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Finding Fine Wine A 2018 trip to the Napa Valley

2018 © K. W. Bridges & N. L. Furumoto

The hospitality and assistance of everyone in the Napa Valley was phenomenal. So many people went out of their way to help us. Napa Valley is world famous for its wine and food. The valley’s people need to be on this list, too. We say “thank you” to everyone who help us learn about wine, the valley, and how they are responding to the many challenges of farming. All photos were taken by K. Bridges, N. Furumoto and N. Iizuka.

Adventure Having a good adventure is one of the goals of travel. We seek experiences that remove us from our day-to-day lives. An adventure is a quest, often for the unusual or exotic. Adventure builds memories. The better the adventure, the better the memories. Good memories are those that we want to last a lifetime. What does it take to make an adventure qualify as “good”? Compatible companions? A particularly interesting place? An extraordinary dining experience? Meeting remarkable people? Learning something that’s profoundly new? Each of these attributes, in itself, can make a good adventure. All of these attributes are “fragile.” Something simple, like bad weather or a rude encounter, can spoil the adventure. So, too, can an experience that doesn’t live up to expectations. What if your adventure includes all of the good attributes? Then you’ve got a great adventure. Great adventures are rare. Some people say that you need a lot of luck to get a great adventure. Maybe that’s true. If it is, we had a lot of luck because we had a great adventure! Come along with us on our tale of this great adventure.

Thursday We’re a party of nine. Two of us flew in for this event from Honolulu. The rest are from Southern California. It is a group that travels well. We fill two vans after joining up at the Oakland airport early on Thursday evening. Our first stop is at a recommended Chinese restaurant, Fusion Delight. Sources describe this place as a “dim sum” eatery. It isn’t. The reality is fancy Chinese food in an ornate room with a cheesy atmosphere. Service: not so good. Best we can say: we got dinner. Then we’re off. The drive to Napa takes an hour. There isn’t much traffic. The hotel, Napa Winery Inn, is a good choice. Not too expensive; functional rooms. The location is at the north end of the city. It’s handy that our hotel provides a free breakfast each morning. That makes it easier to coordinate with the group. The hotel is perfect for us. We’re lucky to have made reservations early. There are no rooms available throughout the entire valley for the weekend. Visitors saturate Napa Valley.

Friday Breakfast at 9 AM. Adequate to get the day started. Typical hotel fare. Everyone appears on schedule. Good. We’ve got evidence we’re an efficient group. Our first appointment is at 11 AM. We’ve got time to fill. Shall we visit Oxbow Public Market? It’s a well-known place. The suggestion is getting an enthusiastic response. Oxbow is close to the center of Napa. Vendors fill the building with a variety of places to eat, drink, and buy specialty foods. Descriptions use words such as “crowded” and “cozy,” and that fits what we see. Lots of happy people. There are browsers, like us. Others are eating breakfast with a morning fix of coffee. Need a special spice? You’ll find it here. What is notable are the “tasting” vendors. One is offering a huge choice of bitters. You can self-serve. Just pour from a small bottle. Taste it. Do you enjoy the essence? There’s an alternative. Sample at a bar. They’ll help you. Time goes quickly. We must leave. We’ve got a schedule to keep. The market is going on the “let’s come back” list.

Wine on the Valley’s West Side We’re visiting a property on the mountain side of Highway 29. These lands have great historical value. It is in this region that George Yount planted some of the valley’s first grapes in 1850. That’s a nice symmetry. We’re starting our visits where the grape plantings began.

It is a beautiful day. We’ve got the famous blue sky forming a color-contrast with the green of the vines. Temperature is perfect. We’re meeting Tod at this first stop. But most of our group knows Tod, the Estate’s viticulturist. Knowing him isn’t exactly right. Tod is a good friend. He has connections running deep into family history (e.g., kids knew each other in school). Visits are common. That explains our access to this special place.

Tod spent about eight years in France learning the wine industry. He’s worked in other countries (e.g., Chile) managing offshore estates for one of the famous French estates. Tod knows his stuff. We’re lucky. Tod’s agreed to teach us something about how modern practices are being implemented on this side of the valley. Vintners speak of the terroir of the land. We’re ready to dig in. Vines on the alluvial fan stretch east from the adjacent Mayacamas mountain range. Water comes from the mountain slopes and flows underground across the hard clay surface that’s just a few meters down.

