Napa Sonoma Trip report (long post)

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Senior Member
Dec 24, 2005
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Well it’s been some time since I’ve written on here, so I thought I would stop by and say hi. Maybe even share some of my recent experiences with everyone. Every year I take a trip to the Napa Sonoma California area to taste and pick up some high quality wines. Since I live in Utah, I do not have an excellent variety of wines due to the fact that the liquor and wine is controlled and sold uniquely by the state. So unless one has the same palate as the State purchasers, then one must find other means to procure fine wines.

In the past, I have found various ways to do this. One of them was to make my own. I have continued to do so, but still find that the variety and experience of finding and tasting wines to be very pleasurable. This year, I took my annual trip to Sonoma and started touring through several wine tasting rooms. By my side was my beautiful girlfriend Sandy, faithful lab Jessie, and the runt: my girlfriend’s pomeranian Paris. The following will be some of my highlights and lowlights….

I typically begin this trip by towing a travel trailer down there. I find that I can change venue and see much more of the countryside. Not to mention, I save many pretty pennies on accommodations; more to spend on wine of course. Since last years trip started with a huge accident where I totaled my trailer, this year I spent even more time (and money) preparing to avoid any type of mishap. I finally got everything ready and hit the road.
I planned to stay in a campground just outside of Sonoma/Napa area in a city called Petaluma. Just to clarify for those unfamiliar. Napa is a specific region in California that is world reknown for growing wine grapes (which I’m sure we’ve all heard of). Sonoma is the city next to Napa. There are also several other wineries that are located in ‘Sonoma County’, which is about 20 minutes from Napa. Once you get out of the center of these areas one will find the countryside littered with other wineries from small mom and pop barns, to more industrious wineries utilizing amazing vineyard techniques and classy architecturally designed buildings.
I started my tour in Napa. Now while what I’m about to say may sound a bit disparaging, everyone has to see Napa at least once. Then you can go spend your money at vineyards with higher quality wine and less pretentious people. For this trip I had a mission; I had to visit Silverado Winery. Silverado is owned by a biological daughter of Walt Disney. It’s located in the northern part of Napa, and is atop a beautiful hill with flowing vineyards and a small house that can be seen through a thicket of trees.

The tasting room host who assisted us was great. She walked us out to the patio and pointed out all the interesting views of this vineyard and gave us some history. It was apparent that we were a minor percentage that knew the history of the owners and their tie with Walt Disney. The thing that really struck me as odd as there was no Disney photos or memorabilia, save one poster right in the entrance. The tasting room assistant told us about how Lilly was the name of Walt Disney’s wife (if I recall right) and that she loved Lilly Flowers. As she said this, I noticed that the place was practically crawling with Lilies. Chairs, walls, and flower gardens were adorned with Lilies.

So we tasted the wine. It’s always hard to know what to expect from such large vineyards, especially when they are the first of the season to be ‘tasted’. Now I used ‘tasted’ uniquely here, because I taste and drink wine all the time. But it is something different to drink in the wine where it is grown, around the people who season the wine with their life. To hear the descriptions and take in the ambiance with the terrior is much more of an experience for me.

The whites were great. They were clean, crisp, fruity, and everything I would expect a good winery to be. I picked up three of the whites. As I
moved to the red, I found one I really enjoyed and got two. Now I wish I could be more descriptive here, but I really should make better notes. But that is part of the fun, when I taste the bottles at home two, three or six months later it takes me back to the tasting room and I get to experience that great trip yet again. I finished tasting at Silverado, and paid my $15 fee to taste, plus the other $140 on wines that I bought. It was a bit of a steep tab for me and should have known I was setting a tone for the rest of my trip.

After Silverado, I moved down the street to the next Vineyard. It was nice, too, and beautiful, too, and unfortunately, expensive… too. Three Wineries later, I knew I had given enough for the day and decided to retire. I also knew I started in the most costly part of California wine country, Napa. The Next day I would visit Sonoma and some of the more reasonably priced and less pretentious wineries.

The next day came and I was eager to wake up. I spent the first half day, working on a nice breakfast and my coffee. I know from experience, one shouldn’t hurry to wine tasting or they will be in bed by afternoon. I moved down through the Sonoma area. I found their tasting rooms more agreeable with my friendly vacationing personality, and my wallet. Tastings cost anywhere from $5 to $10 dollars. Typically, these wineries will also credit that cost towards a bottle of their wine if you decide to buy. Not a bad deal in my opinion and it also prevents them from pouring free wine all day to tourists who never intend to buy.

