Travel, Etc. --> Napa & Sonoma Counties
Finding Something Different
in Napa and Sonoma Valleys
Some out-of-the-ordinary things to do in Wine Country
By, Jim Bandy
Associate Wine Guy Jim Bandy just led a group of clients on a three day visit to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Most of his party were from California, so his challenge was to find some winery visits and experiences that they would not have already done on their own. Here is his report....
If you only had three days in Northern California's wine country, what would you do?
That was a dilemma I faced when taking a group of clients to Sonoma and Napa in early June. Add to the challenge that they already make frequent visits to California's wine country and, at 10 people, we were not the most nimble of groups. I had to get creative if I was going to use one of Doug's famous phrases: "Do I ever have something for you to try!"
Blending at Chateau St. Jean
We left San Francisco on picture-perfect Friday afternoon, with the sun shining on the Golden Gate Bridge beckoning us northward. Our first stop was the popular Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma. Grapevine Cottage carries many of their wonderful wines but we weren't going to taste or tour. Chateau St. Jean (and it is pronounced jeen) offers a two-hour session focused on blending. They name it after their famous Bordeaux-style blend, Cinq Cepages.
We were happy to learn our session was outside in a private garden; the day was so beautiful no one wanted to be inside at a seminar — even if it was about wine. Seated at shaded picnic tables we focused our attention on bottles of the five classic varietals that their winemaker, Margo van Staaveren, used to create the current release of Cinq Cepages. Discussing how each contributes to the whole, teams were formed and challenged to create a unique blend that would be blind-tasted against the others. Armed with charts, measuring tubes, and glasses each group created and rated several blends before choosing one to represent their group. Before submitting it for final tasting, though, a name had to be chosen and label designed. Thankfully, I was not judged on my Sharpie® artwork. My team chose a Cabernet-focused blend, using only three varieties. The other teams used all five grapes in their Merlot-focused blends. You might think you would easily recognize your own blend but the subtleties of each team's blend made that very difficult. Winning isn't everything so I'll focus on the good time everyone had. It was a unique experience, and I did learn a few things. I would have enjoyed the time more, and even paid more, if we could have each walked out with a bottle of the winning blend.
Chateau St. Jean
8555 Sonoma Highway (Highway 12),
Chateau St. Jean
Wine Pairing at Mayo Winery
One of my favorite discussions to have with customers at Grapevine Cottage is about selecting a wine to pair with a meal or dish. I took advantage of my group being in learning mode and took us to a Food and Wine pairing session at Mayo Winery's Reserve Tasting Room. Mayo has a few tasting rooms around Sonoma but this was
perfectly located just five minutes away from Chateau St. Jean. We were greeted by Chef Billy Oliver and seated in a small side room. We tasted seven wines, each paired with a beautifully prepared small bite. Oh, did I mention Chef Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America? Everyone remarked how the wines were nice on their own but really soared with the food. Two favorites were the Open-Face Lobster Won-Ton with Truffle-Corn Coulis paired with their Laurel Hill Reserve Chardonnay and the Molasses-glazed Smoked Duck Breast Tostada with Strawberry Salsa paired with their King Vineyard Pinot Noir. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone. The Wall Street Journal called this one of the best deals in wine country. At a mere $20 per person I couldn't agree more.
Mayo Family Reserve Room
3300 Sonoma Highway in the Village of Kenwood
Open Daily 11:00am - 6:00pm
By now we're an hour behind schedule so we scurried back on the bus and headed north to Jessup Yountville. Our next stop was the tasting room for Jessup Winery, just down the street from the French Laundry. Mark Jessup's winery is located on top of Mt. Veeder. Mark soon realized that an isolated winery on a mountain top was not conducive to sharing his creations with the public. He solved that problem by opening a retail, tasting and VIP Room in Yountville, "the heart of Napa Valley". They now have a very nice platform to share Mark's superior wines in a beautiful central location.
We were greeted graciously and could not discern any concern for our lateness. This is a testament to their hospitality as I would have been a little harried with a birthday party of 34 scheduled to arrive at any minute. We were shown to their VIP room where we were treated like royalty.
