From the redwoods we worked our way down to Cloverdale, California, which sits along the Russian River and is a great base for exploring the wine counties of Alexander, Russian and Dry Creek Valleys all located in Sonoma County. Which we did. Along with a couple of other more educational adventures.As well as a few forays into Napa…
The Wine Road is an association of some 200 wineries and 50 lodgings in the three afore-mentioned valleys that stretches from Cloverdale in the north to Sebastopol in the south. Located an hour away from San Francisco, it is an easy day drive and a fulfilling week-end jaunt. I know very little about wine other than what my palette enjoys, and, as Jan frequently says, the difference between her tastes and mine is that she likes quality and I go for quantity. With a bow to the area I put my “cultured” hat on and forewent quantity for a more dignified nose-sniffing, liquid-swirling approach to the whole process.
As a short aside, my parents when they retired from Geneva, Switzerland, bought a piece of property in the Landes in southwest France.
There were some 40 acres to the land with a forest, corn fields and a small working vineyard. My parents worked hard at taming the land and the buildings and eventually created a delightful little “farm” with paths through the woods, a great vegetable garden, flowers throughout the property, the first swimming pool in the region, and with the help of the local farmers a not so shabby vineyard. We grew a melange of cabernet sauvignon grapes that came from the north (Bordeaux) and also from Italy. My mother called it Jungle Juice and rarely drank it, preferring just about anything else that had a label on it that was not designed by my father. On the other hand, my father, whose quest in life was to find the best cheap wine in France and thereby served some really bad stuff over the years, my brothers and eventually my sons and nephews all loved Chateaux Rawson and when visiting there made daily trips to the COOP to refill the wine cellar and to chat with the locals who were filling everything from bottles to Jerry cans with the stuff. We paid something like a nickel for the bottles and that was it – and we never could drink more in a year than we made – it wasn’t possible. We brought cases of it back with us after trips there, and while we did share some of it at dinner parties, it just didn’t quite taste the same. Hmmm. Quantity vs quality. I think everyone still has a few bottles in their wine cellars, but they are more for show and less for drinking these days.
Obviously we couldn’t hit all 200 wineries along the Wine Road, but there were several that we did get to, some renown and a few not so well known. Right near where we were staying in Cloverdale are two pretty well-known wineries. Francis Ford Coppola Winery is located in Geyserville in the northern part of Sonoma County, located just off Highway 101 and nestled into a hillside with a huge chateaux type main building housing the restaurant, shops and rooms. Outside is a beautiful pool area with cabanas and umbrellas dotting the gorgeous landscape.
Just down the street is the Clos du Bois Winery. One commonality about all of these places is the gorgeous grounds that the wineries are located on. Not only do the wineries make great wine but they all to a fault incorporate the surrounding landscape into the vibe they are trying to give off. And they are very good at it; the grounds are as much of the culture as the wine they produce. Frank Woods was the original producer at Clos du Bois, returning to California after an extensive tour of France’s wine regions and making his first bottle of California chardonnay in 1974. The winery now has some 800 acres of wines in Sonoma County and neighboring Coastal California.
Kendall-Jackson Winery, located just outside of Windsor along Highway 101, was founded in 1982 by Jess Jackson and his then wife Jane Kendall Wadlow Jackson. In the short three decades since then Kendall-Jackson has become a world-wide entity with vineyards in South America, Europe, South Africa and Australia in addition to the over 12,000 acres it owns in California. The head offices in Santa Rosa combine the vineyards, a sustainable garden that provides almost all the food for the restaurant and wine-pairings, and acres of world-class horse breeding and training of thoroughbreds.
Not far from Kendall-Jackson, not that any of these wineries are far from each other, is Sonoma-Cutrer, located in the heart of the Russian River Valley. The estate comprises some 450 acres of which 250 is dedicated to vineyards. Five other estates make up the balance of the grapes used to make Sonoma-Cutrer, all privately owned by the vineyard. Reknown for its chardonnays, Cutrer also is famous for its Pinot Noir. The immaculate grounds around the wine-tasting area showcases a beautiful patio and three exquisite croquet courts. Pretty neat stuff.
I have a very old friend, George Black, who gave me my first job out of college back in 1969 in Denver and who just moved to Auburn, a suburb outside of Sacramento in the Sierras. George left the garment industry shortly after we met and dedicated his life to the Lutheran Ministry and to his family. He moved often from church to church until finally retiring and relocating to California where two of his and his wife Julie’s children live. I had followed him on Facebook for years and it was great to meet up with him and Julie in Yountville, a small town in Napa. We had a delightful lunch and spent several hours reminiscing about the old days and bringing each other up to date on our past and current lives. We’ll see them again.
To get to Yountville from Cloverdale you go down Route 128 through the Alexander Valley and into Napa County. Along the way you pass the vineyards, among others, of Stryker Sonoma, Soda Rock, and Alexander Valley Vineyards until you wend your way into Napa. That day the early morning mist was just rising off the gentle rolling hills of Alexander Valley making for a very pretty photo and that would give way to vineyards basking in the full glory of the mid-day sun.
