We didn't visit any wineries on Monday as it was a day of travel from Vancouver to the little cottage we rented on Vaseux Lake, just south of Penticton, BC. We also watched the Vancouver Canucks beat the Nashville Predators in the second of the playoff series. Go Canucks!
Both Ginnie and I have missed several days of posting as we have been joined for three nights in the Okanagan Valley by Ginnie's son, Joel and his girlfriend, Saxon. We were having a wonderful time and rather than repeat everything that happened on Monday, I am going to be super lazy and refer you to Ginnie's blog, as she has provided the update for that day.
We didn't visit any wineries on Monday as it was a day of travel from Vancouver to the little cottage we rented on Vaseux Lake, just south of Penticton, BC. We also watched the Vancouver Canucks beat the Nashville Predators in the second of the playoff series. Go Canucks!
Yesterday was the first and only day of our trip where there is very little to report. We left our Hotel in Lincoln City, Oregon in rain and continued our path up Highway 101 towards Astoria as it continued to pour, at times very heavily. This would be a pretty drive in good weather but there was not much to see this time. At Astoria we headed east along the Columbia River on route 30 and then picked up Interstate 5 which is a soulless highway with little to commend it, and crossed the Columbia into Washington State, the ninth that we have seen in the last two weeks.
I had hoped that as we headed towards Olympia, the State Capital, that we might see some wineries but alas this area is almost devoid of wine interest, it seems. In retrospect we should have continued up highway 101 and headed east later, across the Olympia Peninsula where there are some vineyards, but with the weather and the slow road, that would have taken us too long and we wanted to get to Vancouver by Sunday afternoon to meet up with Ginnie's son, Joel and his girlfriend, Saxon.
So we ended up staying at a brand new Best Western in Lacey, WA, just north of Olympia on I5.
This was the third Best Western Plus that we have frequented and we are impressed with the quality and value. This one only opened in March and so still smelled new, however everything was great and was tremendous value. The full breakfast buffet was the best we have had all trip and the only negative was the inability to connect the WiFi to my MacBook or iPhone. Ginnie connected right away on her modest little Windows Netbook but no luck with the Apple products. Irritating to say the least and I don't know if it is a hotel or Mac issue but it meant I couldn't blog.
We did watch the Vancouver Canucks play game 5 of the series against Nashville and our Canucks lost by a goal, putting them at 3 games to 2. Now they will have to win on Monday. I only became interested in hockey during the Olympics and went to my first and only NHL game in Vancouver last February, but now I am hooked and cheering the Canucks all the way to the Stanley Cup!
Today we left our BW hotel and got right on I5. I was careening down the highway along with all the other traffic and asked Ginnie if she knew what the speed limit was. There is no uniformity across states and it gets confusing at times. I am very careful after my ticket in Nebraska, but was driving at 70 when I saw a state patrol car in my mirror. Just then his red lights started to flash. Not again! I pulled over and a very friendly officer who, according to Ginnie had very nice white teeth(!) came to the passenger side. He asked if I knew what the speed limit was and I said I thought it was 70 (as it had been leading up to Lacey). He told me it was only 60 and that it is 60 all the way north. I told him we had just got on the highway after our overnight stop and hadn't seen any signs (which is actually the truth) and my smile or accent or wife or puppy's eyes must have worked in some way as he let me off with a 'have a great day!'
We arrived in Vancouver at about 4:00pm and are staying at the Pan Pacific hotel where Joel got us a good rate. We just got back from dinner with them at an interesting Japanese/Fusion restaurant called The Eatery, celebrating Mother's Day. A quick walk along Kitsilano beach closed the day and we have good Internet access, albeit that we can't both be on at the same time!
Tomorrow we head for the Okanagan valley which we are looking forward to exploring, and the weather forecast is good!
You never know what you are going to find or whom you are going to meet when you set off on a wine adventure. Today was one of exploration and discovery and turned out to be extremely fulfilling, despite the damp Oregonian weather that has encompassed the region.
