Down by the river

“Why here? Why not Oklahoma? There you have a vast, infertile wasteland, in serious need of redecorating, with an overabundance of leather and petroleum-based products.”
—Chandler Fong, The Straight of Messina

People who know Your West Coast Oenophile not as a wine connoisseur but as a playwright will readily recognize my disdain for the Sooner State. Not that I have a lot of experience with this dreary panhandle—in truth, I have been there only once, and that was part of an ill-fortuned cross-country drive. Apart from that, I know that both Leon Russell and Will Rogers hail from parts therein; an array of Native American tribes were, at various times, dispossessed and forced to live in the Oklahoma Territories; they have a perennial football powerhouse disguised as an institute of higher learning; and Holly Hunter portrayed a detective from OKC who singlehandedly (or double-buttocksly) managed to keep nudity alive on cable television in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.

My almanac informs me that Oklahoma actually has two of fifty largest cities in the United States (of course, size ceased to be the principal determinant of what constitutes a major city long before San Jose outpaced San Francisco in the population department). Anyway, even though the folks who live in Oklahoma City and Tulsa likely believe there are myriad differences from each other that are both pronounced and manifest, from 1,500+ miles away they are indistinguishable.

The moral of this story, so to speak, is that almost anyone east of the Nevada state line just as likely sees us as a homogeneous blur, as well, one great big flake of a state that can be summed up in a single, pithy paragraph. And most certainly, anyone outside of œnophilic circles sees the wine country as a singular region possessed of few, if any, distinguishing variants. 

The folks from Napa and Sonoma will beg to tell you differently, and so I found myself this past weekend journeying north to Sonoma for the Russian River Valley’s annual Grape to Glass festivities. Basically, this is a three-day, “what makes Sonoma a special destination” extravaganza, focused on, as one might expect, the premium wines of the RRV sub-appellation, as well as the culinary bounty of nearby growers, producers and restaurateurs. Throw in sightseeing, cycling, and recreational activities (swimming, canoeing, topless kayaking) on the Russian River, and festival promoters should know they made a pretty persuasive case for the allure of their special corner of this state.

A Frigid Friday Fiesta

OK, so I didn’t quite leave when I had planned, which may or may not have allowed me to elude the numerous pockets of traffic snarls I encountered along the stretch of Highway 101 from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, where the first formal event of the weekend was being held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek, the same hotel where the Green Wine Summit has taken place the past two Decembers. Granted, it may take me a few tries to nail down which exit to take and such, but the third time is usually the charm. Just in case, however, the weather gods apparently conspired to make this evening feel like December, just so I wouldn’t mistake my destination.

I managed to arrive at In Concert with the Artisans with about ¾ hour to the wine tasting portion of the evening, barely enough time to engage all the wineries I had targeted to add to my roster for Sostevinobile. And while readers know it is my wont to comment on each of the wines that impress me at the various events I attend, the true focus of this weekend wasn’t to highlight individual expressions of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay—the mainstays of the Russian River Valley—nor the wide array of Italian, Bordelaise and Rhône varietals that also flourish in pockets throughout the AVA, but to showcase the panoply of the region and the warmth of its denizens.

In this vein, the organizers of Grape to Glass chose not to isolate individual wineries but to cluster individual varietals in tandem with one of their featured chefs, creating little oases of food and wine at key points along the Hyatt’s rear lawn. Chef Christopher Greenwald from Bay Laurel Culinary prepared a Pulled Jerk Chicken Baguette accentuated by a Habañero Pepper Slaw to anchor the wines featured at the Chardonnay Garden. This stop allowed me to reacquaint myself with C. Donatiello and Lynmar while introducing me Duckhorn’s Migration label and the considerable appeal of Jim & Kristina Landy’s eponymous boutique production of their 2008 Estate Chardonnay Russian River Valley.

The Surprising Whites Garden featured an extraordinary Ahi Poke Tuna Salad alongside the bounty of Sonoma’s renowned aquaculture, barbecued Tomales Bay Oysters from Chef Nellie Gamez of Nellie’s Oysters. The spiciness of her Pizole, a Mexican-style pork stew perfectly complemented the 2006 Dry Gewürztraminer Russian River Valley from Zmor Winery, as well as the more austere expressions of 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Shanti Vineyard from Suncé and the 2008 Pinot Gris Russian River Valley from Fred Hansen’s Tremani Wines.

