Although I spent a lot of the past year in Europe and South America (not to mention Washington State), I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get out to Northern California at all. Then, at the last minute, I was invited to two events within the space of three weeks. In late August I visited some old and new friends in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley and then attended the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend (SWCW), which was centered between the towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg. Almost immediately thereafter I was invited to San Francisco by New Zealand Wine to hang out on one of their chartered observation boats during the America’s Cup finals.
I’ve already recounted the first trip to Sonoma and so this is the story of that second trip, a delightful couple of days in San Francisco, after which I ventured up to Napa for two more days to visit some old friends in the valley. After this, my next several columns will be dedicated to highlighting upcoming Wine On The Road tours that are scheduled for spring and fall of 2014 (for more information on these extraordinary, experiential, wine-focused tours check out www.wineontheroad.com). As has been my recent custom, I will list my wine notes for bottles tasted during the trip, as well as those from relevant samples recently sent to me, at the end of the column in a sort of shorthand that goes like this: appearance (if relevant)/aroma/taste/acidity & finish. “N/A” means that the wine is not generally available in the U.S.
Upon arrival in San Francisco I dropped my bags at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel on Nob Hill and headed over to the New Zealand docking area, where their two America’s Cup boats were kept and where a large tent had been set up for a master class on Kiwi wines. There I learned that New Zealand spans roughly 1,000 miles on an approximately north-south orientation, basically equivalent to the distance between San Diego and San Francisco. It was created when the Tasman tectonic plate colliding with the Pacific plate and is very young geographically.
New Zealand basically consists of two islands, with a maritime effect that keeps temperatures cool even in the very bright, high latitude sun. The main city of Marlborough has always been an intense horticultural area, with grapes arriving in 1973. Long, dry falls mean good ripening, with temperatures from north to south generally going from warm (in the tropics) to cold (near the Antarctic). New Zealand is always growing grapes “on the edge,” but the 2013 growing season was warm and dry and it should end up being a great vintage. 2012 was more challenging, with a cold, wet summer, but an Indian summer for six weeks at end of the season meant decent ripeness. One interesting point made during the class was that perhaps 2012’s cooler climate, leading to higher acidity, will mean that the wines can age for a longer period, but only time will tell.
After the class, a fantastic tasting of Kiwi cheeses with local honeys led to a fabulous dinner at Epic Roast House, just a few blocks down the pier and right at the water’s edge. The next day was spent on one of New Zealand’s chartered chase boats along with about a hundred other spectators. The first race that day saw the Kiwis win handily, taking their total to eight of the nine necessary wins to claim the Cup. However, as many of you may know, immediately after that race the U.S. boats caught fire and eventually topped the tally, nine to eight. But by then I was already in Napa, visiting Cade Winery with winemaker Danielle Cyrot.
Danielle, whom I’ve known for several years, was typically serene during our visit, perfectly matching her surroundings at one of the only LEED-certified winery in all of Napa. Owned by Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty, Cade purchased its vineyards in 2003, with Danielle arriving in 2012. Under her guidance the wines are even more extraordinary, and I can’t wait to see what else she’ll do in the future.
After my tour of Cade I enjoyed a Texas burger (no mayo) and garlic fries at Gott’s Refresher on Highway 29 (a local landmark that used to be called Taylor’s Refresher), and then headed over to Franciscan Estate, where I tasted with Senior Wine Educator Logan Michaud. While Franciscan is a venerable Napa estate, each time I try the wines they’re better, which is a tremendous testament to Janet Myers, the winemaker (and another old friend). I then had a fun dinner with my old friend Loren Trefethen and Blake Gilbert, the new director of Bond Winery, and spent the night at one of Franciscan’s guest houses.
The next day brought a picnic lunch and tasting at Louis Martini with Mike Martini and Kristina Kelley. I’ve long known Kristina but this was my first opportunity to meet Mike, and I really enjoyed his stories about growing up during the early days of the valley’s wine culture.
This was followed by a tour and tasting at Grgich Winery with PR impresario Ken Morris and legendary Mike Grgich, who made the Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris! At his own winery, Mike was so gracious, so benevolent, and it was easy to see him nurturing an entire generation of Napa winemakers. I then had dinner with Mike at Domaine Chandon’s Etoile Restaurant, and lodged that night at Mike’s old house just north of Yountville and visible from Highway 29, where he had previously raised his family.
The Napa Valley is a wonderful place to renew your wine roots. The easy geography, good road system, and tremendous restaurants and hotels mean that just about anyone can have an excellent experience. If you want to tour wine country but aren’t sure where to go, my suggestion is to try the Napa Valley, either as a first stop or a final destination. You won’t be sorry.
