Sunday, March 29, 2015

Elite Eight--Northern California Wineries

There is currently an epidemic in this country.  Recently, I have witnessed some behavior that has me gravely concerned about many of those around me.  It started a few weeks ago with strange symptoms of people spending copious amounts of time of ESPN or other sports outlets researching something very troubling…something called a bracket.  Most inflicted with this strange syndrome didn’t fill out a bracket (singular), but many fill out multiple brackets (plural), taking this strange behavior to a whole new level.  For some, this behavior is so extreme it could only be called “madness,” pure and simple.   

Then there are those like me, who get another kind of illness in March—spring fever!  This disease doesn’t show itself in the research of basketball teams and hours of sports watching (although I have watched my fair share of NCAA basketball games lately), my spring fever manifests itself in crazy thoughts of warmth, summer, and vacation.  As others are choosing their teams to reach the Elite Eight, I am doing my own study too, filling in my own bracket (in a way) of the eight wineries I would make a priority to visit in northern California wine country.

Similar to when people fill out their brackets for the NCAA tourney, I have a list of qualifications I used to choose my elite wineries:  1) I could not have been to the winery before; 2) I could not have even tasted the wine before; and 3) I had to have respected the wine on some level for a period of time.  However, even with this criteria, my special wineries cover a gamut of styles of wine, sizes of production, and popularity of products.  Any grape and any location in northern California could be contenders.  Each has a specific reason for being chosen, and each makes me thirsty just thinking of the amazing wine options available.  Here they are, in no particular order, the eight elite wineries I can’t wait to visit!

One—Ridge Vineyards:  Known for its signature vineyard Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, I remember the first time I heard of Ridge’s Monte Bello red blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc).  I read an online review that made the bottle sound like heaven.  Over the years, I learned this one review was the norm, and Monte Bello has been on my bucket list to drink ever since.  Produced by revered wine maker Paul Draper, Ridge has two locations for visitors, and truthfully, I want to visit both (but I’m only counting this is one of my eight).  Of course, the original Monte Bello location would be like Mecca for a wineaux like me.  At the same time, the Lytton Springs location outside of Healdsburg in northern Sonoma (purchased in 1991) looks like a worthy stop as well.  Read about both locations on the Ridge website here.
Ridge Vineyards
Two—Corison Winery:  Corison is Napa royalty.  With a female winemaker at the helm (which I love), Cathy Corison and her husband primarily make Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Francs.  However, they also produce a white from Gewurztraminer and a rose (among others).  Cathy is known for using sustainable growing and production practices in her quest to make wines that are complex and powerful, while at the same time have some elegance.  On my list to drink and see the facility, Corison is definitely worth an elite eight position.  Read more about Cathy and her wines here.

Corison Winery
Three—Littorai Wines:  Small, family owned Littorai is the baby of Ted and Heidi Lemon.  Ted learned the winemaking business in the Burgundy region of France.  Heidi spent some time in Germany for another job.  Together, they returned home and searched northern California for the perfect spot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; they found it in Sonoma and have a tasting room outside of Sebastopol.  They believe in a hands-off, more natural style of winemaking focusing on making the best wine after good vineyard practices.  Specializing in my favorite wine, Pinot Noir, Ted and Heidi source from the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley.  They also produce quality Chardonnays, in addition to a unique Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer blend.  Read about Littoria Wines here.
Littorai Wines
           Four—Copain Wines:  Also a Sonoma winery, the location is outside of Healdsburg (one of my favorite Sonoma towns).  Wells Guthrie is the winemaker here.  He traveled to the Rhone Valley of France to receive some of his training in winemaking.  Here, he learned to respect the French winemaking techniques.  These methods show up in his wines from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah (including a rose).  Guthrie’s ultimate goal of the wines (from grapes sourced from the Anderson Valley) is to reflect the terroir, to be a representation of the place where grown.  Tastings are given my appointment only, so to visit this winning winery, some advanced planning is required.  See how to get an appointment here.

