California Dreamin’ – and Good Wine
For a few weeks I visited friends living near California’s coast who love wines: Californian, French, Italian – all. They love to socialize and share. North to south – here’s a quick recap of coastal California wine regions visited and wines tasted, as well as people and beverages shared during this eye-opening venture.
Mendocino County and the Anderson Valley –
The northward drive from San Francisco to Mendocino takes three hours. Pass Napa, Sonoma, and Healdsburg along Pacific Coast Highway 101, then turn west at Cloverdale on Route 128. This is a tight and gnarly road, sun dappled and spiraling below tree canopies and passing signs warning of twisted, rough, narrow roads crossed by wandering stags. Pine trees coat hills. Meadows form horse farms. Raptors soar above, and dead skunks splay across asphalt. The Hendy Woods State Park on Hornblower Road is riddled with hefty redwood trees and sheep farms. This is Tolkien country – deep dark forests, and no telling what comes next.
This is the site of the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County (not to confuse with the larger Alexander Valley in Northern Sonoma County, further south). It’s home to loggers, farmers, cannabis growers, and seriously good winemakers.
The valley slopes from about 200 feet to just below a thousand feet above sea level, and fog cools the climate in a way that favors northern European grape varieties – including Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. This month’s Travel and Leisure Magazine includes the somewhat vague generalization that Mendocino grows the largest variety of grapes in the United States. Jay McInerney described Pinot Noirs from Anderson in a recent Wall Street Journal article, writing that they tend to be “medium-bodied, more savory than sweet.” A friend who spent years living in northern California’s wine country, stated without doubt that the 2009 Handley Pinot Noir we shared was the best Pinot he ever tasted.
Northern Sonoma Hiking and Zins
Thanks to northern California dweller Lisa Hazard for the hospitality and Zinfandel shared in northern Sonoma County! Our day road trip to explore Dry Creek Valley was a treat. For more on these wines, see my post about Rockpile Ridge.
Chardonnay in Sonoma
A wine map of Sonoma County shows how the included Sonoma Valley includes excellent Chardonnays. The Baumann family shared some of these locals wines and dinner during my visit to the City of Sonoma. Earlier that day, Tiffany Tedesco Baumann took me to a local cellar to sample her 2013 Corner Lot Sangiovese – in the barrel since October. This is smooth and seductive, about ready for bottling….and securing one of these rare bottles is harder than you can imagine. As pure as an Italian Brunello di Montalcino, this is 100 percent Sangiovese. It’s also elegant testimony to the potential for growing excellent Sangiovese in Sonoma Valley. Though little known, that’s not news: Italian grape varieties have been planted in Sonoma County since the 1880s.
French and Italian Wines Raging in Santa Barbara
After leaving Mendocino and Sonoma counties in California’s Northern Coast wine region, I drove to the county and city of Santa Barbara, which marks the southern end of California’s Central Coast wine region (described in another post, last year). The April 2014 issue of US Airways Magazine includes an entire section dedicated to the city and county of Santa Barbara, California. This includes seven articles about wine.
Thanks to Anne and Bill Mitchell and their generous wine guru friend Charles King – we celebrated Bill’s birthday in Santa Barbara with winemakers and locals who show how much they respect their European wine making heritage – by opening bottles of Chablis, Montrachet, Barbaresco, Barolo, Pomerol, Cornas and seeing a 1976 Margaux gifted as a welcome surprise. This was a wine extravaganza none who attended will forget. Salud!
Zin and Grenache in Ventura
A half hour south of Santa Barbara I spent the night in Ventura, California – famed for the song Ventura Highway from the band America, for Chouinard climbing gear, and for an easygoing beach and surfing vibe that lacks throngs of tourists many similar California coastal towns witness. Steven and Melissa Hongola invited a visit, and our planned lunch turned into dinner, and sharing their bottle of Epiphany Cellars Grenache, from Santa Barbara County.
In the county and the state, generally, Grenache is growing more popular as single varietal. It also offers good quality for a decent price. Grenache is often blended with Syrah, which provides more tannins, color, and acidity, but which lacks the spice and alcohol of Grenache. Along with Syrah and Mourvedre, Grenache forms one of the classic components of Rhone Valley blends from southern France, and the primary grape in characteristically powerful (and usually pricey) bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Thanks for providing one of my favorite wine varietals guys.
Bubbly in Orange County
Though not really along the wine trail (though there is a winery in town), I visited my old homestead city of Laguna Beach in to see friends. This is within the Southern California wine region. There we dusted off a few bottles of Mionetto Prosecco (DOC) Treviso, delivered (along with grapes and cheeses) by the lovely Bascom sisters to Victoria Beach. Local California alternatives to this Italian sparkling wine include almond champagne from the Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula (mentioned in my book Vino Voices). There were two clear advantages to drinking Prosecco rather than local bubbly on this spring day.
First, Mionetto is the best selling Prosecco in the U.S. It is fermented completely in a tank using the ‘Charmat’ method, and does not need to be aged, unlike champagne and sparkling wines, which are partially fermented in the bottle using the more elaborate ‘méthode champenoise.’ This gives Prosecco it’s primary quality – freshness. Prosecco also shares qualities more typical of California sparkling wines and champagnes than those from Europe – more fruit and less yeast characteristics. This made the Prosecco perfect for a spring afternoon (paired with grapes and cheese): fruit and freshness. Nice choice, sisters.
California links with European winemakers stay strong (Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery famously teamed with Château Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux in 1979 to produce Opus One). From north to south, winemakers constantly refer to their varietals and methods as aligning with, or differentiating from, regions that include Bordeaux, the Rhone, and Italy’s Piemonte.
Thanks for the warm hospitality, friends and California.