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Unusual Wines
Diversity in Wine
Northern California
Part 1

June 2002

     Peter & Jo drove eastwards from San Francisco International Airport with two objectives. Peter wanted to dedicate his entire vacation to visiting wineries and Jo wanted to spend as little of her time as possible in wineries.

Day 1

     Our plane from London had been delayed, US immigration queues delayed us even more and the only fast thing was Hertz No 1 Gold Club. This was Jo's first time seeing it in action and she was impressed with the waiting car, boot open and no paper work, but delays meant we hit the early evening rush hour. Our body clocks told us it was midnight and when we saw Hilton's logo at Pleasanton after crawling in a slow jam out of San Francisco we pulled in. We got a good rate although a bit more than we had intended, but it was worth it for a first rate room with enormous bed. After an excellent light meal and three glasses of less than ordinary house wine we climbed into bed. There was free entertainment around the pool with a rock band. Our room overlooked the pool but we were too tired to ask to move rooms and in fact fell asleep almost immediately.

Days 2 - 4

     Next morning we headed inland towards Jackson. We had a room reserved there for three nights and intended to visit Sutter Ridge Winery which makes Pinotage and attend the Amador County Wine Fair. Jo wanted to cross the mountains and visit Reno. The only other plan was to visit another Pinotage maker, Phoenix Winery in Napa Valley. I'd emailed ahead for appointments.

     Late afternoon we arrived at Sutter Ridge Winery. It's in a commanding position on a long ridge with magnificent views. Winemaker/owner John Bree Senior showed us over the winery and we sampled from his barrels

Sutter Ridge

     Late afternoon we arrived at Sutter Ridge Winery. It's in a commanding position on a long ridge with magnificent views. Winemaker/owner John Bree Senior showed us over the winery and we sampled from his barrels John Bree Snr in his Pinotage vineyard

Zinfandel 2000
soft warm and spicy, light with an upwards lift at the end
Aglianico 2001
Smells of roses, dark black colour, tastes of liquorice toffee, wonderful silky red. So intense that John intends to blend in 20-30% Sangiovese. We tried an impromptu 80/20 blend in a glass and found the Sangiovese gives a light sweet fruit upfront with the complexity of Aglianico underneath.
     John and Debbie Bree told us they had cleared their weekend schedule in order to show us around. They took us to gaze up at giant sequoia redwoods in Calaveras Big Trees state park on Saturday. We had lunch at Ironstone Winery. This is a large operation which was hosting two weddings. We had a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc with lunch and tasted some in their large tasting room, but didn't have time for a tour

Ironstone Winery

Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Light, off-dry, mildly grassy. I'd prefer much more oomph, more acidity and gooseberries.
Symphony 2002
I'd wanted to have this with lunch but John refused. I'm a sucker for unusual varieties, so tasted this inside. Medium dry, slightly floral characteristics, dry finish. Quite pleasant.
     On the way back we visited Black Sheep Winery and Stevenot tasting rooms. Black Sheep has a sale of their polo shirts with a logo misprinted with a white sheep.

     Saturday evening we all went to Amador County Wine Fair in Plymouth. Amador county wineries, and many other's who make wine from their grapes, had stands. The fair grounds had a mixture of buildings and open air areas. I tasted as much wine as I could, but my good intentions of making notes came to naught as there were too many people. Oh, and John and I were interviewed by local TV. I tasted 'Mission' wine for the first time, made by Nine Gables Winery and enjoyed it. It was a dry red chianti like wine.

     More than Zinfandel, Mission can claim to be California's own variety. It was brought over by Spanish missionaries and is the vinifera varietal that has been grown longest. But nowadays few wineries make it and noone seems interested in it. I was keen to try this historic variety.

     What really impressed me about the Fair was the provision for non-drinkers. They could claim a 'designated driver' badge and a good quality embroidered CHP designated driver polo shirt, plus a coffee mug and water carrier that entitled them to free soft drinks. And when they left they were also given the special fair wineglass.

