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Notes from California
Winery and Restaurant Tips from our October 2002 Trip
Linda and I spent last week in California visiting wineries and had some great experiences that are probably worth sharing. After a long flight and a four hour drive, we spent our first night at Heritage House, a wonderful group of cottages on the rugged coast near Mendocino. The property was the set for the Alan Alda film "Same Time, Next Year" (Linda's favorite movie) and features beautifully landscaped grounds perched on a cliff 60 feet above the crashing waves. When it's clear, and it is this time of year, their restaurant may have the best view in California.
This was my first trip to wine country as a "wine dealer" and we found the experience to be very different from visiting as a wine consumer. In fact, after the second day we began to refer to it as our "Stainless Steel Appreciation Tour" "My, aren't those very attractive fermentation tanks..." or at Geyser Peak "Wow, what do you do with an acre of stainless steel tanks (about 2 million gallons worth) the other ten months of the year?" The truth is that there is always a lot to be learned and this was a very informative trip. We started in Anderson Valley, one of California's coolest growing areas, with a visit to sparkling wine maker Pacific Echo.
Cool Climates and Sparkling Wine
Pacific Echo is the new name for the former Sharffenberger facility that was purchased and renamed in 1996 by the French group that owns Veuve Clicquot. In the last few years they have received a slew of 90 point + scores in the wine press and we had an opportunity to see why. Winemaker Tex Sawyer spent over 2 hours giving us a complete tour of their wine making facility. He explained why the cool 56 degree average temperature allows them to grow the kind of high acid Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit that they get in the Champagne region of France, yet still get riper fruit because of the sunlight and longer hang times possible in California. I have always wanted to quiz a sparkling winemaker about his trade and we learned a lot about the very complex business of making sparkling wines including the answers to some pretty dumb questions like "what happens when a champagne bottle gets too hot?" Look for an entire newsletter devoted to sparking wine sometime in the next few months that will include some of Tex's insights. And by the way, don't leave any sparkling wine in your trunk on a hot day because x-rays can't find glass fragments!
The Australian Connection in Alexander Valley
Our second stop was a real contrast, going from the small 40,000 case Pacific Echo, to the Alexander Valley giant Geyser Peak at 640,000 cases. The GP facility actually spans both sides of highway 29 just north of Geyserville. In fact they actually have pipes that run under the highway so they can pump wine from the winery on the west side to a bottling facility on the east side of the highway. Geyser Peak had a pretty casual attitude about letting us tour the winery and we found ourselves climbing around on the cat walks above the standing fermentation tanks and getting up close and personal with their 8 giant rotary fermenters. The winery has been in the hands of the Aussies since 1989 when they hired Daryl Groom away from Penfolds. He was later joined by Mick Schroder, another Penfolds graduate, and together they have brought some of the best of Australian wine making methods to California. Want dark, full bodied, highly extracted red wine? Try using rotary fermentation tanks. Most fermentation tanks are large, up to 5,000 gallon, upright stainless steel tanks that are periodically punched down or pumped over (bottom to top) to keep the skins in contact with the juice. The Aussie solution... Hey Mate! Just flip that tank over on it's side and let it slowly rotate while it ferments and you get total skin contact. Now I know where all those big, brooding, Geyser Peak Cabernet's come from. We later asked an American winemaker about rotary fermentation and got a major eye roll that confirmed our suspicion that all Australian methods are not universally accepted. I do have to give the winemakers at Geyser Peak credit for attention to detail and doing their best to fight cork taint. As we walked through the laboratory I noticed a employee in the blending room with about 20 baby food jars each filled with Chardonnay and a single cork. As we watched she opened each jar and poured it into a glass for tasting. They were checking every batch of corks they receive for TCA taint. I am sure that it's not completely effective in eliminating cork taint but at least they are fighting a major problem that many wine makers barely want to acknowledge.
And, A Restaurant Find
Our real restaurant find of the trip was the All Seasons Cafe and Wine Shop in downtown Calistoga. After our second day of admiring stainless steel, Linda was leafing through a copy of Food & Wine magazine at the Bed & Breakfast when she happened on a profile of Chef Kevin Kathman and the eclectic menu he prepares at this tiny storefront restaurant and adjoining wine shop. A two block walk later, we found ourselves at the All Seasons Cafe choosing from a reasonably priced, marvelous seasonal menu and an incredibly extensive, very fairly priced wine list. The wine list even allowed you to go next door to the wine shop and pick something out if you couldn't find something you like. Needless to say we found something we liked - a Syrah from Elyse, that is not available in Indiana, for only $35, that was just as full and rich as its big brothers, the Petite Sirah and Cabernet that we featured in our October 23rd Newsletter. And, we didn't intend to do a restaurant review but the food was as good as the wine. From the rich Squash Soup to the Mussels in Thai Curry with lots of Cilantro to the Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs to the big surprise, a dinner bill with wine, under $100 before tip... this is a restaurant not to miss!
