In October 2016 I escorted two wine tours to California. If I say so myself, both were a great success – a revelation in many ways.
The breadth and diversity of producers that we visited was possibly the greatest of any tour I have run – from the lofty heights of Chateau Montelena through to the garage atmosphere of Premonition Cellars and Inspiration Wines in their gritty industrial estate, we experienced Californian winemaking at its most exciting – during harvest. Despite the pressures they were under our hosts were welcoming and generous with their time, and everyone we met was passionate and excited about what they did. We were seduced by silky, elegant Pinot Noirs, entranced by a the huge variety of grapes and styles, impressed by the fabulous balance of the wines (despite their high alcohol), wowed by the beautiful scenery and delighted by the wonderful gastronomy.
We were based in Sonoma, and each tour commenced with diner at the OSO restaurant overlooking the famous Plaza.
It would have been impossible to do justice to California in a single trip, but over the four days of visits we explored the major areas:
Chateau Montelena came to fame in the 1976 Judgement of Paris where their 1973 Chardonnay vintage beat an array of top class white Burgundies. We enjoyed the gothic architecture, the beautiful gardens, and a tasting in the private lounge with a balcony overlooking Mount Helena. Our tastings comprised Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and culminated in the 2009 Estate Cabernet at a cool $165 per bottle!
Homewood Winery was a total contrast – Dave Homewood makes just 3,000 cases of wine and in addition to his passion for Cabernet, is doing some interesting things with French and Italian varietals – and we enjoyed a picnic lunch with a wine and chocolate tasting thrown in!
Chris Loxton is an Australian who has lived in the US for over 30 years and at Loxton Cellars he entertained us with wit and humour, the chance to see grapes coming in from harvest and peer into a vat of fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon. A great tasting line up culminated in an utterly delicious Syrah Port.
At DRNK we met Ryan Kunde who has created a boutique operation of around 3,000 cases using grapes from his family vineyards and other local producers. In a series of tunnels dug into the hillside we enjoyed a terrific line up of wines starting with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and moving through Syrah and blends to some exceptional Pinot Noirs.
In Petaluma, in the Sonoma Coastal AVA we visited Azari Vineyards, and met Cyrus Azari who not only demonstrated pipeage or ‘punching down’ the cap of a fermenting vat, but also allowed us to have a go! On our first visit he combined pizza preparation with a discussion of his wines, though sadly the oven was out of action for our second tour. However both tours enjoyed a fabulous selection of wines to accompany lunch.
Sonoma Portworks in Santa Rosa is the baby of Bill and Caryn Reading, and provided a great insight into the diversity of Sonoma winemaking – with varieties such as Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Palomino and Petite Sirah producing differing styles of fortified wine. An eclectic selection of these wines were complemented by some outstanding cheese and chocolate pairings.
We enjoyed a fabulous visit to the Roederer Estate, the Californian baby of the highly regarded Champagne house Louis Roederer. We explored the beautiful vineyards, the winery and enjoyed a tasting of six fabulous sparkling wines, and took lunch on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, washing it down with magnums of their Brut.
In complete contrast Toulouse Vineyards, was just down the road and a million miles away in terms of scale! Vern Boltz is a retired San Francisco fire captain, and has operated the estate since 2000 on the basis he has nothing “to lose” – and gained a reputation for making very elegant Pinot Noir. We had a fantastic tasting that truly demonstrated the variation between cooler and warmer vintages.
Russian River Valley
Bacigalupi Family Vineyards provided two amazing visits. Sisters Nicole and Katie hosted us, walked us up to their Chardonnay vineyards (the source of half the fruit that went into Chateau Montelena’s 1973 vintage mentioned above), and then took us through a stunning tasting of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Late Harvest Muscat sitting outside in the shade of a large oak tree – one of the most idyllic tasting experiences I have ever had.
A short drive took us to the outskirts of Healdsburg and the prestigious Seghesio Estate. Another outdoor tasting revealed the ability of Zinfandel to mature with age, and we enjoyed a fantastic buffet lunch washing down the rest of the tasting bottles.
Our final visits on both tours were to a unit on an industrial estate where a group of independent wine makers make wine from grapes they buy in. Premonition Cellars and Inspiration Vineyards were both accepting grapes during our visits, there were numerous bins of fermenting fruit and not enough to room to swing anything. The wines were great and the true spirit of entrepreneurship was clearly alive and well – if you want to make wine in California, you can do it!
Our tours ended with a meal at Della Santinas in Sonoma, and we agreed that our tours had revealed many surprises, most of them very pleasant, with the exception of price: Californian wines are good but prices can be astronomical. As we learnt, there is huge demand with the USA, production is limited and the laws of supply and demand apply vigorously. Most of the wines we tasted are not available in the UK, so our developing love affair with Californian wine will require us to return – no bad thing.
“As a solo traveller joining Tim’s wonderfully congenial groups gives me the opportunity to visit amazing wine makers and drink fine wines that I would not search out by myself. The wine growers, the wine , the company make for a joyous adventure.
Tim’s trip to Napa in 2016 – was I embarking on an homage to the winners of 1976 Judgement of Paris? We were royally entertained at the magnificent Chateau Montelena, wine-makers of the winning chardonnay and then drank wine under the trees of Bacigalupi Vineyard along with the family that grew the fruit.. All wondrously topped off with dinner at a local restaurant, Della Santinas to celebrate my birthday drinking Bacigalupi from magnum and then wine made by the waiter at home!” – Keith Baxter, Kingston
“Tim’s tours are truly educational – in the very best sense of the word. The Californian Wine Industry has its fair share of interesting characters and Tim managed to find a great cross-section for us to visit [inspect]. Each tour is like a collection of short stories and each vineyard, winery or winemaker has its own unique tale to tell. With each day’s new story we had our pre-conceptions (about Californian Wine) challenged (and in most cases shattered). Being introduced to passionate winemakers’ stories, whether they were working out of a warehouse in a business park or on a well-established vineyard estate, brought a whole new appreciation and understanding to the wine making process. – I suppose this is the reason why we keep coming back. – Like all good stories there is usually a twist in the tale and in California the Wines themselves provided this. The Californian soil (terroir), grape varietals and skills of the winemakers provided such variety, subtlety, depth and complexity to ensure there was something for everyone to enjoy. Well done Tim!” – Stewart and Peter, London