Napa and Sonoma - wine country

Purple gold as far as the eye can see

It is almost a criminal offense to visit San Francisco and not hot foot it up to wine country. If you don’t drink, don’t worry, neither do I, it’s not obligatory (although I’m sure it helps!). The major places you’ll hear gurgled about as insufferable sommeliers slurp their way across a wine menu are Sonoma and Napa. Even though I no longer drink, I am fascinated by wine, the making of it, the varieties, so bear with me while I blurb about what I learned from my jaunts to wine country.

Napa (head north east across the Golden Gate Bridge) has about 400 wineries, it’s 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. It is the famous wine spot for two reasons, firstly “Cab is King”, Napa produces 70% red wine and 30% white. What do most people lash into of an evening?… beer, beer beer… no, red red wine. Secondly, in 1976 Napa held an event called the Judgement of Paris, where established revered French wines vied against California hippy vino in a blind taste test. California’s tasty grapes came out on top! A journalist for Time magazine happened to witness the event, his story was picked up by the New York Times, the rest is history. A ‘rematch’ was called for in 2006, once again California won :)

Some of Dom's best mates showed up
I’ve never stayed in Napa town itself but friends say use it as a base not a homestead. You could easily do four wineries in a day, some you have to book in advance if they are popular or do set tours, others you can rock up to. Some I have visited include Andretti, V Sattui, Franciscan, Whitehall Lane. V Sattui has a great wine shop attached so you can kill some time “tasting” at the bar with the shop providing lots of wine and cook books, kitchen devices, and wine paraphernalia to grab your blurry attention as you stumble out the door. I left Dom and my Dad to puncture their way through the tasting menu as I picked up smelly cheeses, crunchy crackers and curious dips for an impromptu picnic in the sunshine.

The best thing about Napa is that you can hire bikes and pedal your way around the vineyards, bingo, we have a winner.

The vineyards of northern California can trace their way back to the Spanish priests responsible for creating the mission churches along the coast in the 1700s. They grew the grapes to create communion wine. The priests “Mission grapes” are still grown and harvested to this day in small quantities (but I’m told the taste is not for everyone).

Napa is nice, bear in mind California produces 90% of America’s wine but, despite it’s fame, Napa only produces 4% of this (shocking but true). Beside Napa (slightly closer to San Francisco and in my opinion slightly better to visit) is Sonoma. It is here that a European pioneer, Count Haraszthy, came in the 1800s in search of ‘purple gold’ and started a winery that still exists to this day called Buena Vista winery.

He was initially very successful using grapes other than the common place mission grapes. He looked to European samples to improve California’s wines. Alas, it was his travels back from Europe with these sample that may have been his undoing. The US soil in his winery became infected with a louse from his travels - tsk, those lousy Europeans ;). His wine turned brown, his purple gold was no more. However, the wine business is an ever evolving dynamic environment. Nowadays a root stock is used to stop the rot while maintaining a European varietal on top, the best of both worlds. Haraszthy is credited with having the biggest influence on the development of California as a wine region and his books and teachings are still held in esteem to this day.

I love Sonoma, when my brother Lochlann was in town we motored up to Healdsburg, parked the car close to the town square and let the fun begin. Healdsburg is picture perfect. If you’ve ever seen the show Gilmore Girls (ahem, guilty pleasure) it’s essentially that town. A jazz festival was scat-scat-paa-doo-bee-tee-wah-ing it’s way all over the village green (erm, I mean town square, I forget which country I’m in!). Presumably lured there by a smoky trombone (or is that the name of a jazz artist!), we saw lots of art and craft stalls with expensive hippies hovering around them, high on a riff. The square is lined with little wineries, wedged in between ‘old town’ shops, antique stores, dinky homeware outlets, ice cream parlours, candy stores, allll the good stuff.

I think I bought something in every winery we went into! At each pit stop I would declare with building sincerity that I would retire to Healdsburg. All the staff in these places were on for a chat, there’s nothing like cracking open a bottle to loosen the tongue.

A good time to visit wine country is the summer. Juicy grapes hang low in the vineyards growing until July, then over three weeks they turn to red, in autumn harvest begins once the right Brix level is reached (the sugar alcohol level). Grapes are picked in the cool of the morning to grab them at the right skin consistency. Whatever you pick has to be pressed that day. An experienced picker can pick 50 clusters of grapes a minute. Napa use hand pickers for quality control not machine picking. It takes me half an hour (no machine) to pick out a pair of shoes for the day!

Roll out the barrel!
The larger wineries then use machines to skin and crush the grapes. For red wine the skin and seeds are kept on and put into a fermentation tank for 10-14 days. The colour and tannin comes from the skin. After maturation period the first juice to flow out is called ‘the first run’. A person will get in the tank and shovel out the pulp (bags not getting that job!). The wine can then be put through a presser to make ‘pressed wine’, this will be stronger than ‘the first run’. The wine is stored in oak barrels. the first cut of an oak tree is used for barrels, the second cut is used for furniture. The red wine stays in the barrels for 1-2 years. With white wine you only ferment the juice not the skin and press immediately. White usual goes in stainless steel tanks but chardonnay may go in an oak barrel.

Wine making 101 over, you now know all you need to know to get tasting.

They say to engage all your senses when tasting, you have to be prepared to be that eejit, the one slurping, blowing, gurgling, swirling, smelling, swirling again to oxygenate the wine’s compounds, smelling again this time accidentally submerging your nose half an inch, shouting out things like “it’s got great legs”, “it’s oaky with a pinch of tobacco and a cheeky tang of loganberries...snarlfe, snarfle”. Don’t worry if the swirling dervish beside you can detect 12 distinct smells and tastes (“Oh, all the aromas, I feel like I’m back in 1920s Casablanca, where’s that waiter, play it again Sam”) remember it is just grapes and yeast, you’re smelling different notes coming from the grapes, there’s no right or wrong.

You’re supposed to observe how the wine ‘looks’, is it dark, light, does it remind you of the rays bouncing off the pyramids as the husky sun hangs low in a purple Cairo sky, that kind of carry on.

While tasting you’re meant to feel the expression from the grapes. They say take three sips before you judge. Sip one will be influenced by what’s on your palette already, sip two will give you a good indication of the wine, and sip three is just for fun, sip four onwards and you’ve gone rogue.

It’s important to ‘hear’ your wine, we’ve all had conversations with bottles of wine but try and put your college days behind you and clink the glass of the person next to you. Listen out for the ping, and if you’re a totally wild character maybe even strike up a conversation with fellow winos.

If you hit it off, buy some wine and head to a restaurant. I’m not sure how true this is but rumour has it, it is state law in California that you can bring your own bottle of wine to any restaurant and they have to let you open it and drink it. I presume you have to order food first!

If you can’t/won’t/don’t care to drive from Napa back to San Francisco you can get to Vallejo for 3 bucks on a shuttle and get the ferry back to SF. The highlight of the ferry ride for me was passing San Quentin prison, not because I hope to end up there one day but because of legendary singer and effortlessly cool Johnny Cash... “San Quentin, you’ve been a living hell to me”.

I feel like I haven’t visited wine country enough. As a fan of Francis Ford Copolla’s movies, I am extremely keen to check out his Sonoma vineyards and yes I will quote the Godfather incessantly on the ride up there. The French Laundry is a michelin starred restaurant in Napa Valley that you have to sells your eyeballs to get a reservation for. I simply must go, with or without my eyeballs. 

All that talk of wine….hhhmmm

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