A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure: From Sebastopol to St. Helena
Our brisk Sunday morning started with a rushed drive (two of us are not morning people!) from Santa Rosa to Sonoma through the Kenwood area, bypassing dozens of wineries en route to Sonoma Plaza.
- Bedrock Wine Co.
- Saintsbury LLC
- Lunch: Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch
- Larkmead Vineyards
- Alpha Omega Winery
- Dinner: Oenotri
Bedrock Wine Co.
414 1st St. E
Sonoma, CA 95476
Anyone following the past decade of California wine knows the “Bedrock” name. The label by Morgan Twain-Peterson (son of Ravenswood legend Joel Peterson) and Chris Cottrell is a stalwart for both Zinfandel and being an ardent proponent for the state’s older vineyards filled with field of blends grape varieties most of us have never heard of. They’ve managed to be that rare winery that can satisfy the most picky of wine collector nerds, while having fantastic value wines that actually can be considered by many as weeknight wines.
You’ll learn all about those historic vineyards and Bedrock’s own history in the bucolic tasting room that recently took over the old General Joseph Hooker house. Cottrell joined us midway in the tasting and, if we had time, we would have had the honor to visit the Bedrock Vineyard itself with him, located near Moon Mountain by Hamel Winery. Still, we took plenty of time to discuss all kinds of winemaking terminology and all sorts of New York stuff since Chris and Meg both spent much of their lives there.
In addition to tasting a few excellent Bedrock blends and a Zinfandel that all showed the unique strengths of each vineyard, we tried the other project of Twain-Peterson and Cottrell, “Under the Wire,” a single-vineyard, single vintage specific sparkling wine concept à la grower champagne. The pair is at the forefront of this idea for California and it’s no doubt going to be a hot trend in the next few years.
4 wines to try: 2011 Under the Wire Brosseau Vineyard sparkling wine, 2017 Esola Amador County Zinfandel, 2017 The Bedrock Heritage Wine, 2016 Hudson Syrah
1500 Los Carneros Ave.
Napa, CA 94559
The Sonoma-Napa drive reminds visitors how close the Sonoma and Napa valleys are when you’re at the southern tip of both, also known as the Carneros region. This is flat, Bay-influenced winds territory, so you’re very much in the land of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. On cue, stop 2 of the day was at Saintsbury, one of the few Carneros producers, though a significant part of their fruit is sourced from other regions like Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley.
The winery is a strong success story, from a 1981 first vintage by Dick Ward and David Graves who met in a home brewing class as graduate students at UC Davis, to a 20,000 case operation today that is one of the few producers of that size that is resolutely focused on single vineyard expressions. A tasting in the beautifully built, spacious winery (or on warm days on the patio overlooking miles of Carneros vines) is eye-opening in terms of side-by-side comparisons of the deep differences in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay terroir. Basically, this tasting was our Bootcamp trip in one sitting.
Two fun notes that we loved: each visitor gets a postcard that they can send for free from Saintsbury, and George Saintsbury was a late 19th and early 20th century literary critic who Ward and Graves read at UC Davis. Saintsbury’s writings were dry in their opinion, but one saying stuck with the pair to lean towards Pinot Noir: “If Claret is queen, Burgundy is king.” That is true in Carneros...but not a few miles up Highway 29, our next destination.
3 wines to try: 2016 Pratt Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 2009 estate Carneros Pinot Noir, 2015 Stanley Ranch Dijon Clone 115 Carneros Pinot Noir
The back patio is hard to beat for atmosphere, but our St. Helena lunch destination underwhelmed with the signature ribs and Red Lobster-inspired cheddar biscuits presenting strangely muted flavors. That being said, the real highlight was Farmstead’s eggnog. Can’t beat that on the second day of December, right? Also, the brunch-only lamb hash is a must-order and was devoured instead of the ribs.
1100 Larkmead Ln.
Calistoga, CA 94515
For history purposes, Larkmead deserves to be amongst the historic titans like Stag’s Leap, Charles Krug and Chateau Montelena for the Napa Valley. However, Larkmead has managed to avoid the gaudy/corporate nature that has crept into almost all of the “famous” Napa Valley wineries, focusing on the wine itself being made in Calistoga on Larkmead Lane, where the Silverado Trail and Highway 29 are so close together you can almost start seeing one from the other.
Winemaker Dan Petroski has the magic Cabernet Sauvignon touch and manages to find the perfect middle ground of Napa styles over his dozen harvests: strong flavors, mildly rugged textures, and superb balance of tannins and ripeness that keeps the wines from being too dominant on the palate.
He’s a bit fortunate, though, since Larkmead’s 110-acre estate is some of the most notable land in Napa for its diverse soils that are usually found on the Napa hillsides, so the estate gets valley weather above ground and hillside character below ground. He’s working with some of the best terroir in one of the world’s definitive wine growing regions. Indeed, several of the wines prove that combination can translate with gusto to the finished product.
Somehow, Petroski (a Brooklyn-born, former Manhattan publishing industry worker) still has time for his Italian centric personal label, Massican, that has its own cult following. You won’t get the chance to try that at Larkmead, but seek it out. Overall, Larkmead’s Cabernet Sauvignons (and Tocai Friulano), history (dating back to 1895), gorgeous pastel paintings by co-owner Kate Solari-Baker) and beautiful valley floor vistas will keep you plenty entertained. The staff is particularly enlightening here, as well, and our host Deanna Basham even took John out into the vineyard at twilight to fully explain how vine grafting works.
3 wines to try: 2017 Lillie Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 Solari Cabernet Sauvignon
Alpha Omega Winery
1155 Mee Ln.
St. Helena, CA 94574
First, let’s talk about Alpha Omega wines: they are grand, powerful and everything that everyone talks about in terms of “new Napa.” That means heavy oak, high alcohol and even higher prices. Some of the wines are more held in check, while others are explosive. Now, is it a bad thing to make these high octane, rich wines? Not necessarily. All the wines I sampled at Alpha Omega were either very good or absolutely excellent. Nobody should be penalized for fulfilling a vision and a style if they can pull it off in a delicious way, contrary to the many writers who try to bring down the new Napa style. Alpha Omega makes terrific wine.
Eventually, after enough give and take between the winery and our group to get Meg frustrated and just want to leave, we relented and bought a bottle over a membership despite our host’s multiple tries to get us to spend lots more money. There needs to be a balance of being a salesperson, but also knowing that some visitors simply are there to learn and have a good time, as I mentioned in the introduction. A lesson for wineries since, the attempts at a vigorous upsell certainly put a damper on our drive back to Napa after what was a fantastic day.
3 wines to try: 2016 Stagecoach Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 Becstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 ERA Cabernet Sauvignon
Pizza and pasta are the strengths of this restaurant that pretty much put Downtown Napa dining on the map with the much-missed Ubuntu. Unfortunately, my last visit was, well, not the most impressive to put it lightly. So I decided to give the restaurant another chance (as all diners and writers should!), and really saw a sizable improvement.
Wine-wise, as a preview of our final day and since Meg would be Uber-ing home after Oenotri in advance of the work week after this and not get to try any more Napa wineries, we tried one of the important wineries off the Silverado Trail beyond Lake Hennessey in one of the more non-tourist visited areas of the valley.
Head back to Wine Bootcamp Central for the full guide of wineries and eateries we visited.