California Wine Country: Sonoma Vs. Napa

I recently ventured to California Wine Country. The scenery was every bit as majestic as you’d imagine. In an area where there are more wineries than leaves on trees, you pick up on things. Like that trusty beat-up pickup trucks and a good dog yield more value than shiny new Beemers and Botox injections. I also noticed that amongst Sonoma and Napa lies some pretty friendly competition. Napa is the grand dame of California winemaking, and Sonoma is its feisty and ambitious younger sister. Sonoma residents are proud to be from Sonoma and are very vocal about Not Being Napa. As one Sonoma resident put it, “Napa is for auto parts and Disneyland wine.”

At the 100-acre Lynmar Estate in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, the winemaker and vineyard manager spend a lot of time together. Apparently this is rare, as many wineries have someone who owns the grapes and someone else who turns them into wine. Lynmar produces 8,500 cases a year of Chardonnay and Pinot noir, and employs the first female winemaker from Colombia.

“Watch out for gopher holes,” was the first thing Margie said during our vineyard tour at Littorai. Like Lynmar, Littorai produces Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Founded in 1993, it’s a small family-owned winery situated on 30 acres that are all farmed biodynamically. Compost piles are scattered throughout the property, as Margie explained while showing me a fistful of rich, brown soil. The winery produces 4,500 cases of Burgundian-style wine a year and is owned by the first American ever hired to manage a property in Burgundy.

My most intimate winemaking experience occurred at the home of John Suacci, who grows grapes for Suacci Carciere. After setting foot on his 6.5-acre vineyard, he pointed out a red-tailed hawk hovering above us with a long snake dangling vertically from its talon. “What it takes to make good wine is good grapes,” he said as we bumped along the vineyard in his beloved Kubota “tractor.” He zips around that property like an oenophilic Energizer Bunny, and sets an alarm to wake him when the temperature dips to 33 degrees so he can protect his precious grapes from freezing. He taught me an Italian toast that translates to “I drink with my friends, and the rest are jackasses.”

In Napa, things are a little more intense. A 45-minute drive inland from Sonoma, it’s a few degrees warmer and several notches more sophisticated. Cakebread Cellars produces around 165,000 cases of wine a year. Their bottling machine fills 60 bottles a minute, and they spend between $1,100 and $1,700 apiece for their French oak barrels. Each 60-gallon barrel holds a half ton of grapes and produces 25 cases (300 bottles) of wine. In the Cakebread tasting room, our amiable helper Bob didn’t hide his affection for the Cakebread brand. He lovingly referred to the Dancing Bear Ranch  2007 blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, and Merlot as a “big, chewy Cab,” and described the Benchland Select 2005 Cabernet sauvignon, of which 1,800 cases are made a year, as “silk in a bottle.”

And then there was Opus One. We saved the best for last. Opus is what I like to call The Crying Wine. I’ve had the fortune of drinking it three times in my life, and all three times made me teary. The Crying Wine is made in a facility that’s as impressive as its product and took two years to build. A mix of French limestone and California Redwood, it blends the cultures of the Old World with the New. Our Opus colleague Jim thought the place “looks like it should be in Rome.” Opus produces nearly 24,000 cases a year of one red wine. It’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. It was founded by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1978 and produced its first vintage the following year. Opus One wine is produced in 20-ton drop-in fermentation tanks and harvested every October using a Delta Vistalys machine. The wine is stored in pristine French oak barrels (that are only used once and then sold to other wineries) and stored in the cellar a.k.a. “Gran Chais.” The Gran Chais is impeccably lined with 950 barrels and is “where the wine comes to relax,” according to Jim. If you ever find yourself with a glass of Opus One in your hand, breathe, smell, swirl, sip, and swoon. And maybe cry.