When the third WSET Diploma course started, I realized it was time to get out of BC and put some of those studies to the test. Let the rubber hit the road, so to speak. Get out and and smell the terroir! Off to California we went on a Spring Break road trip.
We took a relatively leisurely 3 day drive down the west coast through Washington and Oregon states into Northern California and hit our first vineyards at the Anderson Valley. If you ever plan to emulate this and drag a slightly reluctant 15 year old boy along, ensure your iPad is fully loaded with movies and purchase lots of cool treats. I promise this will make him as lovely and malleable as a teenager can be.
And just before you delve any deeper into this review, know the following:
1. Napa and Sonoma residents take their wines and food extremely seriously. Yay.
2. Bring lots of money (or a credit card with a long leash – but do take note that an industry business card will save you tons in tasting fees and reduce costs immensely),
3. Search out the smaller production wineries and those in the up-and-coming regions of Chiles Valley, way out on Howell Mountain and spend time in the Russian River Valley. Plan ahead and take the time to make appointments!
4. There is a reason Healdsburg is on Fodor’s Top 10 List of small American towns. Visit it.
5. Stay centrally – you don’t need to jump around like we did every night to two nights. Calistoga would do nicely.
Here they are in order of visit:
-French owned estate for the last 30+ years specializing in producing 75,000 cases of sparkling wines per year. Purchased a bottle of onion skin pink hued rose of Pinot Noir and a 2003 L’Ermitage (52% Chardonnay, 48% Pinot Noir) showing lemon creme.
Recommended experience – offered generous industry discount as well as brief walking tour of production area although we had not called ahead.
Navarro Vineyards and Winery
-Decided to go here because of the mention in World Atlas of Wine (WAW), but in retrospect was least successful of all California winery visits. Only sampled whites as those are from the Anderson Valley and/or estate grown. Got a honeysuckle laden, spicy Gewürztraminer, but most successful purchase was actually Pinot Noir juice for the boys and some fresh goat’s milk cheese.
Average experience – had to be talked into industry discount (one of very few places)
Black Stallion Winery, Silverado Trail, Oak Knoll District
-Large production of 75,000 cases/year and a typical Napa experience. Had called ahead for tour and tasting as a result of tasting their wines at VIWF. Patient and thoughtful tasting; left with purple teeth. Highlights included the walkabout with their rose, a slightly herbed and piquant version and a bottle of Bucephalis 2008 (89 Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Malbec) with violets, black cherry, raspberry and leather.
Recommended experience – call ahead, generous industry discount, Lydia was lovely
Stag’s Leap Winery, Silverado Trail, Stag’s Leap District
-First stop of the ‘must visit’ triumvirate of Judgement of Paris wineries, and yes, I tried one of their venerable Cabernet Sauvignons. This was the only place it was hard to get up to the tasting bar at, but Vic made it easy to taste at a table and was kind and generous with his time.
Recommended experience – generous industry discount, seek out Vic
Regusci Winery, Silverado Trail, Stag’s Leap District
-Having tried their Cabernet Sauvignons before and enjoyed them, we stopped in here unannounced. Enjoyed their wine tasting of six wines but didn’t purchase anything.
Average experience – received industry discount
Miner Family Winery, Silverado Trail, Stag’s Leap District
-Lovely experience and highly recommended, especially if you call ahead to make an appointment for a tour/taste. They are completely self-sustaining on solar energy and have 20,000 square feet of caves where 3,000 barrels enjoy storage. They operate as a crush pad and storage facility for other wineries in the area and have some lovely wines. One of the co-owners is a co-founder of Oracle Software. Highlights included the cave tour, wine thief samples of Merlot and Petit Verdot and their huge seats-24, built-in-the-cave tasting table on a 15×30 $180,000 silk rug. They are the only winery in Napa that uses varietal Riedel stemware. This alone should merit them a visit!
Memorable and recommended tasting experience – generous industry discount and Cory even threw in a comp bottle of Viognier
Somerston Winery Tasting Room, Yountville
-Enjoyable experience recommended to us by one of the wineries visited along the Silverado Trail. Somerston is actually nestled in the Chiles Valley to the east. Highlights included an unusual light and peachy Grenache Blanc and a Petite Syrah that was deep inky violet and extremely tannic.
