This is part two of my California journey, if you missed part one, Click HERE
In the morning I was straight back in the bone rattler. Time to break the back of the long journey from Paso Robles up north to Sonoma and Napa. It would’ve been rude to refuse the ‘scenic route’ (Route 1), so up the coast I went. The scenery and surf taking my eye off the road a number of times. They have wide roads in the US though so there’s plenty of margin for error.
The batteries were fully recharged after an afternoon and evening’s R and R in San Francisco. Conveniently the first stop on a jam-packed day of winery visits was an urban winery just across the bay from the city itself – Broc Cellars. This place is as cool and modern as ‘urban winery’ suggests. It comes from owner Chris Brockway’s minimal intervention philosophy on winemaking.
Chris brings fruit in from top-quality organic and biodynamic vineyards. His highly-skilled team uses all manner of fermentation vessels and equipment to get the absolute best expression out of each parcel without the use of anything unnecessary and unnatural. The choice of grape varieties is cool and modern too. Broc’s portfolio boasts as much breadth of style as any I’ve seen before. From sparkling Chenin Blanc, to Grenache Gris rosé and varietal Valdigue, also known as ‘Napa Gamay’. The visit was eye-opening, exciting and a great way to start the day.
Onwards now to Kutch Wines, stationed just on the outskirts of Sonoma town. As is so much of the high-end wine production in Sonoma and Napa, Kutch buy their grapes in from contracted growers from highly sought after vineyards around the state. This grower-producer set up in California is a perfect fit for the entrepreneurial culture that California is famous for. And Jamie Kutch, founder and owner of Kutch Wines, is a great example of that.
In his twenties his playground was Wall Street, crunching numbers and earning fortunes, the latter opening the door to fine wine. But by his early thirties he was longing for a more tangible fruit of his labour. So he jacked the job and switched coast. After a long search for the right vineyards, and with the guidance of a good friend, he was soon making wine. Ten years on and he’s making world-class wine, one of those annoying people that makes a success of everything he does!
A ten minute drive down the road from Kutch’s warehouse winery is Cline Cellars. In a way, Cline is Kutch’s opposite in the sense that Cline owns all its own vineyards in various parts of the region, and its HQ is designed perfectly to entice the footfall of wine tourists, with a welcoming and relaxed pastoral atmosphere. It’s an idyllic farmhouse set within its vineyards that passers-by drop into and soon after cancel their afternoon plans in favour of the picnic benches under the willow tree and a bottle of a new discovery.
This is another producer that offers a wide range of styles, but all have one thing in common – a sense of place. Most of their wines are Single Vineyard so all express a unique character that they inherit from each individual vineyard plot, which gives a very good point of difference for every wine. Power is another common denominator too, these wines are not for the faint hearted, 16% abv is not uncommon! After a long day’s tasting, it was just a short drive to the hotel in Yountville followed by a well-earned beer in the local ‘dive bar’, as the locals call it.
The next morning I went of to meet Marco DiGiulio, head of winemaking at Girard winery. This offered a continuation of the theme of ‘sense of place’ but with a slightly different angle. Rather than Single Vineyard wines designed to reflect their origin, Girard makes a strong range of wines using varieties typical to Napa Valley. They utilise the excellent relationships with growers they’ve forged over the years to gain access each vintage to the parcels that are showing the most typical Napa character that year. The results are fantastic. The whole range confidently displaying pronounced character associated to Napa. The Cabernet Sauvignon being the standout for me – great depth of flavour with cocoa, leather, vanilla, cassis and spice.
Kunde was the next stop, just over the valley back in Sonoma. This is another estate that grows its own fruit. However I was fortunate enough to be walked round the estate by winemaker Zach Long (coincidentally the former winemaker at Girard) who explained his approach to winemaking – terroir-driven with minimalist intervention. The fruit from the Kunde estate is exceptionally well-balanced when ripe, which is a huge stride towards little requirement for intervention. And the condition of the fruit can be attributed to Zach’s attention to detail in the vineyard, where he walks the rows daily throughout the season to keep completely in tune with progress.
It was the whites here that grabbed me – a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc. And for reasons explained above. Both wines showed an enticing individual character, but more importantly (to me) they had an arresting purity. No doubt from Zach’s meticulous winemaking practice.
The last visit of the day was to Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Now this was a charming place to see. Greeted on the driveway with a glass of their Viognier and taken through their gardens to ‘the salon’. It was designed in 1800s Parisian style, I was seated and the tasting began with soft jazz music in the background. Sounds highly pretentious, maybe it was (I was served caviar), but I have to say it was very pleasant!
Although Swanson do make a Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexis – and it’s very good), they actually specialize in Merlot. It gives them a point of difference to the vast majority of Napa’s top end red wine production. Even more so since the catastrophic effect the film Sideways had on Merlot sales (it really did). Everyone stopped growing it! Swanson never stopped though, probably because when you’re at the top of your game, you’re way above trends and fads.