A stream interrupts the contiguous planting. This waterway is three-quarters of the way across the property.

The streambed runs parallel to the mountain range — N-S along the long axis of the valley. They spent years restoring the stream. Most of the plants are native species. It’s tranquil. Large trees form a complete canopy over the slow-moving water. This is now a Grade A stream. It’s likely salmonid fish are spawning here. The restoration created a profound change. This had long been a denuded waterway.

Tod is talking about the soil and water. He points across the landscape and describes rocks of different sizes. You discover the importance by digging soil pits. The need to monitor water flow. The descriptions continue. Rainfall flows through the vineyard soils two months after a rain event. We’re standing alongside rows of grapes while imagining the underground flow of water from the mountains. This is the way the vines need their water delivery. The surface rainfall is less important. It evaporates. The vineyard in this area are divided into blocks. Some boundaries are natural and reflect the characteristics of the environment. Other divisions occur because of different grape varieties. This results in homogeneous blocks. If a winery focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, most of the blocks are planted in this variety. Here, we’re surrounded by vines of this variety. Nearby, a few blocks have related varieties. They’re useful. Small amounts add to the blend when needed. Tod takes us to a block they are replanting. He tells how vineyards must let the land lie fallow. That’s an expensive aspect of the reconditioning of an area. No income is comes to the farm as the new grapes grow into mature plants. In this part of the valley they use dry-farming techniques. This requires the vine roots to reach the water table. Yet here, in this replanting, they’ve installed a drip irrigation system. Next, they drill holes into the soil for the vines. The bottom of the rootstock plant is trimmed so that there are few roots. The rootstock goes in the hole and they cover the top with loose soil. There is no graft at the top. The irrigation system is just for the start. They water the plant well and let it grow. It will soon (in a dozen weeks?) be a big shrubby bush. At that point they’ll trim the aboveground shoots and do the grafting. Each plant gets irrigation water a few times in the first year. This decreases each year until watering stops. They remove the drip lines at that point. By now, the plant roots reach deep to the water table.

Skilled workers train and prune the vines in subtle ways to control the leaf surface area and how the sun strikes the fruit. A big thing for he growers is the annual temperature spike. This is a period of several days (often 3) when the temperatures are in the high 90s to low 100s. Plants have a chemical reaction to this heat. This influences when the grapes are ready for harvest. Growers often sacrifice some bunches of grapes. This improves the quality of those remaining bunches. Plants are under constant examination. Skilled workers need to know when to trim the vines and exactly which parts of the plant need to be removed. This is a big job. There are thousands of plants. Â Most highend wineries have a full-time, year-around staff. They do most of the work. They know these plants. Side note. A group of a dozen workers in the nearby field when we arrived. They moved along the vineyard rows doing their work while singing. Loudly. All together.

Juice from crushed grapes moces into stainless fermentation vessels. Later, they transfer liquid from the bottom of the fermentation vat to the top so the grape juice percolates through the solids. This repeats. Once fermentation is finished, the juice enters French Oak barrels. The wine is far from complete. Wine sits in the barrels and continues the maturing. Half a dozen people judge the aged wine and decide the blending. Each vineyard block produces a wine with a different characteristic. The final product is a mixture of several varieties. Winemakers need a good palette. Our tour ends with a tasting in a ground-floor room. Concrete walls line the windowless room except for one side. That wall is all glass. We’re looking into one of the winery’s two barrel rooms. The lights in the tasting and barrel rooms are dim. We’ve left the open-feeling of the rest of the building; now we’re in a cave. Then it’s time for some wine. We drink, muse, and chat.

Several staff enter the barrel room. Tod takes us into the room with the barrels to see the how they are clarifying the wine. The staff are friendly and happy to show us how they do this process. Start by tapping the barrel at the bottom, then opening the bung at the top. Most juice pours into an empty barrel. The last bit of liquid holds the sediment. It is still in the barrel. A worker tips the barrel and drains the remaining juice. Another worker monitors the juice and stops the flow when he sees sediment. They empty the sediment-filled wine and clean the barrel for reuse. It is slow work; 30 barrels a day. They do this over and over. Eventually, wine in the barrel has no more sediment. The common alternative is to pipe off the top juice. This assumes that the pipe goes into the barrel just the right distance. Fast and easy. Not as good. It is time to move on. We’ve got a few places to visit before dinner.

