Day Six-November 12, 2009

The day is my own.  I admit, I miss the hustle and work at the winery.  But now I give my arms and back a chance to recover.

My first stop of the day was an unscheduled visit to Van der Heyden winery in the southern end of Silverado Trail.  Bruce, the wine club manager at AO suggested I stop by this small winery as he had worked for them some years ago.

The winery owner, Andre Van der Heyden was working the tasting room….and what a room.  A stark contrast to the deep dark wood or steel and glass of many Napa wineries, Andre’s room was tiny, homey, loaded with memorabilia plus dogs coming and going and wanting attention.

Several old bottles stood on the bar displaying the many metals Andre’s wine has won over the past 32 years in Napa.  He had old labels on the walls…..bumper stickers….nick nacks….notes from past guests…a signed NFL football….signed baseballs…..you name it, it was on the wall or in a glass cabinet.

Andre  is a character and had more ‘one-liners’ than I could ever remember but he started the tasting conversation saying ‘as you can see, we make about 34 wines’…..evidenced by the six bottles sitting on the bar.  Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rose, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and the worlds only late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon (Andre’s words, not mine).

If you ever make it to Napa Valley, Van der Heyden is a place to see…and easy to miss….on Silverado Trail just north of Truncas Street…..it’s a treat!

Lunch at Taylors Refresher in St. Helena.  Nuff said!

I headed up Spring Mountain (one of my favorite places in Napa) for the scheduled visit with Suzanne Pride Bryan, co-owner of Pride Mountain Winery.  Her brother, Steve is partner in the business.

I don’t know just how many times I’ve said that some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are those living in wine country….but without a doubt, Suzanne stands high on the list.

Her hospitality is exceptional.  Her generosity, by giving me her 2 hours of her time was simply without compare!  Suzanne’s stories and love of this property show her passion for life and the business of making wine.  She is amazing!

We started with the interview in her simple almost tiny office.  Yet it was a very comfortable space.

Afterwards she took me for a tour of the property which included the original Summit Winery from 1860 of which only some of the four walls of the three story structure still stand.  Amazing views from the very top of Spring Mountain could never be captured with a simple camera.  She also showed me the horse stable consisting of three draft horses of which you could tell Suzanne was very fond of.

The winery sits on the county line of Napa and Sonoma.  That’s creates an interesting logistical situation not equaled by any other winery that I am aware of in California.

Suzanne’s humor and sincerity made this one of my favorite interviews.  I left the mountain feeling very grateful for this time.

Originally I had planned to stop by a local Oakville tasting room featuring folks making their very own wines, specifically one recommended by Jose (from AO) but time slipped away and I missed the opportunity.  With any luck, I’ll have another chance before I leave Napa.

The final stop of the day was Frazier Winery in the soon to be named sub-appellation of Coombsville, which is located directly east of the city of Napa.

Adam Caterino and Kim Frazier Caterino welcomed me in the Frazier cave (which was much bigger than I would have expected for a small producer) where we did the interview in the comfortable confines of a sectioned off tasting room.

During the interview we tasted their Merlot as well as their Cabernet Sauvignon “Memento” named in dedication to a family member.

One of the best parts of meeting and interviewing people is to see the independent nature of these folks.  They make wine their own way.  They focus the label on their passions.  Best of all they love to share education in wine.

Needless to say we chatted far beyond the interview.  I left the cave feeling that I have once again made new friends.

In finished the day with dinner at Go Fish, another one of Cindy Pawlcyn’s restaurants.  Excellent Snapper….head, tail, eyeballs and all!

Day Seven-November 13, 2009

It’s 6:30 in the morning….still dark outside…still very quiet….breakfast is done and my lunch is packed….back to the winery for my final day in the cellar.

I don’t think I could ever explain the feeling I had working side by side with these guys.  The simple fact that they accepted me without question and allowed me to record and photograph them during the workday made me completely at ease.

I will miss them all.

7am and Raphial and I are punching the caps in the new hot room then heading over to the other room to finish.

Around 10am I spend some time with Charly and do a last brief interview….always interesting, always very fun to talk to so we chat, and chat.

At this point I need to apologize for originally spelling his name incorrectly….sorry Charly.

