Vineyard Ventures Begin!

Welcome back to Our VRBO Life blog! Dave and I hope that everyone’s holidays were healthy and happy! Dave and I had great visits to Long Island and St Louis that were filled with lots of good food, family, and fun. This Christmas was particularly special as my favorite cousin Jeannie recently kicked cancer’s butt! It meant a lot to be home with her and the rest of the family to celebrate. I was also very happy to spend some time with my best friend Julie from grade school and her family who are experiencing an amazing traveling lifestyle while balancing work and home-schooling commitments!  It was fun to compare notes on our experiences and to see if we can sync up our schedules for a California reunion!

Dave and I arrived on Thurs Jan 1 and only had about 10 days under our belts before we traveled back to Chicago and St Louis for work. We’ve been back from our travels for just over a week – below please find some highlights of our California adventure to date!  The focus of this post will be on vineyard visits (organized by region/county) and will be followed soon with additional non-wine updates!

Sonoma area wineries – we have our work cut out for us in this area and we are up for the challenge!

  • BR Cohn – our first winery stop this trip, recommended by PK and Sheila (we will take them up on many other recommendations as well!)  We ended up spending more than 2 hours here, chatting with other customers and the very helpful staff. We took a full page of notes of other winery and restaurant recommendations. I’m still crossing items off the list!
  • Merry Edwards (Graton area, northern Sonoma/Russian River Valley) – what a treat, complimentary tastings, fabulous pinot and sauvignon blanc, and to learn about the matriarch of the wine business in California! Merry Edwards graduated from viticultural school in the 70s and was in the wine business before Helen Turley (LOVE their zinfandels and supposedly they have a winery right around the corner, but not sure about a tasting room) and Heidi Barrett (of Chateau Montelena and Screaming Eagle fame.) Their 2009 sauvignon blanc was the Wine Spectator #9 best wine in the world and the ONLY white wine to be in the top 10. We didn’t get to taste that unfortunately but we did buy a more recent and reasonable vintage.  Prior to visiting Merry Edwards we checked out Healdsburg (very nice town with unique boutiques), Windsor (didn’t care for that too much – very planned / made to look old), and Sebastapol (the main attraction was a series of warehouses containing restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and a new hotel.)  We’ll definitely be back in this Graton area to visit Paul Hobbs during the week!  One of the best Chardonnays ever!


Calistoga wineries – hold on tight, we have a lot of ground to cover….

