I have not been updating my blog for a year. I've been working. There were times when I thought that it (writing a blog) isn't my thing and that I felt inferior compared to the "real" wine professionals writing about their experiences. I set the blog aside for a while, even though there would have been (and still are) many wines to review. I kept reading and commenting others, fulfilling my wine nerdy side without producing much text. Now that summer is here and I have time, I thought I'd get back up on the saddle again and write about the trip to California, June 2013.
|Mr. Tourist on a bridge.|
San Francisco had been a dream. One of those must-go-to cities you think you hype up so much, that when you actually get there it can't be anything else but a let-down. Believe me, it wasn't. We flew in as newlyweds, still pumped from the wedding, happy as ever, tired after a 11 hour flight (about 20 hours total travel time). We jumped straight into the core of SF, the lively Financial District, just next to the infamous Tenderloin and the busy Union Square (Hotel Abri - recommended!). This was our first U.S. visit, so the positive culture shock hit us and stayed with us quite a while as we observed things in awe, doing little walks around the neighborhood trying to inhale the atmosphere and get a grasp on our surroundings. After getting over the first buzz and meeting our friends we instantly fell in love with the city. And believe me it is easy - liberal, IT-orientated, old school skateboarding, surfing, eco-friendly, picturesque parks, great imaginative restaurants, architectural gems hidden everywhere, with a lively art scene and tons of culture - my kind of place. The mood was set for an amazing trip. Writing this post makes me want to go back as soon as possible. This is not about the city itself, though. I could write a whole other post about the things we experienced and great times we had with friends over there. This is about the wines.
|Raymond posing for the picture, I'm having opinions.|
We headed up to world famous Napa Valley for a few days. Toured the town and observed the wine culture and life in general. Everyone going to town in Napa should visit Bounty Hunter, which has a fantastic selection of wine and good quality food. There are many tasting rooms and wine bars in town, but Bounty Hunter struck out as the one where they had the perfect combination of a laid back bar with top quality wines. I felt relaxed there, definitely none of that stuck up tasting room awkwardness or U.S. style customer service marketing jargon that it could have been. The highlight was Grignolino by legendary Heitz. A freaky, zesty, somewhat acidic wine that brought to mind some Pinot Noirs I've had. A great structure, lots on your palate to soak in, but none of that "hits you like a truck" feel. This is a great lighter red I wish I had as my summer table wine. Note to self: Make plans to travel to Piedmont, Italy for some more of this.
Our main tour of Sonoma Valley (right next to Napa) was arranged with the help and expertise of Raymond, who runs Wine Cube Tours. I recommend services like Raymond's, if not for the good info and great company, but at least getting you off the hook from driving, since there is a lot to taste. A superb service! The infrastructure in the area is fantastic compared to many other wine regions, with tasting rooms close to each other you can hit up many places in a single day. The common opinion seems to be that Sonoma offers more interesting, exiting and creative wineries compared to Napa, which is a bigger, more business orientated and much more established area. My search for the perfect Zinfandel quickly faded away when I realized the bravery these winemakers had on experimenting. You'd have classic french varieties grown in most places, but you'll see varieties from all around the world being grown. I like this attitude, that in the midst of a fast-growing (and learning) industry they have the balls to try out new stuff and not just simply work on perfecting the styles they already have.
|VJB, Italy, anyone?|
Of all the places we visited, I'd say Sonoma's real treats for us were VJB, Imagery & Amapola Creek.
Mind you, these places were vastly different from each other, but all situated within a 30min drive. VJB is a family owned estate with deep Italian roots and oh boy does it show. They've built a big plaza type of inner courtyard, equipped with a tasting room and a mouthwatering outdoor pizza restaurant. The wines were luscious, nice full bodied reds with no question where their roots are. They did deliver with the Zin - Their Russian River Zinfandel cleared all my worries of the table about finding a Zin not too jammy, thick and boring. The rim was set higher than I could imagine.
|That outdoor pizza, though|
Imagery had a completely different approach to, well, everything, I guess, with high quality wine making being the only big thing in common with these two. Imagery was an artist's winery. A lively place full of art, some related to wine, some local artists works on display. These guys were big in experimenting with lesser known varieties. They had artists paint really cool labels and for people looking for something different, their organized chaos in a laid back environment touches your inner artist. The wine that stuck to mind here was their Riesling, which was one of those Rieslings with residual sugar, not the acidic type. These have been a hit or miss. Some greats coming from Mosel, some even lighter ones from Alsace, and the hit in recent years, Kung-Fu Girl from Washington State. I'd place Imagery's 2012 Riesling into this league of softer balanced-with-sugar Rieslings, that maintain their girth. It had nice floral tones, fruity, perfumy feel, a classic Riesling vibe from the nose.
|Imagery and some bottle holders.|
Then there is Amapola Creek, which for me was the absolute highlight of our tastings. Richard Arrowood is a legend. He has over 45 years of experience and the fact that he has went for smaller, more focused production in his older years is just a superb move. As we went through everything they make, from wine to wine I had a big smile on my face. The overall quality, tones and finishing touches were on a level that most places only wish to one day achieve. Whenever you have a privilege like this to visit and taste such quality, you leave with this sadness, remembering that you'll probably not taste these wines again for a long time. The production quantities keep the wines in hands of lucky locals, and mostly domestic consumption. I brought back the Zin and I have not had the balls to open it yet. Needs to be a special moment.
This brings me to my final thoughts on the area and its wine making: pricing. In many places I was underestimating the pricing of wines. They'd be about 10$ more than I'd expect and I left places thinking what did I miss and why are the prices like this. Yes, small production, low yields, boutique stuff etc. There is more to that, though. It is the U.S. style branding and marketing in the works. They sell the wine, image, brand and experience as a package and you can feel it in the price. It has similarities to Europe, but the pricing structure in Europe has much more of a qualitative emphasis, less leaning on marketing. This makes importing to European countries a hard task for anyone. Only bigger companies, like Beringer, who deal with large quantities can actually deliver over here, because the starting price can be lowered down to an affordable level. I wish some kind of co-op would happen to bring over smaller gems from all around California. I wonder what the 24$ Imagery Riesling would be over here with taxes, closer to 35€ I guess. Amapola Creeks advantage was, that the wine actually had the qualitative aspects of being a wine where paying 45$ or 55-65€ per bottle wouldn't be a problem. That is why I smiled. The price met the expectations, blew them away so well I was ready to invest much more than they asked for. I didn't expect for this to happen in Sonoma. Mr. Arrowood, if you read this; thank you for making it happen.
|That smile tells it all|
People visiting Northern California: Go check out Sonoma and Napa. Even if it is for one day only, you'll have a great experience. The infrastructure is such a beauty that finding places isn't a chore at all.
Finns wanting to do this trip: Make sure you have enough time to explore SF, too.
We are about to embark on our next trip, which covers most of the Austrian wine regions, again waiting for a completely different adventure.
|@Deerfield. Cool cave for tastings and wine storage|