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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Day Zero: Getting to Sonoma

So, we went to Napa and Sonoma! This is how it looked in SFO just after we landed.

View from the plane

We ended up getting stranded indefinitely at MSP because of torrential rain into SFO enforcing a full ground stop. All of the sudden, while catching a beer and charcuterie at a bar, we were told the plane was boarding and leaving immediately and we all needed to get get on the plane, now! We were pretty okay with this, and an expedient bartender made that all work out pretty okay.

From SFO it was a nasty and tedious drive up to Sonoma, where we found our hotel, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Post-surgical, I wasn’t allowed to use our two-person hot tub, the naturally fed hot springs, or the pool, but otherwise it was a nice enough hotel. Our suite had a fireplace, king size canopy bed, useless two-person hot tub, large shower, large living area, humongous porch, and … a bathroom with no fan and a really flimsy door that made things sort of awkward. Oh well. The hotel’s layout is sort of stupid – the larger suites are a decent hike from the main hotel, which sucked since it was torrentially downpouring, as aforementioned.

The Hotel, Sante

There’s inconvenient self-parking for $15 a day or valet parking for $25 a day. Hybrid vehicles self-park for free or valet at a discount. Given that parking is not at all in shortage in this run-down middle-of-nowhere part of Sonoma, the fees are a bit of a joke. And that’s really the point; while this property is rather nice, it’s inconveniently located; it’s too far from Sonoma Square to walk (there’s shuttle service that can be arranged), and the only ostensibly decent restaurants within convenient range are the hotel’s own – Sante (a Michelin 1-star restaurant in the hotel) and the somewhat shitty Big 3 restaurant (we had breakfast there and were disappointed in the meal and outright offended by macarons so stale they were inedible).

In any event, we were pretty bushed after a day of air travel, so we enjoyed the complementary wine tasting from a lousy local winery, ordered a cheese plate, and settled into the room. We dressed for dinner in our “wine country casual” outfits (whatever that meant, I never really learned) and headed to the lobby bar for a “very sexy French 75” and “a Sazerac.”

a very sexy french 75

The Sazerac was not bad, but the lemon wasn’t expressed and it was a chunk of pith, not a proper twist, peel, or medallion. Slackers. Otherwise a nice lobby bar with great service; there’s a decent liquor selection, including Chartreuse VEP, which is the first time I’ve seen that not in my apartment.

a questionable sazerac

Feeling rather lazy, we decided to dine at the hotel at Sante, because, why not? The wine list came on an iPad and was not the best implementation I’ve seen, but it worked out. We ended up with a lovely California Syrah with some age on it that was still quite youthful.

duchamp wine

Appetizers were sauteed sweetbreads and “adult mac and cheese” (lobster, black truffle, other things of pointless excess. It wasn’t a particularly novel take on the “trying to be fancy but accessible” staple, but it was well-executed without over-truffle-oiling, which is saying something.

sweetbreads

lobstah

Beef three ways was good, as was the venison.

beef

venison

The Meyer lemon soufflé was far too good to wait to photograph. Somewhere in there M had a poached pear or something, but I didn’t nab a photo of that.

souffle

sweets

A presentation of sweets greeted us after dessert, as well as some custard treats with the check to take home with us. All in all, the service was decent, the wine selection not awful, the food pretty good – probably one of the best “hotel restaurant” dining experiences I’ve had.

Day One: Off to Napa

We got up nice and early, in order to make it to our first appointment in Napa, a 10:00 at Barnett. We stopped at the rather wonderful Oxbow Public Market to pick up some sandwiches to be featured later. It was rainy, like all days but our last (we’ll get there eventually).

Barnett

Getting to Barnett was fun; it’s up on Spring Mountain, a little bit past Keenan and some other lovely winemakers. The turn for the winery is right on the county line, and the drive is twisty and beautiful.

signs on spring hill

Barnett’s tasting area is a little bench inside the winery, and then there’s a small tasting area inside the caves as well. We tasted through some Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs made from purchased floor fruit, and then a couple of their Cabernets (Rattlesnake was unavailble for tasting, as it was already all allocated). Here, proof that we were there and it temporarily wasn’t raining:

us at barnett

The view must have been nice, if it wasn’t hazy and raining. Even with that, it was pretty swell.

view from barnett

Barnett is a small production winery, they charge a moderate tasting fee and require a $200 buy to get out of it. These are good wines, and their tasting gives a nice opportunity to quickly sample wines from the same winemaker, some made from estate mountain fruit and some made from floor fruit – this is nice to get one’s bearings. The property is beautiful, the setting is rather intimate (I can’t imagine they can accommodate more than a visit or two at a time), and the drive is great.

Hall

Back to the valley floor, we ate some sandwiches in the parking lot at Hall Napa Valley. We fetched these sandwiches from the Oxbow Cheese Merchant. They were stupid good. Like, best sandwiches I’ve had in a really long damn time. They only offer two sandwiches, and we tried both of them. Do this, if you’re in Napa. I miss these sandwiches terribly, they were so fantastic. The ingredients, the combination of flavors, and the attention to detail in how they were assembled was absurd. They were just $8 a piece, and that’s an absurdly good value in the land of everything being horribly overpriced.

ham and brie sandwich the other sandwich

The Hall tasting experience was a bit odd. This winery is on the valley floor and clearly set up for buses full of drunks. Their Internet was down when we arrived, so they had no idea we were coming, or that we had reservations. It worked out. Their tasting, somewhat confusing, required picking four wines to taste. I didn’t want to pick four wines, I wanted to taste through everything that was available, this made for some awkward negotiation while we tried to figure out what of the myriad of offerings were worth actually drinking; the tasting fee wasn’t really the big impediment. We ended up doing something in between the two options, tasting most of the single vineyard estate reds available and both of the mainstream blends (the Cabernet and the Katherine Hall Cabernet). But, this approach was, in short, fucking stupid. I wish the tasting room was set up for people that spit and are interested in wine. Being set up for those that cling to particular varietals and those that are just interested in getting wasted is really not my cup of tea.

