Wine is like fine art. Can’t explain why I like it. Just do, or don’t. I studiously strive to understand the complexities, savor the nose, taste the underlying notes, or chew each velvety drop to assay whether it is fruit forward. I know what I like, which usually tends to be bold, brassy reds like cabs, merlots, zins and syrahs from California or Australia. My palette was recently tested during a tasting tour through Oregon, Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries.
Every couple years, my husband Russ and I visit my daughter, Gabrielle, and her husband, Steve, in the San Francisco area. As they are the ones who ultimately converted us to bolder wines, we inevitably make tasting treks to Sonoma County wineries they frequent. Occasionally Russ and I plan routes to wine regions with which we want to become much better acquainted. This trip we revisited some favorites, checked out some Napa Valley area wineries recommended highly by our friends, Julienne and Ross, and discovered gems in Oregon’s central coast. You already know I’m a foodie, so no surprise that our road trip likewise involved uncovering mouthwatering culinary delights.
Grab a snack. Sip some wine. Take notes. You won’t want to miss out on some of our discoveries.
North to Oregon
Before heading out on the I-580W from Oakland to Eureka, CA, we dined at a new hot spot, one of the many restaurants and boutiques sprouting up on the once-again-refurbishment of the Oakland waterfront area known as Jack London Square. In fact, Boconova, a contemporary bistro of spare design, sits cattycorner to the Jack London Bar. The cuisine is a heady fusion of Central and South America ingredients melding deliciously without hitting the price points of named chefs’ bistros. Two faves worth noting: Huarache, a thin pizza more akin to flatbread coated delicately in oxaca cheese, roasted tomatoes and oregano; and slow-roasted pork tamales that had Russ fending off anyone else wanting to sample. The tamales were a deconstructed masterpiece of poached egg, queso fresco cheese, and tomatillo sauce.
First stop on our Oregon coast-road trip was Ferndale, a quaint town whose clock wound down somewhere in the late 1800’s. Eureka, 20 minutes away, bears the reputation of having a Victorian preserved business district, but it paled like sun-bleached velvet next to the old-fashioned Christmas card brilliance of Ferndale’s immaculately preserved ginger-breaded treasures.
Russ meticulously plots our trips routes and reserves our lodging after careful research of B&B or hotel options. This was our first trip without every reservation in place, wanting to not be time-bound when exploring new cities. Our only reservation was a hotel in Eureka rated tops by Trip Advisor. It didn’t live up to our expectation.
Redwoods, here we come. We began an admiring cruise through Lady Bird Redwood Grove until realizing our rental car was wheezing on the twisty, teeny roads. Coastal roads leading into Oregon slice through giant redwood stands packed so densely that speckles of light were all that was visible in the still of a mountain pass and then seconds later we were blinded by bursts of sun. Apparently July is the one month that fog doesn’t blanket the coast. With our “Wagner charm” working its magic on having the best weather possible wherever we travel, the clear skies made spotting enormous ocean-etched rocks jutting from the ocean near the shore a photographer’s dream.
Oregon knows how to seduce tourists. Give them frequent viewing areas (many with restrooms) of the heralded coast, roads that are clean and smoothly paved, lots of turnouts for leisurely driving without feeling pushed by impatient drivers, and the friendliest folk. We did not have one unpleasant encounter. It was like flower power peace, love and happiness anthem had found its final resting place. We thought we were meeting just another friendly person when we stopped for gas and a smiling young man arrived asking what we needed, where were we from and what were we planning to see? Did you know that in Oregon full-service is required at stations? Our first reaction was to look around and see if we were being punked by a TV crew.
“Aha” moments occurred frequently, such as spotting 15 elk grazing casually in a roadside field. Last time we saw wild elk was in Denali National Park in Alaska. Even then, it was only three. Traffic was light so we pulled over. We weren’t the only ones. Cameras followed as the elks meandered right up to a line of cabins, peeking in windows. They looked like they were posing for the cover of Wildlife Monthly. We didn’t see much else of Elk Meadow Cabins Resort’s grounds, but observed their sign offering wedding and group event space, assorted outdoor activities from kayaking to hiking, and of course, frequent elk visits.
Hunger pangs and the proliferation of Mexican restaurants became a call to action. We stopped at a gaily-decorated family-owned place called Pancho’s Fiesta Room in Brookings, OR. The food was so exceptional I have to recommend it. There were the expected dishes, though exceptionally robust in portion and flavors. We plopped ourselves down in a festively-quaint patio adorned with multicolored Christmas lights, painted pots, and flowering plants vined around an intricate iron fence. Other guests immediately wanted to know who we were and where we were from, all while reassuring us that we’d stumbled onto the best Mexican restaurant for miles. We began with some of the best guacamole ever: chunks of avocado, nicely spiced, abundant in quantity and a surprising $2. Russ’ chicken enchiladas were so stuffed he couldn’t finish. If you know Russ’ appetite, this would strike you as Huh? He’s a one-man enchilada eating machine. I binged on a new-to-me pork verde salad: tender chunks of pork sautéed and seasoned, dipped in a chicken ranch dressing so it was became a saucy dish served atop greens. $7. I’d have licked the plate if deemed polite.
