Vol. 8 No.5. Sept '00
Tasting Notes / Scores: Brief tasting impressions are included following the winery write-up. An "n/n" indicates that no notes were taken.
During my last visit to Napa and Sonoma (Nov '99), Fall color was in full bloom and harvesting was generally over. Since we'd never been around during the actual harvest, we vowed to try and visit wine country a little earlier in the Fall the next time around, hoping that many wineries would be undergoing harvest and/or crush, thus giving us a better perspective of what takes place at a winery during the "busy season."
Following our usual wine country itinerary, we started with Sonoma County, attempting to get in a half-day of wine tasting around Carneros and the Sonoma Valley. In the following days we intended to visit a few places in northern Sonoma County, as well as spend a lot of time in Napa Valley. Establishing an itinerary of this sort usually requires setting up visits to appointment-only wineries first, then filling in with regularly open wineries or tasting rooms. Of course, there's often a need to improvise along the way, if for instance, a winery's hours have changed or they've closed earlier than normal.
Left So Cal (Irvine) about 6:30am for the long, and seemingly endless drive up I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley. It's about a 7-hr drive no matter how you slice it. But, knowing we're on our way to wine country is the adrenaline rush that keeps us going.
Finally arrived at Carneros Creek at 1:25 for our 1st stop of the day. There were just a few people inside the tasting room, as our pourer, Lessly Van Houtan, poured and talked about the wines and about Carneros Creek. Primarily purveyors of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay over the years, this winery has also continued to produce a lesser-known Cabernet. While the Cab used to have some local Carneros fruit in the blend, it is now made exclusively with fruit from Amador County, which, on the surface, seems a little strange for a Napa or Sonoma winery. Poured 6 wines for $2.50. Out at 2:00.
Arrived at Artesa at 2:05. Located up on a hillside in Carneros, Artesa has a beautiful south-facing view of Carneros and the San Pablo Bay. The modern architecture of the structure is impressive, with the entire building blending into the hillside and nearly disappearing from sight at any sort of distance away. Formerly known as Codorniu Napa, this winery started life as a sparkling wine producer with just a few varietal wines. Still owned by Codorniu of Spain, the winery changed its name in 1997 to Artesa, hired winemaker Don Van Staaveren from Chateau St. Jean (the '96 Cinq Cepages guy), and embarked on a plan to concentrate on varietal wines, some with fairly limited production. Artesa has 350 acres in Carneros, as well as another 400 acres in the Alexander Valley. In addition, Artesa is purchasing fruit from many other locations as well, which has created a big lineup and is getting their program off to a very impressive start. The tasting room is very nicely appointed, per the sparkling wine-house trend, and our pourer, Julie, was very congenial and attentive. Tasting consisted of six wines from the list for $6, with a very generous 2-oz pour each. However, Julie encouraged us to take a shorter pour on a couple of the wines in order try additional wines. Sounded good to us! Out at 3:15.
Arrived at Gloria Ferrer at 3:40. First time here, although we've intended to visit on several previous trips, but just haven't been able to make the time. I had heard or read that the caves at Gloria Ferrer were very nice -- a "must visit." Well, now having seen them, my feeling is that this was much ado about nothing. Actually, I'm beginning to wonder if once you've seen one cave, you've seen them all. The Ferrer cave(s) didn't seem particularly large or unusual in any respect, although there were two impressive stacks of sparkling wine bottles, lining a couple of the walls. Also, the tour here appears to be treated by the staff as more of an obligatory task, rather than a chance to show off the winery. Now, I'm certain that guiding tours day in and day out can get boring. But, what can you say about a place when the staff plays 'rock-scissors-paper' to see who has to lead the tour? The tour and the descriptions at each juncture were all pretty much canned. As is typical for sparkling wine houses, tasting of their methode champenoise is done by purchasing a glass of sparkling wine. In addition to the sparkling wines, Ferrer also produces a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. A glass of NV Brut was $3.75, and the Pinot or Chardonnay were $2 per taste. Out at 4:40 -- somewhat disillusioned.
