California: Wine Lover’s Heaven

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Did you know that if California was a separate wine-producing country, it would be the fourth largest wine producer after France, Italy and Spain? In fact, there are over 1,200 wineries in this state, from small, independent wineries to world-renowned ones, such as Robert Mondavi and Schramsberg. When I tell someone that I am a big fan of California wine, I usually get a raised eyebrow and a sceptical “mmmmmm, really?” back. California wine seems to be unfairly underrated, particularly in Europe. And it’s a real shame, because California wine is very good; excellent, actually, if you know a little about California wine.

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Quercus Suber (Cork Oak): Indigenous to the Mediterranean region, wine corks are produced from the bark of this tree.

California’s Wine Country is one of the world’s best viticulture regions, and rivals many of France’s terroirs. In fact, the excellent quality of Californian wine first came into the spotlight during a 1976 event, now known as the Judgement of Paris. The Judgement of Paris was a blind wine tasting competition that took place in Paris, where the best of Chardonnays and reds (Bordeaux from France and Cabernet Sauvignons from California) were tasted side by side by French judges. To the complete shock of the majority of the French, California wines rated best in each category…

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Chateau Montelena’s legendary 1973 Chardonnay that claimed first prize at the Judgement of Paris, a pivotal event in the fate of California wine

I recently travelled to California’s Wine Country to spend three days wine tasting (which quickly turned into four days), and was completely blown away by many of their wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines.

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Inside the Von Strasser cave 

California’s climate provides excellent conditions for producing first-rate wine grapes: abundant sunshine all-year round, pleasantly warm days and cool nights, natural “air-conditioning” provided by the 800 mile stretch of coastline that results in frequent fogs and breezes. All of this makes the region ideal for producing cool climate wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. On top of that, there is a vast diversity of terroirs that enable the growth of many different grape varietals. The leading grape varieties in California are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

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Art installation at Iron Horse Vineyards

California’s sparkling wine is also excellent, and premium sparkling wines are made using méthode champenoise (traditional method). The best California sparkling wine can be compared to the best of champagne (dare I say, even Krug). Many of France’s champagne houses, attracted by the potential outstanding quality of local California sparkling wines, have actually opened outposts here: Moet and Chandon has Domain Chandon, Louis Roederer has Roederer Estate, and Taittinger opened Domaine Corneros.

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Sparkling wine production at Schramsberg 

Iron Horse Vineyards, Sebastopol
Iron Horse provided the most fun wine tasting experience. Perhaps it was the most fun because it was our first stop; or perhaps because I have a real weakness for champagne (or any other sparkling goodness). Either way, sampling one of the selections of California bubbles is surely the perfect way to kick off a mini-tour of the Wine Country. Iron Horse Vineyards is a small, independent and family-owned vineyard that distinguishes itself by producing excellent sparkling wines, as well as delicious Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. We arrived there in the early afternoon; the sun was shining high in the azure sky making the air pleasantly warm. Iron Horse has the perfect setting for tasting on such a beautiful day:its rustic tasting bar is open-air with great, sweeping views of the grapevines; the atmosphere is very casual and relaxed; the staff is welcoming and knowledgeable; and, most importantly, their sparkling wines are faultless. Tasting is $20 per person, redeemable against the purchase of every bottle.

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Von Strasser Winery, Calistoga
Von Strasser, nestled on the side of the Diamond Mountain, is one of those gems in Napa that you would easily miss unless someone else tells you about it. This vineyard provided us with the most personal wine tasting experience (hence perhaps the most enjoyable), in a beautiful, dark cave lined with wine barrels. The setting was very intimate and romantic: dim lighting, tables covered with black tablecloths and candles, and their sleekly designed bottles adorning the place. Von Strasser prides itself on the top quality of the grapes that go into each bottle. They make sure that the grapes are harvested just at the perfect time, followed by the correct combination of fermentation and faultless wine making technique. Our wine tasting kicked off with a glass of delicious Gruner Veiltiner, one of the most popular Austrian grape varieties, and yet Von Strasser is the only winery in California that grows it. But it is their Cabernet Sauvignons that really knock your socks off. These make you realize the vast difference between good and excellent wines. In addition, the other distinguishing characteristic of their wines is the single estate bottling, something rather rare nowadays. Tasting is $20 per person, redeemable against the purchase of every three bottles.

