* With apologies to Michael Patrick King for stealing his pun.
We spent Independence Day up in Sacramento -- as we do every year.
With the 4th falling on a Tuesday, our stay up there was longer than usual. With all that extra time, I was wondering if there was something we could do to make this year's visit a little more interesting.
"Do you think my sister would want to take a day to go wine tasting while we're up there?" I asked my husband.
That was a silly question.
If you like wine -- even a little -- there's no better way to spend an afternoon than sampling the wares of local wineries. I know a lot of people who are shy about doing this, because they don't feel they are knowledgeable enough -- and the wine snobs and foodies they know make it worse. But there's no better way to learn about wine than to go directly to the source. And here's a little secret: There's no right or wrong here. The best wine to buy is the one YOU like. You won't know what that is until you try a few varieties and can pick out the qualities you enjoy the most. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it :)
However, this is not a pastime that your kids will enjoy, and as our daughter has gotten older, we've found it more difficult to indulge ourselves this way. We used to dress it up as an excuse to have a picnic (many wineries include picnic table setups where you can enjoy a basket lunch with a bottle you purchase there -- and the scenery is always gorgeous), but even then she gets bored with the actual tasting (and you cannot blame her). Fortunately, my oldest niece was perfectly happy to spend the day at home watching old movies on TV with her younger sister and cousin -- so we were in business.
Californians are blessed with eight different wine producing regions, stretching from San Diego County all the way up to Mendocino. There is even now a winery in Los Angeles County. No matter where you live in the state, it's possible to engage in this most intoxicating activity -- perhaps even as a day trip. This is what we had in mind up in Sacramento, which is about 90 minutes away from three different wine producing regions: Amador County, Sonoma County and the Napa Valley.
It had been several years since we visited Napa. This is partly because of the time factor -- it's rare that we can get away, even for a day, without our daughter. But a lot of it is the expense. Napa Valley is probably the best known of California's wine regions -- and it is also one of the most expensive. My sister swears that she finds wine that tastes just as good -- for half the price -- in less popular areas like the Lake Counties, and I believe her. But for sheer abundance, variety (and proximity to Sacramento), our choice was clear. After stopping off at the ATM for some much needed cash, we headed east on I-80 and turned onto CA 29 until we headed into the city of Napa, where we picked up a map at the Visitors Center, grabbed a quick lunch and plotted our day.
I would not suggest doing a wine tasting day trip like this unless you either (a) hire a limousine service to take you around (fun, but expensive!) or (b) have a designated driver. Fortunately, my brother-in-law Mark prefers that role, so we were set. Also -- most of the tasting rooms close by 4:00 p.m. each day, and by the time we were ready to start it was already 1:00. So we estimated we'd be able to hit three -- perhaps four -- wineries before it was time to head back home.
Fortunately, with over 200 different wineries in the Napa Valley, there isn't a lot of travel time between them all. We decided to explore the vineyards along the Silverado Trail, and pulled into the driveway of the first one we found: Andretti Winery.
"I wonder if it belongs to Mario," Mark joked.
It turns out that wasn't such a joke. A newspaper article posted on the wall tells the story of how Mario Andretti turned to winemaking -- as have several successful, very wealthy people -- and he has come up a winner. Out of all the wines we tasted that afternoon, there was only one we liked enough to buy: a bottle of Andretti Reserve Montona chardonnay. (Cost: $39)
There are two flights of wine to choose from, with different fees. The basic flight of four wines costs $8 per person. We opted to taste the more expensive reserve wines: three tastes for $12 per person. Regrettably, that does not include the price of a souvenir wine glass (the wineries we have visited in Southern California used to let you keep your glass -- don't know if that's changed). We paid an additional $4 each for the wine glasses.
We had a great time chatting with the friendly, knowledgeable woman behind the bar, who was enthusiastic about a couple of wines that weren't on the menu, and poured them for us anyway. Thanks to her, we felt we got our money's worth. Note to other wineries: she's probably the reason we actually bought something there. Talking with the winemakers is one of the reasons tasting is so much fun -- and we find we learn something new every time. This time, we learned that the vineyard doesn't get harvested all at once -- the grapes on one side of the hill ripen at a different rate than the ones farther down... so all the vines must be monitored and scheduled accordingly. I had no idea that part of the process was so complex!
One of the winery folks told us that the 4th of July weekend is their busiest of the year, which wasn't surprising after viewing all the traffic on the road that day. It was obvious a lot of other people had the same idea as us. It was standing room only at our next stop: Stags' Leap Wine Cellars. At least, I thought that's where I thought we went. I just went back onto this winery's website and discovered that their tasting room isn't open to the public without an appointment. I just went up and down the websites of all the wineries in the Stags' Leap appellation and cannot find one that looked like the one we visited then. So I'm stumped.
All I can tell you is that it was expensive, not friendly, and no availability of souvenir glassware. I'm wondering if they opened up because it was a busy weekend... or if we stumbled in and piggybacked on a group that was already there. The wine was good, though, as you can tell from the looks on our faces in this photo taken outside the tasting room (wherever it was!)
Linda and Mark suggested the third winery on our tour: ZD, which they said stood for "Zero Defects." We learned later that although ZD has adopted that as their motto, it's actually the initials of the winery's founders, Gino Zepponi and Norman de Leuze. Today, de Leuze's children own and operate the company, and its wines have made their way to the table at state dinners at the White House.
The tasting room employees were friendly and interesting (like the lady we met at Andretti). As with the other wineries, we had a choice of two flights: the "Traditional" tasting menu cost $10 per person and the "Premiere" tasting is $15. And like Andretti, the folks behind the bar poured us a couple of extra tastes with our Premiere menu.
By now, we had been poured something like 12 1-oz glasses of wine. I try to pace myself by pouring out most of them after I've had my taste -- but I'd probably consumed the equivalent of two 4-oz glasses. We decided to conclude our visit with a little champagne -- er, I mean sparkling wine -- at the Mumm vineyard (which was on our way back).
Champagne has a particular cache for most of us, who associate it with festive occasions. As such, a lot of the wineries who produce methode champenoise products put a little more oomph into their tasting experience. At Mumm, you don't have to stand behind a boring old wine bar. Here, you are led to a proper table and given a bowl of nibbly bits and a menu offering your choice of different tasting flights -- or to order your wine by the glass. My husband, sister and I each asked for a different champagne to sample -- and all were excellent. (All were from Mumm's EXP line of sparkling wines -- which are NOT readily available in stores.) It was a fitting way to end a day in Napa.
See the rest of the photos we took that day here.