Wine Country Spirit

I have visited Napa and Sonoma many times over the last decade.   The spirit, grit and determination of the people who live and work in these areas is truly amazing.   Why do I say this?   Shall we recap the events of the last 7 years?

Let’s see.  

  • In August of 2014 a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit the City of Napa and surrounding areas, causing an estimated $1 billion of damage. 
  • Severe drought has plagued the area for most of the last decade.   The area is currently well below the expected level of rainfall by this time of year and many of the area reservoirs are at dangerously low levels.
  • Over the last 4 years, the area has suffered a number of extreme wildfires which resulted in significant loss of life, burned more than 700,000 acres, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.   The cost of this destruction is estimated to exceed $15 billion and continues to impact countless businesses in the area.
  • And of course, we should not forget about the worldwide pandemic associated with COVID-19.   The impact of a complete shutdown of the economy devastated many businesses and only now, in June 2021, are the restrictions being lifted in the area.

I mention all of this because my wife and I visited Napa and Sonoma in mid-June 2021, our first visit in nearly 2 years.   We have always enjoyed our visits and this trip was no different.   However, considering the natural disasters that have impacted the area over the last few years, we noticed a common thread among the winery owners, tasting room employees, restaurant owners and employees, and hotel operators-they all exude a huge amount of grit, determination, optimism, and spirit that almost defies description.   Having worked in the energy business my entire career, I always thought the business cycles we went thru were tough, but the natural disasters Napa and Sonoma have endured would cause me to throw in the towel.   Thankfully, most of them have not done that.   As such, they were even more fun to be with this time.

Our trip involved visiting many of our good friends in the valleys as well as visiting a few wineries that were new to us.  We arrived in Sacramento on a Saturday and were directed by our navigation software to take the back road to Napa.   We were enjoying the drive until we arrived in the general vicinity of Lake Berryessa where we first encountered the scars of the Lightning Fire from August 2020.  

Scars on the hillside beyond the marina and near the road

These scars stretched from north of the lake all the way to the south near where Lake Hennessey begins.   We were stunned at the amount of damage still evident at this time.   Unfortunately, this was not the only evidence we noted while in wine country on this trip.  It was heartbreaking to see.

We arrived in Napa early enough to stop at Hall Wines in St. Helena, a winery we have been wine club members in for many years.   We sat outside around the lawn behind the historic, 150 year old Bergfeld building and tasted several Hall Cabernets and Walt Pinot Noirs.  Our favorites were the Howell Mountain Cabernet and the Savoy Pinot Noir.   As we usually do, we picked up a bottle of wine to take to dinner that night at Cole’s Chop House, our favorite steak house in Napa.  We were greeted by Eric Keefer, the Proprietor of Cole’s and had a long conversation with him about the events of the last 15+ months.   His creativity in expanding the outdoor dining area and the fact that for a period he, his wife and son delivered take-out orders to customers are good examples of the determination and grit business owners must exercise in such a tough situation.   The food was excellent as well but the conversation with an old friend was even more meaningful.

The next day we ventured our way up to our absolute favorite winery in the Napa Valley. On the way, however, we were saddened to see the devastation from the fires of October 2020 beginning just east of Silverado Trail along Old Howell Mountain Road.   The fires that ravaged this area were responsible for destroying the world-class restaurant at Meadowood Resort and several wineries and homes in its path.  Our journey up the mountain took us to Amizetta Vineyards, located on the southern end of Howell Mountain overlooking Lake Hennessey from the north.  The family-owned winery makes stunning cabernet sauvignons as well as perhaps the best merlot in the valley.   Their tasting area sits outside under shade covers overlooking the terraced vineyards that unravel down the hillside towards the lake.   The wines are outstanding and, even better, they are very reasonably priced for such quality.  The Clark family founded this winery in the late 70’s after moving from Texas.  

Enjoying the view from Amizetta!

On Monday, we visited another one of our favorite Napa families, the Hill Family, at their new winery just south and west of Yountville.   The patriarch, Doug Hill, has been a vineyard owner and manager for many years, having planted some of the most famous vineyards in the area.  His son, Ryan, convinced him to get into the winemaking business and, with Ryan’s keen marketing skills and Doug’s knowledge of and access to good grapes, they formed Hill Family Winery.   We have had the pleasure of traveling on 2 wine cruises with many of the family members in the past and hope to do that again sometime.   They have a very nice tasting room in Yountville as well and make a wide range of wines including some varietals not usually found in Napa such as Dolcetto and Albarino.   Their wines are very good and reasonably priced, and the tasting experience is so fun with them.    We have noticed in every tasting so far just how happy the wineries are to have visitors again.   Certainly, they have gone through so much over the last few years and it is great to be able to see them again.

