The Secret Life of Grapes

Next time you're in the Bay Area on business, take a weekend to discover the 5 hidden wineries that promise the smallest crowds and the finest bottles.

Here's the typical scenario: a friend calls and says, "I'm finishing up a business meeting in the Bay Area. It's Friday and I thought I might tour the wine country. My flight leaves at 6 a.m. Monday. Got any ideas on where I should go?"

As it happens, I do. I write about wine for a living -- it's what I've done for the past 20 years. I get these calls fairly often, sometimes from the dreaded "friends of friends." I try to help. But there's this problem, known to all of us in the advice-giving business: people plead with you for advice and then don't take it. Somehow, they don't believe that what you're suggesting is the real deal.

I'll be direct: the wine-touring suggestions I'm about to offer really mean something. They are the fruits of two decades of sloshing through junk wines and snoring through boring wineries. I only wish somebody had told me about these places. If I had just 48 hours to visit the best hidden wineries in Mendocino, Sonoma, or Napa, this is where I'd go, who I'd see, and where I'd eat and sleep.

Mendocino County

I drive out of San Francisco under a great blue dome of a sky, heading north on Highway 101. After threading through the California highway patrols that infest Santa Rosa, freedom beckons: Highway 128, a two-lane road that climbs into remote, unpopulated hills. After 27 miles of cruising through switchbacks, I descend into Mendocino's Anderson Valley -- 20 miles long and just 1 mile wide.

The vineyard action takes place mid-valley, in a 10-mile stretch between Boonville and Navarro. Here, a nexus of cool ocean air and warmer inland air results in long, slow ripening. If the vines were any closer to the Pacific, you'd never have a harvest.

I head over to see Michel Salgues, the wine maker and director of Roederer Estate. A slim, dark-haired fellow in his 50s, Salgues speaks with a heavy French accent and smokes cigarettes almost defiantly. He was inserted into Anderson Valley a decade ago by the winery's owner, the French champagne house Louis Roederer.

"So you're back again?" he says when I pull into the elegant, restrained winery. He isn't surprised to see me. Roederer Estate makes California's best sparkling wine. "Can't keep me away," I grin. "Let's try l'Ermitage and see if you got it right this time."

The trick to grape growing is finding a place where grapes ripen each year, but just barely. The goal is not boring consistency -- at least not for fine wine -- but an expression of place. To do that, you have to pick at just the ripe moment: when both the sugars and acidity in the grape are in balance, and that unquantifiable thing called "flavor" is achieved.

There's flavor in Roderer's sparkling wines. It makes several different bottlings, such as a rosé and a regular brut, or dry. L'Ermitage is the priciest blend, made from the best lots and allowed to age longer.

We pop a bottle of the just-released 1991 vintage ($35) and set to work. "A little closed," I say. "I'm not convinced it's going to be as good as the '90."

"Maybe not," counters Salgues. "But I like the finesse." We both know these are quibbles. The wine is damn good. Roederer Estate's brut bottling ($16) and their refined rosé ($21) are equally noteworthy.

From Roederer I follow Highway 253 some 19 miles from Boonville to Ukiah, across the mountain range that separates Anderson Valley from inland Mendocino County. While there's a clutch of good wineries in the area, I'm really here to stop in at California's greatest brandy producer, a tiny artisan outfit called Germain-Robin.

Compare Germain-Robin's various brandies with the world standard, French Cognac, and Germain-Robin frequently wins. Germain-Robin's brandies are richer and fruitier; the best Cognacs are more austere.

The difference is all in the quality of the base wine. In the Cognac region, the wine that gets distilled is thin stuff. You wouldn't want to drink it. In comparison, Germain-Robin's base wine is genuinely good. More fruit shows up in the brandy itself -- but not too much more. Various batches of brandies are made at Germain-Robin, selling for between $30 and $125 a bottle. I especially like the Select Barrel XO's ($100) deft alliance of richness and finesse.

I do more smelling than tasting on this visit, as I've got to head south down Highway 101 to Sonoma County. Co-owner Ansley Coale's parting words: "Come back next time and I'll let you taste our $300 special reserve batch." He can bet on it.

