Tag Archives: Wine Travel

Scouring The Central Coast

For the time being I have put Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in my rearview mirror.  I left with a much more positive view of L.A. than I expected.  The most intriguing cultural aspect is the extent to which the “industry” permeates daily life; many people act as though they are auditioning every time they walk out the door.  The culture and the weather allow Angelenos to wear anything they want – you can never be the most bizarre looking person on the streets of LA.

I would be remiss to head north before extending a fervent thank you to my friends Doug and Pam Niedzwiecki for their support and hospitality.  The journey would have a very different dynamic were it not for them and I am in their debt.

P5152057My last days in Santa Barbara were dedicated to the Santa Maria Valley AVA.  Like the Santa Rita Hills to the south, its vineyards are planted as far to the west as the climate will allow.  Most of the best-known vineyards are on a south-facing bench of the mountains.  Byron, Cambria and Kenneth Volk, collectively the oldest and largest of the county’s wineries, hail from these hills.

Any list of top flight Santa Barbara producers would surely include Au Bon Climat and Qupé, which are operated by Jim Clendennon and Bob Lindquist, respectively.  Their shared production facility lies within the Bien Nacido vineyard.  Au Bon Climat focuses on grapes from Burgundy and Qupé on those from the Rhone.

I arrived for a visit on Friday morning that began with barrel samples of the 2008 vintage.  The most interesting was the Qupé Roussanne from Bien Nacido.  It was creamy, but had a piquant acidity atypical of Roussanne.  Perhaps that is a stage of the wine’s development that will change over time.  I will be checking back in on it.

My favorite wine of the day was a white called ‘Hildegard’.  While teaching classes in my Wine Merchant days I often poured wine from a vineyard called Corton-Charlemagne because I enjoy its etymology.  Charlemagne’s favorite wine was from a hill in Burgundy called Corton.  Late in life he had a long gray beard that became stained when he drank the red wine.  His wife, Hildegard, found that to be unsightly so she had a large portion of the vineyard converted to white grapes so he could enjoy Corton and look good doing so.  That parcel is now called Corton-Charlemagne.  The ‘Hildegard’ at Au Bon Climat is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté, which are thought to be the grapes used in Charlemagne’s day.

My final appointment in Santa Barbara turned out to be the most hospitable. Rather than meeting at a vineyard, winery or tasting room, I spoke with Lane Tanner and her husband Ariki Hill around their kitchen table overlooking the valley.

P5162064Lane has always been dedicated to Pinot Noir;  her car is burgundy.  Before founding her own label, she was the winemaker at the Hitching Post.  We tasted her 1987 Hitching Post Sierra Madre Vineyard, which she said used to be a better vineyard.  Even after twenty years the wine had plenty of ripe fruit which was surrounded by the leather and herb notes that come with that much time in bottle.  We compared it to her 2007 Lane Tanner Bien Nacido, which showed the ripeness and concentration that 2007 is known for, but was still crafted in the elegant style that Lane advocates.

Ariki is from Australia and is also a winemaker.  His winery is Labyrinth and he makes wine in both countries.  He comes from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, where drought and bush fires caused massive damage to the crop six months ago.  Like Lane, Ariki loves to work with Pinot Noir.  We had his 2005 Pinot from the Yarra Valley.  It was one of the rare Australian Pinots that I have had and it was quite good.  It had a strong red cherry nose.  Ariki said that the clay soils of the region make for more subdued aromatics.

I find Santa Barbara to be a fascinating wine scene.  It is a young region – many of the founding personalities are still living and working in the appellation. The various meso-climates allow grape varieties from throughout Europe to be planted.  In the vineyards closest to the ocean, the growing season is the longest in the world.  The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from these extraordinary sites have redefined my idea of California wine.

The wines of Santa Barbara will only get better as their vineyards mature.  In the mean time they are struggling through the busted Sideways bubble.  The popularity of the wine was so great that they raised the price until the market could not support it.  Now winemakers are holding on to expensive juice that the consumers would love to drink, but not at $50 per bottle.

On Saturday it was time to hit the 101 and head north to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.  My next realm of interest lies between here and San Francisco.  Some of the regions, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, are well regarded and well known, but many of the AVAs in the Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties are small and obscure.  I began with a broad overview of the Highlands at a gala event.

One of the best known producers in the area is Hahn Estates.  On Saturday they hosted the Santa Lucia Highlands Gala Tasting, a public event for 300 people.  Thirty producers were on display, so it provided an overview of the appellation.  From previous experience I was familiar with eleven of the wineries and I was able to sample most of those I had not tried before.  The tasting conditions were difficult; outside in a hot and crowded tent.  Most of the wines were too warm and the alcohol levels, which are generally high to excessive in the SLH, were particularly potent on this day.  Two wineries made an especially good impression on me and I’ll be attempting to visit with them in the coming days.