Executive Chef Richard Whipple from the Brasserie at the Hyatt held his home field advantage with a pair of pasta preparations, and a nicely executed Prosciutto Wrapped Melon that accompanied the selections of Pinot Noir Garden I. Longtime familiars like Ketcham Estate, Benovia, and the Bacigalupi family’s John Tyler Wines poured alongside the 2008 Pinot Noir Schneider Vineyard from the very whimsical Thumbprint Cellars and Graton Ridge’s 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.

I suppose my misspent youth in the Greater New York Area must have exposed me to Puerto Rican cuisine at some point; nonetheless, El Coquí’s Jacqueline Roman’s fare was quite the revelation Pollo al Horno, described as “baked chicken thigh with Puerto Rican-style Spanish Rice, red beans and sweet plantains.” not only proved quite filling but demanded to be washed down with such wines as Mueller’s 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel and the 2006 Zinfandel Rosenberg Vineyard—Porky’s Patch from Sapphire Hill that anchored the table for Zinfandel Garden II.

From there, It didn’t take much effort to lean over and sample the Pulled Pork Sliders from Larry Vito Catering. I bypassed my chance sample his featured Mini Memphis Pork Spare Ribs, which I can safely guess would have just as easily complemented the pours from Syrah Garden, like the 2007 Syrah Russian River Valley from Davis Family Vineyards or the fraternal duo, the 2007 Syrah Rosé and 2005 Syrah, from Lauterbach Cellars.

The pairing of Josh Silver’s Syrah Bistro with Pinot Noir Garden II sounds almost as incongruous as serving their Watermelon Gazpacho during this sub-Arctic summer, but indeed their Liberty Farm Duck & Mushroom Ragoût provided a perfect pairing for the assorted Pinots being sampled here from Russian Hill Estates, TR Elliott, Hook & Ladder, and Twomey Cellars, among others.

My final stop took me to Zinfandel Garden I, where I fortified myself for the remainder of the event by filling a plate with the Shaved Roast Beef with Caramelized Onion & Blue Cheese from Jack and Tony’s of Santa Rosa. Wine choices here included the ever-reliable Joseph Swan Winery with their 2005 Zinfandel Trenton Station Vineyard, Harvest Moon’s 2006 Zinfandel Russian River Valley and the 2006 Zinfandel Francis Vineyard from Matrix, whose owner Diane Wilson knows more than a few things about this varietal.

Also at this table, Old World Winery poured their 2004 Zinfandel Laughlin Vineyard, a wine I happily sampled. My ostensible purpose, however, in saving this stop for last was to connect with winemaker Darek Trowbridge, who had offered me use of his family’s guest house in Healdsburg and arranged my attendance at the numerous Grape to Glass events. I’d like to say his generosity was extraordinary, but the weekend ultimately showed me that such gestures are endemic to the whole region. We joined Darek’s cousin Lee Martinelli of Martinelli Winery at their VIP table, where food and libations continued for throughout the concert portion of the evening.

Tenor Nick Palance, a former star of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, has been heralded as the “American Boccelli.” Despite the frigid air, he performed for nearly two hours from his Angel Heart repertoire, with songs ranging from Verdi arias to show tunes from Andrew Lloyd—Webber to campy classics like That’s Amore. Though vocally compelling, Palance seemed to be articulating more by rote than a comprehension of the Italian lyrics in many of his selections. Stylish vocalist Lindsey Scott delivered her counterpoint to their duets with a nuance and subtlety that tended, at times, to upstage Palance; clearly, her solo arias manifested true operatic flair. Nonetheless, both performers and their superb instrumentalists clearly enthralled their captivated audience (even those of us who regard musical theater as the nadir of the American stage).

I remained for a portion of the reception that followed, engaging both artists and artisan winemaker until I felt safe enough to brave the stretch of 101 up to Healdsburg. The solitude of a cottage (with a cozy garage space for my Corolla), an outlet to recharge my iPhone, and a semi-firm mattress soon had me horizontal and ready for the morning bicycle trek.

So this is what a Saturday morning looks like?

I am not an AM person, most definitely not on weekends, but the prospect of a sunny morning ride through downtown Healdsburg was enough to get me out the door, sans caffeine, before 9. Instead, I was greeted by 60°F and drizzle, not exactly what I had signed on for. I was supposed to meet up with my fellow cyclists at the Healdsburg Farmers Market, a Saturday morning extravaganza that featured Zucchini car races amid an abundance of local produce and a throng of local denizens who seemingly make this excursion a weekly ritual.