Bedded down in Coos Bay, a small port city not exactly known for fine dining, where we stumbled onto the Blue Heron Bistro, a German (and American classics) restaurant. We shared a platter of several types of sausages, sauerkraut, red cabbage, and varied potatoes. Divinely authentic taste, friendly and attentive service, and one platter could have fed at least three. We were too full for dessert, but our waitress talked us into taking a slice of their still-warm, signature apple strudel, for our breakfast. Smart decision. It was twice the size and twice as good as one usually gets at a restaurant, which eased us past a dreary hotel breakfast.
I could tell you in infinite detail about the cascading waterfalls we hiked to get to, the beauty of Diamond Lake–a quick stop before we ventured onward to the magnificence of nearby Crater Lake (which still had hefty amounts of snow on the ground in mid-July, along with crisp weather and a glorious blue sky), but you came here to read about wineries, so let’s get to it.
Umpqua, OR Wine Region
The wine region around Roseburg reminds us of Sonoma, 30 years ago. You can easily encounter the owner or wine maker behind the counter, approachable and eager to chat. A major difference is the wineries are few and far between, so travel time to each was more than anticipated. Also, signage is poor. With Russ’ Boy Scout intuition for direction, our GPS, and a held-breath drive along some switchback narrowed curves, we ultimately succeeded.
We stopped briefly at the Brandborg Winery Tasting Room. Terry Brandborg is a former Napa winemaker who wanted to make his mark on the burgeoning Oregon wine market, so he moved to Elkton nine years ago. We caught just before he headed off to teach a new college course on wine-making, a philanthropic passion to ensure Oregon’s future as a respected wine region. Sue took over our tasting. We weren’t overly enthusiastic about their pinots (not a favorite anyway), but liked a Gewurtztraminer enough to purchase. After hearing about our wine preferences and desire to see artistically interesting wineries, she graciously offered tips on two must-go-to wineries.
Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards is an ode to a former New York couple’s career as marketing mavens, their love for wine and beautiful objects d’art, creating fanciful settings, and their strong religious beliefs. We’d heard Stephen and Gloria Reustle’s reds were just the way we like them: bold and spicy. We heard their wine cave was a sight to behold. All was true. We drove one-car-wide rutted roads for what seemed like forever, an occasional sign reminding us that we were indeed headed correctly. We drove up the winding road into a paradise carved from seeming wilderness. To the immediate right was an imaginative garden of mixed flora set against a path to nowhere of multicolored pastel tiles. An Alice in Wonderland neon blue door stood complacently, attached to nothing. Up ahead, iron tables and chairs under umbrella awnings sat fast to the edge of a wide piazza. A burbling fountain centered between the heavy Renaissance era-looking double wide wooden doors marking the way to the cave and to the winery’s business entrance.
Established in 2001, the Reustle’s have already won multiple awards. They refer to their winery as a “fairytale viticulture area where (14) varieties, clones and rootstocks are carefully selected.” Unlike many California wines, whites are aged only in stainless barrels, not oak. Pinots are aged in new French Oak barrels, which are then used for other varietals. All wines are made to pair with food, so are less sweet.
Ken and Trina from Portland, OR arrived seconds after we did and the four of us embarked on a complimentary guided wine cave tour, followed by an hors d’oeuvres-and-wine pairing for $10 each. Carved angels and biblical quotes were embedded into the cement tiled floor of the spacious wine cave. Three arched niches along the wall contained small private tasting areas perfect for an executive group. We adjourned to a patio table for four overlooking the rolling mountains, vineyards and manicured gardens. Between the information about the wines and pairings our saleswoman rendered, we discovered how serendipitous our encounter truly was. We lolled over wines and tasty bits, agreeing on most everything from politics to food, travel, and books. We liked the 2001 Semillon, with its crisp notes of apple, melon and lychee. The 2008 Pinot Noir had smooth flavors of red current, black cherry, spice, cola and coffee. The one we both bought though was the 2008 Syrah, a chewy confection of black pepper, dark berries, mocha, espresso and black truffle.
We bid a fond farewell to new friends and the delightful afternoon that brought us together. They headed off to a wedding. We departed for Abacela, the other highly recommended winery.
In 1995, Hilda and Earl Jones planted the first tempranillo in the Pacific Northwest. With hopes of duplicating the richness of Spanish wine regions known for tempranillo, they named the vineyard Abacela, meaning “to plant a grapevine.” I am not a big fan of tempranillo, nor of Spanish wine in general. Russ is. We both enjoyed Abacela and their wines, buying two fine bottles before our farewell.
