Friday, September 14, 2007

Wine Country Trip - Winery Reviews

We're back from the wine country trip. Here are some reviews of the wineries we visited.

Hess Collection - Wine 7 / Experience 9
We ventured over to Hess Collection for our first winery experience. It's a beautiful location with a art gallery and access to the oak barrel room. The art gallery was definitely the most interesting of all the wineries we visited, but the wine was just average. It is also quite out of the way - more than you think from looking at the map. The experience was very good to start out our trip.

Diamond Oaks - Wine 8 / Experience 9
After a LONG drive up the side of a mountain and thinking we were going to fall off the edge of this ridiculously small winding road, we realized we were heading the wrong way and made our way back down the mountain and found this place. It has a nice overlook and a great picnic area (although you must buy a bottle to use it). We enjoyed the conversation with the knowledgeable people and the wine was good.

Goosecross Cellars - Wine 9 / Experience 10
This was one of the wineries recommended by multiple friends. It's a small winery seemingly in the middle of a field. You literally drive between two rows of grape vines about a foot wider than the road to get there. Inside, the staff was by far the nicest, knowledgeable, and outgoing we had met for the entire trip. We felt like we could have stayed forever (and probably did wear out our welcome). This was the first place we bought a bottle of wine to take with us and was one of the best experiences of the trip.

Hall Vineyards - Wine 7 / Experience 7
Heading up the highway for more wineries, we skipped some of the more popular wineries such as Robert Mondavi (probably shouldn't have though) and went to Hall. It was definitely a change compared to Goosecross, as if felt a little more "coporate" and "business-like". There was cool blown glass artwork hanging from the ceiling and a nice outdoor sitting area where the breeze was nice. There was construction going on and I hear the new place is going to be spectacular. The wine was just average to us, though.

Merryvale Winery - Wine 10 / Experience 10
Perhaps this rating has a little bias, because going into this trip Merryvale was one of our favorites. However, knowing we had high expectations going in, the visit did not disappoint so it has to be a 10 out of 10. The wines were all spectacular, and even though we did the less expensive tasting the staff offered us some more private reserved wines only available at the winery. The oak barrel dining room is a sight to see and we have several great photographs and the staff offered to take pictures of us. They were very knowledgeable and friendly and this was one of the only 10 / 10 experiences of the trip. We purchased a bottle here, and should have bought another.

V. Sattui Estate Winery - Wine 10 / Experience 9
Next door to Merryvale is this winery which is well known in the area. They do not distribute their wines and they are only available via direct order or locally. They are also one of the only wineries that is allowed to serve food (although we did not have any food). The wines here ranged to our likings, some of them we dumped out but others such as the Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet was spectacular. We bought two bottles at this place since we could not get it at home. The staff was very helpful and generous, and you can see why they are the winery of the year with their generosity, free tastings with the available coupons, and food to boot!

Beringer Estate - Wine 9 / Experience 10 (tour)
One of the best known wineries in the area is Beringer. It is on a beautiful grounds in St. Helena. We had talked about doing some tours and were told this was one of the best. When we entered the separate "ticket area", I was quite taken aback by the pricing of one of the tours I believe it was $35 a person. We did it anyway, and the tour guide (Tim) was very knowledgeable. It started with a walk along the grounds then we stopped to drink some Chardonnay, then continued into a vineyard and ate grapes right from the vine. The highlight of the trip came next, which is when we were escorted to the caves into a private dining room inside a cave. Here we sampled some of the best wines Beringer had to offer by candlelight inside a cave. Tim then offered to let us drink from an oak barrel, and it was quite educational to note the differences of an aged wine from a bottle vs. a barrel. We learned a lot now that I think about it for example did you know white zinfandel was created by huge mistake when the skins were removed too soon? They discounted the wine to sell it all and it caught on like wildfire, and is now the most popular wine according to some. The experience was great (although pricey) and the wine was great as well -- but only because we had the ultra-good stuff. I imagine their everyday wines do not compare to the wine they serve on this tour.

St. Clement Vineyards - Wine 8 / Experience 6
We stopped at this winery right next to Sutter Home. You had to walk up a steep hill to get there, which should normally be easy but after a day of drinking wine it was quite challenging. The wine was good, better than average, but just a so-so experience as there wasn't anything uniquely special, other than the nice view from the front porch.

Trinchero Estate Winery - Wine 6 / Experience 6
Across the street is Trinchero, which was heavily under construction. The wines were average, perhaps a little below average, but the staff was helpful in answering questions. Apparently Trinchiro owns Sutter Home and a number of other wineries as well. I imagine this place will be much better when construction is complete.

Freemark Abbey - Wine 10 / Experience 9
This was one of the best wineries we visted. The staff was very helpful, and the wine was outstanding. The merlot was the best merlot I had ever tasted and it wasn't even close. At $22 a bottle I picked up one, should have bought a case of it (it was that good). Highly recommend this place and the lounge is comfortable which provided nice couch and chair seating (very rare in these wineries) to sit down and enjoy your glass!