Oregon is best known for wines from several distinct areas, most of which either run north to south between the Coastal Range and the Cascade mountains, such as the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, or at the north of the state running along Columbia Valley sharing the Washington border. Our hotel is right on the coast, as we wanted to see the dramatic beaches, coves and unspoiled beauty that I have often seen in photographs. The fact is, that grapes just don’t grow along this coastline. It is too cold and wet for them to reach maturity and ripen enough to create viable wine juice, however there is one winery that does make the wine right on the coast, albeit from grapes grown in other parts of the state. That winery is called Flying Dutchman and located 19 miles south of Lincoln City, on a rock promontory that sticks out into the Pacific, high above a natural rock formation called The Devil’s Punchbowl. In fact, this is the most western winery in USA and I met with Assistant Winemaker, Dan High who led me through a tasting and explained the wines to me.
Their distribution is tiny and all of it is sold out of the winery but if you call them, they will ship bottles for personal consumption to any state. They buy grapes from 5 notable vineyards in central and south Oregon and are going through the pressing and fermenting process for the entire month of October. The reds are fermented outside in open-top fermenters where they claim that the salt spray from the ocean acts as a natural flavor enhancer and preservative, allowing them to use very little sulphur (the lowest in the state). The salt also apparently helps with color extraction and the slow cold-soak adds complexity to the mix. Following fermentation, Dan or Winemaker Richard Cutler put the reds in oak barrels for aging (combination of French and Hungarian oak, mostly about 2 years old) and the finished wine is not bottled for several years. They are able to be patient and let the wine age a little before release. While these wines are not necessarily representative of the rest of the state, they are certainly serious products that have won many medals at State level competitions. The prices are reasonable too and there is no sales tax in Oregon.
I loved the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape variety that is not immediately associated with Oregon. It didn’t have the power of a California cab, and it is not trying to be one. It is a great food wine with structure and soft tannins, no noticeable greenness and full black-fruit flavors.
I also tried the 2004 Pinot Noir. My favorite grape of all is a hard one to grow and yet it does well in Oregon with the right handling. This example is soft and delicious. A very feminine wine stylistically that I would think many American palates would find too thin. Not too vegetal on the nose, but distinctively a Pinot Noir.
I brought home a bottle of Pinot Blanc/Riesling blend having tasted it at the winery. Perfect with the seafood that is so abundant here.
As I drove back north to the hotel, I stopped at a lookout to photograph the promontory on which Flying Dutchman Winery is situated and you get an even better impression from that vantage point.
A few miles later, I was driving through the seaside town of Depoe Bay when I saw a “Winery” sign. I stopped to explore. The tasting room is quaint to say the least, so small that it doesn’t even have room for a fridge to chill the whites, and the ceiling is covered with dollar bills that have been signed by the many tourists who have come in and tasted the wines. Depoe Bay Winery is actually a sister tasting room for Nehalem Bay Winery, further north. Laura, the hostess in charge for the day was delightful. She usually works at the other tasting room and lives in Portland and so was not as familiar with this area, but she talked me through the wines and told me the story of the winery. The owner and winemaker is Ray Shackelford who bought the winery in 1991 after a chance meeting with the original owner in a bar. Ray is an interesting guy who is in Cambodia at the moment working in an orphanage. But his passion for wine is evident in their offerings that include many varietals and some blends as well as fruit wines.
Just like Flying Dutchman, Depoe bay Winery only sells the wines from the tasting rooms. They are not even available in restaurants, which I think is a shame. Come on local restaurants, support the wineries that are literally up the road from you and offer your patrons the opportunity to buy a bottle with your fantastic seafood!
Finally this evening, we decided to check out a place that looked fun. It is a wine bar/art gallery in Lincoln City called Wine 101. After getting yelled at by a particularly ungracious owner of an adjacent store for parking in “her” parking space (although there were no signs to this effect), we went into the wine bar that was abuzz with patrons of our age, all enjoying conversation, wine and music from a gifted guitarist. The host, Lee Gray, turned out to be a real character and as we got to know him, we found out that he is quite a celebrity himself. Wearing a black apron and a black beret, Lee wears his hair in a braid that goes to his waist. He smiles with one missing tooth and is just as congenial a host as you could ever wish for.
Another patron showed us into an adjoining wine cellar where we were invited to buy any bottle to be served at the bar. These bottles were all at retail pricing and there was a great selection, not only from Oregon but also California and Europe, with prices staring as low as $12 a bottle.
We picked a bottle of 2009 Bruno Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley that at $17 was a bargain, took it to the bar where Lee opened it and brought complimentary homemade herb bread and an amazing dip of hempseed and roasted red peppers. We also ordered an appetizer of baked Brie with Dungeness crab and nettles. Lee had run out of nettles but had made it with wild watercress instead. It was delicious!
