Northern California in Style, Day Two: Wine Country

June 13 2013 by Jason Fogelson

BW Napa 5.jpgToday is going to be a special one for me, unique on a motorcycling trip. That's because I won't be riding a motorcycle. I'll be riding in a tour bus.

Spending a day touring California's Wine Country is not what comes to mind when most people picture a motorcycle trip. But why not? The average motorcyclist is remarkably similar, demographically, to the average wine connoisseur. The only challenge is that wine tasting and motorcycling do not mix. Not safely, anyway. But I found a solution to that challenge in Platypus Wine Tours. For $99 per person, you can join a wine tour. The price includes visits to four wineries, a picnic lunch, shared cheese tray and water along the way. Tasting fees at the individual wineries (usually $10 or $15 per person) and driver gratuities (optional) are not included. All you have to bring is your camera and credit card. A sense of humor helps, too.

BW Napa 1.jpgI have a hot meal of sausage and eggs in the breakfast room at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley. Just as it is at all Best Western Hotels, breakfast is included with a night's stay. I have been advised by Platypus that a hearty breakfast lays a good foundation for wine tasting. That makes good sense.

BW Napa 2.jpgRight on time at 10:30 am, the Platypus bus pulls up in front of the hotel. I'm the last guest to join the tour. The other 10 guests are five couples from all over the US: Austin and Houston, Texas; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Gainesville, Florida; and Chicago. I'm the only Californian on the tour. Our guide and driver, Sam Honey, is a Brit who has lived in the Napa Valley since the 1970s. As Sam drives, he uses the PA system to give us cool facts and figures about the Valley and about viticulture - the study of vines and the behavior of grapes in the vineyard.

According to Sam, one of the factors that makes the Napa Valley so successful as a wine producing region is its many microclimates. In very close proximity, there can be big differences in temperature and precipitation. At higher elevations on the hillsides, temperatures can be 10 or even 20 degrees lower than on the valley floor. Matching the right grape to the right microclimate is the delicate work of the grower.

BW Napa 4.jpgVirtually all of the grapes grown in the Napa Valley are grown on foreign vines grafted onto American root stock. There's some kind of bug in our soil that destroys the European grape vines. The native grape vines are immune to the bug, but unfortunately, the American grapes make horrible wine. Growers figured out that they could graft a foreign vine onto the American one, and get the hardiness of the native vine with the grapes of the import. Voila, great wine is born.

BW Napa 10.jpgThe big names of commercial winemaking in the United States have vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley -- Beringer, Krug, Martini and others. Some bottle millions of bottles of wine here. But they don't necessarily grow their grapes here. They import bulk wine from other sources, and bottle the wine in Napa Valley, so that they can label the bottles "Bottled In Napa Valley." Buyer beware. The vast majority of Napa Valley wine is from boutique wineries, not from the big guys.

We'll be visiting four boutique wineries today, personally selected by Sam for our group. Sam admits that he hasn't even selected the fourth winery yet -- he wants to get a sense of our group before he commits.

Wine tasting doesn't have to be stuffy or pretentious. Wine is fun, and for enjoyment, and doesn't need to be taken so seriously. All that sniffing and swirling and sloshing and spitting is for the experts. We're encouraged to taste and smell the wine in our own fashions, and even to swallow it if we wish. Sam informs us that it is also permitted to ask for a second tasting of a wine if you're considering a purchase. Most of the boutique wineries sell their wine directly to consumers, either in their tasting room or through their wine clubs. They can also sell wine over the phone and over the Internet nowadays, shipping to almost anywhere in the United States. Wineries will usually waive the tasting fee if you buy a bottle of wine, which makes the prices even more reasonable. All of the wine we would taste today fell into the $22 to $65 per bottle range. $65 is more than I'd feel comfortable spending on an everyday wine, but it seems like a good price for a gift or a very special occasion wine.

BW Napa 3.jpgOur first stop proves that right premise off the bat. Casa Nuestra in St. Helena was founded by a "Happy Farmer" back in 1979. That could easily read "Hippie Farmer," as the founder was a refugee from San Francisco's scene, and evidence of the Hippie influence abound on the grounds and in the tasting room -- psychedelic paintings, music posters and a laid-back vibe make the winery a relaxed, fun place to visit. We get to taste four bottled wines at Casa Nuestra: a 2011 Dry Chenin Blanc, a 2011 Riesling, a 2009 Meritage and a 2009 Tinto -- a special "field blend" of a variety of grapes. We also get to visit the barrel room and do a barrel tasting, a reserve that has not yet been bottled. Casa Nuestra's issues are very small, usually fewer than 400 cases per variety are produced. I really loved the Riesling here -- it was crisp and fragrant, not too tart and not too sweet. And I usually don't like white wines.

BW Napa 13.jpgWe also get to meet the marketing department at Casa Nuestra -- a pair of adorable goats who live in a big yard near the tasting room. They are the last two surviving goats from a failed experiment in hippie landscaping. The goats were allowed to wander the vineyard to eat the weeds and grass that grew between the vines. Unfortunately, the goats developed a taste for -- you guessed it -- grape vines!

Sam makes a point of showing off the vineyard's collection of small tractors, one of which is an old Lamborghini. Very cool -- I knew that Lamborghini made tractors before he built cars, but I have never seen one in person before.

