Saturday, December 22, 2007

Napa Valley Wine Tour

Jerry was the guide fom Wine Country Tour Shuttle. He's been in the business for more than twenty years, and could reel off facts about San Francisco and the surrounding counties like nobody's business. He said he was married, but so many of his mannerisms and interests were so stereotypically gay that I did wonder if the wife was fictional, though I could not imagine any reason for such an invention.

The shuttle picked us up from the Ferry Terminal along the Embarcadero, and traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge, into Marine County, Sonoma County and then Napa County. Between and below the grass-and-dirt mountain ridges, the vineyards swelled and unfolded, acre after acre of harvested vines--rows and rows of brown Hanukkah lamps side by side.

First stop was Domaine Chandon, a sparkling wine winery. The winery still works closely with its parent winery in France, sending its wine-makers there for apprenticeships, for instance. Respecting the wish of France to keep the name of champagne to wines actually made in that region, Chandon calls its products sparkling wines. Meredith, the vineyard guide, explained the wine-making process. The first fermentation takes place in huge steel vats which looks like missile silos. Chandon started making still wines (i.e. the usual, non-sparkling wines) in the 1990's. They were fermented in oak barrels carefully stacked on metal racks in a huge and clean cellar. The whole winery was a cross between French standards and American methods.

We tasted three sparking wines from their Classic Collection. The Chandon Brut Classic was made of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier, and tasted of apple, pear and citrus notes. The Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier, tasted more of cherry, strawberry and currants. The Chandon Riche was very sweet, tasting of honey and peaches. I liked the second one best, but sparkling wines are not really my thing.

V. Sattui Winery looked more like a traditional winery. It celebrated its centennial in 1985 by building a beautiful two-storey stone house and cellar. Its vines looked older: thicker and more gnarly. The wine-tasting, deli and shop were all in a huge converted barn. We stood by the bar and tasted a number of wines. The stand outs: an off-dry Johannisberg Riesling with flavors of apricot and melon, a Chardonnary, Carneros tasting of ripe pear and apple, a rich and complex Merlot from Henry Ranch with flavors of dusty berry chocolate and plum. We had a picnic lunch on a bench outside, in the cold sun. The polenta was okay, but the jambalaya rice was very flavorful, as was the chopped broccoli, walnut and apple salad.

Third stop was Rutherford Ranch Winery. The woman in charge of the tasting made too much of a sales pitch, I think, in the midst of her patter about her wines. We tasted a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, a 2006 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, a 2004 Merlot, Napa Valley, and a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. The last wine, a 2005 Rhiannon, Napa Valley, we tasted before and after a bite of dark chocolate. It was delicious: a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (29%!), Syrah and Petite Syrah.

Andretti Winery was the last winery we visited, a venture of a famous former motorcar racer, and a famous former CEO of Wal-Mart. Built like an Italian villa, purposefully aged, the winery stood some distance away from the main roads, and so enjoyed a measure of quiet. I can't remember what we tasted. By then, I could not taste anything, to be honest. Everything tasted like mouth-wash.

The shuttle took us to Vallejo, where we boarded the ferry for the one-hour "cruise" back to the ferry terminal. The sun setting behind the mountains, studded with houses, was a pale and misty orange. Oh, the color of the Golden Gate Bridge is not red, it's international orange. Jerry would have been so proud of me for remembering that.

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