Prime Mendocino Sleep Beija-Flor (Portuguese for hummingbird) is a remarkable country inn with a broad lawn and elegant yet natural plantings. At the moment, it has just one rustic but well-appointed cottage. The view from the back deck is a tangle of virgin forest. At night I'm reminded how isolated Anderson Valley really is. There's no ambient light. It's a star-studded sky of the sort I've seen only in the desert.

Coordinates: Beija-Flor, Tumbling McD Rd., Philo; 707-895-3455. $250 a night, including breakfast. By reservation only.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County is often compared with neighboring Napa Valley, but it's twice the size and nowhere near as tidy. There's no way to see it all in one flying trip. So I plunk down in Healdsburg. It's the portal for the southern end of two wine valleys that run parallel to each other: Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley.

Dry Creek, 15 miles long and perhaps 2 miles wide at its broadest, narrows the farther north you go. The landscape here is different from Mendocino: much drier and no towering trees. Driving down Dry Creek Road, I pass a small house with a modest sheet-metal warehouse alongside. A sign reads, "David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery. By Appointment Only." On an impulse, I make a U-turn and pull into Coffaro's driveway. All anyone can do is ask me to leave.

Coffaro emerges from the house. I apologize for not having an appointment. He laughs and says, "Almost no one ever does. They just fall in on me like you're doing now. Want to taste some wine?"

I visit unfamiliar wineries all the time, and I'm almost always disappointed. There's a reason why many wineries are obscure: they deserve it. New wineries are usually still finding their way. "This is only my second vintage," says Coffaro. He's a nice guy: straightforward, modest, no wine maker mumbo-jumbo. I like him, but I have little hope.

Then I taste his Cabernet Sauvignon, and I'm astounded by its purity. This estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) practically sings. The same for the Zinfandel ($14). Both have the textural density and distinctive tar flavors that distinguish Dry Creek reds.

There's no one right way to make wine. It all depends on your grapes. Coffaro knows his perfectly. He bottles his wines relatively early, rather than allowing them to age longer in the barrel, as some other wine makers prefer. His wines offer a piercing freshness precisely because they're bottled young and see less oak influence.

"Where have you been all these years!" I exclaim.

"I ran a small stock fund before I came to my senses," he replies. "I bought this vineyard and started selling grapes in 1979. I made a little wine for myself and entered it in the local amateur wine competition. I kept winning every year, so I thought, Why not start a winery? So here I am. You really like my wines?"

Do I ever. Coffaro epitomizes modern wine making at its best. Too bad he sells most of his 20 acres of grapes to other Dry Creek Valley wineries, keeping enough to make just 1,500 cases a year.

Prime Sonoma Eatery Everything I want is right around the plaza in the center of Healdsburg. My favorite place to stay is the Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza. It's a bit duded-up with Victoriana. But it's quiet, and the welcome is warm. Across the plaza is my favorite Healdsburg restaurant, Bistro Ralph, featuring California cuisine that stays just this side of tasteful sanity. The wine list is all local Sonoma stuff, reasonably priced.

Coordinates: Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, 110 Matheson Street; 800-431-8663. $145 to $210. Bistro Ralph, 109 Plaza Street, Healdsburg; 707-433-1380.

Napa Valley

When I reach the city of Napa, I turn onto Monticello Road to rendezvous with William and Leticia Jarvis. The Jarvis estate embraces 1,500 acres, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Most of it is pasture land. Jarvis meets me at the gate.

I've been in a lot of wine joints and I'm here to tell you that I've never seen the likes of Jarvis Vineyards. For one thing, it's all underground : barrels, presses, tanks, offices. Rooms are lined with brass wall sconces and fiber-optic lighting. There's even an underground waterfall. It's all improbably, preposterously beautiful. And breathtakingly expensive. Jarvis admits spending at least $20 million to build 45,000 square feet of tunnels. "I stopped counting after that," he says.

Usually, rich guys make nowhere wines. They're happy with whatever their hired-gun wine maker puts forth. Not Jarvis. You can taste the vineyard's cool microclimate in his Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Elevation helps, as does a relatively close proximity to the breezes of San Pablo Bay, just 12 miles away. Jarvis's wines are distinctive and genuinely fine. But you've got to see the winery.