  • Twomey – part of the Silver Oak family, tasting room attendant helped highlight other wineries to visit
  • Sterling – a memorable visit included a gondola ride up the mountain, gorgeous scenery from their hilltop venue, and a nice seated tasting with wines you can’t buy retail. We also purchased our Calistoga Wine Passport which provides access to complimentary tastings at more than 10 wineries in the Calistoga area – definitely worth the extra $10!
  • Rombauer – truly a highlight in terms of quality of wine – did the premium tasting and loved their cabernet and Chardonnay. The tasting room itself is nothing to write home about, but the service was friendly, the grounds somewhat pretty, and the grape was one of the best! Valet service!
  • Schramsberg – known for sparkling wine, perennially served at formal White House dinners particularly their Blanc de Blanc for decades going back to the Carter administration. Very impressive tour and experience, walked around the grounds, learned about the history of the business, toured the caves where they age the wine, viewed a ‘riddling’ demonstration in which wines are regularly turned and tilted in a rack to help collect the sediment at the neck of the bottle – hand riddling is not very common anymore as machines called gyropalettes now perform the task. Supposedly the cellarmaster at Veuve Clicquot invented the practice. Our sit down tasting was also very fruitful as we sat next to a very nice couple from San Francisco and the guy is a chef at the Michelin 2 star Quince restaurant. He gave us many restaurant recommendations that will take us months to take advantage of!
  • Bennett Lane – very small boutique winery (less than 5000 cases), friendly staff, one of the attendants is a photographer and took a nice pic of me and Dave! He also poured us a few additional tastings ‘off the menu’, nice! We learned about the value of argon gas as a way to extend the shelf life of your open bottles of wine. The winery had a $300 device that uses a needle and Argon gas that allows them to ‘aspirate’ small tastes of wine while preserving the integrity of the cork. This increases the shelf life of the wine tremendously. Of course Dave wants the fancy option when we can get a can of argon gas for $6! We bought a bottle of their specialty Maximus red blend and a nice reserve cab. We met a fun group of people visiting Napa who were on the same ‘itinerary’ we were – basically targeting 3 wine passport wineries within a mile or two – they were walking to each of the wineries.
  • Tamber Bey – a very special setting, located on a ranch with a world-class equestrian training facility, and the tasting room is in the barn clubhouse which surrounds a pretty courtyard and gorgeous views of Mount St Helena. Dave and I got to make a few horse friends before sampling the wine! We liked their wines and picked up a sauvignon blanc and a cab. We ran into the crew from Bennett Lane and felt bad for the women who were not wearing shoes made for walking a mile! Had we known we could have given a few of them a ride!
  • Chateau Montelena – this winery really put Napa and the CA wine business on the map by winning the 1976 Paris Tasting with its 1973 Chardonnay. Four white Burgundies were tasted against six California Chardonnays. When the scores were tallied, the French judges were convinced that the top-ranking white wine was one of their own. I believe the judges even demanded a ‘do-over’, and sure enough the California winery won again!   The chateau building was impressive, very pretty grounds with a Japanese flair, and the tasting rooms were spacious and comfortable. We had the most memorable tasting room attendant who asked us about our living and travel situation – when I mentioned I worked virtually for Deloitte she took one look at Dave and said “Oh, so he must be the ‘arm candy’?” We really got a kick out of that and continue to have fun with it! The attendant also noted that she met Robert Parker a few times and when he comes in for tastings he goes to a special room. We of course had to buy a bottle of Chardonnay as well as their petite sirah (very reasonably priced)!

St Helena – this is our backyard….