JCB Tasting Salon & Atelier Raymond Vineyards Jean-Charles Boisset came to California in the 1990s. His family had built a considerable reputation in France’s Burgundy region. Jean-Charles grew up in this tradition. He added to his education in California. Over the years, he purchased several vineyards. His business style, according to Wikipedia, is a “more consumer-driven, New World approach.” The result is several “over the top” establishments. On the one-hand, JCB markets to a public that associates wine with cut-glass bottles, chandeliers, chrome, and red-velvet. Maybe a touch of SM (think handcuffs and whips) added to the mixture. On the other, the Boisset vineyards purport to following the “biodynamic” and organic procedures. Our next stop is the JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier in Yountville. This is a small space split between a deli-like sales area, the Atelier, and a wine tasting room, the Tasting Salon. A side room is special. JCB luxury items pack the shelves. He has an unusual taste. A cursory examination of the Salon’s facilities speaks to the blend of glitz, glamor and high-tech. Jean-Charles markets an experience. It receives awards.

We sit outside, satisfied with sparkling wine and cheese-meat-bread platters. We split a few sandwiches. Food is important as dinner is a few hours away. Raymond Winery is a generations-old vineyard. Jean-Charles bought this enterprise and made it into his flagship Napa Valley winery. That’s our next stop. We’ve arranged for a tour and tasting. We’ll continue our association with JCB in this alternative context.

The tour starts at a bar inside the winery. You see the Jean-Charles touch everywhere. We sample a Raymond Vineyards 2017 Rosé and then head outside. This is the Theater of Nature. We’re here to learn the biodynamic farming method. Our guide is summarizing the farming approach developed by Rudolph Steiner. This system encourages biodiversity and recycling. That’s the good part. We’re rolling our eyes when we’re shown the female cow horns that get filled with animal parts and buried. This process, according to our guide, produces a concentrate they spread on the fields. Just a tiny amount creates wondrous results. Or so they say. Move on. We enter the outdoor area where the wine is first processed. Here, they prepare and crush the grapes. Inside the winery, we pass by the stainless fermentation containers. LED lights shine on the sides and reflect in a variety of colors. Each tank has a large mirror attached to the side. Look up. There’s a female mannequin hanging upside down on a trapeze. We are in Jean-Charles’ domain. Our next stop; the hallway with sniffing devices. “Smell the aroma before you look at the sign,” says our guide. “Can you spot the blueberry?”

We end the Raymond Vineyards event in a private room. A table, with a 3D relief map of the Napa Valley in the center, fills the room. Jars along the walls have soil cores. It’s here that we’re tasting a few of the JCB property wines. We start with the 2016 LVE Chardonnay and follow with a 2015 Merlot. The final three wines are Cabernet Sauvignon: 2013 Estate Collection, 2013 Atlas Peak, and 2015 Generations. Our guide is giving us a near-mechanical recitation. We nod, sometimes in agreement. More often in weariness. This is putting us to sleep. But we shouldn’t judge this experience. Many visitors report this stop as the highlight of the valley. Our style is different. Both perspectives are OK. We’ve got time to return to the hotel. We must get dressed for dinner. Tonight’s gathering has a dress code; gents need to wear a coat. Our reservation is for 6:30 PM. We dare not be late.