I found several good wineries that day, and then the next day moved up to Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg, an area I had never explored. Healdsburg is about 30 minutes north of Sonoma and a great area. I was happy to find that many of the tasting rooms did not charge a fee and had equally, if not better wines than I had tried so far. Another thing I lucked into was it was the middle of the week, tourists had gone home, and wineries were a little slower. I was lavished with attention, and when they learned I was somewhat well versed with wine I was treated even better. A great treat was that I ran into the winemakers at 4 or 5 wineries. This is something I had not experienced before.

I was happy to find them open and communicative. They each were as different as anyone could imagine. One was ‘ the scientist’ and talked about free radicals and free SO2. I talked with another who was ‘the artist’, he referred to his wines as children and talked about how he guided them into adulthood. Others would answer questions, until I started asking about yeast strains and then they would hold their cards close to their vest. Other’s grabbed industry catalogs and showed me how to order 100 lbs of yeast myself!

Of all the winemakers, I learned a few odds and ends. A few of the things I believe will stay with me is that temperature of fermenting wines is a substantial issue. I also learned that anything less than 500 gallons can have the temperature controlled by environment (turning the heat up, or AC down in the fermenting room). For quantities over 500 gallons they needed cooling tanks that used glycol. I also learned that some sneaky winemakers use glycol to up the mouthfeel and alcohol of wines. Though, they only “knew of others” and had never done this themselves.

Something else that seemed commonplace was barrel fermenting. They almost all had practiced this. They would split wines into stainless steel tanks and the rest into French Oak Barrels. When I questioned about use of oak, I was told, ‘America, French, Hungarian, and a few others’. When I looked confused with one winemaker, he got real excited, and ran to the back. He returned with a red wine glass completely full that was foaming at the top. He stated proudly, this was his 2006 Syrah. We had tasted his 2005 as everyone else does, but we got him into the conversation enough he wanted to showcase his talents. He placed the two wines back to back: 2005 vs. 2006. One was French oak, the other was American. This turned a whole other topic about degassing. What I found was because they ferment and oak for so long, that gas is a nonissue to them. What I learned about the oak, was very subtle. American had a bit of a rougher taste, and the French a bit smoother. I could see why if a wine was not as tannic, one might use American, and if a wine had a touch of spice, maybe French oak would be more appropriate. In fact, later through the trip a wine-maker I talked with had the same wine, same year, same everything except different oak. The American, again, was more tannic, and the French notably less so. I personally preferred the American, while my girlfriend preferred the French oak.

I was also told that topping of barrels needs to happen every 3-4 weeks minimum. They need to be resulphited often (2-3 months). They told me they test for free sulphites and this is important and explained how they do so. Unfortunately, this was lost on me as I don’t plan t buy the equipment to test this. Though, I imagine the tests we can purchase through George should adequately keep us in the ballpark.

Something else I found interesting about barrels is that wine makers use them primarily for microoxygenation. The flavor that is put in by this process is even more important than the mouthfeel or spice, vanilla, or coffee flavors that can come from barrels.

All in all, the trip was a great success. I found several impressive wineries, and a few new favorites. Since I’m talking about them, I’ll mention a few to watch. One of my all time favorites is Cline. They offer a great Cool Climate Syrah. It seems that there are a lot of areas that don’t have the heat to grow grapes such as Merlot or Cab Sav, so they have moved to Pinots and Syrahs with great success. They typically have two different types, the regular Syrah, and the Cool Climate. I’ve noted that this years Cline Syrah is spicy, and the Cool Climate has a good mouthfeel, with berry tones, and a little spice; this is a very chewy wine. Not to mention it is ridiculously low priced (less than $20 a bottle).

The staff at Cline are super nice. The family who owns Cline actually opened up a sister winery that features Italian varieties across the street. Since I love Italian varietals personally, I made a special trip across the street to try some. As I was trying, I was informed by the wine taster that the person standing next to me was the head winemaker for Cline and Jacuzzi! I was elated; it was like personally standing next to a rock star for me. He was very nice and answered my questions. Though, he was busy and couldn’t stay too long. We spoke for a minute about fermenting temperatures. He stated he felt the most important improvement most wines can receive is by watching the fermenting temperatures. He said this will most affect flavor, fruit forward, and mouthfeel. (of course he noted one must have good grapes to begin with). I asked what temperature he ferments at, he told me 80*F. This seems a touch high to me, but without knowing what type of yeast he was using, I guess I really can’t say. Perhaps next year, I’ll run into him again and be able to ask him a few more questions on that….

