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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ooooh, Luuuuuccccy!

Ever wake up on a vineyard?  Me neither.  Well, until a couple of weeks ago.  I won’t lie; it didn’t suck.  Sleep in my eyes, my country house bed was super-duper-comfortable, but I just couldn’t linger in quilts and sheets when the clock struck 8.  My usual wake-up ritual (snoozing 6-10 times) didn’t stand up in wine country.  Sunlight shimmered on the rows and rows of vines outside my dew-laced window.  Hanging gently, waiting to picked off for a bit part in some winemaker’s divine inspiration, fields of cabernet called my name.  In flip-flops, pajama bottoms, and a sweatshirt, messy bun high atop my head, I cupped my mug of Joe and headed out to wake myself up…Sonoma style.

 I didn’t want to leave the cozy of the vineyardan abandoned farm off in the distance begged exploration, the tractor looked lonelybut discovery waited patiently for us at Ravenswood.  Day Two would include a quarry visit to the Ravenswood cellars, followed by a lunch pairing and tasting with “Godfather of Zin” Joel Peterson.  Joel was a legend in the industry, revolutionizing the cultivation and sale of Zinfandel in California.  His son Morgan has since followed in his footsteps, playing chemist to his own crops of grapes.  The Petersons were a bonafide wine family and I couldn’t wait to meet them.  Kristen and Joel went back, but Joel and I had our own connection: Dan Halpern, Ecco’s front man, and one of my biggest publishing heyday supporters.  The two shared memories during San Fran’s literary prime, and once I met Joel, with his shock of white hair and easy confidence, it made sense that he and Dan were buddies.  As a result, I knew my day would be a blast.

 After tasting from the barrels while simultaneously ogling all the young Ravenswood boys on harvest internships making their rounds, Joel whisked Darryl off in his Tesla (color: British Racing Car Green) to meet Kristen and I at the Ravenswood winery.  We would be guests of Joel’s for lunch, a pairing that would include Ravenswood’s many Zins, as well as other winery-only offerings. 

After a lively discussion about rosés, and an attempted conversion with a tasting of a dry Ravenswood sampling—no dice, I still dislike rosé—we began a three-hour feast set against the backdrop of the Mayacamas mountain range.  Again my palate had a mind of its own, reacting strongly (and positively) to the buttery San Jacomo 2008 Chardonnay.  I knew I would fall in deep, passionate love with the 1993 Belloni Zinfandel (of which I purchased the 2007 vintage), and the Icon 2007, a mixed black varietal that did somersaults on my tongue.  We finished with a 2009 Moscato, and as with the rosé, I couldn’t be swayed.  But if you think Ravenswood is just a house of Zinfandel, think again.

Circa 3 PM, we headed to Kutch Wines where a steel tank of pinot noir waited on our arrival.  It was stomping time—to my surprise not just a funny scene in an old “I Love Lucy” episode!   Huge steel bins loomed large, and after a quick change into jean shorts and tanks, up onto the boards we went.  Yes, yes…alcohol was used to clean our bare feet before entry, but once we sank down into layers of fermenting pinot noir, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.  Stems tickled my toes, full fruit squished under my body’s weight, and slowly, I stomped.  It’s harder than it looks, and the sloshing liquid seeping towards my gams, surrounding my calves, knees, and ankles was freezing.  Within a couple of weeks, the activity from the grapes would naturally heat up the tank, but we got there early, so we got the ice-cold stomp.  Figures…

Stomping was followed by tasting from Kutch’s barrels.  Using a thief—which looks a little like a turkey baster—Jamie stole a bit from this barrel and a bit from that one, mixing into our glasses what would ultimately become bottled Kutch wine.  The fruits of one barrel might be from one farm, whereas the grapes from another barrel were from a different region, he explained.  Blending the barrels took patience and savvy.  We were amazed watching Jamie.  All I kept thinking was: how do you know what you’re doing?   See, Jamie was once a finance guy!  Your typical run-of-the-mill Merrill Lynch suit.  Then, he gave it all up for a dose of the good life out in Cali.  He posted his plans on Robert Parker’s chat room board, and the rest is history.  His first vintage got 93 points from Wine Spectator!  He’s become quite a Sonoma star.  Watching him was like watching a great chef at work.  Only his dish is liquid.

Being a small label, Kutch Wines are only available by mailing list.  Normally, Kutch sells out quickly, mere days after going on sale, but you can access it here and pre-order now.  The wines in the barrels (and in the steel tank) will be bottled in February, and I’m already on the list for a good sampling, including the limited edition Marie/Darryl Pinot blend!   

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hello, Wine Country!