The French Laundry The French Laundry has a near mythical reputation. The owner and chef is Thomas Keller. His restaurant, in Yountville, has three Michelin stars. It was twice voted the best restaurant in the world. That’s an appellation echoed by Anthony Bourdain. It is near impossible to secure a reservation. But we’ve got one for our group! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Tod is joining us for dinner. That’s a treat, too. The wine cellar at The French Laundry is amazing. It is worth visiting the wine list on the restaurant’s website to see the breadth and depth of their holdings. (Note, too, the prices.) Our group has decided that we’ll bring our own wine. We’ve brought two bottles from Southern California. Tod has reached into his collection and brought two more. Note the penalty for bringing your own wine. It’s the corkage fee. Our bill reflects a hefty charge. But our bottles are special as each has a memorable link to Tod’s career. Our wine list for dinner: 2006 Almaviva (Chile) 2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Dominus 2010 Château La Fleur-Pétrus (magnum)

We gather, walk through a hallway and enter the restaurant’s kitchen. That’s a surprise. We’re able to linger and watch the staff prepare the food. Many cooks. Each one very focused. A large video screen on the wall shows, in real-time, the kitchen in Thomas Keller’s east coast restaurant, Per Se. It looks very similar to what we’re seeing in front of us. We move on and enter the restaurant’s wine storage. Lots of wine bottles. Floor to ceiling, both sides of the narrow L-shaped room. Secure in wooden racks (remember that Napa gets earthquakes). The wine cellar exits into a square dining room. A single round table sits in the center. Overhead, the chandelier resembles a cluster of grapes. The ten of us take our seats. We’re in a special dining room. We are feeling the magic. The dining room has tall sliding doors. These are open to the outside. The weather is perfect. This openness adds to the ambiance. The room’s decor is simple. Shelves on one side hold many wine glasses. That’s a strong hint that we’re set for serious drinking. Our four wine bottles are on the shelf where they await opening. A wooden clothespin secures each folded napkin. This allusion to the building’s history is a nice touch.

Tod scans the wine list and chooses a Champagne to start. That cleanses our palate. We then begin the dinner courses. We pause as we view the first course. The moment is interrupted. Someone saw Thomas Keller as we walked near the kitchen. Now, here he is at the entrance to our dining room. He’s come by to greet us. Jaws drop. This is the Chef’s Tasting Menu. Each dish is small. And complex. Names of the dishes don’t provide enough details to capture the elegance of the food. The wines are a perfect pairing. We’re hearing that said, over and over. Our dinner takes us through a series of culinary experiences. Taste, texture, and appearance keep us guessing. Individual plates often emphasize different elements.

Tonight’s service requires comment. Our waiter, Robert, understands our group. He has a sense of humor that borders on a professional comic. He shows a wit that helps carry the dinner forward. His comments are spot on, sometimes coming near the “can he say that?” boundary. The rest of the wait staff enter silently, en mass, to deliver the food and retrieve the used dishes. We’re experiencing the special level of service found in a three-star restaurant. We had high expectations for our dinner at The French Laundry. Reality is exceeding our predictions. It’s easy to focus on the food. But for us, the food combines with the wine, service and setting. It helps that our group is compatible. An abundance of good conversation fills the dining room. Laughter is common and sometimes is sufficiently intense to bring tears. Our room is distant from the other diners. That’s good. We’re a noisy congregation. Whew. What a day.

Saturday Breakfast at the hotel. We’re OK. Dinner did no damage. So far, we’ve been on familiar territory. We’ve known, in general, what we’ll experience as we head to each of our stops. Today, we visit a new place. It’s a little risky. We’re depending on Internet-gained information. We know one thing. It should be different.

Hendry Winery Hendry Winery is just ten minutes away, almost due west of our hotel. We’re heading out of town and we’re soon following a windy road through a valley with oak trees covering the slopes. A sign points us to the right and we drive along a long farm road, past an elegant, white, Victorian-style house. Parking is at a winery’s production building. Vineyards surround the winery, covering the undulating slopes. The oak-covered hills are not far away. We’re standing here for a few minutes taking in the view. This is the countryside. Can you feel how this contrasts with the nearly flat vineyards we’ve seen in the valley? We’ve arranged for a seminar/tour by George Hendry. We’re in the parking lot waiting for our scheduled time. An old, dirt covered car rolls in and parks next to us. A gentleman gets out. He’s wearing a pith helmet. His clothes say “farmer.” We get a big smile and he says, “Head around the front, I’ll meet you there.” It must be George.