Copain Wines
  Five—Red Cap Vineyards:  Located on Howell Mountain in Napa, Tom and Desiree Altemus started this winery after years in other careers.  Winemaker Rudy Zuidema is the winemaker, joining the Altemuses after his time in Australia.  The vines were planted on Howell Mountain in 2000, and Red Cap focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The production is incredibly small, only 250 cases a year.  There is no public tasting available, so this is definitely a truly elite group of wines to experience.  Look for special events and tastings in other locations, posted on their website here.

Red Cap Vineyards
Six—Dutton-Goldfield Winery:  Located in Sonoma, this is a team effort from fifth generation Californian Steve Dutton (wine grower) and Dan Goldfield (winemaker).  This producer made my elite list because of the focus on Pinot Noir wines, especially from one of my favorite areas, the Russian River Valley.  They also make wines from Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Gewurztraminer.  The tasting room is outside of Sebastopol and is open daily for tastings.  Find the hours here.

Dutton-Goldfield Winery
Seven—Venge Vineyards:  Kirk Venge, Napa born and raised and fourth generation Californian farmer, makes wines much like his ancestors, yet with his own stamp of originality.  Kirk has a true focus on sustainability; he uses dry farming, cover crops, and no herbicides.  Making wines in Napa primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, he also produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot.  By appointment only, the tasting experience here is more about education and enjoyment in a quiet, formal environment.  Learn more about Venge Vineyards here.

Venge Vineyards
Eight—Hirsch Vineyards:  In 1980, David Hirsch sought a growing area to farm grapes that would produce wines showing the specific site where the fruit was grown.  For decades, he sourced grapes to some of the most prestigious winemakers in northern California, including Williams Selyem (one of my bucket-list wineries I was able to visit last year).  Now he grows grapes that make amazing Pinot Noirs (so I have heard because, again, none of these wines have been in my glass…yet) with the Hirsch label under the direction of a team that includes winemakers, a vineyard manager, a gardener, and sales marketers.  I have followed his sales manager and daughter Jasmine on Facebook and Instagram for quite some time.  I can freely admit to the madness I feel about the pictures she posts of Hirsch wines!  Tastings are given by appointment only and require a trek far, far north into Sonoma, almost three hours north of San Francisco.  However, the travel is worth seeing the unique and remote vineyard where one can catch glimpses of the ocean at times.  Here is how to visit Hirsch Vineyards.

Hirsch Vineyards
Honorable mention—Patz & Hall:  I had to add a ninth winery to my list, Patz & Hall.  The reason it didn’t make the actual list of eight is only because I have had the pleasure of drinking Patz & Hall wines before, so having it on my dream team of wines that I can’t wait to taste would have been breaking my own rules.  However, this winery deserves a nod for several reasons.  First, it focuses on my favorite variety, Pinot Noir, making wines from grapes sourced from two of my beloved AVAs:  Russian River Valley and Carneros.  Patz & Hall also produces Chardonnays, focusing on single vineyards and smaller lots.  The team of James Hall, who makes the wine, and Donald Patz, who sells the wine, is joined by Anne Moses and Heather Patz.  They recently opened the Sonoma House outside of the town of Sonoma.  I am dying to visit this beautiful facility after following its construction via social media. 

Patz & Hall Sonoma House
Luckily, I was able to bypass the current epidemic of madness everyone around me seems to have contracted.  On the other hand, I caught my own—March wine madness.  Much thought and reasoning is used when those infected with this madness go to fill out their brackets; these are tough choices to make.  I put even more thought and reasoning into the selected eight producers here, all based on my personal tastes and interests.  I could have easily made a list of the sixteen sweetest wineries I want to visit.  Even easier to do would have been to bump up to thirty-two places, and sixty-four would have also been a cinch. 

These eight represent an incredibly short list of a very, very, very long line of wonderful wineries to visit in northern California.  The madness of trying to limit to just eight actually hurt me; it created a whole other list of symptoms, some similar to basketball fanatics' issues this month:  shaking, nervous twitches, and thirst.  Those of you following the NCAA tournament only have a few more games until your madness is cured; I still have months until summer comes to cure mine.  Bring on the prescription for travel and let these eight elite wine producers cure my madness—cheers!