The study of wine fascinates me. The more I study the more I know how little I know. This, however, cannot stop me from pursuing the subject of my choice. For, knowledge is infinite–knowledge is power- and I wish to be as powerful as one can be.
Jasbeer Sachdev is a wine professional currently working for Brindco Limited.
Inspired by this ideal, I am always on the exploration spree and dream a lot. I have been to Italy and France and way back have been dreaming of going over to California and seeing for myself how the cultivation of hashish in Sonoma County and elsewhere has been replaced by grape growing and that to setting the finest standards the world over of wine culture.
I didn’t realize the meaning of my dreams till one day my executive director Aman Dhall called me to tell- his decision to send me to California, USA to attend a very important symposium on wine culture in April- May 2007 and an extensive tour of wineries of Sonoma and Napa Valley. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I didn’t sleep that night!
California is a huge state roughly equivalent to the size of Germany, Belgium and Netherlands put together. The vineyards cover more than 2,24,000 hectares of land and produce almost three billion bottles per year making it fourth largest producer in the world after Italy, France and Spain. The vineyards are scattered throughout the state. Amongst the best wine producing regions of California are the Sonoma and Napa valleys to the north of San Francisco and Monterey County to the south.
While the styles of wines vary considerably, Californian wines often have a higher alcoholic percentage and more concentration of flavour than European equivalents. The Americans are fond of the big, bold and the beautiful. No wonder that on offer here are one litre bottles of wine as well.
California’s coastal vineyards present a breathtaking panorama of one of the most beautiful wine growing regions in the world. The infinite charm of the wineries, golden avenues, beautiful eateries, and, above all, splendid wine takes your breath away. Oh, la la. Is there life worth living beyond this?
The Pacific Rim Symposium in Santa Rosa, California is an annnual event of great importance. It’s the brain child of KJWE (Kendall Jackson Wine Estates) and several of its affiliates. The attendees specially selected from all over the world interact effectively with wine makers, taste different varietals from each of the wineries, attend training seminars and educational meetings as well as travel to many wineries and facilities located in Sonoma and Napa counties.
KJWE, one of the largest wine companies, is engaged in commercial trade besides producing a broad portfolio of premium wines from California, South America, Australia, France and Italy. KJWE being America’s premium selling brand has been on a medal winning spree in the International trade fairs.
In a welcome note to the Jackson Wine Estates International Wine Classic all participants were told while the purpose of the visit primarily was education, learning more about wine and training, yet there was plenty to do to relax and have fun. Educational materials helpful items, maps of most vineyards covered in the trip were provided freely. Not only that, there were hats for all to protect us from sunny California’s sun and keep cool. The dress regulations provided for an informal light jacket over a Kendall-Jackson T- shirt in the mornings. Wine reception on the first night was terrific.
Before moving on to some of the famous wineries of Sonoma and Napa valleys, it will be prudent to refer to the extraordinary appellations and microclimate of Sonoma County, which is the biggest.
Sonoma County Appellations
Counties are the political divisions and appellations the statement of the places. Sonoma County – a premier appellation in its own right – is blessed with a wonderful variety of distinctive wine places. These viticultural areas reflect clearly the identity of wine, its character and the type of grapes that can best be grown to its full potential. Appellations are also referred to as a combination of soil, slope and sunshine and includes all weather related factors: sufficient rainfall, irrigation, temperature, the moderating effect of some body of water – ocean, bay or river. Sonoma County has all these in abundance.
North is hot and south cool. It’s home to the best of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The revered food stuff of Sonoma includes goat cheese, Muscovy duck, Pacific oysters and flavourful farm produce. Life in Sonoma county revolves around the bounty of the land. Grape vines and olives have replaced orchards and fields of hops. There is good food, good wine and good people.
The viticultural areas of Sonoma valley include Sonoma mountain, Sonoma coast, Russian river, Green Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley. On the northernmost edge of San Francisco Bay is the Carneros region. In the wet lands tiny pink brine shrimp thrive in salt marshes. The thin-soiled gently rolling hills spill over into neighbouring Napa Valley.