  • Beringer – our winery neighbor, just a few blocks to the north of us on Rt 29, has gorgeous grounds and a stately mansion (not exactly what comes to mind when you think ‘Beringer’!), as well as two tasting rooms – a regular and premium. Their 2009 private reserve cab was the #8 wine in the world by Wine Spectator and rated 93 points by Wine Advocate/Robert Parker. We didn’t get to taste that but we did try other reserve wines and picked up a Chardonnay. We also were given some inside scoop that sometimes early on Sat there are premium wines available for tasting, leftover bottles from events, etc. We will come back early on a Sat soon!
  • Long Meadow Ranch – within easy walking distance of our place, enjoyed a post-work ‘Napa Neighbor’ free tasting of their current varietal flight and their olive oil. Nice property with a farm and well-known restaurant called Farmstead (which of course is farm-to-table!) on the premises. Very friendly attendant.
  • Velo Vino, Clif Family winery – across the street from and recommended by Long Meadow Ranch wine attendant. Very attentive tasting experience, complete with snack pairings. This winery is owned by the same family that started Clif bar (yes, you can buy the bars at the winery too!) We learned that the inspiration behind the Clif bar was the owner’s intense mountain biking experience in Italy – he had Power Bars with him and didn’t like the flavor, they didn’t cut the mustard – so there the idea for the Clif bar was born. There’s a pic of the founder and his bike Fred prominently displayed in the tasting room. We really enjoyed their reasonably-prices wines and bought their dry Riesling (fabulous) as well as their Petite Sirah. Velo is Italian for bike and that biking theme is also carried over into the wine offerings as it’s seem on much of their wine labels. He also shared with us how the winery used to be a much bigger producer and then the company decided to scale back, focus more on having fun with the business than trying to become another super-producer.
  • Spottswoode – Dave and I drove past this one day and thought it looked interesting. We walked there on a Fri morning (15 minutes) and enjoyed a small group tour of the vineyards, the residence, and the immaculate cellar where they barrel age their cabernets. We also saw the concrete eggs/cuvees where they age some of their sauvignon blanc – interesting. The tasting was enjoyable, but perhaps my expectations were too high – we weren’t blown away but we really enjoyed their reserve cabernet and bought a bottle for a special occasion. The current owner purchased the property in 1972 – a doctor and his family were looking for a rural lifestyle to raise their family – sadly, 5 years after
    moving to Napa, the doctor passed away. Dave’s conclusion based on this is to not move to a quiet serene place to retire or slow down! Mrs Novak still to this day lives in the home, her daughter is the CEO of the winery, and her son is a doctor who lives close by too. The family remains tightly knit and in the area. At one point they had the largest palm tree in CA in their front yard according to our gracious tour guide Estelle who moved here from France more than 10 years ago and just was awarded citizenship! Interestingly enough, we were at a restaurant downtown that evening where the Spottswoode caretaker recognized us and struck up a fun conversation. She invited us to come back and meet the baby cashmere goats which are due over the next week!
  • Merryvale – I’ve always wanted to try this winery. The space definitely makes an impression! The private room looks like something out of King Arthur’s court! We were greeted by a few dogs, a golden and French bulldog, vying for our attention! No incredible standouts with the wine, but we enjoyed their sauvignon blanc and their flagship Profile wine (but it was not worth the $175.) The attendant was very knowledgeable and friendly and turned us onto Palmaz Winery which apparently has a very high tech approach to wine-making. He was also impressed that we had been focusing our wine tasting to-date in the Calistoga area. He highly suggested the Spring Mountain Road hillside wineries which are just up the road from us – Cain, Pride, and Schweiger – known for growing wines that are intense and bold and many of the wineries offering incredible views of the valley. We also met a couple who are traveling Physical Therapists who have been working mainly in the West and away from home for more than 2 years – kindred spirits!

Napa – definitely have more ground to cover here….

  • Trefethen – the first winery in Napa to be restored to its former glory after Prohibition, one of the most highly-impacted wineries by the Aug earthquake, their tasting room had to be relocated to a temporary tent as the main building was damaged, they are moving the tasting room over to the owner’s home soon. Wines were quite impressive – did the premium red tasting and really enjoyed their pinot noir, malbec (rare to find 100% malbec in this area), the Dragon’s Tooth malbec blend, and their reserve cabernets. The attendant provided us with a bit of education about where their grapes are grown and how that impacts winemaking and taste.  Some hillside (vertical) grapes grow in volcanic soil (at least in the wineries on Howell Mountain) in a cooler climate but with more sun than in the valley, more intense in flavor, very fruity – therefore they require more time in the barrel to temper that bold taste and acidity. The valley floor grapes are in a 50/50 mix of regular soil and volcanic soil and don’t require as much barrel aging. He also indicated that the best aging time for a quality cabernet is 5-10 years. Bit the bullet and bought a limited production of their flagship 2009 Halo wine (named after 2 of their kids, Hailey and Loren) which earned 97 points and #1 red wine of the year from Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine. There are now only 29 bottles of this wine available at the winery and all of the attendants agreed that the 2009 was the best vintage ever for this wine. Learned that 2012 and 2013 were great years for pinot noir in the Napa area.
  • Lucero Olive oil – took a break from wine tasting to try the olive oil, which is also a booming business out here! Bought a few bottles including a basil-infused one! Although there are olive trees in abundance in the area they don’t typically harvest the olives in this region – they come from more northern areas.

We really have ended up focusing our first few weeks in the northern area of wine country to take advantage of our wine passport, but we will expand our reach to other areas – especially as we have learned that most of the Napa area wineries provide free or discounted tasting to local residents…a program called Napa Neighbors, and we qualify!  Nice!

Let us know if you are up for a wine country visit – we’d love to have you!

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