Next over to Henrik for another brief interview…..his knowledge of wine is encyclopedic.  His manner makes you want to stay and chat all day.

Before I jump back in to work I have a moment to have a personal chat with Jean….just two friends talking….that is for me to keep.

Next, I worked with Marko in the big tank room as we do 8 pump overs…..should I say that we handled several million dollars worth of wine??

Yikes!!

Lunch in the new ‘employee’ lunch area with Pierre (bordered by a small farm with cows and sheep that will one day, hopefully be owned by AO).

More punch downs with Rafael plus a chance to get last minute photos.

I help Pierre with more pump overs in the big tank room….then selected punch downs in the new hot room.

I finish the day with the very same task I did on my first day….stirring the Lees in the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Lots of barrels.  Very cold as the juice spills from the bunghole while I stir.  Great smells!!!!!

It’s almost six…..I say goodbye to some of the guys….and Henrik…and then have another conversation with Charly…..a great way to end the day.

The crew at Alpha Omega showed me respect, cooperation and patience and I thank them for their friendship.  I came in as a stranger and ended up being treated like family.

For this opportunity, I am very grateful.

I have made new friends…..understood the depth it takes to make a bottle of wine….and had a hell of a good time.

When I raise a glass next time with friends…I’ll think of my friends at AO.

Thanks you guys!

More interviews ahead on the weekend….no REAL days off….but this is Napa…..a second home for me…..it just really couldn’t get any better, could it?

Day whatever-November 14th, 2009

Early day for interviews…the first and one of the most important ones to me is Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards.  Robin’s family goes back over 130 in the Napa Valley wine business.

Her great-great-Uncle was Gustave Niebaum, a Danish sea captain who came to Napa in 1879 and created an exceptional wine called Iglenook.  Although the name today is hardly a shadow of what it once was, the name Niebaum lives on in the winery called Rubicon Estate, owned by Francis Ford Coppola.  Coppola purchased the property and started making wine in the 1970’s during the making of his film Apocolypse Now.

Robin’s father was John Daniel who carried on the tradition of fine wine from 1933 to 1964 at the same location and was a legend of innovation and quality in the Napa Valley.

For me, meeting Robin was wonderful.

I have read about her fantastic family history as well as her own history in the wine business. Robin has worked with talents like Robert Mondavi and Bill Harlan just to name a couple.

I met her at her private residence up on Howell Mountain, being greeted by her two large and friendly dogs.  I was also able to meet her husband Jon Lail which was also a pleasure as he is an architect in the wine business building tasting rooms, wineries as well as caves.

Robin was warm, friendly and more giving than I could ever have imagined.  She spoke candidly about the family past, Lail Vineyards present and the hope for the future.

She is known for her attitude of perfection in winemaking.  I like that she named her Cabernet ‘Blueprint’.  Nice.

Robin’s interview will likely be the first, single person podcast that we’ve done to date.  Her place in American wine history is amazing and she tells the story with love.

After the interview with Robin I drove down Howell Mountain and went by one of my favorite stops…a retail wine collective called 12 Vintners.

There, I had a very good chat with Rick as well as tasted some limited release wines from some of the smallest makers around such as Watermark, Black Bart and others.

After lunch in Calistoga, I wandered around and enjoyed the Napa sights.  Took a quick side trip to the outskirts of downtown Sonoma to catch up with our good friend Janice Morrish.  We had met Janice several years ago while she was working at Rubicon Estate. These days she is currently at the tasting room of Buena Vista.

Sadly for us the tasting room was packed so I had no chance to say hi….but with luck she’ll read this and know we were thinking of her.

The evening would be spent at Chimney Rock Winery on Silverado Trail for a brief cello performance.

At Chimney Rock we met up with winemaker Elizabeth Vianna for a brief interview before a concert taking place in the cellar featuring Grammy Award winning Chellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio .

The performance, which was for CR wine club members featured a candle light dinner preceded by a brief performance of Bach concertos which were based on an idea Sara and Elizabeth collaborated on.

Sara’s enthusiam was contagious as she introduced each brief piece in detail.  Her talent is exceptional and the acoustics in the cellar proved to be the perfect stage for the performance.

I was lucky to get a short inverview with Sara just after the concert while she was still smiling ear to ear.

The night was magical.