All Seasons Cafe & Wine Shop
1400 Lincoln Avenue
Calistong, CA 94515
All Seasons Cafe & Wine Shop
A Spanish Civil War in Carneros
About 10 years ago we attended a wine dinner in conjunction with the Sonoma Valley Wine Auction. We were seated next to a young Spanish couple who were affiliated with the Gloria Ferrer Winery on the Sonoma side of Carneros. They were fascinating dinner companions and I remember some discussion at the time of their new Spanish competitor, Codorniu, on the Napa side of Carneros. Gloria Ferrer is part of the Freixenet Cava empire, one of Spain's two largest producers of Cava, a Methode Champenoise sparkling wine. They opened the Gloria Ferrer Cellars in 1986 and produce a full line of sparkling wines along with some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in their "must visit" facility just south of the town of Sonoma.
Their success must have attracted the attention of their Spanish competitor, Codorniu, the other Spanish Cava giant. Since Codorniu has been making wine since 1551 and introduced Methode Champenoise to Spain in 1872, I am sure that they felt that their facility should be grander than Freixenets. And, it is... In 1991 they opened a 30 million dollar facility on the Napa side of Carneros, sparing no expense on the wildly modern architecture and ultra modern winery. Unfortunately, Americans didn't take to the Codorniu Sparklers and in 1999 they threw in the towel and changed the name to Artesa, Catalan for "Craftsman." They embarked on a conversion to still wines and hired a Winemaker and a Vineyard Manager away from Chateau St. Jean. Judging from what we have seen, read and tasted, it seems that they may have lost the battle but may end up wining the war, since Napa Cabernet sells for a lot more than Carneros Sparkling Wine.
We arrived on Thursday morning, a few days after Wine Spectator scored their 1999 Cabernet 92 points and featured it on the cover - not bad for a winery that only made sparkling wine 3 years ago. The winery itself sits atop one of the highest points in Carneros and on a clear day you can see the towers of San Francisco from the tasting room. It has actually been built into the hill, with 4 floors beneath a grass covered roof surrounded by some very impressive fountains. And, now they have some very impressive wines to go with them. The Chateau St. Jean style influence is very strong in the wines. The tone is set by the full-bodied, rich, very forward fruit Cabernet and the lavishly oaked Chardonnays, even the 2000 Pinot Noir (Wine Enthusiast 91 points) is dark and rich. We tasted through 8 of the current releases and can honestly say that all of them were good to excellent. The winery is certainly worth a visit and I think you can look for Artesa to become a southern Napa Cabernet powerhouse over the next few years.
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Road
Napa, CA 94559
Trust me... the address will do you no good with out a map...
French Barrel Toasting in Napa
Certainly worth a visit for any wine lover is the Seguin-Moreau Cooperage in south western Carneros. You can smell the toasting oak as you get out of your car and be prepared to smell like you have been to a BBQ for a few hours after your visit. They offer a facinating and worth while self-guided tour of the facility that allows you to see all 12 stages of the barrel making process. The air dried staves are bent, shaved, ringed, toasted and sanded in a process that makes you understand why they cost $600 apiece. The centerpiece of the facility is the large brick toasting floor. Beneath a giant exhaust hood, coopers build blazing oak chip fires in metal braziers and place and turn the barrels over them to toast to differing, but specific degrees of "toastiness." We now know that "MT" - "TH" branded on a barrel means "Medium Toast" - "Toasted Head." This is serious tradition... If an American had designed this plant the barrels would toast on a conveyer belt using natural gas flames and the process would loose all its charm. Only the French would build a modern facility to build barrels, with a little help from electricity, the same way they did 500 years ago.
151 Camino Dorado
(in Napa, just off Hwy 29 south of the Hwy 121 split)
Call to check tour hours (707) 252-3408
The day we were there they all went to lunch at 11:00 and went home at 2:00.
Extreme Dining overlooking the Napa Valley
Our second dining recommendation would have to be the very pricey, extremely elegant Auberge du Soleil on the mountain side overlooking the Rutherford Bench in Napa Valley. We choose it based upon rave reviews in our readers survey and this quote from last September's Wine Spectator "If there were an award for comeback restaurant of the year, Auberge du Soleil would win it... With sensuous surroundings, beautiful scenery and Richard Reddington attending the stoves, this has become the destination for food and wine lovers in Napa Valley." And, everyone was absolutely right. While memories of memorable meals fade over time, I cannot remember a more creative, perfectly prepared food and wine experience than the one we had that evening. They offer two prix fixe menus, one a four course affair with five choices for each course at $79, and a six course, fixed course menu with wine pairings at about $129. We opted for the pick your own food menu and selected the Whitehall Lane 1999 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at a remarkable $80 (Wine Spectator 93 points, $46 at Grapevine Cottage). At our request, they decanted it before we had even ordered our food and it had opened beautifully by the time our first course arrived. The meal that followed took about two hours and involved a trio of Pates of Foie Gras with Brioche - exquisite, Crab Salad, Duck Breast with figs, Lamb Medallions that made the Cabernet sing and desserts like a fruit tart that was sweet and complex without losing the freshness of the fruit. The servings were ample, but not large, and even after four courses we left feeling only pleasantly full. All in all, quite an experience! Make your reservation early enough to see the sunset and bring plenty of money. Ours was about $300 including tax and tip.
Auberge Du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Road
Rutherford, CA 94573
Auberge Du Soleil
November 13, 2002