A life and death trip to California, packed with great wine

By / Magazine / August 22nd, 2017 / 1

Roaring blasts from multiple propane burners rip holes in the silent fabric of the pre-dawn. Pylons of flame, taller than the people attending to them, shoot orange, yellow and blue skywards, forcing hot air into multi-hued envelopes that mushroom above rattan gondolas. Passengers — in some cases as many as 16 — pile as quickly as they can into the individually segmented baskets (as getting in and out of these things, they are told, is actually the most dangerous part of a hot air balloon ride). With another series of burner blasts, the flotilla tosses away earthly tethers, rising with the sun into a crisp, crystalline, indigo blue morning sky. Drifting at the speed of the mild breeze that propels them, occupants of each floating gondola hear no sound (with the exception of the occasional burner blast) and feel no wind (the balloon moves with it). The last of the evening stars twinkle out as the blinding morning light explodes across the horizon, illuminating the vast, emerald green tracts of vineyards below.

We hovered and glided over some of the world’s most coveted winemaking plots, taking in the undulating expanse of California’s Napa Valley. An hour or so later, after a peaceful yet breathtaking flight, our pilot skilfully set us down for a pin-point landing. You can’t really “steer” a hot air balloon so landing on a precise target involves a coordinated combination of cooperative weather and vertical/horizontal trajectory. Very occasionally, this combination proves elusive, even to the best of the balloon boyz.

As our airships made landfall, we collectively gazed up to see the last one in our party continue to rise and drift southwest, past all possible landing sites, towards the outflow of the Napa River. This wayward balloon incident sparked local television news coverage and set the social media network all a twitter. Luckily, nobody was hurt, and most of the international journalists on the ill-fated vessel had the double thrill of not only “crash landing” a hot air balloon, but also of being rescued by a California Highway Patrol chopper. And the tour was just beginning.

For lovers of fine vintages, Napa Valley conjures vivid mental images. And though the actual images of the region are pretty spectacular from a few thousand feet up in the air, the best way to get to know Napa is to hit the ground to tour and taste.

I’m going to go out on a (very) short limb, here, and suggest that most of you Quench readers have probably heard of Napa, know where it is and have likely tasted a regional wine or two (or seven). The details you may not know is why God invented Google, so I’m not going to bore you — or myself — with minutia. However, as a sweeping generalization, Napa is essentially the Bordeaux of the New World. Cab is king, but all the rest of the supporting players are also there.

Also like Bordeaux, Napa has raised the international vinous bar, both in terms of quality and price. It’s the place where you need to get on a waiting list to get on a waiting list to get your measly few bottles (or less) of Yelping Beagle Cab. It’s the land of 100-point Parker scores (hooray), stately wine estates and, well, gobs of extract.

Yes, it’s definitely nouveau Bordeaux, but this isn’t to say a certain “homage” to Burgundy isn’t apparent as the Robert Mondavi Winery’s Carneros Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Reserve proved upon tasting. And let’s not forget the global wine ripples created by a certain Chateau Montelena Chardonnay back whenever.

Besides the Montelena thing, Napa has a number of very minor oenophillic achievements under its belt, including spawning a plethora of renowned wines, legendary winemakers and wineries. As it turned out (by sheer coincidence), I happened to be in the region in time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of not only one of Napa’s, but the world’s, most important vinicultural institutions — the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Founded in 1966 by Robert Mondavi, along with sons Michael and Tim, the winery was the first significant one to be constructed in Napa in the post-prohibition era. From its inception, the focus was almost exclusively on premium quality, though a few “popularly priced” brands also surfaced over time (the elder Mondavi was said to have expressed some regret for allowing his brand to go down this road with the Woodbridge and Coastal lines). Today, however, the vineyards are squarely focused on primo vino.

And speaking of vineyards, if there’s a single jewel in the Mondavi crown, it comes in the form of Oakville’s To Kalon (Greek for “the highest beauty”) vineyard. First planted in the 1860s by Henry W. Crabb, it changed hands several times after his death in 1899. Today, To Kalon ownership lies in the hands of the triumvirate of Robert Mondavi Winery, Opus One (the Mondavi/Mouton Rothschild joint venture) and grower Andy Beckstoffer. Recognized as one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon plots on earth — America’s “First Growth” as it has been dubbed — the vineyard is also planted with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and (perhaps somewhat incongruously) Syrah.

Passing under the iconic archway that has become the Robert Mondavi Winery’s most recognizable visual motif, I’m greeted by the facility’s Director of Wine Education, Mark de Vere, MW, a fellow whose humbling wine knowledge is matched only by his seemingly limitless energy. Over the next few days, de Vere would treat me to serval palate workouts — as well as something of a physical one.

