Tips on Planning Your First Trip to Napa and Sonoma

Oh heeeey, summertime! I bet you were just as excited as I was when the season officially arrived. I love summer. It’s my favourite out of the four seasons. It is THE season for us winos, isn’t it? You don’t even need an excuse to drink. Hey, the sun’s out and it’s warm. Let’s have drinks on the patio!

Before summer came along, I visited the Okanagan and then Napa and Sonoma two weekends after. I loved both trips. I was completely in my element, tasting wines all day and thoroughly enjoying discussions with those who shared the passion and the history behind the winery and the regions.

Napa and Sonoma Valleys are neighbouring AVAs and although they’re right beside each other, their microclimates produce different wines. Indeed, you’ll find big bold Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa, while in Sonoma the Cabs there are softer.

I have three tips and insight you may want to consider if you plan on visiting.

Don’t try to see it all

There was a lot I could’ve done if I had more time, but I was only at each region for one day. It can be overwhelming. There’s lots to cover both geographically and  in wineries if you want to do it all (or a lot).

Sonoma-county-map

Map of Sonoma County & AVAs

Based on my travel experience (and I’ve done my fair share; it’s another passion of mine), the best thing to do is to pick a small area, slow down and enjoy.

Sonoma wineries and tasting rooms.

Impossible to go to all these tasting rooms, even if you are there for a few days.

Don’t confuse the county with the AVA

The WSET book doesn’t explain this very well, so I’ll make it clear here. County is the political and administrative division within a state. There’s Napa county ad there’s Sonoma county. But there’s also Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley AVA which lie within the respective counties along with other AVAs.

Napa is nice, but so is Sonoma for a fraction of the price.

You have to visit Napa though, especially if you love high quality Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is king there. But because everyone knows about Napa, everyone goes there. It’s simply supply and demand.

Robert Mondavi

At the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley. California’s wine was put on the map by this man.

Napa was more chic whereas I’d call Sonoma rustic. Way back in the day, tasting rooms in Napa used to be free, then they charged a small fee. Now, expect to pay at least $20 per person. There are also two tiered tastings offered. In Sonoma, tastings were $5-$10 per person and some were even free.

Are you headed to Napa and/or Sonoma? If you have any questions, please leave me a comment.

It’s the Willamette, damn it!

Will-Lam-It. Say it so it rhymes with “damn it” and that’s how Willamette is pronounced.

Heading into Duck Pond tasting room.

Heading into Duck Pond tasting room.

Our time in the Willamette Valley was way too short. Having heard of this area, but not really knowing much about it even after taking WSET 3 (this delicious area was only covered in one paragraph in the book), I wanted to learn more. And only being a 5 hour drive away from Vancouver (without the border wait), I knew I had to make the trip down.

As I mentioned in my last post, I wasn’t at all disappointed. We weren’t certain how many tasting rooms would be opened. Certainly though, we thought, it wouldn’t be so busy. Fortunately, most tasting rooms were open and I guess people can’t stay away because we encountered lots of ’em!

Since we allocated only one day to wine tasting, we decided to focus on Dundee because there was a good concentration of wineries and tasting rooms without having to drive too far from one to the next.

There are six sub-appellations in the Willamette and the others are: Chehalem Mountains, McMinnville, Eola-Amity, Yamhhill-Carlton, and Ribbon Ridge. The entire Willamette AVA has 15,180 acres of vineyards planted, 610 vineyards and 316 wineries.

Four Graces winery in the Willamette

Four Graces, one of my favourites, is named after the four daughters of the winery owners.

We visited Rex Hill, Duck Pond, Dobbes, Four Graces, and Argyle. My least favourite was Duck Pond — the wines were just okay, nothing to write home about. It was the second busiest of all the tasting rooms we went to as well (Argyle was busiest). This may be because Duck Pond is one of the largest producers in Oregon, third to be exact.

My favourites are Rex Hill, Dobbes and Four Graces. I really enjoyed the sparkling Pinot at Argyle and so did the bf. There may have been Chardonnay in it, I can’t remember. I recall feeling cramped in there more and wanted to get out asap.

I suppose I should take notes next time on my favourite wines; it would be good practice for me. Have you been to the Willamette Valley? Which wineries did you visit? And because I plan on returning, I’d love to know where you stayed. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

Happy New Year!

