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California Wine Country

Wineries, Large and Small, Share the Same Passion

When Carol and I first started talking seriously about our 2010 California wine country adventure, we began by dividing up the assignments for Good Life Destinations.  Carol took on Napa and our host for the trip, The Old World Inn.  You can get a great feel for that by checking out her "Old World Inn" feature in our Cozy Lodging section.  And since we decided to spend the last four nights of our wine odyssey in the small town of Calistoga at the north end of Napa Valley, she thought she’d do a feature on that as well.  I planned to talk about the wineries, although at that time, I had no idea how to proceed.  We knew pretty early on that we were not going to be able to visit the hundreds of wineries that are sprinkled up and down Napa Valley.  We talked about just concentrating on our favorites.  But that seemed too constraining; after all, there must be plenty of unknown gems along the way, right?

So we made a plan; we would try to define the scope of the wine industry in Northern California.  We thought that first exploring a high volume producer, then a “mom and pop” producer, would give us a flavor of the breadth of the wine business in California and as it turns out, it did just that…but not in the way we expected.

There were plenty of options at the high end of the spectrum, wineries that we were well aware of because their product is widely available and that we’ve enjoyed for years.  And for us, picking that winery was fairly straightforward.  Of all the big-name vintners in wine country, Rodney Strong is by far our favorite and it’s been that way for a long time.  Although we’ve only been enjoying fine wines since around 1998, the ’95 Sonoma cabernet from Rodney Strong Vineyards was the wine that drove us away from merlots and towards big California cabs early in our experience.  Since that time, we’ve had every vintage of the Sonoma County cab and we’ve also been able to sample all the other great wines up and down the Rodney range…but more on that later.

Finding the opposite end of the spectrum proved to be a bit more challenging.  Coming up with a small producer who could tell an interesting story was the mission and we hadn’t really found one before we got out to Napa and started to explore.  There were many, many choices.  But as is often the case, a local provided the answer.  Ryan Geoghegan, our host at The Old World Inn, has lived in Napa his whole life and has been very interested and involved in the wine business in Napa Valley his entire adult life.  When we told him what we were looking for, he pointed us towards Curtis Strohl at Ancien Winery.

Rodney Strong Vineyards

Rodney Strong had a passion for dance and he made a very respectable career out of it.  But by the time he realized he could no longer dance for a living, he had already put together a pretty solid plan for the transition to his other passion…wine.  While dancing in Paris for four years in the 1950’s, Strong developed a love for wine that he cultivated the rest of his life.  In 1959 he established Rodney Strong Vineyards and in doing so, did for Sonoma County what Robert Mondavi had done for Napa. Chatting with Robert Larsen

Early in the planning stages of our California wine country adventure, we contacted Robert Larsen, Public Relations Director at Rodney Strong Vineyards and asked if he could spend a little one on one time with us when we were out there.  He generously agreed and provided not only a tasting, but a personal tour of the grounds.  The actual production of the wine is a fascinating process but because we visited in April, the growing season had just started and we could only watch as workers tended the vineyards as the vines were in the early stages of grape production.  But we could see the storage of the next vintages to be released as well as get a first hand explanation of how the winemakers determine the correct blend, the timing of the wine in the barrels and all the other little nuances that make a particular vintage the unique creation that it becomes.

And while the tour, the tasting and all the information about Mr. Strong and the current owner, Tom Klein was really interesting, the thing that struck me was far less technical and much more human.  I’d begun to see it as we visited other wineries.  There is a deep passion within the folks who work at these wineries, far beyond what I’ve experienced while visiting other business over the years, something I did quite a lot in my previous life.  Even the people who don’t really have any hands-on duties regarding the making of the wine seem to be profoundly bound up in the magic of it all.

I asked Robert Larsen about that.  Here’s a guy who’s an executive at what is essentially, a large company that produces a product which is sold nationwide.  But Robert told me that he would not consider doing the job he does at Rodney Strong for just any company, regardless of the financial incentives.  He loves the wine.  He loves being around the process and being a part of the whole experience, again, even though he doesn’t participate in the actual winemaking process.  I find that fascinating and as I learned during our look up and down the spectrum of wineries in California wine country, it’s not a rarity.

Ancien Winery

Finding Ancien was much harder than finding Rodney Strong, both learning about them and actually locating the winery.  When our innkeeper, Ryan, told us about Ancien and we decided to profile the winery as the “mom and pop” end of the spectrum, we contacted Curtis Strohl and asked for the same kind of one on one time that Robert Larsen had given us at Rodney Strong.  Marketing has not been a high priority at Ancien since the 4,000 cases they produce annually are generally spoken for prior to each vintage release.  But in his role as Marketing Director, Curtiss has been reaching out a bit, starting with the creation of some symbiotic relationships with local B&B’s, hence the connection to The Old World Inn in Napa.  Touring the vineyards with Curtis

Visits to Ancien are by appointment only which makes perfect sense since there is not a manned tasting room and the entire staff consists of four people including the owner and winemaker, Ken Bernards.  But Ancien is a featured winery on Lexacon tours, one of Napa’s wine tour options that not coincidentally, is owned by Ryan.  While we didn’t get a tasting that afternoon, we did get an in-depth tour as Curtis told us the Ancien story.

I was fascinated, but not surprised, to find the same passion for the entire winemaking process there at Ancien that was so clearly evident at Rodney Strong and the other wineries we’d visited.  What did surprise me, was learning that Bernards’ passion was also sparked while visiting France…a coincidence that I did not expect to find and one that not only delighted me, but made it pretty easy to write this feature.

Bernards had an interest in wine long before his visit to the Burgundy region of France in the early 90’s, as did Rodney Strong before his time in Paris.  Bernards, a degreed chemist, was working as an experimental winemaker at Domain Chandon, one of California’s premier wineries but the Burgundy visit sparked the artist within and Bernards returned with a passion to create his own Burgundian style wines in California.  He was able to do that to a small degree in the mid 1990’s while hand-crafting single-vineyard wines as the winemaker for Truchard Vineyards.  Then in 1997, Bernards began producing his own wines under the Ancien label and now lives his dream daily.Home of Ancien Wines

Curtis walked Carol and I into the vineyards that afternoon and told us the Ancien story as a proud father would speak of his children.  The deep passion for this business within Curtis was clearly shared with us and I must say, it was contagious.  Ancien produces pinot noir wine using grapes harvested from various California locations and as Curtis told us about the nuances of growing these temperamental grapes, I was reminded of the speech that the character Miles made in the movie, “Sideways” about how hard it is to make pinot noir wine.  It occurred to me that Curtis is one of the people Miles was talking about, people who have the patience and passion to take the more difficult path.

All the Wineries in Between

So it’s the passion.  It’s clearly there at the corporate level and just as obvious when it’s only a couple wine lovers putting their name on a few hundred cases a year.  And as I said, we weren’t able to visit a large number of wineries during our ten day odyssey in wine country but having worked with statistics in my previous life, we did a heavy sample.  And based on that data, I have concluded that you too, would be able to see the love these folks have for what they do…just as we did.  For me, it’s the single, most dominant memory of our visit and the sustaining joy I can continue to experience…every time I have a bottle of California wine.  And I intend to experience that joy for a long, long time.

For more information on Rodney Strong Vineyards, see www.rodneystrong.com, and for Ancien Wines, www.ancienwines.com


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