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Hall Rutherford, Rutherford
The reason I ended up at this place was because it supposedly has the most spectacular wine tasting room in the whole of Napa Valley, and such a claim is very intriguing. The main attraction of the tasting room is its gorgeous, huge chandelier, designed by contemporary American artist Donald Lipski. This striking chandelier, hanging over an equally huge table, represents an extensive network of roots of a tree dressed in countless Swarovski crystals. Its glitter, emphasised by the dim lighting, was almost a distraction from their first rate wines (in a good way). Apart from this installation, there was plenty of other great contemporary art all around the grounds, and for an art lover like me, it was pretty much paradise. Their caves were lined with original Austrian handmade bricks, shipped directly from Vienna. The owners clearly did not spare any expense when embellishing this winery, and the overall effect was truly magnificent. Basically, it is a winery fit for princes and princesses. The only drawback was the high price for tour and the tasting ($60), which unfortunately was not discounted against any purchase, as is normally the custom.
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Schramsberg Vineyards, Calistoga
Of course, as a champagne lover addict, I could not miss the home of the official sparkling wine of the White House: the historic Schramsberg in Calistoga. Schramsberg was founded back in 1862 by a German immigrant, Jacob Schram, as a small family-run vineyard. However, after the death of its founder, the winery went into gradual decline and was eventually abandoned, until the Davies family purchased it in 1965. They came to Napa Valley with a lofty aim of producing rich and complex sparkling wine using methode traditionelle, a wine that would be a worthy competitor to the French Champagne. And that, which surely came as a surprise to many others, is exactly what they did. The grounds, nestled on the side of the mountain, were stunning, with fountains, beautiful old buildings, and vividly coloured flowers everywhere. Their wine tour around the grounds and the natural caves where the wine was produced was perhaps the most interesting and educational out of all that we did: not only did they tell us the very interesting history of their vineyard, but they also explained the very complicated process of making premium sparkling wine. Afterwards, we sampled a number of their wines, including a couple of very high end ones, which could possibly rival the best from the Champagne region. Tours are, once again, on the pricey side with $50 per person, and are not discounted against any future purchases.

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DSC07690Frog’s Leap Winery, Rutherford

Frog’s Leap was the first winery in California to produce organic wine. They distinguish themselves by producing sustainable, biodynamic wine, using only organic methods and dry farming. Tasting takes place in beautiful, relaxing setting on the back porch of a charming house. Imagine sipping delicious, wholesome (if there is such a thing) wine surrounded by lovely gardens through which you can take a stroll after the tasting is finished.

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Chateau Montelena, Calistoga

Chateau Montelena is most famous for winning the pivotal wine competition in the history of California wine: its 1973 Chardonnay claimed First Prize at the Judgement of Paris in 1976, where several wines, both French and Californian competed against each other in blind tasting conducted by the French judges. Prior to visiting the Wine Country, I watched a 2008 film Bottle Shock, starring Chris Pine and Alan Rickman, featuring the fictionalized version of the historic victory. The estate is stunning, in particular the imposing chateau itself on the hillside overlooking the Chinese gardens, and a visit here is recommended to anyone interested in the history of Califonia wine. The only drawback of Chateau Montelena was that it felt a little touristy, trying too hard to commercialise on its historic win; the wines themselves were somewhat disappointing.

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We also visited a number of other vineyards, but the ones that really stood out were Duckhorn Vineyards and Failla in St. Helena, and Signorello Estate in Napa. The latter, according to the sommerlier at our hotel, had the best Chardonnay in Napa Valley. Chardonnays are usually very hit and miss, but I must admit: Signorello Chardonnay was pretty spectacular!

Failla, St Helena: such a quant, little winery with exceptional, much sought-after wines!

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Duckhorn Vineyards, St Helena: every single wine that we tried was perfect, elegant and complex…

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