While in grad school at UC- Berkeley, I started off my wine tastings at countless Napa wineries right off the "main drag" of Hwy 29: Robert Mondavi , Heitz, Cakebread, V.Sattui, Sterling, Domaine Chandon, Beaulieu (BV), Grgich Hills, Prager Portworks, and probably several others that have since disappeared from my memory (in my defense, it *has* been almost 8 years since then... wow, tempus fugit). My recollections of these early wine tasting adventures:
- Robert Mondavi wines are what initially hooked me onto wine back in my undergrad at Eckerd College. This was rather fortuitous, since Mondavi was the first winery I ever visited, and they have (had? It's been a while...) a truly spectacular and highly educational tour and tasting. I remember having a guided tour through the winery with the guide explaining every step of the process, even stopping at a large video screen to watch a video about how the oak barrels were created - great! At the time, they made you sign up for a tour before you got to taste any of their wines. I liked this "wine education requirement" - I hope they've kept it.
- V. Sattui was memorable in that the winery has an excellent gourmet deli and cheese shop - we would always stop by V. Sattui and pick up picnic supplies, either for consumption on their beautiful grounds or elsewhere down the road. Also memorable to me was their Madeira, which used to be only sold out of their winery, but I see is now available online! Too bad I live in Maryland, specifically Montgomery County which is a wine lover's purgatory (more on this topic in a later post). Just as memorable as the fantastic Madeira was the poem they attached to each bottle of it sold - I was able to find it online here.
- I visited Sterling Vineyards mainly because of a gimmick - the vineyard is perched atop a hilltop, and they have an aerial tram to transport visitors from the parking lot up to the winery proper. It's not a particularly long ride, so not really necessary, but fun! As for the winery itself - they had a "self-guided" tour with signs posted at various spots when I was there; that didn't really do it for me. I also don't remember any wines from them in particular, but I do remember the view - it was fantastic! Sitting out on their terrace and looking down into the valley, watching the fog creep over the coastal range in the distance... spectacular.
- I'm not so sure I knew this at the time, but owner and winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich of Grgich Hills is Croatian. This is much more relevant to me now as my wife and I are also budding sailors (have taken a couple cruises to the British Virgin Islands and are working our way up the American Sailing Assocation (ASA) ladder of sailing certifications towards getting our bareboat chartering certification - ASA104). What would possibly be my absolute dream job is running a sailing & wine tasting combo chartering company, possibly out of Croatia. I am vicariously in love with the country - miles and miles of Adriatic coast, a near-perfect climate, tons of great islands to explore, and coastal wineries to boot! I sincerely hope to sail Croatia in the not-too-distant future. But I digress - Grgich Hills. So Mike Grgich is Croatian, and noticed that Zinfandel, "California's grape", tasted an awful lot like wine made from a grape from his homeland, Plavic Mali. He convinced Dr. Carole Meredith of UC - Davis to investigate. Italy's Primitivo had long been suspected as a parent or clonal variety of Zinfandel - and it has now been confirmed by Dr. Meredith that Zinfandel and Primitivo are in fact the same grape. But that still doesn't answer the ultimate question of origin: Primitivo is a relatively recent addition to Italy's crop of Vitis vinifera - it has only been documented in the boot of Italy for a couple of hundred years. After several years of searching (must have been rough fieldwork - wandering around Croatian vineyards, sampling wines and testing grapes - tough life), an almost extinct native Croatian grape called Crljenak Kasteljanski was determined to be the parent of Zinfandel/Primitivo. The holy grail of Zinfandel! So true wine geeks now refer to this grape as "ZPC" - Zinfandel/Primitivo/Crljenak. I do not aspire to such heights of wine snobbery however, so it'll always be Zinfandel to me...
- I visited Prager Portworks twice while in my Napa wine touring days; the first time was at the urging of Sarah, a college friend of mine (and hardcore knitting blogger) who at the time had a binary view of the world of wine, separating all wine into either "yummy!" or "not yummy...". At this point, anything relatively sweet earned the "yummy!" rating, while everything else was distinctly "not yummy". The first time I visited Prager was before I had gotten hooked on V. Sattui's Madeira, and thus was unprepared for a serious port tasting. I tasted the two or three unfortified wines Prager offered, and called it a day. Sarah, meanwhile, happily tasted their ports, declaring each and every one high on her yummy-scale. Fast-forward a year or so, and my discovery of the value of fortified wines. Visiting Prager a second time, I eagerly partook of their port and left very impressed by the vast differences between ports crafted from the different grapes grown on their estate. If you are even remotely interested in learning more about port wines, Prager is a must on any Napa visit.
It was right around this point that my wine education took its next step, in the direction of Sonoma County. Sonoma is very similar to Napa in terms of quality of wine, only with much windier and indirect roads leading to more far-flung wineries and significantly fewer tourists, and a distinctly more laid-back approach to wine appreciation (as evidenced by what would become my favorite Sonoma winery - Ravenswood; in fact, I still have a button stuck into my office cork board from Ravenswood - Nullum Vinum Flaccidum - No Wimpy Wines). Since this post has gone on far too long already, the "Sonoma Story" will have to wait until my next posting.