California Wine Country.  Those three little words have been elusive for decades.  Well, the two decades during which I’ve been legal.  Once I ditched my dream of moving to San Francisco post-college, I never looked back.  And when I took off for worldly pastures, there was always a snazzier, more exotic, international destination calling my name.  Wine country, the American edition, always wound up overshadowed by wine country, the global edition.  Stories began to accumulate; there was Hunter Valley hide and seek in Australia with Sarah, Sally, and Tim.  There was the unfortunate car accident after a day of solo tasting in Marlborough, New Zealand.  There was the letdown of Concha y Toro in Chile’s Pirque, and the failed trip through Argentina’s Mendoza.  Wine country wasn’t of my countryit became part of the folly of other countries.  Until earlier this month…

My friend Kristen, an old Harper colleague, broke from publishing the same year I did (2005).  She and her (now) husband shucked their New York coats for greener, wide-open spaces…and grapes.  He decided to become a winemaker; she went along for the ride.  Cut to 2010, their sixth vintage, Kristen and Jamie have made a beautiful life for themselves on the left coast.   On her last trip to New York, Kristen convinced me to head west for a vacation, and a proper vineyard education.  I love wine, especially California reds.  Harvest was upon us.  Kristen reasoned it was high time for a visit.  I reasoned that Kristen was right.

Enlisting Darryl, my trusty travel sidekick of late, wine country awaited exploration.  Of course, I had preconceived notions of what I expected, wondering if everyone swirled the glass pretentiously in Napa, or if they sucked air through their teeth before a swallow in Sonoma.  I imagined the residents of these places spoke in varietals and vintages only privy to savvy insiders, and mocked silly people like New Yorkers who bought bottles based on menu pricing.  Turns out, my trip changed every single of one of those ideas.  Implicitly.  I guess I should have expected that it would.

It all started at 6 AM on an October Monday when, sitting in the Admirals Club at JFK, I got the call that Darryl missed her flight.  Sure, we had a wild Saturday prior, but C’mon D!  Get it to-freakin-gether!  Six hours and one screaming baby later, I arrived solo at SFO to find Kristen, a rental car, and a big smile in welcome.  Kristen and Jamie were privileged insiders to wine country and they would be my able guides.

First stop was Healdsburg, a quaint little town in the northern reaches of Sonoma County.  Ask anyone who’s passed through Healdsburg about a favorite wine country spot, and Healdsburg itself is the answer.  Now, mine included.  Off a vibrant main square, cafes and restaurants abound—Scopa for pizza, Healdsburg Bar & Grill for burgers and Bovolo for to-go breakfast and lunch sandwiches.  Freshly ground coffee beans come from The Flying Goat and accompanying reading material from Copperfield’s.  The three stories of the Healdsburg Hotel beckoned with its ivy-covered trellis, while down the road, its sister property the new h2hotel makes headlines.  Healdsburg is also home to renowned restaurants Cyrus and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.  The pool in the back garden of the Healdsburg Hotel was equally enticing, but as we whizzed through the square, further discovery would have to wait, for we were onto our first tasting and pairing.  At Simi.

Simi holds a special place in my heart.  Almost half a lifetime ago, I got my first promotion to a publicist position at Avon Books.  It was a happy day, for I got business cards and my own office…and a subscription to California’s Cab of the Month Club from my San Fran-living friend, Todd.  In that first package of Cabs was a bottle of Simi.  Love at first taste, it was fitting that I was standing on Simi ground popping my wine country cherry.

The winery itself is a gorgeous example of architecture and sustainability.  Built in 1890 by brothers Guiseppe and Pietro Simi, the facility was Healdsburg’s first winemaking property, and has withstood many massive earthquakes.  Tours of Simi, which take place twice daily, are followed by tastings and pairings.  Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more overjoyed about my plans.  Chef Eric Lee is the food force at Simi, and he’s churning out some amazing pairings for guests of the property.  I indulged in fried greed tomatoes with Dungeness crab (with the RRV Chardonnay), and simple wood-oven grilled pizzas (with the Sauvignon Blanc), a duck breast over creamed spinach (with the Alexander Valley Cabernet and the Landslide), and a black and tan crème brulee for dessert.

Met by Steve Reeder and winemaking power women Susan Lueker and Megan Schofield, the first thing I learned at Simi was to trust my palate.  This wine mantra would hold up over and over again.  Trust.  Your.  Palate.  Yes, it’s that simple.  I entered Simi certain it would only deliver on reds and, man, was I wrong.  I left Simi delighted by whites, especially their Pinot Gris.  Repertoire expanded, I wondered how deep my revised wine lists would run after a week in Bay Area vines.

When I Kristen and I retired to our borrowed Healdsburg vineyard house for the night, we couldn’t help but open some more Simi to pair with a baguette and some cheese.  We stood in the kitchen, sipping our wine, and caught up like the old friends we were.  We were significantly buzzed when Darryl arrived fresh from layovers in Charlotte and Chicago, then a bus ride to Sonoma Airport, and a taxi to the house.  It took me a trip around the world to get to Sonoma; she merely grazed a couple of states, but I could already tell that both of our trips were going to be well worth the prolonged wait.

If you’re interested in Sonoma or Simi, please check out my latest posts on the Huffington Post about Wine Country for a First-Timer and Simi's Landslide Terazzo Pizza Café.