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Have liver, will travel

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wine Country Strategies: revealed!

After our recent trip to wine country, our place is teeming with bottles of this and that. A 12-bottle, insulated box of assorted Zin and such in the hall closet. Our wine refrigerator stacked full of special bottles to save for years to come. A few lousy chardonnays and merlots (brought to us, not purchased, mind you) sitting in the wine rack, devil may care if they spoil. Some olallieberry concoction in the door of the fridge, probably too cold.

After carting many many bottles home from this trip and those before it, I have seen some better strategies to tackling the tasting/purchasing game of wine tasting. Here are my thoughts, and if you follow even one or two of them you may end up skirting buyer's remorse:

  1. Don't buy anything the first day. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If we hadn't bought the 2002 Omaggio the first day in Healdsburg, Ed Seghesio would never have signed it and we may never have learned of his predilection for tripe. But generally, don't buy until you know all of the competitors, unless you can tell it's a sure thing. If you have paid to taste, get a receipt and most places will take the tasting fee off the price of a future purchase.

  2. Pay the extra to taste the reserve wines. They are worth it, and if they aren't, would you really have wanted to taste the regular list? After our recent trip to Napa, I wished I had spent a little more of my money trying fabulous reserves I may never get to try again or elsewhere, and a little less of my money on bottles that were mostly on par with things I could find at the local wine shop in Larchmont. Plus, in many cases, you can avoid the herds of "I only drink Chardonnay" bovines who are looking for Disneyland-style entertainment and wouldn't know a good Cab if it came up and bit them through their elastic-banded walking shorts. There isn't usually much shoving for counter space going on by the reserve wines. It makes the whole experience that much more pleasant.

  3. You don't have to buy anything. Especially if you paid for a tasting. They have made money. Do not feel obligated or guilty. Sometimes, if the counter folks figure you may have money to spend, they try to devote a lot of time to you so you will feel obligated to buy. Be firm. I got really good at politely saying "We're waiting until our last day here to make any purchases so that nothing sits in a hot car." They don't really want their wine turning in a hot car, do they? Also, if someone seems to be spending a lot of time trying to give you a hard sell, you can always smile and say you want to walk on the grounds or step outside with your wine to savor it. The grounds are better-looking than the counter, anyway. The Alcotourist started our trip with the logic that we should buy everywhere to recoup our tasting fees, but I feel this is remiss. For the $5 or $10 you spend on a tasting, you are getting the equivalent of a good glass of wine at a restaurant. How much would you have paid for it? Probably more than $5, possibly more than $10. For those $20 reserve tastings, it's usually not so hard to turn down the wine, because it is typically $100 a bottle or so. Which leads me to my next musing...

  4. Buy a few of the really good, sold-at-winery-only wines. If you have saved money and space by not buying bottles everywhere you go, you can afford a couple of those $60-$100 cabs. And there will be a couple of other wines, not so pricey but only found at the wineries that you can go back for on your last day. Which ones stand out after all that tasting? What tasted like nothing else? Get those memorable ones, get a couple of nice bottles of reserve wines, and if you want some of the others later you can get them at the store back home--or maybe even afford to have some shipped to you from the winery when you've gone through what you have. We bought over a case of wine on our trip, and I wish we'd gotten maybe 4 of the bottles we did, and had money left to get another reserve cab. I'm already thinking about wines I will order or hunt for locally that we tasted, but I didn't need to break the bank with so many bottles right now.

  5. Take this, all of you and drink. Share some of the tastings with a fellow alcotourist. This way, you won't be so obliterated at the last stop you can't even taste the wine and have embarrassing hiccups you would mask behind a hand if you weren't clinging to the counter to remain upright. Many of the places we visited were good, but not so good that I finished my pour. In fact, when you reach hiccup-riddled, counter-clinging tipsiness, you can't finish the pour even if it's the best thing on earth. So share with a friend. Save your palate and your money and get separate tastings only when it's a great reserve tasting or if tasting is free. And even then, don't feel you have to finish even the best of tastes, so you may live to taste another day.

  6. Chill, man. Get a cheap Styrofoam cooler at the store before you go. If you are weak and purchase (or run into Ed Seghesio or a spicy XYZin), you can go on to taste the day away, knowing your wine is not spoiling in the heat of the car. Keep bottles in the cooler, in the trunk, and you may actually want to drink them when you meet again. Also, you may want to keep a few crackers or something in there. Very few places offered any sort of palate cleanser or stomach settler, and all of that tasting can be overwhelming.

So take these tips and run with them. May you remain upright and financially solvent.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Day 4 in Wine Country: Frank Family Vineyards, Napa

Let me just begin by giving you a name: Jeff Senelick. If you are planning a trip to Napa, call him at (707) 942-0859 for recommendations. I will. If you are considering purchasing a Frank Family Vineyards wine, also call this number. The website does not have the most current information.