Recommended experience – generous industry discount and Beth was very knowledgable. She also made us the appointment for Brown (more on that in a separate posting).
Andretti Winery, Silverado Trail, Oak Knoll District
-Went here early as their website has conflicting hours of operation (10am and 11am starts are both noted). Brian had hoped to see some cars and perhaps racing paraphernalia, but that was not to be. Despite our showing up before most civilized folk, Joe was extremely gracious and led us through a tasting of five elegant wines. Purchased the food-friendly Sangiovese 2009, winner of the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Best of Class award.
Recommended experience, industry discount; seek Joe as your guide, do not expect to run into Mario
Whitehall Lane, St Helena
45,000 cases per year under their winemaker, ‘Dean’ who ironically has spent time in Vancouver Island and Saltspring Island. Memorable tour of production and storage facilities as well as long discussion about vines and trellising systems. Very cool ‘vino seals’ which are small glass sealers and perfect for whites especially.
Recommended experience, industry discount, enjoyed tour with Erik and speaking with Doug and Dean
Grgich Hills Estate, St Helena
Popped in here unannounced and had a great time – part of the Judgement of Paris triad of wineries necessary to experience; Mike Grgich was the winemaker of the Montelena winning Chardonnay in 1976. Purchased beautifully acidic Sauvignon Blanc with starfruit, grapefruit and sweet green grass and another highlight was their 2009 Violetta, a Late Harvest Botrytis desert wine full of honey, orange blossom and tangerine.
Enjoyable experience, industry discount and Amber, recognizing my starstruck-ness (I know, I know, not a real word), even gave me two GHE wine glasses. I just know the wine is going to taste better in them.
Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyards, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
When (and I cannot wait) we eventually return to spend additional time in this part of the world, this is one AVA I want to explore more thoroughly. See my separate posting about Iron Horse.
Outstanding experience, tasting fee waived for industry, but was able to speak with David Munksgard, Winemaker and are specialists in sparkling wines
La Crema Tasting Room and Lounge, Healdsburg, Sonoma
La Crema is actually in the Russian River Valley but their winery isn’t open to the public. Did a quick tasting here and purchased a bottle of 2010 RR Chardonnay full of mango and pineapple. Much larger than I’d originally thought – 250,000 cases per year.
Average tasting experience, industry discount, noisy room trying to attract clubbers – the 15 year old enjoyed it which should tell you what you need to know
Stonestreet Winery, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Premium sister winery to La Crema and enjoyable Chardonnays and Cab Savs.
Recommended tasting experience, especially if you can find Karen, the self-professed ‘clean glass Nazi’, a woman after my own clean freak heart
Jordan Winery, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Ironically found this completely via blogs and social media, having not known anything about them before. 90,000 cases per year, so they’re not small, but they only do one Chardonnay and one Cab Sav each year. Refer to my separate posting as our special trade experience was outstanding and paired with small treats. Hit with phylloxera in the mid-90s and had to replant everything.
Exclusive and recommended experience, enjoyed the tour with Claire immensely
Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Not a favourite for wine reasons, but a must visit when you are traveling with a Godfather and Apocalypse Now fanatic. We even went back for al fresco dinner that evening. Original artwork by Dean Tavoularis on Reserve line bottles is seriously beautiful.
Recommended tasting experience, industry discount, think of it as Disneyland for adults, pure fun
Chateau Montelena, Calistoga, Napa
The triumvirate of Judgement of Paris tasting wineries is complete; I made it to all three.
Average tasting experience, slightly jaded tasting bar host and no industry discount apart from waived tasting fee. Guess they just don’t have to.
Brown Estate Winery, Chiles Valley, Napa
Oh. My. God. See my separate posting. Learned about Brown only via casual email conversation with friends; they are completely exclusive, market very small amounts outside of California and do almost all sales online. Very small production of only 5,000 cases per year. If you can find them, BUY THEM.
Winner of best tasting experience of my wine life to date. Thank you, Jona and the Brown crew.