I Pay Rapt Attention

Visitors and Vineyards

Posted in adventures by Zoelle on June 23, 2010

Two weekends ago,  a couple of friends of mine came to visit me at my home in the East Bay. Because one was visiting from New York, we decided to introduce her to the joy that is Napa Valley. Because all of us are recent college graduates, we’re pretty broke, so we were a little concerned about the cost of tastings: gone are the days when wineries would lavish their visitors with free samples (or so we thought.) Well, after several hours of slavish research (and signing up for a frightening number of newsletters) we found enough coupons for free and reduced-price tastings to more than adequately fill a day*. We were ready.

The day began with a quick trip to the Jelly Belly factory. This is one of my favorite factory tours- complete with shiny machinery, silly hats, and samples of every stage of jelly bean production. Yet this time, we decided to make another stop– next door, at the Anheuser-Busch Budweiser factory. This is a tour I had never taken before, but, speaking as a free-sample freak and recent convert to the cult of beer, I’ve got to say, I was NOT disappointed.

Upon entering the factory store, we were given coupons for two free samples of whatever beer we might want from the bar. I expected tiny tasting cups, but no– we were handed full-sized glasses of our choice of Ales and Lagers. I started with the American Ale, something I’ve never tried before, and found it to be surprisingly delicious. My friends tried the Hefeweizen, Shocktop, and were equally pleased (in fact, I know that since then they’ve both chosen to order the Shocktop at happy hours, which is great! Good job, Anheuser-Busch, score one for you.) We grabbed several bags of free pretzels from the giant baskets sitting around the room, and tried the blueberry-flavored samples they passed around. For a flavored beer, not terrible. Not really my thing, but sort of interesting. Next, we were taken to the bottling area, which was silent due to the recession (apparently they’re only producing cans at this point) and learned about the frightening speed at which their products are packaged. Whew. We then went into the room with the tanks (which is very very cold, and sort of creepy- many  stories worth of giant tanks, each of which apparently holds 1 million dollars worth of beer. Eek.) Learned a little about how they use beechwood chips to increase surface area for the yeast, resisted the urge to keep the pieces of beechwood they have as free souvenirs. I don’t need a chunk of wood. Honest. Then we headed back to the bar for our second sample. Because In-Bev recently purchased Anheuser-Busch, I was able to get a Stella Artois. Yum. By the time we left, I was officially tipsy at 10 am. Yes, I am that classy.

From there, we drove for another hour or so to downtown Napa, where we had a delicious lunch of arepas and organic ice cream at the Oxbow Public market. Feeling a little less woozy, we hit the vineyards. The first was a large, newish winery. We had a 2 for 1 coupon, and thus tried 8 different samples. They were only so-so, and I don’t really want to bash them (or promote them, for that matter) so I’ll leave them anonymous. Suffice it to say, the large winery was crowded and not particularly delicious, so we left a little disappointed.

But oh, things got so much better. Next, we went to Hagafen Cellars, a tiny winery for which we had 2 coupons for 2 free tastings each. Hagafen, just in case you’ve never heard of it (which is probably the case, to be honest) has only recently opened its tasting room. When you walk into the little hut that holds the tastings, you’re immediately struck by the bottles that line the walls. A surprising number seem to have won awards. Given that we had never heard of Hagafen, we were a little skeptical. We were immediately approached by one of the two workers, a perky, curly-haired woman named Tia. She was thrilled when we presented our coupons (unlike the previous winery) and immediately brought us the tasting list, as well as our first sample. We were able to choose 5 wines each. When she heard that my friend from New York had never been on a winery tour, she took us on an impromptu private tour of their cellars and equipment, giving us a quick rundown on their unique crushing and fermentation processes. She brought us samples of reserve wines that weren’t supposed to be part of the tasting menu, and was incredibly helpful in all ways. As we sat enjoying our final few tastings, we happened to read some of the plaques on the wall, and discovered that 1) Hagafen is a Kosher Winery and 2) it’s the wine served at the white house when the prime minister of Israel comes to visit. Now, as a Jew (by birth and a capella group, at very least) I’ve had my share of Kosher wine. Generally, it’s something like Manischewitz– sickly sweet and oppressive. The sort of wine that tastes more like syrup than wine because it’s made from Concord Grapes (for the record, there’s a whole interesting history behind why most kosher wine is in this category, but I won’t get into it now.) This wine, though– this wine held its own against the best of the general, non-kosher wines I’ve tried. It was delicious. I’m still dreaming of their Syrah and Riesling. Just saying. If you get the chance, buy from Hagafen. Go visit. They are GREAT. Great.

After that, we were… skeptical that anything else to compare. The small, artisan kosher winery experience was so superior to the large winery that we thought nothing could be better. The last stop was Jessup, located in Yountville, and we hadn’t heard of it, so we headed off with a little trepidation. It only deepened when we realized that we were headed to a tasting room in the tiny downtown, not a winery. 