The tasting room was a wide airy rectangle on 500 acres of land they’ve scarcely begun to mine for its richness in soil, climate and beauty. Though we’d planned to make it to four or five wineries that day, the time taken for Reustle and Abacela was worth narrowing our activity. Quite hungry by then, we ordered a $12 Plaza Platter that held two skewers loaded with ripe varieties of olives, slices and chunks of four cheeses (including a hard French cheese the color and taste of pumpkin), three kinds of crackers and bread, dried cranberries, almonds and bites of chocolate. We snacked on that platter for three days while driving back to California.
Refueled with food and sated with wine, we took the invitation to hike up the hill to a garden pavilion
set high above grapevines and overlooking the valley and adjacent mountains. We were told not to worry about taking the beaten path. Feel free to walk the steep incline through the grapevines. We did. Stunning views worth our labored breath.
Sonoma Valley Wineries
We rarely travel to California without an escape to Sonoma wineries. Most fortunately, Gabrielle and Steve have a dear friend who has on more than occasion graciously lent us a cottage set in the midst of three acres of grape vines and surrounded by well-known wineries. This was one of those times.
First stop was Gundlach Bundschu (sounds like gun lock bun shoe), a favorite of Steve’s but one we’d never personally visited. That will never happen again!
The $10 tasting fee was for six wines or you could substitute two of the standards for Vintage Reserve selections. For people too confused to choose, they suggest flights from The Classics, The Rarities, to the Big Reds. Bold is better, so I went right down the line of the latter, all estate vineyard grapes.
The 2009 Zinfandel and 2009 Syrah were just fabulous. I’m not a connoisseur of wine characteristics in the same way I can smell a food cooking and generally discern its ingredients, but even I could detect some of the zinfandel’s fragrant black cherry and black plum notes. If the syrah wasn’t so anticipated, I’d have been happy just sniffing the whiffs of blackberry, cocoa, espresso and black cherry. Only 835 cases are produced, so wine club members jump on it. The 2008 cabernet franc was velvety and lingered on the palette long after the sip was gone. The 2009 cabernet sauvignon produced more cases, but it didn’t make my heart sing. That honor was won by their 2007 Vintage Reserve, an $80 bottle of wine with lush flavors of black plum, dark cocoa and vanilla cream. Magnificent.
Two favorites the four of us regularly visit (and buys lots of wine from) are Alexander Valley Vineyards and Stryker Sonoma.
Stryker Sonoma in Geyserville is a contemporary designed tasting room. An expansive glass wall overlooks experimental vines growing down the side of a mountain, rolling hills, and lush vines. Love their gift shop. I made a point of once again buying their Vignon, a wine friendly, flavor balancing Napa seasoning $6). Though I’ve included it in many dishes, my personal faves have been on freshly made stove-popped black kernel popcorn) or on scrambled eggs. Light hints of flavor without being overpowering.
We also discovered a must-have toy for Russ, a decanter manufactured by Menu, a Scandinavian company. Our Stryker rep was using it to expeditiously decant a select wine not yet on their tasting menu. The generous gesture honored the relationship Gabrielle and Steve have established with them. The decanter wasn’t yet available for purchase, but we weren’t home in Florida more than an hour than Russ had found the best price and ordered it online. For a big wine that normally would need to breathe for a while to open up, this decanter’s design eliminates the wait. The price varies greatly online, so search for the best deal.
BTW: Stryker’s wines are full-bodied gems, but if you have the chance to ever drink their OZ, don’t hesitate. It’s a zin that’s Over the Rainbow.
Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg has great gifts, awesome wines, very friendly informative staff, and they are quite supportive of the arts. They recently were a major sponsor for The Crucible’s Fire & Light Soiree and Art Auction. (see my former blog on The Crucible.) Their wines are so tasty you just want to grab a spoon and slurp them up like a melting gelato. One of the key differences between Sonoma and Napa is that there aren’t busloads of people loading in. Attention is personal and unrushed. At Alexander Valley, four tastings are complementary, $10 for reserve wines. The $10 is refundable when applied toward the purchase of a reserve bottle.
Between the four of us, we walked away with a number of bottles, including Two Barrel, a blend of cabernet & merlot and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon that won best of Show for Red Wine at the recent Hilton Head International Wine Competition and got 5 stars from Decanter Magazine. The absolute winner of the day from Alexander Valley Vineyards is the 2005 Cyrus, a big fellow that won more gold medals and best of show’s than I can name. This is a $60 bottle that’s best laid down for a while (if you can stand waiting).
