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California, days 4 and 5

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So when I last wrote it was Thursday morning and we had yet to hit our first winery. I've made plenty of stops between then and now - in fact, the rest of my traveling companions have gone home, while I'm staying an extra day to explore San Francisco and see Wilco tonight at the Warfield. Thanks to a crazy schedule that often left us with barely enough time to check in to our hotel before dinner, it seems I've got some catching up to do. So, in a nutshell:

Thursday: Chateau St. Jean was our first stop, where we tasted through a range of their Chardonnays in an effort to learn about the subtle variations between Sonoma County sub-appellations. We checked out their 2010 Sonoma County Chardonnay (a great example that's available at Liquor Marts and beyond) as well as three 2009 single vineyard wines. Great stuff. We then tasted through the 2001, 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages of Cinq Cepages, their flagship red (a Bordeaux style blend) that showed how the weather in different years affects the same wine.

From there it was over to another room on the stately property to taste through wines from Etude - one Chardonnay and three Pinot Noirs (the two grapes are their specialties). They're not cheap wines (nor do I think are they available in Manitoba), but the Pinot Noirs showed some nice finesse while the Chardonnay was among the best I tasted on this trip.

From there the gang got back on the bus and headed to Kunde in Sonoma, where we toured their incredible property (most of the vineyard shots in the film Bottle Shock were filmed at Kunde) and sat down with winemakers from Ramey, Patz & Hall and Kunde to chat about and taste through some Sonoma County Chardonnay from different sub-appellations (called AVAs - American Viticultural Areas). There were 11 Chardonnays in total from eight wineries, and all showed subtle variations based on the AVA from which they were sourced, the year, the amount of time the wine saw in oak, etc.

Then it was off to Stonestreet, a winery owned by the same folks that own Kendall-Jackson. In fact, Julia Jackson, daughter of proprietor Jess Jackson, tasted through a cross-section of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio with us, including their pricey "Le Desir," a Cabernet Franc-based premium red blend. By the time we left we were running fairly late, so we had just enough time to dump our stuff at the tastefully modern H2 hotel in Healdsburg before turning around and heading to Clos du Bois for a tasting and dinner. Clos du Bois is owned by Constellation, which also owns Robert Mondavi, Estancia and others - as a result, we tasted through a number of their lines before tucking in to a fantastic dinner.

Friday:  Gallo Sonoma's Frei Ranch property was our first stop on our last day in wine country proper, and while the trip featured picturesque vines, rolling hills, etc. But what this property also has is one of the biggest wineries I've seen in person ever. The Frei Ranch winery has a 40,000 ton capacity, which is around 2.8 million cases per year. Crazy, right? Well, considering Gallo's total output is in the 60 million case range (they have many other wineries in California as well), it seems downright minimal. 

Director of Winemaking Scott Kozel was doing a fine job leading us around the winery and facilitating some barrel tasting before the group got completely distracted by the appearance of Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio Gallo, the face of the company as well as winemaker for Gallo Family Vineyards Sonoma Reserve. Sporting work boots, jeans and an old plaid jacket, Gallo would have fit in with anyone else milling about in the winery or vineyards. For us wine geeks, however, it was a great chance to spend a few valuable minutes talking to one of the most recognizable American winemakers today. And she happens to be a lovely woman to boot.

Our next stop was MacMurray Ranch, another Gallo property, albeit with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Director of Winemaking Cris Munsell spent a bit of time with us walking around the incredible property and conveying the sense of history of the spot. Prolific actor Fred MacMurray used to own the ranch, raising cattle on the property in order to have a "Plan B" when his acting career came to a close. It's an incredibly beautiful and well-preserved ranch that produces some very nice, restrained Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

We showed up at Rodney Strong and were shepherded through a presentation featuring Alexander Valley wines. This illuminating and educational presentation included tasting through a wide range of Rodney Strong wines, including Cabernet Sauvignons from three separate vineyards within the valley. The notion of "different vineyards, different flavours" was certainly (and adequately hammered home throughout our stay. This visit - our last to a winery - was no different. 

From there we said goodbye to wine country and made the hour-plus trek to San Francisco, where we piled into the Hotel Monaco for some quick drop-the-bags-and-freshen-up time before heading to a family-style dinner at Kuleto's with winery reps from Ironstone, Bogle, Perry Creek and more. 

So that sums up Thursday and Friday... I need to get myself ready to hit the Wilco show, so Saturday's adventures at the ZAP Zinfandel tasting will have to wait...


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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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