Jeff was expecting us. When he found out that we were the ones that inquired from Pinot Blanc a day earlier, he welcomed us, and announced, "I am going to ruin your day." He did. He blew my mind.

First, he insisted that we try their champagne. "Ugh," I thought, "Let's get to that cab already." I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the pedestrian, low-ball sparkling wines we tried at Korbel, the Frank champagnes were, to follow a theme, revelatory. The Blanc De Blancs was dry and heady. Then we tried one that I regret to say I've forgotten the name of, but I haven't forgotten the taste. Dosaged with cognac, it had an herbaceous quality, faintly reminiscent of a good reposado tequila, actually—think Oro Azul. I know it sounds weird, but it was the most unique champagne I've ever tasted, and that was not the last of the hyperbole I had in store. Next, we tried the Champagne Rouge, a Pinot Noir champagne that actually works. If you like Pinot, you'll appreciate the delicate aroma and flavor of this complex, yet totally fun sparkler. Delicate, but no wallflower, it was a fascinating elixir. We couldn't try the Blanc de Noirs, as there were only 8 cases left, and those only available at the winery.

Then we went into another room, and were force-fed the Frank Family Vineyards 2004 Chardonnay. This was all highly unusual, since we'd been refusing whites for the past dozen wineries. But Jeff said we couldn't try the reds if we didn't try the Chard. Okay, Jeff, you're the boss. He pointed out that there was something different about this Chard, and challenged us to identify it. Hell if we knew. Ugly amber bottle? Check. Piss color? Check. Old ladies want to taste it? One had just come in saying she only tasted whites (Jeff complied—bastard). But then Jeff gave up and told us—it wasn't chilled! It was just sitting on the counter at room temperature. Jeff said the only reason you would chill a Chard would be if you were trying to mask something in the flavor. He told us to try it at room temperature, and we did (was there a choice?). And to be honest, despite its being a Chardonnay, it was complex, brooding, very creamy, not-too-oakey, not-too-crisp, and really quite good. Will Chard ever be our thing? Absolutely not. But we respected this wine.

Next, finally, we got into reds. We tried a solid Sangiovese, a great Zinfandel (another "panties off" Zin), and finally, the 2001 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, the one we'd tasted at Pinot Blanc the day before. I was ready to buy a case at that moment.

"But wait," Jeff said, "I still have three better wines."

I'd believe it when I tasted it. Next he poured the 2000 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I tasted, then took my glass outside and wept. This was the best thing that had ever passed my lips. All of my notions of good wine went out the window. This $65 bottle kicked every other wine that we'd tried straight in the patootie. I was devastated. I momentarily thought about trying to return every bottle we'd bought until that point. I returned to the tasting room, located in the back of the most humble cottage we'd set foot in the whole trip, a changed man.

Then Jeff went vertical on us. He poured the 2001 version of the same wine. 2001 was a good year for huge, chewy tannins. While the 2000 was perfectly balanced, the 2001 was a mystery. I've tasted young wines before, and felt confident in my predictions of when and how they would peak. This tannic monster was an open book. I didn't know where it was going, but I knew it was the master, leading me by the nose. I am not worthy.

"But wait," Jeff said, "that's still not our best wine."

Then he poured us the 2001 Winston Hill Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, named after a Springer Spaniel. I probably shouldn't report on this, since he doesn't pour this for everybody. My God. No description will suffice. This wine was like the monolith at the beginning of 2001, summoning me toward my evolutionary fate. Heartbreakingly complex, yet verily approachable—drinkable today, even, though we will save our bottle for a couple of years at least. Woe is me! I can die now without any legitimate cause to complain! Jeff had truly, truly ruined our day.

We huddled outside, murmuring about selling the cars, the dog, whatever. Then we settled on a modest buy. One bottle of Winston Hill, and one bottle of the 2001 Reserve Cab, that enigmatic minx. Jeff was good enough to give us an extra 1-case styrofoam container at that point, since our cooler and several boxes were full already.

We drove home, lamenting having to leave, but rejoicing in our luck nevertheless. It's good to be an alcotourist.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Day 3 in Wine Country: Napa Valley

After an heroic day on Saturday, when we tasted at 12 wineries in the Alexander and Russian River Valleys, we decided to play it cool in Napa. After all, the tasting fees can be as much as $30 each, and the wine increases in price on the same curve. We also already had a case of wine at the hotel from our Friday and Saturday excursions, and the car was literally running out of room.