P5162069It was time for a return to the most beautiful place I had ever seen.  I was fifteen at the time when our family came to California for two wonderful weeks.  No amount of words, pictures or memories can do justice to the scenes south of Monterey on Highway One  – but I’ll be happy to try.

P5162095These are stubborn mountains that refuse to be swept into the ocean; their beaches washed away long ago.  The waters are clear, you can see the ocean floor for a few hundred yards.  Every shade of blue and green mingle with each other in the water.  The vegetation is lush.  The air is mild and a bit damp.  The road is narrow and dangerous.  I finally saw the great California sunset that I had been longing for since the day I arrived.  I slept on the side of the road at one of the many places you can pull off to take in the sights.

PisoniMy Sunday began with a slow exit from Highway One as I returned to the Santa Lucia Highlands for a cookout at the Pisoni Family Vineyard.  The family have been in the area for generations and were early adopters of the vine.  Their vineyards are tucked into a canyon with a warmer climate than those out on the bench.  We didn’t talk much about the wines, but we sure tasted plenty since the price of admission was an open bottle.  One couple was celebrating their anniversary and sharing their Ruinart (!) as well.  I brought a great rosé given to me by Mike Whitehead and made by Charles Smith of Washington and Charles Bieler of The Three Thieves.  Lunch was chicken, beef and sausage with asparagus on the side paired with lots of Pisoni wine out of magnum bottles for over 50 guests.

The next morning I learned that if I keep my sunroof open all night, my battery dies.  Luckily a tow truck with a powerful battery was nearby to jump the car.

It was time to hit San Francisco to visit with my uncle’s family for a couple of days.  Parking there is a nightmare so he let me pull into his garage and forget about the car.  It felt great to do some walking.  He lives in the Castro district, which is where I did my exploring the first evening.  I found a wine bar called Swirl where I enjoyed a glass of Bastianich Friuliano (formerly called Tokay Friuliano before the Hungarians beat them in court) which was a great sipping wine – no food necessary.

YodaSpeaking of food, I returned to my uncle’s home for a pork tenderloin dinner paired with a bottle from Rasteau.  The next day I set out on foot, determined to absorb the city by walking across it.  I felt the need for pictures of the Golden Gate bridge, which is five hilly miles from the Castro.  It took a couple hours, but I found a wise sage who said, “If going to San Francisco, you are, to wear flowers in your hair be sure.  Herh herh herh.”

Golden GateThe day had been foggy to begin with, so I was uncertain that the walk would yield a decent picture.  Over the course of my time on the street, the air cleared and by the time I arrived the bridge was in full, sunny regalia.

During a break in the walk, I was catching up on Eric Asimov’s blog and learned of a wine bar called Terroir located downtown.  They were hosting a tasting with Catherine Breton, a producer from Chinon in the Loire Valley where I had visited last year.  The Cabernet Francs were laden with green herbs, spices and dark berry fruits.  The shop had great merchandising, with empty display bottles lining the walls and the stock in the cellar.  They only deal with organic wine, mainly from Europe.

Just up the street on Folsom is a unique business that could really catch on.  It is called City Beer and it is set up like the typical wine bar with beer instead.  They had a great selection and owner Craig Wathen is well versed in his wares.  He and his wife, Beth, are the sole proprietors and employees.

P5212202I left town yesterday to return to the central coast.  I am wrapping up this week’s article on the shores of Monterey Bay as I prepare to head into Carmel Valley to taste some wine with Damien Georis.

For more photos from the week, click here.


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On The Road

p41317101I am sitting poolside in Carefree, a relaxed little town north of Phoenix in the desert foothills.  I left St. Louis a week ago intent on seeing as much of the American wine industry as I can and to search for work.

I began in Kansas City with friends from high school and barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s, which had the highest great food to griminess ratio I’ve seen.  Definitely worth checking out.

Whoever said that getting there is half the fun didn’t have to drive through Kansas.  The landscape  is boring and it smells horrible.  It was a nine hour purgatory.  The brief time I spent in Oklahoma was no better.

Not five minutes into New Mexico the sky grew much larger, the p4151724speed limit soon jumped to 75 and the roads were great.  The land rose and took on some character.  I made it to my friend Kerrie’s place and stayed an extra day.  She has a mountain near her small adobe home, so we drove into the cool evening to watch the sunset.  Once the sun had disappeared behind the hills, we descended to Ziggy Stardust and pulled into her driveway as the album was winding down.

Traveling note: My four-cylinder Honda Accord handles the mountains like a champ.  Whether I am going up or down, it is nimble, controlled and a lot of fun to drive.