One note here if you have never been to wineries for a tasting: many of the wines are only available to club members or local buyers. They simply don’t produce enough to distribute to restaurants and stores. Russ and I have tried the wine club route to buy those select wines, but until wineries figure out how to ship to Florida in refrigerated truck and in a less expensive manner, it doesn’t make sense. Wine should only be shipped in cooler months, because it’s unknown how long it’ll be sitting in a (hot?) truck or warehouse until delivered. Then you have to be home to sign for it. The block of waiting time is worse than that for a service technician. I tried leaving a note that my over-21 yr old neighbor was around that day and would sign for it, but that’s good enough. Took three tries to get the wine and by then, it didn’t have the same freshness and flavor it did in CA.
For the past several visits, Russ has endeavored to get to Wellington Winery. Each time we’d just miss their tasting times. This time he was emphatic that it was a must. Glad he insisted.
Wellington’s vines were originally planted 150 years ago by Italians. The winery is a certified green business and 100% solar. The lovely lady waiting on us was a throwback to the hippie days of love, peace and comfy flowing clothes. She said their wines don’t depend on the skins for color and are best laid down up to eight years. Loved her genteel energy. We sat on the porch, sampled tasty wines, gloried in the ports… especially their white and their tawny, both of which we bought. Best of all was my honey’s smile for proving it was a winner.
That evening we ate dinner at Spoonbar! Restaurant, a fairly new and quite popular contemporary bistro. The wide open doors lift up so that in good weather, most tables are exposed to the elements. It was July in the mountains. The doors were closed shortly after sunset’s chill made its way through summer-casual dressed diners. Spoonbar! Is one of those trendy less-is-more restaurants. We enjoyed an appetizer of house-made baguettes with spicy feta, Moroccan eggplant and Mediterranean hummus and one that was an ahi tuna tartare with local melon, jicama and kalamata olives, but chowed down on handmade tender potato gnocchi lightly garnished with fava beans, fresh English peas, asparagus and basil pesto.
Napa Valley Wineries
Our friends, Julienne and Ross, had visited Napa wineries just weeks before our trip. They shared their suggestions and pictures. For our second day of tastings (this time just the two of us), we were going to check out their must-see discoveries:
- Cliff Lede—known for their tour. Thomas Roseler is the wine consultant for the Yountsville winery.
- Viader—need an rsvp to visit this Deer Park winery, but worth taking the time.
- Newton—incredible gardens in St. Helena.
- Nickel & Nickel—owner Walt Bells is a wine educator and they enjoyed his company and conversation
- Darioush on the Silverado Trail was both very fun and had terrific wines.
. We did try to find them. Our GPS didn’t like the area, addresses or maybe she was just in a bad move. Her “recalculating” was getting screechier the more we drove. Or was that me?
Time was running out. Wineries would be closing soon and we had to get back to Oakland for dinner.
We drove by Louis M. Martini, located in St. Helena, a wine we favor for their rich cabs. The winery has been around since 1933 and for the three-deep crowd lining the bar, maybe they’ve waited that long just to get served. This was the Napa side of the business that is the reason we usually stay in Sonoma. The reps were rushed. The service automated. No time for questions or personal anything.
Russ and I shared the tasting of four award-winning cabs, including their most widely-distributed 2009 Sonoma County variety, with 84% cab and a smattering of six other grapes.
Our fave was a 2007 Napa Valley cab, a double gold medal winner from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Robert Parker scored it a 91. 87% cab with 9% merlot, 3% syrah, and 1% petite verdot. Very fruit forward when chewed. Bold, intense, complex and with a long finish.
Tasting rooms close early on Sunday. Our last winery for this trip was definitely not the least. We first discovered Freemark Abbey at a tasting held by Capitol Grille. It knocked us out then and each of the wines we tasted that Sunday had the same effect. Freemark Abbey Winery began in 1881 with 147 acres. The original name was Tychson Cellars but after prohibition, was bought out by three men who used their names to create the new label. We opted for the most expensive tasting we’d ever done: $25 to try out four wines from their library reserves. We were escorted to a table and our consultant arrived with long-stemmed glasses, some light crackers and a wealth of information. We were not rushed.
We did a side-by-side sampling of two Sycamore Vineyard cabernet sauvignons and two Cabernet Bosche’ cabs. We loved the Sycamore 2006 (for $70 unless you’re a wine club member and then it’s “just” $54) that tasted of dark cherry, black currant and oak until we next tried the 1999 version, which retails for $125. Oh my! It exploded in the mouth with flavors of cherry, plum, chocolate and cassis.
Then we sampled the two Cabernet Bosche’s. The 2006 ($70) had a long fruity finish that stayed with me until my tongue tasted the 1999, velvety smooth manna from heaven. They advise laying it down for another 8-10 years for the maximum experience. The 1999 was so sublime we bought it and left it with Gabrielle and Steve to hold for our return. On a special occasion in the future, that bottle will be for the four of us to savor.
May the next cork you unseal be a tasty treat for the tongue. Enjoy!
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com