A Long Weekend in California Wine Country: Getting a Taste for Napa and Sonoma Wines (Part 1)

 

“I should like to spend the whole of my life traveling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.” — William Hazlitt

There seems to exist a syndrome among international travelers and expats. They’ve visited the world’s most far-flung destinations, but haven’t seen much of what their native countries have to offer. Perhaps it’s the lure of the exotic, the desire to pin a new country on one’s world map, or just simply forgetting all the worthwhile destinations that exist back home.

Having lived in Europe for more than a decade, this partially rang true with me. From Burgundy and Champagne, to Porto and the Loire Valley, I had paid homage to many of Europe’s finest wine centers, but I had yet to make it to Napa, which together with neighboring Sonoma, is home to nearly 400 wineries.

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Last autumn, during one chapter of our whirlwind American road trip that took us as far east as Québec City, and as far west as San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, my husband’s parents hosted us during a gorgeous getaway in Napa and Sonoma. They had been eager to do this with us for years.

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Our timing for the October weekend get-away couldn’t have been better. California’s trees and vineyards were just starting to discard their summer hues in favor of golden red autumnal attire, and the weather was perfect: glorious, sunny skies, and temperate days. There was just a hint of fall in the air.

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My husband, Shawn, and his family have been coming to Napa since his 21st birthday, so they naturally have a handful of favorite wineries that they visit in both Napa and Sonoma. What follows is part one of a Napa & Sonoma series that shares anecdotes from our four days in California wine country. Whatever your language, I say Cheers, à votre santé, saúde!

Friday: Ledson Winery & Vineyards

To celebrate our arrival in California wine country, we picnicked at Ledson Winery and Vineyards in Sonoma. Walking the path that crisscrossed through rows of vines and a white rose garden, I had shades of Burgundy on my mind.

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Though when I glimpsed the young estate’s architecture and contrasted it with my memories of old stone homes in the French countryside, I was reminded that I was in the New World and finally exploring California’s second-most visited attraction. (The land of Minnie and Mickey trumps Napa/Sonoma.)

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As the winery was set to close shortly after our arrival, Shawn’s parents covertly ran inside the tasting room, mischievously returning a few moments later with a golden baguette, Pesto Jack, a small log of Chèvre, and a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in hand. We sat on benches under the handsome old, twisty trees, listening to the birds, reminiscing upon their Napa memories, and plotting the next three days of our Napa and Sonoma sojourn. We also determined the designated driver duty schedule. My trio of companions chivalrously allowed me to opt out of driving so that I could enjoy the long weekend to the fullest extent.

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Saturday: Black Stallion Winery and Sbragia Family Winery

Our day commenced at The Black Stallion Winery, which is situated on the grounds of a historic equestrian center. My in-laws are members of Black Stallion’s Wine Club, and the establishment was hosting its annual barbecue on the afternoon of our visit.

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Black Stallion had an impressive flight of wines  on offer to taste: 2010 Pinot Grigio, 2010 Napa Valley Rosé, 2010 Monte Rosso Zinfandel, 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2009 Napa Valley Syrah. There were also activities to distract guests. The first was a varietal matching activity, which was visually-pleasing given the six leaf types and grape clusters that were arranged on plates before us. (I wonder how many of those grapes were devoured during the intense deliberation sessions?) The aim was to properly pair a leaf with its appropriate bunch of grapes. Despite the presence of aids nearby to assist, Shawn and I did not pass the test with flying colors. Perhaps we were enjoying the wine too much to give the game the attention it deserved.

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Later, we embarked on a tour of the production room and cellar, learning that due to earthquake concerns and related regulations, the newer Napa wineries do not have underground cellars. Instead, they try to simulate subterranean temperatures in an above-ground room. Wineries that were built before such regulations were put into law were grandfathered in.

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Our favorite activity was Black Stallion’s educational vineyard. Among the rows of vines were placards explaining the history and characteristics of each grape. Surprisingly, we were encouraged to pluck the plump specimens right from the vine as part of our educational experience. We happily obliged. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to devote as much time to ‘wine school’ as we had liked, because Black Stallion’s wine menu, hearty lunch offerings, and conversation with newfound friends kept the four of us occupied.

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Afterward, we drove up the windy Silverado Trail of Napa Valley, cutting across the mountain range dividing Napa and Sonoma into the Dry Creek River Valley. My father-in-law had purchased some wine futures from the Sbragia Family Vineyards and had been invited to a wine futures pick-up party there.

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We arrived at Sbragia just as the sun was preparing to set, casting a magical golden glow over the surrounding vineyard-adorned hills. It was extraordinarily beautiful!

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As we admired the sunset, we continued our lessons in winemaking, watching as a barrel was crafted out of oak planks then forged over a small flame to give it an essence of smoke.

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At our earlier stop, we’d learned that Black Stallion uses Hungarian and French oak for its barrels. The art and science of fermenting and aging wine in oak barrels is fascinating. One specialist I spoke to at Sbragia mentioned that the cost for French oak can often be prohibitive for wineries, leading many to use Hungarian and American oak. A new French oak barrel can carry a price tag of around $1,000 USD, whereas American oak is usually half that amount. American oak is said to be more intensely flavored than French oak. I have read that some wineries even use oak wood chips to produce the sought-after oaky flavor within a quicker amount of time.

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With the sun having slumbered over the Dry Creek River Valley, we decided to call it a wonderful day and head back to our home away from home.

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Where in the World?

What is your wine destination of choice? Do you have a favorite grape varietal?

 

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.