     Sunday we spent all day at Yosemite National Park with John and Debbie Bree. Lunch at the hotel with Frogs Leap Sauvignon Blanc, good but not enough oomph, with dinner on the way home in a historic old town whose name I've forgotten. But it was a high street of old wooden buildings straight out a cowboy movie. The old hotel's dining room had a long bar with a mirror behind.

Days 5 - 7

     Monday morning we called in Sutter Ridge to say thanks to John & Debbie for their incredible hospitality. We begged them to visit England and give us a chance to show them around our country. Thanks again, John & Debbie.

     We were heading for Reno, but first went to nearby Story Winery in Plymouth because I read they also made Mission wine. I had also wanted to visit Nine Gables but they weren't open.

Story Winery

     As we walked through the door of Story small tasting room a corked popped and we were invited to have a glass of 'shampane'. What a welcome! Jorgen was behind the counter and he started to pour the wines, but there was no Mission. Seems they had sold out but when he saw my disappointment he managed to get a bottle from the owners supply. And it was good.

Mission 1995
A dark red colour with dry cherry tones, enjoyably rustic. We moved outside and sat on a picnic bench under trees overlooking a valley next to a vineyard of hundred year old Mission vines, tall as a man and thick knarled like small trees and sipped the fruity tasty Mission wine.
Gnarled old Mission vine at Story      Later Jan and Bruce Trichenor, the owners, brought a bottle of Mission and insisted I take it with me - and also the opened bottle.

     We drove over the mountains, through South Lake Tahoe and reached the enormous 2500 roomed Reno Hilton Resort & Hotel where they upgraded us to a suite with a good view over snow capped mountains.

     I stuck the opened Mission bottle in an ice bucket and went straight to the business centre to book some internet time. It was imperative I find some nearby wineries but Jo had done her planning well. I consoled myself with a generous glass of the Mission which seemed to be getting even better. We had dinner in the hotel - there was a choice of eight - we chose Italian and enjoyed excellent service and wine.

     During our Reno stay we saw a jet airliner disappear in front of our eyes at a magic show in the hotel theatre, visited Virginia City and a ruined frontier fort in the desert, and found a Macaroni Grill. I'd become a regular at Macaroni Grill while working in Austin Texas in 2000 and wanted to show Jo it. We got the good herby bread, the waiter wrote his name on the table cover and we had the house 'chianti'. Only difference was the house wine came in a double magnum, not the carboy they used in Austin. I guess everything really is bigger in Texas.

Day 8

     After our interlude in Reno, where Jo's blackjack technique brought the pit-boss out and security escorted her when she collected her winnings, it was time to return to California. By afternoon we were driving up through Sonoma. The car kept wanting to turn into winery entrances but Jo was firm we should get to the hotel. After I sulked at passing so many famous name vineyards she relented and we stopped at Imagery Winery.

     I also decided I should stop just enjoying myself and start making notes. We'd been to Renwood and Montevino in Amador County and what have I to show for it (apart from a bottle of Renwood)?

Imagery Winery
Glen Ellen

     A modern styled tasting room for a winery that promised unusual varieties and artistic labels.

Cabernet Franc 1998 $27
Bright red colour with matching bright red cherry tones. Very Good.
Malbec 1999 $33
750 cases were made from Alexander Valley Fruit. Colour medium garnet with a warm nose. Bright clean flavours and tangy delicious fruit. Very Good
Barbara 1998 $31
Light coloured with hints of brown. Cherry stone flavours, and pleasant sour aftertaste. Refreshing. Good
Petite Sirah 1999 $35 14.3%
Purple red colour, restrained jammy nose which follows on palate with soft fruit flavours and a very long aftertaste. Elegant. Very Good
Zinfandel 1999 $35 15.8%
Taylor Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley
Bright red colour with soft warm spice tones, good body and mouthfill. 530 cases made from 102 year old vines. Excellent
     Within yards on the same turnoff was Arrowood Winery. A smart white wooden house surrounded by vineyards was the tasting room. My heart sunk when I saw the inflated price of the wines.