Enjoying our time at Hill Family Estate Wines

Monday evening, we were honored to have dinner with Steve and Suzie Reynolds, the owners of Reynolds Family Winery.   We met at RH Yountville, a very cool restaurant with live olive trees growing inside the restaurant.   Knowing Steve enjoys Cabernet Franc, I brought a 2017 Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard Cabernet Franc from the McClaren Vale region of Australia that I bought at a tasting we had that afternoon at The Spire Collection, just north of Calistoga.   Steve brought a 2013 Steadfast Cabernet that he made and that we have enjoyed many times over the years.   Our visit with them was full of stories about times past and about the big picture impact the fires of 2020 had on grape growing in Napa and Sonoma.   The fires, while devasting in and of themselves, also left a lingering, heavy smoke in the air for weeks.  The August fires came before most grapes had been picked, and the October fires came at the time most Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were about to be picked.   Throughout the entire area, many wineries had to make the tough choice of whether to pick the grapes or leave them hanging and claim a loss on the crop protection insurance policies.   Smoke contains volatile phenols which are absorbed by vines and grapes.   These compounds leave a lingering footprint that, while perhaps undetectable initially, can appear after the grapes are fermented and ultimately bottled.   No winemaker wants to produce a wine that has this potential so the 2020 vintage from Napa and Sonoma will be very small and limited mostly to wineries that picked grapes before the October fires.   Unfortunately, other important wine-growing regions in California were impacted by wildfires in 2020 including Santa Barbara County and Monterrey County, as well as regions in Oregon.   Not having a product to sell after spending an entire growing season nurturing the vines is tough to overcome.   Imagine having this condition impacting your winery several times over the last few years.  

The events of the last 18-24 months impacted virtually the entire economy in many grape growing regions of the western United States.   Many of these areas have a large tourist following and due to the pandemic, most hotels, restaurants, shops, tourist services such as wine country guides/drivers, etc. were equally or even more impacted.   Our prayers continue to go out to them.

During 2020 Lisa and I found ways to take our minds to wine country even if our bodies could not be there.   And along the way, we made friends with several winery owners thru the magic of Zoom.   Two that we met were John and Diane Bucher, owners of J. Bucher Wine in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County.   Our meeting was by chance, as Lisa and I watched a video of V is for Vino, hosted by Vince Anter.   Vince travels around to various wine growing regions of the world and documents what makes certain places special.   In this case, he was visiting Sonoma County and one of his stops was at Bucher Farms.   The Bucher’s own a 700-cow organic dairy farm right in the middle of some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay growing real estate in the Russian River Valley.   We were not familiar with the Bucher name but as we heard their story about planting grapes in 1997 and, discovering what wineries buy grapes from their 38 acres of vineyards, I was convinced I needed to buy some of their wine.   I went onto their website while watching the show and ordered a case of wine.  The next morning, I received a call from Diane Bucher.   She asked me how I heard about Bucher Wine, and I told her about watching the V is for Vino segment (which originally aired at least 12 months earlier).   We had a very pleasant conversation during which I told her we had visited a winery literally next door to them previously.   She invited us to visit them when we returned to Sonoma.   So, we spent a full day in Sonoma visiting John and Diane as well as Kerith Overstreet, who owns Bruliam Wines in Windsor.  

Our visit with John and Diane Bucher

Coincidentally, both the Bucher’s and Kerith make their wines at a custom crush facility called Grand Cru in Windsor.   Even more coincidental, the Bucher’s wine maker is Adam Lee, a long-time friend of ours.   We had such a great visit that day, and Diane invited us to come to a charity tasting they were hosting at their house with Adam later that week.   So, we drove back over to Sonoma Friday afternoon and had a grand time seeing Adam and tasting wines from his label Beau Marchais as well as some of the Bucher wines.   It was so good to meet the Bucher’s and they made us feel like we were old friends!

We did several virtual tastings on Zoom due to the pandemic.   In May, we watched a tasting with Kerith Overstreet and Steve Sangiacomo.   The Sangiacomo family is one of the largest grape growing families in Sonoma with more than 1,600 acres of vineyards.   Kerith buys grapes from the Sangiacomo Roberts Road vineyard, and during the Zoom session I mentioned that we were traveling to the area and wanted to do a tasting at Sangiacomo.   As a result of that conversation, we set up a tasting on the last day we were in the area.   Our visit was hosted by Kara Joseph, a Certified Sommelier, wine blogger and author (and under 30 years old!).   She did a great job of telling us the story of the Sangiacomo family and allowed us to taste several of their wines.   During our time with her, we listened to her story of how she previously had worked at wineries in Napa but returned to New York to use her wine knowledge to teach others about wine.   Ultimately however, the allure of working directly at a winery pulled her back to Sonoma.   I can’t wait to read her book If Wine Could Talk when it gets published later this year.   We had a wonderful time, the wines were outstanding and we made a new friend.  

No matter where in the world you travel, common interests, such as wine, can bring people together in a way that is special.  Friendships are formed with this common bond.  I cherish the friends we have made along the way and really enjoyed our time with both old and new friends on this trip.   We can’t wait to return!

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