Oh, hi! Happy new year! Yup, I’m still here. Thanks for checking in 🙂 I hope you had a grand holiday season and had some tasty wines. You know I did.

If how you spend your new year’s eve is an indication of what the following year will be like, 2014 is going to be absolutely fabulous for me. I spent the days leading up to the new year in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Woodinville in Washington.

Anxious to taste Willamette Pinot Noirs, we booked a two night hotel in Portland arriving the evening before and sampled the Valley’s wines for a day. In short, we weren’t disappointed.

Willamette Pinot Noir Glasses

Riedel makes specific glasses  for Willamette Pinot Noir.

While talking to a the personable and knowledgeable guys at Dobbes tasting room in Dundee, we discovered we weren’t saying Willamette the way they do. Theatrically, they exclaimed, “It’s the Willamette, damn it!”

Dobbes Family Estates

Make sure to visit Dobbes when you’re in the Willamette Valley.

Although Portland is a pretty city and only about a 40 minute drive north of Dundee, my next visit will have me staying in the actual wine region. It’s easier to discover so much more of the region that way!

When we visited Woodinville, we stayed at the Hyatt House in Redmond, WA, just a short 15 minute drive away. To give you an idea where that is, Woodinville is about half an hour north of Seattle. Known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, we spent two full days walking from tasting room to tasting room. I love the concept of a bunch of tasting rooms in a concentrated area.

Columbia winery

Outside the Columbia tasting room in Woodinville. Next to it are other tasting rooms.

The vineyards aren’t in Woodinville. There are wineries and there’s a good concentration of just tasting rooms in the centre of town. What a great concept having tasting rooms to expose the region’s wines to a greater population (in this case Seattle). Would love to see something like this in the Vancouver area!

This year, I want to visit more wine regions, combining my passion for travel and wine. And I want to keep with this blog going. Are you guys enjoying my posts? What else would you like to read or learn about?

Make sure you come back next Wednesday as I dive further into my travels in the Willamette and Woodinville.

What’s your everyday drinking wine?

My taste in wine is getting more expensive. My everyday drinking wine used to cost around $10, then it went to $15 and gradually $17. It’s been hovering around $20 the last couple weeks. The bf has convinced my frugal side that we should not be spending $100+ during the week on wine (1 bottle per night). That’s $400 per month and that’s not even including the weekend.

Currently, we don’t actually enjoy a bottle a day between the two of us on a regular basis, but we’d like to, and we have in the past. I suppose I must wait until my Baller status kicks in to justify this sort of spending on fermented grape juice.

So what is it these days that’s costing us $20+ each time? The last bottle we really liked was a Meritage from the Okanagan (pictured below).

Meritage VQA Canadian wine

$24.99 at the BC Liquor Store.

This craving for Bordeaux style wines all started when the bf brought home the Bordeaux release flyer from the BC Liquor Store which had wines for hundreds of dollars into the thousands. Remembering that he enjoyed the red Bordeaux style wines we tried in Walla Walla, he asked if there are cheaper Bordeaux than the ones in the flyer. Not from Bordeaux, I said. Then, pointed out that we can try Meritage, which is the American name indicating that the wine is made of any combination of the varietals that you’d find in Bordeaux wines. For reds, they are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere. The one shown above is made with 50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.

By the way, if you’re saying Meritage with a French accent, stop it. The word actually rhymes with “heritage” and that’s how it’s correctly pronounced 🙂

What’s your everyday drinking wine? Let me know, especially if it’s under $15!

Don’t be tricked by the wine label

The bf and I felt like enjoying a big red this past weekend as we were settling in to a quiet Friday night at home. So we pulled this bottle from our always dwindling, yet constantly restocked wine rack…

Calfornia Cabernet Sauvignon… a Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Sonoma Valley. Upon sniffing, I detected the typical Cab Sav notes: green pepper, black cherry and with further sniffing I smelled vanilla. Then I taste it.

Huh?

It was dry. I definitely tasted the black cherry, along with ripe black fruit, but what I was craving, which were the strong tannins, the full body, and hopefully the long finish (typically what you would get with a good Cab Sauv)… nada. Instead the body felt more like med to high and the tannins medium. The finish was medium, too.