Glen Ellen

Syrah 1999 $60 14.2%
Sara Lees Vineyard - Russian River
Strong perfumed nose, very upfront with medium body and disappointingly short finish.
Syrah $55 14.2%
Sonoma Vineyards
Unfined and unfiltered
Closed nose, primary alcohol burn followed by sweet tangy fruits and long aftertaste
     I think a blend of the two would be perfect, one has good start, other has good finish.

     We had decided to stay in Santa Rosa and booked ahead at Reno. Now we were looking for the Hilton again, but this one wasn't visible for ten miles like Reno's huge pink tower. All Santa Rosa's traffic lights had failed and drivers who are usually so courteous at 4 way stops, took this as an opportunity to push their way through. So it was with relief we finally found the hotel, built into a hillside with good views over the valley. Rooms were in low blocks names after wines, we were in Burgundy and all the hotel decoration - carpets, drapes, wall fittings, featured vines and grapes. We ate on the hotels open-air veranda and enjoyed a particularly good Zinfandel - Dry Creek 2000 Heritage Clone which had intense blackberry nose and taste.

     My plan for the remaining time was

  1. Visit Phoenix Winery - maker of Pinotage
  2. Visit Steltzner Winery and J Winery and confirm whether or not they made Pinotage. I'd had several reports Steltzner did at one time, and I heard a rumour that J did.
  3. Visit some of the wineries we'd last been to in the 70s, including Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi
  4. Visit wineries in Russian River and Mendocino

     Jo wanted to spend time on the coast or anywhere there wasn't a winery.

Day 9

     We headed down route 12 towards Napa Valley.

Sterling Winery

     As we passed Sterling Winery Jo recalled our visit there Cable Car to Sterling thirty years ago and their ski lifts. So we turned around and parked. There's a ticket booth where you pay $10 for your ride up the hill and tasting. Although there were barriers for queues to wait in, we walked straight into the little cable car and were skimming above the trees with a good view down the length of Napa Valley. Sterling is built in a knoll on the valley floor. The white buildings, which take their styling from the Greek island of Mykonos, have bell towers and give a magnificent view long the length of Napa Valley. I recall this being the first gravity fed winery I had seen, a revolutionary idea back in the 60s. The tour is self guided and at the end you sit on a balcony while staff bring wines for you to taste.

Sauvignon Blanc 2000 $14 13.5%
Pale straw colour and a good varietal bouquet. Initial promising acidic flavours aren't carried through and it's a bit lacking on the finish.
Chardonnay 2000 $18 13.5%
North Coast
Flabby and nondescript.
Merlot 1999 $24 13.5%
Napa Valley
Dark red colour and metallic nose. Pleasant wine but doesn't taste of anything much. There's an alcoholic burn on the end; its quite astringent, seeming to have extracted wood tannins without ameliorating vanilla tones.
Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 $16 13.5%
Napa Valley
Classic CS nose plus some vanilla. Slightly dusty with sweet mulberry fruits and lots of tannins which dominate.
Malvasia Blanc 2001 $14 13,5%
Powerful muscat nose, medium sweet soft perfumed upfront fruit, spicy and mild tangy quite dry aftertaste


     We drove on to Steltzner on the Silverado Trail. The tasting room was at the front of a tunnel bored into a hill, which is their maturation cellars. I immediately saw bottles of Pinotage that I asked to taste. Steltzner planted Pinotage vines in the 1970's when four vine buds found their way there from New Zealand. They make about 450 cases of Pinotage annually.

