October 5th 2017
From the architectural grandness of Napa, Alexander Valley and St Helena to the simplicity of the Sonoma vineyards, it has been a wonderful week.
We have met great people and tasted some spectacular wines. Surprising as this may seem but for the first 3 day I was completely in the hands of that world renowned jeweller, auctioneer and Shropshire landowner Humphrey Butler. I never thought I would write this but Humphrey is a hero amongst some of the most famous Californian wineries. He has been the auctioneer at the two great charity wine auctions in the United States, Napa and Naples, and raised a phenomenal amount of money. So it was because of him that the doors to Silver Oak, Promontory, Harlan and Colgin were thrown wide open. It was also a week of a genuine firsts: we left one vineyard with a bottle and a joint!
There have been so many highlights. We started with David Duncan who greeted me with the welcoming words, “hi gimpy “. He then showed us round the new Silver Oak facility in Alexander Valley which is both functional and beautiful. The tasting rooms were still unfinished so there was not a drop to drink. The only wine to taste was the free run juice from a small pressing of Twomey 2017 Pinot Noir.
David had booked us into the Jimtown Store for lunch armed with a bottle of Silver Oak 2013. This is a good drop and with sales of 70,000 cases at around $70 dollars a bottle a brilliant business model. The Jimtown Store was delicious and gloriously inexpensive the only vaguely affordable lunch or dinner we have had all trip. Left the Jimtown Store in a Tesla with David Duncan, as our Uber driver, at the wheel. In Ludicrous Mode this is an extraordinary beast.
Arrived at Mole End, Robin Lail’s stunning house and view. We tasted through her wonderful reds but the surprise was Georgia 2015 Robin’s challenge to Ch Haut Brion Blanc, utterly delicious. Just a shame that Robin wasn’t there but we were joined by her huge hounds and looked after beautifully by Chantal.
The next day was dedicated to the Harlan vineyards. The morning visit was to Promontory. I have been lucky enough to visit stunning chateaux in Bordeaux and wineries with amazing views but I think Promontory might just top the lot. We were greeted by Charlie Williams who was armed with a bottle of Dom Pérignon 2004. The tour was brilliant and tasting memorable with the 2012 outshining the 2009.
The afternoon we were off to Harlan in the western hills of Oakville. Here Don Weaver poured glasses of Krug before he launched into stories about how he met Bill, how Harlan began, its development and its future. He is a superb raconteur who seems to know everyone in the wine world and hours passed helped by stories of swimming the Channel, motorbike rides with “chicks”, hitch hiking around Africa etc. The bottle of Krug finished, we retreated to the tasting room. Three great wines the 2014, 2012 and 2011.
That night we had dinner with Bill and Deborah Harlan at the delicious new restaurant Las Alcobas. The evening started early but ended late. It began with the best Margaritas I have ever had followed by the Araujo Sauvignon 2013, the last vintage before Frederick Engerer and Francois Pinault took over. Then a number of different Pinots, the best was the Du Mol 2014. The evening drifted on and included Deborah and Jo Wender (Colgin) bursting into songs from Oklahoma. Great for us but possibly not for the loved-up couple on the next-door table. Difficult to propose when listening to Jo!
Our next grand visit was to Colgin. Amazing views and brilliant visit with Sarah and then a tasting of the 1X and the Cariad 2014s. I must confess that after 44 years in the wine trade this was the first time I had ever tasted Anne Colgin’s wines. They were both fabulous and I was hugely impressed.
Then off to Sonoma. Arriving in Littorai neither the winery nor the views remind one of the Cote de Beaune. However once inside one could be back in Burgundy. This is not completely surprising as Littorai is owned by Ted and Heidi Lemon. I had met Ted over thirty years ago, when he was the very young wine maker at Domaine Roulot. It was a fantastic visit, the wines are sublime, balanced and elegant with an amazing purity of fruit. Ted set out in 1992 to find the best terroirs for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He buys in grapes from many of the best vineyards in the area as well as having his own vineyard in Sonoma Coast which is completely biodynamic. They make nearly all their own sprays and “teas” and the results are brilliant.
The last stop of the day was at Freeman Winery, for a really fun visit and excellent tasting with Ken Freeman. The wines have more weight but not quite the elegance of Littorai and were slightly more what I was expecting from Californian Pinots and Chardonnays. Ken runs the tastings while his wife does the real work!
On Thursday I had a wonderful visit to Ridge, my holy grail of Californian wines. I have huge admiration for what Paul Draper has achieved since he became the chief wine maker at Ridge in 1969. Put on the map by the Judgement of Paris in 1976 I have loved their wines for years though my cellar is sadly not as well stocked with Ridge as it should be.
It was a glorious day, the Lytton Spring Vineyard looked fantastic and we had a great tasting. Our visit was enhanced by Will Thomas, the Ridge viticulturist, who described himself as a self-confessed grape nerd. He was brilliant company and revealed that at his last count there were 35 different cépages in the Lytton Spring vineyard including Pinot Noir. Wonderful tasting. The Montebello 2014 was great but for value the 2015 Lytton Spring was utterly delicious. Earlier in the week the best wine we dank in a restaurant was the Lytton Spring 2009 at the Bouchon in St Helena.
Then off to Eric Sussman at Radio Coteau. Ok, not the easiest to find as Eric is very discreet. No signs but my struggling Uber driver (how can we Brits be so ridiculous as to ban Uber?) found it in the end. This is another star winery. Eric did his early wine work in France including internships at Petrus and Comte Armand. A wine maker in the mould of Ted Lemon producing wines of wonderful purity and balance. Uses different amounts of whole cluster depending on the various cuvees. All his Pinots showed beautifully. I possibly had a sneaking preference for the 2014 Terra Neuma. Will Thomas had given me the heads up to try the 2014 Riesling. Sadly, this was the last vintage but what a delight and a great way to finish my visit to Sonoma.