We organize ourselves inside the winery’s entry. George signals and takes us outside. We’re sitting in the shade of a huge tree as George gives us the history of Hendry Winery. It started after prohibition, beginning mostly as a fruit farm. Just a few acres of grapes. Times changed. Wine production looked better and better. But this is real farming. You must make some money. Enough “to put groceries on the table.” They convert more of the land to grapes. The children take over from their parents. George keeps his day job. That’s essential to get through the hard times, he says, as they expand into large-scale grape production. George answers a few questions and we head to the fields. He’s describing the general strategy. His emphasis is that we know that weather and tastes change. He reminds us how the movie Sideways changed the public’s purchases away from Merlot and to Pinot Noir. Zinfandel once ruled in Napa; now this variety grows on only 3% of the land. The environment complicates this. A year might be hot or cold, wet or dry. Each year is different.

You can’t predict people’s preferences or the weather. The Hendry solution is to plant many grape varieties. Some will work. Not always the same varieties. The strategy is to spread your bets. The Hendry Ranch has 203 acres of grapes. There are eleven varieties, including a few old clones that are rare. The vineyard divides the plants into 49 blocks, giving each block an average area of about 4 acres. This is a complex arrangement that fits the sustainability strategy. It also helps with labor. Work spreads out across the seasons. Some blocks are ready for picking early. Others come later. Hendry employs its farm labor year-round. They don’t need seasonal help with the farm activities and wine processing. The tour continues inside. George is describing their methods. Overall, everyone has much the same procedure. Wineries differ in detail. We understand that.

The atmosphere changes. George is digging deeper as he describes how they handle the grapes. Up to this point, George had been a family historian and farmer. But now we’re into the technical things that relate to wine chemistry. Remember that George has a day job separate from the winery. We watch as George lights up. A bit of background. After leaving the winery, we discover that George’s day job is President and Technical Director of Cyclotron, Inc. They make particle accelerators that produce isotopes for research. George knows a lot about tracing biochemical reactions. That, we learn from his seminar, is key to understanding how we perceive wine. The discussion of production at Hendry Winery is illustrating the differences between wines that are tannin rich and those with few tannins. George points out the value, to the vineyard, of quick white wine fermentation in stainless steel tanks followed by filling screw-cap bottles. An aging period isn’t required as this wine has few tannins. Tannins, as George reminds us, come from the skin and seeds. They keep these out of white wines. The result is a product that moves quickly to the market. Less expense for the winery; a lower cost for the consumer.

Some white wines benefit from storage in oak barrels. The barrels have tannins (although they differ from the skin/seed tannins). A slow leakage of oxygen into the barrel (with rates measured in a few parts per million) changes the tannins in positive ways. These white wines go into bottles with cork stoppers. Oxygen continues to enter the bottle through the cork, improving the quality for a while. All red wines go into oak barrels. Later, the wine is bottled with cork stoppers. The tannin transformation process continues. It takes longer as there are many more tannins that need biochemical changes. George is explaining this in great detail. We see his excitement level is higher. He’s started using his signature gesture. Two fists with thumbs extended. Rotate wrists until the thumbs point either up or down. Up is good. Down is bad. Rotation is a quick snap, coordinated with a click of the mouth. With each flip, George shows us a little sparkle in his eye. It helps. It’s time to move from production to tasting. They’ve set a table for our group. We’re in an oblong room that has windows at one end. George is announcing that he’ll demonstrate using his wine and our palette. It’s a reminder that we’re in a seminar on wine tasting.

We started, a few hours ago, with a question. Are we at the right place? We’re now seeing a performance by a master showman. He has us on the edge of our seat. George is taking us through a series of paired (and once triple) comparisons. We are learning, through this experience, why the first mouthful of wine differs from subsequent sips. How food refreshes the palette. And more. Much more. The interesting thing is George’s ability to predict what we’ll experience. He’s got these procedures worked out well. Take a sip, eat a cracker dipped in olive oil, take a sip. See how that’s different from taking two sips in a row? He’s right. He’s telling us why, using his hands to illustrate how molecules bind to each other. The story George’s telling keeps coming back to the three primary characteristics of wine: fruit, flavor intensity, and herbal notes. How much of each do you detect? Which of the three dominates? His banter continues with descriptions of how, from a sensory palette perspective, different foods pair with each wine. George’s periodic thumbs up/down flick is keeping everyone’s attention. Each of us is doing a lot of head shaking with the same question: why didn’t I know that?