1999 Pinotage Stags Leap District $26
Porty nose, rich dark colour, chewy liqueur chocolate mouthfill, long aftertaste, but a bit too porty.
1998 Pinotage Stags Leap District $14 13%
(in half bottles only) - Dark black red colour, rich and full bodied with pleasing dry middle, chocolates and violets, long aftertaste. Good


     We had earlier passed Mumm Napa Valley and as Jo has a weakness for sparkling wine we headed there for lunch. They didn't have a restaurant but recommended the nearby Rutherford Grill on highway 29 in Rutherford. A pleasant venue with a good wine list and food, but terribly slow. We wanted to be back at Mumm for their 3pm tour and missed the beginning. The tour guide was excellent. We heard her explain that Mumm Napa Valley didn't use the word Champagne for their sparkling wine, but she didn't seem very convinced and henceforth used the word all the time. The tour was taken to a few rows of vines representing those in Mumms wine, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot ("here's one you won't have heard of before") Meunier and Pinot Gris. Mumm Napa Valley use some Pinot Gris in their blend -they said Champagne in France is about to allow that in its mix.

     There was a brief pause as a winery worker warned us of a snake moving our way from under the vines. Everyone stepped back, but after he said it was harmless the tour pushed forward, cameras in hand so the man had to then protect the frightened snake from being trampled on.

     The one hour tour combined videos, one of the best explanations of Champagne making I've heard with a walk through the facility and ended in the garden under sunshades for a tasting of three half-flutes for $8

Blanc de Blancs 1997 $22
70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Gris. Pale white, biscuit nose, very light, almost ethereal. Good
Brut Prestige NV $16
51% Pinot Noir, 46%Chardonnay, 2% Pinot Meunier,1% Pinot Gris - Pale straw, more body and weight, pleasant, very long aftertaste leaving a dry mouth. Very Good

     (They told us more of this wine is sold in the UK (under the name Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ) than in the US. And it is cheaper in Oddbins UK than at the winery. Oddbins charge 10.99 GBP including all taxes. The winery must add 7.5% sales tax to $16 = 17.20. Exchange rate on my credit card purchases in California was $1.48=1, thus if I'd bought the wine at $17.20 it would cost me 11.62. And if I buy 6 bottles at Oddbins the price drops to 8.79)

Blanc de Noirs $18
85% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier - Pink colour looks nice, not much flavour, sour.

Day 10

     We had seen an item in the previous weekends San Francisco Chronicle that Benzinger Winery would be holding a wine festival so we spent the morning there. $20 bought five food and wine tickets and a special glass. First we boarded a tram pulled by a tractor for a tour of the vineyards. Benzinger practises Bio-Dynamics, based on the principles of Rudolf Steiner. At its simplest this means farming organically without the use of insecticides, herbicides and Benziger winemaker in new tunnel cellar artificial fertilisers, and this is what they spoke about. They have insectoriums - patches of flowers and weeds used to attract friendly insects that will feast on harmful insects. Steiners philosophy also means farming according to the phases of the moon but they didn't speak about that. We finished with a tour of their brand new cellars. A large tunnel had been hollowed through a vine covered hill. It was large enough for trucks and had alcoves filled already with maturing barrels. One was opened and we were poured a glass to toast the new venture.

     It was a most jolly morning, with a local restaurant providing food that matched with Benzinger wines to be eaten to the sound of a band. There were oysters to go with sauvignon blanc and tri-tip beef with cabernet sauvignon, lemony sate with pinot noir and gazpacho with chardonnay.

     At the edge of the vineyards, by the car park, was a living exhibit that had examples of different grape varieties and vine training systems. It also had the vines they use as rootstocks growing, which was a first for me to see these small leafed tight bushy vines.

     In all the excitement I failed to keep any notes of the wines I drank, but I'd but Id have no hesitation buying Benzinger wines.


     In the afternoon we headed for Ravenswood. I have been a fan of their Zinfandels for a long time, but we mostly only see the Vintners Blend and Amador County Zins in the UK.

     Ravenwoods tasting room was heaving and it was with effort that I managed to get a glass. Tasting costs $4 (redeemable against wine purchases)

I'm a fan of this variety, but this example was disappointing, being indistinct, not very floral, not acid dry, unmemorable
Zinfandel, Lodi 1999 $13.25
Bright cherry colour, sweet upfront fruit, light approachable and quaffable. Medium aftertaste
Zinfandel, Mendocino 1999 $13.75
Bright morello cherry colour, spicy nose, sweet upfront spicy fruit balanced by good acids, medium aftertaste. Good.
Zinfandel, Sonoma 1999 $15.25
Dark purple red, sweet berry nose, tangy spicy fruit with good tannins and long aftertaste, Very Good.
     The crowded tasting room wasn't very pleasant - it was much too small to cope and it was not possible to have any interaction with the harassed pourers.


