ferrari-Carano just before opening time of 10:00. On our previous visits to this winery, the tasting room was in the storage facility. However, for some time now, the winery had been constructing a new building on the adjacent land. Now, a fabulous new Chateau (Villa Fiore) sat like a crown jewel on beautifully landscaped grounds next door to the storage building. Wow! This had to cost a fortune. Well, now,you can visit the money you left in Reno (Don Carano is owner of the El Dorado Hotel). Our friendly pourer covered nearly the whole line, serving 9 wines N/C. Out at 10:55 after a look at the gated barrel room, located down a winding staircase and just below the tasting area.
Tasted at Ferrari-Carano:
Arrived at Dry Creek winery just 5 minutes down the road. Rustic building had a moderate crowd in its medium-large tasting room. Very friendly staff pouring 5 wines N/C. Browsed about the tasting room a bit, and Deb hit the jackpot with the staff offering to let her pick through their selection of Dry Creek labels (they'll be mounted and framed). Finally out at 11:45.
Tasted at Dry Creek:
About another 5 minutes down the road, we arrived at Simi Winery. Very attractive grounds and busy tasting room. A lady with what sounded like a Teutonic accent ("You vill like this wine") was serving fairly meager pours of about 1/2 oz each. Nice wines, though. 9 pours N/C. Left at 12:30, and went into Healdsburg for lunch.
Tasted at Simi:
Still raining a bit. Found the Plaza Street Market, a deli-restaurant in the downtown plaza, to be just the ticket for sandwiches and salads. Headed back South about 1:15 to check out some "family" wineries.
Arrived at Kunde winery about 1:50 to a busy place. Moderately-sized room was really packed as we tried to elbow our way to the tasting bar. We elected to sample the reds only (3 wines N/C). Our pourer was busy entertaining several other groups and appeared distracted, or we'd have spent more time "discussing" the attributes of their wine program. Instead, "We've got a cave," seems to be the big deal these days. And, they do have a nice cave, even though it looks a bit like a big hole in the side of a hillside. Yeah, I know that's what a cave is, but this one was a pimple on the end of a nose. (I half-expected Burma Shave signs: "See the Cave - 100 yards.") Wouldn't you think it would be more attractive if the entrance were hidden, disguised, or otherwise made more appealing with some foliage? Left at 2:20 without seeing the cave up close and personal.
Tasted at Kunde:
Just 10 minutes away, arrived at Benziger winery. Turn-of-the-century-looking assortment of buildings dot the lush vegetation of this picturesque spot. A path from the parking area leads to the small tasting room toward the back of the property. Moderate crowd. Pouring from a list of wines for tasting charge of $5. We sampled 8 wines, including 4 from their "Reserve" side of the list. From the scores in the Wine Press (Spectator, et.al.), Benziger is doing a terrific job delivering excellent, yet moderately-priced wines (by today's standards). We were here to judge for ourselves!
Tasted at Benziger:
Left Benziger at 3:15, and tried to make a mad dash for Rosenblum, which was in Alameda, close to the airport. But, rain and traffic conspired to keep us away from the visit, and it took nearly 2 hours just to get to the Oakland airport. Totals for the day: 5 wineries, 33 tastes, and 1 cave sighting. Totals for the trip: 3 days, 420 miles, 18 wineries, 95 tastes, 2 tours, 1 semi-tour, and a cave in a pear tree. I can't speak for everyone (since when), but I'd go back!