I GUESS I always knew I'd leave my heart in San Francisco. But what I did not count on leaving my taste buds in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
So let's get this out of the way: San Francisco was all I had envisioned -- almost painfully picturesque, its air pure and sweet, its flowers staggering, its traffic so manageable. The city's praises have been amply sung.
It seemed bizarre to an Easterner to imagine that people lived and worked here -- indeed were even born here -- and inevitably learned to take it all for granted. You can turn livid with envy over northern California's riches.
I was stunned at the plenitude; struck dumb by natural wonders; tickled pink by the absence of Washington's dreaded gnats. On top of all that I found the Napa and Sonoma wine country -- startlingly close to San Francisco yet different in pace and purpose. And only an hour or two to the north. On coastal Highway 1, past sea-cliff gripping rocks I, the proverbial sightseer in rent-a-car with rent-a-map on my lap, wound north on the proverbial "scenic" route: a highway so spectacular it becomes a menace to safety. But once I turned eastward (on 116 at Jenner) the coast gave way to open fields extending across gentle valleys rimmed with mountains. (Highway 101, which avoids the coast, is a more direct -- if less dramatic -- route.) In every direction across the valley grapevines stretched to the sun.
An invitation to the wine.
Establishing an inexpensive base in Santa Rosa -- a charmingly downscale metropolis -- my companions and I, out of love of a good time and growing curiosity about ever more highly touted California wines, spent four days ranging north to the wineries of the Russian River and south through the lower Sonoma and Napa valleys. We visited and sampled 18 wineries where the average "taste" was about a third of a glass -- about the limit of human capability given the logistics. Even in Napa where the tasting rooms are cheek-by-jowl along the highway, doing more than five or six wineries a day or tasting more than six wines per winery is burdensome. As the tour guide at Christian Brothers admonished, "Sample more than six wines and you aren't tasting . . . you're drinking."
Despite a moderate amount of research, we imposed no rigid structure on our sampling. We let providence and serendipity be our guides. Hence, a highly personal view.
The vineyards and wineries of the Russian River of northern Sonoma, though (or perhaps because) they are scattered up and down often obtuse and very country roads, seemed friendlier, the staffs more open, more attentive and there were fewer people. Or maybe it was just that we were glad to have found them.
As we headed into the lower Sonoma and Napa areas, which are closer to San Francisco, the crowds grew and the personnel seemed programmed into a "round 'em up and head 'em out" mentality. Coping with bumper-to-bumper enolofiles must be a challenge.
Tasting rooms varied wildly from class acts to kitsched-up gift shops to the garage out back. Some sold wine only; in others you almost had to search to find the wine amid the "collectibles."
More refreshing were the confessions and conversations with the out-of-the-way vintners. Either way, it was an enjoyable learning experience, and I hope to waste fewer dollars on the wrong wine in the future.
With so many wineries and such a range of varietals, anyone dipping into the tasting rooms should try a narrowed area of interest. I thought mine would be dry white wines and T-shirts, while my two companions focused on the big reds. But at our very first stop I was put onto something else: the new "white" reds. I had had a French "Eye of the Swan" more than once before but had never even heard of these California wines made in a rose' manner. (Just not bicoastal enough, I fear.)
These wines are made with traditional red-wine grapes such as the cabernet, pinot noir or zinfandel, pressed in the usual way with the pomace or grape "solids" (skins and seeds which create the color and tannin of the reds) but are stored in stainless steel tanks for only a matter of hours before the solids are removed. What results are pale wines ranging from tawny to rosy pink that retain a degree of the character of the red-wine grape -- including its dryness. They are drunk young and chilled and suit me to a T for plain old Washington summer days.
Most staff at the various wineries agreed that the ascendancy of these wines is a result of the public's increasing preference for white wines and light tastes. As Jim Packwin and Peter Rictor at Mark West Winery put it, many vinters had invested heavily in the planting of traditional red-wine varietals. When the consumer message to lighten up came through, these winemakers felt stuck. It takes years -- and money -- to change to different varieties. Hence, the "white" reds -- an agreeable compromise.
Sutter Home made the first such California wine with the introduction of its White Zinfandel in 1972. However, as most area wine shoppers know, the eastward influx of these wines has been a good bit less than a landslide.