     We left to head home and passed the huge Sebastiani operation. Since it was too late to visit any other wineries on our 'want to visit' list we pulled in and parked.

     The tasting room was enormous with a long bar stretching the length and lots of nick knacks to buy. We found a place and were served by a most welcoming man named George Webber. He started us with

Barbera 1997 $25
Black cherry colour, dry spices and blackcurrants. Full mouth feel, round - no rough edges. Excellent
Zinfandel, Sonoma County 2000 $15
This is a blend from Domenici Vineyards, Sonoma and Stefani Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, and there's some Carignan and Mourvedre in there. Not much nose but great mouth feel, warm sweet fruits, berries and black chocolate, tons of fruit and black chocolate with spice.
Zinfandel Domenici 1999 $24 (from 120 year old vines)
Jo didn't like the farmyard smell or taste of this, so we called George over and asked him. He opened another bottle, which tasted the same. He said it was very bretty and opened a bottle of Old Vines .
Zinfandel Old Vines, Sonoma Valley Appellation Selection, 1999 $22
Good red colour, sweet full fruit with some spice.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cherry Block 1999 $70
(From vines planted in 1917 in rich red volcanic soil. Very dark black colour, not much nose, soft rounded flavours and bags of soft fruits restrained by mild tannins. Very Good
     We really enjoyed our visit to Sebastiani - a place we visited by serendipity. Our host, George Webber really knew his wines and what's more had composed songs about them, which he sang acappella to the applause of visitors. What really impressed me is that his Zinfandel song not only includes the latest DNA research about its origins but also had a rhyme for its Croatian parent - all together now - CROLL - JEN - IC!!!

Day 11

     A day away from wine. We headed for the coast, aiming to visit Fort Ross. But knowledge is power, and I had planned a route that passed Topolos winery, maker of a stunning Alicante Bouschet I'd been given last year in London.

Topolos Winery
Russian River

     We were the first callers when they opened and were warmly welcomed. Topolos make a range of wines and are strong in Zinfandels but I wanted to taste some of the less usual varieties.

Charbono 1998 $15
Sweet nose, rustic chianti like galumphing peasant wine, mouthfilling big wine with sweet fruits and good balance. Good.
Valdiguie 1999 $15
Light red colour, light very sweet cherry fruits with satisfying dry aftertaste
Alicante Bouschet 1999 $15
Smoky nose, complex rich fruits, bacon fat, sweet fruits balanced by tannins and good acids. A wine for long keeping - if you can resist drinking it now.
Carignane, Sonoma County, 1999 $12
Unfined, unfiltered, old vines. Only 336 cases made. This was in the bin ends. We bought a bottle to have with dinner that night - having found our local steak house, Hunters, welcomed bring your own.

Even after being in the car all day it was bright and clear. Very high sweet cherry tones, incredibly drinkable and welcoming - it just slid down. Perhaps a little more body would improve it but it made a great partner for steak.

     Fort Ross Fort Ross is the site of a fort/trading post built by the Russian-American Company, just north of the mouth of the Russian River. Hunters from Russian Alaska came looking for the sea otter, and also with the intention of growing wheat to be shipped back to Alaska. Only one original building still stands but the stockade and a number of other buildings have been reconstructed. It's on a small spit of land between two bays. A visitor brought in an obsidian arrowhead he'd found on the beach below the fort. As with most US state and national parks it had a first rate interpretation centre, and a lady in period costume talked about the fort and passed around pelts, native harpoons and other items.

     We stopped at the mouth of the Russian River to explore its beach and watch seals sunning and playing in the waters.

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1 February 2003