Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sonoma County Partie Deux

This post is continuing my post from April 15th about my Sonoma County wine tasting experiences while living in the Bay Area. This was 6 or 7 years ago, when I knew very little about wine and only recall the "stand out" events, but I wanted to write this mainly as a way of looking back and using my current perspective on wine to better understand the great opportunities I had while living driving distance from California wine country. Yeah, these "background" posts can get sorta long, and don't have any pictures or anything visually stimulating so you may want to just skim and look for the good stuff. I tend to get off onto tangetns quite a bit, so perhaps those will be more interesting. Anyway, today I want to touch on my recollections from tastings in the Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Alexander Valley regions of Sonoma wine country as I covered Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek in my previous post.

Russian River Valley
In Northern Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley was first known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, although also produces some excellent Zinfandels and increasingly, Syrahs. This seems a little strange to me, because from my limited grape knowledge it seems that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay always "pair" well in a similar climate, one that has cooler nights (often accomplished by the coastal fog settling in and cooling things down) and a slightly longer growing season, but Zinfandel and Syrah are happy baking in the sun a bit, so I wouldn't expect to find them within the same AVA. Since it has been so long since I was there, I'd guess that the Pinots and Chards came from vineyards in the hills while the Zins and Syrahs must be grown on the valley floor.

The only winery that I visited in the Russian River Valley that left enough of an impression on me that I still remember it today was
Korbel. Up until visiting Korbel, I had never particularly cared for sparkling wine; it's not that I disliked it, but I'd just never found it to be that interesting. Slightly tart, not very flavorful wine with bubbles - big deal. I recognize now that this was likely due to two reasons: 1) The limited sparkling wine I had consumed to this point in my life was all quite cheap (as in, $3 a bottle cheap); and 2) I had typically only drank "one toast's worth" of the stuff before returning to whatever other beverage was at hand, and I had certainly never tasted two (or more) sparkling wines within months of one another, much less minutes. So it came as a bit of a shock to me to learn that there was actually a great deal of variety to sparkling wines, and that they could taste a) quite different from one another, and b) really good!

One of the things I most remember about tasting at Korbel is that they had several little tasting "carts" set up outside along a path leading throughout the grounds. I liked this approach, because it allowed for a little separation between the different groups of people tasting that day, and you didn't get that "cattle at the trough" sensation that so often occurs when too many people are crowded around a small indoor wine tasting bar. The other thing I recall is how we were instructed to taste - instead of sipping at it like still wine, we were encouraged to bottoms up and take it all as one big swig. Probably not the best advice, but it was fun at the time! I remember my favorite being the Korbel Natural. It's very easy to find and probably costs around $13, although I think I'd probably spend a couple extra dollars and pick up a Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine instead (almost as easy to find nowadays as the Korbel).

And now, an educational moment
I used to call U.S. sparkling wines (all sparkling wines, really) "champagne"; in fact, many U.S. winemakers (Korbel included) still market their product as "champagne", or even "Champagne", and at the very least mention "méthode champenoise" (i.e., made using the Champagne method), so it's not suprising that a large number of Americans refer to it in this way. However, "Champagne" has actually been a legally-protected name for the sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France for some time now. The French reaffirmed this legal protection in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (the larger purpose of which was to officially end WWI). The catch here is the although signed by President Woodrow Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by the U.S. Senate (think Kyoto Protocol); instead, the U.S. ended up making a separate peace agreement with Germany. Thus the legal protections for all things "Champagne" do not apply to U.S. winemakers, many of whom happily exploit this loophole and name their wines after renown French wine-making regions (Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy being the most obvious examples).

And while we're on the subject, lots of countries make sparkling wines: the Spanish have their Cava, the Italians have Spumante, the Germans, Sekt. Just because a sparkling wine isn't truly "Champagne" does not make it inherently inferior - I recommend trying out some of these other sparklers and see for yourself!