The tasting lets us sample a wide variety of Hendry wines: 2017 Albariùo 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay 2015 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2014 Pinot Noir 2015 Primitivo 2014 Blocks 7 & 22 Zinfandel 2014 RED 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon We’re now three hours into our visit to Hendry Winery. We conclude by ordering wine for shipping home. Everyone is ordering some. Hendry is on our map. Thanks George.

Our next winery is Silver Oak Cellars. We’re going to their new winery and tasting facility. It is far to the north of Napa Valley in the Alexander Valley. It is early afternoon. We need food. Suggestion: stop at Gott’s Roadside, a hamburger restaurant in St. Helena. Good idea. We head there. On arrival, we’re waiting for the traffic to clear, so we can turn into the parking lot. Wow. See the long line waiting for service? This will take forever. How about Pizza? There’s a place across the street. Yes. Let’s go. Pizzeria Tra Vigne turns out to be just what we need. We’re sitting outside. How about two pizzas, along with a few other items? It’s a good decision. We’ve fallen behind schedule but we’re fixing that with a phone call. We move our tasting appointment to an hour later. No problem.

Silver Oak Winery The trip between the Napa and Alexander Valleys is on a windy road. We’re leaving most of the traffic behind as we head away from the Napa Valley tourist spots. The highway twists and turns as we go through the mountain valley. The road straightens and we’re driving through a flat landscape surrounded by vineyards. A sign points to Silver Oak Winery. We take the long driveway straight through the vineyard to the modern buildings near the hillside. Silver Oak Cellars has two locations. They have long been in Oakville in the Napa Valley. Just three weeks ago they opened this new location in the Alexander Valley. That’s why we’re here. We want to see this new winery.

A white building marks the entrance. It doesn’t match the style of the other buildings. We’ll soon learn that this “out of place” structure is an icon for the company. It’s an old water tower. These were once common in the region. Water is a critical component of the wine economy. The tower is an appropriate symbol. We’re struck by the appearance of the winery buildings. They are painted black, gray, and silver. They have sleek lines. Long reflecting ponds. This is good modern architecture. Inside, the modern architecture continues. We look out through huge windows to see the vineyards. Then we turn our gaze to the interior with the gift shop glitter and the walk-up tasting bar.

Before long, our host is summoning us into a side room. There is a long table set with each place having four wine glasses. This winery produces Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s no surprise. It is the favorite variety for the region. It is also a hardy grape that can withstand some difficulties of the climate. We’re given two paired choices. The wines are Cabernet Sauvignon. 2013 Alexander Valley vs. 2013 Napa Valley. 2008 Alexander Valley vs. 2006 Napa Valley. We sip and choose. The story of this new winery comes with the tasting. The Silver Oak goal, besides making outstanding wine, is to be sustainable. They’ve achieved their objectives. The winery is LEED certified at the highest level. Rooftop solar panels produce more power than the winery consumes. Excess power goes to the grid. They’ve given the same care to the other LEED certification criteria. Use local building materials, especially those repurposed from other structures. Recycle water. It is refreshing to see the attention to detail. This winery shows you can combine sustainability with functionality and beauty. This is a good stop. We’re enjoying excellent wines and learning about an important trend in the wine industry. All of this in a beautiful setting among the vines. Time to head south. Back through the hills. We’ve got a reservation for dinner at the Goose & Gander in St. Helena.

The Goose & Gander The Goose & Gander is on a city side street. Parking is tight. People fill the town. There’s an empty parking spot in front of the restaurant. Lucky. We’re early. Can they work us in? Yes, of course. We’re led to an outdoor table. The sun is low in the sky. We’re shaded by a canopy of tall trees and umbrellas. This is a large restaurant built inside and around an old house. Much of the menu is bar bites and appetizers. The menu lists a few entrees. The one that is grabbing most of the group’s attention is the hamburger (with fries). There are a lot of split orders. It works fine.

The Goose & Gander showcases specialty cocktails. Several members of the group order the Cucumber Collins. The ingredients: Square‎ One Cucumber Vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, and seltzer. Most of us are less exotic and happy with beer or water.

