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Spring "release"--chapter 2

by Jon Rusciano

As Schramsberg’s Spring Camp concluded, I returned to my car which was parked in the lot of the Culinary Institute, north of St. Helena.  I hurried onward to the new residence.  My friends Calvin Hunt and Dave Belding were meeting me that evening back at the VRBO.com house (#114958) in Calistoga that we had rented for the balance of the week.  This place is north of Calistoga facing directly toward Hwy. 29.   It is set back far enough from the road so the traffic noise was not a bother.  Its owner, Theresa Young, was as pleasant and accommodating as the last Napa VRBO house owner with whom I had dealt.  However, Theresa did not require a contract, which was comforting.

I arrived in advance of Calvin and Dave, so I opened the door and hauled in my luggage, preceding my inspection.  Every feature was exactly as she had described to me, and as picture-perfect as a post card.   The third bedroom was in the back of the garage, and since I am the smallest guy in the group, it was more of a natural for me.   Only about 30 minutes passed before the others arrived.   I could tell by the grins on their faces and grape stains on their teeth that they had stopped at a winery or two along the way. 

Dave is a fan of the Elyse Winery near Yountville, so that had been their main diversion along the way.  The salesman had tempted him with some of their Library offerings at an impressive discount, so besides bringing a few bottles for our enjoyment during the trip, he purchased 3 cases of the wine for shipping back to his residence in Houston.  BTW, Dave is the “heaviest hitter” of wine purchases between the three of us.  During many of our winery visits this trip, he struck me as a “kid in a candy store,” with some significant wine acquisitions, without his trademark “Cheshire Cat” smile ever leaving his face.  (He did get solemn once, when he mentioned some of his purchases to his wife on a cell phone call, and she responded, “You spent how much?”)

The two of them decided which bedroom they would take, and everyone settled in for a nice glass of some of Dave’s Elyse Cabernet out at a picnic table in the backyard garden.  Theresa’s place was wonderful, with all the conveniences of home (Cabernet glasses, fancy wine bottle openers, the works).   Thirty minutes before my restaurant reservation, we all packed into my vehicle and proceeded south toward “dining Mecca,” Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustard’s Grill in Yountville.   Dave brought one of his bottles of Elyse Cabernet and I brought one of my 2003 Martin Estate Cabernets.  Upon arrival we were seated and presented menus.   Dave asked in feigned ignorance, “What’s good here?” to the waiter, and he responded that we could not go wrong with the Mongolian Pork Chop (Mustard’s signature dish).  Calvin and I already knew that we need not look at any of the other offerings.  Thus, we all dined in ecstasy that evening with “manna from heaven” and our great bottles to accompany.

We returned home and “hit the sacks” without much more conversation.  A long day and the wine had taken their toll on three weary Texans.  Tomorrow would bring novel adventures in Sonoma.  I had scheduled the morning and early afternoon for trying some Zinfandels at notable locations, with high Robert Parker (RP) scores.  The last visit would be a place that Magid had recommended that we “not miss.”   With Kuleto Estate Winery as one of those same Magid recommendations, I did not hesitate to sign up for his suggested Hanzell Vineyards tour and tasting, even though the wines offered (Chardonnay and Pinot) were not my favorites.

We were all up before daylight, still unaccustomed to the Pacific Time Zone.  Calvin and I were ready for breakfast after brewing some of Theresa’s coffee, but Dave had indicated that he needed to work on his computer until at least 9 am., our scheduled departure for Sonoma.   Dave did not receive a drop of grief from me over this requirement.   He is the “financial guru,” who handles a portion of my and my wife’s money.   So, when he needs to take time to study the markets and their trends, he gets it.   Otherwise, with my seriously waning construction business, I could not afford to continue with my wine country follies.   He is accomplished in this profession, legally (not like Bernie).  Dave asked for us to bring him back a breakfast sandwich… not a problem.  

Every morning during Camp Schramsberg, I drove by an interesting looking breakfast restaurant in downtown Calistoga named Café Sarafornia.   I secured the menu off of the Internet, and Calvin agreed it should be an adequate replacement for the too-distant Gillwood’s.   Truthfully, it put Gillwood’s a slot back on the preference scale.  Wowzer what a great place!!  The egg-white omelet with green peppers, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes was “killer.”   The oatmeal was wonderful and the coffee was as flavorful as any I have tasted at Starbucks.  Calvin boasted that his “Corned Beef Hash with Eggs” were as magnificent as any New York City deli.  A new champion emerged that morning.   Dave’s breakfast sandwich even evoked raised eyebrows.

At 9 am., we packed up my SUV and Dave’s car for a trip to the Sonoma airport terminal for dropping off his ride at the rental return.  It took a few minutes to locate, but we were soon off on the morning’s adventure.   One of my planned stops, A. Rafanelli Winery, was closed that day for bottling, so Dave knew a replacement spot he wanted us to experience.  The place was Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Rd. near Healdsburg.   The drive down that road was sprinkled with numerous Sonoma winery entrances.  Bella seemed to be the “end of the line” and indeed a beautiful spot for a visit.   We had no appointment, yet were allowed to enter the caves where the wine tasting was offered.   The people were very nice and the tasting fee, reasonable.   Since I was hunting Zins that day, I tasted their 2008 Two Patch.  I thought it deserving of a more careful examination, so I purchased a bottle of it for later consumption at home.  Calvin and Dave seemed pleased with the wines they selected (07 Hillside Cuve and 07 Big River Ranch Syrah) as worthy of a second try.   With a tight schedule and long distances between each, we had to press onward. 