Arrived at Cline at 4:45 to a busy room. Hadn't been here in some time, and I was very interested to see what Rhone-based gems they might be pouring. Unfortunately, I didn't see any -- although the "Small Berry" Mourvedre might have been worth a try. The generous no-charge tasting allowed any 5 selections from a list of 13 wines. Plus, there were 10 additional wines available at $1 per taste. Still one of the bargain stops out there, although my impression of the wines I tried was not as good as it has been in the past. In retrospect, I regret selecting the complimentary tasting, and wished I'd have "cherry picked" several things from the $1/taste selections. A lesson learned. Out at 5:07.
Arrived at Family Wineries Tasting Room at 5:35 to a fairly quiet room. This moderate-sized tasting room in Kenwood offers tastes from many of the smaller family-owned wineries in the area. The tasting bar has several stations, each separated by an attractive cut-glass divider. I tried 4 wines from the very broad selection of 45 wines on their list, with no charge for tasting. The selection of wines is massive, and given the closing-time constraints, there was just wasn't sufficient time to taste a good cross-section of the wines. If you plan to visit here, make sure your allow enough time to taste through several of the selections. Considering that prices here average around $30+/bottle for many of the Cabs and Merlots, the prices for the wines seem a little high, and arguably inconsistent with their quality levels. Although, these are usually very small wineries producing limited quantities of wine. Out at 6:02.
Managed to get to 4 wineries and 1 tasting room, and had a total of 24 wines in the brief afternoon. Artesa had to be the biggest surprise and most pleasant visit. The wines were very nice, as well. Cline was a minor disappointment, more for what I didn't elect to taste; Gloria Ferrer a major disappointment, and the rest of the visits about as expected. We headed for Santa Rosa, arriving about 6:20, stopping to have dinner on the way to the motel.
We had 4 appointments set for the day -- two appointments in the morning in Napa Valley, and two in the afternoon in Sonoma County. Unfortunately, our overnight accommodations were at opposite ends of this schedule. (The best laid plans....) No matter, we would just need to do a little crisscrossing of the scenic Mayacamas, leaving Santa Rosa in the morning for Diamond Mtn in Napa, crossing back over into Dry Creek Valley for some afternoon visits, than back again to St. Helena for our next overnight accommodations.
We left Santa Rosa about 9:30 for the trek over the Mayacamas to our first stop at von Strasser. From Sonoma County, we took Mark Springs Rd to Petrified Forest Rd, which took us down to Hwy 29, about 5 miles north of Diamond Mtn Rd. Relatively easy to locate, both von Strasser and Reverie are up off the same fork on Diamond Mtn Rd. Arrived at 10:25, and were met by Hospitality Manager, Noreen Fetzer, at the small cottage that serves as an office for the winery. We chatted for a few minutes, and upon hearing that we were going to Reverie next, Noreen promptly had fellow employee Missy call to confirm our appointment.
Lots of construction was going on at von Strasser, with caves near completion, and an addition being added to the main residence. Noreen gave us a close-up view of the new storage caves (the concrete floors had just been poured) and the winemaking facility, then led us back to the reconfigured turn-of-the-century (no, the previous turn-of-the-century) barn that serves as the current storage area to barrel taste a couple of wines. Von Strasser has an Estate production of ~2,000 cases (Cab, Estate Reserve), and another ~4,000 cases of its Freestone label made with purchased fruit (Cab, Merlot, Sauv Blanc). Yet, the winery is still interested in expanding production. Noreen explained von Strasser's plans to add some vineyard designation wines from Diamond Mtn to complete its portfolio. They will use fruit from selected Diamond Mtn growers, making small production wines under the von Strasser label. We were able to taste one of the barrel samples from Sorri Brico Vnyd, and this does seem like an exciting prospect. As we were preparing to leave, proprietor and winemaker Rudy von Strasser stopped in, introduced himself, and thanked us for dropping by. After making a few purchases, I wondered aloud about the wisdom of driving wine around in the car, given that the day's temperature was expected to be in the high 80s to low 90s. Noreen graciously offered to deliver the wine to our motel on her way home from work. We decided to chance keeping the wine in the car, but thanked her for the offer. Very congenial people. Great wines. Out at 11:28.
