Recapping Napa/Sonoma in December

There’s never a bad time of year to jet across the country to visit California wine country, but one of my favorites is right before the holidays. Most harvest activities are over. The holiday craziness has yet to commence. It’s super quiet and if you’re lucky, the winter rains bring bright green cover crops in the vineyards just as the leaves – in their vibrant yellows, oranges and reds – start to fall to the ground (yes, there are seasons here!).

Without a particular mission (except any and all effort to escape my D.C. life), I set up shop at the bottom edge of Napa Valley – allowing easy access to downtown Napa, the length of Napa Valley and the roads leading to Sonoma (city, county and coast). By the time I turned in the rental car at the end of the week, the odometer had 626 extra miles on it.

Rental Car in Napa
My trusty rental car was perfect for traversing highways and dirt roads. Here it is parked at Chateau Boswell

Here are just a few highlights:

My first stop after checking into the hotel, was a brief visit to  Cadet Wine Bar where local winemaker Rory Williams of Calder Wines was pouring flights. (Read more about Rory and his wines here). The small label focuses on local Napa varieties that have been there for decades but tend to get lost among the dense plantings of Cabernet, Merlot and more popular grapes. I tasted his Dry Reisling, Chenin Blanc and Charbono. All three were a nice a diversion from what’s typically expected in Napa. The Charbono was especially interesting. A bit brooding with dirty anise and dark fruit chased with black olives.

Complete with a “celebrity” sighting of one of the stars of the documentary Somm, Cadet was the perfect start to this trip.

In Napa Valley, I had only one formal visit set up – and that was to see Chateau Boswell, just off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. While this boutique winery has been making wine since 1979, in the past couple decades it’s seen the addition of a beautiful cave and facility to make and store its bottles. It also recently added a new winemaker – Phillipe Melka (Food & Wine has a nice profile of him here). The winery was stunning. Behind big iron gates and beautifully landscaped grounds, the cave was cut into the bottom of a hillside that featured its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc plantings.

Chateau Boswell
When Chateau Boswell’s cave was built under the vineyards, the owners ordered the builders not to disrupt the huge tree on their property.

I sampled their Russian River Valley Chardonnay and 2014 Estate Cabernet out of bottle, and tasted a few 2015 Pinot Noirs out of the barrels. With a new winemaker now calling the shots, Chateau Boswell’s 2014 Estate Cabernet has pivoted a bit. Unlike previous years, the latest vintage blends in much more of the Cabernet Franc grown on the property (about 40 percent), giving it an elegant backbone. These wines work to strike a balance between having something that’s pleasurable now, yet can keep a structure to let it properly age.

Chateau Boswell
Inside Chateau Boswell’s cave.

My next set of visits, spanning a couple of days, were with winemakers I’ve come to adore during the past several years.

In Glen Ellen, a tiny town in Sonoma County,  I visited Chris Cottrell of Bedrock Wine Co.  He first took me into the famous 140-year-old Bedrock Vineyard. The old gnarly vines were absolutely stunning, and with the cover crops blooming on this fizzy gray day, the experience just standing there left me nearly speechless.

Bedrock Vineyard
Bedrock Vineyard’s gnarly vines – some still with a bit of dried-up fruit on its vines – are especially stunning on this misty December day.

I’ve been buying wine from Bedrock for a few years now and always appreciated their approach to seeking out old vineyards to make their wine. But what I didn’t realize is that they’re not just seeking good fruit. It’s a mission to help change the farming culture so that these vineyards don’t disappear or get replanted with some other crop (recently going so far as to buy a vineyard). Using science as the basis for sustainable farming techniques, the Bedrock team is eager to help these old vineyards become prosperous again. Along the way, Bedrock creates 30 or 40 different wines. We tasted through a half a dozen – each one expressing beautiful California fruit with a balance of all those earthy morsels that transport you back to the vineyard.

Bedrock wine bottles
Inside Bedrock’s original tasting room next to Bedrock Vineyard. The team also recently purchased a historic building to build a new tasting room.

While being outside in the vineyards is wonderful, it’s just as invigorating to meet with winemakers in their other natural habitat: inside the winery. That’s why visiting with John Lockwood at Enfield Wine Co. is always a treat. (to learn more, read this profile or listen to this podcast). He makes his wine at Punchdown Cellars in Santa Rosa, a custom crush facility which leases out space and equipment  to winemakers. This is my second visit to Punchdown and it’s always fun to see the racks of barrels, the fermenting tanks and to taste wine surrounded by people getting their hands dirty and doing the work.

Punchdown Cellars
Fermenting tanks at Punchdown Cellars, including some concrete eggs way at the end of the aisle.

John set up his wines for me in a quietish corner and we went through most of his line-up. Whether it’s his Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Cabernet, his ability to translate each vineyard into elegant wines, made it difficult to not guzzle through each bottle right then and there.

Enfield wine bottles
Tasting through Enfield’s wines at Punchdown Cellars.