I leave Jarvis shaking my head in wonder, and make a bee-line for one of my Napa Valley favorites: Mayacamas Vineyards. No winery could be more antithetical to the glitz of Napa Valley than Mayacamas. Its entrance, 2,000 feet high on the slopes of Mount Veeder, is adorned by only a weathered sign tacked to a tree. The winery's roots go deep, back to its founding in 1889. Its label hasn't changed a jot since 1950.

But it's the wines that set Mayacamas apart. They are California's longest-lived. Mayacamas Chardonnay ($18) is famous for lasting -- and improving -- for 20 or 30 years. The same goes for the Cabernet ($30). Some bottlings from the 1950s are still going strong.

The wines' longevity comes from the vines. The Chardonnay vines are 20 to 50 years old, planted in stony soil. They yield no more than a ton of grapes per acre -- just 25% of the average yield from vineyards on the valley floor.

Bob and Nonie Travers bought Mayacamas in 1968. Their winery, housed in an old stone structure dating to the late 1800s, has some of the most rudimentary wine-making equipment I've seen in California.

"I don't do anything to the wine," insists Bob Travers, when I ask about his wine-making technique. "I just nurse these old vines and accept their low yields."

What an understatement. The Chardonnay, especially, is heavenly -- among the best in the world. An older Mayacamas Chardonnay, say 10 years or more after the vintage, practically explodes with a deliciously buttery, honey-flavored taste. French Chablis is the nearest equivalent.

Prime Napa Sleep Cross-valley from Mayacamas, Auberge du Soleil is Mediterranean in style: 50 rooms and suites in cottages with stucco whitewashed walls and cool tile floors. It sits on a hilltop, amid a 33-acre grove of olive trees. From here, the view of the Napa Valley floor is one vast, tufted rug of vines. This is a place to unwind.

I stroll into the bar and order the wine writer's secret restorative: a cold beer. The bartender smiles. "Been visiting wineries, eh?" I sure have.

Coordinates: Auberge du Soleil, 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800-348-5406. Rates vary according to room and season, $175 to $1,300.

Sidebar: Wine List

Before you head out, remember these two essential facts for successful wine touring.

First, there's no such thing as "California wine country." The whole state is one big vineyard, so you have to be selective. Choose a square -- Napa, Sonoma, or Mendocino -- and land on it. Don't bite off more grape than you can chew.

Second, contrast is everything. The best wine tours embrace the extremes : palaces and artisan's ateliers. Not only is it fun to see how big money is spent -- and heartwarming to see humble craft wineries -- it's also profoundly instructive. You discover that great wine comes from somewhere -- namely, vineyards that have intrinsic character. Even if you know nothing about the wine, you can sense this "somewhereness" in every glass.

Mendocino County

Roederer Estate: 4501 Highway 128, Philo; 707-895-2288. On the main road through Anderson Valley, three miles north of Philo.

Big Picture: California's best sparkling-wine producer. Among its innovations is an "open lyre" trellis system for training vines on moveable wires, so the grower can better control the vines' exposure to sunlight. The elegant, redwood winery is open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Advisory: Try the special l'Ermitage bottling, as well as the rosé. Magnums are available at the winery -- they're almost unobtainable anywhere else.

When to Go: Summer and fall are best for the Anderson Valley, as it's cool and rainy during winter and early spring.

Also Check Out: Navarro Vineyards, 5601 Highway 128, Philo; 707-895-3686. One of Anderson Valley's best wine producers, Navarro Vineyards makes exceptional Riesling and Gewürztraminer, as well as a steadily improving Pinot Noir. The winery has a loyal following, selling most of its wines by mail (800-537-9463).

Germain-Robin: 5000 Low Gap Road, Ukiah; 707-462-3221. Five miles off Highway 101, northwest of Ukiah. Big Picture Some of the world's best brandy is made here, distilled by hand, using copper-pot stills imported from France. Germain-Robin is aged in small, Limousin oak barrels, which give the brandies a long, rich finish. Open by appointment only.

Advisory: Try the deep, rich XO bottling ($100), and any special single-barrel bottlings ($125) that might be available. Cigar smokers should ask for the Cigar Blend ($95).

When to Go: Spring, summer, and fall are best for the Redwood Valley area.

Also Check Out: Jepson Vineyards, 10400 South Highway 101, Ukiah; 707-468-8936. Located three miles north of Hopland, Jepson makes one of California's best Sauvignon Blancs, as well as a very good Chardonnay. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Prime Eatery: The Boonville Hotel (above) in Boonville, 14050 Highway 128; 707-895-2210. Chef-owner John Schmitt keeps the menu simple, fresh, and unpretentious. All the Anderson Valley wines you can handle, at good prices.

