Three guys, a hard-top convertible, and a week in Californian wine country. And all with a determination to have a great holiday (or “vacation” as the locals corrected us), possibly trying to relive some of our Marlborough vineyards experience and the origins of our friendship 14 years earlier. Our trip was driven by Adam, the man with a passion for wine, the palate to support us, and the surprise 40th birthday gift organised by his wife. The plan was simplistic – the two UK based lads (Adam &Nick) to meet the kiwi (Aaron) at San Francisco airport, collect the Pontiac – and drive to wine country. It was only good fortune that found somewhere to stay on the first night. Not because the region is short of a wide range of accommodation options, but because of our decision to drive directly to the vineyards and get into the tasting before the 4.30pm closing (we landed at SFO at 1pm). The trip was easy after that – locals eager to advise you, all sites within easy driving or biking distance, and plenty of fine fine wine.
The Napa valley itself is small in terms of geography and wine quantity, but “Napa” is synonymous with fine American wine – and origin of Robert Mondavi’s mission to produce the best wines in the world from California. The valley is about to feature in the upcoming film, Bottle Shock, the Hollywood dramatisation of how the American Napa wines raided the French wine scene. This positive view of the California wine industry is contrasted in the 2004 film Mondovino, which shows Mondavi as part of the American multinational force, challenging (ruining?) French wine traditions. Our trip took us to both the narrow valley of Napa and the adjacent Sonoma valley districts of Russian river and Dry Creek, with the majority of the trip centred around Yountville – a small Napa Valley tourist village with a disturbing high number of gastronomic restaurants.
Each region is defined by its own idiosyncratic climate and geographic characteristics, and suits different grape varieties. We started with Cabernet Sauvignon’s of the Napa Valley, and then onto Zinfandel’s of the Dry Creek, Pinot Noir’s of the Russian River (after a 3 hours canoe cruise down the placid Russian river), and back to the Napa for a less disciplined recap of the Napa. The experience was divided between some of the big names of Napa wine (Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, and Beringer) and the more boutique or character operations (Preston, Ehlers, Rutherford) – with varied and unexpected tales at each stop…the behind the scenes tour of the meticulous production of Opus One, the generous servings at Robert Mondavi, the afterhours barrel tasting at Ehlers, personalise tasting by the Rafanelli family, or the delicate tasting platter at Robert Sensky.
In seven days we tasted at 18 wineries, sampling a range of mostly reds at each stop. So what can three blokes learn on a glorified pub crawl? The most obvious reflection was the discovery that a week of intensive wine tasting will improve your palate, and enhance your appreciation of fine wine, and help get beyond the hype of the wine scene. And there were other more personal lessons about friendship and mates. That three blokes can share a week drinking – and still discuss serious emotional issues, can spend days appreciating the nose of a exceptional Pinot – and then mix it up with the boys playing pool in one of the local dive bars. Wine is good.
Adam, Aaron and Nick’s trip was made possible with endorsement of Hillcrest Fine Wines, Hamilton. Thanks.