From Santa Rosa, I drove to Sebastapol – which also meant guzzling through Enfield was not a viable option. But the restraint was worth it so I could visit with Katy Wilson. And while she was named a winemaker to watch in 2013, four years later, I’d argue, she’s still important to pay attention to. I’ve met her a few times at tastings here on the east coast, where she often pours her own label with the help of her dad. We met inside Claypool Cellars’s tasting room – a renovated train car inside a business and shopping center.

She makes wine for several labels including Banshee and Claypool, but it’s her own label, that I’ve always found swoon-worthy. Named for her grandmother, LaRue’s Pinot Noirs are some of the most delicate I’ve had from the Sonoma Coast. Katie creates wines that can still retain their power, yet showcase layers of refined complexity.

Katy Wilson of LaRue
Katy Wilson of LaRue wines mostly focus on Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

Its having these personalized tasting opportunities which make visiting wine country in December so special. The winemakers are generally relaxed and have the time to answer questions and discuss their passion. It doesn’t matter that the vines aren’t lush with leaves and bunches of grapes, or the sun isn’t shining, or if I’m standing in a tasting room with shoes still muddied from trampling through wet vineyards. That one-on-one attention creates the ultimate oasis.

Now that it’s nearly October, it’s time to book my next December trip! Cheers!

On Wine Writing, Insecurity and Validating Your Passions

It’s been more than a month since I’ve returned from the 2016 Wine Writers Symposium and I’ve been a little quiet: It’s amazing what less than a week immersed in your passion can do. It’s incredibly invigorating, yet its impact has left me deeply introspective. There was a lot to take in, and while I wouldn’t call it overwhelming, the symposium was a constant heightening of the intellect and all the senses. It was a special trip.

I won’t lie: Reentry into my Washington, D.C.-world was tough.

Who can resist the luxury of staying at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, Calif:

Meadowood’s grounds, its details and comfort of the rooms made for quite a treat.

The stunning wines we tasted – especially those served by the master sommeliers:

Dinner with Master Somms
Forgive the blurriness of the photos – left to right: Geoff Kruth, Bob Bath and Gillian Balance. These were just three of the 12 master somms that paired wines with four courses on the last night of the symposium.

The interesting dialog and discussion that emerged from every single session:

Ray Isle and Jay McInerney
Ray Isle and Jay McInerney led a session on how to tell a story from a single glass of wine.

The chance to trounce through the tall mustard cover-crops and touch 50-year-old vines on a stunning day:

Haynes Vineyard
A tour of Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville from Ancien Wines owner and winemaker Ken Bernards.

But more importantly, being surrounded by people who share your love and interest in all-things wine.

Before I boarded the plane, I was reassured by past attendees and its organizers that everyone receiving a fellowship deserved to be there. And once I reached the symposium, that was reiterated. But each day, I woke up wondering: “Are they sure?” Fortunately, as soon as the morning sessions were underway those thoughts were replaced with a sense of “It doesn’t matter, this is fascinating! Look where I am!” And eventually it became, “Yes, I do!”

The Hosemaster of Wine – a satirical wine blogger whose first-night keynote was a healthy icebreaker on the seriousness and absurdity of what we were about to embark on – summed it up best in his recount of the symposium:

“Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the symposium was filled with odders. It felt like a place filled with people who felt out of place.”

As writers and editors, we’re trained to be observers. But in this situation, we all share a deep love for the subject matter, too. It’s what I’ve struggle the most in my own writing – how to juxtapose that passion with the objectivity needed to maintain the right writing voice.

I had many takeaways – some fun, aha or d’oh! moments – like it’s actually possible to taste 200 wines without getting drunk (and without any spitting mishaps!).

There were also some more serious and insightful lessons, too: What sticks with me the most, is a life lesson we all know, but rarely see in action: That it’s possible to take gigantic risks, succeed and be happy. I met more people (both at the symposium and in the Napa community) who took the leap of faith to follow their passion. Unlike, Washington, D.C. – where competition is at a heightened state all of the time – the people I met across the industry instinctually want to learn more from each other, and are happy to help, too.

There were some technical lessons, as a session about the often-used but-rarely defined term “minerality” proved that consistency in language is extremely important – whether you agree with the concept or not.

There were opportunities to think creatively, as in how to use a single glass of wine to spark story ideas.

And there were some practical ideas, such as when Mike Veseth, aka The Wine Economist, rightly pitched to all of us to consider using wine as an example to tell a bigger story – whether that be a business piece or something else. (You can read his takeaways from the symposium, here.)

The most humbling lesson of all: there’s no reason for me to be insecure. Being surrounded by such talented people who share similar passions was the validation I needed to keep pushing, keep exploring, keep learning and to keep writing.

And if that wears off, I can take a bite out of my “most likely succeed” award the organizers bestowed on me during the final lunch:

most likely to succeed prize
Here’s my “payday” for being named “most likely to succeed”.