Old Times in California #2 – Napa Valley Under Water

In these days of drought, it’s hard to believe that not that long ago the issue facing winery owners was too much rain, rather than not enough.  Beginning on January 8, 1995 there was heavy rainfall in Napa and Sonoma counties, causing the Russian River and the Napa River to overflow their banks.    This had a major impact on tourism as many likely visitors were scared away.  It was not as much of a crisis as it would have been in the summer or at harvest-time, but news reports were pretty frightening anyway: 500 people displaced; roads closed for as much as two days; lost sales for those vintners who only sold at their wineries.

In the midst of all this, Steve was to attend a major conference in his field (that is, information security, which he does when he’s not tasting wine).  The conference was in San Francisco.  Not only that, but his boss was planning to attend with him.  The boss knew that Steve had visited Napa Valley often and suggested that they get to San Francisco a few days before the conference and go wine tasting.  This is how Steve became a chauffeur and sommelier for his manager and said manager’s girlfriend, who came along as well.

Now the relationship among the three was quite cordial but it’s never a good idea to get one’s boss stuck on a road that has been flooded out.  Keep in mind that many well-known wineries had closed in deference to the rising waters.  The Napa River had crested just north of Yountville and the Yountville Cross Road, one of the Valley’s major east-west thoroughfares had been washed out.  That meant that several wineries were difficult to reach and a few were inaccessible altogether.  Steve well remembers pulling up to the old Silver Oak winery, north of the worst inundation, only to find the doors boarded up with sandbags outside.

So it took some maneuvering to find roads that were dry and wineries that were open.  Cell phones weren’t common in those days, so there was no chance of calling ahead and asking if anyone was serving wine that day.  Steve’s manager was busily studying a map, but Steve had been around the region often enough that he was able to stick to the relatively higher Silverado Trail and then make excursions onto the crossing roads that appeared open.  He also had a good enough mental picture of Napa Valley, simpler in that bygone era, to know where the better wineries were.  Or at least he thought he did, which is nearly the same thing.  He just pulled onto a road, found an open winery and pretended that was where he was heading all along.

Now there are some lessons to be learned from all this.  First, while we don’t recommend visiting Wine Country when there’s a major flood, there is a lot to be said for going wine tasting in rainy or cold weather (which we have done several times since).  There are no crowds – heck, there’s almost nobody there – and wine servers can be much more attentive and maybe offer you something they would not consider serving in better times.

Second, wine tasting has become a major tourism industry.  Of course, there would be no tourists if there were no wine, but Napa Valley in particular has been described as Disneyland for adults.  However, the infrastructure is still farm land.  You may not even realize how congested it is until you see Wine Country with nobody in it.

And finally, that visit helped create a better relationship with Steve’s boss, not that it was bad to begin with.  Still, like fishermen who can talk for hours about the big one that got away, Steve and his manager were able to tell increasingly harrowing stories about tasting wine in the face of surging flood waters.

A Wine Tasting Vacation

For some people, wine tasting is an event on a vacation.  For others, especially those who live close to Wine Country, it’s an occasional excursion.  Then there are some, like ourselves, who choose to take several days or even a week and spend the whole time in a particular wine region, with the primary purpose of tasting wine.  We do it every year somewhere in California and have arranged our vacations that way in France, Italy and Australia.  But that’s not all.  This sort of vacation is also about immersing ourselves in the natural (and man-made) beauty of the region, picnicking, dining, lazing by the pool and generally relaxing.

A multi-day wine tasting excursion is not the same as a series of one-day trips.  While each vacation day may stand alone, there are some significant differences with day-long outings from a central location outside Wine Country.  For one thing, there is no need to rush back to wherever one came from at the end of the day.  For another, one can sleep late and still be out tasting as the wineries open.  And there is none of the psychological pressure to see and experience as much as possible each day; what does not happen today can wait for tomorrow.  There might even be a day where the morning is spent in some other activity like visiting art galleries and the afternoon left to the wineries.

