My good friend, DR, married his love, L, last weekend. Despite the fact that the couple lives only a few blocks from us here in NYC, they decided a California wedding was in order (L is from the SF area). D and I flew out for the affair and added some wine tasting, visitations of friends and relatives, camping, mud baths and canoeing into the mix– not to mention some delicious food– nothing too extravagant.
We started the journey in San Francisco with one of my best of friends, A. I met A when I met DR and we’ve remained close through the years. I’ve travelled to Egypt and Lebanon with her and then she up and left me for grad school way out west. Such is life.
D and I arrived with visions of tacos on our mind. Instead, A had a feast of lentils prepared. All I could think of was D and his “weird girly mush” qualms. We ate the mush, which was truly delicious mush, then headed out to Baker Beach, up a 5-story (if not longer) sand ladder and took in the views. Later that night we met up with some folks at a local Mission district bookstore that is BYO as you browse (nothing like a little beer to loosen up your purchasing decisions). Post-book buying we grew hungry for tacos and ended at the sun-bright venue, Cancun, along Mission (convenient since A lives steps away).
I got a carnitas (slow cooked pork) super taco (super comes with sour cream and avocado slices). There is something about California Mexican food. It is too delicious. Is it their seasoning? Maybe it is the freshness of the ingredients, the closeness to home? Maybe it’s the water? The tacos out there are definitely good. Downed with a Pacifico and lime– A perfect end to the night.
The next morning we headed south along a fog heavy Highway 1 towards the vineyards of SCM– otherwise known as Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation. Turning off Highway 1, we headed down windy mountain roads and made our first stop of the day at Bonny Doon. Their wines are fun, interesting, and best of all, affordable. Highlight was the Monferrato, a blend of ruche, barbera and syrah. It had an intense rose petal nose, was round and fruity and a good price to boot. We bought a few bottles and headed to Hallcrest Vineyard and then to David Bruce (closed for restocking).
After driving those crazy roads we were ready to relax (at least our stomachs were). D and I headed out to meet my grandma, aunt and uncle for some beers at a local pub in Santa Cruz that brews their own. On to Marieanne’s for some of their top notch homemade ice cream after that. I tried the horchata ice cream (horchata is a cinnamon infused Mexican rice drink), but went with a scoop of Mexican Chocolate, also chock full of cinnamon. We slept happy with all that wine, beer and ice cream in our bellies…
Breakfast Latvian style was in order the following day. My grandmother whipped out her fresh apricot jam for her special apple pancakes and everyone dug in. These pancakes are everyday breakfast pancakes, slightly sweeter and with a little more elasticity than your regular American fare. The recipe lives in my grandmother’s head, she tastes as she goes until the recipe is “just right,” only she really knows.
My uncle happily showed off his garden, especially his “smart worms” who are on their way “to college” in Santa Cruz, but SCU apparently keeps killing his worms there and he keeps giving them more. We headed up his backyard hill and battled with the dogs as we picked and ate blackberries, warm and sweet, right off the bush. But the morning ended as we were on our way to a sunset wedding. A beautiful affair, but still, D and I had wine on our minds…
A few days later D and I departed the SF area, north on Highway 1, to our campground along the Russian River, just past Korbel. That night, we hit Gary Farrel, Davis Bynum, Belvedere and Rochioli. The two times we passed by my buddies at Arista they were closed. Arista makes a great pinot with some tobacco and wet leather in there. I was excited to stop by and check out their facility, but I guess that will have to happen next time. Rochioli and Farrel were disappointments, especially after all the accolades we’ve heard. I suppose Rochioli is more for their club members and they are not pouring their tasty bottles for passerbyers– why bother when you have a 7 year wait list for regular members? What they were pouring seemed to scream “members only.” Despite all this, Farrel did have the best tasting room views of the week.
Belvedere took great joy in their visitors. With Jazz on Saturdays, comfortable outdoor space, a down-to-earth demeanor, and heavy pours, they really welcome guests. Their Alexander Valley Sauv-Blanc was tropical and fun. Their Russian River Chardonnay had a great gravel nose with hints of oak.