Drove two minutes further up the dirt and gravel road to Reverie. A 2-story redwood building serves as winery and storage downstairs, with office space upstairs. Upon arriving, we headed up the outside staircase and found proprietor Norm Kiken chatting with a couple of visitors from NJ, Vince and Debby. They were apparently just hanging out waiting for us to arrive before starting a tour of the compact facility. "Hi, I'm Norm. How about some ass kickin'?" (Well hey, wait a minute Norm, we're not that late! -- I thought.) But, Norm was talking about the A.S. Kiken blend, a second label red blend for Reverie. (He added a second stylized "S" on the label to get it by the Gov't folks.) Norm has an ecletic mixture of varieties planted on the property, and seems to use each one for a bottled varietal. Well, after a little ass kickin', we headed outside for a tour of the facility. A self-admitted wine geek, Norm never did any home-winemaking stint to prepare for this venture -- he just jumped in the deep end with both feet, so to speak. And, he has an infectious gee-whiz attitude about the whole process. He had us looking through the refractometer to see the sugar levels of some grapes. And, he had us climbing to the top of a tank of fermenting Merlot, encouraging us to stick our heads in, and later urged us to poke and prod the cap on a few bins of fruit undergoing fermentation. Finished with the winery tour, he led us through the nicely planted grounds to their "special place," a small circular grove of old redwood trees that creates nearly a cathedral feeling to the very tall enclosure. Out at 12:25.
We retraced our drive back over the Mayacamas, arriving at Pezzi-King at 1:05. PK has been turning out some nice wines lately; I found both the '95 and '96 Cabs particularly nice. The Pezzi-King name was arrived at by combining the mother's maiden names of the current proprietors, the Rowes. Located about 50 yards across the street from Dry Creek Vnyds, this winery used to be the old Robert Stemmler facility. Tasting room manager, Jose Diaz, led us through the tasting, which consisted of 4 wines at no-charge, with two additional selections available at $2 each. Working the room alone, Jose chatted with us for quite awhile, and was very well versed about the wines and the winery. Here was somebody who obviously enjoys what he does, and does it well. While we were there, a photo crew was setting up a commercial shoot for an advertisement for the winery. This could've been an opportunity for us to so some mugging, ala Forrest Gump. But, duty called. Very nice place. Out at 1:50.
Arrived at Michel-Schlumberger at 1:55 for our scheduled 2:00 tour. Zoning laws prevent a formal tasting room, so scheduling a tour is the only way to taste their wines at the winery. Interestingly, the tasting itself is conducted in the kitchen of this hacienda-like facility. Our tour was conducted by Linda Doyle, who led us about two-hundred yards up into the scenic east-west planted vineyards surrounding the property. The winery was founded by Jean-Jacques Michel as Domaine Michel. In '93, Jacques Schlumberger (pronounced Schlum-ber-JHAY) became a partner, changing the winery's name. The wines here tend to a higher acid balance, as intended by winemaker Fred Payne. Out at 3:15.
Arrived at David Coffaro at 3:25. Welcome to the home of blended wines. Nothing, absolutely no varietal escapes 100% intact. David Coffaro is something of an affable iconoclast. Widely known for his Winemaker's Diary on his web site, he ruminates about the "...the trials and tribulations, joys and tears that come from running a vineyard and winery!" I'd written David about two months ahead of time to set up an appointment for a visit. With the timing of harvest/crush being unknown, David asked that I call back a day or so before my intended arrival. When I did so, it sounded as though a visit at the particular time of day I desired might be a little awkward, since he was in the middle of some things. He did say come ahead, but at the same time sounded a bit reluctant or hesitant to me. I figured we'd be the only ones there, and was concerned that we'd be intruding on his time. As it turned out, there were several other people there as well, so at least I didn't need to feel guilty about being the only one taking him away from his winemaking duties.
As we and other visitors began arriving, David stuck his head out from the back door of the house to explain that he and Assistant Winemaker Brendan Eliason, were having a meeting, and he'd be right with us. Oh, and by the way, he asked, did any of us happen to know what kind of grapes were in the bins on the crush pad. I figured he was kidding around. But, when stepping out of the house a few minutes later, David just said they'd figure it out themselves, and further explained to us that he had a "stuck fermentation." Ahhhh. So, maybe these were the kinds of things that were on his mind earlier in the week. While pouring our tastes, he chatted about the wines, and couldn't resist making a few needling comments about other wineries and their pricing structures. Interesting guy, and interesting wines. Out at 4:10.