On a TV behind us, a video was being played of a Canadian Food Network show about foraging for wild mushrooms; the star of the show, none other than our host, Lee. Turns out that Lee (whose birthday was yesterday like mine, although he is 10 years older) is a gourmet chef who specializes in finding and growing unusual, wild food. He learned that skill in the 80s when he decided to live in a sea cave. In addition to being a wild mushroom authority, he knows a lot about shellfish, herbs, seaweeds and things like ferns. On the bar were jars of his own pickled kelp and fiddlehead ferns, which I tried. On their own they are an acquired taste, but I could imagine them with a plate of antipasti and they would be great. We finished with rum-chocolate filled strawberries and drank our pinot, chatting to locals and people from further away.
In addition to being a chef, TV personality, wine bar tender and host, Lee is also an artist. His work is displayed in another back room and is very eclectic, ranging from pencil drawings, (mostly nudes) to sculptures (mostly female forms) made with glass and found pennies and to Native American style ceremonial weapons. Lee is one fascinating guy!
Every person there had his or her story and this was a wonderful experience. We smiled the whole time. Everyone made us so welcome and as we said goodbye, Lee hugged us both.
This was definitely one of the human highlights of the trip and one that we will remember a long time.
It is hard to believe that this evening marks the two week point of our journey across the States. In many ways it seems to have gone very fast and then when I read back through the blogs i realize that we have packed a LOT of things into these 14 days, and we have another 14 or 15 days ahead of us. It is also hard for me to reconcile the fact that today is my 52nd birthday and for the first time in my career I am actually without a full time job.
Being laid off from Kohler at the end of February was indeed a shock and yet, were it not for that situation, we would not be here in Oregon, looking out over the Pacific and listening to the waves crashing onto the 7.5 miles of pristine beach below our window her in Lincoln City. My emotions are mixed. I am enjoying this trip more than I would have ever imagined, and I know that if I were still in full employment I would never have been able to take off a month to accomplish it. However, part of me is also concerned that the right job opportunity has not yet presented itself despite enormous amounts of work in the networking and personal branding arena. I receive conflicting advice, some saying to hold out for the right position and not sell myself short, while others suggest that in the current market there are not many companies looking to hire someone at my level, and to therefore take whatever I can. So much comes down to serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, and overall, I still feel confident that it will work out. If I could choose where to relocate, this side of the country, the West Coast, is very appealing, and the northern part of this coast even more so. However I have to be realistic and I am continuing the networking while I am traveling and hoping that something will break soon.
We continued up route 101 today and arrived in Lincoln City, Oregon at about 4:00pm The hotel is great and very reasonable. We took Hopi for one of his longest beach runs ever. He loves beaches more than any other environment and he wore himself out. He also got very dirty and so we bathed him before Ginnie and I headed into town to the Blackfish Cafe, a restaurant that specializes in seafood dishes. Being West Coast it is very casual and certainly not upscale, but the food and wine were delicious.
I ordered a bottle of 2008 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley, just to our east, and it was delicious. Although Pinot Gris is the same as Pinot Grigio, the Oregonians tend to make the wines more in the Alsace style than the (often) rather insipid Italian style. This wine had tons of fruit, a stiff acidic backbone and aromatics that simply shout out for shellfish. Eyrie Vineyards claims to have made the first Pinot Gris in USA and the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley!
We both opted for a cup of Clam Chowder, as Blackfish claim to make the best one on the Oregon coast. It was certainly good. I then followed with a signature fish stew (Cioppino) full of seafood, swordfish, clams, mussels,shrimp, scallops and topped with croutons and sweet local Dungeness crab. Ginnie had a seafood pizza that was also good although a tad salty.
We managed dessert too (it was by birthday!) and I had a great pot de creme while Ginnie had the signature chocolate "ding dong" that she declared light and fluffy. I had an apple brandy (not a Calvados, a local one that was pretty good and reminded me of my time in Switzerland when i would have a "cafe pomme" - (coffee with clear apple schnapps), and the day was another success.
So I am a year older and the weather has turned a bit cloudy, but we are enjoying our epic journey and keeping a positive attitude to life, love and the future.
