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California, Day 2: From Livermore to Napa

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Well, once again I find myself up way too early, drinking mediocre hotel room coffee, so I might as well sum up what we did yesterday here in California.

Here’s some perspective on how many of these trips go – we were on the road at 7:45 a.m. yesterday morning. That’s a bit earlier than normal, but it isn’t out of the ordinary to be checked out of a hotel and on the road by 8 and tasting your first wine by 9.

Anyway, that wasn’t the case yesterday, as we instead had the three-hour drive from Paso Robles to Livermore Valley. First up was Wente, where Eric Wente walked us through a tasting of five Chardonnays, highlighting the differences in how and where each was made. The Wente folks are pioneers when it comes to Chardonnay, so much so that one of the most popular clones of vines in California is called the Wente clone. The styles ranged from the fruit-forward, unoaked Eric’s Chardonnay to the super-rich, super-oaked Nth Degree Chardonnay.

We had lunch at Wente and had the chance to taste through much of their portfolio including a line of four wines called entwine, created in partnership with the Food Network to tap into the 100 million or so folks that watch the station here in the U.S.

Sadly, there was no time for golf at Wente’s Greg Norman-designed course; instead it was back in the bus and off to Concannon, another California pioneer in the wine world. Instead of being at the forefront of Chardonnay, however, Concannon claims to be the producer of America’s first Petite Sirah, a big, heavy red with loads of colour and rich black fruit.

After a quick tour of the winery, we sat down in their cozy special events room and got to work tasting through a selection of their wines. While they were pretty darn good – Petite Sirah and otherwise – perhaps the highlight of the tasting was the chance to try a 1983 Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon that had been aged in redwood (rather than oak) barrels. The redwood imparted a unique woody, sherry-like note to the wine that was interesting at the very least.

Hopping back in the bus, we then whipped up the highway to Yountville in Napa Valley, where we literally just had time to throw our bags in our rooms before heading back out for dinner. For this we drove to Trinchero Napa Valley, better known to many of us as the folks behind Sutter Home winery. "It’s the winery that White Zinfandel built," someone joked (Sutter Home created White Zinfandel a few decades back).

A cross-section of wineries were represented at the dinner, whose theme was "Anything but Cabernet": Trinchero, Blackbird Vineyards, Cornerstone Cellars, Grgich Hills Estate, Salvestrin and Waterstone were all there, and had brought non-Cabernet wines for us to try with out meals. Good stuff.

Today should be a little less driving-intensive, but rather looks to be no less busy.

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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