Much like downtown Yountville in Napa, Healdsburg has transformed itself over the past couple of decades into a gourmet and travel destination, the culinary heart of Sonoma. I confess that I am still adjusting from my familiarity with the town in the 1980s, when it seemed you were just as likely to find a hitching post for your horse as an available parking slot. These days, the east side of 101 abounds with world class restaurants, specialty shops and spas, and perhaps more offsite tasting rooms than anyplace else in California. It would be hard to imagine a John Deere tractor rolling down Healdsburg Avenue in 2010.

Healdsburg’s temple to the Slow Food Movement, Zazu, garnered national attention just a few days ago, as it was announced that chef/owner Duskie Estes had been selected to compete on TV’s Iron Chef. News of this accolade, as well as our mutual Brunonian background, came only when I had begun my background research for this entry; this morning, Duskie was merely our tour leader, grinding out a loop through the heart of Healdsburg, as she led a dozen or so of my fellow intrepid cyclists on an excursion that was anything but Iron Man-level. 

From the Farmers Market, we headed east for 0.1 miles to Costeaux, a local institution since 1923. The irrepressible Margaret Hansen held court, so breathlessly spinning the history of this award-winning bakery that even a first-time visitor would come away believing in its inextricable role in the very existence of the town. Gathering baguettes for the luncheon we would create at the end of this ride, our caravan proceeded yet another 0.1 miles Center Street’s Cheese Shop for lunch’s cheese serving (I missed the discourse as I waited in line next door at Flying Goat Coffee for my obligatory java jolt).
Testing the mettle of her riders, Duskie next led us for what may have even clocked 0.5 miles on the odometer to Seghesio, the multi-generational winery known for its Zinfandels and Italian varietals. The tour, of course, included a brief wine tasting, as well as a sampling of their housemade salumi. Carryalls and bottles of their 2009 Pinot Grigio were bestowed on each of us before we migrated over to the verdant cornucopia known as Ed’s Garden, the actual focus of our stop.

Exiting the building, we were met by matriarch Rachel Ann Seghesio, with whom I shared stories of Italian upbringing as she led our group to the expansive vegetable garden her brother-in-law Ed Seghesio tends. Amid the tomatoes, melons, and herbs he cultivates, we stumbled upon berry fronds adorning his asparagus plants! Though appearing edible, these berries can be quite noxious—hardly the aim of a culinary tour! Thankfully, neither the berries nor the asparagus itself made our list of ingredients, so after gathering some basil and heirlooms, we wandered back to observe Ed’s storied 100-year-old fig tree, his bellwether for predicting the grape harvest.

A final stop took us out for 0.2 miles to the organic fruit and vegetable stand known as Love Farms, where we harvested grapes and selected melons that would complete the amazing repast Duskie would assemble for us at Relish Culinary Adventures, a cooking lab and school a few yards from where this cycling marathon began. After plying us with hand-blended Bellinis, we were fêted with Melon and Prosciutto Salad, deftly assembled from the numerous ingredients we had collected throughout the morning. An intrepid few of us completed the tour by ambling afterward across the parking lot to sample Pinot Noir and Chocolate at the La Crema Tasting Room, then dispersed for our afternoon seminars.

A river runs through it.
With four different presentations from which to choose, I elected to attend the afternoon session at the Trowbridges’ main house alongside the bank of the Russian River. As before, my hosts could not have been more accommodating. By now, the sun had actually broken through, ambient warmth to accompany an outdoor catered affair, with Russian River wines from Old World Winery, Hop Kiln and Pelligrini. After sipping and socializing, guest sat down to a trio of presentations from Darek, vineyard consultant Marc Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture, and Pelligrini winemaker Kevin Hamel, each assaying how the topography and climate of the Russian River Valley contributes to the special character of the AVA’s wines.

I typically think of modifications to natural structures as depleting their resources, such as the California Aqueduct’s siphoning off of river flow to the San Francisco Bay, increasing the salinity and subsequently impacting the entire ecosystem. It surprised me to learn that, in its unaltered state, the Russian River held far less flow and was deemed unnavigable until construction of the Potter Valley Project to divert water via a tunnel from the Eel River in Mendocino. Of course, this diversion presents its own share of undesirable impact, but largely has enabled the Russian River Valley to establish itself as an agricultural center, as well as sustain a human habitat and major recreational area.

With a billing like that, it became compulsory to amble down to the river. With memories of rolling kayaks in the Connecticut River during undergraduate days, I wisely left my iPhone and Bluetooth behind with my sneaker and shirt before embarking on a two-man kayak run with one of my fellow attendees. The bend in the river actually slowed the current to a meager crawl where we launched, so it was relatively effortless to paddle upstream to take in the stunning scenery. A perfect way to top off the afternoon, to be sure, and ready ourselves for the evening’s banquet.

