Monday, July 28, 2008

California Wine Country: A Trip to Remember

Statue_tight_11 Summer's probably my favorite time to visit Napa and Sonoma -- the nights are cool, everything's lush and green, the roads and wineries are not nearly as crowded as they are in the fall, and, compared to the South, there's almost no perceptible humidity (which I'll take all day long).

Join me as I look back on a recent trip (which was out of this world!) where I visited Flora Spring Winery, Bennett Lane Winery, Frank Family Vineyards, and J Vineyards
In addition to sampling outstanding wines, along the way, I also cooled my heels in a sweet hotel and was able to kick back in one of my favorite restaurants in the country.

Rolling into Napa proper, I was greeted by the Grape Crusher, a giant bronze statue positioned at the crossroads of Highway 29 and Highway 221.  This ol' boy is to Napa what "The Crossroads" sign in Clarkesdale, Mississippi is to the Blues Highway -- an unmistakable icon letting you know you've arrived.

Sign_above_bridge1_3First stop: Lunch at Flora Springs Winery (1978 W. Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena, Napa; 707-963-5711)
Scott's Picks: Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Soliloquy, Holy Smoke Cabernet Sauvignon
I highly recommend lunch at the winery.  The food and wine pairing is sensational, plus the view of the vineyards and surrounding valley from the outdoor table will knock your socks off.  The lunch series runs through October.  Reservations are required.

Public tastings are not available at the winery; however, next month (August 8th), Flora Springs opens their new public tasting room just south of downtown St. Helena (about a mile from the winery) at 677 South St. Helena Highway.  This new facility offers wine tastings as well as educational wine and food pairing seminars.  Private tours and tasting at the winery are available, but call at least 48 hours ahead, if interested.  For more information or to make reservations for the lunch series, contact Margaret Meraz at 707-967-6723 or

One more thing about Flora Springs, make sure you say hello to Sean Garvey, who, in addition to being the Communications Director and grandson the matriarch Flora (and an all-around cool dude), is one heck of a musician.  In fact, Sean's latest alt-country inspired disc, California Parable, was recorded in Nashville.
Next stop: A "wine blending experience" at Bennett Lane Winery (3340 Highway 128, Calistoga, Napa; 707-942-6684)
Scott's Picks: Maximus, White Maximus, Los Carneros Reserve Chardonnay

The staff-lead Custom Wine Blending Experience is a splurge (at $175 a person for a party of 6 to 8), but it's definitely worth least once...and with a few good friends.  (Call to check on pricing for parties of 1 to 4, or more than 8.)  The Experience also includes a wine and cheese pairing, and a limo ride to and from your hotel (within the Calistoga or St. Helena areas) -- I reckon when you add it all up it's actually a pretty solid value.  If you're interested, be sure to call ahead to schedule a time.

The winery is open to the public daily from 10am to 5:30pm.  Guests are also welcome to use the winery's picnic area.  Don't miss the dark chocolate and Maximus pairings every Saturday -- call to check on times.  For more information, call 707-942-6684.

Bennett Lane owner Randy Lynch is a man on a mission to introduce wine to beer-loving NASCAR fans.  Like his long-time pal, Richard Childress (who produces outstanding wines at his winery in North Carolina), Randy is heavily involved in racing as well as his growing winery.  In fact, Randy and his wife, Lisa, are the first California winery to own a NASCAR team.  The couple's also partnering with Infineon Raceway in Sonoma to serve Maximus -- their rich, full-bodied red -- by the glass in the track's new entertainment zone.
Last stop: Supper at Bouchon (6534 Washington Street, Yountville, Napa; 707-944-8037)


My first trip to Bouchon (another Thomas Keller -- of French Laundry fame -- creation) was back in 2000 during the Napa Valley Wine Auction.  No exaggeration, I was there every night -- either for a formal meal or late-night snack.  You just can't beat the restaurant's super-convivial atmosphere.

In fact, one of my most gluttonous food stories ever involves an early-evening meal at The French Laundry with a (worthy partner in crime), followed shortly by a trip down the street to Bouchon (for, you guessed it, a late-night snack).

J_sign_2First stop: Lunch at J Vineyards (11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, Sonoma; 707-431-3646)


Scott's Picks: Brut Rosé, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir

Nestled in Sonoma's Russian River Valley (one of the coolest growing regions in the state), J Vineyards is a recommended stop for those who love sparkling wine (and the varietals, such as Chardonnay and Pinto Noir, that traditionally make up sparklers).  What's more, Healdsburg is a cool little town to explore before or after your visit.  Every time I'm in Sonoma, I seem to always gravitate to Healdsburg's downtown square to pick up gifts for family and friends.

There are several tasting options in the Visitor Center depending on your time and budget.  The J Signature Bar, open 7 days a week from 11am to 5pm, allows folks to sample the winery's award-winning Russian River Valley wines -- it's a good deal at $10/person.  If you're looking for a nibble, try J Terrace.  Open May through October, J Terrace offers a wine and cheese pairing for $30/person, or a oyster and sparkling wine pairing for $25/person.  J Terrace is open (weather permitting) Friday through Monday from 11am to 4pm.  No reservations are taken.

For a more grand experience consider the Bubble Room or J Essence Tasting.  The Bubble Room is a "tasting salon" where Executive Chef Mark Caldwell pairs his seasonal, 4-course menus with a variety of small production and vintage wines only available at The Bubble Room.  The pairings, which are $55/person, come in 3 styles: Pinot Noir, White (Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier), and Indulgence (all sparkling wine).  The Bubble Room is open Thursday through Monday from 11am to 4pm.  Reservations are strongly recommended.  If you want to go straight over the top, check out the J Essence Tasting where a group of 8 is pampered (at $200/person) with a 7-course wine and food pairing, along with a vineyard tour and wine education seminar.  Reservations are definitely required -- call the winery for more information.

Chardonnays1Next stop: Tasting at Frank Family Vineyards (1091 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga, Napa; 800-574-9463)


Scott's Picks: Napa Valley Chardonnay, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Rutherford Sangiovese, Zinfandel Port
I've been recommending Frank Family Vineyards (especially their Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) for several years, so it was a real treat to finally visit the winery (which is on site of the historic Larkmead Winery) and meet a few of the folks who make it all happen.

The down-scale tasting room is a far cry from the fancier affairs found in Napa (so know that going in), but a beautiful new tasting room (under construction during my visit) is almost complete.  That said, don't let that keep you from visiting.  Tasting Room Manager Dennis Zablosky has never met a stranger and sets the tone for pleasant experience -- even if you're a novice.  Here's the best part -- the tastings are free (a rarity in Napa).  If you're lucky, you might even catch owner Richard Frank holding court around one of his pristine vintage cars.

Last stop: A good night's rest at Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, Napa; 800-348-5406)


When you stay at Auberge du Soleil you're definitely doing Napa in style.  I only wish my wife could have been with me to enjoy the romantic surroundings.  The pool and accompanying outdoor living room creates quite a relaxing setting.  Not to be missed for at least one sunset/dusk glass of Champagne.

If you stay elsewhere in town, consider supper on the restaurant's terrace or at least a glass of wine in the bar.  I'm telling you, the views are spectacular (especially when you're with that someone special).

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