We began the day at the Hoffman House Café, which was conveniently adjacent to our hotel in Geyserville. The Alcotouristess had croissant french toast stuffed with cream cheese and berries. What a hedonist. I fortified with some Huevos Rancheros and we both had their rich, wonderful coffee.

Then we drove over the hill and toodled for a while in St. Helena, where the Alcotouristess indulged in her passion for all things olive by visiting Olivier, where they have four or five large copper casks full of olive oil. You can choose a 500ml bottle and fill it straight from the tap with the olive oil that tickles your fancy. The Alcotouristess got the Macke Estate Blend. We also checked out their olivewood wares, which were pretty cool, and moved on.

We then paid a short visit to Woodhouse Chocolate where I saw (and tasted!) some of the most creative cocoa expressions I've ever seen—and I've lived in Switzerland, mind you. We picked up a box for the folks at the office, and a couple of singles for ourselves. Mmmm!

Then we toodled further at the Culinary Institute of America to let the Alcotouristess take in the air at her version of Valhalla. Now don't get the wrong idea. After hearing about stuffed croissant french toast, olive oil, exotic chocolates, and CIA worship, you might think the Alcotouristess is a little on the doughy side. Well, some people are just lucky, I guess, so keep that hate mail coming.

Finally, we dispensed with the toodling, and visited the Beringer estate. We ponied up for the reserve tasting, and were not disappointed. The gentleman at the counter had no compunction about challenging our notions about wine, and even though I ordered the Reserve Cab tasting ($12) and the Alcotouristess ordered the Aromatic Reds, or "No Cabs," tasting ($9), we tasted just about everything on the shelf. We did horizontal (i.e. tasting different wines of the same vintage) and then our host lined up a vertical tasting (same wine, different vintages) of one of their reserve Cabs. The 2000 was ready to drink, but the 2001 had legs. There was no question we could ask that he couldn't answer, and to sum up, we had a blast. We tasted wines costing from $30 all the way up to $100, and walked away happy. You may notice, however, that we didn't buy anything. It's not that the wine wasn't good—it was excellent—but the ones we liked were $60-$100, and at that price point, the law of diminishing returns goes into effect. We had one more day of vacation, and if we needed to, we could always swoop back and pick up a bottle if it turned out that one was particularly memorable.

Next we went to the Stag's Leap district to sample the excellent wines of Silverado Vineyards. They had a fun Sangiovese, and some excellent Cabs. We shared a $10 tasting, which we found was actually more than frugal—it helped us maintain our sobriety. Wine country is a road trip—there's simply no other good way to get around unless you want to join a chintzy tour—and I think a lot of the police simply look the other way unless you're really obvious. But for safety's sake, and for the safety of the hordes of cyclists you will invariably see on the road, it's good to keep your head on straight. We enjoyed the last big Cab from the vantage of Silverado's excellent patio (though, it must be noted, they don't allow picnics). This may have been the best view of the trip, and that says a lot. Again, we said thank you, and neglected to purchase a bottle. Nothing against Silverado, but at the price it's a serious investment that merits some mulling over.

On the recommendation of a friend, we then attempted to go to V. Sattui for a tasting and lunch at their famous deli, but the lot was bursting at the seams, and we didn't even bother to try to find a space. No parkey-no tastey. End of story.

So we had a quick sandwich at Bouchon Bakery, and we indulged in one of their fabulous sandwich cookies. Then it was time for another afternoon champagne break, which we took at Chandon, which despite parking availability was too crowded for our taste. In fact, we didn't taste at all. We walked through the cavernous building, which to Chandon's credit, does allow visitors to purchase appetizers in the tasting room. They have a little champagne museum, a fancy restaurant, and they even offer still wines, but neither of us felt particularly like tasting anything there. I don't know what it was—something about the ambiance—it felt like a tourist trap. We moved on.

It was then with much anticipation that we arrived at Cakebread Cellars, where we'd heard the wine was some of the best in the region. Unfortunately, Cakebread, which is centrally located on Highway 29, suffers from the same crowd problems that V. Sattui does. We parked in a dirt overflow lot and went in to find that they only do tastings by reservation, but that we could book one in about twenty minutes. We decided to wait. They charged us $10 a piece, and gave us a taste of Sauvignon Blanc while we waited. I found myself wondering if they did reserve tastings at Cakebread, and more out of curiosity than anything, I asked the reservation man not 30 seconds before we were to have our tasting. He raised an eyebrow, asked for $20 more, and sent us to the reserve tasting room, where a pour was just starting. We cordially tasted, then poured, their excellent specimen of a reserve Chardonnay. Very good, just not our thing. Then we tasted three $95 Cabs in a row, which were the best wines we'd had so far. The 2001 Benchland Cabernet was the best-balanced of the group, and eminently drinkable now. The 2001 Three Sisters Cabernet was my favorite. Bold, with balls-out tannins—something I'd cellar for 5 years minimum. The Alcotouristess preferred the huge fruit of the 2001 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet, which had layer after layer of dark chocolate and licorice spice, and a monster finish. Again, since we dropped $40 on two tastings, we didn't immediately rush to the counter for a case. We figured we could think it over, and anyway, the Alcotouristess was jonesing for some cheese.

