California has endured some extreme weather but is still producing great wines, writes Christine Austin

Wild fires have become the norm all over the world but when they sweep through a wine region there are all kinds of consequences.  There is not just the grave danger to life and property, but there is the knock-on risk to vineyards and the crop of grapes on the vines.

In October 2017 I was in southern California and had planned to travel north to Napa and Sonoma but instead I cut short my visit and headed home. It takes a lot to divert me from a planned itinerary but at the time, there was a heavy pall of smoke hanging over San Francisco Bay and news reports were full of fires, mass evacuations and devastation.  There were even pictures of a winery building, fully ablaze, as the lead item on the national news.

Heading home was the only considerate action to take.  No-one wants a wine writer in a region when there are fires breaking out and residents being bussed away from their homes.

So it was with great anticipation that I headed back to California just a few weeks ago.  I was not sure whether the region would still bear the scars of fire, or that a whole vintage might be wiped out by smoke. When I got there I was totally surprised.  California has bounced back and it is business as usual.

The first indication I had of the resilience of the region was just a few weeks after the fires. The owner of the burnt-down winery, Ray Signorello, was in London, pouring wines and explaining that their vineyards were unaffected and it was the tasting room that had burnt down not the winery.  Not only that, the insurance company was assessing the damage and plans were already underway to rebuild.

Beyond that one highly publicised disaster, there was relatively little damage to vineyards and wineries.  Most vineyards are threaded with irrigation piping which acts like a sprinkler system, keeping the vineyards green and watered.  This means that fires often jump vineyards, and instead they burn through dry grassland and trees.  And when the fires broke out most of the crop was already harvested and in vats, so there was no chance of smoke taint.

What was remarkable was the way the communities worked together. I heard reports of one large winery which normally serves a few dozen diners per day, opening up its premises to feed hundreds of displaced residents.   At another, stocks of wine were moved to underground storage to keep it safe but the fires didn’t come close.

Now California, and in particular the wine regions of Sonoma and Napa are green and beautiful.  The mustard and wild flowers that are often planted between the rows of vines are in flower and bring a fresh, new-season look to the landscape.  And it has rained a lot this year.  The winter rain has made the grass grow so much that Shafer vineyard has hired 1000 extra four-legged workers to keep the grass under control.  They will be moved off the land just as soon as the leaves on the vines appear.

Since my last visit to these two important wine regions, tourism has changed.  It used to be that you could rock up to a winery and taste through the range for a few dollars then head off to several more wineries in the day, maybe buying a bottle or two if you wanted.  Often, by the end of the day, many wine tourists could not remember which properties they had visited. Now there is much more emphasis on offering a quality winery experience of food and wine pairing, where there are qualified people to talk you through the wines.

In Sonoma particularly there is so much more to explore than just a long list of tasting rooms.

At St Francis winery in Santa Rosa, (Stfranciswinery.com) you can enjoy a wine and food pairing, seated at a large round table with a dozen other guests.  This works very much like a private lunch party, with food prepared by chef Trevor Eliason (formerly of top Napa restaurant The French Laundry) with wines poured to match each of the 5 small plate courses.  Each wine is introduced alongside the food to explain how the flavours work together.

At the Kendall-Jackson winery, also in Santa Rosa (KJ.com), the 5-course food and wine pairing experience builds into a delightful lunch, or you can indulge in a wine and chocolate or a wine and cheese pairing. An added attraction at Kendall-Jackson is the 4 acres of beautiful gardens which are free to wander around, including the organic vegetable gardens that supply many items for the lunches.

The Buena Vista winery (buenavistawinery.com) has a history going back to the mid 1800’s when it was founded by Hungarian-American Agoston Haraszthy.  He was responsible for importing vast quantities of European vine cuttings to California and justifiably became known as the father of the Californian wine industry.  His wine estate is still standing, now owned by French wine producer Jean-Charles Boisset and is a great place to visit, for the history and for the wines.

Slightly off the beaten track but well worth the drive through stunning countryside, the Marimar Torres winery just outside Sebastopol (marimarestate.com) offers seated tastings by appointment – although short notice appointments phoned in from the winery gate can usually be accommodated.  This is a quiet, elegant place and the wines reflect the location with glorious flavours and elegance, especially in the Pinot Noir wines.  With a nod to Marimar’s Spanish heritage, you can indulge in tapas and wine pairing or even have a guided tour of the vineyards.

Tapas are also on offer at the Gloria Ferrer winery in Sonoma where you can sip Californian sparkling wine then take a tour of the winery.

If you are all wined out then Sonoma offers a wide range of other activities. Described as the Serengeti of Sonoma, Safari West (safariwest.com) offers safari-style wildlife tours and their upmarket tents on stilts provide a good place to stay while you explore the region.  A few glasses of wine on your deck overlooking the safari park is a splendid way to get to know the wines of Sonoma.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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