Tag Archives: California

Sirah that aint Petite (Dry Creek & Alexander Valleys, California)

My second day in Sonoma County had me heading further North into the Dry Creek Valley. As the name suggests the climate is a lot drier and warmer with quite cool nights. If I were to compare it to a region in Australia, it would be similar to Bendigo. The two most important varieties here are zinfandel, that classic California grape, and petite sirah. It wasn’t until I came to Dry Creek that I was reminded that petite sirah is another name for durif, the famous Rutherglen grape. This made a lot of sense and of course I felt a bit silly for forgetting.

Breakfast of champions

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This is more like it (Chalk Hill & Russian River Valley, California)

Driving up through the Sonoma Valley towards Santa Rosa, it was good to be out of the Napa Valley. Not that it wasn’t nice, it’s just wall to wall vines and a winery every 250m. Being out in Carneros and Sonoma Valley was a return to terroir, with actual site selection for planting and smaller, more understated wineries and tasting rooms. It isn’t until you continue North into Sonoma County you realise how beautiful this part of California is, and although it is as busy as Napa from a tourism perspective, the roads aren’t chock-a-block with cars as the region is more spread out, with larger sub-regions. The sub-regions of Sonoma are the Russian River Valley (home of pinot noir and chardonnay), Dry Creek Valley (home of zinfandel and petite sirah), and Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley (home of everything else).

Rodney Strong Vineyards

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The other Napa (Los Carneros, California)

Although still part of the Napa AVA, Los Carneros is a very different beast. It is closer to San Pablo Bay so has more coastal breezes, and the fog is pushed into the Napa Valley from here. So although it is a lot cooler, there are more sunshine hours for a much more even ripening. There are two major varieties here, pinot noir and chardonnay. Countless wineries in the Napa Valley source fruit of these varieties. In fact every chardonnay I tried came from Carneros. The region feeds into the Sonoma Valley, and thus Carneros actually has feet in both Napa and Sonoma County. Hyde de Villaine is a partnership between Larry Hyde who planted his famous vineyard back in 1979 in Carneros, and Aubert de Villaine who married Larry’s first cousin Pamela, and is the winemaker at Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Their goal is to find a truly iconic and unique expression of California, and the winemaker since 2002, Stephane Vivier, is succeeding at this in spades. The winery itself is located in Napa town, but the vineyard is in Carneros. It is difficult not to compare the wines to their French counterparts, but in style they reflect their origins significantly.

HdV Vineyards tasting

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These guys know wine tourism (Napa Valley, California – Day Three)

My final day in the Napa Valley started with a visit to Shafer Vineyards back in the Stags Leap District. Shafer dates back to 1972, around the same time that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars were established and before the Napa Boom post-1976 Paris Tasting. You most definitely can’t say that John Shafer was jumping on the bandwagon. He left a career in the textbook publishing industry to establish a vineyard to grow grapes, and took his time to re-establish the site before producing his first vintage in 1978. From the beginning the wines gained much attention, and they have been producing their flagship Cabernet from the same vineyard for over 25 years.

Shafer winery

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Wine in them hills (Napa Valley, California – Day Two)

Bright and early on my second day in the Napa Valley I drove up into the Spring Mountains, hoping that the weather would improve, as my first day had been rainy and gloomy. I had corresponded with JJ McCarthy from Cain Vineyard and Winery before I left, and arranged to visit at 8:30am, so I got a really great view from a lot higher up. The Cain vineyard is at least 650m above sea level, whereas the Napa Valley floor is only about 200m, so elevation is clearly on their side. The soils on Spring Mountain are also a lot tougher, so the vines have to work harder to find water and nutrients to thrive. One of the first things I noticed were fewer and smaller bunches of fruit than in the valley floor. Tasting the fruit was thrilling, as it is the first time I can remember actually tasting terroir in grapes, and the cabernet sauvignon tasted like wine!

Cain vineyards covered in fog

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In the Valley (Napa Valley, California – Day One)

Interesting wine fact; California produces about 30% more wine than all of Australia. The Napa Valley is without doubt the most famous region in California. However, less than 5% of California’s production comes from the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. And yet the Napa Valley is the second most visited place in California, after Disneyland, which shows how important wine tourism is here. As previously mentioned I began contacting wineries in California before I left Australia, and those I contacted in Napa were by the far the most responsive. It was nice to have a few more appointments to fall back on, but as I was relatively unfamiliar with most wine from the Napa I didn’t know what to expect. Driving up the 29 Highway towards my first appointment you realise how important the wine business is here, with extensive and dense plantings constantly and a winery every 100m or so. No wonder they call this the Vegas of wine!

Opus One winery, one winery for one wine

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On top of the world (Santa Cruz & Montebello, California)

Santa Cruz is clearly a very laid back hippy town, so most of the tasting rooms don’t open until noon. This gave me the opportunity to catch up on a few things and have a late brunch at Saturn Cafe; banana and walnut pancakes with a cup of fruit, good coffee too. As I’ve been travelling up the coast I’ve been reading a signed copy of Rex Pickett’s sequel to “Sideways” that I picked up at Foxen Winery. I didn’t read the first book, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. Rex Pickett isn’t exactly a great writer, and in spite of all the erudite phrases and multi-syllabic words that Miles utters, he can’t seem to maintain correct grammar or punctuation. It is nice to see what happens next in the story though.

Bonny Doon Tasting Room

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Potholes, pine trees and rain (Mt. Harlan & Santa Cruz Mountains, California)

I felt a sense of regret leaving the Central Coast this morning, a feeling I’m sure I’ll have many times during my travels. The past few days have been fairly gloomy and rainy in the area which according to the locals has been fairly common this vintage, which will be a much later one. Some of the hosts I’ve had at wineries have been almost apologetic about the rain, considering California is the sunshine state, but coming from Melbourne means you get used to odd weather patterns.

The view from the Calera winery

The view from the Calera winery

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Hard to say, easy to remember (Paso Robles, California)

Driving up from San Luis Obispo into the hills of Paso Robles is awesome. It’s a little further back from the coast than regions further south, and seems a little bit drier and warmer, but you also feel the difference in elevation. Great winding roads took me out to my first of two visits, where I passed deer and squirrels.

Tablas Creek tasting room

Tablas Creek tasting room

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I just met a region called (Santa Maria, California)

Several weeks before I left for my trip I began sending emails to wineries in California to introduce myself and explain the nature of my trip. Many responded enthusiastically, particularly from the Napa Valley, some a little reluctantly and some not at all. The former reason because they are more setup for tourism in their particular area and have staff who are employed for this reason. The other two reasons because they are smaller operations and are too busy with vintage at this time of year, and understandably so.
Bien Nacido

Bien Nacido

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