Donning our safety helmets, we mounted bicycles to ride though the expanse of the To Kalon site under the sun of a glorious Napa morning. We examined numerous Cab Sauv plots, noting the variances in vine appearance and the size of the emerging berries. All the same variety, the clonal variances that accounted for the physical dissimilarities, de Vere pointed out, were what made To Kalon’s fruit so complex and nuanced. We passed through the experimental H-Block, where extensive Cabernet research was being done, and the famed I-Block, planted with Sauvignon Blanc vines that were over 60 years old.

Cycling builds up something of a thirst. Truth be told, we did down a few “samples” during our ride, but we had to park the bikes to concentrate. I expected the Cab-based wines to be amazing … and I wasn’t disappointed. At all. From the gorgeous (and still youthful) 1976 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve through the 1981, 1996 and 2006 vintages into the 2004 and 2012 Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, it was a blissful sensory overload. And it wasn’t all Mondavi juice. As testament to the quality of To Kalon Cabernet (and possibly to the testament of Mondavi’s confidence/altruism), we also tasted a number of wines forged from Beckstoffer-grown fruit from other wineries, including Provenance, Alpha Omega, Realm, Detert and a host of others, as well as a smattering of the “best of the best” Cabs from around the world.

However, I was taken completely off guard by the Mondavi Fumé Blancs that were poured. In fact, it was Mondavi that coined the name Fumé Blanc, a mashup of Pouilly Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc — essentially denoting a Sauvignon Blanc with some barrel aging. That the 1998 Robert Mondavi Winery I Block To Kalon Vineyard Fumé Blanc was still alive was one thing. That it was a complex marvel of toasty/nutty/waxy crème brûlée and lemon custard aromas and flavours, with zesty acidity, a viscous, unctuous palate and phenomenal length was another. Ditto for the 2004 and 1999 Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard Fumé Blanc Reserve wines, the latter reminding me of one of my favourite wine styles: traditional white Rioja. Sauvignon Blanc also yields superb dessert wines, as the luscious 2001 and 2002 Robert Mondavi Winery Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis proved. Hard to find but definitely worth checking out if you get the chance.

Once in Napa, you’ll find that leaving is not an easy thing. In consultation with my personal wellness coach and a team of physicians, we concluded that going cold turkey was not the proper thing to do. A gradual weaning off Napa required a brief side trip through neighbouring Sonoma County.

A tad less flashy, perhaps a bit more relaxed, but every inch as gorgeous as sister Napa, Sonoma is less Cab-centric. That said, a taste of the sumptuous 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Reserve from Clos du Bois — an environmentally conscious winery where solar panels provide 85 per cent of its electrical needs — and the beautifully complex 2010 Simi Alexander Valley Cabernet Reserve certainly proved she could toe the Cab line in an elegant, stylish and perhaps more user-friendly style than neighbouring Napa. If Napa models the ballroom gown, Sonoma flaunts in skinny jeans. Okay, that analogy is lame, inaccurate and very possibly sexist. Still, I hope it gives you a general idea of two different but equally attractive personalities. Right, then, time to move along.

Ravenswood Winery winemaker, Joel Peterson’s white Tesla Model S is a thing of beauty as it silently glides to a stop outside the Ravenswood Winery tasting room where inside, something equally beautiful awaits in the guise of nine single-vineyard Zinfandels. If “No Wimpy Wines” is going to be your winery’s motto (as it is with Ravenswood), staking your claim as a Zinfandel specialist is likely a good enough place to start.

“All these wines are made in an almost identical way,” Peterson pointed out, “What accounts for the difference in profile and taste has everything to do with the location of the vineyards.”

From the Dickerson Vineyard, through the Big River, Belloni, Barricia, Old Hill and Teldeschi —the tasting of wines, all made from the 2013 harvest, was a clinic in Zinfandel nuances. Then things really got interesting. The question “does Zinfandel improve with age?” was answered in the affirmative, thanks to the 2004 and 1996 Old Hill Vineyard (the vineyard itself being planted around 1880) numbers.

At about the same moment when I figured Zin couldn’t get much better, Peterson slipped a glass of the 1999 Monte Rosso under my nose. To say I’ve never quite experienced a Zinfandel like this would be a major understatement. If I hadn’t known what I was tasting, I would have possibly mistaken it for a top-level Burgundian Pinot Noir. Fragrant and floral with cedar, sandalwood and raspberry nuances, it slid across my palate in waves of viscous, sweet black raspberry, Morello cherry compote and cocoa. Wow.

As I headed towards the Ravenswood Winery on-site retail store to bag some of this ambrosia, I experienced perhaps the only disappointing moment of my whole Napa/Sonoma excursion: the shop was closed.


Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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