From Napa Valley to the North Fork

In the past month I have had the good fortune to visit not one , but two wine regions.  A brief visit to Northern California took me to California’s Napa Valley.  I had not been to Napa in nearly five years which is a long time considering I used to try and get in at least one trip each year prior to that.  So even a short afternoon visit sufficed to satisfy my yearning to go back.  This past weekend I visited the wineries on the North Fork of Long Island.  Aside from a quick visit to Wolffer Vineyards in Southhamption a few years ago with my son, I had not been to this wine region in more than ten years.  It was a surprisingly enjoyable experience and both trips allowed me the opportunity to introduce the pleasures of wine tasting to people who had not experienced it before. 

A few weeks ago I had to go on a whirlwind trip to San Francisco for a business conference.  In late Sunday evening, out on Tuesday night red eye.  One would think this wouldn’t leave much time for a jaunt to Napa Valley which is about 1.5 hours Northeast of the city.  But we managed to carve an afternoon out on Monday to do just that.  After all, technology today allows us to take our emails wherever we go and respond to anything urgent from anywhere.  With limited time, our mission had to be focused.  One person in our group had never been wine tasting and is a huge fan of California Cabs.  This made it easy to make our target the Silverado Trail – arguably home to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon produced in California.  The two wineries we settled on with our limited amount of time were Stags Leap and Silverado Vineyards.  I wanted to visit Shafer but they offer tastings by appointment only.
Wine tasting in California has evolved into big business since my first visit some 15 years ago when all tastings were free and many of the wineries were just starting to make a name for themselves.  Tourists mostly just flocked to Robert Mondavi or Sterling and only those with a true enjoyment for wine ventured to the smaller ones.  As the American consumption of wine has increased over that time, the region and its wineries have become a major tourist attraction for all who want to taste wine and feel a part of the wine drinking culture.  In response to this demand, most wineries today charge for tastings and will often offer several options of tasting menus at various price points.  While I knew this to be true, I was not prepared for the current price tags which range from $25 – $65.  Sonoma has traditionally been less than Napa, but since we did not visit I am not certain that is still the case.  Hoping to have that opportunity soon and report back in a future post.

We chose the premium tasting at Stags Leap ($45 per tasting) which included all of their rare, high quality wines.  This was not a rushed event as at some wineries but then again it was a Monday afternoon.  I imagine the weekend rush brings a different experience.  We sipped our healthy pours of each wine going back to the start to evaluate, discuss our preferences, and what we enjoyed about each one.  It was a wonderful way to relax in the middle of an otherwise chaotic trip.  An hour later we moved on to Silverado Vineyards where we tasted 8 wines for a price of $25.  Again some very nice wines, in particular their Solo, Zinfandel & Malbec which are only available through the winery.  Another hour and the purchase of 4 cases later, we were thoroughly glad we had chosen to venture out, but it was time to get some food. 
Napa Valley is full of many great restaurants.  The French Laundry by Thomas Keller of course being one of the most famous.  Since reservations there must be made two months in advance, I suggested we try Michael Chiarello’s Bottega which I had not been to but wanted to try.  Unfortunately it was 3pm and they did not open for dinner until 5pm and we had not eaten much of a lunch.  So, we headed North to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone where I have eaten on several previous trips.  If you’re ever visiting the region, a visit to Greystone is a must.  A visit of the campus is fascinating and the food served in the restaurant is exceptional.  The restaurant is run completely by the students just as their campus in Hyde Park, NY which boasts four separate restaurants. 
CIA @ Greystone
I was given the task of selecting the wine to order for us.  Since we had been drinking young Cabernets from ’08 and ’09 all afternoon, I decided to show my dinner mates the difference in taste of a slightly older vintage.  I chose the Heitz Cellar 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was a beautiful wine that paired perfectly with my meal of braised short rib over creamy polenta.  The others were pleased with my selection also and enjoyed it with their choices.  Dinner finished and wine bottle empty, we headed back to San Francisco to our hotel to face the conference we had come for.

