Volumes have been written about the wineries, restaurants and environs of the Napa/Sonoma area of Northern California, but until you go, you can’t understand why writers and visitors become so enamored.
I was a bit dubious about visiting this much-touted area, fearing it might have become just one big cliché. I’m glad to say, however, that we found Napa/Sonoma charming, relaxing, delicious and so varied that it would take multiple trips to tire of the area. After our visit, I concluded that even if I had not tasted one wine, the scenery and ambiance was worth the ticket.
Driving north through Napa Valley on Highway 29 recently, my husband and I got dizzy trying to read all the signs marking the various. Some we recognized – most we didn’t – and now I know why. There are more than 1,000 wineries in Napa/Sonoma, according to the Wine Institute, and volumes have been written about them, so where to begin?
The bad news is that I can’t answer that question.
The good news is that I can tell about four wineries, all of which I’d recommend. Each has wine worth sampling and a rich history that has shaped this valley of vineyards.
· Long Meadow Ranch Winery- (St. Helena) – www.longmeadowranch.com. This tasting room is just south of St. Helena’s historic downtown on Highway 29. Visitors sample in a beautifully renovated clapboard Victorian that sits adjacent to majestic redwood trees. We found the Sauvignon Blanc to be just as described by our hostess Donna Smith: “like summer in a bottle.” I’m no expert, so I defered to my husband on the 2004 and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignons, which he pronounced as excellent. Just few steps away is the Farmstead Restaurant, a unique sister enterprise that I address in the companion column. Preview: It’s not be missed.
· Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) – www.ehlersestate.com. Kevin Morrisey clearly loves being manager of this certified organic vineyard that surrounds the historic winery building. He smiles broadly when talking about its mission — to fund the Fondation Leducq, a French charitable organization based in Paris and Boston that funds heart disease research. (Its philanthropist sold all his businesses except this winery to fund the foundation, but all profits from the winery also go into the foundation.) Ehlers is situated at the narrowest point in Napa Valley, taking advantage of the winds that pull in morning fog to nourish the grapes and also prevent sunburn. The grapes are happily attended at all stages by two families of workers, rather than bringing in contract crews for harvesting and pruning. Morrissey says that Ehlers’ grapes receive a lot more TLC than most because of this continuity of care. The “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon is divine.
· Buena Vista Carneros (Sonoma) – http://buenavistacarneros.com. This winery sits minutes from Sonoma’s historic town square in a lush, leafy glen, and offers a cool, dark tasting room – a welcome respite on a hot summer day. I will forever remember what I learned from Quinn Martin, a human encyclopedia on food and wine pairing. Let me clarify; I won’t remember everything (thank goodness for the printed summary), but I now have an unprecedented appreciation of what wine and food can do for each other. Martin spoke of balance, acids and tannins, sweet and salty, flavor and feel. We understood it all after sampling meat, olives and various cheeses with several Buena Vista wines. Buena Vista’s history includes resident ghosts of the caves, supposedly the spirits of the many workers who were entombed by several earthquakes. The caves were closed to tourists several years ago because of safety concerns, but you can peek through the gates.
· Landmark Winery (Kenwood/Sonoma County) – www.landmarkwine.com. Its history reaches only to 1974, but nonetheless holds a place in valley lore. Landmark was founded by the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, inventor of the steel plow. A shiny model of a Deere tractor is displayed at the winery. In 1989, Landmark relocated to the scenic foothills of Sugarloaf Ridge, where it also began a new era of grape production and winemaking. Our host, Deanna Holzapfel, led us on a leisurely tour through the gardens, under large shade trees and to the airy tasting room, dominated by a towering mural, a whimsical depiction of a bug’s eye view of a vineyard. Visitors can stay overnight in a guest cottage or suite; both offer restful views of Sugarloaf Ridge. Landmark wines, often named for people and places dear to the Deeres, are listed among the Top 100 in WineMaker magazine.
When to visit Napa/Sonoma is debatable. Summer weekdays are good if you want to avoid the crowds; the crush-rush (September/October) is exciting, but finding a parking space anywhere could be a challenge.
I was intrigued by one suggestion – that the post-crush days of November are quite spectacular with cooler days and vineyards of crimson, orange and gold.
Nearly all of these wineries host special events, concerts, tastings and tours throughout the year, so check their Web sites. For an excellent, detailed, wineproof guide of Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, Healdsburg and Alexander valleys, visit http://www.mapeasy.com/products.cfm?location=61 to purchase a $7 map that will serve you well..