V. Sattui (again) - Wine 10 / Experience 8
We ventured back to this place a second time for two reasons: 1. It was 5:30 and the only winery still open in the area was this place (probably another reason they are "winery of the year" since everyone goes here for last call), and 2. That Morisoli Vineyard cab was so excellent earlier in the day I just had to go back to verify it. Yep, it was just as good the second time. Picked up our 3rd bottle this one was $55 bucks. Ouch.

Sterling Vineyards - Wine 7 / Experience 8 (tour)
This is another one of the wineries best known for their tour. It starts with a cable car ride up a mountain to the top of the winery. From there a self-guided tour takes you around the property as wine is available at certain locations. The view from the terrace is one of the best. The experience and tour was one of the best, the wine was just average. The lines were super-long as this is the big "tourist trap" of the area. They do have a nice sit down area after your self guided tour, and actually have people serve you the wine at your table which is different than every other winery we visted. However, the service wasn't that great -- so maybe that's why nobody does it. I'd say it's worth going once but we wouldn't go back.

Twomey Cellars - Wine 7 / Experience 8
We stopped in here mostly because it was right next to Sterling, but also because Stonegate used to be here which was one of my favorite wineries of the past. Google Maps still has this address for Stonegate, but it's Twomey Cellars now. I'm not sure what happened to Stonegate as it looks like they only sell over their website now, and they don't ship to Michigan even though other wineries do (gee thanks Stonegate). Someone told me they've changed owners several times over the years and when we asked the staff at Twomey they seemed quick to want to change the subject. Anyway, back to Twomey... they seem to advertise themselves as "upper class" merlots and reds but not Cabs. Honestly I did not think it was that great, I'd probably give it a 6 if they didn't give us free wine glasses. It was decent wine, but for the prices they charge per bottle (around $50 and up) it was significantly overpriced.

Graeser - Wine 9 / Experience 10
Imagine this... you are driving along a road called "petrified forest road", and you see a sign for a winery. You follow the sign and drive up a single lane winding road amoung tall Redwoods up a mountain. At the top is a beautiful old country farmhouse with vineyards that go right up the side of the mountain. This is Graeser winery and the experience only became better when we stepped inside. We could tell it was different when we were greeted by two huge (but very friendly dogs), then the parakeets and other animals inside the tasting room made it unique. We were surprised by their wine as well, which for the most part was excellent. After doing several tastings some old guy started to joke about not interrupting him because he was doing inventory and would lose track if we said anything. After a while we started to realize this was Richard Graeser himself, the owner and winemaker. He was quite funny, and as he served us one wine he said "this one I call the panty dropper". The room bust into laughter. It seemed like the place the locals went as some stopped in to have some wine and discuss selling their grapes. It was a great experience, and we picked up two bottles.

Clos Du Bois - Wine 10 / Experience 9
We drove quite a way to get here, as it was one of Jen's favorites as well. Of all the wineries this was the only one where both Jen and I loved every wine we had from top to bottom.... from the whites to the unique styles to the typical reds - everything was great. The staff was very knowledgeable and helpful, we talked with some locals for a while that had moved there a few years earlier, and hey two free wine glasses. We are considering joining this wine club since it seemed to be one of the better deals amoung the wine clubs.

Rodney Strong - Wine 7 / Experience 7
I wanted to go here even though my wife didn't, because I think Rodney Strong wines are a decent value. I still think that today. The tasting room was packed and most of the wines we tasted were decent. Nothing spectacular, just in the ok to good range. Prices at the winery seemed inflated to me. Someone at the tasting room reeked of body odor which might have dampened the experience.

Blackstone Winery - Wine 6 / Experience 6
This is another larger producer of wine. It was just ok. They have a nice patio area and the wines were decent. Glad we had a free tasting here with a coupon because it really probably wasn't worth it so much. Their wines are usually bargain priced wine, and it's probably worth what you pay for it.

Chateau St. Jean - Wine 8 / Experience 8
The minute you pull up to this place it seems like you're in for an "expensive" place. The architecture and gardens are flawless and spectacular. There are beautiful fountains and landscaping. There are also two tasting rooms with two pricing options - we choose the "cheaper" option. The wines on the standard option were good - a couple were great enough for me to come home and seek out a couple bottles. It geemed like all of the bartenders at the tasting room had some kind of accent, and the tasting room was very nicely decorated and beautiful.

Benziger - Wine 7 / Experience 10
If there's a 'big 3' of wine country from a tourism standpoint, it's probably Sterling, Beringer, and Benziger. This winery was much different than the other two. The difference to me was this one didn't feel so "corporate". Beinzinger also seems to be the most environmentally concious winery in the entire area. They use the mountains to collect the rainwater which then gets pumped back onto the grape vines. They haven't used a pesticide in something like 30 years. They even had their own natural garden in the middle of their vines which is specifically there just to attract inserts to ward off the bad insects. The tour was probably the best we've had, you drive around on a tractor up a hill through the vineyards, talk about how the area was formed by the volcano the land sits on, and it ends off with a cave tour and had the best description of how the wine is made as they gave tours of the manufacturing area. The wine was just average to good, but somehow now that I know how helpful they are to our environment the wine starts tasting a little better.

Imagery Estate - Wine 8 / Experience 8
Imagery is also owned by Benzinger. I believe they are trying to market it as the "higher end" of the Benzinger line. I'd say it is higher end wine, but not significantly and definitely not worth the price difference... if I recall the cheapest bottle of a red bottle here was upwards of $40-50. Again, decent wine, not worth the price though. This place did have a neat location complete with horseshoe pits and Bocce ball, and wasn't as uptight as I expected.

Arrowood - Wine 9 / Experience 8
This winery is located literally on the same driveway as Imagery. I have to admit it was very good wine - very very good. I probably should have bought a bottle but it was a little expensive, I believe $50 a bottle which is the only reason I did not buy one. There is a wonderful view from the tasting room as you overlook a big hill with rolling vineyards down the hill.

Nicholson Ranch - Wine 7 / Experience 8
I don't remember too much from this place other than damn they had good crackers (which are meant to clear your palate, but I was hungry! :-). They did have decent wine but by this time we were kind of on our way (and lost as we made a wrong turn) so I don't really know how good it was. I think it was good, but I'm not for sure. However, the location of this seemed pretty cool. It's a beautiful ranch on top of a hill with a pond area built into the grounds. Seemed like there was some history here with things to explore, but we just wanted to have our glasses of wine and move on to the next place since it was getting late.

Larson Family - Wine 10 / Experience 10
One of the best experiences and wine of the whole trip - A+, 5 stars. The tasting room was inside a barn, with some good old down home country hospitality and good conversation. The wines were great. I could not decide if I wanted the $40 bottle of cab (Sadler Wells) or the $50 bottle of the Larson Family Cab which won "best cabernet in California" at the California state fair. I went with the $40 bottle mostly because they would not allow tasting of the Larson Cab due to short supply. I had a hard time spending $50 on a bottle of something I didn't taste. But you know what... the curiousity has been bugging me ever since, and I should have bought the good one. Gee, I wonder what the best cab in california tastes like? I may never know becase you can't buy this wine anywhere -- mostly they're a small family winery. The painted on driftwood signs on the way in and out were classic. We also learned how to "roll your glass on its side" to let the flavors out. Maybe cool, maybe stupid but it seemed cool at the time. ;)

Cline Cellars - Wine -1 / Experience 1
Bottom line is that it was awful and I'm not joking. Going from Larson Family to this was like going from a BMW to a rusted out Yugo. Jen wanted to visit here, and we could not believe how awful the wine was. We had to wait because the crowd was huge because they were open late, and it seemed like a younger college drunk crowd. The wine basically tasted like spit (and might have actually been someone else's spit), but they all tasted like spit so I don't know how it could have been someone else's glass that had not been washed. We had at least one "corked" bottle that they served (which other wineries threw out after smelling it first -- not at Cline, they serve their bad wines). Seriously I was like spitting for the next 15 minutes after tasting this crap. Later in the day we were talking with some other locals who confirmed they have heard of these kind of experiences from this place, so it's not like we were just picky at the time or something. We'll never buy another bottle of Cline it was that bad. The only reason I give the experience a "1" (on the positive side) is because they did have some nice grounds and a pond/fountain area to sit down and hang out. Why you would want to stay here and drink awful wine though, is beyond me.

Jacuzzi - Wine 8 / Experience 8
This is a new winery just across the street from Cline, just recently opened in a beautiful castle-like setting. It was suprisingly excellent. In fact I would give it a 9 except that we just came from Cline - so a glass of anything would have tasted great so I'm skeptical if it was really that good. We did buy a bottle of it, as I recall their merlot was great. The lady here was extremely helpful and outgoing even though we were there at closing time. I wish their bottles were a standard wine bottle format, they have some kind of shorter wider bottle which doesn't fit most wine racks, which is annoying. And yes, if you're wondering, this winery is owned by the same company that created the Jacuzzi tub.

Mayo Family Winery - Wine 8 / Experience 10
Ok I have to admit, we made it back to this place which was within walking distance to our hotel, and we had pretty much tied one on by now. So of course the wine was great right! ;) This winery was open later and was recommended by my cousin who lives in Glen Elen. The wine was good, but the service and experience was great. We basically had our own private tasting of MANY of the wines on the menu - and this winery makes a lot of varieties. We bought a bottle and a port because it was based on Cognac (Jen talked me into this one). I'm looking forward to trying it.

Labels: California Wine, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Vacation, Wine, Winery, Wine Tasting
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