Thanks to the many people, friends and family who sent me birthday wishes today. The power of the internet is wonderful for keeping in touch, and it seems that a lot of you are enjoying reading these updates.
We left the pristine valley of Napa early this morning after a good night's sleep and a great shower. We would go to Starbucks, thought we, en route and be off north at a good time.
So off we went through Calistoga towards Santa Rosa, studiously ignoring GPS Woman and following the directions to the neareset Starbucks on my iPhone app. Lesson learned. Apps are not always accurate. The 10.2 miles between points may have been accurate if you are a crow, but if you are driving through the Mayacamas Mountains, you have to negotiate a lot of switchbacks and effectively drive at least twice that distance!
Finally, however, Starbucks was relieved of a latte, a tea, a croissant and some oatmeal and I was relieved of eight bucks before we headed north on Route 101 to a destination as yet unknown.
As Santa Rosa and Sonoma County gave way to Mendocino County, the landscape changed again. Rolling hills, more rugged and rustic than Napa, some with vines, others tilled for fruit and vegetables. Always beautiful. Mendocino, like Lake County to the northeast of Napa, is another one of those areas that is often overlooked by Wine Country visitors. That is a shame as it has so much to offer and it is so easy to get there up 101.
After a mini-detour to purchase freshly picked strawberries, we stopped at Jaxon Keys Winery and Distillery. This is a fascinating place. The tasting room is an old farmhouse, perched on a hill with a wraparound deck. Apparently there is a guesthouse there too and they often have bands playing on the deck. God how I love Wine Country! Interesting too are not only the wines which are made predominantly from the 125 acres of ranch land surrounding the tasting room, but for the fact that they are the only place in the USA making brandy according to Cognac traditions. The brandy is bottled under the name of the original winery, Jepson and made with Colombard grapes, just like Cognac. Equally it is distilled in a real Cognac still that was brought over from France. The Signature Reserve won a golf medal in the 2011 American Distilling Institute Competition. American brandy gets a bad press, mainly because so much of it is dreadful stuff that is artificially colored and flavored and mainly used for cocktails such as the one ubiquitous in Wisconsin, The Old Fashioned. This Jepson brandy is a different thing altogether. Of course it cannot be called Cognac because it is not made in the designated area of France, however, to all intents and purposes, it is American Cognac. It is available in very small quantities and I wish I had known of its existence when I was at Kohler. It would have been a perfect addition to the bar of The American Club.
In addition to the brandy, the winemaker, Fred Nickel, make some interesting varietal wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache, Primitivo (a clone of Zinfandel, or some claim that it IS Zinfandel), Syrah and Petite Syrah. There are a couple of blends too, a red and white “Farmhouse” wine, and even a port style wine made from Petite Syrah. All are priced very reasonably and they have a wine club (as do pretty much all wineries now) that offers discounts on not only the wines but also accommodations at the vineyard guesthouse. The winery is associated with several others in Sonoma too, under the name of Wilson Artisan Wineries.
Our journey continued in bright sunshine and temperatures that fluctuated between low 50s and upper 70s. We passed a herd of wild elk and eventually crossed the state border into Oregon where we are staying at a Best Western in Brookings, right on the beach. We happened upon a great little place for a light dinner, quite by chance, that was an art gallery with a jazz trio. We left Hopi in the car (he was exhausted from running up and down the beach), had a glass of Oregon Pinot Gris and enjoyed clam chowder and antipasti while listening to the jazz.
We thought there may not be much to blog about today. We sure were wrong!
Although one of the missions of this journey is to highlight wineries and winemakers who are often overlooked by the wine consumer, it is impossible to ignore the area that is synonymous with American winemaking, Napa Valley, I have been fortunate to visit this region many times over the last ten years and I have had the privilege of touring many of the wineries, large and small, often visiting with the winemakers and hosting several of them for wine dinners at Riverbend and during the Kohler Food and Wine Experiences held every October.
So in returning to Napa I wanted to take a slightly different approach and explore the old and the new, and find out what has changed and what has stayed the same in this historic region.
What better place to start, therefore, than Napa Valley's first winery, Charles Krug, which was established in 1861? It is named after the Prussian immigrant who was likely the first European to recognize the potential of Napa Valley for growing grapes, and was acquired 67 years ago by the family whose name is, and probably will always be associated with American wines, Mondavi.