This place was swank. Nice decor, many well-dressed, middle-aged wine tourists, giggling into their elegant stemware. Uh-oh. We presented our coupons (another 2 coupons for 2 free tastings, thank you web research skills) and received the very long menu. When we tried to ask for a specific sample, our server gently informed us that it was a predetermined selection. Our trepidation increased further.

Well, as it happened, that “predetermined selection” was EVERYTHING ON THE MENU. 10 tastes. Generous tastes. There were some delicious reds, and port! I love port. I love Jessup. Very very interesting tasting notes, unique combinations of flavor, very knowledgeable servers. All in all, a lovely experience. If you contact them in advance, you can get food pairings. Joyous.

At that point, everyone but the driver was so tipsy that our pallets were basically shot, and we headed home. But summary: if you go to napa to do wine tasting, 1) bring coupons and 2) go to small wineries for personal attention. Go to Hagafen and Jessup, if you can. They deserve all the attention they can get.

*If you’re interested in specifically where I found all my coupons, just ask in the comments section. Happy to share.

Wine-y Wednesday

Posted in adventures by Zoelle on August 20, 2008

Welcome to the perennial first-row gawker, Niagara edition. Later on, I’ll post my thoughts about weddings and detroit and the like. Right now, I only have enough concentration to discuss today.

Some background information: 1. I don’t know much about wine.

2. I’m a terrible Tourist. Really. All the crap they make for tourists? I hate it. I had to be dragged to niagara falls. Literally.

3. As a result, yesterday (the tourist day) was not-so-fun.

4. I’m sort of obsessed with nature.

With that in mind, here’s why today was awesome:

We (my illustrious mother and I) started with a breakfast in our hotel, the Old Stone Inn. This place is growing on me. The free breakfast is better now that the waiter knows we tip, so it wasn’t ice cold, and the potatoes were delicious, rather than blackened and disgusting. This was a pleasant and welcome surprise. The staff has been uniformly helpful, if not particularly knowledgeable about anything I care about. No matter, they aren’t afraid of telephones, which makes them better people than me.

On the way to Niagara-by-the-Lake, we stopped at Niagara Glen. This was a very good idea. As previously mentioned, I really like nature. Prior to this vacation, I had been going (somewhat grudgingly, but with general willingness and eventual pleasure) on hikes every morning. I always forget how much nature refuels me until I’m there and suddenly I remember what it feels like to be a human being who doesn’t despise the majority of the world. Niagara Glen is beautiful. You go through a thickly wooded area, you can see rapids, there are butterflies everywhere, it’s amazing. You should go.

Then came the highlight of the day: Wine Tasting! The Niagara wine route doesn’t get much press because it’s sort of up-and-coming, but it was covered in a recent Wine Spectator, so I thought we’d check out a few of the wineries listed there, and then some of those I’d heard recommended around town. My review, per winery (in order of visit), follows:

Reif: At Reif we sampled a Chardonnay, a Laguz, a Sowhilo, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot reserve. I’m not a huge fan of whites, but even with this many samples, the only wine I was really interested in at all was the Sowhilo, which I found peppery and at least vaguely interesting. Overall impression was Eh, though maybe that’s because it was 11:30 am. On the other hand, the first taste per person was free. Which is sweet.

Stratus: So at this point, I decided it might be a good idea to pull out my Wine Spectator article and see what was actually recommended, rather than trying to run off of my memory. This was a good idea, since this led me to Stratus, which was good, because by far and away Stratus was my favorite winery of the day. No contest. We chose the 3 wine flight for $10 (though the lady who assisted us, discovering that we had never tried ice wine, actually ended up giving us 4. We tried the 2005 Stratus Red, the 2006 Geurztraminer, the 2007 Reisling Icewine, and the 2007 Icewine Red. It’s been something like 6 hours since we went, and my mother still won’t shut up about that Stratus Red. It’s  a blend of seven varietals, which sounds like an ungodly number, but it’s worth every one, apparently. My favorite was the Gewurztraminer. Yum. The icewines were also excellent. If this wine had wider distribution, I’d swallow the ridiculous prices and buy it all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not really all that available in the US. We’ll see what I can do with the powers of the internet.

Jackson Briggs: We went here for the tour. It was informative, the building is really cool looking, and I liked the staff. I have nothing to say about the wines. I didn’t like either white (I think one was a Chardonnay and one was something else) at all, and the red was sort of flat and unexciting. Whatever, I got my tour, and it was cool. Points for architecture.

Lailey: This one was pretty small, but the people over at Stratus sent us, so we thought we’d give it a try. We had a Cab, a Merlot, and a Pinot. Nothing bad, nothing special. Eh.

Inniskillin: We only stayed here for a few minutes, because it was pretty crowded and I wanted to get back (I was a little worried about my mother’s ability to drive.) We sampled their super crazy italian gold medal winning reisling ice wine, and it was delicious and wonderfully sweet as expected. They’re known as the icewine people for a reason. Yum.

So yes. I’m now a happy girl, and we’re looking forward to Nature and Wine part deux tomorrow, where we head to Vineland for a few more Wine Spectator and hotel-bartender approved tastings 🙂

Oh, vacation, how I love you.