It’s not even noon, and I’m on my third glass of wine. The sun is shining, the autumn air crisp, and we are weaving through rows of grapevines picked clean from the recent harvest. Our sommelier points out different varietals, plucking a few leftover grapes to taste, pouring each of us a few ounces of the resulting wine. I feel a little giddy, delighting in the perverse decadence of it all. “Let’s move here!” I enthuse, swirling the burgundy liquid in my glass so it glistens in the sunlight.
Lorenzo and I are in Santa Rosa, California to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We’ve rented a beautiful house perched among undulating brown hills dotted with live oaks, sweeping down towards San Pablo Bay.
Each morning, sipping our coffee on the deck, we admire the dedicated cyclists battling up the steep grades of Los Alamos road towards Hood Mountain Regional Park. We are going biking too, but our excursion involves multiple stops for wine tastings and a picnic lunch.
My wine knowledge is limited to a vague awareness that white wine pairs better with fish and reds compliment heartier dishes. Over the week, we tour eight different vineyards and wineries, each one distinctly different from the last. I learn amazing facts about grape varietals, growing fruit, soils, sunlight, fermentation, blending, bottling, tasting, and food pairing. But it is people’s passion and dedication to a beverage that leaves me marveling.
We meet David Homewood, owner of Homewood Winery (www.homewoodwinery.com), a one-man operation dedicated to hand-crafted vinification. Seated at a wooden picnic table under a canvas shade, we sip a couple memorable wines including a 2012 Viognier with delightful lemon and vanilla notes, and a 2009 Cabernet Franc bursting with cherries, chocolate and cinnamon. David is dressed in stained overalls and a grubby ball-cap, stopping for a brief hello before hurrying off to process all the grapes piled in crates along the driveway.
There is saying in the wine industry, “If you want to make a million dollars in wine, start with ten million.” We can see why as we tour jaw-dropping estate vineyards stretching out around ivy-covered chateaus (www.jordanwinery.com), award winning gardens and water features (www.ferrari-carano.com), a 13th-century castle replica (www.castellodiamorosa.com), and miles of hand-dug caves to house millions of hand-stacked champagne bottles (www.schramsberg.com).
Most of these iconic establishments were started as a hobby. Hmmm. My hobbies include surfing Etsy and rearranging my tacky fridge magnets.
One of our favorite experiences is a food and wine pairing at St. Francis Winery. (www.stfranciswinery.com). In addition to grapes, Sonoma is bursting with bounties of fresh produce and, as the location of the Culinary Institute of America (www.ciachef.edu) might suggest, is also a mecca for people dedicated to serving it up in unique, artsy and delectable ways. We sip, and taste, and sip again, surprised at the range of flavors and areas of the palate the food activates in each wine.
We sit with a group of retired couples who make the pilgrimage from Florida every year. They are on a mission to visit every winery in the valley. Glancing at the map with constellations of wineries flung across like stars in the sky, I raise my glass in a toast to their optimism.
The gentleman seated next to me is nicknamed, “Mr. Zin”. He shares an impassioned soliloquy for the 2011 “Old Vines” Zinfandel. Old vines can be up to 100 years old, and the low fruit-yields produce highly concentrated flavors prized by true connoisseurs. I taste raspberry and dark cherry with a hint of nutmeg. When I start chattering about joining the wine club, and ordering a case at $100 a bottle, Lorenzo looks at me like I’ve gone mad. Another St. Francis standout is the 2011 Cuvee Lago; a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The grapes are grown where the soaring summer temperatures are moderated by seasonal fog, resulting in less aggressive tannins. I tell Mr. Zin I can smell caramel and he beams proudly.
By the end of the week I fear I am spiraling into the tipsy life of a wino. It’s true, I’ve developed a new appreciation for subtle flavors and long finishes, and gained a huge admiration for the complex, time-intensive process from vine to table, but I’ve also realized there really can be too much of a good thing. I’m ready to go home and have a beer.