Arrived at Geyser Peak at 4:15. It had been a few years since we were here last. At that time, they were remodeling the tasting room, so it was interesting to see the changes. The bar had been moved from its original postion facing the door, over to one side of the larger and well-appointed room. Pouring 7 wines N/C, with the opportunity to taste 4 wines from their Reserve list for $5. We opted to taste just the reds off the regular list, plus the 4 wines on the Reserve list. A personable young fellow named Levi poured our wines and chatted with us about the wines and Geyser Peak. Out at 4:45.
Had a great day: got to 6 wineries, and had a total of 28 wines over the course of the day, even though we spent more than a little time traversing across the mountains. Arrived at our accommodations for the next three nights, checked in, then went back out for some dinner. As we got out of the car, the smell was unmistakable - fermenting grapes! Unbelievably, this smell was hanging over the entire valley, not just St. Helena. Wow, was this nirvana, or what.
We had 3 appointments scheduled for the day -- one in the morning, and two in the afternoon. The first appointment was at Mondavi for their "Winegrowing Tour," which was slated to last about 4 hrs, thus eating up the better part of the day. However, this tour presented a excellent opportunity to see the renovations they've made to the winery with all that corporate cash. But first, we figured a stop by Silver Oak was in order. You know, the we-open-at-9:00am Silver Oak. As we pulled into the SO parking lot, there was the usual sign out in front of the tasting room, but this time it read "...Tasting fee $10." Hmmm, looks like the ticket price had doubled since our last visit. This required a little analysis on our part -- was this stop really worth $10? They often only pour one wine, the Alexander Valley Cab. And, although the $10 included a nice large glass, I have more than enough glasses. I wondered to myself if I could offer the glass back for $5 off the ticket price. But, finally decided it wasn't worth the hassle. So, we headed over to Mondavi, stopping to take a few photos along the way.
Arrived early for our 10:00 appointment at Mondavi. Killed a little time browsing the new gift shop. Our guide, Garrick Gammon, rounded us up and led us first to a small room to view a video tape about Mondavi wines. Geez, I thought, why do they always have to do this -- give us the old tired story of the feuding Mondavi brothers, Charles Krug this, Robert Mondavi that, etc, etc. But, this particular video took a different approach, and was, surprisingly, not the least bit boring. Garrick then handed out bottles of water and led us out into the vineyards behind the winery, where he covered everything from rootstock to harvesting. He did a great job of covering all the details. I certainly have to give Mondavi credit for hiring knowledgeable people, and/or training them well. Each tour or seminar I've ever attended at their Fod & Wine Center in So Cal has been led by someone who really knew their stuff.
From here, we took a walk through the new winery. This new structure and all the new wooden tanks are part of a multimillion dollar renovation called the "To Kalon Project." The tanks themselves are something to behold. About fifty, 5,000 gal French oak fermenters (costing $40k each) rise from the ground floor to the upper floor in this new gravity-feed facility. These things were made in France, then disassembled and shipped over here for re-assembly. After breathing in the aromas of must for 15 minutes, we were all eager to get down to some tasting.
One of the hallmarks of this particular tour has been the wine tasting portion at the end. Usually, six or more wines are poured, accompanied by a very nice assortment of cheese, crackers and bread. Admittedly, this tour now costs $25 (it used to be no-charge). But as we all know, the price of wine has gone up, and apparently so has the need for the winery to cover its costs. Very nice visit and tour, and took every bit of the predicted 4 hours, but was well worth it. Out at 1:58.
Drove a few miles up the road, arriving at Corison at 2:05. In addition to her own label, Cathy Corison continues to be a consultant for several other wineries, including Long Meadow Ranch. Previously working with custom crush facilities, Corison has just moved into their new facility in front of the Estate Vineyard between Rutherford and St. Helena on Hwy 29. Although there are still things left to do on the building itself (the plywood-covered areas facing the Hwy still need to be fitted with the large main windows), Corison and her crew are making the 2000 vintage here. In addition to the Napa Valley Cabernet, Cathy is now making an Estate wine from their Kronos Vineyard, as well as a Gewurztraminer, from Mendocino County, she is calling Corizon. Met with Sheryl Martinez who showed us around inside the winery, where we tasted a couple of wines from bottle, and then over to the storage area at the other end of the building. About 1/3-1/2 way through their harvest, the storage room has yet to be filled, but there was plenty of fermenting going on (love that smell). Out at 2:50.