While I won’t bore you with the details of the conference I must make mention of a special event to which we were invited Tuesday evening before heading to the airport – a wine tasting at The Press Club.  This place is nothing like any wine venue I have seen before.  The wines poured were fantastic and hard to find.  Each wine style was given its own bar in different rooms that flowed into each other.  The food served in each room was paired with the wine poured in that area.  This is a must visit the next time you’re in San Francisco.  How often does one get to do a vertical tasting of Chateau Montelena?  That was the highlight of the evening for me.  Sadly we had to leave early to catch our flight home, but I believe we made the most of the time we had and managed to be productive on the business front as well.



The Press Club


This past Saturday I took another wine tasting newbie to visit the North Fork of Long Island.  The trip is about three hours from home for me (we were lucky enough to not hit any traffic).  The day started off cloudy and misty and we were a little skeptical of what the weather would bring us.  But it turned out to be a spectacular day and we visited six wineries in total – Roanoke, Palmer, Shinn Estate, Macari, McCall & Lenz.  My friend prefers to drink reds and finds that white wines have an adverse effect on him.  Since Long Island has been known to produce only decent quality white wines such as Chardonnay in the past, I was a little worried about what we would be tasting.  But I did my research and chose most of our stops based on their reputation for red wines, particularly Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The last time I visited the Long Island wine region many years ago, I considered their product no better than swill.  The whites were too fruity, low acid, grape juice.  The reds were worse with very little balance to the wine and funky nose & flavors.  Our experience on Saturday changed my perception of Long Island wines.  In fact I liked them better than those I tasted in the Finger Lakes region last summer.  The people at Roanoke were friendly and knowledgeble and provided a great introduction for the day with some excellent wines.  I tasted whites and reds alike while my friend stuck to the reds.  Our favorite Cab. Franc was at Macari, favorite Merlot at Roanoke and Shinn Estate.  We were even surprised to find a very good ’07 Pinot Noir at McCall.  I happen to think Lenz, the second oldest winery on Long Island, makes a very good sparkling Blanc de Noir using methode champenoise, but equally liked their Gewurztraminer which had all the classic floral aromas of the grape and an excellent balance to the wine.  Palmer was probably the most touristy of our visits but hey one must experience everything on the first go around.
After the third winery we stopped for lunch at Love Lane Kitchen which is located on, what else but, Love Lane in Aquebogue.  Anyone who knows me can picture me gagging when I saw that the street sign was in the shape of a red heart.  Corny name aside, my mahi mahi tacos were quite good and the friendly restaurant appears to be a popular spot with the locals and tourists alike and makes for a nice quick stop for lunch. 
Lenz was our final stop and afterwards we proceeded to drive the remaining 15 minutes to reach the eastern most tip of the North Fork – Orient Point where my friend had never gone before.  After all, we had spent the entire day on an island but had yet to see the water so this was a must do.  It was now 7pm and we were at the end of a wonderful day.  After a last look at the lighthouse and water, we headed back West to have dinner with some friends.  Of course we brought the wine. 
If you live in the New York area and have never ventured to the Long Island wine region, I highly recommend that you get out there and discover this fun outing that will transport you to a land of farms and open fields making you forget the hustle and bustle of the everyday.  A trip to Napa & Sonoma is also a wonderful escape but must not be rushed.  I suggest allowing at least 4 to 6 days to bask in the complete experience of the California wine country with hot air balloon rides, biking, amazing cuisine, and just the enjoyment of the glorious surroundings that await you.
One final note – On both these trips I offered to be the designated driver.  Being a designated driver doesn’t mean you can’t taste the wines.  I simply carry large plastic cups (opaque please) with me and spit out the wine after I taste.  With so much wine consumed at each location, it is quite easy to get inebriated very quickly.  So please practice good judgment and make sure you have a designated driver who will taste but not drink.
Happy Wining!!

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