It’s a good dinner. We need this casual atmosphere, so we can relax. The trip’s been pretty intensive.

Back to the hotel. Suggestion: Let’s make one more stop before ending the day. How about the Brazilian steakhouse, Galpão Gaúcho, across the parking lot? OK. We’re all in. A crowd has fills Galpão Gaúcho. It’s late. But people are still dining. We declare that we’re there just for drinks. Perfect. They have a large table available in the bar. Once seated, we wait (and wait) for service. Finally, we choose a variety of evening drinks, some exotic, and others more traditional. It’s a good chance to review the day.

Another day ends. Lots of great experiences. We’ll sleep well.

Sunday Palmaz Winery We’re starting earlier today. We’ve got to check out of the hotel and get our gear packed into the vans. Our single appointment is for 10 AM. Palmaz Vineyards is a fifteen-minute drive east of our hotel. This estate is one of the anchor locations that precipitated the trip. Months ago, a friend shared a magazine article that discussed how Palmaz had brought high-tech to the valley. He had a question. How does that work? We’re here to find out. Search the Internet and you find useful information. Julio Palmaz invented the balloon-expandable stent. Doctors use this to open clogged arteries. Is it important? The patent on this device is one of the “Ten Patents that Changed the World.” That’s got to be worth something. Dr. Palmaz brings an inventor’s curiosity to the valley. His wife, Amalia, adds a wealth of experience with fine French wines. They’re combining their passions and resources and running a new type of winery.

We stop at the gate and identify our party. We’re directed to park on Level 3. Getting there is taking us through vineyards on the rolling foothills of the Vaca Range. Signs are leading us up the slopes, we’re soon passing Level 2, and then we find our designated parking area.

Our “ambassador,” Jordan, greets us as we pile out of the vans. The winery’s entrance is through two huge wooden doors that open into a long, domeroofed cavern. Stop. Snap a few photos. Now we can walk through the hallway that heads straight into the mountain. We’re well underground by the time we reach an elevator. Feel the air. Sixty degrees. All the time.

The walls are cream color. The light comes from sconces that dot the walls. We’re absorbing the unusual sensation of walking into the deep reaches inside a mountain. Our guide takes us up to the top level and out to a patio. Being outside is a welcome relief and it’s providing us with some orientation.

We’re up high on the mountainside. The view stretches across the valley. What a great sight! It’s another perfect day in Napa. The estate’s vineyards cover the foreground. No flat fields here. The vines blanket the many contours of the land. Behind us, we see the winery walls built with stones, each carefully cut and fitted. The walls are a work of art. Time for a glass of wine. Jordan is starting us with a Palmaz Vineyards 2017 Rosé. The story of the Palmaz family is unfolding as we drink. We’re hearing about the arrangements of the surrounding fields, the difficulty of growing vines in the mountain tops behind us, the everlasting search for perfection, and a family’s desire to create a generations-long home. It’s all part of the Palmaz Winery story.

Back inside the mountain cave, we’re seeing the implementation of Palmaz’s plan. The purpose of this 18-story building is to treat the grapes gently and well. Gravity is the mechanism. Basic physical forces move the grapes through the entire production process. Gravity does the work with as little disruption as possible. This, they maintain, preserves the desirable chemical structure of the juice. Grapes enter the production system at Level 4, up on the top of the winery. There isn’t a traditional destemming machine. Here, workers do the job on a vibrating conveyor. The grapes then descend (fall?) through a hole in the floor to the awaiting fermentation equipment below. Most wineries have rows of fermentation tanks. Not here. Palmaz arranges its fermentation vessels is a circle around a large open room. Instrumentation in each tank produces a steady (and rapid) flow of data to the vineyard’s computers. We’re looking down at the tanks from the upper floor. This is a beautiful room. A bit unexpectedly, Jordan is invoking the winery’s information system from a nearby terminal. Projectors suddenly splash colorful graphs and numbers onto the curved dome that forms the ceiling. Each tank’s fermentation history and status is now sitting right above the tank. Displays change and now we are seeing maps and other data that show many facets of the winery and field operations. We’re stunned by both the beauty and depth of information this system brings to the room.

