Monday, May 27, 2013

First Reflections on California Wine Country

Palm in Sonoma's centre square
I tell you one thing, this trip really would have been useful to me if I'd gone last year, before my sommelier exams. Spending the last seven days driving around Sonoma and Napa Counties, I have a much better understanding of the area.  I studied maps of AVAs and read about the climates and weather patterns, but now I get it.  There is no substitute for going to a place to experience it yourself, but sometimes that is not in the cards.  I learned the following things on this trip (plus other things that I'll talk about in future posts), which I think would have been useful to me prior to the certified exam, and which I think will be helpful to me in the future if I decide to go further.

On the highway, heading through Carneros
Napa and Sonoma are really close together, and really small.  It's hard to get a good sense of the size of a place and the distances between them when you're staring at a map.  With all of the different AVAs packed into these two valleys, and the length of them on the page, I had envisioned a much greater distance from San Pablo Bay to Mendocino.  In reality, it's only a couple of hours, and travelling from Sonoma-the-town to Napa-the-town only takes between 30 and 45 minutes (depending on your driving).  The drive through Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena takes no time - they are practically on top of one another.  I didn't have a good sense of their smallness or exactitude before this trip.

Looking at Howell Mountain from Diamond Mountain
Speaking of smallness and exactitude, I realised that there can be no quick learning mechanism for Sonoma and Napa.  This relisation makes me want to lie down for a while.  Two of the most challenging parts about learning wines from California are that so many grape varieties are grown, seemingly all over the place, and that differences between the wines from the same varieties in neighbouring AVAs are very, very fine-grained.  I tasted wine all week, and I'm convinced that it did not help me refine my ability to distinguish Russian River Valley from Dry Creek Valley, or Sonoma Coast from anywhere else.  We were there, I saw them.  I saw the hills and the valleys.  The wine is a different story.  People like to talk about the differences in elegance, alcohol, finesse, acidity, and all these things in the different parts of Sonoma or Napa, but the thing is: no AVA produces typical-to-regional-generalisation wines all the time.  Due to the lack of AOC-type delineations for style and varietal in wines from a particular region, I think that in order to really get a grip on Sonoma or Napa, perhaps more than any other place, you have to know each wine-making house.  Nothing larger than the vineyard-winemaker combo will give a consistent idea of what character the wine will have, or what blend it will be, or how much alcohol it will have.  Doesn't that make you want to take a nap?  I'm sorry.  On the up-side, field trip!

Finally, (and specifically for non-Americans) things are not pronounced as you think they are.  Minus my pronunciation of 'Jacuzzi' (ya-koot-zee < no, not really), I was wrong all week.  Take this one: St. Helena.  You probably made 'Helena' sound like a woman's name, and that's where you're incorrect.  In this case, 'Helena' rhymes with 'hyena':  Hell-ee-na.  Practice a bit, it's hard.  Ukiah is pronounced 'you-kai-ah,' and Lodi 'low-dye.'  Yountville was a good one; I heard it pronounced two ways, both of which were different from what I thought.  My final decision was to pronounce it 'Yoont-ville' (the other option was 'Yawnt-ville,' which I love for its Southern drawliness, but only one person said it this way).

If you're wondering where all the wine is, oh, it's coming.  First, Two Shepherds orange wine, then some Scholium Project. After that, Donelan, some wines shared with the Dirty and Rowdy winemakers, eggs and Pinot Blanc, Corison Cabernet, and finally a couple special bottles shared by Elaine and I.  It might take me a couple of weeks, but I'm going to write it.  Promise.

1 comment:

  1. love you. miss you. wish we were together where ever all over again. hugs, friend.