Eric and Alison landed in California on Thursday and were immediately whisked north into the wine country where we enjoyed two days tasting our way from Ukaih down to Sonoma with dinner and breakfast in between and an overnight in Santa Rosa.
The last time Alison and I were near Ukiah it was our pilgrimage many years ago to the Solar Living Center in Hopland where we learned about flushless urinals, functional passive solar heating, and other things that we’ve since applied in Maine. The center grew out of Real Goods, which is now owned by the “lifestyle company” Gaiam, which spun the Center off as a separate non-profit. The Center now hosts a growing summer festival, SolFest, which has become something of a Sundance for the alt-energy community.
This time we zipped past the Center on up to Booneville for a beer tasting followed by lunch, then further north to the Goldeneye winery for a taste of the cool weather pinot noirs they’re growing up there, which are very different from the typical Sonoma and Napa pinots. Since the “classic” Burgundies are grown way up at latitude N47 (that’s like Quebec City), sunny California practically roasts the delicate little pinot grapes. Lately winemakers have discovered the fog shrouded Mendocino coastal valleys, and there are now a bunch of wineries selling $30+ bottles of pinot up in the Anderson Valley, Goldeneye being Marc’s favorite, as well as being a beautiful spot to taste wine.
The wine was good (as was the view from the tasting room) but still disappointing in the end. I thought there was some depth to these pinots that I hadn’t tasted in Sonoma pinots, which tells me the climate bet is a winner. Unfortunately the economics of wine sales dictate that each vintage must be ready to drink now because 99% of wine buyers don’t bother to age their wine. This oeno form of Realpolitik forces the winemaker to ramp up the jammy flavors in the grape which ooze all over the other flavors and tend to make every pinot made this way taste the same.
Of course California pinot is still VERY drinkable, I’ll agree, especially when paired with a hunk of red meat, but it makes it hard to justify at $30 to $60 a bottle when you can get VERY drinkable CA zin and syrah, or Rhone/Langudoc red, or Rioja, or Barolo, or AU Shiraz for $10 to $20. By the looks of the Goldeneye property, however, they must be selling every jammy drop they make and spending a lot of proceeds on landscaping. My guess is that pinot noir / Burgundy has become a ‘status” wine among the winesnob crowd, and because it’s hard to grow “properly” the supply will always lag the demand. Marc just got his latest KLWM newsletter with pre-arrival Burgudy priced $100 a bottle and up, which would seem to prove my point.
In contrast, we also stopped at Navaro, another Marc Rector approved site that concentrates on making decent wine at decent prices. Their non-pinot wines are very good and priced between $10 and $20 and offer all the complexity you need when featuring one with a good meal.
We had happened to choose the weekend of the Russian River Wine Road event which booked up Healdsburg, so we stayed a few exits down 101 in Santa Rosa. But we had reservations in Healdsburg, which seems a lot like Camden, Maine — a pretty town full of gift shops — at a restaurant Marc and Carol had been at twice for lunch on previous visits to the wine country. We enjoyed a cocktail and salume nosh at the Dry Creek Inn, which was very pleasant if not a sterotypical Northern California experience in a high design lobby with a ditsy (but friendly!) blond hostess serving us. Dinner was good, but not great, and suffered from several serious service flaws.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of packing tape yelping as it was applied to box after box of wine being transferred into shipping boxes by another occupant at our Ramada Limited. We returned to Healdsburg for a simple breakfast, then headed into the hills to find some more wine.
The wineries each have a different personality, but they all now charge you to taste their selections — usually $5 for three to six samples. Marc actually prefers this because there is little compulsion to purchase anything if you don’t like it, and they usually refund the tasting price if you do. One memorable stop was at BR Cohn, which was so crowded we didn’t even get a chance to taste the wine. But we very much enjoyed viewing the gold and platinum records that Mr. Cohn received as manager of the Doobie Brothers, especially the photograph of Mr. Cohn in peak 1970’s fashion form.
At our last stop in the wine country — Cline — we enjoyed a light lunch before lugging our purchases around the tour buses and into the already busting trunk four our return to Union St. Cline is MY favorite winery because they’re so friendly and have none of the formal pretension that some wineries can affect (the “are you good enough to drink my wine?” attitude…), and they make GREAT wine! One significant upgrade at their winery is the creation of a separate Club tasting room, so fans of the winery don’t have to compete with the inevitable bus tours that stop at this winery which is practically the first one you pass as you head away from the City. I still have my Club card, which they readily accepted even though I can’t “participate” by accepting their semi-annual shipments of new wines because Maine doesn’t allow wine sales by mail. We tasted all the way through their excellent wines, which range from $8 (with Club discount) zinfandel and syrah (both of which are terrific), to $60 ancient vine monsters. I also learned that their family business is splitting into two groups — Cline (French and California styles) and Jacuzzi (Italian grapes and styles) — which really just means that there will be twice as much good inexpensive wine in the world from Southern Sonoma, plus a brand new tasting facility across Route 121 to enjoy.
Sunday Alison and I visited with a high school friend of mine, then we split up so I could enjoy the Patriots – Colts game on the NEW high-def flat screen. Although the Pats lost, the experience was so good, it even made the Buffalo chicken wings and barbecued mini-dogs taste better! If that’s even possible…
Monday we went down to the Ferry Terminal market where we met Alison’s aunt Paula for lunch at Hog Island Oysters. The market had not quite been completed when I last visited the Bay Area in 2003, and it was great to see it thriving on a non-market afternoon. The restaurants are all on the back of the building, on the water, looking out on the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and the incoming fleets of ferries. Two dozen oysters, two bowls of clam chowder, a grilled three cheese sandwitch, and some roast beef sushi later, we headed out to the SF Museum of Modern Art for an afternoon of enlightenment.
Hog Island Heaven
And we still have five more days of vacation to go!