BW Napa 7.jpgOur second winery is Dutch Henry in Calistoga, a California Certified Organic Farm. Named for a famous outlaw, the legendary biggest horse thief in the Old West, Dutch Henry Winery has built a substantial reputation since its founding in 1992. Two airedale terriers greet our bus, and make a point of personally welcoming each person who arrives. Inside the tasting room, two cats, Floyd and Maybelline, rule the premises. They are incredibly friendly and judgmental, all at the same time. Cats.

BW Napa 8.jpgTasting takes a while at Dutch Henry, as there are six wines to sample in a flight: A 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; a 2012 Dry Rose; a 2009 Pinot Noir; a 2007 Argos (a blend of Cabernet Savignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc); a 2007 Syrah and a 2006 Cabernet. We also get to do a barrel tasting here -- another blended wine that is quite good. I'm very impressed with the blends here, which is my big discovery for the day.

BW Napa 9.jpgWe get to explore the Dutch Henry cave, a literal cave carved into the side of the hill behind the tasting room, very temperate storage for barrels of wine, and a very impressive space. Way at the back of the cave is a dining room with the most amazing acoustics. Dutch Henry occasionally hosts singer-songwriter evenings in their cave, and also rents out the space for private events.

While we've been exploring the wine cave, Sam has been setting up our picnic lunch at a few tables in the middle of a small grove of oak trees. A lovely, simple lunch of cold cuts and croissants made all the more delightful by the conversation, which is starting to flow more freely, thanks to the wine. Our group is starting to loosen up a bit, and I'm discovering fun things about everybody. I even get to bond with one gentleman over our favorite professional bowlers. That's a subject that doesn't come up very often in the course of my day, regretfully.

BW Napa 6.jpgAfter lunch, we pile back onto the bus and Sam drives us to St. Helena's David Fulton Winery, which is the oldest continuously operated family vineyard in California. David Fulton produced his first commercial wine in about 1865 (exact facts are a little hazy), and the sixth generation of his direct descendants run the winery today. The vineyards are idyllic and peaceful, and the tasting room has a lovely outdoor porch that feels miles (and centuries) away from the hustle and bustle of busy CA-29, just a few blocks distant.

BW Napa 15.jpgDavid Fulton Winery also hosts several winemakers' output, locals who don't have their own tasting rooms, but who have big reputations and great skills. We try two of the David Fulton wines, a 2009 Petit Sirah and a 2009 Our Sweet Petit, alongside three Jana Winery selections and a Calafia Cellars wine. The experience at David Fulton is almost the equal to the wine -- relaxed and welcoming, fun and informative. I really enjoy my time on the outdoor porch, reclining in an Adirondack chair and sipping delicious wines.

BW Napa 11.jpgWe board the bus for our final vineyard and tasting. Sam has selected Razi Winery in Napa for our last stop. Razi is a tiny producer, with an output of just 2,000 cases per year. Owner Farhad "Fred" Razi meets us in his beautiful tasting room, a high-ceilinged space with a stainless steel bar, terra cotta-colored walls and built-in dark wood cabinetry. Thanks to an anomalous microclimate, Fred is able to grow Chardonnay grapes in Napa. Sam tells us that Fred's Chardonnay grapes are the only ones he knows of in the Valley. Fred produces Razi Chardonnay, and we taste the 2009 and 2010 editions. We also taste his 2010 Shiraz and 2009 Cabernet Savignon. But my favorite wine of the day turns out to be the 2006 Razi Red Wine, a mix of a variety of grapes from Fred's vineyard and others. It's really delicious, and when we try the 2009 Red Wine, I'm surprised to discover that I taste a distinct difference between the two blends, and I much prefer the 2006. Am I developing a taste in wines? I step forward and address the group, nominating Razi Wines as the best discovery of the day. Everyone agrees, and Fred does a brisk business, selling bottles to several members of our group. We board our bus again, happily chattering about our picks for the day.

BW Napa 14.jpgSadly, it's almost 5:00 pm, and the day of wine tasting is over. Sam opens the bus door and I hop out at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, waving goodbye to my wine tasting friends.

I retreat to the comfort of my room, and relax into a brief (two-and-a-half-hour) nap. Visions of wineries dance in my head, and I awake refreshed, thirsty and hungry.

BW Napa 12.jpgI am no longer under the influence of alcohol, so I gear up, and ride to downtown Napa for dinner. I have searched Yelp for the best BBQ restaurant in Napa, and all signs point to The Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin' BBQ. The place is jumping when I arrive, packed to the gills even though it's a Tuesday night at 9:00 pm. I take that as a good sign, and settle for a seat at the bar, rather than a half-hour wait for a table. Unfortunately, they're sold out of their special beer can chicken, but I have a delicious combination platter with ribs, shredded pork and brisket, so I don't feel too disappointed.

I ride back to the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel, park the bike and stumble into bed. Even with my nap this evening, I'm ready for sleep. I've got a challenging ride into the heat tomorrow and I want to be well-rested. A day of wine tasting promotes a good night's sleep -- I can attest to that.

Miles ridden: 10


NEXT: DAY THREE: Napa to Anderson


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