Back to USA II. Between the mountains of Santa Cruz and Sonoma
I am returning to a place where I was happy before. I spent five months of my life in California in 2003, doing cellar work and drinking everything I could in a good way. It was an incredible experience where I learned a lot. Coming back after 20 years is like travelling back in time. Memories rush by, but this time, I am not tasting everything. I know where I want to visit, where I set my tastings and what I want to taste. And after the great experience in Oregon, I didn’t want to lose one detail.
It’s one of the cellars I admire the most in the world, and it was on my visit list for a while. The legendary Paul Draper created this extraordinary project during the ’60s. It’s not in Napa, and it’s not in Sonoma, but instead in the Santa Cruz mountains, where, at Monte Bello, arises one of the most famous US wines. From the vineyards, we can enjoy a great view of Silicon Valley. And here, Cabernet Sauvignon is the king among the grape varieties Paul wanted to study (like Alicant Bouschet and Bastardo, grape varieties you find in Portugal).
The wines are intense and intoxicating, reflecting the old vine’s terroir. We need to realise what is happening here. The Ridge Monte Bello was one of the wines present in the famous 1976 Paris judgement, and it placed fifth in this mythical tasting where the US wines defeated classic French wines, shooting to fame the wine-producing scene of this region. Thirty years later, the Paris judgement was repeated, the French were defeated again, and the Ridge Monte Bello was the grand winner of the tasting – it showed better ageing.
We tried to taste several wines, including some new releases. Nothing was out of place. The precision, the quality and the consistency are what stood out the most. The stars were the Ridge Monte Bello 2012, pure elegance! And 2019, we got just a little taste of completely disarmed us. It was perfect!
With the long-standing dream of visiting The Ridge Vineyards and tasting some of their “Grans Crus”, the second day started with a stop at Peay Vineyards. A boutique winery focused on producing distinct wines of excellent quality that is dealing serious cards in the Sonoma region. Yes, now we are genuinely in Sonoma.
We are welcomed by the winemaker, Orion Leguyonne, who explains to us, in detail, the different origins within the region. With the average temperature increase, the vineyards closer to the ocean allow for more balanced ripening, resulting in more authentic fruit.
This project lies mainly on a vineyard 10 km from the ocean, in the Sonoma Coast area, where they mainly planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines reflect its character. They are tense, with vibrant acidity and surprising elegance. I didn’t know much about this project, but it is on my list of favourites after this visit.
The second stop was at Williams Selyem, one of the greatest in Sonoma. In the cellar with incredible architecture, we are welcomed by Jeff Mangahas, the head of oenology. This producer is an icon and has the particularity of selling all the wine produced through their wine club. The waiting list is more extensive than what they make. This fact is impressive and only possible in the US! And a good reason for my love of this country. Can we imagine a production of 300 000bottles sold directly to the final consumer with prices ranging from 10-200USD?
Within the wine range, Jeff tells us, there are 48 different references, each representing a separate parcel. Single vineyards, always! We tasted an extensive range of Pinot Noir and tasted a significant difference between them. This kind of wine travel is the best way to feel the differences between terroir, the same variety, and different origins. There was nothing to point out, and there was rigour and detail in all aspects of the process. Being known seems easy, but there is a lot of unseen work. For last, we had a conversation about Portugal. Jeff is a fan of our country and where he would like to retire. Jeff, the doors are open. We are waiting for you!
On the third day, we visit Paul Hobbs Winery. Paul is a legend among winemakers. He worked for Robert Mondavi, was in charge of Opus One during its first years, became a consultant on several projects, fell in love with Argentina and Malbec, and the Malbec boom throughout the world can be linked to him. Meanwhile, the natural evolution of his career, he became a producer himself. Knowing the California vineyards like no other, he installed himself in Sonoma, building a beautiful cellar, super functional and very well prepared to welcome people. Today Paul Hobbs produces wines in the US, Argentina, Galicia and Armenia. He is a true globetrotter!!
But we are to visit his California treasures. The wines show an extraordinary precision, showing very well the essence of their origins. The Chardonnay transpires its maritime influence and is vibrant. We can feel that the profile of the best Californian wines is changing. There is an apparent search for fresher locations with more considerable ocean influence and higher altitudes.
Of reds, we tasted two Pinot Noir with very different styles. One from Carneros, with a warmer profile, clearly a Napa Valley style with very sweet fruit. The second from the Russian River in Sonoma is clearly fresher and more vibrant. One of those wines you don’t want ever to finish. We ended our tasting with the Cabernet Sauvignon. The most famous and searched for grape variety. The average price of these grapes is 9€/kg. For reference, and so you understand how crazy high this value is, at Adega Mãe, we buy grapes at 0,45€/kg…
But the best example of this expensive world is yet to come. The vineyard plot To Kalon is the grand cru of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. Everyone would love to own it, or at least be able to buy its grapes. The owners choose to whom they sell the grapes only after they understand the wine style intended for those grapes in an interview. The grape price? Last year it was 50€/kg. This price is why the wines of this origin always cost over 400USD. Only in America! You can read more about it here.
We tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon To Kalon 2017. It’s a wine that messes with your senses, it’s so complex and intense, but it keeps its balance and elegance. Silky tannins that make us want to keep drinking it forever. I understand the hefty price if all the wines from this vineyard are like this one!
There is still time for the Three Sticks Wines, also in Sonoma. Their tasting room is an authentic Mexican house from when California was still part of it, fully recovered and filled with charm. It is located right in the centre of Sonoma City. The wines are getting increasingly recognised; they were on the Wine Spectator cover, so we had great expectations for this project. And we can confirm the wines are excellent and deserve the honour and recognition, and also good examples of the “new style” of the region. They were fresher, more elegant and with no excess. We travelled through a collection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, always single vineyards. We were fortunate to taste and learn the differences among the terroir, all subtleties of their origins. And as soon as we enter a warmer area, the wines inevitably reflect that character. This is a sign that the oenology is well done, fully respecting the grape origin.
Let’s have dinner?
And so we ended our Sonoma visits. As we entered the weekend, we followed with a San Francisco exploration, taking advantage of this opportunity to explore the large restaurant scene – Mexican and Asian influences are constantly present. We started with Californios, a 2 Michelin star restaurant with Mexican influence. It was an extraordinary trip in flavour, colour and emotional cooking. Incredible! To match the meal, we had a Georges Laval Champagne, a Kingsgaard Chardonnay and a Peay Vineyards Pinot. Everything was amazing.
Being in the US, we must take advantage of the great burgers. In-N-Out is a true classic of Northern California. It’s a fast-food chain that only exists here and has a cult following. Almost 20 years after, it’s good to have one of these in front of me again. Juicy!!
Lastly, the Niku Steakhouse. The Japanese influence in San Francisco is enormous. And this restaurant is a breath of fresh air, showing that Japanese cuisine is not only sushi and sashimi. Here, we have a steakhouse with otherworldy meat, including the ultra-famous Kobe steaks. They explain the Japanese meat terroir and get on board for the A5 tasting, with three different origins. Spectacular! To go with it, we had a Napa Cabernet, as one must. We drank a DuMol 2017. It was a great pairing.