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California, Day Three: meeting the Mondavi matriarch

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Day three, and yet again I’m up before 6 a.m. – which would be a huge problem if it weren’t for the fact that I’m going to bed at 10 every night. Shift those times over to the Central Time Zone and it’s though I never left home. But it’s amazing how much you can get done in the morning – I’m more of a writing-at-night kinda guy, but working in the morning means there’s a finite time; you have to stop, because the bus is going to head to the next winery without you, so you need to get it done.

But I digress. Yesterday was mainly all about Cabernet Sauvignon. Our first stop yesterday was at Cliff Lede winery for a panel discussion on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and its ageability. Here we heard from winemakers/educators from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Staglin, Clos du Val, Silverado and Cliff Lede while tasting two of the same wines from each winery, but with differing vintages – one new and one old. This was a great opportunity to hear from some of Napa's best winemakers about how winemaking in the valley has changed, and to taste both old and new Cabernets, the latter of which show great promise with some cellaring.

Our next stop was at the iconic Robert Mondavi winery, which looks just like it does on the front of their label and not entirely unlike the Okanagan Valley’s Mission Hill winery. We were taken out to Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard, a gorgeous spot from which much of the winery’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon are sourced.

Back at the winery we were joined by Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking for Robert Mondavi Winery. She detailed the subtleties of the soil in To Kalon as we tasted wines from the vineyard. As we were standing there listening, a shrunken woman with blond-white hair was quietly escorted into the back of the room, listening as we tasted the wines and peppered Janssens with questions.

"Margrit!" Janssens exclaimed as she noticed the eighty-something-year-old Mrs. Mondavi at the back of the room. We were all sort of floored – here was California wine royalty. Despite the Mondavis’ tumultuous relationship with the winery once taken over by Constellation Brands, Margrit continues to happily wander the winery, occasionally joining groups for a quick hello. We were lucky enough to have her join us for lunch at the winery as well, and it was quickly apparent that she and Janssens are very close. It was pretty darn touching. Margrit is a ridiculously personable, witty and engaging speaker, and many of us took a few minutes to speak with her -- it was an unexpected, memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Of course, this development made us ridiculously late for our next appointment at Black Stallion winery, whose wines I’ve yet to see in Manitoba. However, you’d likely be familiar with much of the rest of the Delicato Family Vineyards portfolio: 337 Cabernet Sauvignon, (B)razin, Gnarly Head, etc. After a quick tour of the facilities we tasted through much of their portfolio before being shuffled back on to the bus.

Once back at the hotel, the group of us were herded into a boardroom where we were given an interesting presentation on sustainability. It’s less strict than being an organic or biodynamic wine, which is both good and bad – it means wineries can work on becoming sustainable gradually but it also means the word has far less concrete meaning, and can be bandied about a little more loosely.

After a quick break we headed to Louis M. Martini for a quick tour and another massive, fantastic dinner, this time in an underground cave-type cellar. Seriously, I’ve twice had a pork chop as big as both my fists combined. Huge. Anyway, the winery is a Gallo-owned property, and mainly produces Cabernet Sauvignon on-site that are great quality and value.

Oh, speaking of giant pork chops, I’ve got to get a quick run in before we head out to Chateau St. Jean and beyond. From there it’s all Sonoma for the rest of the day.

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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.


Blogs that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson follows:

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