The glistening ocean breaks against the rocks as Highway 101 reveals Santa Barbara with its white stucco bungalows and terra cotta-tiled roof tops. Just north the landscape opens wide to find ochre-colored hillsides covered in grape vines in every hue of green and purple. The California wine trail is long and like a giant Sequoia, Highway 101 spirals through its valleys and coastal mountains. First stop on the weekend wine getaway finds us on the road to Lompac where vineyards and wine barns are found all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We watch surfers hang ten while tasting varietals of Rhone, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Each tasting seems better than the last and the mystique of the wine terroirs of the Central Coast where small family-owned wineries offer outstanding wine lives on.
Leaving the 101 at San Jose we cross the back bay and arrive at the heart of the California wine trail, the Napa Valley. When Napa Valley wine producers won the “Judgment in Paris” — the famous blind tasting of the Seventies — everything changed for the state’s wine industry, turning things from few noticing its great wine to a modern day Gold Rush. I visited Napa Valley just a short time before the historic Paris event and the limited number of wineries sprinkled along St. Helena Highway seemed thrilled to have visitors stop by. The complimentary pours were generous and the atmosphere was friendly and casual. My return to Napa finds stark contrast. The vast number of wineries today is mind-boggling and I’m curious to check on the wineries I fondly remember, the historic wineries of Charles Krug, Robert Mondavi, Ingelnook and Christian Brothers.
Dirt roads and make-shift parking spaces that once led to the wineries have been replaced by vineyard-lined winding driveways and lavishly landscaped grounds with elegant fountains and benches. There are attractive tasting rooms and posh wine shops. Tastings run about $20 and the ultimate wine experience is available complete with limousines and VIP tours of caves and cellars. Napa Valley is upscale and visitors from all over the globe have come to relish in the experience. Stopping by the four wineries I visited long ago I discover much has changed, yet still a constant abiding commitment to organic farming from family-focused businesses.
Ingelnook Winery gods owe a debt of gratitude to Francis Ford Coppola. After the success of his film The Godfather, Coppola bought most of the Ingelnook estate that had befallen to the hands of jug wine producer Heublein. Since Ingelnook was the first to produce Bordeaux-style wine in the early days, Coppola’s ownership would begin to make things right. As recent as 2011 Coppola finally bought the iconic Ingelnook trademark, admittedly saying he’d paid more for the name than the entire estate. Today its grapes are entirely organically grown and non-irrigated. The vines naturally mine through the sandy soil to find the water table deep below. The copper-roofed chateau welcomes visitors to a wine bar which also offers a small plates menu. We take our glasses of Zinfandel and cheese pairings to the outside tables to savor the deliciousness and bask in the beauty of the surroundings. The Ingelnook label assuredly will continue a legacy of natural farming and top wine.
The mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery remains focused on elite wine. With its rich vineyards that Robert Mondavi began growing in the mid-Sixties when he broke away from his family wine business at Charles Krug, it satisfies the ardent wine lover. Mondavi was visionary for the Napa Valley viticulture. He spent a great deal of time studying wine operations in France and brought valuable insight to California wine-making. The art of blending varietals belongs to Mondavi. Since his death in 2008 Mondavi’s French partners clearly carry on his legacy. The tasting room during our visit is crowded and we enjoy a stroll among the breathtaking gardens showcasing the sun-drenched vineyards in the distance.
When the Mondavi family bought the Charles Krug winery for $75,ooo in the 40’s it took only a year to pay the note. Robert and Peter, the sons of Italian immigrants, were quick to bring innovation to wine production. Each had studied viticulture at Berkeley. Peter implemented cold fermentation, essential to producing white wine while Robert brought the concept of small French oak barrels for aging the reds. The famous split of the brothers left Peter to manage the winery, now the job of his sons. The Bordeaux-style of wine making continues today. Where Robert Mondavi Winery feels nouveau, Charles Krug Winery is old world. We find the tasting room welcoming and enjoy a tasting. The wines ranging from Fume Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are delectable and we linger to chat with our host, learning that the elderly Peter Mondavi still lives on the property.
Christian Brothers Winery, started by an order from France to fund its schools, is today the home of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. The school offers classes for food and wine professionals and boot camps for the enthusiasts. The field to fork movement is everywhere. The vegetable and herb garden of the swanky French Laundry Restaurant is full with tourists when we drop by. We find the chef there inspecting the rows of fresh vegetables and selecting some fresh herbs.
We dine at the Long Meadow Ranch and Farmstead which offers their own locally raised meat and preparations fresh from its garden right outside the dining room. Our organic beef sliders with carmelized onion rings are succulent. We wash them down with a bottle of rich peppery Cabernet Sauvignon.
My return to wander the vineyards along the St. Helena Highway has been parts wine, gardens, tasting rooms old and new, food, and upscale ambiance where wine takes the stage. It’s been an enjoyable weekend and I’m hit by the wine bug once again as we emerge onto the 101 South to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. The real juice on the California wine trail is no secret. Excellent wine is California’s forte, an agriculture industry unique to its rolling hills, its coastal setting and its mild Mediterranean climate. The beauty of the vineyards is not to be missed in the Golden State and wine lovers can be found at the wineries enjoying its bounty.