WINE ON THE ROAD’S LUXURIOUS, BEHIND-THE-SCENES WINE TOURS
With Wine On The Road (www.wineontheroad.com), my wine-focused touring company, you can enjoy the ultimate wine country excursion with special access to top winemakers and their incomparable wines. Wine On The Road offers intimate wine country tours that combine award-winning wines and exquisite dining and lodging with uniquely local flair and flavor. We lodge at excellent and luxurious wine country estates (in the past we’ve occupied ancient yet completely restored castles as well as five-star resorts, all with modern amenities). We eat at authentic local restaurants and visit wineries that embody the best, most authentic expressions of local wine grapes.
Planned excursions in 2014 include a trip to Piedmont, Italy in late March (www.wineontheroad.com/winebeesandcheese.php) and Oregon’s wine country (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details) in late April. We will also be heading to Italy’s Campania (www.wineontheroad.com/campaniaunfiltered.php), embark on a combined visit to Champagne and Burgundy (www.wineontheroad.com/champ-burgunfiltered.php), and France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux with time in Paris (email me at email@example.com for more details), all in late 2014. You can learn more about these trips, book private groups in wine country world-wide and request more information on any of these extraordinary travel experiences by visiting www.wineontheroad.com or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2010 Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc Reserve (Marlborough, NZ) $25
The class of the NZ master class. Swlime, kumquat/peach, cream pink raspberry/hilong
2012 Johanneshof Pinot Gris (Marlborough, NZ) $N/A
Kiwi pinot gris, who knew? Orange yellow/honey, mace/cream soda/himod
2000 Felton Road Riesling (Marlborough, NZ) $N/A
Banana/fusel, guava/ash cream/hilong
2012 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc Icon (Marlborough, NZ) $17
Green yellow/green pea, leesy, cucumber/basil, pineapple, gooseberry/hilong
2012 Plumpjack Chardonnay Reserve (Napa Valley, CA) $50
Pea yellow/tropical fruit, coconut, pineapple/guava, orange, melon/medmod
2011 Cade Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley, CA) $30
Shiny yellow/butter lettuce, yellow apricot/orange, squash, yellow peach/himod
2012 Franciscan Oakville Estate Chardonnay (Napa Valley, CA) $15
Butter yellow/spice, green apple/lime, crisp pear/medmod
2011 Franciscan Oakville Estate Chardonnay Cuvee Sauvage (Napa Valley, CA) $40
Muted yellow/yellow pear, fig/red apple, hazelnut/balanced, smooth/medmod
2011 Grgich Hills Chardonnay (Napa Valley, CA) $48
Bright yellow/ash, cigar box, pear/lemonade, dill/medlong
2010 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc (Napa Valley, CA) $20
Melon, apple/yellow raisin, peach/spicy, fresh, herbal, fleshy/hilong
2010 Montelena Chardonnay (Napa Valley, CA) $50
Pure, clean, elegant/fruit-forward, wildflower, peach, nectarine/smooth, delicate.
2012 Conundrum White Blend (Napa Valley, CA) $20
Glittery yellow/papaya, sour apple/pineapple, soda, green pear/himod
2010 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Estate (Napa Valley, CA) $160
Brown red/black licorice, cola/dust, dark chocolate, red currant, blackberry/hilong
2010 Franciscan Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, CA) $22
Dark red/cedar, raisin, cranberry/blackberry, sage/himod
2010 Franciscan Oakville Estate Magnificat (Napa Valley, CA) $40
Purple red/blueberry, pomegranate/cinnamon, ash, mocha/himod
2010 Louis Martini Merlot (Napa Valley, CA) $30
Black-red/currant, milk chocolate/blueberry, green herb/himod
2010 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, CA) $34
Red-blue/black currant, red cherry, tobacco/dark chocolate, pomegranate, cedar/himod
2008 Grgich Hills Merlot (Napa Valley, CA) $42
Red currant, tomato leaf/cherry, herb, cedar/medmod
2010 Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, CA) $50
Black red/red currant, blood sausage/mocha, red flower, blackberry/hilong
2009 Grgich Hills Zinfandel Gnarly Vines (Napa Valley, CA) $35
Dark red/tomato leaf, saline, pink strawberry/dried strawberry, tobacco leaf/himod
2008 Conn Creek Anthology (Napa Valley, CA) $40
Purple/ripe dried berry, currant, soy/solid, balanced, intense/hilong
2010 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (Napa Valley, CA) $28
Dark red/dried currant, mint/tobacco, cedar, anise, firm, focused/medmod
2009 Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon The Leap (Napa Valley, CA) $80
Dark earth/currant, chocolate, cedar/lead pencil, spice/tight, sturdy
2012 Seifried Riesling Sweet Agnes (Marlborough, NZ) $30/375mL
Gold yellow/fruit loops, peach/apricot, yellow pear/hilong
2005 Dolce Late Harvest (Napa Valley, CA) $85/375mL
Honey yellow/citrus peel, tobacco leaf, honeysuckle, honeydew/spicy fig, fresh peach/intense, rich/hilong