Mark Jessup's long winemaking career is evident in all that we tasted. He spent 14-years with Mondavi, including working on the first Opus One project. He now focuses on small production premium wines. Jessup wines deliver typical California taste in all their wines. They bottle seven different varietals plus a Table For Four red blend. All were very good, delivering classic Napa flavors with special nuances in their Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Zinfandel, a Double Gold winner at the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. If you like bigger wines these should be on your list to try.
Jessup Cellars Tasting Room
6740 Washington Street, Yountville CA 94599
(707) 944-8523 Tasting Room
Robert Sinskey Winery
We opened our delicious goodies from Sonoma Market and quickly munched on the way to our next stop: Robert Sinskey. Bob Sinskey started with a retirement plan of growing a few acres of Pinot Noir grapes for sale to a neighboring winery. Well, that plan grew to an obsession for good winemaking. Now, with his son Rob as the vintner, they have 200 acres in various regions including nearly five in the heart of Stags Leap District.
Robert Sinskey vineyards are certified organic, and they use biodynamic farming techniques to produce their portfolio of 13 bottlings. Their tasting room was beautiful and inviting, but we enjoyed our samples of several of their wines outside on their veranda with stunning vistas of beautiful vineyards. Rob's wife, Maria Heim Sinskey, is an award-winning chef who directs the culinary efforts at the winery. We were fed several small courses to compliment the wines, and I was hard-pressed to decide which was better — the wine or the food. Grapevine Cottage currently has a limited number of Robert Sinskey's Vandal Vineyards Pinot Noir.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
6320 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
800.869.2030 or 707.944.9090
Del Dotto Vineyards
How much more could we fit into the day? We had one stop left, and it was a hedonistic blow-out! I first became acquainted with Del Dotto wines through a previous business relationship. They were full-throttle red wines that minimally distributed outside the winery. We simply had to stop!
Located at the extreme southeast end of Napa, Del Dotto's tasting room does not share proximity to their vineyards. Nonetheless, their location is truly unique. With Napa's second-oldest hand dug caves (circa 1885), Del Dotto lets you know immediately this will not be a stuffy experience.
Dave Del Dotto started an educational program teaching wine consumers how the barrels affect the wine and have been experimenting with over 40 different barrels from various Coopers from France, America and Russia. They have become the only winery to bottle wines directly out of individual French and American oak barrels; the barrel description is listed on each label. Del Dotto continues to experiment with winemaking techniques with an ultimate goal: To make great wines that will bring people together to enjoy life with family and friends! We enjoyed our tour through the candle lit caves serenaded by The Stones, The Doors, and other rock-and-roll classics. No bottles were opened here; we tasted everything directly from the barrels. And, they were happy for you to taste as much as you liked to get the full impression of how different oaks influence the wines. I admit I liked the American oaked wines best but did buy a few bottles from unique French barrels made from 325-year old trees. (Ask me about the whole story sometime.)
As we left the tunnels we met Dave Del Dotto. His current experiment is aging wine in an earthenware jug, similar to what may have been in ancient times. It had been aging for several years yet tasted fresh and delicious.
This was a terrific experience but one you need to consider carefully if you have allergies. These caves are old and humid. Several times I came in contact with the walls and determined I needed to send my clothes to the cleaners right away!
Del Dotto Caves
1055 Atlas Peak Road
Tasting and Cave Tours by Appointment
Sunday dawned bright and warm. We only had half the day due to varying flight schedules. Our first stop was at Enoteca, a boutique wine tasting room featuring several small producers. The shop was fun with lots of fun things to purchase.
I really like the Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut that we sell at Grapevine Cottage. So, I had to make certain we ended our adventure at Gloria Ferrer's beautiful property for some sparkling wine. The winery now cultivates 385 acres in Carneros and produces a range of sparkling and still wines. Gloria Ferrer is dedicated to the production of wines that reflect the artistry of the winemaker and the marriage of vine to place in the vineyard. Gloria Ferrer's still wines complement the sparkling wines that will always remain the first love of the Ferrer family who also own the Spanish sparkling wine giant Freixenet.
We lunched on their sun-drenched patio while sampling different still and sparkling wines. I must admit, their Cuvee Carneros (currently available at the store) was especially nice — a $49 investment over their $18 Sonoma Brut but absolutely delicious. I purchased a couple of bottles to enjoy between Sunday night and my return to Indy on Tuesday.
Although we did not have enough time to tour their caves I look forward to returning soon.
23555 Hwy. 121
August 1, 2007