The Hog in the Fog

The culmination of Grape to Glass has always meant euphoria to carnivores and œnophiles alike. The Hog in the Fog banquet married 56 Russian River Valley wineries to a bounty of food from local growers and restaurateurs. Nestled among the oaks and carved totems (see below) at Richard’s Grove in Saralee’s Vineyard—in many ways, the backbone of the RRV appellation, this self-billed Festival of Plenty could easily have sufficed with the wine tasting and appetizer prelude. With produce and condiments from Kozlowski Farms and Martinelli’s orchards, cheeses from Redwood Hill, and enticing tapas from Healdsburg’s Chef Mateo Granados and nationally acclaimed John Ash (I couldn’t pull myself away from the Roast Duck Medallion canapés), I needed the wine tasting just to fortify myself for the sit-down barbecue that featured tortillas, tomato salad, vegetable salad, multicolored watermelon, pie, roasted chicken, New York steak, and the centerpiece, Gleason Ranch Pork with Seghesio’s Family Rub.

Each of the wineries from Friday’s In Concert with the Artisans returned, along with many other familiars. Almost immediately, I found myself reconnecting with Eva Dehlinger and regaling in her 2008 Pinot Noir Golden Ridge. Acorn Winery did not bring their Dolcetto, much to my chagrin, but both the 2007 Sangiovese Alegrîa Vineyard and their 2007 Zinfandel Alegría Vineyard proved quite pleasing. Eric Hall’s Roadhouse Winery poured an impressive 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, as did the genial folks from Ancient Oak, along with their 2008 Chardonnay Sonoma County.

I enjoyed the 2005 Syrah Russian River Valley from Longboard Vineyards, a winery I had been long longing to try, while Inspiration Vineyards2007 Viognier Russian River Valley proved a welcome diversion to the orthodoxy of most of the white wines on hand. After that, my tasting notes become quite sketchy, though I know I managed to sample a variety of wines from Benovia, Balletto, Williams Selyem, Suacci Carciere, Robert Rue, and Papapietro Perry. And for the numerous other wineries with whom I could not connect, know that it was a matter of satiety, not neglect.

The end of the dinner coincided with a love auction to benefit the Agriculture program at Forestville’s El Molino High School. One lucky attendee won the raffle for Keys to the Cellar, a fully-stocked wine cellar that, unfortunately, did not become mine. After the auction, local rockabilly band Quarter Mile Combo, though not quite as “saxy” as Portland’s Quarterflash, had the crowd on its feet. I managed to traipse a few with Joseph Swan’s Lynn Berglund, who rewarded me with a preview of their unreleased 2008 Tannat, a varietal that is garnering much attention and new plantings. The nighttime chill began to set in, but it felt too soon to call it an evening.

Aftermath

I stayed past the closing to help Lee Hodo, the marketing manger for theRussian River Valley Winegrowers, load dozens of loand Bonzai plants inthe back of her station wagon, only to find myself the last vehicleparked next door at Sonoma-Cutrer. I pulled into downtown Healdsburg and found my way to Spoonbar in the new h2hotel. Before capping the night with a B&B (I needed something besides wine at this point), I ran into developer Merritt Sher, who also built the Hotel Healdsburg, which anchors the downtown renewal. Along with Cyrus and Barndiva, the hotel’s Dry Creek Kitchen has defined modern Healdsburg as a culinary destination; still, judgment on the merits of transforming this formerly bucolic setting into Hamptons-style resort rests with the people who live and work in the Russian River Valley, not me.

I bypassed Sunday’s Bubbles & Pixels brunch at premier sparkling winemaker Iron Horse Vineyards in order to arrive on time for Family Winemakers back in San Francisco. Much to my chagrin, the warm, sunny weather I had hoped to find finally did make an appearance, just as I was loading my Trek bicycle back into the Corolla. Allora!

What Healdsburg may have lacked in radiant heat this weekend was more than mitigated by the personal warmth of everyone I encountered. I could not more appreciative of the generosity I received. 

And what of the Napa/Sonoma dichotomy? Granted, Napa has its Lake Berryessa, Sonoma its river and its coast. Napa has Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet, Sonoma has Pinot and Chard. Everyone has Zinfandel and everyone has an experience to offer that reflects the special character of their place. It isn’t a matter of substance over style, quantity versus quality. At the risk of sounding like an existentialist, it just is—which is OK. As in “okay.” Not Oklahoma.

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