Day eight-November 14th, 2009

Today was dedicated entirely to Sonoma.

With special thanks to Tim Zahner and Tina Luster of  Sonoma County Tourism, the interviews were arranged in advance for me which made my job simpler and a bit less hectic.

Although I’ve never taken the rivalry between Sonoma and Napa very seriously, Some folks do.  But the winemaker at my next stop has no problem with Napa….he simply feels that both areas have brought the world’s attention to California and in his mind, everybody wins.

Dan Glover is the winemaker at Dutcher Crossing on Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg.

Dan is the first African-American winemaker I have had the opportunity to talk to.  Plus he works for owner Debra Manthy who is also African-American.  Nice to see such diversity in the wine biz….again, everyone wins!!!!

After learning that Dan was originally from Rochester, NY, I was shocked to hear that he is a Cleveland Browns fan!

My hometown team has suffered for years but what the heck, if we have fans originally from New York now living in Sonoma, we still have a chance!!

After my time with Dan I made a quick side stop at the Sbragia winery just up the road.  Some nice wines…nice enough that I left with a cabernet.

Off  to the next interview which was Denise Gill, General Manager of Hop Kiln winery in Healdsburg.

After doing a tasting with the hospitality folks, which included their fabulous ‘Rushin River Red’ and the very nice Malbec, I tasted the new HK Pinot…..one of the best Pinots I’ve tasted in Sonoma….excellent!

Denise is a very interesting person to talk to….among other things, she is a professional wine tasting judge.  In other words she is one of those people that has the ability to blind taste and identify any varietal, style or even a vintage!

Denise once again demonstrated the great hospitality that Sonoma is known for.  A lovely woman with the true passion for wine.

From Hop Kiln I was off to my final interview of the day….and I would have to say the best as well.

Zazu Restaurant & Farm is located basically in the middle of nowhere just outside of Santa Rosa.

The proprietors are Duskie Estes and John Stewart.  Two of the funniest, interesting most enjoyable people I’ve ever met.

If you read my June 2009 blog you may remember that I had met John at his (their) other restaurant ‘Bovolo’, which is on the square in Healdsburg….he was the guy with the pig tattoo on his arm.

And now I discovered that he also had circus elephants also tattooed on his upper arm.  The things I’ve learned in this business!

It’s well worth checking out the pictures of Zazu on our gallery page….the place is warm, homey and super cool…with a staff that exudes hospitality in the most sincere way.  A staff that also includes Zowie from  Bravo’s Top Chef.

After a great interview, they welcomed me to stay for dinner serving me what might be quiet possible the best pork chop I’ve ever had…..flavorfull and cooked perfectly the meal was a delight.

The wine I chose was none other than Chris Donatiello’s, C. Donatiello Pinot Noir.  A great meal with some great people.

Duskie’s energy and smile along with John’s humor and passion (OK, each quality is interchangeable with these two) made me want to hang out all night.

Their emphasis on local food as well as local diners is impressive but that’s only because it works!

Home to pack…..ready to go home…..ready to sleep…..ready to leave……I don’t wanna go.

Day Nine-November 16th, 2009

I stopped by Alpha Omega early this morning to say goodbye…..but Jean has said that I am now family…..so with that, I will visit and see my extended family at every opportunity.

(I miss that 6:30am drive to the winery…..drag)

(no cap to punch in Wisconsin)

I’ve fallen behind on my blogging so here I write on a Puddle Jumper from Denver to Milwaukee, with great memories of the best trip to wine country I’ve ever had.

The two words that come to mind to best describe the folks I’ve met and interviewed are passion and sincerity.

There is no man I’ve met with greater passion than Jean Hoefliger.

No kinder soul than Robin Lail.

No easier to talk to person than Charly de Pottere.

No more dedicated and silly people than John Stewart and Duskie Estes.

No more humble man than Jose Hernandez.

No sweeter smile than Denise Gill.

No better cellar crew than Enrique, Salvador, Rafael, Piere, Albaro, Everardo, Marko, Rafael,

No more generous, fun and just plain good person than Chelsea Bellows.

As I raise a glass and look into the deep red color of the grape juice I toast the folks that bring that juice to life and to passion.

Salute!

rf

Written by Ray Fister

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