A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure: From Healdsburg to Calistoga (And Back)
It was a strong overnight downpour as predicted entering Thursday morning (Day 2 of our trip) which leads me to a key piece of advice: don’t stay in Napa if you’re visiting Calistoga in the morning. The traffic will guarantee you’re late.
Go for Healdsburg, like we did, if Calistoga hotels are too pricey.
Skip to any of these sections:
- Peter Michael Winery
- Medlock Ames Tasting Room
- Lunch: Jimtown Store
- Idlewild Wines
- Lambert Bridge
- Mauritson Wines
- Aperture Cellars
- Dinner: Barndiva
Peter Michael Winery
12400 Ida Clayton Rd
Calistoga, CA 94515
The trip was basically scheduled around the visit to the highly esteemed, somewhat mysterious Peter Michael Winery. It’s in the cult following, lofty range of Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, but unlike those, most wines don’t sell on the secondary market for $5,000. As a bonus, the winery is actually a very friendly place and you’ll be reminded that wine is meant to be fun.
Hospitality and Wine Education Manager Nathalie Vache showed us around the sprawling estate and at the turnaround point we gazed up at the magnificent, historic Les Pavots Vineyard (home to Bordeaux varietals) and the quartet of Chardonnay vineyards. Like Limerick Lane, this majestic amphitheater is mesmerizing. Sadly, the rain prevented us from going to the top of the vineyards for a panoramic view that apparently is a trademark of visits.
You’ll learn by this point that Peter Michael goes by “Sir Peter” and the English engineer/entrepreneur must never sleep because he has accomplished so much in his life. He created, among seemingly hundreds of things, the telestrator used on every football telecast! He also adores Knights Valley and the great wines of France. On cue, Peter Michael Winery is part Bordeaux and part Burgundy, a rarity in California where the weather and terrain usually forces wineries to choose one or the other.
Knights Valley’s flexible location and elevation (this small region between Calistoga and Alexander Valley) allows Peter Michael Winery to do both, though the winery’s Pinot Noir is sourced from an estate in Fort Ross-Seaview. As we left after a truly impressive tasting of four Peter Michael wines, it’s clear to both of us that, indeed, Peter Michael has a lot of hype and fame, but my goodness are the wines special.
Just try all the wines: 2014 Au Paradis Cabernet Sauvignon; 2011 Les Pavots red blend, 2015 L’ Après-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, 2013 Belle Côte Chardonnay
Medlock Ames Tasting Room
3487 Alexander Valley Rd
Healdsburg, CA 95448
It’s pretty hard to have a bigger jump from one winery to the next than Peter Michael to Medlock Ames. They’re both outstanding in different ways. Medlock Ames is a winery with a “cocktails” faux neon sign (there used to be a cocktail bar open in the tasting area after the tasting room “closed”) and a bocce ball court, so we knew this isn’t a Peter Michael elegance type of place.
College pals Chris Medlock James (who works in the SF hedge fund world) and Ames Morison (the winemaking side) created the winery with a main farm not far away on Chalk Hill Road’s Bell Mountain. There, they focus on mostly Bordeaux grapes and everything is farmed organically, which is a lot less common than you’d think in this part of the country.
We had a grand time with the atypical and 100 percent on-the-mark local cheeses paired with the wines, which were all hits including the trip’s best rosé (summer alert!) that was shockingly made of Merlot.
3 wines to try: 2017 Rosé of Merlot, 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Bell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Lunch: Jimtown Store
Somehow I had never been to this Alexander Valley legend. It’s a must for sandwiches and admiring the outrageously eclectic walls selling everything from soaps to children’s books to exquisite local jams.
132 Plaza St.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Sam Bilbro is fanatical about Italian varietals. Sure, we all love Italian wine, but chances are you and I aren’t quite on the same fervent passion plane about Piemonte as Bilbro (Jake of Limerick Lane’s brother as you might be guessing now). Like Lioco, Idlewild has a shiny new tasting room/lounge near the Healdsburg plaza. Unlike Lioco and anywhere else on this trip, Idlewild is all about Italian varietals, either in blends or on their own in bottlings. All wines came from Fox Hill Vineyard near Ukiah and have superb character, more sharpness, and less of a rustic edge than their Old World siblings.
For an Italy wine collector like John, it was important to take a step back and realize that this is California Nebbiolo and Barbera and such…well, just don’t compare directly to Barolo and Emilia-Romagna. It’s Italy in the New World and that means you’re in for one of the more fascinating tastings in Northern California.