Hall Winery St. Helena

I had a hard time with the majority of the wines; the single vineyard wines struck me as disheveled and lifeless. This is a weakness many single origin espressos have – while not unimpressive, they fail to achieve the greatness of a good blend. The Syrah-heavy blend (whose name I forget) was probably the best inexpensive wine they offered. I don’t think I’d bother buying it, with that said. Hall ships to Connecticut only via a third party (fuck Connecticut), which is okay, because most of their bottlings are not worth it anyway.

Hall’s best wines are the two mainstream wines they offer (purportedly the only ones that go to distribution, but I’ve seen other bottles on the primary market, let alone the secondary). The baseline Hall Cabernet (about $50) and the Katherine Hall ($110) are what we’re talking about, and they’re really rather good for the money. I’m hard-pressed to recommend another Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at the $50 price point that’s superior for what it is. This may well be THE Cabernet under $85 that demonstrates valley floor typicity in Napa. Get one, enjoy it over a couple of days, and be happy.

The Katherine Hall was a far better wine, to be sure. If it wasn’t, it would certainly have been a funny joke. It’s not worth double (and then some) the money. There’s good mountain juice at about the $85-100 price point that’s superior (c.f. O’Shaughnessy’s Howell Mountain offerings), but for a rather remarkable floor wine, it’s quite nice and worth trying at least once.

At the end of the day I’m not going to argue that Hall is a benchmark winery in Napa. They’re not. But for ease of visit, wide distribution, and reasonable prices, it’s a pretty compelling winery for a larger-production offering, just avoid all of the bolt-ons and estate bottlings.

Continuum

Continuum was a lot of fun. Opus One was my “aha” wine, so I’ve been paying attention to Tim Mondavi for a while. Tim made Robert Mondavi’s reserve wines as well as the wines at Opus One until Constellation Brands came through in 2004 and drama ensued. If you trace a line from Robert Mondavi to Opus One and then continue to follow it into the mountains, it hits Pritchard hill, where Continuum purchased its estate holdings a few years ago. It’s been slowly ramping up plantings there while getting along with fruit from To Kalon in the meantime. It’s in good company with Colgin, Ovid, Stagecoach, Chappelet, and a mess of other stupid-expensive wines.

art

Continuum is clearly a different wine than Opus One. First off, it’s mountain fruit instead of floor fruit. Second off, half of the brand is not controlled by the French, for better or worse. Finally, Tim wants Cabernet Franc to pay a big part in this wine. We had an extended visit of the property (we were unable to tour the vineyards, because of the rains). We were one of the last visits to go to the estate house, as they’re working on transitioning to the new offices & tasting room while construction of the new winery is built. It was sort of quaint.

estate room

We tasted the 2009. It was fantastic. Easy wine of the trip. I could smell this wine all day. 2010 will be interesting. 2011 could possibly transition 100% to estate fruit, but 2012 will definitely be 100% estate fruit. 2012, in general, was a stupid-good vintage for Napa and Sonoma. Forget 2007, this is all we’re going to be hearing about for years to come. Perhaps the best vintage, ever. Great yields and great fruit, with everything ripening at the same time. Textbook year with a little bit of magic thrown in.

winery construction

I don’t know how difficult it is to secure a tasting at the winery if you’re not already buying from them, but this remains a winery to watch, and at a fraction of the price (for now) of its neighbors on Pritchard Hill, I think it’s a steal.

vines

Dinner

After just three wineries, we headed to Yountville for dinner at Bouchon. I’ve grown exhausted competing for reservations so we didn’t bother with anything fancier. Losing my edge, I guess. We dined previously at Bouchon in Las Vegas; I felt this setting was more compact and intimate, but no less good.

walnut manhattan

I forget what M started with, but I had a black walnut Manhattan. It was probably the best cocktail of the trip.

beignets shrimp cockgtail

Beignets and shrimp cocktail started things off. Both were fantastic, though one of the shrimp wasn’t actually deveined, and that sort of sucked.

Fatnastic Boudin Blanc and skate rounded out the meal. I think I had a glass of Far Niente’s Chardonnay (fantastic) as well, but I forget.

boudin blanc

skate I think?

tiny little mushrooms

And, no surprise, the cheese course was fantastic as well. Our helpful waiter wanted to suggest some dessert wine, but I knew we had to drive back to Sonoma, so no joy there.

cheese

Whoops

So yeah, we drove back to Sonoma; it’s not really a quick hop, skip, and a jump. There was heavy traffic on the main thoroughfares, so we did the stupid thing. There’s a road called Trinity Rd that connects Napa and Sonoma through the mountains. It’s stupendously dangerous at night, and even moreso with torrential downpour. I though it was fun, but I would have rather had my WRX than a giant Lincoln Mkx. In the conditions, it was probably the most technical 11 miles of driving I’ve done in my life. Everybody we talked to the next day pronounced us insane. Nobody drives Trinity after dark, especially in the rain (it wasn’t really that bad).