SAN FRANCISCO - It was a day of wine and roses which began with me looking at the sun rise over the Bay Bridge and then watching it turn the Golden Gate Bridge a brilliant orange before dipping into the tranquil Pacific Ocean.
Talk about intoxicating moments — just two of many I had the day I decided to visit California’s famed Napa and Sonoma valleys.
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to the neighbouring wine regions responsible for producing some of the best vintages in the world.
There are dozens of San Francisco tour companies who cater to wine travelers like me. I chose the 10-hour bus trip offered by Napa Wine Tours (www.napawinetours.net) that included stops at three wineries — with tastings at each — and a stop in the village of Sonoma. All that for the cost ($67.95) of a vintage bottle of wine. Napa Wine Tours even sent a car to pick me up at my hotel.
Our first stop was at Madonna Estate, where the Bartolucci family have been growing grapes and making wine for over 80 years (www.madonnaestate.com).
“We still make wine the old-fashioned way,” our Madonna tour guide told us, “which is now the ‘new way.’ Our grapes are dry-farmed and are 100 per cent certified organic.
“So it seems we were just a little ahead of our time.” It was at Madonna Estate that we received our first tasting lesson.
Rule No. 1: Always hold the glass by the stem as your body temperature will change the taste of the wine.
A small amount of the fruity liquid was poured into each of our glasses and we were instructed to “put our nose in the glass and take a deep whiff.”
The next step is to make circular motions with the glass so the wine can be oxygenated and the full flavour released. Okay, so far so good.
Left: You can spend the day sampling a lot of Napa wine. Right: The barrels are stacked and the wine is aging in Napa Valley.
Then the time came for us to actually to take a sip — “just a sip” — and hold it in the mouth and then inhale through your mouth (all this without drooling) so that the back of the throat can experience the full essence of the wine.
Then we were told to spit. I swallowed.
The 150 acre Madonna Estate produces several extraordinary wines, including a delicious pinot noir and a crisp chardonnay. However, the winner to this taster was their cabernet sauvignon reserve, so good, in fact, that I requested “a full pour” — an entire glass for $5 — and also a bottle to take home ($45).
It was also at Madonna where I learned why rose bushes stand guard at the end of each row of vines. They are “like the canary in the mine,” our guide informed us.
“If there is a disease or a pest that is an immanent threat, the rose bush will show the effects first. “And, of course, they are also very beautiful.”
After a lunch stop in the village of Sonoma, where the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (www.sonomavalley.com) was built in 1824 and still stands as a testament to Mexico’s influence in the area, we were back on the bus and off to the Cline winery.
In 1991, the Cline family relocated their enterprise from Oakley, Calif., to their present location — 350-acres in the Carneros region of Sonoma County, where much of the region is planted in chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot.
However, the Clines pioneered the planting of Rhone varieties, including the syrah they have become famous for. According to the label on a 2004 vintage, a “syrah is also a shiraz but not a sirah (petite type)!” Whatever the bottle might claim, it was truly delicious and is available widely throughout North America.
The last stop on our tour transported me back to Italy. The Viansa Winery’s tile-roofed Tuscan Villa sits on a hilltop surrounded by olive trees, Italian cypresses and stone pines, and overlooks a 90-acre waterfowl preserve.
Hand-painted murals, massive beams and Italian marble are highlights of the villa, along with a marketplace that sells Viansa’s famous Italian treats, everything from pesto and pasta sauces, to jams and jellies.
It was now late in the afternoon, so we staggered back on the bus and headed back to San Francisco. But we made one more stop heading back — at the Golden Gate Bridge, where I toasted my good day by watching the sun fall into the Pacific.
Cheers, San Francisco!