The second vineyard/winery that I feel must be mentioned is one that I just happened across while traveling down Dry Creek Road, north of Sonoma. The winery is called Unti. They grow their own grapes. We walked in as they were getting ready to close for the day, but a friendly tasting room female/office worker, invited us in for a taste. We started with a white, which was fine. We moved to a rose’ which I thought was good, given it was a rose. And you have to realize, I don’t drink Rose wines, so for me to say I thought it was good is a huge compliment. Next we moved to a Sangiovese. Oh my! What a wine. I immediately began asking the tasting room host where they distribute to and if they ship. The Sangiovese was incredible. It was relatively low priced (under 30, as I recall). Our host explained, they do not advertise or distribute but to a few states. They have never needed to. The host, explained they had one other wine they were tasting called a Syrah.

I had her pour us a taste and it was better than the Sangiovese. I recall looking at my girlfriend and commenting that I just had sex in my mouth it was so good! She tasted it and agreed. The host told us how they had another wine they were not tasting as they only had two cases left. She thought we would really enjoy it too. Our host said a person came in a few weeks ago and tried it, and liked it so much they wrote a letter to the New York Times. The New York Times requested a bottle and liked it so much they featured it in their paper. Our host said since then the wine has sold every bit but the last two cases. I had to buy a bottle but have not yet tried it. I figure I’ll wait for an occasion to open it, or make up an excuse and open it J.

The unfortunate thing when I hypothetically bring wine back to Utah (as that could be illegal) is that due to the elevation change you have to allow the bottle to rest prior to opening it to prevent bottle shock. In fact, I have always practiced not opening the bottle for a month just for this reason. This year, I got a little excited and the day I got back, couldn’t help but bragging a little so I visited a friend and his girlfriend at their home. I brought a bottle of Cline Cool Climate Syrah with me to impress them. They typically have impressive palates and can tell a good bottle of wine. I opened the bottle poured a modest amount into four glasses and swirled them vigorously to help open the wine up. They tasted the wine and commented, “This is pretty good.” “Pretty good?”, I asked myself. “pretty good, are they crazy! Only pretty good? Not pretty damn good!” I was almost insulted from the low comment on the wine, one of my favorites. I began to wonder; maybe we had a bad bottle. I swished my glass a little and took in the aroma. Hmmmm. Not what I expected. It was as if it was muted, like someone had turned a great Van Morrison song and turned it from full blast to barely hearable. Next I sipped it. Ehhh, it was ok. Not cork tainted, kind of fruity, and a little bit of spice. I had to agree with their assessment of the wine. Though, this was not how this wine tasted in the tasting room and I am completely confident after it lays down for a month it will open back up and come to life. I explained the bottle shock phenomena to them and asked that they try to remember this taste, so that I can return in a month or so and have them retry another bottle. I have no doubt next time they will have much higher praise for it, as will I.

This was also a great lesson for me. If I was one who would ship wine to competitions, I would recommend doing so much earlier in order to let the wine rest and be all it can be (to steal from Uncle Sam a little).
Well it was a great trip and I feel like I gained some good knowledge and had a great time. I will enjoy the wines I found for the next several months or more. Next year I plan to make better notes at every vineyard I go to and what wines I try in order to provide the notes to others too. I hope if you’ve made it this far you enjoyed the story as much I enjoyed writing it. And until next time, Cheers!


Edited by: rshosted
Thanks for sharing your wine tasting vacation with us...Only a dream for most of us.

Interesting about the bottle shock from elevation....something we may never have suspected.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us RS, glad to hear from you again, Keep in touch!
I'm tired but excited after reading all that! What an experience and to think you do this every year. It must really give you something to look forward to all year long not to mention having those "pieces of vacation" every time you experience another bottle.
great report...thank you for sharing!

"Something else I found interesting about barrels is that wine makers use them primarily for microoxygenation. The flavor that is put in by this process is even more important than the mouthfeel or spice, vanilla, or coffee flavors that can come from barrels."

This is why I just purchased four 50 gallon units from Flex Tank...if their product lives up to its word about micro-oxygenationm i will be in great shape.
sounds like a trip my wife and i would really enjoy doing,good insight/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

I have to agree with you that Unti in Dry Creek makes some fine wines - their Sangiovese is so fruit forward and holds such a different character than most Italian Sangiovese wines that I've tried. It resembled the Shafer Firebreak Sangiovese (when they used to make that varietal). For your next trip up, if you happen to be in the same area, check out Talty (call ahead and make a reservation) - it's right next to Unti, actually. They have the zinfandel that I use to benchmark all other zinfandels - just amazing and worth the $35/bottle price.Plus, it's a husband and wife team, so like you noted, the tastings can be really cool when you get to talk to the people with their hands on the grapes.

Thanks for sharing,

- Jim