Posted by: David Stewart | April 16, 2011

Wine Country 101 – California edition

Oregon has been a great place to live to visit wineries and enjoy great wine. of course the most famous American winemaking is in the Napa Valley of Northern California.

So Deb and I took a car trip on April 9, 2011 through the Napa and Sonoma Valley to sample a few places, sip some wine and get a sense of the vibe.  We also promised ourselves not to buy any wine, because we really had no way of getting it home. And where else can you try a $200 wine without the pain of purchase (or having a really generous and well-healed friend).

Like Oregon, wine tasting isn’t so much about drinking wine. It is the intersection of farming, low-tech manufacturing and culture, all wrapped in an easy to sample form.  We were warned that the wineries here are pretty fancy and high-end, and this was certainly my impression. We got a really beautiful spring day in the bargain as well.

Historic milestones in the wine industry

  • Chateau Montelena – in 1976, Californians shocked the high-end wine world by winning the famous "Judgment of Paris" competition beating out French wines in a double-blind test. The Chateau Montelena story was dramatized in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock when their Chardonnay won.

 Chateau Montellena winery

According to the tasting room host, they always wanted to produce Cabernet Sauvignon but they needed cash flow before the Cabs were ready, and thus the Chard. But since their Chardonnay won in ’76, they will have to continue to produce it.

The area around the real winery looks little like the movie. The winery spent some time in the 1950s as the retirement home for a couple.  They built a lake and some Chinese pavilions on the property which are maintained, and add a real non-sequitur to the typical winery buildings.

  • Stags Leap Winery – The other big winner in the Judgment of Paris for Cabernet was Stag’s Leap. These guys make very high-end Cabs and you get your choice of flights to taste – the high-end flight costs $30 to taste four wines, the best one costs $200 per bottle. They also have a cave system which costs $40 per person to visit. Yikes! I honestly can’t imagine paying $200 for a bottle of wine.  They were a bit snooty , but it was fun to visit nonetheless.

 Stags Leap Winery

Disneylands of Wine.

There are some famous names of California wines which show up nationwide, and are worth exploring. These tend to offer quite a varied experience beyond tasting the wine. In fact, you can have an interesting experience without even sipping anything. Some almost seem like an amusement park – albeit a sedate one.

  • Robert Mondavi – The winery tasting room is kind of small for such a famous place. I counted four limousines in the parking lot when we visited and countless vehicles, but there was room for only perhaps 8 people to taste at once. It was a little too much for me to wait for a taste, so we checked out the grounds instead.  They had active vineyard tours, a nice gift shop and an area laid out for some kind of dinner party. We ended up getting a nice book on olive oil at the very well-stocked gift shop.

 Robert Mondavi

  • Beaulieu Vineyard – or "BV" as it is known on its labels is another very common California wine. You see it both in the nice wine shops as well as Costco. Situated along the main drag into Napa, they had quite a well-organized tasting room with plenty of capacity for the crowds. They also had a selection of wines "not available in stores", which like Stag’s Leap is intended to suck you into their Flight Club. Or at least buy some at the winery.

 Beaulieu Vineyard (BV)

  • Beringer Vineyards – has the distinction of being one of the oldest wineries in the country and a historic collection of buildings. This is another multi-building setup, with multiple tasting rooms, gift shops and gardens. You can taste some of their other products as well, such as jams and spreads. I learned a lot about the history of Beringer – and of winemaking agriculture in general – in their generous outdoor displays. But I didn’t taste the wine here.

 Beringer winery

  • Kendall-Jackson – naturally curious about the nearby Sonoma valley, we drove through this region as well. Kendall-Jackson is one of the best known labels in California, and their operations show their desire to show off their wares and educate an interested public in wine, food-pairings and agriculture. I was pretty disappointed in the pouring staff, who seemed really distracted or put off by something. It might have been due to our coming just before their closing, but it was unfortunate.

 Kendall-Jackson winery

However the grounds around the Kendall-Jackson facility were really terrific – a very nice garden with herbs and what-not associated with wine tastes. They also had a display section of grape vines with one row devoted to each major grape varietal. 

Kendall-Jackson wineryKendall-Jackson winery


Other Finds of note

  • Clos du Val – Another popular label in your neighborhood Costco wine section is Clos du Val, recognizable for its plain-Jane design. The tasting room was quite tony, with orchids blooming on every table. I was a bit put off by the pourer, who took it on himself to pronounce each varietal with an overblown quasi-French flourish. It was cute at first, but hearing about their "charrrrrrrdonay" was getting to be too much. If you look closely, these guys get a cameo appearance in Bottle Shock along with Ridge, who was unfortunately not on this day’s tour schedule.

 Clos du Val Winery

  • Plumpjack – This place was recommended by a friend who was at the conference I attended the week before. Their 2008 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was just a terrific wine, probably some of the best we tasted. It is 98% Cab and 2% Petit Verdot.  Of course, at $82 per bottle, it is still out of our price range for sure.

 Plumpjack Winery



  1. Hello Dave,

    Great post! I had no idea you are so into wine! Growing up in the Bay Area, I learned to taste wine at Mondavi in ’79. First bottle of wine I purchased was a ’77 Charles Krug cabernet, for $5! While Oregon pinots are refined, complex and flavorful, they are so expensive.! Anyone can find a tasty wine for $40 +, the challenge is finding a tasting wine for $10-$15. Have recently gotten into Washington wines which have an array of fruit forward and complex wines coming out of Walla Walla (world reknowned) and the Yakima Valley, and of course the Columbia Valley. Betz, Sheridan, Woodward Canyon amongst many others. Big, rich and deep, w/high alc content reflecting the warm temps and extended hang time these grapes rcv. Hope to see you at Sunset Pres, haven’t seen you for quite awhile. Keep up the cool posts!

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