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Comanche Trace

The Napa and Sonoma Valleys

Posted by Don on February 1, 2013 at 3:06 AM

-What the Texas Wine Country Could Be One Day

For most of the 1990s, we owned a company in Northern California that supplied liquid handling equipment for industrial applications, including the wine industry. Our customers ranged from the huge E&J Gallo conglomerate to small mom and pop boutique wineries, who sell their wines only at their winery. I spent about three-to-four months of each year there and made great friends with many of the winery owners and winemakers. On weekends, I learned the process of grape planting, cultivation, harvesting, winemaking, sales, marketing, and the hospitality that kept visitors coming back. For those folks who enjoy wine, each visit to the valley can be a new and exciting, educational experience.

For those who don’t enjoy wine, it is a visit to a beautiful part of the world where top quality gourmet food and great hospitality abound. Great wine just like great food is made by the people who love what they do and want to share the experience, that is their life’s work, with others.

Recently, my wife Donna and I had the privilege of taking my Kerrville cousin Alan Lewis and his wife Linda on their first visit to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Our trip started in San Francisco because it currently has the most reasonable airfare from San Antonio and it is home to our absolute favorite Italian restaurant, Trattoria Contadina. They serve true rustic central Italian meals to a mostly local clientele. Great pastas, veal chops, and wellseasoned grilled chicken dishes grace their menu. The next morning began with a cable car ride across the city and then fresh Dungeness crab omelets with real Irish coffee at the historical Buena Vista Bar and Grill near Fisherman’s Wharf.

Entering the wine country
As we ventured the hour or so north of the city, we could see that some of the terrain of the California wine valleys resembles the Texas Hill Country. However, its ideal location near the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay complex makes it a nearly perfect climate for wine grape production. The warm days and foggy cold nights, with temperatures dropping into the 50s and lower almost every night of the year, are very influential in the cultivation of fine wine varietal grapes. Most of the valley is very poor soil, made of acidic volcanic ash and rock, that stresses the grape vines into producing fruit of high sugar and high acids. It does not have the high pH limestone of the Texas Hill Country.

A bit about wine
Wine is one of the oldest documented beverages in the world. It is a very fragile liquid, that is produced by the fermentation of the natural sugars in the grape into alcohol by yeast, that can be either natural from the surrounding air or added to the grapes when they are harvested. The grapes are brought into the winery after being either hand or machine picked and placed in 1000-pound capacity plastic bins. The bins are then dumped into a machine, called a stemmer, that mechanically removes the stems and leaves from the lot. White grapes then go into a hydraulic press, that presses the juice from the grapes and deposits it into barrels or stainless steel tanks for the fermentation process. The red grapes are stemmed and then the whole berries are placed in stainless steel tanks to ferment. With the exception of three grapes, all grape juice is white. The red wine skins and seeds are transported with the berries to give the juice its flavor, color and tannins. After the fermentation takes place, the red grapes are squeezed to remove the rest of the juice, and the liquid is placed into barrels to rest for up to three years to let the wine mature. The standard 60-gallon wood barrel made of French Oak now costs over $1200. At all of the wineries, the wine is handled much in the same way. The barrels are placed in climate controlled aging rooms, cellars, or caves that have been drilled into the mountains surrounding the valleys. Wine should be considered to be like milk, it should never see temperatures above 80 degrees or oxidation will begin ruining most wines. Keeping that in mind, why do many people place their wine racks on top of the refrigerator, which is one of the warmest areas of the home?

Back to our valley tour
We stayed in some small cottages in a friend’s backyard in Calistoga called Washington Street Lodging, a comfortable bed and a hot shower priced at $100 a night. It gave us more money for our wine purchasing activities. Calistoga is at the north end of the Napa Valley and closest to my great friend Vincent Arroyo’s winery. Although he has a long term and knowledgeable tasting room staff, Vince is almost ever present in the tasting room to answer any question you may have about the operations or to sign a special bottle for you. He is a former mechanical engineer, who came to the Napa Valley about 25 years ago to escape the corporate rat race. Vince was one of the pioneers for the Petite Sirah grape. A tour of the winery and tasting of the wines from the aging barrels, with the winemaker, gives you a great insight into the amount of work and expense that goes into making great wine. Arroyo’s production is about 8,000 cases per year.

Among the wineries we visited that week were Martin estate, a small production winery, and the massive Louis Martini complex in St. Helena. Our good friends, Greg and Petra Martin, own the Martin estate, which annually produces as few as 900 cases of wonderful cabernet, but is closed to the public. E & J Gallo own the Louis Martini complex, which corporately produces over 25 percent of all wine sold in the United States. We saw a similar production operation in all of the wineries.

Another great pleasure of the California Napa and Sonoma Valleys is the wealth of wonderful restaurants. Winter is a great time to visit so you can get a reservation at a reasonable hour at the fine establishments. Reservations are almost always required. Make them before you leave home on Opentable. com. From the Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives recommended Schellville Grill, with its parking-lot-smoker made pulled pork and burgers, to the exquisite Greystone Cellars restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America serving dishes like whole grilled striped bass and Niman Ranch Flat Iron Steak, the emphasis is on very fresh local foods prepared with a Chef’s personal pride that look as good as they taste. Almost all of them are operated by the owner/chef. Famous TV chefs such as Cindy Pawlcyn, Todd English, John Ash, Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello have active daily roles at their great dining establishments. You cannot get a bad meal in the California wine country.

So will the Texas Wine Country ever come close to offering the experience one has in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys?

There are definitely a few pointers and best practices that can be gleaned from the history and experience of the established California wine industry. The attentive care and love of the tourist business given by the owners and managers of all of the California Wine Country establishments - from wineries, to restaurants, to bakeries, to lodging facilities - is a business philosophy the Texas Wine Country could benefit from emulating. A winemaker’s ever-presence in the tasting room, the care and eagerness to answer questions posed by the more affluent wine connoisseur, the willingness to offer a taste of “under the counter” small production wines, a chef offering an interesting amuse before dinner as a gift for your presence, as well as presenting each kitchen offering as a piece of art are all things we Texans should request of our favorite wineries, restaurants, and bakeries in order to help the Hill Country Wine industry grow. California has had nearly one hundred years to perfect their art; we can learn from them and heighten the Texas Hill Country Wine experience.

“We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” – Benjamin Franklin


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