It’s amazing how quickly the landscape changes after you have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. A few miles of the curving, undulating 101 freeway, mere moments after the childish thrill of driving over the mist wreathed bridge and a few quotes from Dirty Harry and Kojak have passed and you are amongst green and sun dappled hills. Slowly, but steadily, the vineyards appear and then everywhere you look is covered in the orderly ranks of gnarled vines and every quarter mile seems to offer the possibility of utter alcoholic surrender.
Our initial destination was Yountville, about half way up the Napa Valley and only about an hour and a half from the middle of San Francisco, for our date with Mr Keller’s kitchen. The wider aim was to drink wine, with as few quotes as possible from the movie Sideways and perhaps even to have a drop or two of Merlot. If they were still actually making any.
We’d come utterly unprepared, as ever. We knew we wanted to go wine tasting and even knew that we should probably try the odd Pinot. We weren’t quite prepared for the vast number of wineries that we would possibly have to contend with. We weren’t quite prepared for the sheer size of the hangover that The French Laundry would provide us with. So in the end it boiled down to us, one full day’s tasting and in the best traditions of the A-Team, a plan. And it came together. Sort of.
Cannily, we asked someone who actually knew a thing or two about the area some advice. Don, at Napa Wines on Taylor Street and O’Farrell in the city, had kindly turned our enquiry into how far away Napa actually was (tourists, huh!) into a full blown dissertation, with visual aids, of the Napa Valley and Russian River. The Russian River Valley is part of Sonoma County and nestles to the west of its more illustrious cousin and being less well known, was full of undiscovered gems. Also, they didn’t generally make you pay for tastings like they do in the high falutin’ Napa Valley. We were sold.
Heading towards Healdsburg in the heart of the Russian Valley you take the Petrified Forest Road just after Calistoga near the top of the Napa Valley. Two rather sleepy but very American tourist attractions break up the journey. The eponymous Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser. These have a melancholy charm, a sense that both had seen busier days, the ghosts of a million family holidays from the 1950’s wafting through them. The Geyser was true to its name, though the promise of “Amazing Fainting Goats” turned out to be a pen of very sweet but generally very upright kids. The Petrified Forest was oddly unsatisfying.
Healdsburg is a very pretty, very high end sort of place. Like many of the towns we passed though in the area it seemed to be filled with restaurants, galleries, wine shops and a whole host of places you could drop some serious wedge. We were pondering where the hell we were going to find a Target whilst munching cupcakes and drinking coffee in the gardens of the town square (I’d run out of clean t-shirts). The provisions came from The Downtown Bakery and Creamery, a stunning little place full of great bread and lovely looking cakes, just across the street. We were winding down from our utter failure to navigate and the circuitous route we had ended up taking. Luckily, despite the fact we had used up a significant portion of the morning trying to tally up the three of four terrible maps we had with the universally terrible street signage, there were a few wineries on our list right there in town so we could re-plan our route and still take in many of the gems picked out for us by Don.
I’ll come to my pick of wines later in the week, but I just need to point out how little I know about wine. No, that’s not strictly true. I know enough about wine to embarrass myself in front of people who do know something about wine. So here goes. My general impressions of the Russian River were that I found the Pinots fussy and troublesome, a bit too much like hard work and needing a great deal of attention but once you got there, they were ace. I had much more luck with some Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels and fell in love with a fair few Sauvignon Blancs and even the odd Chardonnay. I found myself liking the wines that were very New World in style a great deal and not liking the European styled wines very much at all. Sadly, I didn’t taste a single Merlot. Like I say I reckon they’ve stopped making it after than damn film came out, probably got some left in Napa though.