Green Valley (technically a sub-region of the Russian River Valley)
My then girlfriend, now wife and I visited Iron Horse Vineyards back in 2000 or so. I believe this is the only winery we visited within the Green Valley AVA. While Iron Horse does produce quite a few still wines, it was their sparkling wines that brought us there for the tasting as our visit to Korbel had made us interested in exploring the world of sparkling wines a bit.

As luck would have it, we arrived on a day where they were pressing Chardonnay. Before our tasting, we were asked if we would like to try the juice straight off the press - but of course! They dipped our tasting glasses beneath the stream of juice flowing out of the press, and handed them to us. Yum! That is definitely the best grape juice either of us have ever had - so good in fact, that I still recall it quite clearly almost 7 years later! At this point, we joked that we were sure there wine was good, but we'd just take a couple gallons of the juice to go, please. Alas, that was not to be, but at least we had the tasting to look forward to.

I only recall Chardonnay and Pinot Noir based sparkling and still wines in the tasting, but there may have been others - I see their website mentions Sangiovese, as well as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot (the final four being sourced from the T-bar Vineyard in Alexander Valley). Our favorite wine by far was their "Wedding Cuvée", a Blanc de Noirs made from predominantly Pinot Noir. We splurged and bought a bottle, and ended up saving that bottle for almost 5 years - breaking it open to celebrate when I proposed to Kris on a beach in Ventura! Needless to say, it was the perfect wine for the occasion!

Alexander Valley
I recall tasting at several wineries within Alexander Valley such as Chateau Souverain and Murphy-Goode, but it was Clos du Bois that made the biggest impression on me - and it wasn't even because of the wine! Oddly enough, what ended up being a life-altering (albeit in a very small way) experience for me was the way in which they opened their wines: it was at Clos du Bois that I first discovered the world's perfect wine opener.

The perfect wine opener
I don't think I'm alone in that I started off my bottle-opening days using a "winged" corkscrew, often referred to simply as "wings". Why this device has so thoroughly infiltrated most stores, supermarkets and kitchen drawers I'm not sure: it typically has a rather large diameter corkscrew, which really destroys the corks as you try to remove them, and downright pulverizes older, more brittle corks; the corkscrew also never seems quite long enough to fully extract the cork, so you are left tugging at the device once the wings have "closed", trying to pry those last fractions of an inch of cork out of the bottle.

Not really thinking that there may exist an alternative, I went along twisting and yanking and cursing my way through the uncorking process for many years, always rather annoyed that such a small hunk of bark could so effectively bar my entry into the treasures waiting within the bottle. I have since come to think of using wings to open wine bottles as like trying to cook using cheap, dull knives - sure, they'll do the job they were designed to do (cut things), but they'll likely badly mangle the final product in the process (ever try cutting a soft, sweet heirloom tomato with a cheap knife? It isn't pretty).

Enter the the Pulltap Wine Opener. When I saw the Clos du Bois tasting room associate whip one of these out and effortlessly open a new bottle for the tasting room, I realized that wine openers had evolved far beyond the wings with which I was accustomed. There are several aspects which make the Pulltap the perfect wine opener: 1) The serrated foil cutter - easily remove the foil blocking your access to the cork; 2) a relatively thin, Teflon-coated corkscrew - goes in easily without destroying the cork, and since it's Teflon-coated doesn't get stuck on the way out, either; 3) the dual-stage arm - you crank the corkscrew down all the wine into the cork, and use the first stage to life the cork most of the way out and the second stage to finish the job - simple!; and 4) they're cheap! You can buy them at Trader Joe's or on the 'Net for $5 or $6 dollars - forget those expensive wine openers that allow you to re-cork the bottle (that's what Vacu Vin is for). So I strongly recommend picking up a couple of these babies - your bottle-opening will be much more pleasant from now on!

Sayonara, Napa and Sonoma...
After making trips up to Napa and Sonoma for a couple years, we were ready for something different - different wines, different attitudes, and definitely a difference in the number of people crowding into the tasting rooms. That's when we stumbled across the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association's Passport Program. This great program opened up a new world of wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains for us - I'll talk about this in another post!

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