June 1, 2012 – Last night we revised our winery choices, and today it’s time to learn about wine. We both like wine but don’t know too much about it, and we certainly haven’t tried many varieties. We thought that California wine country seemed like a logical place to begin learning about wine and sampling the different varieties. Napa and Sonoma may be the most well-known wine growing areas, which was actually why we wanted to avoid them. Not that we have anything against them per se, but $10+ tasting fees (some going into the $20+ range), crowds, tour buses and traffic gridlock just didn’t sound like fun to us.
So we headed towards the Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley areas and Healdsburg, CA. These wineries tend to be set in the middle of vineyards (either their own or someone elses), with pretty views of the hillsides and not a tour bus (or crowded window-shopping district) to be found. In other words, just what we were looking for. We had a list with the wineries we wanted to visit (selected in part on reviews, and in part on participating in the Visa Platinum program), and their opening/closing times.
First up was Twomey Cellars. We got there right when their tasting room opened at 10am – hey, we were on vacation and we had a lot of wine to try. And really, there’s never a bad time for wine. This was a fun first stop, the tasting room is large and bright with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards. We split a tasting, which is our recommended approach since it’s easier to sample a variety of wines from different vineyards. We liked all of their wines. Surprisingly, Louisa preferred the white, while Tony liked the full-bodied red.
Next we ventured down the road to Dry Creek Vineyard. The tasting room is set in an old barn, with high ceilings, lots of dark wood and a ship theme. Apparently the vineyard owner used to live on the East coast and brought his love of sailing to CA. This winery has a much different feel from Twomey; Twomey was very relaxed, and a good place for wine newbies. Dry Creek is a little more focused on trying to sell you their wine, and quickly lost interest in us once they found we live in MA (it seems that it’s almost impossible to ship out-of-state wine to MA, something about protecting local MA wineries). Anyway, the wine was fine, but the atmosphere was stuffy and off-putting. Overall, this was our least favorite winery of the day.
Next, we headed up into the hills towards Sbragia Family Vineyards. Sbragia is set up on a hillside overlooking the valley; we were admittedly slightly apprehensive about entering the tasting room, since we weren’t sure what the “feel” of the room would be. Winery merchandise was nicely displayed, and there were several walls of windows looking over the valley. The workers were younger here than at the other wineries, but they knew their wines and a bit of history of the winery (for instance, the owner gets some of his grapes from the town dentist, who has a little grape-growing business on the side). We really liked these wines, and the atmosphere was much more relaxed than our previous experience.
After enjoying our wine and the nice view we continued futher into the hills towards Lake Sonoma. The hill region feels even dryer and hotter than the valley, but does have the benefit of a slight breeze as the elevation increases. There’s also a nice overlook on one of the hills surrounding the lake.
So what to do when it’s lunch time and 90 degrees outside? Stop at a little corner groccery store, complete with the original wood floorboards, of course – in this case, the Dry Creek General Store. There were only one or two cars when we drove by it before noon, but by 12:45 people were parking along the road. We didn’t have to wait long for food, though, and even found an open picnic table under the store awning. We each ordered sandwiches, and split a bag of home made sweet chili-seasoned potato chips and a monster rice krispies treat. The food was very good, we’d definitely eat here again if we’re in the valley.
We pondered the 90 degree heat as we walked back to the car, and decided that it was, indeed, hot. That didn’t stop us from heading over to Simi Winery for a tasting and their tour. We got there around 1:30 for the 2:00 tour, so we actually did the tasting ahead of time. We each tried four of their reserve wines. Each had a complex flavor profile, with lots of different flavors and multiple varieties of grapes blended together. Then it was time for the tour. The group wasn’t too big, maybe 12 people altogether, and made it fairly easy to hear the tour guide.
We learned a lot about the history of the winery, which was run by two brothers and then taken over by the eldest brother’s daughter after the brothers died. She was in her late teens/early twenties at the time, but had picked up a lot of knowledge of the business from working with her father and uncle all her life. She figured out how to keep the winery running through Prohibition – she volunteered to make the Communion wine. The guide pointed out the differences in stone work on the winery – one half was made by regular laborers, and the other half was made by master Italian stone masons. We got to see quite a lot on the tour, from different vats used to store the grapes, oak barrels used to age the wine, large steel vats used to blend the wine (80% of one grape, 15% of another, then two other varieties could comprise one wine), and the actual cellar where the barrels are stored. We also learned that sometimes the full barrels are burned to impart a smokey flavor to the wine.
We were so impressed with their wines that after the tour was up we split two more kinds. At this point we discovered that the oak barrels impart a vanilla flavor to the wine; Tony likes strong cherry and vanilla notes, and bonus points of it’s smokey, while Louisa does not. She prefers green apple and citrus (as long as it’s not grapefruit).
By now it was around 3pm, and next up on the list was Clos du Bois. The tasting room has a three sided bar in the middle of a large, open, window-filled space. It’s designed to support a few dozen visitors, though it was just us and one other couple this afternoon. We each got our own glasses this time, and were impressed with the wines. Unlike Simi (and like most other wineries we went to), there is very little blending of grape varietals and the large percent of each wine is from one kind of grape. The flavors were simpler, in a good way, with several strong flavors and one or two supporting ones.
We drove by Trentadue Winery and then turned around to go in, since we saw a sign that said they were tasting port today. This tasting room was quite small, and the 10 people (including us) made it quite full. We squeezed in at the bar and perused the samples. The tasting let us pick any 4 that we wanted to try; we finished with the chocolate port, which may be one of the best things we tried today. This was also the first time we’d met some “hard core” wine afficionados, asking about and identifying the exact type and ratio of grape, taking a tiny sip and then dumping the rest of the wine, etc. The worker knew the answers to their questions, but was also quite laid back and nice when interacting with us. So kudos to them on keeping a good balance and making “regular folks” feel at home as well.
Trione Vineyards was our last stop. We ended up having a fairly quick tasting, mainly because a fairly rowdy group arrived around the same time we did. These wines were earthy, and the tasting room had more of a country/casual feel with the staff providing good information about the wines sampled.
After the wine tasting we walked around downtown Healdsburg and settled on a quick dinner at Taqueria el Sombrero; the food was alright but more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican. We each tried burritos; the beans were refried, and the meat was good but nothing really special. However, it is quick and cheap, and the tortilla chips and salsa that came with the meal were really pretty good.
On the plus side, the quick dinner did give us time to drive to the coast. The coast isn’t very far away, but to get there you have to take winding back roads through small towns. We made it in time for sunset, though, and had a pulloff to ourselves to watch the sky change to muted yellow and purple. We tried a different route on the way back to the hotel; this road was even more windy, and seemed to go from curve to curve without any straight section.