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Monday 28 Oct 2013
Napa, USA

What better way to pass the day?

What is better than to sit at the end of the day and drink wine with friends?

We loaded ourselves up with a cooked breakfast, ready to face the day with the Platypus Wine Tour. Samantha, our guide and driver, laid out her credentials at the start.  She’s training to be a sommelier and gave us a great introduction to wine tastings and the history of Napa Valley winemaking.  An Aussie couple and three American girls, all of a similar age to us, made up the rest of the tour group.  I think Claire and Anthony were probably the most experienced wine tasters and certainly knew their wines, but the wineries we visited treated everyone equally. 

We started off at Hopper Creek Winery, a very small winery with their own small vineyard on site, which they added to with grapes from the neighbouring Sonoma valley.  Dean gave us an excellent tour of the property while explaining their wine making process.  We watched their fermentation tubs being shaken and restacked and got to try both fresh and semi fermented grapes.  He then took us to a table under the shade of a vine-laden pergola.  Here, we discussed colours, flavours and aromas while tasting a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, a 2009 Merlot Rose and a delicious, buttery, oaky 2009 Chardonnay.  I prefer white to red in general, and would usually pick a Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Pinot Grigio, but this Chardonnay was far and away the best white I’ve tasted - like liquid gold on my tongue.  I could have drunk a while glass there and then, but had to settle for a couple of sips.  Dean was very skillful at making us wait long enough between each wine to let our palettes cleanse themselves ready for the next one.

We moved inside to a different tasting room – deep red walls and dark wood panelling made it feel like an old fashioned smoking parlour.  It was warm and cosy and perfect for drinking deep full-bodied reds.  Here, we tried a 2007 Merlot, accompanied by a chunk of dark bitter chocolate, which worked very well together.

Outside again on the back terrace, we tasted three more reds: a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2008 Zinfandel and an award winning 2003 Cabernet.  I am not an experienced red wine drinker, but with Dean’s explanations, I could taste the difference and appreciate the subtleties of these reds.  That said, it was the Chardonnay that I bought myself for my birthday.  This winery sells their produce at the door, rather than supplying to any other retailers, which is a shame as I won’t be able to get hold of any more of it!

What a fantastic start to the day.  Samantha provided us with a cheese board and crackers in the minibus as we made our way to winery number two.

Unfortunately, the host at Selenius was as lacking in knowledge and enthusiasm as Dean had been bursting with it.  They had a choice of tasting lists, so Ailsa and I signed up for one of each and shared them.  The guy didn’t seem to know much about any of the wines he served us beyond what was on the label, so it felt more like he was racing to get through the 15 wines rather than allowing us to savour and appreciate any of them.  He then refused to waive the tasting fee when Anthony wanted to buy the most expensive bottle on the list – something that would be fairly standard in most places.  It was good that Dean and Samantha had done such a good job of explaining things so we could still do our own tasting tests.

We had lunch in the garden before heading up to Hagafen.  Samantha took us here because they usually had at least one sparkling wine on their tasting lists, something Ailsa and I were hoping to pick up for my birthday.  Unfortunately they had run out, but we again took one list each and shared the wines.  We got chatting to a great couple of ladies – one from Mexico and one from Newcastle, (UK, not Australia) who used to live just up the road from Ailsa and who spent years working with VAC Therapy.  The wine had definitely had an effect by this point and we had to be dragged out by Samantha, but not before I had bought another bottle of wine: a Don Ernestos 2012 Rose.  Not quite sure when Ailsa and I are going to drink two bottles of wine, but it was so delicious that I couldn’t let it pass.  Especially as the winery waived both our tasting fees, so it actually cost $7 less than we’d have paid anyway.

Our last stop of the day was definitely the most fun. St Claire Brown is a brand new urban winery run by two ladies who’ve spent their lives working for other people in the wine world.  They’ve opened their winery in the centre of Napa, which allows them to stay open later than those in the valley.  They’ve also started a culinary garden to grow all their own produce to be served in their new restaurant, due to open next spring.  For now, they serve delicious cheeses and snacks to accompany their tastings.  We arrived to be greeted with a Sauvignon Blanc while touring their garden, before we were shown into the big warehouse, which will be converted into a combination of restaurant and winery.  Their current wines were lined up in casks along one wall, while their own beers brewed in tanks in another corner.  Down the middle, there was a long table laid out with glasses of wine and platters of cheeses.  Our host was one of the owners, originally from Cambridge (less than an hour from my hometown) but has spent much of her life in California.  We had a wonderful time there, tasting the wines they’d laid out for us and progressing onto several more that were not included.  Ailsa came away with a bottle of desert wine that she was very pleased with. 

Samantha had to take the Aussie couple away early to catch their ferry back to San Francisco, but we persuaded her to leave the three American girls with us.  Our new driver finally got us out of the winery an hour later than we should have left. 

The tour was not the cheapest we could have done, but it was well worth the money for such a great day.  After a bit of wine-fuddled maths, we worked out that I tasted 35 wines and Ailsa had 39.  Not bad for a day’s work.  I’m not sure I could tell you much about the ones at the last place, but the hospitality there was wonderful and I would love to go back in a year or so when they are fully established.

Ailsa and I joined Claire and Anthony for dinner at a grill house near the hotel.  I stuck with Coke at dinner, having drunk more than my fair share of wine for one day!  I am very glad I got talking to them on the Mist Trail in Yosemite as they proved to be such entertaining company.  I hope they enjoyed the rest of their honeymoon as much as today. 

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