Peter Sr. and Robert Mondavi are the sons of Cesare Mondavi who was an Italian immigrant and purchased the Charles Krug Winery in 1943. The brothers worked at the winery, Peter as Vice President and Robert as GM until a bitter and well publicized feud split them apart, with Robert leaving the company and setting up his own winery down the valley, ostensibly out of spite. The family divisions have continued in some form to this day, but Charles Krug Winery is still very much controlled by the Peter Mondavi family (Peter Senior is in his 90s, Robert died in 2008), with Peter's sons Marc and Peter Jr. both taking active roles in its ongoing development and direction. In 2000, they embarked on a 10-year program to replant most of the vineyards they own (about 850 acres) and they have embraced the concepts of sustainable farming, following their grandfather's philosophy that if you treat the wine with respect it will show in the wine.
I was lucky to taste many of the current releases of Charles Krug yesterday, guided by Candace and Jim at the lovely, understated (by Napa standards) tasting room at the winery in St. Helena. I elected to taste only the wines that are available for general release, although they also have some reserve selections that are only available at the winery to visitors. Marc Mondavi was a presenter at last year's Kohler Food and Wine Experience and although I had an opportunity to meet with him, I was unable to attend the seminar he conducted. So the wines were quite a revelation! From 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Zinfandel (there it is again!) made with grapes grown right at the winery, to 2009 Chardonnay and 2008 Pinot Noir from Carneros fruit, to the deeply rich, smoky 2008 Caberbet Sauvignon (made from Napa grapes) and red-fruit dominated Merot and finally the beguiling 2008 "Generations" a Bordeaux-style blend that is created and approved each year by "the family", these wines are indeed worthy of the heritage that the Mondavi family has created and the history that it has imparted in The Valley.
From the old, I moved to the new. Along Route 29, on the west side of the valley, lies so many wineries that it is almost intoxicating in itself. But I noticed a name that is relatively new and that I had not visited before, Alpha Omega. Only 5 years old, this is one of Napa's newest boutique wineries. It is a partnership between owners Robin Baggett (who also owns Tolosa Winery in San Luis Obispo) and Eric Sklar (a Napa grower with 30 years experience), together with Jean Hoefliger, a Swiss who has made wines for such exalted names as Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Carbonnieux and South Africa's Meerlust, and renowned wine consultant/superstar, Frenchman, Michel Rolland. This unlikely menage a quatre is creating wines that are quite simply spectacular! I tasted four as part of their regular winery offering. The 2010 (new vintage) Sauvignon Blanc is made from grapes right outside the winery. These are the only grapes that actually are grown here as the flat valley was described to me as being almost like a swamp - not good for other grapes, but excellent for Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is an entrancing combination of Bordeaux-style SB, with roundness and fruit, combined with the higher acidity you would find in a Sancerre or a New Zealand example. Wonderful wine. The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon is a special wine, but at $84 a bottle it should be. It has highly extracted fruit, soft tannins and heady aromas that would be wonderful with red meats or game. The 2007 Proprietary Red is, to my palate, even more refined, but no less expensive at $86 per bottle. The company's tasting notes mention "
After leaving Cayucos, we had planned to drive north up the famous Route 1 through the Monterey Peninsula to see the Big Sur and Pebble Beach on our way up to Napa where we are staying for a couple of days. Route 1 is just at the north end of the town and so off we headed. Soon we saw a sign that said that the road was closed 35 miles ahead but we figured there would be a detour that we could follow, so off we went. The road is beautiful and it literally follows the coastline, sometimes at sea level and sometimes high in the mountains, hugging the hillside. At least when heading north you are not at the side of the road that drops sharply many hundred of feet to the Pacific. The sun was shining and everything was looking incredible. The temptation is to stop at every single lookout and take photos but we resisted and drove on and on for thirty five miles reveling in the views and scenery.
