Friday, April 4, 2014

Wine and Rain

Apparently there's been a drought here for nearly a year so when we'd been planning our trip we immediately thought raincoat for when droughts break, rains often come in biblical proportions.  So it was on our mini-trip to Napa and back.

The photo op at the Golden Gate Bridge was very truncated and indeed we didn't stop in Sausalito at all as planned as the rain was peaking by that point, but by the time we reached Muir Woods, the nearest redwood forest around, it had cleared up a bit to the point where the prospect of a nice stroll in the woods didn't involve pneumonia as a potential outcome.

The big 1,000+ year old trees were amazing.  Apparently global warming could kill the last remnants -- they are pretty much only in the Pacific coast areas of California and Oregon.  Only an 8 or 9 degree rise in average temperatures could take care of these magnificent trees.

Leaving Muir Woods we found another lovely vista where the US military in 1942 had set up watching stations in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour as the worry about Japanese attack on the US mainland reached fever pitch.  The view was amazing but I'd guess that after a while the men posted up there would get sick of it and the very long walk back to civilization.  These days amazing homes cling to the Marin cliffs overlooking the ocean.

Moving along we were feeling peckish and found a roadside diner in Sonoma County which is between Marin and Napa moving left to right from the Pacific Ocean.  It is not elegant but the food was great.  I can imagine it being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Viv had found a place 1 mile from downtown Napa to stay but as we arrived so did the rain in the aforementioned biblical proportions.  The prospect of a nice stroll into and back out of town after some wine and a nice dinner evaporated. However the local taxi service (Black Tie Taxis) came up trumps with some big cars to transport the 6 of us into Napa which seems a nice little town next to the Napa River.

Apparently this was the winter staging point for gold miners who moved up into the mountains in the 1849 gold rush and so had the highest number of brothels per capita in the US for several years.  Wine has taken the place of the world's oldest profession and there are now nearly 500 wineries in the valley.  Some very expensive indeed.

We'd taken the simple expedient of going into the first restaurant/bar we could find and sitting down.  As the rain had amazingly increased in fervor at this point, there was no realistic chance of us moving.  The attendant charmingly asked whether we'd like to order food at interludes but in reality we were there to drink wine and avoid the rain.

The wine menu was really good though with many well known wines available for hundreds of dollars in Bermuda priced very reasonably -- we started off with a Stag's Leap cabernet priced at $68, a mid-range price for an average wine in Bermuda, and carried on upwards from there.  We did eat as well and by the time the place closed (at 9 pm!!!) we had had a great time at the Pear Restaurant.

Next day was our wine tour with Platypus Tours and the guide picked us up around 10.30 and took us to our first winery experience by 11.15!  He was a mine of information too.

The Napa Valley is long and thin.  At its southern end it touches the Bay Area where temperatures are 10-15 degrees cooler than in the northern most part, Calistoga, so the wine varietals differ the further up the valley you go.  It was made wine friendly in the late 1800's when northern Italians moved into the area.  The region reminded them of home.  Apparently the southern Italians stayed on the east coast and started the Mafia.  Hence you have the Gallo, Mondavi and Pestoni names among others prominent in the area.

They also illegally transported their home vines from Europe to Napa.  The French came soon after the Italians so there are probably more French grape varietals than any other in the valley.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are the two big production lines.  Sonoma interestingly is more Chardonnay because of the different climate conditions on the other side of that range of hills.

The first place we went to was the Hopper Creek Winery where Darren greeted us.  He seemed the epitome of the California surfer dude except that he was from Detroit and had a masters degree in Food Science.  However he was hugely informative and entertaining and talked non-stop for probably an hour and a half.

Darren at Hopper Creek

He provided tips for we non-pros to use when evaluating wine most of which I have already forgotten but one that I do recall is don't swirl and sniff.  All you then get is alcohol fumes.  Tilt the glass, twirl and then sniff at the side.  Then you smell the wine.  Another was the color.  He had a color chart showing fruit in many glasses.  The color of the wine is the same taste as the color of the fruit.  It all sounds sensible to me but I couldn't taste apricots, apples or whatever in the wines.

Following Darren would be tough and Pestoni simply didn't bother trying.  Their wines were nice enough but the staff really couldn't have cared less.  And this is something that our tour guide pointed out.  The valley has 5 million people a year coming to visit so they simply don't have to try any more.  The free tastings have largely disappeared with some offsetting the cost of a tasting against any wine sales (this was the case at all the wineries we visited with one exception).  It has become a large corporate enterprise.  Hopper produces 1,000 cases per year and Pestoni 7,000.  By contrast Gallo in all its different guises produces 65 million cases.

Next up was Flora Springs with its man made cave that keeps the wine at a constant 58 degrees during its barrel process and the guy there, Jason, really made us feel welcome, which was nice.  It also meant we were more amenable to buying wine there but as I reviewed the day later on it did seem that I managed to buy wine from all of the wineries!

Flora Springs' wine caves

These places are beautiful too.  Cost per acre starts around $300,000 in the valley so its a major investment if you plan on starting up a winery.  2 plants equal one bottle so every little bit counts!  Darren had said that some wineries traditionally planted rose bushes at the end of each line of vines partly because they were a pre-warning of potential blights but also because in the old days when baskets of picked grapes were picked up by horse and cart, the horses and of course carts would often trample the last couple of bushes.  But because horses don't like being pricked by roses, they'd steer well clear of the rose bushes and accordingly the last couple of bushes would be saved from a trampling.

Our final choice for the day was Viv's for bubbles, and it was Domaine Chandon who'd been in the valley for 100 years and initially wanted to buy up most of the land.  However Mondavi beat them to it and picked all the hill tops.

The bubbles were nice and so was Napa!

Mind you most places we looked at to eat closed at 8 pm.  This really is the country!!

The end of a long, hard day

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