We checked to see if the Rutherford Grill had a cheese plate, but it was all rotisserie, so we didn't stay. Then, on a whim, we walked into the BV reserve tasting room, which shares a parking lot with the Grill. There was a jolly (it's the only word to describe her) host at the counter, who seemed glad to see us. I think it was because we looked like the only normal people in the joint. There were all of these 40-something couples there—balding men with their plastic-surgery-riddled trophy wives. We saw quite a few Ferraris on the 29 that day, and I wondered if we'd arrived at BV at the same time the Ferrari club of Marin County did. We tasted most of their red reserves, including the famous Georges LaTour Private Reserve, but after Cakebread, we were somewhat nonplussed. I did like the BV Tapestry, a Bordeaux-style blend, and my darling Alcotouristess purchased a bottle for me. Then we slipped out without asking why they didn't bother to charge us the $25 reserve tasting fee. Woohoo!

Next was the revelation of the trip. We slipped across the 29 to Pinot Blanc, part of the famous Patina Group, headed by star chef Joachim Splichal. I was somewhat reluctant to go to a restaurant that was a chain, and for that matter a chain that we could go to in Los Angeles any time, but I'm glad I put my recalcitrant attitude aside. We walked in, and nobody was there. It was roughly 4 in the afternoon, and the Alcotouristess had read that the bar was open between lunch and dinner for drinks, though the staff seemed surprised to see us. We each ordered a glass of wine from their extensive list, and then ogled at their incredible cheese menu. We ordered:
  • Idiazabal, "Lightly smoked hard sheep’s milk from the Spanish Pyrenees,"
  • Tete De Moine, "An intense and flavorful cow's milk cheese from Switzerland, it has a strong fruity and nutty taste with a pungent aroma," and:
  • Petit Basque, "A full-flavored, semi-hard cheese made from the rich milk of the sheep that roam this region of Spain."
We also had their Panzella, an Italian bread salad. There was nobody there but us, and it was glorious to relax and taste and sip and talk. What a great way to spend our last afternoon in wine country. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, our server put a bottle in front of us and said, "I want you to try this." She poured us complimentary glasses of their two Cabernet Sauvignons on the menu, one of which was Frank Family Vineyards' 2001 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that I declared could go toe-to-toe with almost any $100 bottle we'd tasted that day. I inquired after the bottle price, and our server said they sold it for $44 at the restaurant. She called the winery and got the cellar price: $37.50. We had to go to this vineyard, and vowed to do exactly that on our way out of town the next morning. We didn't quite know yet that this would be the revelation of the trip, since the Frank Family Cab we'd tried was not a reserve wine, and there were still more incredible revelations awaiting us the next morning.

We returned to our hotel in Geyserville, replete and in need of a little shut-eye. We woke suddenly at about 8:30p.m. to gnawing stomachs, and remembered Ed Seghesio's admonition to try Santi, which he characterized as "the best Italian food in Sonoma," and said to try the tripe (not likely). Fortunately for us, Santi was within walking distance of the Geyserville Inn. We were set in a cozy little table and ordered two glasses of wine. The Alcotouristess ordered Gnocchi, which she felt was too soft, but I ordered the Rigatoni with pecorino cheese and roasted bell peppers in tomato sauce with a touch of cream. I quickly finished my glass of 2001 Marchese Di Gresy Dolcetto D'Alba Piemonte (I know, Italian wine in Napa, but it looked good), and asked for a glass of 1999 Nalle Zinfandel, which, I had a hunch, would compliment my pasta perfectly. It was better than perfect. It was my all-time favorite pairing ever.

We stumbled back to the hotel, in a state of gastronomic euphoria. Could this trip get any better? Stay tuned. :-D

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Day 2 in Wine Country: Alexander & Russian River Valleys

First, we have to give props to a couple of books we used to figure out what we were going to do:
  1. Shaken, not stirredLonely Planet Road Trip: Napa & Sonoma Wine Country. Well laid out, with color maps and some catty commentary, but far from comprehensive. Still, we reached for it a lot in the car, since the layout makes everything pretty easy to find. One gripe: The author, Richard Sterling, seemed to be OBSESSED with where to get a "good martini" in wine country. Is there any such thing as a "good martini"? Come on! This book is supposed to be about wine country, and I think he mentions the garbage cocktail for mindless Sex in the City zombies six times in a 64-page guide book. Then I looked at his picture, and all was revealed. The man wears turtlenecks.