How can this be? I looked at the label closely. Oh shit, it says vintner’s blend, which means other grapes have been used to make this wine. I suspect Merlot grapes and maybe even Zinfandel was thrown in the mix. Merlot is often blended with Cab Sauvs to soften the wine, which explains the medium tannins and body. And really thinking about it, the vanilla and slight hint of jammyness could’ve come from Zinfandel. Who knows though, unless you ask Ravens Wood.

If other grapes are used, why aren’t they on the label? Well, it’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and they did mention it’s the vintner’s blend. The highlighting of the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal is a marketing tactic. People buy what they recognize.

In the US, in order to have a grape varietal appear on the label, at least 75% of the wine in the bottle was made with it. The other 25% can be any varietal and indicating them is not required.

Oregon, though, dictates a higher percentage be used in order for it to be labelled a Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc wine. 90% is the magic number. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is an exception at a minimum of 75%. I have no idea why that’s the case.

Now, if you think you are finally getting the hang of it and starting to be able to distinguish the characteristics of certain varietals and come across a new world wine that isn’t what you expected, this could be why.

Ravens Wood retails for $17.99 at the BC Liquor Store. If you’re reading this from the US, go ahead gasp and laugh! Prices are ridiculous here in Canada, particularly in British Columbia.

Have you been tricked by a wine label? 

8 Things I Learned About Wine from Walla Walla

Walla Walla was fan-freaking-tastic! It took us a long time to get there (Google Maps said 7 hours, but with a slight detour to Seattle to eat at our favourite pizza place and being stuck on interstate 90 for at least an hour because apparently everyone on the west coast of Washington heads east on long weekends, it was a 10+ hour journey. It was one with beautiful scenery though and that made the long drive much more bearable.

Seattle to Walla Walla

The changing scenery from Seattle on our way to Walla Walla.

I really liked that there were numerous tasting rooms downtown, where you’d likely stay so you don’t have to go far or drive at least for a good portion of the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to check out the ones downtown, occupying ourselves instead in the east side, south side and a little bit in the west side over the two full days we had there. I loved that you can just pick an area and not have to drive too far, if at all (the east side is the most condensed). To get from one area to the next is not too far either.

Walla Walla wineries are interesting and the wines oh-so-tasty. Here are eight things I learned about the region.

1. Walla Walla was put on the wine world map by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington state’s oldest winery.

2. Most wineries source their wines from vineyards in the larger surrounding area. Having really only experienced two regions — the Okanagan a few years ago and Niagara-on-the-Lake (NotL) earlier this summer — I was surprised that the majority of wineries we visited don’t have have their own vineyard.

Walla Walla Washington

Vines are here for show at Tamarack Cellars. Actually, they could be used since they’re Merlot grapes, we were told.

I’m going to take a moment to explain the difference between winery and vineyard as they may be used interchangeably by those who don’t know. A winery is where the grapes are fermented into wine (the actual facility) and a vineyard is where the grapes are grown. Mission Hill in the Okanagan, for example, grow their own grapes and make their wine from those grapes. They have complete control over their wine from start (grapes) to finish (wine). And to introduce a new term, Mission Hill therefore is an estate.

I’m used to visiting estates, where we get a tour of the vineyard followed by the winery and finally, sampling some of the wines. It’s a great way to see the difference in how a small winery (about 2000 cases or less if I remember correctly from what I learned in NotL) operates versus a medium (about 9000 cases) versus a large.

3. The Syrahs in Walla Walla are not just good, they’re amazing! We bought a 2005 Syrah from Morrison Lane. Every Syrah we tasted was a kickass one.

4. They also make fantastic Bordeaux style reds which is a blend of some and only the grapes grown in the Bordeaux region of France: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Merlot and Carmenere.

5. People in the trade are passionate! You’re not going to come across a summer student just there to earn a few bucks (like the sort of experience at the Jackson Triggs tasting room in NotL. The girl serving us couldn’t tell us anything about the wines except what was already written on the labels. We quickly left). In Walla Walla, everyone we spoke with knew their shit.

This lovely young lady at Dunham Cellars could spit out facts about the winery and Walla Walla like she owns it.

This lovely young lady at Dunham Cellars could spit out facts about the winery and Walla Walla like she owns it.

6. The Walla Walla Valley extends into Oregon. A winery could be located in Washington and grapes grown in Oregon. As long as the vineyard is located in the Walla Walla Valley which is an American Viticulture Area (AVA), then the bottle can be labelled as Walla Walla Valley.