Obviously Napa is home to hundreds of vineyards but we were kind of held up by time and we only managed to hit three of the vineyards, two very well known ones and a third that was a little gem we just happened to stop at.
Robert Mondavi Vineyards in Oakville began in 1966 as an alternative to french-made wines. Concentrating on Cabernet Sauvignons at first, Mondavi soon became known for his excellent reds and subsequent Fumé Blancs, his variation on Sauvignon Blanc. He legitimized his reputation when he entered into a joint venture with the Rothschild family with a wine called Opus One, and has since expanded the Mondavi Winery reach to many parts of the world. Dedicated to environmental responsibility, the Mondavi Vineyards began natural farming in the early 1970’s, concentrating on such topics as water conservation, quality improvement, cover cropping, erosion control and soil maintenance. Despite a couple of quality setbacks over the years, Mondavi is generally regarded as the pioneer of bringing fine winemaking to the United States and making Napa and Sonoma very viable alternatives to the famous vineyards of France.
Along Highway 128 we passed a sign for Italian Pinot Grigio, at a vineyard called Beneserre that makes Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, an earthy red grape originally found in the Tuscan area of central Italy.
More of a boutique vineyard, we drove through the vineyards to the main house, noticeably more sedate in appearance than its more famous neighbors and had a delightful glass of cold Pinot Grigio and some Sangiovese. The host was delightful, a lot more laid back than his counterparts at the bigger wineries, but nevertheless less still very knowledgeable. Their Pinot Grigio is better than Santa Margherita which has been our favorite over the years and it is readily accessible through their website. http://www.benesserevineyards.com/Wines
Jan and I were in Mesquite, Nevada several years back, actually quite a few years back, staying at the Casablanca Hotel and playing a couple of rounds of golf. Only an hour from Las Vegas, we decided after one of our rounds to go into Vegas and eat at the Bellagio at a restaurant called Olives which I had first gone to in Boston with my sister Martha, since closed in Boston but still open in Vegas. We were a little sweaty from our round of golf in the desert, and when we asked for a reservation at the restaurant, we were haughtily told that there would be no table available until 11:30 that evening, but that we could take our chance at the walk-in restaurant/bar overlooking the fountains. That sounded better anyway and Jan had never seen the fountains dancing to the operatic melody of Pavarotti singing in the Nevada night. The bartender was very nice and when we asked for chardonnays he said he had a great one and would be right back. He was right – the wine was delicious.We had a couple of finger appetizers, a couple more glasses of wine and a dessert flight of little pies, parts, chocolates etc. Meanwhile we went out on the balcony several times to listen to Pavarotti which brought tears to Jan’s eyes and a warm sense of foreboding to me…So, anyway, the bill came and was right around $200 which kind of, no, really surprised us. Granted we hadn’t really checked prices but 5 glasses of wine, a couple of appetizers and a dessert flight didn’t really seem to have to add up to $200. I checked the wine and it was $95.00. $19.00 a glass. Jesus. Me in my quantity vs quality world does not pay $19.00 for a bottle much less a glass and I asked the waiter what the hell we had drunk. Welcome to Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay which has become our special treat wine. QUALITY.
Cakebread Cellars is located right on Route 128 in Rutherford ,California in Napa County. Started in 1972 with a small field of Sauvignon Blanc, Cakebread two years later harvested its first 150 cases of Chardonnay and has since gone on to produce award winning Carbernets and Pinot Noirs as well as the continued excellence of its Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. They have expanded since that first 22 acre purchase to include 15 farms totaling over 960 acres of which some 550 acres are currently in use producing over 75,000 cases of wine per year. A few more than we produced on our little farm in France. Cakebread is a family business, much as a lot of the wineries are here in Napa and Sonoma, and the attention to detail, community and fellowship makes it one of the more desired places to work in the valley. Our favorite treat.
Jan had a colleague with whom she had worked with over the years, but had never met face to face. When she told me we were going to meet this person I was a little dubious because I have never had a friend that I had never met. Just seemed weird to me. But, Cyndi Jung, who lives in Healdsburg about 20 minutes from where we were staying, quickly became a great friend minutes after meeting. We hooked up for dinner at KinSmoke, a BBQ place in Healdsburg, a non-pretentious place with outstanding Bbq and a great vibe.
It’s not often that you meet people who quickly become what seems to be old friends instantly, someone you feel you have actually known for years. I think we connected with Cyndi that way. She invited us for dinner the following week at her house where we had a delicious dinner of roasted halibut with a romesco sauce, cauliflower au gratin, asparagus and a delicious salad chased with some good wine! The desert was a pear-walnut upside-down cake that was to die for and that and the halibut recipe will be in a future blog. Cyndi lives in this great house in Healdsburg with her two cats and among other things, probably over 200 cookbooks. Another foodie! A lot of “in-common” here! I was looking over a cookbook called All About Braising by Molly Stevens and Cyndi said that she had made a great recipe from it. I love short ribs, bone-in, bone-out, braised, sautéed, grilled, any way you can dream them up. But this one is special. A labor of love but well worth it. Serve it with mashed potatoes and perhaps a side of red beets. You will enjoy!