Met Joe Cafaro at Miner Family Winery (the former Oakville Ranch) at 3:00. Joe has been making his wines, as well as a few others, at the Miner facility for a number of years now. Joe led us back into the caves and treated us to several barrel samples, as we chatted about grapes and wine styles. Using fruit from selected vineyards around the valley, Joe's style is to a "balanced wine." He has planted most of his own 15 acres of property just south of Stags Leap, with Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cab Franc, and Syrah, and the first Syrah release will be the '99. Two of the most interesting wines we tried were the Petite Verdot, which Joe likened to having a velvet texture. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I'd agree -- it's smooth and soft, yet lies across the palate with its abundant fruit. This was the first time I'd been able to taste PV by itself -- neat stuff. The other wine was Emilio's Terrace, a wine he makes for a fellow whose 4-1/2 acre vnyd is located halfway between Harlan and Staglin. I recall the '96 Emilio's as being a beautiful wine -- this one's better. A little bit of trivia here is that "Emilio" is one of owner's vineyard crew. We thanked Joe for his time, and good taste, and moved along to our last few stops of the day. Out at 4:00.
Arrived at Peju Province at 4:20. We've been here a couple of times in aborted efforts to taste -- seems like it's always been too crowded. This time was a pleasant exception, and there were only a couple of people inside the room. (This middle of the week thing is great.) One of the reasons I keep attempting to visit here is that I've heard good things about their wines. Although I don't see their wines very often in retail stores, they get plenty of accolades from the wine press (Wine Spectator, et al). Tasting arrangement was 4 wines for $5. I was surprised to hear that most of their sales are made out of the tasting room, rather than retail outlets -- reminds me of the V. Sattui business model. Accolades aside, after tasting through the wines, they seem a little pricey to me for their quality level. Out at 4:40.
Arrived at Whitehall Lane at 4:45. Here was another place I hadn't been in a while. Often, they're just too crowded to get to the tasting bar. In addition, I recall turning right around on one or two occasions when I saw that the list of wines being offered for tasting on that particular day was less than inspiring (3 whites, 2 reds). Offering a nominal number of wines for the day is one thing, but there didn't appear to be any opportunity to substitute other wines or try Reserves, etc. Friendly gentleman poured for us and we chatted about this and that. Tasting charge was $5 for the 5 wines du jour. Out at 5:10.
Arrived at Merryvale at 5:15. Looking forward to stopping here, and hoping to try the '97 Profile once more. Of the tasting options available, we chose 3 reds for $5, which included the '97 Profile. Enjoyed chatting with Mike Featherston about the wines and winery stuff at large. Out at 5:55.
Made it to 6 wineries over the course of the day. Had dinner at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. Nice place. The price seemed fair, the staff relatively friendly, and the food was good.
We had 5 appointments scheduled for the day -- all on Spring Mtn. This made staying in St. Helena ideal, and we were at our first stop in less than 30 minutes. The plan was to meet up with fellow WCWN poster, Greg Piatigorski, at Pride Mtn, and have him join us (read that: show us the route) for the day's stops. This is a big mountain with lots of wineries. Yet, winery-hopping here bears little resemblance to winery-hopping down in the Valley -- you can get lost here. Everything on Spring Mtn requires a trip up or down some bootlegger-inspired road to find the winery, leaving me to wonder how the heck they got trucks and equipment in there to build the winery in the first place. As a "semi-local" (Greg lives in East Bay) who seems to get to Napa Valley more than some of the winery owners, Greg has been to most of the places on the day's schedule, and would be in a perfect position to get us quickly to some of these out-of-the-way places.
Arrived at 9:52 at our first stop, Pride Mtn. Visited here last year and was interested to see how the caves were progressing. We were welcomed by Tim Bouchet in the Tasting Room, and it appeared there were several others in the room who would join us on the tour. Since I'd never met Greg before, it looked as though I needed to pick him out of the crowd. This turned out to be no problem at all, since Tim was calling out "Hi, Greg" to him when we arrived. Bob Foley even stepped out from the back room to say hello. Tim was pouring several wines in the tasting room this morning, each tasting great, as always. After everyone in the room (about 8 of us) had gone through the wines, Tim led us out for the obligatory cave then vineyard tour. The impressive caves are largely loaded up with barrels now, with just a few finishing touches left to be done to both the inside and outside. Out in the vineyard, we actually had a little sun shining this time, so the view was much more impressive than it was during our fog-shrouded last visit. Once again, we just strolled along through the vineyards sampling different varieties as we went. Back at the winery, Bob Foley was doing forklift duty on the crush pad, grabbing the bins off stacks, then dumping them into the de-stemmer. Hmmm -- riding a powerful piece of equipment, driving fast, having everybody get out of your way -- this was obviously a task Bob relished. It was also fascinating watching the grapes getting sucked out of the de-stemmer through a 5 or 6 inch hose that led to the fermentation tank. Well, I'd love to just have hung around here, but a big schedule beckons, so off we go following Greg -- no, make that trying to keep up with Greg, on the way to Paloma. Out at 11:55.
We drove back out onto Spring Mtn Rd and headed south about 100 yds, making a sharp right turn, then driving up a winding road, and arriving at Paloma at Noon. Barbara Richards met us at the door of her house, and led us out through the house to the back deck, where the view of the valley is breathtaking. The view runs all the way from the Schweiger's property just below on the other side of Spring Mtn Rd, all the way across the valley to the eastern range with Viader and Howell Mtn. We just took in the view of the vast grape vineyards, and chatted about the Richards' early beginnings on Spring Mtn, the preponderance of rattlesnakes in the vineyards (she's killed 60-70 snakes in 17 yrs), and how challenging and competitive grape harvesting can be (she's seen it get macho between pickers, with one trying to outdo another). Having just come from Pride's immaculately manicured vineyards, it was interesting to see the different trellising Paloma uses (quadrilateral), and how much canopy each of the vines have. Sooner or later, the talk always gets around to the health of a vineyard, and Barbara was very frank about Paloma's current losses and the inevitability of losing vines to either phylloxera or Pierce's Disease (PD). Of the 15 acres of vineyard, 1-1/2 acres of Cabernet (about 12% is in the Paloma Merlot) has been the most severely affected by phylloxera, due to its rootstock. While the Merlot's different rootstock has protected it from the phylloxera, it won't help with the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GSS). Looking down from our vantage point on the deck, we could easily see that the Schweiger's have lost some acreage to PD, and have had to completely replant a hillside area. While some opt for complete replacement of whole blocks or acres of vineyard, the Richards' own method of replanting sections has been to intersperse new vines in between the infested ones. Compared to ripping out and replanting a hillside vineyard which is much more costly both short and long term, their method should ensure that they have a reasonably constant supply of grapes, rather than have to wait the 2-3 years for some maturity on new vines. Barbara wasn't pouring any wine on our visit, possibly in order to conserve it for distribution, given the short crop in '98. However, I do have to admit that a few sips of Paloma Merlot would've made this heaven (I suppose I could have cracked one of the my own - and, in fact wished I had). But, this was certainly some of the most fun I've ever had on a visit without tasting wine. Out at 12:45.
Arrived at Keenan at 12:52. Met by Heather, whom Greg immediately recognized as also working for Nils Venge at Saddleback Cellars. I'd communicated with Heather via e-mail several times in order to get some Keenan labels for my collection, so it was nice to finally meet her in person. Keenan is located quite some distance off the main road, situated on a hillside. It's appearance struck me more as a big guest lodge in the forest, or as a lumber mill. The inside tasting room was very interesting and comfy. Keenan was yet another winery hit hard by phylloxera. In 1996, they went through an extensive replanting that is just now starting to mature. The '99 vintage will be the first from the new vineyards. Heather tasted us through a vertical of Merlot, as well as a Chard and a Cab. The fruit for the Chard came from Trefethan, the '96-'97 Merlot fruit came from Carneros, and the Cab came from the Pope Valley area. Out at 1:53.
Arrived at Schweiger at 2:00. Here is a true family operation. Fred and Sally Schweiger bought this place in the '60s, when land was $250 an acre. With a total of 34 acres, Schweiger has the potential to grow to 8,000 cases, although current output is in the neighborhood of 3,000-6,000 cases. Son, Andy, has been making the wine for the last several years, even though he was working for other wineries as well (i.e. Stonegate). But, as production steadily increased, Andy became "exclusive" to Schweiger as their full-time winemaker.