3 wines to try: 2017 Arneis, 2016 Barbera, 2015 Nebbiolo
4085 W Dry Creek Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Hustling down Dry Creek Road and a partially flooded Lambert Bridge Road, we arrived on the western edge of Dry Creek Valley at Lambert Bridge, which actually isn’t on Lambert Bridge Road. Ah, the fun of geography.
Lambert Bridge is a members and direct to consumers operation, which basically means you’re not finding them at shops and restaurants. Hence, that’s why I (and probably you) have not tried their wine. The 26 year-old winery’s Zinfandel has quite a devout following and it is indeed a great Zinfandel expression. But, you’ll find several more rustic, powerful examples that better show off the Dry Creek Valley’s signature grape.
Lambert Bridge, for me, was about some of the friendliest hospitality I’ve found anywhere in NorCal wine country and a comprehensive tasting that included two of the most shocking wines of the trip from much maligned red varieties: Petit Verdot and Merlot. Like me, you won’t want to leave the beautiful outdoor gardens and plush, vaulted redwood environs (with incredible holiday decorations), possibly my favorite tasting setting of the trip.
3 wines to try: 2014 Chambers Petit Verdot, 2015 Sonoma County Merlot, 2014 Limited Select Moon Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
2859 Dry Creek Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
By the midway point at Lambert Bridge, I had already lost track of time but, in my slight defense, this next winery back on Dry Creek Road was a last second add-on. It turned out to be one of the most tour-de-force tastings of the trip as John still was talking about a month later during the holidays.
Clay Mauritson looks like the strong linebacker he previously was at the University of Oregon and, frankly, he probably could still be one. As the three of us sat in a library room next to the winemaking facility, it was easy to imagine having the x’s and o’s of a football defense meeting swapped with Mauritson’s present Powerpoint describing Rockpile AVA, just above the Dry Creek Valley. Rockpile is a tiny Zinfandel-dominant area with a 150-year history for Mauritson’s family.
His enthusiasm for Rockpile was contagious as we battled the fruit flies trying to drink the stellar wines shared with us, while learning about Rockpile’s weather, its turbulent history (almost entirely lost to eminent domain when the Lake Sonoma dam was built in 1968), and of course, the wines he makes from grapes sourced there. This is what Wine Bootcamp was all about: great wine, rich learning.
And, it wasn’t even on the original itinerary. As much as it’s a cliché to give the advice of listening to locals, when a winemaker implores you to meet with another winemaker (Jake Bilbro connected us the prior day), you’d be wise to listen. Both of us were ecstatic that we did have the chance to learn from Mauritson. By the way, the non-Rockpile Mauritson Sauvignon Blanc we tried before the meeting was also quite lovely, so a regular Mauritson tasting room visit is needed for our next trip!
3 wines to try: 2015 Rockpile Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel, 2016 Madrone Spring red blend
322 Healdsburg Ave.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Oh no, we’re not done yet with Day 2. John was starting to wonder if every day would have nearly 10 hours of tasting and I assured him this was the one anomaly...I think?
Our last stop was with Jesse Katz, a winemaker with a glittery resume (Pétrus, Screaming Eagle). He crafts Bordeaux varietal wines for Aperture and 100% Malbec bottlings under the Devil Proof label either from Alexander Valley or Rockpile Ridge, a fitting theme for our day that was heavy on both regions. He’s traveled to over 80 countries in his life thanks to his father being a globetrotting professional photographer. Tastings happen in his father’s photo gallery adjacent to the Healdsburg Plaza and makes for one of the quirkier tasting venues of any winery.
Soon, Katz will have his own winery and tasting facility towards Windsor. I’ll miss the photo gallery though, for the quirk vibe and the fact that one wrong turn could lead you into a hair salon instead of the right room for tasting some phenomenal Sonoma County wines with distinct richness cut by strong acidity (a signature of high level Bordeaux wines, like the ones Katz was trained with).
3 wines to try: 2016 Right Bank Red Blend, 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2017 Barrel-Fermented Sauvignon Blanc
This fun, seasonal Californian spot with excellent cocktails recently welcomed a new chef Mark Hopper (formerly in charge of the stellar pizza destination Vignette in Sebastopol). It was too cold for the patio, but Barndiva is a must-visit outside of winter.
Head back to Wine Bootcamp Central for the full guide of wineries and eateries we visited.