  2. The Best of the Wine Country by Don and Betty Martin. After finding the Lonely Planet book inadequate for planning our itineraries, I picked up this tome in a map store. I wanted comprehensive, and I got it. It has itineraries, winery descriptions, activities, restaurants, and the kitchen sink on all major California appellations, not just the Napa/Sonoma region we were visiting. I based our itineraries for the Alexander and Russian River valleys on the Martins' sample itineraries. What's cool about it is that the itineraries are ordered geographically, and then the descriptions of each recommended winery follow in the same order. If one description failed to impress, we simply crossed it off the itinerary and kept going. If something piqued our interest on the road, we could look it up immediately. We plan to go to Paso Robles, Temecula, and back to Santa Ynez in the future, so this book is definitely a keeper.

At this point, it might also be instructive to list the wineries we visited, and some we planned to, but didn't:

In the Alexander Valley:
  1. Château Souverain
  2. Trentadue
  3. Clos Du Bois
  4. Canyon Road
  5. Stryker
  6. Sausal
  7. White Oak (not on our list, but recommended by Sausal, so we went)
  8. Alexander Valley Vineyards

In the Russian River Valley:
  1. Roshambo (On our list, but when we arrived the lot was full, so we split)
  2. Belvedere (skipped it at first, but so glad we returned)
  3. Hop Kiln
  4. Korbel
  5. Topolos

Was it any wonder we were up early? We were excited to try our most ambitious day of wine tasting we'd ever planned, and besides, the "queen size" bed at the Geyserville Inn was hard as cut granite (seriously, guys—our kidneys ached). Of course, it also helped that we were in bed early the previous night, since there is nothing to do after dinner in wine country. But rising early was perhaps not the best plan, since none of the wineries opened until 10. So we drove into Healdsburg for breakfast, upon the insistence of the Alcotouristess, who wanted to visit the Downtown Bakery & Creamery. Every guidebook and online review coos about this place, and the Alcotouristess was quite impressed with the blueberry plum pocket she ordered. Before you go, consider that there is no seating, and if you're not taking your pastries home or back to your hotel, your only option is to enjoy it in the Healdsburg town square among the throngs of migrant workers who gather there each morning.

It's worth a pause here to tip our hats to the underground economy poised on the backs of migrant workers that allowed us to have a hedonistic and decadent vacation in wine country. I'm not an expert on the issue, but I suspect that the gente we saw in the park did not have any kind of health insurance or 401(k). As a consumer of wine and spirits, I'd like to declare that I would not mind the upcharge per bottle that a good health plan would cost for these workers.

So we sat in the park with the aforementioned blueberry plum pocket, a sticky bun, a whole wheat currant scone, and two coffees. I found the scone dry and dreadful, and was glad the Alcotouristess opted for sweeter fare. The coffee was very good.

We finished our breakfasts and headed back to Château Souverain. It was 9:15, and the castle didn't open until 10. We suddenly remembered we needed a disposable camera (donations of a digital gladly accepted) from the drug store. So we drove back to the Healdsburg Rite Aid to kill some time. We got back to the castle at 9:45. We must have looked like desperate dry drunks.

Fortunately, the best thing that can be said about Château Souverain is that the building and the grounds are stunningly beautiful. We took a little walk through the gardens and looked at the lavender plants, heirloom tomatoes, Italian peppers, squash, blackberries, pear and apple trees, all growing in neat little clusters around the vineyard. We joked that we would affectedly point out "hints of lavender and pepper spice" in their Merlot, like some balding, hypertense sommelier. If that were only the case.

The opulent tasting room doors opened, and we entered what looked like Dean and DeLuca's wet dream. You could buy all manner of corkscrews, decanters, aprons, jams, jellies, oils, tapenades, and home decor. We went straight to the counter. A college-aged girl greeted us, and when she found out where we were from, announced that she was studying Journalism in Long Beach. Good for you. Now pour.

The wines that we hoped had soaked up the opulent atmosphere were flat and had little character. I've learned to dread the "we're famous for our Chardonnay" pitch that you hear at every third winery in the area. Eventually, we wised up and asked for "reds only" tastings, but this was the first stop of the day, and we indulged the budding journalist.

"Nutty," I said.

"Ick," I thought.

None of the rest of the wines merited dissertation, but we picked up a $20 bottle of Mourvedre to recoup our $5 tasting fees (a failed strategy, as pointed out by the Alcotouristess in the Day 1 article). The journalist only knocked $5 off, since it was only one bottle—a pretty cheap move, I thought, for a girl who works in a castle. Which brings me to this rule of thumb: Wineries whose names begin with Château usually focus more on the castle than they do on the juice. If you want to impress your dull-paletted in-laws, go ahead and take them to a Château. If you want to try good wine, you can generally skip the places with the over-manicured lawns and storybook turrets.

