I just got back from a trip to Northern California. I toured San Francisco and the Napa Valley mostly, and visited with suppliers and some other great places, too. Here’s a quick overview.
Of course, being a beer focused company I made sure to get over to the Toronado on 547 Haight St. The draft list here is one of the most prized in North America, and it gets beer from many great breweries here in NorCal that we can’t get back home. One of those is the Saison from Odonata Brewing, and it was really fantastic. I’ve been waiting a while to get into this beer, so it was the first that I ordered. It marries great depth of flavour with an amazingly soft texture. A simple beer that is clearly very well made. I wonder if some people will eventually tire of Saison (as it is becoming quite popular), but it’s a very challenging beer to make well and when you get a good one you know why so many brewers try to make it! Personally I’ll take a saison like Odonata’s over anything else.
For last leg of the trip, we made the journey to Brown Estate, in the Napa Valley. I call it a ‘journey’ because after 20 minutes of driving and not seeing a single vine I thought we were lost, and surely not in wine country anymore. The winery is located in the Chiles Valley, which is a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley. Drive east for about 10 miles on Sage Canyon Rd from the Silverado Trail and you’ll eventually finding this winery, well tucked-away, in the hillsides east of Lake Hennessey. Here they’re making some of the best Zinfandel in the Valley.
The growing conditions in Chiles Valley seem quite varied. For example, the Brown’s vineyards contain several different combinations of soil, elevation, and sun exposure. Somehow, their lands seem to be perfect for Zinfandel – a grape whose often overripe and jammy wines are not as prized as they once were. But Brown’s Zins are elegant and restrained in that sense, and I hope its fair of me to surmise that winemaker David Brown works in accordance with what he’s given, and with the purpose of expressing his family’s storied land via the wine.
Their Napa Valley Zinfandel is a careful blend of fruit from four vineyards. They also offer 2 single vineyard expressions which show more seasonal variation, and distinct characteristics from the various growing conditions of each. They have 4 vineyards of Zinfandel on the property, but currently bottle only 2 of them, labelled ‘Westside’, and ‘Chiles Valley’, as single vineyard releases (yes, they plan to release the other 2).
The three Brown “children” – now fully grown of course – run the winery operations, their parents live in the house on the estate they purchased 30 years ago. Today, David is the winemaker and Coral is the Brand Manager. Deneen, the President, wasn’t in the tasting room that day. Coral, immediately welcoming, was effusive and passionate from the get-go. She speaks about the wines like a proud mother, and explains them via comparison to intangible but relate-able topics like relationships and poetry. When David found out I was from Ontario he told me about his time at College in Michigan, joking about how he used to drink Labatt Ice back in the day. We all make mistakes! What definitely struck me about Coral and David was the level of thought that they both put into their winemaking approach. They don’t over think it, they don’t over do it, they let the land, the vines, and the wine be what it is. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Because of this they produce wine with a sense of people, and place. And it is nothing short of fabulous.
I consider myself very lucky that I get have experiences like this at places like Broc Cellars, The Toronado, and Brown Estates. I’m lucky to be in such a fun industry. Meeting people with a simple, genuine passion for what they do is rare, but I see it all the time and I’m blessed for that. I get to eat and drink pretty well, too.