Monday, December 20, 2010

California Wine Country: Sonoma & Napa

I took my first trip to California wine country last week.

Yes, truth be told, the secret is out: though I have sold many a bottle of wine from Sonoma and Napa, I have never been to see where they come from. While it might seem like a trivial thing--after all, I haven't been to most wine producing regions of the world, let alone the many in California alone, or even Texas for that matter--in fact it was a way of providing some background, a context, if you will, for the wines that I sell every weekend.

Seeing the sky, smelling the earth and experiencing the terrain where the grapes are grown is as important as tasting the wine they are made from.

That much I was prepared for, but only in the way of knowing that was how I wanted to experience it first; raw and unprepared except for a few appointments at wineries whose products I know and whose wine makers I have come to respect by virtue if that product. Some of the wine makers I had already met, like Robert from Deerfield, Paul from Red Car, Gove from Neal and John from Caldwell.

We went to see five wineries in Sonoma and Napa in two days. Our first winery was in a rainy, mossy, and foggy Sonoma, at Deerfield. Here we were met by Robert Rex and his wife P.J. Their home was full of wonderful smells, most cozy and welcoming, as were they. P.J. claimed that she was cooking stock and pea soup because Robert had left the freezer open when he'd gone for some ice late the night before. If it was just a ruse, it was a wonderful one, because it made us feel right at home.

Robert and P.J. were also most interesting and easy to talk to. We drank some of their wines and ate some delightful cheeses--an Argentinian 'parmesan' and a French bleu--with some little bits of toast and garlic oil in a little bowl. P.J. served us demitasse cups full of the fresh pea soup she was making along with a little truffle oil on top. it was bright green and fresh, and I could really taste the peas.

We talked around their table for about two hours. I learned a lot about Robert and P.J., their business and their passion for wine. The latter we already knew about, but finding two very likable and open people was a highlight of our trip.

Next, we drove through the rain to Dutton, where we got more of the classic 'tourist style' of tasting. We went to the tasting room, where we met Ruben, the General Manager. He tasted us on a couple of wines and gave us a nice, if rather perfunctory tour of the winery and warehouse where they store all the barrels. We bought a bottle of the syrah.

We ended the day with a trip to Red Car, which is actually winery but there isn't much to see. They were having an open house to celebrate the opening of their new tasting room. We were among the first people to arrive, mostly because we didn't want to go to our hotel till we had had a chance to say hello to Paul, who had come to our house a couple of years ago.

That night, we stayed in a Hyatt in Santa Rosa and ate dinner in a restaurant called Syrah. It was very good, and affordable only because we split an appetizer and an entree with no dessert. They had a wine list that looked more like a book; it must have listed 300 wines. I think the waitress was a bit disappointed when Valery had a glass of chardonnay and I had a beer.

The next day we went to Napa and began the day at Neal, whose Cabernet is unquestionably my favorite Napa Cab, and whose winemaker Gove was out to Hudson's for a wine dinner a couple of years ago also. The Neal winery is one of those complete shops. They have their own vineyards, all the winemaking equipment, including de-stemmer, crusher, press, tanks, barrels, cave, bottling room, label printer and tasting room. They've only been making wine since 2001, but they have lots of money. Mark Neal, the owner, is a grape grower.

That's something I learned, about all the different roles that people play in a wine producing place like Sonoma/Napa. You have your farmers, grape producers, and your brokers, who sell grapes to wineries. You have the wineries, which can be in a beautiful purpose-made building with a cave (like Neal) or just a warehouse (like Red Car) and the winemakers, who are mostly UC Davis grads, but there are still a few autodidacts out there, like Gove at Neal. You have grape brokers who are also winery owners (but not wine makers) like our fifth and final stop on our mini-tour.

We met John Caldwell outside his 5,000 square foot cave drilled into the volcanic ash of a hillside. Inside is a state-of-the-art winery, with all the trappings of the big-time, including a special tasting room that is actually a dome carved out of the rock inside the cave. Caldwell is bit of a curmudgeon, but only because he's been in the business long enough not to be impressed by money or power, only by passion and an earnest desire to learn about his wine, which he was happy to talk about for about two hours.

If anything sums up our experience, it was the feeling that if one were to live in Sonoma or Napa, one's life would almost necessarily revolve around wine. So pervasive is the industry that when I went to get a hot-dog at a roadside stand in St. Helena, they had a wine list. I wouldn't be surprised if they also had a sommelier.

While I learned a lot from this trip, mostly what I learned is how little I really know. It was wonderful to put a few wines in context, but I doubt I'll ever even learn a fraction of what there is to know about wine, wineries and wine makers. So, while what I know may not qualify me to be a sommelier at a Napa Valley hot dog stand, it'll have to do for Hudson's. At least I'm learning!

1 comment:

d2 said...

Many a wonderful day spent in Santa Rosa and the surrounding area (too bad you missed Healdsburg!). Rusty worked there for two years, so we went to visit. Such a wonderful part of the world.