Apparently I am at that stage in life where its time to fall in love with wine. It’s a precursor to middle age, I am guessing.
But before you start painting a picture of me based on the usual assumptions of a stereotypical midlife crisis — balding means time to grow a ponytail! — let me first state that I am only 34 years old. Also let me state what this new obsession is not about:
- The prestige of wine,
- Wine as a status symbol,
- Wine as a vehicle for alcohol-based escapism,
- Wine as an excuse to bullshit someone with phrases like “seared stones” and “velvety mouthfeel,”
- Wine as sexual displacement.
You may laugh about this last one, but if you’ve ever read the garbage that passes for modern wine writing, you’ll have come across plenty of bury-your-face-in-your-hands tasting-note descriptions that liken a cabernet to Angelina Jolie.
Doth I protest too much? Maybe, but wine is appealing to me right now — I believe — because I have a 3-year-old who is growing up too fast. Wine forces you to slow things down, so naturally I’m gravitating to it. Wine is also appealing to me because it is a social bonding agent, a conversation facilitator. Everyone drinks from the same bottle. And finally, it is so prevalent around the world, that its various permutations based on grape varieties, climate, soil, culture and history make it an endless vehicle for discovery. In fact, it’s probably this last attribute that has grabbed me most. It all started in Barolo and Barbaresco, Italy last fall. And it continued with a trip to Northern California this past June.
After touring Muir Woods National Monument and spending the night in Tiburon, Hailey and I headed north through Sonoma County to Healdsburg, the Alexander Valley, and eventually up to Boonville, the obscure little town that anchors the underrated Anderson Valley wine scene.
Now, I had hatched this plan in March and booked it in April. We then discovered in May that Hailey was pregnant. So we’d be visiting one of the planet’s most revered wine regions, and only one of us could drink.
It was for this reason that Hailey liked Healdsburg so much. Located in the northern reaches of Sonoma County, the hip little town offered a lot more than just wine — namely: food. We poked around the main square, snuck into some independent shops selling local olive oil and kitchen things, and read one tantalizing lunch menu after another. After a little deliberation in the rain, we opted for Pizzando, and quickly became enamored with a cracker-thin pizza covered with pancetta, peaches and mizuna. My god it was good.
As the rain picked up — it hardly ever stopped during our four-day trip — we headed out of Healdsburg and drove through the dashingly beautiful Alexander Valley. Covered with vineyards and crowned by low-slung beige hills freckled with oak and scrub, the area had caught my attention because of a particularly good bottle of red wine we had in April. It was the 2009 Alexander Valley Vineyards Merlot, and it made me sit up straight because it wasn’t a typical bombastic California red. It actually paired well with a stew we made of beef, cannellini beans and mushroom agnolotti. Turns out, the vineyard was right off the route to Boonville, giving us (OK, me) a chance to visit a winery whose wine I was already familiar with.
The property is gorgeous. Tidy rows labeled not only the grape variety, but the date they were planted and the genetic clone being used (just in case you are Clone 327 Fanboy). The labeling system and orderly presentation was oddly Germanic in its detail.
The vineyards and winery also reside on the Alexander Valley’s original homestead, which belonged to Cyrus Alexander, a Pennsylvania-born fur trapper-turned-rancher who had an epic set of muttonchops and, among other things, married a 14 year old. But he was a trailblazer, establishing the first ranch in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County in 1840, a mental image that is all at once pleasant and startling given how cultivated and fancy Sonoma County has become. The winery has honored Cyrus by naming its signature blend after him, which I sampled in the tasting room.
The wine that most appealed to me was the estate-bottled 2011 Cabernet Franc, which they were releasing that very day. I liked it because it was so unique and out there, defying comparison to any other wine I’ve tried. It was at once smokey and filled with red berry and bell pepper flavor. I wanted to say it was like a Malbec, but it was smoother and more appealing. It was destined for a barbecue next summer when Hailey could enjoy it with me.
Turns out, the uniqueness of the wine largely has to do with the grape, in that it is rarely bottled on its own in the United States. Instead, Cab Franc is mostly grown to be blended into Cabernet Sauvignon, where its lighter touch can make a ‘roided out cab more gentle.
My friend Adam had some good guidelines in Piedmont for buying and bringing back a bottle: only if (a) it’s outstanding, (b) you can’t get it at home, or (c) drinking it on location was so special you want to remember it as a souvenir. Things get murky on that last point, but here was a rare wine that I drank on the day of its release. It was bound for my suitcase.
Next up was a cellar tour. Built into the side of a hillside, AVV’s wine cellar is an underground city of wine barrels, wine barrels and more wine barrels. I sampled a cabernet sauvignon that had only been in the barrel for six months, which was a good bit of education on how important oak barrel aging is to some wines. The sample was flat but juicy. Outside, our guide pointed out a cork tree, whose sponging tree trunk was fascinating to touch. I’m going to sound like an idiot here, so prepare yourself: It was just like touching a cork!
After visiting the family cemetery atop our hill, where creepy old Cyrus and company are laid to rest, we wrapped up the tour and headed north to Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley, and one of the most extraordinary hotels I’ve stayed in, the Boonville Hotel.