At Davis Bynum we passed up the freebies for a flight of their pinot noirs. Highly enjoyable and each one grew more complex with deeper nose characteristics as the tasting progressed.
July 4th we made our first stop at Simi. Our friend M turned us on to the joy of Simi just over a year ago with a bottle of their Chardonnay and we have happily consumed more wine than we can afford from that day forward. It was then that we realized that not all California Chardonnays oaked so much that they produce a gag reflex. Simi is thick caramel on the nose, honeysuckle on the tongue, and pure joy all around. With that, we passed the freebie tasting and headed for a flight of their delicious Chardonnay.
From there, a surprisingly empty Ridge in Dry Creek Valley found our company. This didn’t stop us from diving right into their Zinfandels. The Lytton Springs was big and fruity and full of delicious berry complexity. I’m still a fan of their 3 Valley, but if I’m in the mood to put down some money, I’ll definitely spring for some of their higher priced bottles. I’m also on the lookout for their Ponzo, not on the tasting, but at a reasonable price, I’d be willing to try it. There Zins are solid and a great pairing for BBQ (or just a good steak).
We swung south on our journey into Napa and received a pleasant surprise and friendly welcome at Alexander Valley Vineyards. So much so that D and I are considering joining up as members (though I still feel vineyard membership is only worth it if you live in California or have the money to really spend on wine). Regardless, their Zins are delicious in taste and name. We especially enjoyed their Sin Zin and the Redemption Zin. The Cyrus blend also won us over. We polished off their Redemption with filet mignon over our campfire grill that night. True heaven.
We entered Napa more than overwhelmed at the Disneyfication of it all. Especially having come from the quieter off the road locations of the day before. Even on the off day (July 4th) with less people, we were still struck by the gaudiness of all the vineyards along Route 29. We attempted to stick to offroads as much as possible (but found most of the vineyards closed).
We finally swung into the organic and biodynamic Grgich Hills. A stellar panel of Chardonnays. I was pleasantly surprised with their Fume Blanc, a term Cali growers coined out of peoples’ negative reaction to Sauv-Blanc. When I see Fume I usually turn around running, but our tasting guide assured us this one was a winner. It was. Slightly oaked, it had a powerful grapefruit aspect that was totally mindblowing, without getting in the way. Their Old Vine Zin was great, stick anything with “Old Vine” in front of me and I’ll probably swoon. Winner of the day was the 2000 Cab Sauv. Complex, full and fruity. Compared to the 2003 we tasted first, you can really tell these wines want aging, even their Chardonnay.
We blew threw Mondavi just to get a look at a mega-producer and ran screaming.
Next stop, Peju, if only because our newlywed friends are members. I felt the atmosphere to be a little industrial, them carting us around in groups, but D said he didn’t mind it and half expected and appreciated it to keep order in the Napa craziness. The most interesting taste was their Provence, a red and white blend. Not a rose, but red wine actually blended with white wine. Different and fun and a good summer drink decision maker of the old, “oh, I can’t decide, red or white?”
We barely dragged ourselves into Stag’s Leap from there. A disappointment after all our friendly tasters of the day to be met with one tracking the last minutes of the day on his watch and busy scoring points on two drunk girls next to us. He was too busy working them over to really care to answer our questions. A horrible ending with a high price tag at $15 for a tasting. I wanted to enjoy their wines, but just couldn’t.
It’s amazing to to see that one negative part of a tasting room experience can really set you off from a wine. Have a great experience and heck, become members of the vineyard.
Vineyards we attempted to visit that were closed: Davis Family, Fritz, Jordan, Pride, Frank Family. All will have to happen in the next tour.
We spent our last day in true California style with a 10 mile canoe adventure down the Russian River, a quick visit and purchase at Korbel, a late lunch (with “champagne”) in the Redwoods and then mudbaths and massages in Calistoga.
A winey good time was had and we will definitely make it back for more, hopefully in the near future. How can you not when that California climate is all too perfect?