Arriving, we could see that Andy was back on the crush pad doing his impression of Bob Foley -- dumping bins of Cab and Merlot into the de-stemmer. Sally was dutifully watching and keeping some other visitors out of harm's way. It turns out that there had been a little mishap earlier in the day. Andy had a bin tumble and end up toppling over onto his dad. Apparently no major harm was done, since we saw Fred driving a tractor and flatbed trailer with some recently picked grapes back to the crush pad. Word was he was limping a bit, though. While Andy continued to feed the machine, Sally waived all the non-employees into the winery for some tasting.
While tasting, one of the other visitors remarked how nice the Chardonnay was, and asked Sally how long she thought it would age. Sally described the usual period of aging white wines for no more than a few years, versus a longer period for reds. "Oh, okay," the fellow replied. "The reason I ask is that I still have quite a bit of Kistler Chardonnay, and I wasn't quite sure how long it would hold before I need to drink it." "Well, you probably want to start drinking through it," Sally suggested. The fellow looked as if he was trying to calculate how long this might take. "Well, I have quite a bit -- that could take some time," he replied. "Why, how much do you have," Sally asked. "Well, ...quite a bit, it's really silly," the fellow replied. "Yeah, how much have you got," a few of us chimed in, dying to know, and secretly hoping to hear some obscene number that would establish a world record. Hesitatingly, he answered, "Oh ...ahh, well, it's really just silly." He wouldn't say!! No matter how much we coaxed him, he never did quantify his stash of Kistler Chardonnay. Man -- now, that's a lot of wine. I was wondering to myself, how does one let something like this get that far out of hand. My answer was forthcoming, when the fellow decided to pick up a few bottles of Schweiger Cab. As Sally went into the back room to get the wine, he called out to her that if it was easier to just pull out a case, that was fine with him. This fellow seemed really nice, so I'm not trying to pick on him here. I just thought it was an interesting anecdotal incident that anyone who collects wine could easily appreciate. Out at 2:59.
Arrived at Ritchie Creek at 3:06, after a traveling the "long and winding road." You really have to watch the small signs to get to proprietor Pete Minor's place. As a matter of fact, this was where Greg and I ended up parting company accidentally, with Greg missing one of the small signs. But, here's a place that's really worth the trip -- at least it certainly was for me. No signage marks the winery itself, but since I was at the end of the road, and this looked like a winery, I thought I'd better get out and check to be sure. "Pete?" I asked, to a fellow coming out of the small stone building. "Yeah. Hi." "Let's sit out over here," he said, motioning to some chairs and a small table on the crush pad. Well, alrighty then, I thought. Pete grabbed a '97 Cab and some glasses, and we all sat down in the patio chairs while he poured us some Cab. Peaceful and idyllic are the only words that come to mind in describing the setting. Pete has 8 acres planted. Usually, he only makes about 400 cases of Cab and about 150 cases of Chardonnay, with even lesser amounts of Pinot Noir and Blaufrankisch. Pete used to have some Viognier, but has since pulled the vines.
I was curious about a little known grape variety called Blaufrankisch, that Ritchie Creek grows and bottles. After chatting for a while, I asked Pete if he'd found the Blaufrankisch growing here when he bought the property. Nope, he planted it on purpose. He'd sampled the wines from this variety before and liked it, so he wanted some. (Wow, I thought. Now, here was a guy who pretty much did what he wanted. From things I'd read about this grape, I thought I had a faint idea what Blaufrankisch tasted like.) "..I've heard it sort of compared to a Beaujolais," I mentioned hesitantly. "Well, I don't really think it's quite like that, ...here let me get some." Then, back he came with some '99 Blaufrankisch, poured us each some, and we all ruminate a bit about how interesting and different it tastes. In fact, this stuff got better and better with more time in the glass. Even saying the name, Blaufrankisch, was fun. "So, you're a wine writer?" Pete asked me directly. Surprised and a little embarrassed, I replied, "well, no ...not really. I do write about wine, but it's really just a hobby thing -- an avocation ...I'm not a professional or anything. (I felt as though maybe I'd sneaked in under false pretenses. But, I think Pete was curious about what prompted our visit. I mentioned that I'd liked Ritchie Creek wines for some time, since first tasting the Cab at Joe Varga's now defunct store in San Juan Capistrano.) "Have you got any more appointments today?" Pete asked. "Nope, you're the last one," we replied. "Let's try some Chardonnay," he said. Sure, why not, I thought. Where the devil do I have to go, anyway. I can't begin to describe how one-on-one this visit felt with Pete Minor. I really didn't want to leave, but we made some purchases and finally headed out at 4:21.