Just as there's more than one way to peel a grape, there's more than one way to view the wine country. There's class & glass vs. trash & plastic; there's mass market vs. elite treat; there's taste vs. waste; there's friendly vs. snooty. There are guided tours that truly educate and there are tours that seem to discourage or delay the tastings. But to me most of all there's great T-shirts vs. metal ashtrays . . . I also dropped $20 in a San Francisco store named "Poor Taste" so you will understand that I was alternately pleased and dismayed by what I found.
But first, the winners: Class Act -- Worth a Trip
DOMAINE CHANDON in the Napa. With guidance from its owners (Moet-Hennessey as in France's Moet & Chandon), sparkling wine triumphs. The champagne is outstanding -- the pinot noir will make you forget any dark thoughts you've ever directed at a "pink" champagne. The facilities are monumental modern tempered by fountains and water lilies and a charming restaurant with an outdoor veranda. The chefs are serious about food; it's nouvelle, tempered by good humor. It's all expensive -- but worth every penny.
T-shirts: so outstanding that many were totally sold out.
Incidentals ranged from solid gold and pure silver charms to crystal and silver-plated wine openers. Worth a Detour
SONOMA WINERIES in the Russian River. With 15 tasting tables and table service by a friendly and knowledgeable staff, this winery makes a good break from the hassle of crowded, stand-up sampling. Fresh flowers in small vases are scattered throughout an area that includes the tasting tables and the sales room. Be on the lookout for their upcoming venture into champagnes.
Worthy T-shirts and handsome incidentals such as maps and posters.
BUENA VISTA in the Sonoma. The lovely, historic buildings are restorations of California's oldest winery. Art exhibits, concerts and an appealing picnic area make this another good place to take a breather from the taste-and-run. However, there are few incidentals here. They sell wine. A dedicated onolophile can trace history along a self-guided tour, but it seemed that many of the visitors were focusing on wine for immediate picnic consumption.
STERLING WINERY in the Napa. For $3.50 per person a tram ride takes visitors up a mountainside to the winery. There's much appeal in its very whiteness -- striking in the sunlight. There are self-guided tours and a dramatic tasting room; why, even the parking lot was heavy with the perfume of roses. Alas, they haven't splurged on the merchandising: a small service area handles wine sales and the incidentals stick to bottle openers and postcards.
Rated on a scale of 1 to 10 for overall ambiance and entertaining incidentals and grouped by geographic areas we visited, here are the other wineries we toured: The Russian River
GEYSER PEAK: Extraordinarily friendly, pleasant and informative, they were the first of several Russian River vintners to suggest other wineries to visit. Tours are by appointment only, but they pour enthusiastically, they maintain hiking trails and their T-shirts, aprons, cookbooks and guides combine to give them an 8.
TRENTADUE: Another pleasant experience with helpful, cheerful staff. Not only did they open a wine they weren't tasting that day on request, but they also called another small vintner to see if he would open for us. The wines struck me as impressive -- a bit of a surprise, because the tasting bar is surrounded by an gloriously plebian gift shop (the kind usually spelled shoppe) filled with all manner of forgettable items. Here at last the souvenir pillows and the ashtrays in the shape of grapes! The Atlantic City of the Russian River.
Incidentals: 2 or 10, depending on what you're into.
PASTORI: Following the phone call from Trentadue, we were off to taste in the shed (why do they insist on the word "cellar"?) of a small family-run winery. Currently they make only three wines, and I liked them all. No tours, no stuff and no pretension. Calling first was a good idea.
MARK WEST: Another fairly new operation -- six years -- with personnel so charming it's hard to spend less than an hour there. The T-shirts and stuff were held to a minimum probably because of the tiny building used for tasting. In a small adjacent kitchen-like room you could even see a winemakers doing something; actually testing current vintages. I gave it a 9 for being so informative.
SIMI: Large but with a "ma & pa" heritage and a tradition of women winemakers, the winery itself is inviting and shady with a pond to soak your feet in if the day's been too much. It was and I did. Their incidentals are few but classy; they pour into new glasses with each new wine tasted, and their T-shirts are witty. "Come Up to Simi Some Time" or "Now You Simi" with a back that echoes "Now You Don't." Another 9.
