It has been quite a few months since our last blog post, and for this I must apologize. The months of October, November and December (or simply “OND” as this time of year is lovingly referred to in the retail wine industry) represent the very busiest time of the year.
But now it’s 2012, and things have quieted down a touch after the hustle and bustle of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As such, it seems like as good a time as any to get back into the blogosphere with this recap of my Labor Day weekend trip out to Napa and Sonoma.
First off, if you haven’t had a chance to visit these two beautiful valleys — easily the most famous wine producing regions in the United States — I’d urge you to do so if and when you can. Each time I’m fortunate enough to head out to the west coast, I’m always awed by its sheer beauty. The Mayacamas Mountains run north-south and serve as the divider between Sonoma County on the west side and Napa County on the east. You could spend weeks on either side of the Mayacamas and never visit the same winery twice. And the knowledge and experience one can attain while visiting these wineries is invaluable.
My 2011 trip began with the lengthy flight from Nashville into San Francisco, followed by the drive north to wine country. Note — don’t trust Mapquest! Instead of taking us on the simplest route — north on Highway 1, over the Golden Gate Bridge onto the 101 and through San Rafael — it took us off the highways, through downtown San Fran during rush hour before getting onto I-80 and over the Bay Bridge into Oakland before finally heading north through Richmond and then back across the bay again. Next time, I’ll spend the extra money and get the Garmin GPS in the rental car. Ok, off that tangent now.
Anyways, since all the restaurants I wanted to hit up and half of the wineries at which I had appointments were on the Sonoma side, I was staying in Sonoma this year, at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn — an excellent little resort in Boyes Hot Springs, just north of Sonoma proper. If you want a place with lots of glitz and glam and super fancy and/or high-tech amenities in your room, this place is not for you (though the large flat screen TV was a bonus). However, if you want a quaint and quiet hotel with a wonderful and highly-rated restaurant on-site in a cute little town, check it out.
Dinner on the night I arrived — Cyrus Restaurant — definitely set the stage for the entire trip. A prestigious winner of two Michelin Stars, the eight-course prix fixe menu was absolutely stunning. The optional wine pairings were eclectic and paired perfectly with each dish, making it a must-visit spot for any foodies/winos heading out to CA.
After a good night’s sleep, the winery tours began, starting with Sonoma giant Kenwood Vineyards. If you want to see how things work at a large production winery, Kenwood is a good place to start. You can stroll through some of their estate vineyards planted directly in front of the tasting room or head into their barrel room and see the giant wooden beams they had to install to reinforce the building after the disastrous earthquake of 1989. They’ve kept all kinds of library wines, many of which are available for purchase if not to taste in the tasting room, including many vintages of the highly-rated Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon. When I was there, they were offering a great deal on the 2003 vintage of their Jack London Vineyard Cabernet. Definitely came back to Tennessee with a few bottles of that.
We wrapped things up at Kenwood a little early, and so we decided to make an unscheduled stop — Martinelli. If you like big, rich and extracted style Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, visit Martinelli. If you can manage to find a bottle of their Jackass Hill Vineyard Zin, buy it and don’t look back.
Next stop — Williams Selyem. This winery, perhaps more than any other, put top-shelf California Pinot Noir on the map. They were recently featured in the Spectator, and the hype and desire for these wines continues to grow. Add on top of that the fact that more than 90% of the wines they produce are for winery club members only, and you’ve got some of the hardest-to-obtain wines in the United States. They only recently opened their brand new winery and tasting room, which is an absolute site to see. Their appellation designated wines, mainly Pinot Noir and Zinfandel with a little Chardonnay, are second to only their vineyard designated bottlings. And winemaker Bob Cabral was just named Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year!
I wrapped up my day of winery tours in Sonoma at one of my new favorites — Chalk Hill. Located in the appellation of the same name, this winery produces more than 20 different wines, and their Estate Red might be the most impressive of the bunch. The extremely attentive staff sat us at a table on the patio, where we were served a flight of their reserve tier wines paired with various cheeses. Afterward, we toured proprietor Bill Foley’s private family cellar in the basement of the winery, the hidden entrance to which is secreted behind a James Bond-esque moving bookshelf. Definitely ask to tour this amazing private collection of wines from all over the world!
We capped the night off with dinner at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, winner of The Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence in their 2011 Restauraunt Wine List Awards Program. The coriander crusted Sonoma duck with a bottle of 2009 A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Valley Zin was a beautiful pairing.
Next up — Day 2!