Knowing there was a winery or two still open, we decided to be gluttons and hit a couple more places before the end of the day. Arrived at Folie a Deux at 4:40. The winery name is a reference to the sharing of delusional ideas by two people, and is so-named because it was started in 1981 by two psychiatric professionals. Slightly busy day at this winery, with two somewhat friendly and attentive staff working the tasting bar. Nominal charge for tasting 5 wines. The first pour of the '97 Chard was from a corked bottle that had apparently escaped their notice. The most senior of the two working the front cautioned his lesser experienced employee about checking the wines. A good idea, but probably better done out of earshot of tasters. Needless to say, the second pour was much better. The wines here are generally of average quality, and usually reasonably priced. In a good year, their Reserve Cabernet can sometimes represent a very good wine at a very good price. 1998 may not be that year, however. Out at 5:05.
Arrived at V. Sattui at 5:20. A old established family operation in the valley, V. Sattui is arguably more well-known for its picnic grounds and deli, than it is for its wines. Yet, this is a 40,000 case/year winery. Which is really saying something, because most of that wine is sold on the premises. The tasting room is huge, with a long bar and plenty of staff. Mark Roomian welcomed us as he started us with the first of 8 wines, including a parade of '97 Cabs. I'm always hoping to find some tasty wines in their lineup that they've somehow overlooked and underpriced. But, it looks as though they know what they have with the Morisoli and the Preston Cab. Chatted quite a bit with Mark, who certainly knew his stuff. We thanked him for the wine and for his company and called it a day. Out at 6:00.
Made it to a total of 7 wineries for the day. After leaving V. Sattui, we drove down to Napa for dinner. Had discovered a little movie house on Main Street in St. Helena a couple of nights back, and thought it would be a nice change of pace to catch a movie one night. So, we took in 'Space Cowboys' at the Cameo Cinema in St. Helena. Apparently, this is literally the only show in town. But, what a cool place. Actually parked the car in front of the theater, too. When's the last time you did that?
We had only 1 appointment for the day -- ironically, back up on Spring Mtn.
First stop of the day was Cain. Arrived at 9:40, a bit early for our 10:00 appointment, and took the time to explore this beautiful Spring Mtn setting. Beautiful grounds, with lovely views. The stone winery and tasting room sit on a forested hillside with commanding views of their 87 acres in the Mayacamas. As we arrived, a huge Weber BBQ was being fired up on one corner of the large patio. We were later to find out that the winery has a caterer come in to serve lunch to the winery and picking crews. We were welcomed by Nancy Walker inside the spacious meeting/tasting room, and after describing a bit about the property and the winery, she led us on a nice tour of the facility. Inside the winery, were several lots of fruit that were undergoing fermentation. But unfortunately, there was little activity to watch around the winery on this particular day. Nancy explained that she thought the crews were next door at York Creek checking out the vineyards. (Due to replanting, Cain has had to obtain much of its fruit from other sources.) Out at 11:56.
On the way out of town, we decided to stop at Domaine Chandon. The grounds here are very nice. In fact, you have the feeling that you're parking at some large nursery or State Park. This is a huge place that attracts many visitors. So, if all you want to do is taste (drink) some bubbly, then you need to bypass all the exhibits, the info desks, the gift shop (conveniently located just inside the front door), and head straight for the tasting bar near the rear of the building. Arrived at 1:00 to a fairly crowded room. After finally waiting for a hole in the bar traffic, we stepped on up and ordered our poison. Out at 1:35.
Wrap up: what a great trip! 26 wineries, 110 wines. I had set up 14 appointments for this trip, which is a much higher number than usual. But, as one tries to visit absolutely every winery in California, sooner or later appointments are going to be a necessity. Also, with the increase in new winery startups, buy-outs, etc., the goal of visiting everybody is becoming even more elusive. But, that's okay, I'll just have to go more often and drink faster. Cool!