The data displays are not for show. The cellar master plays an active role in the fermentation by modifying things such as the temperature regimen. Control systems work on temperature goals. The fermentation process gets slow modifications with ramps of change that meet the cellar master’s objective at predetermined times. That’s very sophisticated and just one example of the complexity and level of control. The charts and graphs monitor the process and guide the cellar master’s decisions. We came to Palmaz expecting to see high-tech. The winery’s motto is “Fusion of tradition and technology.” This exceeds what we thought possible. We’re viewing example data from a past harvest as our visit is early in the season. We see the depth of the information; fermentation history, location on the estate, and more. Much more. This must be an interesting center of focus during the fermentation. It is easy to imagine the inquisitive analyses taking place here when the fermentation is underway.

Time for intellectual decompression. Let’s do that among the barrels. We’re heading to another level. Along the way we pass a multi-stage filtration apparatus. This is something unique. Another creative addition to the art of wine-making.

On to the barrels. That’s the next step in winemaking. Palmaz dug long tunnels into the mountain. This is a perfect place to store the barrels. The storage tunnels radiate as spokes from a single central point. We walk along a row. Our guide shows us the labels on the barrels. A code number ties together each barrel’s origin, material and processing. Sets of barrels share the same number. The brand changes as we go farther along the tunnel. Small sets of barrels, each with a different set of characteristics, line the side of the tunnel. And so it goes. The information system holds the barrel data, just as it does with information about the grapes on the different mountain slopes and the fermentation process on the floor above. Notes on the Palmaz website describe flights, taken twice a week, that capture plant images from above the vineyards. The irrigation plan comes from the analysis of the aerial imagery. This reduces the variability of the grapes in a block. It’s another example of technology applied to the production wine. Palmaz Winery has a distinct aim: create consistent wines, year after year. The diversity of grape varieties, the processing regimen, and even the unique characteristics of the barrels, provide an array of wines. Blending achieves the final product. The Palmaz strategy for dealing with the annual climate diversity is opposite of what we saw at Hendry Vineyard. Here, the production process adds to the variability of grapes produced on different blocks. This permits blending to smooth out the effects of a wet or dry, hot or cold year.

Our next stop is outside the winery. We’re down lower the mountain. Again, face-toface with vines. It’s time to consider the grapes. Fifty-five acres are in production, divided into forty-six blocks. Some vineyards are low on the hill in front of us. You find other vineyards high in the mountain behind. A very complex landscape. Only a small amount of the land is used to grow grapes.

We saw elsewhere that a diverse environment and a mix of grape varieties allows a year-round labor force to do the work. That’s the practice here, too.

We go back inside. We’ve learned a lot about this estate. What about the wine? Time to drink some wine. We’re a large group, so our room is separate from the usual tasting area. They’ve arranged a table for us. Each setting has five glasses. These are already filled with wine. Behind, a plate spans the width of the five glasses. There are six small bites of food. The menu, next to each setting, describes the wine and food pairings.

Elegant. The pairings are perfect. Each person sets a pace and order; our guide has released us from a set procedure. We’re doing some blending ourselves. Our ingredients include good discussion, a beautiful place, fine food, and quality wine. Now it’s time to leave. Order a few bottles at departure. That’s now a habit. And then we depart.

This was another special place. All elements came together.

It’s important to pause and integrate these experiences. We’ve been to places where each detail approaches perfection. Often, this quality is something we’ve rarely experienced. Remarkable. We’ve seen excellence at so many of our stops.

Most of the group leave Oakland on an afternoon flight. We’re on schedule. Time for one more stop? Sure. Let’s head back to Oxbow Public Market. It’s not far away. People crowd the market at this hour. We have time to wander. A few of us shop. This place re-centers us. It’s a reminder of day-to-day reality.

Now it’s time to go. One van heads to the airport. The other van lingers. Not long. Then it, too, leaves the valley.

Finding Fine Wine  

The goal: a fun long weekend in California's Napa Valley. We are nine people seeking unique perspectives on the great wines produced in the...

Finding Fine Wine  

The goal: a fun long weekend in California's Napa Valley. We are nine people seeking unique perspectives on the great wines produced in the...