KORBEL: Take the tour, but only if you can keep a straight face: They expect a lot of reverence from you. In truth, the old buildings are gorgeous and the tour teaches a lot about champagne. Tasting after the tour is limited but they have a lovely old square grand piano and a huge formal room. The salesroom is as fully funky as any we visited: T-shirts were just a beginning. There were down vests and jackets, glasses, wine coolers, key rings, even truck driver-style brimmed caps -- all emblazoned KORBEL. It felt more down home: just the opposite of champagne taste and beer budget. I rate it a little confused.
DAVIS BYNUM: A small, straightforward winery with no vineyards of its own, this concern is limiting its size rather than growing. The tasting room is a large barn-like cellar (storeroom) with cases piled high in front of the lines of barrels. Friendly but with no trimmings. No stuff, no rating.
SOUVERAIN: The large and impressive building that echoes the traditional hop barns has a great location with expansive mountain vistas and a restaurant. The sales area upstairs was chock full of touristy items, but the wine underwhelmed us all and the personnel were a bit aloof. We concurred on a 6.
DELOACH: A new -- three years -- and still-developing winery with very good wines, so great they run out a lot. The presentation takes place in a storeroom -- no mistaking, it's the storeroom -- but the ambiance is pleasing nevertheless. Perhaps it was the lack of pretension. They have plans to expand, but for the time being there are no incidentals to detract from the wines. Rate them promising The Napa Valley
HEITZ: A tasting room only, right on the highway (the winery itself is at some remove). Although the wines are excellent and it deserves several points for atmosphere -- it smelled oaky like the inside of a wine barrel -- the pretension of the personnel was off-putting. It left you feeling that you should have dressed better. Call it a 6.
CHRISTIAN BROTHERS: One of several of the truly mass acts, this company has two huge complexes in the Napa and others elsewhere in the state. It really is run by monks but you don't see any, at least not on the tour at Greystone. But there are facts galore: there are 2 million gallons of wine on the first two floors alone of the Greystone Cellars; the building sold in its entirety for only $10,000 during the Depression. But it's crowded, and fighting to the bar for your tastes can be like grabbing a seat on the subway at 5:15 p.m. Of course all this traffic cries out for incidentals and, sure enough, they were doing a hot business in T-shirts, bottle openers, vinyl wine carriers, postcards and embossed mugs out of a small and equally crowded salesroom. Give it a 7.
SUTTER HOME: The tasting room on main drag into St. Helena reminded me of a convenience store -- but perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, it was crowded with groups; it was late afternoon; the room fairly vibrated. T-shirts, although displayed on clothing store-style racks, were well designed and what I recall of the wine was positive. Sure earmark of the last winery of the day. Give it a question mark because of foggy memory. The Sonoma Valley
KENWOOD: A clean-cut facility with a tasting room you enter through huge barn-like doors. The wines were good but seemed expensive. The T-shirts were classy -- especially the Jack London wolf head. They also offered bulletin boards made of cork, posters and books. Give it a 6.
GRAND CRU: It took so long to find this winery that our expectations and thirst may have risen too high. An old winery retrieved by a group of scientists, it was fairly crowded and staffed by one friendly but inevitably hassled person. The tasting room was tiny and its air-conditioner was severly overtaxed. Ambiance: zilch. Incidentals: zilch. Two plusses: their white wines (especially a "grapefruity" chenin blanc) were good and a lively private party was going on in the picnic area. Give it a map for being so hard to find.
CHATEAU ST. JEAN: Absolutely beautiful buildings with a medieval tower, but the largest crowds we'd encountered created long lines just to enter the tasting room. To tell you the truth, we didn't wait. With such concentrated riches it seemed needless. Give it a break.
As it is frequently observed, there's no accounting for taste. So go try it yourself and remember I still know more about T-shirts than wine. There are numerous guides to help you decide, and Wine Country Review, a weekly free newspaper with maps, descriptions, times and phone numbers is available nearly everywhere. But I will add this, despite all the spin-off merchandise, nowhere did I find a mate for my 2 1/2-foot high vinyl, blow-up Christian Brothers Chateau LaSalle Rose' bottle.