Sunday, February 28, 2010

Adventures in San Fran: Napa Valley

As much as we loved San Francisco, our favorite day of the whole trip was our excursion to Napa Valley. It's absolutely beautiful and relatively quiet in the off-season; no grapes on the vines but still lots of green hills and lush meadows that reminded me of the label on a Hidden Valley bottle.

Although we didn't plan it this way, our winery visits got more and more casual as we went along. We started with a scheduled tasting and tour, another scheduled tasting, and then two on-the-fly stand-at-a-bar visits. This worked really well, we got to learn a lot while we were still sober and yet we tasted over 16 wines that day!

We started at a tour of Schramsberg, America's first house of sparkling wine. To get there, you have to drive up a very narrow driveway up a hill for maybe a half a mile or so. A decorative mesh wine bottle serves as a great landmark for when you get there.The tour guide started by telling us the history of the winery, which was actually a really interesting story. In 1862, a man named Jacob Schram came from Germany to buy a piece of land in Napa. He hired Chinese laborers to hand dig Napa's first hillside caves; they were expanded a few times over the years and now stand at a few miles long. As the vineyard began to prosper, he hired a shipbuilder to create a beautiful Victorian house made entirely from pegs and rope, no nails; the house still stands today. The wineries changed hands a few times over the decades until the current owners, the Davies, bought the land in 1965. In 1972, a surprise: the Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc is served as the "Toast of Peace" hosted by Richard Nixon to the Chinese Premier Chou En-lay, the first American wine ever to be served at a White House event.

After this story (no tour of the Victorian house, unfortunately), we went into the caves to see miles upon miles of aging bottles. We saw winemakers take part in the riddling process, which involves a lot of banging the bottles around to get the sediment to settle before freezing it and shooting out the frozen extra yeast. It's quite a process. Apparently, Schramsberg is one of the few places to continue to do this by hand.

I wish we could have wandered around the caves more, but when we were rushed to the tasting table I didn't complain. The eight or so of us sat around a private table and were introduced to the following wines:

1) Blanc de Blancs ($36) -- Light and bubbly, reminiscent of a granny smith apple.
2) J. Schram ($100) -- This one had a heavier, creamier finish with a strong yeasty taste.
3) Brut Rose 2006 ($41) -- 68% pinot, 32% champagne. No one seemed to like this as much as the others, we agreed that it wasn't just the dryness but the lack of a finish.
4) Reserve 2002 ($100) -- This 75% pinot, 25% chardonnay mix smelled a little too much like the ocean for me.
5) J. Davies ($75) -- This only red wine of the tasting was our favorite. It was spicy and fruity, with a berry nose and elegant, oaky finish. In spite of all the bright smells, it wasn't sweet at all.
6) Cremant Demi-Sec ($38) -- The very lightly carbonated, slightly syruppy dessert wine. It had a nice acidity that the tourguide promised would be good with cheese, creme brulee, or even spicy non-dessert foods like curries.

Even though we felt a little rushed through the whole tour, this experience was really amazing. Walking through the caves, hearing about the vineyard's history, watching the winemakers in action gave the visit a depth we didn't get to experience elsewhere. Definitely recommended to anyone visiting Napa!

Schramsberg Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Road
Calistoga, CA 94515

Next, we headed down to a "mystery vineyard" that Rob wouldn't tell me about until we got there. We had to drive up a very scenic mountain until we reached Viader. I had no idea what wine I had from this place until Rob reminded me of the DARE Cabernet Franc we had at Anissa for our anniversary back in 2008. This is what I said about it then:

"The waitress brought us a bottle of Dare -- 2004 Cabernet Franc. "Dare" I say this was the best wine either of us has ever had? Rob doesn't even like to drink during his meals and he couldn't get his hand off his glass. "


How could I have forgotten?

We were lead outside to a private table overlooking the vines growing on an incredibly steep hill that slopes down to a small lake. Unfortunately, they were out of the cabernet franc that day, but we got to try a few other kinds and all of them were amazing, rich, velvety reds. It was so cool to sit and sip right where these wines are created, instead of conjuring up loose images of a faraway California.
In addition to the lower priced Dare dry rose and tempranillo, we had these three amazing wines:

1) Viader Syrah ($50) -- A blend of estate grown Australian Shiraz and Rhone Valley "clones". Fermented with stems, skins and all for a unique, meaty funk. Fantastic.
2) Viader "V" ($125) -- This was hands down our favorite. It's a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon that differs every year to "best express the character and nature of the Viader Estate." It's things like this that make small vineyards worth visiting. It hade a wonderful mocha/cocoa finish that paired exquisitely with the espresso and almond chocolates we were given. You can bet we asked for more of this one.

3) Vider ($100) -- A blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. An "elegant structure" and "violet-like aromatics" result in what our host called "liquid cashmere". Really smooth with a deceiving deep, dark smell -- the taste is actually much lighter.
On our way out, I bonded with Cody, the vineyard dog. Most vineyards have a token dog or cat, but no one had anything on sweet, mellow Cody.

Viader Winery
1120 Deer Park Road
Deer Park, CA 94576
(707) 963-3816 ext. 103

Next, we headed down the hill for the Plumpjack Winery. This was much less exciting than Schamsberg or Viader; we just headed in, stood at the bar with a few other people, and tasted a few reds. I didn't write any notes since they didn't even sort of compare to what we just had at Viader. The room was also overly gift shoppy. But it was nice to show up and have a quick tasting considering we didn't make reservations here.

Plumpjack Winery
620 Oakville Cross Road
Napa Valley, CA 94558

By now it was getting to be close to 5pm, when lots of wineries call it a day. We tried to hit up a few different places (all closed) until we found Hill Family Estate in Yountville, just down the street from the French Laundry. It was a cute little place inside an antique store; only one other couple lingered by the time we showed up. The bartender poured us a few different wines, none that we were too crazy about until we had the dessert wine. We normally aren't dessert wine people, but this had just the right amount of thickness and sweetness that we finally bought our first (and only) bottle of the day. It wasn't until later we realized we'd have to pay extra to check our luggage, so it became the breakfast of champions in our hotel room the next morning.

Hill Family Estate
6512 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Our dusk-time drive from Napa back to San Francisco was quiet and intoxicating. It was hard to take in the great sights and tastes of the day as the sun set slower than it ever has on the East coast. I felt slightly dizzy from all the wine.

I wish every day could be that amazing.

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