As we turned another hairpin bend there was a sign that said "Road Closed in 1000 feet" then another saying "Road Closed in 500 feet". Where was the detour? Then it occurred to us that in this part of CA there are no roads that lead to and from Route One. This is the only road and so there was nothing to do but turn around and drive the thirty five (windy) miles and to return to whence we came! At this point I was slightly concerned about gas (and our naivete!). I had 1/3 of a tank but you never know when you will see a gas station on these roads. We had passed a hotel en route, The Ragged Point Inn, and so we stopped there to take photos and have our lunch. The location of this place is amazing and I wondered how they got staff to drive up the mountain every day. They also had a gas pump. Gas prices are high all over USA right now and I have been amazed to pay $4.20 a gallon, but up here it was a staggering $5.55 a gallon. The cheap part of me kicked in and I decided I had enough to get back to Route 101 without paying those silly prices, and I just made it to a gas station without running out - the first time in the whole trip where I have allowed the fuel light to come on!
During our 70 mile scenic Big Sur detour, we also stopped to see a colony of Elephant Seals that beach along the coast at this time of year. They are freaky creatures, lying in the sand and flipping it over their backs to keep cool. Hopi was at first fascinated and then suddenly took a huge dislike to these marine mammals and wanted to run away. They are almost prehistoric in some ways, and smelly too, but quite fascinating unless you are a 12lb Teddy Bar doggy!
On we drove, taking a strange route (per GPS Woman) through Sacramento that at least avoided going through downtown San Francisco at rush hour, and we have arrived at out St. Helena cottage. I cooked pasta with chicken and mango sausage and tomorrow I will hit the wineries. Although Napa is the archetypal United States wine country, I still love it and feel very much at home here. If anyone knows of any jobs in this region for an unemployed hospitality guy with a Certified Wine Educator designation, lemme know!
The wine growing region of Paso Robles is one of hottest in California with a long growing season and cooler evenings that ripen the grapes and create full flavored wines. There are about 26,000 acres under vine and they produce more than 40 varieties including Spanish, Italian, Rhone, Bordeaux and of course the one most famous in this area, Zinfandel. In less than 20 years, the region has grown from about 20 wineries to over 250.
The region appears to be a little fickle in some ways, with growers following trends and occasionally paying for that as they find the trends changing. Planting vineyards takes time and you have to wait several years to be able to reap the rewards. If a trend has changed in that time, a winemaker can find him or herself struggling to keep up. Trends can be influenced by newspaper articles, such as the famous New York Times one that heralded the 1997 Napa cabernets such that the prices rose ridiculously and nobody could then even GIVE away the 1998, even though many were better than 1997. Or the reason can be as banal as a movie which was the case here in the Central Coast after the release of Sideways. Prior to the movie, growers had planted merlot vines in huge numbers, but after the movie denigrated that grape, winemakers had a hard time selling it! Such is the power of the media.
One grower who has not followed trends but has attempted to cut his own path, is Lee Nesbitt of Chumeia. Lee's winery name means "alchemy" in Greek - the process of turning something abundant into something valuable, and that is exactly what he has done with his grapes. His story is fascinating and you can read it here, but I was most impressed with his philosophy that wine is really grown, not made, and that he tries to let the fruit speak for itself and use oak "as a giant spice rack" . His wine interests now extend beyond Paso Robles to other parts of California and also into Argentina. Another reason we liked his winery is that it is dog and pet friendly. Hopi met his first cat who was lying on the tasting room counter, oblivious to everything!
Lee showed me several of his wonderful wines. The 09 Chardonnay is from Monterey fruit but delicate and fresh, very light on the oak and delicious. The 2007 Partridge-Leigh Barbera was absolutely wonderful. Full, balanced, mouth filling yet still gentle on the tannins. An incredible food wine from a great vintage. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was also excellent and then in the corner of my eye, I saw the Zinfandel lurking. I admitted to Lee that I do not usually enjoy Zinafandel. I find it too single-dimensional, too alcoholic and jammy. He smiled and asked me to taste his. What a revelation! Layers of flavor, full yet not overpowering, lingering yet not cloying, peppery but not too much. I absolutely loved it and almost for the first time in my career, I actually ENJOYED a Zin!
On we went and headed off the main highways to dusty back roads. We ventured to L'Aventure Winery, whose wines are made by Frenchman Stephan Asseo, who studied winemaking in Burgundy and then made wine in St Emilion, Bordeaux. His dream was to own his own winery and make blends thant he was not allowed to make in France. His hunt for a suitable vineyard took him all over the world, to Lebanon, South Africa and Napa. None of the hillsides he wanted were available in Napa and so he went to Santa Barbara. He found that climate too cool for what he wanted to do and then he was advised to chek out Paso. He had no knowledge of the area but fell in love with it. Now he makes wines with blends from the Rhone and Bordeaux and with huge success. I tasted several that were quite remarkable and that have received great critical acclaim. The 2010 Estate Rose was being poured for the first time this weekend and may be one of the best roses I have ever tasted. Bravo to Stephan and his team for their adventure!