Off we went to Trentadue, another over-opulent property in the valley. Both Trentadue and Souverain, it must be said, were hosting weddings on this particular Saturday. We were glad we got an early start. I would not have been able to resist spilling something on a bustling wedding planner as she waddled by, madly arranging place settings or something. We were greeted by a very professional looking host at the counter, who made us cough up another five bucks each to taste. If we made a comment on a particular wine, she would smile and nod like a real estate agent trying to sell a tract house. There was another group of two young couples there who seemed to be enjoying themselves. One identified himself as a "local." That's nice. We reached the end of a rather short tasting, gave our "we're just tasting today, and we don't want the wine to spoil in our car, and anyway we'll come back to purchase before we leave on Monday" speech, and left. We were off to a disappointing start.

If Trentadue and Souverain were suburban castles, Clos Du Bois did nothing to hide that it was a factory. We have a soft spot for Clos Du Bois, because we really started our fascination with wine around their '97 Merlot. Jammy and tannic for that varietal, it was pleasing to our novice palates. It must also be said that our "Clos Du Bois" period coincided with our first year of dating—a mad, randy, ravenous affair—so it has a charming patina, looking back. However, nothing we tasted on this day quite measured up to our reveries of that '97. We entered the tasting room and came up to an empty spot on the horseshoe-shaped counter. Another co-ed host in a midriffless baby-doll tee quickly told us that those spots on the counter were reserved, and we had to go taste from the crowded side. We squeezed in among some brochures for Kendall Jackson and the petrified forest—charming. We got to taste almost everything, though. The co-eds even poured us some Marlstone and Briarcrest proprietaries, which were good, but not enough to take home. I liked their Pinot, but the Alcotouristess poured it out. Off we went.

And that's when we reached the Canyon Road winery, which was the first really good place of the day. We tasted in a little outbuilding next to their big stone cellar, and the hosts were full of youthful candor and enthusiasm. We particularly enjoyed a unique Zinfandel made by their (female!) assistant winemaker, Ondine Chattan, under her own label. It was called XYZin, and we bought a bottle for $30—a great value. It wasn't an old-vine Zin in the classic sense, but it had an exotic spicy character that we thought was delicious, if esoteric. Finally, we were getting somewhere.

Next, we traveled to the east side of the Alexander Valley to visit Stryker, which had the best view yet. Their glass tasting room was perched on a knoll with a 180-degree view of the valley. We were treated to some fantastic Zins at this small estate winery, and took a bottle of their 2001 Dry Creek Valley Zin home for just $22. The wine reveals exotic fruit and spice with that distinct alcohol stab of a Zinfandel. Zins are high in alcohol to balance the incredible power of the fruit. More than once, after a nudge-nudge, wink-wink from a host, we were told that the particular Zin we were drinking was nicknamed "panties off," or something similar. We've already had the Dry Creek bottle at home, and can vouch that it removes panties expertly.

A bit down the road, we found Sausal, an unassuming little tasting room butting the hills on the east side of the valley. They had a great young man serving the tastings, and he was eager to pour "off-list" wines, which we always appreciate. He asked us what we'd enjoyed so far, and we told him about the 2002 Omaggio at Seghesio, a Super Tuscan we bought. He smiled and pulled out Sausal's own Super Tuscan, a 2003 Sogno Della Famiglia, a young wine, to be sure, but bursting with character and potential. We bought a bottle for $30, and he refunded both our tasting fees (thank you very much). He also told us not to miss the Zins at White Oak Vineyards across the street.

We were in need of lunch, but far afield. We carefully pulled out of the driveway and drove across the street. We asked the host at White Oak politely if we could try only the reds, and she courteously complied. The Zin was another winner. We took home a bottle of their $36 2002 Estate Zinfandel, which was luscious and peppery, with almost numbing amounts of alcohol and anise. We really needed lunch.

We headed back to Healdsburg, but made an ill-advised stop at Alexander Valley Vineyards on the way. The Alcotouristess was in fits of hiccups. I was still okay to drive, since I'd been dutifully pouring out the more potent Zins after one taste. We tried to discreetly ask the host if they had a deli, or any food available on the premisis. She said they didn't but generously poured the Alcotouristess a glass of water while I tasted. I'd been looking for a nice Cabernet Sauvignon, and found a leathery, dark-chocolaty 2002 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I picked up a bottle for us, and one for a co-worker who is into Cab. It was only $20, but here is a warning you can take to the bank: Recently, I saw a bottle of the same wine at Vons, a grocery store in Burbank, on sale for $15.99. It's always good to ask about distribution when you're tasting. If the bottle is available in your local grocery store (or even grocery stores in wine country, which as you can imagine, are really well stocked), chances are that you can get the bottle cheaper there. The wineries don't have a choice, as contractually, they can't undercut their distributors. Retail stores are not bound by this, since they are the end of the supply chain.