Some famous Wineries:
Kendall-Jackson Estate controls 12,000 acres of vineyards. The vineyards are spread over Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. At least four million cases of wine were exported last year. The company is a family affair. Jess Jackson at 74 is the hardest working CEO and wife Barbara serves as board chairwoman.
Relentlessly committed to producing only the finest quality wines from grapes grown in California’s cool coastal vineyards, Kendall Jackson wines depict consistency in every product they offer. All aging of Chardonnay though very expensive is done in French oak barrels to give it a unique toasty taste.
It takes a lifetime with tremendous costs to know that growing grapes on the uplands and side of the mountains build character. Nowhere is this expression better found than in KJ’s wines. Infact each growing region adds its own special touch to the KJ wines. The Mendocino county bench land vineyards give the red wines, intense, deep spice and cedar flavours and the white wines, apple and pear flavours. Sonoma county mountains and hillside vineyards add black cherry flavours to the reds, and Napa Valley mountain vineyards add wild blackberry and mocha character. Monterey and Santa Barbara vineyards give KJ’s white wine their citrus, lime, mango and pineapple flavours.
Benzinger Family Winery
This is eighty five acre ranch owned by the Benzinger family in Sonoma mountain appellation.
Its chief attributes and attractions are:
The snazzy red Massey 375 tractor that takes visitors on 45-minute tram tours of the winery estate vineyards and gardens. Here organic farming practices of cultivating grapes are at their best. You come to see the natural way of pest control by a host of beneficial creatures. Part of the fun is looking for songbirds, butterflies and small animal populace.
The Benzinger family winery occupies a 360 degree bowl formed by volcanic explosions from Sonoma Mountain some two million years ago that created a wide spectrum of sun exposures, elevations and soil profiles. Here days are warm to hot with cool nights, well suited to several grape varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. The others include Chardonnay, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah.
In 2000, the Benzinger vineyards were the first to be certified biodynamic by Demeter Association in either Napa or Sonoma County. Biodynamic require the elimination of all chemicals and artificial inputs in order to encourage the most natural and health environments in and around the vineyards.
Jordan Vineyard and Winery
Parts of Sonoma County resemble French wine country. The 1,500 acre estate on an oak-studded hill in the Alexander Valley has several parallels to 18th century chateaux of south western France. A statue of Bacchus, the god of wine graces the entrance. Thomas Jordan is the owner. Geyser Peak and Mount St Helena are the most dramatic focal points of Alexander Valley. These are the result of ancient volcanic activity.
In Jordan you can see Tuscan olive trees that produce fruit for the winery’s award winning, organic extra-virgin oil. Here the top specialties are Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Chardonnay.
Tours at Jordan wend their way along a path with sweeping views of hillside vineyards, olive groves and an organic vegetable and flower garden. Wine making is covered in some detail in the production facility. Each tour ends with a tasting session of current releases of wine in a comfortable library, where guests are invited to linger.
The very first page of family album says it all. The Cakebread family is an outstanding example of people who demonstrate commitment not only to the quality of their wines, but to everything they do. Jack and Dolores Cakebread and their sons Bruce, Dennis and Steve, along with daughter-in- law Karen, have each helped to successfully establish Cakebread Cellars as one of the premier wineries in the Napa Valley.
While Jack along with his three sons planted vineyards, Dolores has been busy with growing flowers and vegetable gardens. The latter have become today an integral part of the winery’s extensive hospitality programme.
Cakebread Cellars vineyards are spread over 800 acres of land. Total annual production is 95,000 cases. All tours and tastings are by prior appointment. This allows the winery to host small groups and maintain quality of experience. The Cakebread family are the best hosts and have friends from all over the world visiting them, both old and new. Specialty wines are Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay Rubaiyat Pinot Noir/Syrah blend and Sauvignon Blanc.
No matter which wine-growing region in the world you visit, it is the same rustic charm and natural beauty that greets you. From the chalky slopes of Champagne, France, to the winding county roads of Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, warm feelings engulf you in majestic surroundings.