After our lengthy stay near the redwoods, we made a very large (for us) relocation of over 300 miles in one day, which meant we took shifts driving down the scenic but narrow and winding route into the heart of Northern California. We passed through thick smoke in Mendocino County from the terrible Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, before reaching the quaint little town of Napa. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, Napa is a perfect place for growing not only wine grapes but also all manner of Tuscan-style plants. I liked the elegant cypress trees, and we both squealed with delight at seeing our first palm trees in many, many months. All the faux-Italian architecture definitely has us feeling nostalgic about sunny (and very, very faux) South Florida. We enjoyed only a brief 3-night stay in Napa, which helped keep us from going totally broke in this scenic but very high-priced area.
Wine Class at Hendry
High on our wishlist of activities in Napa was a winemaking tour/class/seminar so we could expand our knowledge about wine to complement our extensive beer tasting experience. Online reviews led us to take a seminar from George Hendry, the owner of Hendry Ranch and Winery, and it turned out to be a great choice. George has called the ranch home since 1939, when his parents purchased the then-remote agricultural property and operated it as a small family farm. He was the principal operator of the farm during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when his family farm, along with the rest of Napa, transformed from a small dairy and prune operation to one of the most intensive and valuable wine-growing regions in the world. What made the seminar particularly interesting is that Mr. Hendry is a scientist, whose day job involved developing technology for medical imaging, and can speak authoritatively on the chemical processes involved in making wine and in tasting wine.
There were two specific chemical processes that we appreciated learning more about. The first is what the heck is going on while wine is “aging” in either a barrel or in the bottle. Answer: the polymerization of tannins in red wine and oaked white wine. In red wine, the seeds are included in the initial fermentation, and they release woody compounds called phenols (tannins) into the wine. These compounds are generally bitter and unpleasant to taste, at least initially. Aging the red wine in a wooden barrel allows the wine to receive some oxygen from the air that passes through the wood of the barrel, and that oxygen is a necessary component for the phenols to form into larger molecules (polymers) that taste good instead of bitter and dry. Barrel-aged white wine like oaked chardonnay has a similar issue, since the alcohol in the wine can dissolve phenols (tannins) from the barrel itself. All these types of wines need sufficient aging time to allow the bad phenols to polymerize into attractive flavors. We now have a better understanding of why red wine, which has very high tannin levels after initial fermentation, is virtually always sold a few years after the harvest, and why wine can continue to improve its flavor while stored in a corked bottle for up to 15 years.
The second fun wine science topic we covered in our session was the interaction of our taste buds with the compounds in wine. The short version is that tannins are highly attracted to the proteins on our taste buds, so after a sip or two of very tannic wine (like the big cabernets that Napa is known for) our taste buds are fully engaged with the tannins that are stuck on the taste receptors and we are virtually unable to taste anything more. The way to reopen the taste buds — “cleansing the palate” — is to consume something that the tannins will stick to even more vigorously, thereby leaving the taste buds behind. The solution is something with a lot of protein and fat, like a bite of juicy steak or a slice of cheese. Our class featured lots of “show and tell” episodes of sipping wines with various tannin levels and examining how our perception of the wine changed as our palates became clogged, then cleansing the palate with crackers dipped in olive oil. It was a fun way to learn about the human body and also have a much firmer understanding of food and wine pairing.
In addition to geeking out on the science of wine, we also enjoyed hearing Mr. Hendry’s first-hand perspective on the changes in Napa during his lifetime and the challenges of being in the wine business. The seminars are limited to eight people, and during our off-season visit we had only one other couple in our seminar, making for an intimate group and plenty of time for questions and discussion. Both the small-group setting and having the opportunity to meet with the owner and head winemaker of an established Napa winery was a real treat. We learned a ton, and the wine was also outstanding!
Tasting at Sequoia Grove
There are literally hundreds of different wineries in Napa, and virtually all of the wine is excellent, so it’s almost impossible for newbies to select a tasting itinerary with any expertise. We ended up doing our main Rutherford tasting experience at Sequoia Grove Winery, mostly as a result of random things. Their cabernet sauvignon was a wine that was recommended to us by a sommelier on our honeymoon, and we’ve enjoyed their products on special occasions ever since. Plus, we like the giant redwoods featured on the label. Thanks to these personal connections it made sense to us to choose Sequoia Grove out of hundreds of other equally appealing destinations. We knew we were on the right track when we arrived to see a timbered tasting room, flanked by towering redwoods, which really suited our style.
While our tasting did not feature the in-depth information presented at Hendry, we did spend an hour and a half tasting 9 different wines, ranging from a lovely crisp sauvignon blanc to an interesting series of single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons. Not surprisingly, we liked everything we tasted, and we were particularly intrigued by the importance of terroir. Different wines made by the same winemaker, using the same variety of grapes but grown in different climate/soil, can really taste very different. Like at Hendry, we walked out with a fairly large haul of wine which, due to space constraints in the trailer, we will have to drink soon. So sad for us.
Our campground for our short Napa stay was at the fairgrounds, which was a first for us. The Napa Valley Expo Center has a small but very nice RV park attached to the fairgrounds, and it is both perfectly situated for visiting Napa Valley and within easy walking distance of downtown Napa. All that convenience comes at a price, of course, and at $54 per night with our Good Sam discount, it was much more expensive than our normal accommodations. In fact, everything in Napa seemed disproportionately expensive. Wine tastings — just tastings, not classes or seminars — typically start at $30 per person and can reach stratospheric prices for rare vintages. We saved a little money, and saved ourselves from rampant drunkenness, by sharing tastings. We also purchased wine in our winery visits, which generally meant the tasting charges were waived.
One afternoon we walked from our campground to downtown Napa, where we like the mix of historic buildings and newer buildings with wide sidewalks and open courtyards, making the downtown very walkable and pedestrian-friendly. It was neat to wander through the bustling Oxbow Public Market, a food hall with over 20 specialty vendors selling goods ranging from cheese and olive oil to chocolates and cupcakes to books and cooking equipment. The restaurants included an oyster bar, pizza restaurant, and high end taco place. Like the rest of downtown Napa, everything looked great but was also shockingly expensive.
We found this town to be a strange blend of people in very different financial situations. The entire area is fundamentally an agricultural one, with a crop that requires a large number of farm laborers to do the intensive, hands-on work of cultivating wine grapes. Layered on top is a significant hospitality industry, with its large supporting cast of food servers, hotel workers, and the like. With so many service and field workers, there is a decided working class quality to the town. Yet at the same time the area is filled with people zipping around in luxury cars, paying hundreds of dollars per day for wine tastings and consuming ridiculously expensive restaurant food along with $100 bottles of wine. While we really enjoyed our stop here, there are probably better values to be had in other less-touted wine growing regions of California. We will be sure to check out others during our time in the Golden State.
After this brief inland stop, we’re headed back to the Pacific for a few days at Point Reyes National Seashore.