We took the Alexander Valley Vineyards brochure home, and I later saw that they run secondary fermentation on their reds, which I found odd, since that's usually something you only do to remove malolactic acid from whites—it's what gives a lot of Chardonnays that "creamy" taste. As I understand it, reds do a natural secondary fermentation on their own, so I'm not sure why you'd add another dose of yeast, unless you were trying to hide something. If anyone can set me straight on this, please post a comment.

We limped into Healdsburg, and stopped at the Healdsburg Bar and Grill for lunch. We had a wonderful, pungent pizza with gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes, and some of their famous onion rings. We craved grease. We didn't have any wine with lunch, but drank copious amounts of water. We boxed up half of the pizza, and put it in the back of the car. Happily sober again, we continued down the Russian River into its namesake valley.

I was excited to see Roshambo, since they do this silly rock-paper-scissors motif, and I saw a thing they did on seitan (say "satan"), a wonderful meat substitute made of wheat gluten that can convincingly masquerade as braised chicken, flank steak, or even lobster. According to our Lonely Planet guide, Roshambo had this "I worship Seitan" t-shirt, which I thought was fabulous. But then we got there and there was no place to park. It's not that I'm overly concerned about parking—it's just that I don't like crowds in a tasting room, and Roshambo looked like a zoo. We adhered to our "no parkey-no tastey" policy, which we also later invoked at V. Sattui in Napa, and moved on. I'm sure there's some clever rock-paper-scissors pun in this, but we're not that kind of blog.

Most wineries close at 4:30 or 5, and it was already past 2. Hop Kiln was the winery I most wanted to see in the Russian River valley, so we skipped Belvedere, since we saw that it was open until 6. Apparently, the Russian River valley's cash crop was once hops, and not grapes as it is now. In later posts, I will reveal my full obsession with the hop, but for now, I really wanted to see the winery built in an old hop kiln, which is essentially a high-ceilinged barn used to dry hops. Its namesake vine grew on the outside of the building, and I rubbed a few hop cones in my fingers and sniffed. Ambrosia. We went in, and the rustic barn was hopping with people that out-aged us by 20 years at least. The wines were generally inexpensive, as Hop Kiln has a tradition of making jug wines. Still, for the price, the nonvintage Big Red blend was a great value at $13.50. I picked up a bottle for another co-worker who professed to be a "wine virgin." I couldn't think of a better bottle to start appreciating wine with. It was bold, fruity, not too tannic, and while not complex, I'd tasted much simpler wines that day for twice the price.

Next, at the insistence of the Alcotouristess, we visited the Korbel Sparkling Wine estate, a sprawling ode to yeast and tour buses. We tasted some grocery store champagne, looked at the deli, and left. Still, it was a refreshing afternoon break.

We then headed south to Topolos, where I thought we'd taste and then have dinner at their on-site restaurant. We found the winery in surprising disarray. All wines were on clearance and the restaurant was closed. Someone had bought the property, and Topolos appeared to be in the middle of its last gasp. We tasted anyway, but found nothing remarkable. I mused we weren't giving Topolos a fair shake because of palate fatigue, but we were pleasantly relieved of that presumption at Bevedere (more on that later). The wines were shabby and unremarkable. One thing of interest was a thank you note on the wall from former first lady Hillary Clinton. They had poured Topolos wines at an estate dinner for some Greek diplomat, and sent their kudos and a picture. That was nice. I'm sure Laura Bush is too busy firing her chefs to ever send out a thoughtful thank-you like that to a winery, and anyway, her psychotic husband is (now) a professed teetotaller.

We made it to Belvedere by 5:30, and found a revelatory Zin and the best Pinot we'd tried all day. The Zin was lively and complex, but not too staid, and the Pinot was smooth and delicate with multiple layers on the palate—the best I'd had outside of Santa Barbara County. Anyway, the grounds at Belvedere were beautiful, with multiple picnic tables on a terraced lavender garden. They also do something here that few other wineries do—they sell wine by the glass, and let you enjoy it outside. The sun was going down on the hill behind us, and we took our glasses out to a secluded picnic table, fetched the rest of our pizza from the car, and watched the reflection of the sunset on the high east hills of the valley. They told us to sample the Pinot grapes in the adjacent vineyard, and we did. Marvelous. We finished our pizza, and walked around the grounds, scaring up quail and enjoying the breeze as it wafted through the eucalyptus. We stayed until after 6, but the folks at the counter didn't mind. Everyone was enjoying the waning sun.

