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27th August 2010

Dan Spends His Last Day in California Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

    In the early morning we headed to Pier B at the Ferry Building to catch a ferry to Vallejo. We didn't have time for a proper breakfast, which was perhaps a mistake, since we were to spend the day wine tasting.
    The catamaran ferry arrived and disgorged dozens of commuters who had made the one hour trip across the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays. There were only a handful of us who would be traveling up to Vallejo.
Lush Vineyards
    The craft skimmed across the waters effortlessly under the leaden gray skies, and an hour later we were docking at Vallejo, our gateway to the Napa Valley. Local Native Americans named the fish-rich river which flowed through the valley "Napa", meaning "plenty". Napa Valley was widely considered one of the top American Viticultural Areas in California, and all of the United States, with a history dating back to the early nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century there were more than one hundred and forty wineries in the area. Of those original wineries several still exist in the valley today including Charles Krug Winery, Shramsburg, Chateau Montelena and Beringer. Viticulture in Napa suffered a setback when prohibition was enacted across the country in 1920. Furthering the damage was an infestation of the phylloxera root louse which killed many of the vines through the valley. These two events caused many wineries to shut down and stalled the growth of the wine industry in Napa County for years. Following the Second World War, the wine industry in Napa began to thrive again.
    In 1965, Napa Valley icon Robert Mondavi broke away from his family's Charles Krug estate to found his own. This was the first new large scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition. Following the establishment of the Mondavi estate, the number of wineries in the valley continued to grow, as did the region's reputation.
    In addition to large scale wineries, Napa Valley's boutique wineries produced some of the world's best wines. The producers of these wines included but are not limited to: Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin Cellars, Dalla Valle Maya, Diamond Creek, Dominus Estate, Duckhorn Vineyards, Dunn Howell Mountain, Grace Family, Harlan Estate, Husic, Kistler, Jericho Canyon Vineyards, Marcassin, Screaming Eagle, Shafer Hillside Select, Sine Qua Non, Spencer-Roloson Winery and Vineyard 29.
Vineyard Fountains
    Today Napa Valley featured more than three hundred wineries and grew many different grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, and other popular varietals. Napa Valley was visited by as many as five million people each year.
    We were greeted at Vallejo by the driver of the California Wine Tour bus. He would be taking us to five different wineries throughout the day, making sure that we got back for the last ferry to San Francisco. He collected two more couples in Napa, and then we headed up highway 29 into the valley. I was already familiar with the area from my stay in Calistoga and detour down to Yountville.
    It was warm and sunny in the valley, with vineyards stretching in all directions, some even climbing into the surrounding low hills. The vineyards comprised neat rows of vines, and the vineyards were interspersed with neat, tidy winery buildings of varying modern and tasteful architectures.
    The first winery we were dropped off at showed us a list of the wines that we would be tasting. A young chap, whose father had owned the vineyard for some years, poured us each a taste of the first bottle of white wine, and proceeded to tell us about the history of the vineyard, the strains of grapes planted, and factors that influenced the choice of grapes including soil composition, water levels, winds, mists and sunlight. That first glass of white, crisp Chardonnay went down well. He then poured us a red wine which he described carefully to us, and that tasted even better. After six glasses of wine I was starting to regret not having eaten a substantial breakfast. Of course, there was the expected pitch on sales at the winery being cheaper since the middleman was being cut out, and better deals could be struck by joining the winery's wine club, which shipped out cases of wine to members on a regular basis. The wine clubs interested our American co-tasters to a certain extent, but nobody shipped out to the UK - surprise, surprise. The standard 'safe' wines were usually bought in bulk by restaurants.
Dan is Still Sober
    With our spirits fortified, we were collected by our driver and transported to another winery. We went through the same routine as before with five different wines, though the chat from the staff was a little stifled compared to the first winery, just a case of, "Here you are, try this". By now we were more discerning, and if the first sip of a wine did not appeal to us, we dumped the rest of our glass.
    We therefore spent more time talking amongst ourselves. One of the couples came from Nebraska, the other from New Jersey. The latter pair was more talkative, and I found their children had now reached the stage where they had outgrown Disneyland. The couple were looking to kindle an interest in history in their children, and were hoping to spend some vacations in Europe and sample a broad spectrum of histories and cultures. I told him that such travel certainly broadens the mind, and that my wife and I had taken our kids all around Europe. The chap did a serious amount of traveling through his work doing software installs for the entertainments industry. He also had interesting views on American politics.
    While we had been tasting the wines here, our driver had gone out to sort out a sumptuous lunch for us, all part of the cost. He turned up with a single pizza, of which we each ate a small slice, and the driver had the rest. We were all singularly unimpressed with this arrangement.
    We ate our morsels on the way to the next winery. The procedure here was not to offer us a taster of each wine on a list, but for tasters to request a sample of wine from the list. This was probably better in a way since we could choose our own preferences, and we tended to decrease the number of wines we sampled. By this time we were certainly more discerning as to what we drank and the quantity that we drank. One interesting feature of this winery was a glass wall through which we could peer through into a huge cellar containing hundreds of barrels of aging wine. As with the Tijuana winery we visited, all the wineries in the Napa Valley aged their wines in barrels made from French oak. I questioned one of the more knowledgeable personnel on this, and he informed me that French oak imparts a better flavour to the wines, and also French coopers are renowned for their craftsmanship.
    The fourth winery didn't seem to care less about us being there to taste the wine. The building was crammed with merchandise: T-shirts, sweaters, decanters etc, and pedaling the merchandise seemed to be their primary objective, the sale of wine being a secondary function.
    Our final winery was in a lovely setting, and for the first time we could sit down around a table together in the sunshine, talk and taste the wines on offer. A young fellow brought out the various wines, described each in turn, and the conditions favoured by the vines to produce each wine. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable last tasting session, and the conversation flowed freely. I wished we could have all stayed there a little longer. However, that was not possible, the driver had to deliver us all back to our pickup points, and he was becoming stressed that he might not get me and Dan back to the ferry terminal in time for the last boat. We shook hands with and wished bon voyage to the two couples as they were dropped off; a congenial bunch.
    On reflection, it was only the first and last wineries where we received useful information about the wines we were tasting; perhaps there was some logical reason for that. None of the wineries really pushed a hard sales pitch at all. It had been an enjoyable experience tasting the different wines and learning a little about them. I would have appreciated more knowledge, but I suppose it was really a wine tasting excursion and not a wine appreciation event. The couples we shared the day with were good company, so who's complaining.
    We caught our ferry in good time, and freshened ourselves up at the hotel before heading to Pier 39 for Dan's final evening meal in San Francisco. Dan chose the restaurant, and we each chose a starter and main course. The portions we were given were obscenely large, and we felt guilty about leaving a substantial portion of our meals on the plates.
    We made our way slowly back to the hotel via a couple of bars, the last of which had a strong Irish influence. Indeed the predominant drink in the bar was Irish coffee.
    We slept soundly that night.
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Uploaded from Francisco Bay Inn, 1501 Lombard Street, San Francisco CA on 30/08/10 at 20:05

Last updated 31.8.2010