Walla Walla Valley Wine Region

Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

7. College Cellars has a two year wine program where students make the wine they put out in the market. After learning the basics the first year, in the second year, students get to decide how they want to make their wine. So tasty what students produce that one of their wines won Best Carménère at the 2012 San Francisco International Wine Competition. 

College Cellars

The knowledgeable woman showcasing the winning wine students made.

Most students at College Cellars have already had a career, being in their mid to late 30s; they enroll in the program after deciding to pursue their interest or passion. The College’s graduate career placement rate is 80%.

8. The average winery in Walla Walla makes about 2500 cases a year. Of the wineries we visited, the smallest, Kontos, produces about 900 cases a year while the largest, Tamarack, does about 25,000 cases a year. 

Two full days almost wasn’t enough time to explore Walla Walla’s wonderful wine. I definitely would not have minded another day or two.

Have you been to the Walla Walla region? Tell me what you learned if you have. If you haven’t, is this somewhere you would want to go?

Combining Two Passions: Travel and Wine

I’m a traveller and I like to drink wine. Yet, I haven’t visited as many wine regions as I’d like. When I was younger while travelling western Europe, I didn’t have the same level of appreciation for the wine making process or the curiosity as I do now. So this year, I decided that since I’m staying close to home (travelling within North America), I’d try to visit as many wine regions in Canada and the US as possible and combine my two passions, travel and wine.

In June, we explored Niagara-on-the-Lake, wine country in southern Ontario about a 90-minute drive from Toronto and 30 minutes from Buffalo. The region has been producing great whites for years and is particularly known for ice wine. I believe it’s gaining a decent reputation with its reds as well.

Ice wine fact: Grapes must be picked at “a sustained temperature of -8 C° or less” in order for it be called ice wine in Canada.

The city Niagara-on-the-Lake (NotL) is a well-preserved historic town and even if you live nearby, like I did while growing up in Hamilton, you should take at least a weekend trip there and step back into the 19th century.

Niagara on the Lake

This perfectly preserved town is almost too perfect to be an actual town.

A bed and breakfast in Niagara on the Lake

A 19th century home converted into a business.

NotL is surrounded by vineyards and a wine tour here is super easy as vineyards are literally side-by-side.  We loved visiting the small wineries, and one of them, Riverview Cellars told us that the small wineries in the area help each other out by referring visitors to each others’ tours.

Riverview in Niagara on the Lake

Riverview Cellars winery. A family-run vineyard and winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo from wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com.

It’s a tight-knit community and every September, there’s a big festival. I liked the quaintness of the area and the camaraderie among the smaller wineries.

But I won’t be returning to NotL for the festival in September. Instead, you can catch me in Walla Walla for four days. Walla Walla, what? By now you know I didn’t make a typo. I have this strange urge to get up and dance while saying Walla Walla repeatedly. Walla Walla, what? Walla Walla. 

Located in southeast Washington, Walla Walla is known for not only wine, but onions, too! Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about it (I edited parts out for conciseness):

Walla Walla is the largest city in and the county seat of Walla Walla County, Washington, United States. The population was 31,731 at the 2010 census. Walla Walla is in the southeastern region of Washington, approximately four hours by car from Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, and thirteen miles from the Oregon border.

Walla Walla is famous for its sweet onions. Many wineries are located in the area.

In July 2011, USA Today selected Walla Walla as the friendliest small town in the United States.

The region makes very tasty Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Syrahs, apparently. Based on what I’ve read, people not too long ago were saying that it’s the next Napa. The rolling hills are reminiscent of the California region and I think it has experienced rapid growth like Napa did in the 70s and 80s. I’ve gleaned from other articles, though, that they don’t care to be like their California cousins. Good for them! Walla Walla today has over 180 wineries and plenty of tasting rooms, even in the city. Needless to say, I’m excited!

A trip to Napa Valley seems to be the next obvious place to go, but to tell you the truth, I’m more interested in Sonoma and Russian River. I will eventually make my way to all three. Another obvious is the Okanagon. I spent a summer weekend in 2009, but it’s time to go back, you know, with my newly acquired WSET level 2 knowledge and all!

Which wine regions in Canada and the US have you visited and where do you think I should head to next?