The next day I headed for Carefree, which also described my state of mind by this point.  To be on tp4161806his classic American trip that so many have made before me is humbling and exhilarating.  I intended to be up to my gills in wine from Santa Barbara by this point, but the trip instantly begged for a more leisurely approach.  My friends Simon and Annie have kindly let me stay here four nights to recharge and figure out where I go from here.

Thus far I’ve been to the Gruet winery in Albuquerque.  That deserves its own post, so I’ll work on that next.  This week I’m planning to hit the Sonoita AVA outside of Tucson and the Ramona Valley near San Diego before going to LA and Santa Barbara for a few days.

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I Like To Shop At The Duty Free Shop

If you’re traveling from Paris to Chicago and you come across some great deals at the duty free shops, you have to remember that you will be going through the security checkpoints again when you land in the states.  If you make any purchases in Paris, make sure that you transfer them to your checked bags when you arrive in Chicago for your connecting flight.

I was aware of this extra hassle, so I used the duty free shop for more immediate gratification.  I wanted to have some wine on the airplane, but I wasn’t about to pay eight dollars for the tiny bottle they were offering.  I bought a bottle of Cabenet from the Languedoc that nearly made the airline food tolerable.  If you intend to use the duty free shop for this purpose, then you should buy red wine because the service temperature is not as critical as with white.  MOST IMPORTANT, buy a wine with a screwcap.  You won’t be finding any corkscrews in the friendly skies.

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Wine On An Airplane

As I prepared for my recent trip to France I searched for sources on the bureaucratic hoops that were sure to be involved in bringing wine back to the United States.  The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website was no help, but the agent I phoned gave the following guidelines:

The passenger must be 21 years old.

The product must be for personal consumption. (Not commercial)

The first liter is duty free.

After that, the duty is determined by the state of re-entry.  The cost is generally $1.50 to $2 per bottle.

With these few regulations in mind I landed in France resolved to bring back as much wine as I could manage.  That was when the logistics began to rear their ugly little heads.

My primary obstacle was the Transportation Safety Administration’s lack of regard for the finer liquids in life.  In the past, passengers were able to carry wines on board to protect them from the wrath of the baggage handlers, but that is no longer the case.  I was well aware of this obstacle when I left for France, and the solution I had in mind was simply to go to a wine shop and purchase a shipping container from them.  This proved to be an unfortunate assumption, as none of the shops I patronized had shipping boxes available.  One shopkeeper in Amboise was kind enough to cut some extra pieces of bubble wrap for me and I used a box from a winery that was usually intended for twelve bottles to hold six bubble-wrapped bottles.  I had to rely on the kindness of the French again when it came time to seal the box because duct tape seems to be a rare commodity in Paris.

If I had been able to acquire a box intended for shipping, then I would have treated it as an extra piece of checked luggage. (Although carrying it from the hotel to the airport, along with my other bags, would have presented another logistical challenge that I did not have to face.)  Instead I opted to remove enough clothes from my suitcase to fit my wine box, and I carried the extra clothes on board in a shopping bag.  Some of my fellow travelers raised concerns about my suitcase exceeding the weight limit and the temperature in the cargo hold.  The weight for a single bottle is about three pounds.  I have not found out what the temperature is maintained in the cargo hold.

As my plane approached Chicago, I filled out my customs declaration form, which was devoid of any mention of alcoholic products.  I had to check yes boxes for food products (I brought back an incredible tarragon mustard) and I acknowledged that I had been to a farm.  As I had far less than the minimum $1,000 worth of purchased goods to qualify for paying a duty, I did not have to be specific about my purchases.  I did not mention the wine in my bag, and they made no inquiries as it passed through their scanners.  I grabbed my bags off the line and ran away, home free!

All that was left was the final gauntlet through the baggage handlers in Chicago and St. Louis, which my little box survivied with flying colors.  I have six bottles of wine that will tranport me back to France on six sure-to-be-wonderful occasions over the next eleven years.  {I will take this opportunity to brag that I acquired a bottle made by the late Didier Dagueneau, which I will be hanging onto for eleven years to the day. [40th birthday (my 29th was spent in Vouvray)]}

Now that I have gone through this experience, I will do a few things differently in the future.  First, if I know that it will be logistically easy for me to travel to and from the airport with more things than I can carry, and if I do not have to pay a charge for an extra piece of checked luggage, then I will bring an empty shipping box with styrofoam inserts that can hold twelve bottles.  If I cannot, then I will bring enough bubble wrap for six bottles.  Second, I will be bringing duct tape on every trip I take for the rest of my life, for I can see how it would be helpful in many situations.  Lastly, I would bring an extra bag for the clothes that I would be carrying onto the plane, as I found the shopping bag to be flimsy.

I would love to hear any anecdotes about traveling with wine that can shed some extra light on the subject for future travels.

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