When you drive through Sonoma County, Calif., the roads are lined with vineyards.
Grape vines are held up with wires and supports, in neat rows stretching back from the road and often up a hill. Nearly 60,000 acres of the county are covered in vineyard, according to tourism information.
Vineyards are as common here as cornfields in northern Indiana. In the 1800s, people figured out that you could grow grapes here and make wine and that the moderate temperatures from a series of mountains and the Russian River would help impart a flavor that made excellent wine.
This weekend, a group of 32 of us has been in a tour bus visiting this part of the world where there are around 370 wineries in this county and another 400 or so in Napa County.
We’re going to a total of five.
Jay Fields, a representative from Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor Co. in South Bend, made arrangement with wineries he knows here. Most of them are boutique wineries that produce small amounts, but on Friday we visited Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena, Calif. It’s one of the six original Napa vineyards and still produces Cabernet Sauvignon that is very drinkable and easy to find in northern Indiana.
Louis Martini made his first wine as a 15-year-old in 1906. He survived Prohibition by selling sacramental wine and wine that could be used for medicinal purposes, according to Alexis Sarantinos, the wine ambassador who led us on the tour Friday.
“His true love was dry table wine,” she said.
In the 1938, he purchased a property on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains and renamed it Monte Rosso because of its red, volcanic soils. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of property in the area now, according to Fields.
In 2002, E & J Gallo purchased the winery and built a facility that could also make small batches of wine. Michael Martini, Louis’ grandson, is the third generation winemaker.
When the group walked into the facility where the Cabernet is made in 15,000-gallon tanks, Paul Cataldo gasped a little. He makes wine, as well as some others on the tour.
When the group walked into the barrel building a few minutes later, you could smell the wine and oak from stack after stack of oak barrels aging the wine. Sarita Cataldo, who with her husband orders two semi-loads of California grapes for Midwestern winemakers every summer, exclaimed a little bit.
We sampled some wines in that room, including a 2009 Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon. Kurt Janowsky, owner of Cafe Navarre, said he sold three cases (36 bottles) a week of that in 2012 at the South Bend restaurant. “I went through 14 cases just at my wedding,” he said. He’s the largest Louis Martini customer in Indiana, he said.
This week, we’re here to learn the stories and taste some of what another part of the world can offer us.
We spent some time Friday at the Vinoce/20 Rows Tasting Room in downtown Napa. Brian Nuss moved to California from New Jersey, worked in construction and eventually became a winemaker. Now he and his family make award-winning wines and bottle wine for Carl Tiedemann of Elkhart, who started a wine company.
The Nuss family harvests, blends and bottles wine made from grapes grown in this temperate climate where soil contents vary widely and change the flavors of the wine.
We sampled some of their wine and olive oil in their tasting room, including the Glenwood Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that they bottle under Tiedemann’s label. The 20 Rows and Vinoce labels are also available in the Elkhart and South Bend markets due to Tiedemann’s work. The Vinoce wines are aged on oak longer and have a deeper flavor. And in case you were wondering, the name Vinoce is Italian for “wine nut,” showing a bit of the whimsy the Nuss family has.
This trip continues through Monday, Feb. 11, so you’ll read more about it in later columns. You can also read about it on the Dining A La King blog.
Other highlights in the first two days of the trip were:
Ÿ An unplanned evening in San Francisco. After arriving from Chicago, the group agreed to visit the North Beach neighborhood where pizza legend Tony Gemignani has Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. All 32 of us squeezed into a restaurant and bar that has a capacity of only 95 people. And we sampled some of the best pizza we’ve ever had, which is saying something because there are some people on this trip who make pizza for a living.
Ÿ A stop alongside the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to San Francisco. The group gathered for some photos and marveled at the 1.7-mile-long structure we just crossed as the sun was setting and the light started to soften.
Ÿ A tour of Lagunitas Brewing Co., a fast-growing brewery in Petaluma. Jeremy Grenert, a South Bend native, is the national sales manager there, though the title on his sales card is “Translator of Mumbles.” The brewery grew from a stove-top operation in 1993 to having just installed a big 250-barrel system.
I’ve been asked why I write so much about alcohol. I know some readers abstain for personal health or for religious reasons. I was raised that way, but no longer do. I now try to use it responsibly and enjoy the flavor that it brings.
The focus of this trip isn’t just on the alcohol, it’s on the food and seeing another part of the world and laughing together with a group of new found friends.
And it’s been a blast.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
You can read more about the trip at blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking. Marshall V. King, news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth, is also posting to Twitter @hungrymarshall, Instagram @hungrymarshall and the Dining A La King Facebook page.