Most important perhaps is that a dedicated wine taster (anyone who spends several days going from winery to winery is by definition dedicated) can approach the wines differently and gain a more focused perspective.  One day might be given to comparing an unfamiliar grape, such as Syrah or Pinot Gris, at multiple wineries.  Another could be dedicated to comparing different winemakers’ approaches to Bordeaux blends or Chardonnay.  Visitors with some knowledge of the best-known labels might enjoy a day of tasting only wines from unfamiliar vineyards; there is no better way to deepen one’s understanding of the region and its products.

As with day-trippers, a multi-day vacationer should limit visits to a concentrated region.  Napa Valley, for example, aside from being a geographic region is also an American Viticultural Area (or AVA).  There are 16 sub-appellations from Calistoga in the north to Carneros in the south.  (Just to confuse matters, the area around Napa City does not have a sub-appellation, although we think it should.  And to carry the confusion even further, most people refer to the sub-appellations as AVAs anyway.)   It is possible for a vacationer with several days to spend to return to just one AVA and learn how adjoining properties growing the same grapes make very dissimilar wines, adding fuel to the argument that it is winemakers’ skills that make the difference.

Oh, but wait…  When you actually see the properties, with minute differences of sun, elevation, proximity to water and other aspects of microclimate, you will be able to say that it is all about terroir.  Only by giving yourself the opportunity to go into depth within an AVA does one get the knowledge to participate in the argument at all.

If you do spend several days winetasting, it is important to avoid a certain jadedness.  If all you have been tasting has been wine of an extremely high quality, the bottle you can afford to order at dinner may seem a little bland, or maybe more than a little.  Of course, there are many winemakers in the great winemaking areas in the US and abroad who aspire to greatness and not a few who achieve it.  If you focus only on tasting the very best that one particular region of Wine Country has to offer, you will miss many excellent wines that you will be able to buy once you get home.  You might try one of those wines and say to yourself “Gee, this awfully good.  I wonder why I didn’t care for it when I was on vacation.”  It’s all too easy to become an instant wine snob.  Don’t let the superb be the enemy of the very good.

The Temecula Valley

California is, as everyone knows, the apex of wine making in the United States.  There are now, according to Wine Spectator, wineries in all 50 states and some are making wine that has promise.  Napa and Sonoma counties have already realized that promise and are even still continuing to improve, with many vineyards producing products of world class caliber.  The regions are easy to visit from San Francisco.

Then there are other areas in the Golden State that are cracking into the big time, notably in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, the so-called Central Coast, which stretches so far that it’s hard to call it a single wine-growing region.  It’s at least a two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and a minimum of three hours from, well, anywhere to Paso Robles.  In other words, if you want to visit these regions it will probably mean at least one night in a hotel, not a day trip.

Then, if you’re in Southern California, you also have a destination for wine tasting.  San Diego is a wonderful city with perhaps the best climate in the United States.  If you go, drive north on I-15 to the Temecula Valley, about an hour away, to experience the local Wine Country.


Photo courtesy of Temecula Wines.org

Don’t expect the same level of quality that the great Napa and Sonoma vineyards produce, nor the glorious vistas you can see in the northern and central parts of the state.  But it is very definitely Wine Country that you’ll be in, with all the attendant opportunities that go with such a region.  What’s most amazing is that the local grape farmers have used the popularity of wine drinking in America to make the desert bloom.  This is not the sort of Wine Country with the lush verdure of, say, Russian River nor with the grand chateaux of Bordeaux, Burgundy or, in its way, Napa Valley.  Part of the allure of Temecula is that you have a chance to see it and taste it before it becomes famous, which is a good reason to go.

If you are among those that think that the quality of a wine comes exclusively from the skilled hands of the farmer and the wine maker, then Temecula has a chance at making it big.  If, however, you are like us and think that terroir – the soil and the climate – are the dominating factors in a wine’s character then it may just be that Temecula is reaching its apogee.  Of course, don’t take our word for it; taste for yourself and make your own evaluation.

