I had read the warnings and they go something like this:
If you visit California’s Napa/Sonoma wine country, do not try to visit too many wineries in one day. Choose two or three and stick to the plan or you’ll go crazy.
Well, OK, I added that last part about going crazy because we almost did.
Driving north through Napa Valley on Highway 29 recently, my husband and I got dizzy trying to read all the signs marking the various wineries. Some we recognized — most we didn’t — and now I know why. There are more than 1,000 wineries in Napa/Sonoma, according to the Wine Institute, and volumes have been written about them, so where to begin?
The bad news is that I can’t answer that question for you.
The good news is that I can tell about four wineries, all of which I’d recommend. Each has wine worth sampling and a rich history that has shaped this valley of vineyards.
— Long Meadow Ranch Winery (St. Helena) This tasting room is just south of St. Helena’s historic downtown. Visitors sample in a beautifully renovated clapboard Victorian that sits adjacent to majestic redwood trees. We found the Sauvignon Blanc to be just as described by our hostess Donna Smith: “like summer in a bottle.” I’m no expert, so I defer to my husband on the 2004 and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignons, which he pronounced as excellent. Just few steps away is the Farmstead Restaurant, a unique sister enterprise that I’ll address in next column. Preview: It’s not be missed. Visit www.longmeadowranch.com for more information.
— Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) Kevin Morrisey clearly loves being manager of this certified organic vineyard that surrounds the historic winery building. He smiles broadly when talking about its mission — to fund the Fondation Leducq, a French charitable organization based in Paris and Boston that funds heart disease research. Ehlers claims land at the narrowest point in Napa Valley, taking advantage of the winds that pull in morning fog to nourish the grapes and prevent sunburn. The grapes are happily attended at all stages by two families of workers, rather than bringing in contract crews for harvesting and pruning. The “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon is divine. Visit www.ehlersestate.com for more information.
— Buena Vista Carneros (Sonoma) This winery sits minutes from Sonoma’s historic town square in a lush, leafy glen, and offers a cool, dark tasting room — a welcome respite on a hot summer day. I will forever remember what I learned from Quinn Martin, a human encyclopedia on food and wine pairing. Let me clarify; I won’t remember everything (thank goodness for the printed summary), but I now have an unprecedented appreciation of what wine and food can do for each other. Martin spoke of balance, acids and tannins, sweet and salty, flavor and feel. We understood it all after sampling meat, olives and various cheeses with several Buena Vista wines. Do inquire about Buena Vista’s history and the resident ghosts of the caves (closed to tourists due to earthquakes, but you can peek through the gates.) Visit http://buenavistacarneros.com for more information.
— Landmark Winery (Kenwood/Sonoma County) Its history reaches only to 1974, but nonetheless holds a place in valley lore. Landmark was founded by the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, inventor of the steel plow. A shiny model of a Deere tractor is displayed at the winery. In 1989, Landmark relocated to the scenic foothills of Sugarloaf Ridge, where it also began a new era of grape production and winemaking. Our host, Deanna Holzapfel, led us on a leisurely tour through the gardens, under large shade trees and to the airy tasting room, dominated by a towering mural, a whimsical depiction of a bug’s eye view of a vineyard. Visitors can stay overnight in a guest cottage or suite; both offer restful views of Sugarloaf Ridge. Landmark wines, often named for people and places dear to the Deeres, are listed among the Top 100 in WineMaker magazine. Visit www.landmarkwine.com for more information.
When to visit Napa/Sonoma is debatable. Summer weekdays are best to avoid crowds; the crush-rush (September/October) is exciting; and the post-crush days of November yield vineyards of crimson, orange and gold.
All of these wineries host special events, concerts, tastings and tours throughout the year, so check their Web sites. For an excellent, detailed, wineproof map of Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, Healdsburg and Alexander valleys, visit http://www.mapeasy.com/products.cfm?location=61 .
Next column: Wine country food.