This whole living in Northern California thing gave me some wild thoughts: I live near the Wine Country, I have a car, and I sometimes have weekends off. Add these three together and we’re off to Napa Valley to taste some wines.
1. First stop: Judd Hill
2. Second Stop: Clos Du Val
Upon getting out of the car, you feel immediately transported into Tuscany. There is an olive grove with iron wrought benches and tables ready to host an impromptu picnic with friends. Small groups huddle around a bottle or two, fingers dipping into a messy display of breads and cheeses, slowly taking in the sun. We pause, sit down, eaves drop for few minutes and detect no trace of work-related issues, technology, or economy in the snippets of conversation.
The view seems to be taken from the Italian chapter of our honeymoon; the vines line up green hills in neat rows punctured by cypress trees. We go inside a tasting room fashioned after a stony French chateau. It’s cool, dark, and the décor is very convincing. Accept for the smell. The real French chateau would smell of musty wine and mold. But not here – there is no identifiable smell. I peak through the iron gate into a cool space with giant steel containers and it’s all perfection. No honeyed hued oak barrels stained with pills, no smell – is it even real?
The wines are not bad – Chardonnay and Pinot seem to be the specialty here but the first is too oaky and I am too picky about my Pinot so the focus is on Merlot. We taste a bottle from the Stag Leap’s county, freshly opened, un-decanted, delicious. The flavor is full, complex with a subtle (not overpowering like most wines we’ve tasted that day) hint of oak. I can’t help but wonder if the volcanic soil is what makes it so delicious. Sweet aftertaste of cherries leaves me wanting more. My palette is getting exited.
We leave the tasting room to spend some 30 minutes glued to the chairs in complete silence just taking in the beauty of neatly planted endless rows of black twigs stretching their delicate arms to the sun in a mysterious prayer for a blessed juice.
3. Next up: Piña Winery
We found a plenty of old work tools abandoned around the property, complete with rusty grape press to satisfy my need for authenticity. The tasting room consists of a giant barrel wheeled around a cold wine storage and it smells just wonderful. I want to bottle this fragrant aroma of French oak barrels, cool stone, and fruit. Our host is old, funny, and wonderfully grumpy. He is hard to please when I try to probe for some insights and show my passion but pours us a barrel taste. He also regretfully utters that I seem to have better palette than he does.
We taste an array of Cabs, all really strong and heavy and overpowering. The experience is shared by a rowdy group of tourists who seem to be most exited by the name of one of the labels: Cahoots. We walk away most amazed by the fact that the cheapest bottle starts at $35 and prices go up to $75. For a domestic wine that’s three years old?! Really? Why?
A 17 mile climb to the top of Mount Veeder peeks our attention despite the time in a day, lack of food, and number of sips we’ve endured thus far (I started spitting to “save room” for the best). Our small car disappears in thick layer of a fog pierced by arms of old trees.
Forewarned by the Cahoots crowd that Hess is a weird place, I was very exited if it lives to its dark reputation. “They all dress like morticians and the art collection is the creepiest pieces we’ve ever seen!” whispered a bug-eyed lady from Orlando, FL. I found both; her comment and the beautiful HESS label promising cues to this part of our wine country adventure.
The property is old (for U.S. – dating back to early 1900’s), surrounded by luscious green and vines descending from the top. There is nothing creepy about the stuff (middle aged, well versed in viticulture, and very friendly) and I was the only one dressed in black. We took a silent, glass elevator to view the art collection and I immediately felt transported back to Europe. The Hotel Copernicus, Fall of 2003, Krakow, Poland.
All the modern luxuries harmoniously fused with a 15th Century frescoes and artifacts (yes, Copernicus did stay here once). An unforgettable place, even after our stay at Rome and Prague.
Back to the Hess winery; the art collection is JAW DROPPING. Mr. Donald Hess, of Swiss descent has accumulated a MOMA worthy selection of most important artists of our century. I was speechless facing my beloved Rauschenberg’s recent paintings along with works by Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell (the painting I’ve copied in Collage), and epic Anselm Kiefer. But my eyes went all watery when I walked into a room filled by the so close to heart “Abakans” by a Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz
Wait- what about the wine? The wines we tasted here were all really good. The Viognier was sweet and aromatic with nice floral notes hanging around for a while after I took a sip. Sauvignon Blanc felt very refreshing, mineral, with a hint of pineapple and the Cab was big, jammy, and woody – tested much more like some of my favorite Zinfandels.
I’ve never met Mr. Hass and I probably never will but I deeply understand his taste in art and wine – the two things that combine magic with science and have the stopping power to make us dig a bit deeper, one glass at a time.
For more photos from the trip, please see: