Of all of the places in the world I’ve visited, one of my favorite places is still Napa Valley, California. Unlike most of their French counterparts in say Bordeaux for example, most wineries here in California Wine Country welcome non-collectors, non-critics and those with simply curious palettes.
But there is always a downside…And here it’s that tasting rooms can often be somewhat commercial and often very busy, leading to a somewhat hurried and less than satisfying experience.
If you prefer a more intimate experience, look for smaller boutique wineries or those that emphasize appointment only visits in Napa Valley. Or, as we decided, you can try visiting Sonoma Valley, Napa’s neighbor directly to the west. It’s a larger wine growing region with a decidedly less touristy feel and a slightly cooler climate that yields some beautiful balanced wines. The sunny dry weather and endless vistas don’t exactly hurt either.
I had never been to Sonoma Valley and when planning a trip to California’s Wine Country this time around I decided that it was time we paid Sonoma a visit. The trip was a short one, as we arrived on a Saturday night at San Francisco International and departed Tuesday Morning. This left us with only two full days to explore wine country.
While we usually stay in San Francisco and make the hour or so drive back each day after visiting, this time we decided to splurge and stay in Sonoma at a timeshare property that’s part of the Portico timeshare program. The fact that it boasted an on property working vineyard (Benziger actually leases the vineyards), a lake, a fireplace and a great location relative to the Sonoma wineries left little to be desired and we were instantly sold.
The property was truly breathtaking and even more impressive than I expected based on the photos and description. The property itself is over 80+ acres and is accessed by a long gated driveway. You arrive at this quaint country home to find three bedrooms and 2 full baths that are nicely decorated and well maintained. But the home was not big, and I think that two couples, rather than three would find the space comfortable.
As I had mentioned we were originally planning on spending the whole trip in Sonoma since we had never been but the week before arriving I competed in an amateur autocross driving competition hosted by Jaguar and Robb Report and placed third. How that happened is a mystery to me but I was nonetheless very excited to make the top three.
After the driving event we attended a cocktail reception and It just so happened that Round Pond Estate was not only serving the wines but they were awarding prizes for the top three track times on the autocross! I was pretty excited to have even placed in the competition but now I was really excited. My prize was a Garden to Table Brunch for two (details here) and a bottle of Round Pond’s Estate Rutherford Sauvingon Blanc!
The timing really couldn’t have worked out better that we were already going to be in Sonoma. So I confirmed the reservation with Round Pond and amended our itinerary.
Visiting Round Pond
From where we were staying, the Round Pond Estate is about a 45 minute drive through mostly windy and scenic country roads. Upon entering the gate you are greeted by a long driveway lined with mature and majestic palms trees surrounded by vast Rutherford vineyards.
The Round Pond Estate is located in the heart of Rutherford in the Napa Valley. The sustainably farmed estate has an impressive 362 acres planted to vine, producing Caberernet Sauvingon, Sauvingon Blanc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and even the italian Nebbiolo grape. If you look at Round Pond on a map compared to some of it’s well known neighbors, you might be surprised as to just how big it is and begin to wonder why you haven’t heard of it.
That’s because the majority of the fruit is sold to local and well-known Rutherford wineries. Only the crème de la crème is bottled under the Round Pond label, with production around 10,000 cases with an additional 1,000 cases being their reserve wines. Those neighbors include well known wineries such as Caymus, Beaulieu Vineyards, Rubicon Estate, Cakebread, Frog’s Leap and Honig.
Fortunately, as part of the brunch itinerary, we got to taste the estate wines. More on that later…Round Pond also produces entirely estate grown and bottled olive oils and has one of only two olive mills currently operating in the Napa Valley. Their olive oils have won gold medals four years in a row from the Los Angeles Olive Oil competition.
After arriving at 10 a.m. and checking in we were greeted by Executive Chef and Master Sommelier Eric Maczko who welcomed us with our choice of coffee or tea along with a homemade scone to get the day started. To accompany the scones were two choices of Round Pond’s own citrus syrups, the Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon. I tasted both and they were delicious with the scone. As we were expecting only brunch, this was a welcome treat and a great way to get the morning stated before the tour of the gardens.
Garden to Table
Once in the gardens, Eric explained that the purpose of this garden was to help identify the notes that we might pick up in a particular varietal. For example, in this Cabernet Sauvingon herb, vegetable and fruit garden we might sense or detect notes of black currant, cherry, blueberries and green pepper to name a few. While we have all probably sensed these notes with our taste or smell, it was a very interesting perspective that we all enjoyed very much. Interested in what was growing in the Sauvingon Blanc garden nearby, we found it contained melon, dill, grapefruit and meyer lemon to name a few.
An entirely new experience for me, we then picked our own fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs with (much needed) guidance from Eric. It became very clear why this experience was titled the Garden to Table Brunch, as Eric was going to use what we harvested in to prepare our brunch that day. There was everything from strawberries, onions, and broccoli to fresh thyme and lemongrass. I was impressed with how much this seemingly small plot was capable of yielding.
After a quick stop to see where the barrel aging is done, we made our way back upstairs to get a wine pairing lesson with Eric in his kitchen. We were poured a taste of the Estate Sauvingon Blanc while Eric prepared us a fresh veggie spring roll and explained some of the basic tenets of wine pairing. His main points were:
- Always serve high alcohol wines with high fat dishes, and conversely serve low alcohol leaner wines with low fat dishes.
- Like flavors actually cancel one another out, rather than accentuate one another. This is a common misconception. This is why, for example, a smoky BBQ and a Zinfandel pair so well together. The smoky woodiness of the two cancel one another out, allowing the fruit characteristics of the Zinfandel to shine.
- Salt cancels out or reduces the acidity and/or tannic acid in a wine. If you’re eating salty foods serve wines with higher acidity or more tannic wines. This comes in handy if someone orders a young tannic wine, like a Cabernet, than isn’t really ready to be drunk. Add some salt to your dish to soften the bite of the tannins and enjoy the fruit flavors.
The Sauvingon Blanc was delicious with a shearing acidity that paired beautifully with the spring rolls and it’s salty peanut sauce.
From there we made our way out to the patio for our much awaited brunch and tasting of the estate wines.
There was a cornucopia of fresh food: fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, salads, estate grown olive oils and even a delicious corned beef. We were poured the Sauvingon Blanc, Cabernet and Reserve Cabernet to taste along with our meal, all from the Rutherford Estate. I didn’t take notes on the wines as we were all enjoying our brunch, but I can happily report that they were all excellent.
The consensus was that while the Reserve Cabernet was very good, the basic Rutherford Cabernet was more approachable and was really the favorite amongst the group. It turns out that almost everyone at our table was part of a big birthday celebration and they were from very nearby in South Florida. One of the ladies lives two blocks away! It is really such a small world and we really enjoyed getting to know them a little bit and look forward to reuniting with them again in South Florida.
Dessert was a delicious lemon cake, made with no butter but instead with estate grown olive oil and garnished with estate grown strawberries. It tasted light and rich at the same time, a balance I find hard to accomplish.
The weather was perfect and we were enjoying great food, delicious wines and great company alfresco in the heart of Rutherford, Napa Valley. What more could one ask for? We had so much fun that I had to call and push back our next appointment at Ladera Vineyards by an hour and we just made it there on time. We will definitely be back to the Round Pond Estate
Ladera Vineyards, Howell Mountain Napa Valley
I had heard good things about Ladera Vineyards and have wanted to try their wines for some time. I also love wines produced from mountain fruit, as they tend to have a great deal of character. Located in the Howell Mountain Appellation of Napa Valley, Ladera was founded by two Frenchman from the Médoc in Bordeaux. In 1877, rather than on the valley floor, they planted some of the first Médoc grapes on Howell Mountain. The vineyard’s volcanic soils are rich in minerals but low in nutrients. This growing environment stresses the vines, producing smaller, thickly skinned and more concentrated berries. The result is a distinctive wine with a sense of terroir and minerality that is capable of aging and improving with time.
Upon arriving punctually to our appointment we were greeted by Michael at the small tasting bar inside. He offered to conduct the tasting outside on the patio and we quickly took him up on this offer. We soon learn that Michael is not only the tasting room manager but also a very interesting gentleman who is studying to become a Master Sommelier.
We had a great time tasting and discussing the wines of Ladera as well as some of the other Howell Mountain producers who are producing wines for the long haul rather than for instant gratification drinking. The current release wines were really a bit too young and tasted somewhat primary but they definitely displayed good potential.
They even had a Howell Mountain Malbec which was quite good and very different from Argentinian Malbec. It was somewhat tannic with good acidity and it lacked the fruit-forwardness most Argentinian Malbec is known for. My favorite wines were the two library wines (which weren’t on the tasting menu but were open), the 2004 and 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet. They were already beginning to develop some nice secondary Cabernet characteristics and were showing beautifully.
If you are visiting Napa Valley, I recommend a visit to Ladera as the wine-making philosophy as well as the intimate atmosphere deviate from some of the more commercial wineries on the valley floor. Ask for Michael, too. He was very knowledgeable and made the visit that much more enjoyable.
As we were nearing the end of the day and the end of tasting hours, I decided we should make a quick visit to Beringer Vineyards for their great reserve tasting. I have always been a big fan of their private reserve Cabernet’s and wanted to see what they were pouring today as I hadn’t been in over a year. The grounds are also really beautiful and well worth the visit themselves.
Without time for a tour of the winery and Gardens we made our way into the tasting room (located in the beautiful building first pictured) for the reserve tasting. The winery must have had an abundance of 375ml bottles to sell because they were pouring them off for the tastings, which I’ve never seen before. They were also having a Spring sale, with many of their wines 40% off (I never complain about a sale!). This brought some of their wines into bargain territory.
Of the five we were allowed to taste for the $25 tasting fee, the two best were the Steinhauer Ranch 2007 Cabernet Sauvingon and the 2005 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvingon. They were both beautifully balanced with nice fruit and firm but very approachable tannin profiles.
On the way back to the house in Sonoma we decided to stop in St. Helena for dinner with the goal of finding a nice casual neighborhood restaurant. We came across an American restaurant called Market that looked good so we decided to give it a try.
We lucked out with this restaurant and definitely found what we were looking for. Although it was quiet, it was still pretty early and being a little tired it was more than welcome. The food was really delicious and the service excellent, We enjoyed blackened chicken empanadas with avocado, black bean puree and lime creme fraiche, fresh baked corn bread, the market burger and fresh Alaskan halibut set in a spring vegetable ragout served with a light yet tasty lemongrass-basil butter sauce. My favorites were the empanadas and the halibut. I definitely recommend this restaurant because I think it is hard to find great service and excellent food at what were reasonable prices.
To visit Market’s website, click here.
That’s all for our day in Wine Country. We decided to spend our second day entirely in Sonoma Valley lazily bouncing from winery to winery without an itinerary or any reservations. When I visited Napa Valley for the first time, I wanted to explore and see the wineries that I recognized. I wanted to take a similar approach while in Sonoma for the first time. So instead of photographing and taking notes I just enjoyed the wineries (we made it to Kenwood, Chateau St. Jean, Kunde and Matanzas Creek) and soaked it all in to get better acquainted with Sonoma. I can happily report that I can’t wait to get back and will be ready to share what I find when I do.
If you love wine, there are few things more gratifying than a visit to your favorite winery. The opportunity to see where the grapes are grown and to hear about the winemaking philosophy all lend a real sense of place. Thank you for reading and enjoy your trip to California’s beautiful Wine Country. For more information on planning a visit, check out WineCountry.com or NapaValley.com.
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