Two of the wineries we like best are conveniently closest to the Interstate.  If the name Callaway is familiar to you, you must be a golfer.  The club maker and the winery owner are the same folks.  Depending on your perspective, they are either the best or the most pretentious winery in Temecula Valley.  They are the only one there with a wine, the Owner’s Private Reserve, that runs $175 per bottle.  Is it worth it? Only your mouth can tell.

Just next door is Hart Family Winery.  It is one of the oldest wineries in the valley, going back to 1970.  The Hart family are farmers and winemakers, with no corporate empire behind them.  A visit to their winery, even today, brings back thoughts of what Napa Valley was before Robert Mondavi and other pioneers brought that region to the forefront.  And they are still among the few who will let you drink a glass of wine and take the logo-engraved glass with you.

A very nice feature of a visit to Temecula Valley is that many of the wineries have restaurants, running from Meritage at Callaway, which is similar to a sophisticated urban restaurant, to salads and flatbreads at Lorimar’s Pairings bistro.  Flower Hill is at Miramonte; there’s Café Champagne at Thornton (guess what the specialty wine might be); and Avensole has a “restaurant and marketplace” of the same name.

We enjoy visiting Temecula because we enjoy outings in Wine Country, wherever it may be.  We have tasted some pleasant wines but nothing that has ever excited us.  Your experience may be very different in that regard.  So come for the experience, keep your mind (and your mouth) open and have wonderful day so near to San Diego.

Rombauer Vineyards

The wines at Rombauer are undeniably BIG, but the experience of visiting their winery for a tasting is definitely an intimate one.  Maybe it’s because the proprietor’s family is descended from the Irma Rombauer who wrote The Joy of Cooking, which was once America’s basic cookbook.  There’s something homey about a visit to the Rombauer winery.  It’s still family-owned and operated and has been a part of Napa Valley’s wine history since 1980.


The view from Rombauer’s porch

To get to the winery, you have to turn off St. Helena’s Silverado Train and climb a long hill until you are greeted by an astonishing view of Napa Valley.  (See our previous article on wine with a view.)  Visitors are invited to bring your lunch and sit at one of their eight outdoor tables overlooking the valley.  You don’t have to buy anything from them, but it would be impolite not to get something.  As we said, it’s a bit like going to Grandma’s for a picnic.  You feel very welcome.

The tasting room is very “country” style, in keeping with the Rombauer family’s overall attitude.  It’s in a long, narrow room that doesn’t accommodate many people at the same time so they don’t take parties larger than six people.  There are no buses and no stretch limos; which is a distinct plus as far as we’re concerned.  It would be hard to fit more than a dozen people in the room but you can take a glass out onto the porch if it ever gets squeezed (which it never has in our experience).

We must say that those who serve you are more pourers than educators, but they make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in detailed winemaking knowledge.  There’s usually someone around who does can answer your questions if the server gets stuck.

Now, as to the wines themselves there is some controversy.  You’d better like a very distinct California style, from back in the good ol’ days, or you’re going to be overwhelmed at Rombauer.  They are best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay and these all have considerable depth and flavor.  And they all have a lot of alcohol;  almost all their wines are over 14% alcohol and a few of their Zins top out at 15.9%!  ‘Nuff said.

It would be one thing if they just poured you a few meager sips.  But the Rombauer folks are very generous, indeed, especially if you take their Proprietor Flight for $30.  You’ll get everything they offer you and then someone will say, “Well, which one did you like best?”  Upon answering, the server will often say, “In that case, I think you’d like this”…and this, and this, and this.

Knowing that this is likely to happen, one of holds back a little in order to drive away safely.  The idea of sitting down for a picnic at that point sounds very attractive.  In all seriousness, each of us has walked away from Rombauer at one time or another feeling just a little woozy.

We don’t think that Rombauer will ever build a Napa Palace unless the family
decides to sell out to an international wine conglomerate.  Given the history of the winery that seems very unlikely.  But who knows?  If you like your wine tasting experience to be rustic, friendly and welcoming by all means include Rombauer in your wine tasting plans.  If you prefer glitz, there are other places in Napa Valley that are likely to fit your bill.