After a picnic in Peach Canyon's vineyard with a glass of Viognier, we found another small, family owned winery, Grey Wolf. Unusually for this area they make some great white wines which I tasted. The Sauvignon Blanc was a surprise and had slight citrus tones and bright acidity. Joe and Shirlene Barton have converted a 50-year old farmhouse into a tasting room and it is a delight. Well worth a visit for some relief from the big reds when in this region.
Finally we ended up at the house of some dear friends, Kelly and Gregg Wangard. Kelly was the chef at Riverbend when we opened in 2001 and her husband is also a chef. Kelly is originally from Paso but Gregg is a Wisconsinite. We had a wonderful afternoon in their garden with them and their two gorgeous children, Elle (who shares a birthday with me on Thursday) and son, Mason. Their Labrador, Libby, played with Hopi, the wine flowed, the beer flowed and, as you would expect with a family of chefs, we had great food too. Oh and an early birthday cake for Elle and me! Such fun times!!
And to top it off, we heard the news about Osama Bin Laden's demise.
Now on to Napa!
One of the aims of this trip was to highlight winemakers and wineries outside of the areas that one tends to think of first when we talk about American wine. If you ask most people which state they would associate the most with wine, they would likely answer, California, and of course they would be right. California has more wineries than any other state and produces more wine grapes. In 2009, California produced over 600 million gallons of wine, amounting to 89% of the total US production. Interestingly, the next largest producing state is New York, which produced 3.7%. California is without doubt an animal unto itself where USA wines are concerned.
So now our travels have taken us all the way to the West Coast and we are staying a couple of days in the Central Coast region of California. Broadly, this is the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco and encompasses such areas as Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Monterey (amongst many others). This is my first time visiting the region. Scenically it is beautiful; rolling hills, lush vegetation and a mild climate all year round. Today, 30th April, the temperatures were in the upper 60s and lower 70s inland, although there was quite a wind that picked up late afternoon.
We didn't have appointments to visit wineries in the area, and as it is a weekend, the wineries were busy with visitors all wanting to taste and purchase. So my approach today was a little different. I decided that I wanted to get a feel for the region of San Luis Opispo, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. I have always believed that visiting a wine-growing region is the very best way to gain an understanding of the wines, and getting a feel for the geography is important. From just driving around, you can gain an understanding of which wineries are bigger and those that are smaller, which are more commercial and which less so. It is probably wrong to make judgements based on these factors, but I often find that my initial hunches are borne out at later tastings.
I was only able to actually visit and taste at one winery today, Baileyana. I realy wanted to go there as the winemaker, Christian Roguenant, is a Burgundian who makes Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the Burgundy tradition. The tasting room is in a 100 year old converted schoolhouse in the hills above San Luis Obispo and is delightful. There is an outdoor patio and families were enjoying sipping wine while their kids played petanque. Very French! I wasn't able to taste the wines I wanted to because of time, but was able to sample a glass of Pinot Gris which was firm, fruity and refreshing. Perfect, unpretentious quaffing wine for a summer (or in this case, Spring) afternoon.
Most wineries in this area are growing grapes according to sustainable farming practices which is commendable. We also managed to see Wolff Vineyards, Tolosa (which appeared to be quite big), Tangent, Sextant and Saucelito Canyon who have the misfortune to specialize in Zinfandels, my least favorite grape of al! We weren't able to take Hopi into any of the tasting rooms and so our tastings of most of these wines will be at a later date. We do, however, have a greater understanding and respect for the "terroir", the areas where the grapes are grown, where the wine is ultimately born and develops its character.
We were able to spend some time in the delightful town of San Luis Obispo (shortened to SLO in everything - SLO Wine, SLO Food etc.) where we enjoyed lunch on the patio of a lovely sandwich shop, The Nautical Bean, and then take Hopi for a run on the beach at Morro Bay.
Tomorrow we will taste in Paso Robles and then meet up with some old friends and colleagues in the afternoon. Fun times!
Stephen Beaumont CWE