Last weekend, my husband Anthony and I had the opportunity to get out of town for one of our semi-annual kid-free getaways to a city we both enjoy: San Francisco. As a side project, my creative and talented husband runs a website called Make Weird Music, for which he interviews recording artists who (shocker!) make weird music. The site has been gaining some real traction lately, with interviews of several well-known artists, and Anthony wanted to keep the ball rolling by interviewing a couple of musicians in the Bay Area. Between Frontier Airlines running some jaw-dropping discount flights and Anthony’s cousin and his wife offering to put us up at their home in Walnut Creek, it was really a no-brainer for me to come along. We ended up having a fantastic Saturday enjoying the cornucopia of experiences San Francisco has to offer–a tour of Alcatraz, dessert at Ghirardelli, the lights of the Palace of the Fine Arts at night, and a possibly ill-advised through Haight Ashbury after dark–then spent a laid-back rainy Sunday wine tasting in Napa. (I suppose you could say we skipped church to go drinking. Technically true.) Visiting the Napa Valley and going wine tasting there are two things I’ve always wanted to do, so it was certainly a bucket list-checking day. I thought I would share my rundown of our experience at the eminently classy Duckhorn Vineyards.
First off, let me just say how gorgeous the landscape of Napa is–or at least was the day we visited. I had no expectations of what the place itself would look like, so it was such a delight to see vibrant fall colors on rolling hills, thick groves of trees, and of course the vines themselves stretching out in every direction from the main road. (Having lived in Illinois, the only crops I’m really used to seeing indefinitely on the horizon are corn and beans. It was strange to have that same visual of rows and rows of a crop whizzing by your window in succession like a flip-book animation, with such a different plant.) Though the vines are dormant this time of year, there’s something stark and stately about their silhouettes standing with arms wide out to the sky. In a word: gorgeous.
Of all the wineries in Napa, there’s a reason we visited Duckhorn Vineyards. Anthony’s cousin’s wife, Paola, with whom we were staying, is quite the wine connoisseur (or, if I’m being linguistically obnoxious, “connoisseuse.”) Before moving to the Bay Area, she owned and operated a wine bar in Chicago called Paola’s Vinum. How cool is that? As part of keeping a hand in the wine business, she and her husband maintain a membership to Duckhorn–one of their personal favorites. If it’s a wine bar owner’s personal favorite, I’m going to guess it’s an excellent choice! We were thrilled to have Paola and Frank with us to not only provide our entry to the winery as their guests, but their guidance on all things wine-related throughout the visit.
When we arrived, we were welcomed into what felt like a charming large home complete with Christmas decorations and a roaring fire. After following the server to an outdoor table, we were soon presented with a delicious charcuterie board to accompany the wines we would sample, along with some breadsticks that were less than stellar (easily forgivable–their specialty is wine, not breadsticks).
Then the wine glasses began to arrive. WHOA, did the wine glasses begin to arrive. Having never been to a tasting, I was not prepared for the panoply of glasses that began to crowd our tabletop. It was like if wine glasses bought lawn seats at a Dave Matthews concert, except that wine glasses don’t smoke pot and spill salsa all over your blanket.
Accompanying each glass was a card with a description of the wine and all its vital statistics: height, weight, marital status, hobbies–oh, wait, no–statistics like varietal composition (i.e. what type of wine it is), cooperage (what type of barrel it was aged in), and where it was harvested, plus comments from the winemaker.
At this point I have to joke about the detail of the “Comments from the Winemaker.” These types of elaborate descriptions about the flavor of wines always crack me up, probably because I’m an uncultured swine, but I just find it hard to believe anyone can really taste the multitude of flavors they write about on these things. (It’s not just Duckhorn, I’m talking about every wine label that waxes poetic about its contents.) Apparently, it’s not that the winemakers infuse the grapes with “nectarine, peach blossom, butterscotch, and marshmallow,” or that a peachy-tasting wine came from grapes grown next to peach trees. According to Paola, it’s that expert tasters drink the wine and describe it that way. One of the Duckhorn descriptions actually claimed the wine had “a complex nose” including of pencil shavings. Which makes me want to become an “expert taster” so I could just make stuff up, like “floral, with hints of horsehair and maxi pads,” and someone out there would nod approvingly and take another sip. But hey, it’s all part of the experience, right?
While Chardonnay is usually my go-to wine, I was eager to try everything, even if it supposedly tasted like pencil shavings. In the course of the tasting we sampled a wonderful variety of Duckhorn’s wines, from their whites (including, of course, the 2013 Toyon Vineyard Chardonnay pictured above) to their more famous reds. Surprisingly, their 2012 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot blend ended up being my favorite, and I’m not even a red wine lover–especially not a Merlot lover. Fruity, smooth, and dare I say refreshing (can red wine be refreshing?), I thought it was an absolutely perfect, compulsively drinkable red. According to its description, it had “flavors of blueberry, warm spice cake, and fleshy Santa Rosa plum.” I won’t pretend I tasted exactly that combination of flavors, but whatever I tasted was fabulous.
As a final piece de resistance, the sommelier brought out Duckhorn’s best-known wine: a red blend called “The Discussion.” The story goes that when owners Dan and Margaret Duckhorn were crafting their first vintage over 30 years ago, they had a heated conversation with their winemaker regarding the process of winemaking, finally settling on this varietal blend. They named the wine “The Discussion” to commemorate that part of their history. Of the wines we sampled, The Discussion was my runner-up favorite after the Merlot.
As I mentioned, Paola, the wine expert in our midst, was a great resource for explaining everything we sampled, but I should also note that the sommelier was very present, extremely friendly and down to earth, and seemed totally available to answer any questions. She spoke knowledgeably about the wines without coming off as elitist about them and made us wine ingenues feel at ease.
To sum up: visiting Napa was every bit as delightful a bucket list experience as I could have hoped. During our afternoon at Duckhorn, I felt the freedom of time and space to savor each wine, each nibble of cheese, each glance at the vista of vines lining the land. As a Napa newbie, I may not have anything to compare Duckhorn Vineyards to, but I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking the experience of excellent wine in a beautiful California setting. (And I highly recommend tagging along with a wine bar owner, if at all possible.) 😉