One weird thing about the experience was that Belvedere used a pneumatic wine corker. It is essentially a carbon-dioxide-driven hypodermic needle that you inject past the bottom of the cork, and then blast the inert gas into the bottle until the cork pops. Over the top.

We then took a drive up to Lake Sonoma and hiked around for a while. I then got it in my head that we should take the mountain road to the beach, which was 34 miles of hairpin turns, high climbs, and dizzying descents. Way too ambitious after the day we had. By the time we reached the ocean, we had to look at it by moonlight. We tried to find a better road back by going south on the PCH, but that was harrowing as well. We finally made it back to Geyserville past 11:30, exhausted. The Alcotouristess was carsick, and not even the plank-hard bed at the Geyserville Inn could thwart our impending unconsciousness.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Day 1 in Wine Country: Healdsburg

Having arrived rather late on the scene in northern Sonoma County, we found ourselves with very limited time to sample the local beverages. Our first stop was Simi, a winery in the Healdsburg area. The exterior was pretty enough, with some nice plants and flowers surrounding a stone building. Alas, inside, one got the feeling of entering a Wal-Mart: an elderly greeter stood in our path, telling us of prizes to be won by filling out reply cards, of wine chillers to be purchased and so on. We made our way around the woman like we were navigating some nursing home video game, only to be welcomed to the tasting counter by a kindly old man who popped up like the next figure at the shoot 'em up arcade, wanting to tell us all about the wine club. He reminded us of the indelible spokesman on the Empire Carpet commercials, with his slithery chain-smoking whisper. I should have been so lucky as to have had a few quarters and a plastic gun as he went on and on about why we should join, writing his name on the application he foisted across the counter while we sipped wines only slightly above average. I perked up a little only when he said their wine club contained wines form other wineries. Maybe they would be better.

Since it was early into our trip, the Alcotourist and I had not yet polished our strategy and ended up with a bottle of Petit Sirah. At this point our game-day logic was that if we had to pay to taste but the tasting fee was waved with purchase, buy something drinkable and not too pricey. Alas, now we have this bottle of Petit Sirah I hardly remember tasting.

Our next stop was Seghesio, a family-owned winery just minutes away from Simi--but of another breed entirely. Delicious Italianate wines. Yummy Zin. The only old person around was Ed Seghesio himself, and he was affably chatting with visitors, not trying to get you to fill out forms or buy a hat. Things not on the tasting menu were opened, savored. A pleasant Barbera, fine for drinking with a nice pasta dinner. A great Tuscan blend, the 2002 Omaggio, which story goes the younger Seghesios created in homage to their elders like Ed himself. At $45, a price high for that area but cheap in Napa terms, it turned out to be one of the best values for the price we ended up tasting all weekend, and we happily got a bottle to tuck into our wine fridge at home for a great pasta meal. Ed signed the bottle himself with sparkling gold ink, and told us to go get some great Italian food at Santi in Geyserville. We took this advice Sunday eve and were not disappointed--more on that later. If you go, Ed recommends the tripe.

Having dipped our toes into wine tasting, the Alcotourist and I were ready to check in to our hotel before heading out to a dinner revolving around another of our beverage passions, good beer. Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg delivers just that, and with a grin. The Pete Brown Tribute Ale I had was nutty and smooth with a lot of body and a hint of sweetness. I also tasted the Alcotourist's Racer 5 India Pale Ale, which was just bitter enough to give a good kick, floral, strong and hoppy. The food was fair (it is mostly burgers and fries) and the T-shirts are great, so it's worth a stop.

Full and fizzy-headed, we called it a night in wine country. We had an ambitious day ahead of us the next morning, with trips to the Alexander Valley and beyond.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


We travel a lot, and we invariably receive much pleasure from sampling the local hooch. We're geeky enough about it that we thought we could parlay our musings into entertainment. We've got a backlist of trips we'll work on posting, and then we'll give you the new scoop as it happens.

Before you read, please understand that while we don't claim to be wine, beer, and spirits authorities, our opinions are usually correct because we have better palates than, well, you. Don't expect any lengthy dissertations on Chardonnay, light beer, or vodka (yes, I said VODKA) here. On the other hand, if you're into Bordeaux blends, Super Tuscans, India Pale Ales, Imperial Stouts, Single Malts, and puro de agave, this may be the place for you.

Despite what may come off as a snobby attitude (it's not, you Philistine), we will certainly slum it from time to time and pontificate on the finer points of Schlitz lager ("it's the kiss of the hops!") and the like. Stay tuned.

—The Alcotourists.