Martinelli Winery was our next stop.  The red double-decker barn structure was unmistakable as we approached from the roadway.  Magid had arranged for this VIP visit, so we were greeted by a gracious representative who personally handled our tour of the facility and tasting.   I had scheduled this visit, because their Jackass Hill and Jackass Vineyard Zinfandels held extremely high Robert Parker (RP) ratings.   I was hopeful that we would be able to taste one or both, since they were not for sale over the Internet.   Unfortunately, neither was available for tasting that day, but she did offer us each a discounted bottle of the Jackass Vineyard.   Even with the break, we paid a whopping $75 per bottle for these puppies.  More recently I brought my bottle to our every-other-month Friday afternoon (“do not return to work”) wine lunch at a Houston area restaurant that we all enjoy.  I now understand its price!   I have never tasted a Zinfandel with such eye-opening powerful punch, and I do not mean the alcohol percentage.  Robert Parker has this one accurately pegged at 95.  I cannot wait for the new mailing list notice for the coming year’s vintage.

Next stop was the Hartford Family Winery.  After a brief stop for a sandwich, we pulled up on the winery’s impressive grounds.   There were picnic tables out front, so we had lunch before entering.  It may have been the rush I was in, due my sense that we had not enough time to make our scheduled arrival at Magid’s next reserved tour, but the tastes of these wines did not ring any bells for me.   Thus, we were packed and moving onward, in less than 10 minutes.  I am sure at that point that my “anal” nervousness made my friends a bit uncomfortable, but I am indeed old-fashioned about wanting to be on time for appointments I make, especially this one which Magid had so highly recommended.

We plugged in my GPS “girlfriend” and I noted with despair that we were way too far away to make it in time.   I thus asked Dave to call and warn them we would be late (begging for forgiveness, if necessary).  With our host’s kind assurance that our tardy arrival was to be excused, I started to settle down.   As previously mentioned, the winery was Hanzell Vineyards.  Our host was Debra Peterson (Estate Educator and Hospitality Director – great title!). 

I questioned my guidance system, as we began to navigate through rural Sonoma suburbia.  Billy Bob’s wrecked Ford Galaxy from back in 1967 was still rusting away out in the front yard, if you know what I mean.  Yet finally the entrance gate to the winery came into sight, and we started up mountainous terrain along-side of beautiful Chardonnay vineyards.  The first building we noticed was an old stone and vertical wooden slatted winery structure, no doubt the original facility.  Then the more modern portions of the winery became visible as we approached.  The views of the town of Sonoma as well as a faint vision of downtown San Francisco, on this clear day, made our perch quite the place to behold.

Debra came out to greet us and then took us for a ride around the vineyards in the owner’s Range Rover.  We proceeded into the caves through an entrance passage cut into the continuing mountainous terrain just behind the old building.  The caves were fabulous, beautifully maintained with a creamy colored Gunnite surfacing.   At the other end we exited into the location of their winery equipment, covered by an open-sided pre-engineered building structure.  Heading for the tasting room, we passed through a wine cellar which was a virtual history book, chronicling every year and vintage that the winery had produced… decades of wine all preserved.   We saw the famous Tank 21, where in 1959 the process of Monolactic Fermentation was perfected, and we learned that this was the first California winery to utilize French Oak barrels for aging.  This practice has virtually become a standard of the industry in modern times.   It was quite the interesting tour.  

The wines were great, and impressive to Dave and Calvin who are both Chardonnay drinkers.  I was much more thrilled with the history of the place and the beautiful vistas, in every direction.  Magid had indeed come through again with a fabulous recommendation.

At our visit’s conclusion, my GPS was programmed with Magid’s San Anselmo address, and (after a small spat that I had with my otherwise direction-worthy girlfriend) we were soon off to join him and Barbara for dinner that evening.   Dave had not met either of them yet, so it was extra exciting for him, putting names together with faces, and most importantly, personalities.  Magid is friends with so many of the restaurant owners in town, but we just cannot seem to get away from eating at Sushi 69.  This evening was to be no exception.   Magid brought the wine and Saki.  We picked up the check for the meal… protocol.   The dining and the company were as-always, memorable.   

We brought along all of the bottles we had collected (so-far), so that Magid could ship them to us along with our next order, thus helping to relieve our over-burdened check-in luggage.  The trip back took us up Hwy. 101 into Sonoma and over the curve-laden mountain pass (good thing I was sober) into Calistoga.  It had been a great day, not only the places we visited, but to be with good friends who held the same interest and appreciation for these wineries and wines.   The next two days would be explorations in Napa, and I had some interesting visits arranged.   More excitement loomed large.    Stay tuned…


Calistoga Country Cottage
www.vrbo.com  (#114958)

Elyse Winery

Mustards Grill

Hanzell Vineyards

Kuleto Estate Winery

Café Sarafornia

A. Rafanelli Winery

Bella Vineyards

Martinelli Winery

Hartford Family Winery

Sushi 69

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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