Another Prime Sleep: The Albion River Inn, 3790 Highway 1 North; 707-937-1919. Just north of Anderson Valley. Rustic clapboard cabins dot the coastal headlands where the Albion River runs into the Pacific. $160 to $250 per night.

Sonoma County

David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery: 7485 Dry Creek Road, Geyserville; 707-433-9715. In Dry Creek Valley, about eight miles north of Healdsburg.

Big Picture: A California winery on the verge of big-time discovery. Superb Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Open by appointment only, but Coffaro welcomes drop-ins.

Advisory: Get in quick. Like a hot IPO, some California wineries become almost unobtainable. Coffaro seems destined for that status.

When to Go: Dry Creek Valley is worth visiting in any season. Stay away during harvest (September and October), though, as small wineries such as Coffaro have their hands full.

Also Check Out: Jordan Vineyard and Winery, 1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg; 707-431-5250. Just a few miles northeast of Healdsburg in Alexander Valley. A beautiful winery housed in an elegant manor. The Cabernet Sauvignon is consistently one of California's best. By appointment only.

Another Prime Eatery: Taqueria El Sombrero (below), 245 Center Street, Healdsburg; 707-433-3818. A lowdown-but-popular-with-the-locals Mexican restaurant. The Sanchez family puts together heroic burritos and tacos with your choice of nine different meats, including (proof of real Mexican authenticity) brains, tripe, and tongue, as well as more conventional pork, beef, and chorizo sausage.

Hot Tip: Dry Creek and Alexander valleys are ideal for cycling. You can rent touring bikes at Spoke Folk Cyclery, just off the plaza in Healdsburg; 707-433-7171.

Napa Valley

Jarvis vineyards: 2970 Monticello Road, Napa; 707-255-5280. Take Trancas Street east out of Napa, which becomes Monticello Road. Follow the winery's directions to the entrance gate.

Big Picture: One of the world's most spectacular winery facilities, entirely underground in a circular tunnel. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are especially fine. Open by appointment only; touring and tasting fee: $10.

Advisory: It's worth making time to see Jarvis, as there's no other winery structure quite like it. And check out the bathrooms -- they're palatial.

When to Go: Napa Valley is worth visiting in any season. February is the ideal month for serious visiting, as the weather is mild, the vineyard rows are golden with flowering mustard, and tourists are nowhere to be seen.

Also Check Out: The Hess Collection Winery, 4411 Redwood Road, Napa; 707-255-1144. The Hess Collection is housed in an old stone winery. Elegantly restored by Swiss multimillionaire Donald Hess, it houses part of his vast collection of (very) modern art. Good wine, too, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Be sure to allow enough time to see the art gallery.

Mayacamas Vineyards: 1155 Lokoya Road, Napa; 707-224-4030. In Napa Valley, northwest of the city of Napa. Getting to Mayacamas takes some driving -- all uphill on a road full of switchbacks. Call for directions!

Big Picture: One of Napa's oldest wineries. Great Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Be sure to buy one of Mayacamas's older wines, which are available only at the winery. Bob Travers recommends that the Cabernet Sauvignon be consumed at 12 to 25 years of age. Open by appointment only.

Advisory: Mayacamas is undeniably off the beaten track, which alone makes it worth seeing. It's located in the Mount Veeder subdistrict, along with several other wineries. All the wines share a familial resemblance. The reds and whites are earthy, rich, and long-lived.

When to Go: Winter on Mount Veeder is rainy, but any other time is swell.

Other Napa Lodgings: Several no-fee reservation services help you find Napa Valley lodgings: Accommodations Referral, 800-240-8466; Napa Valley Tourist Bureau Reservations, 707-944-1558; and Wine Country Reservations, 707-257-7757.

Another Prime Eatery: Mustard's Grill, 7399 St. Helena Highway/Highway 29, Yountville; 707-944-2424. Even after a decade, Mustard's still does California cuisine better than any other Napa Valley restaurant. It's noisy, close-packed, and a favorite among winegrowers. Huge wine list. Reservations recommended.

Matt Kramer is the author of three books on wine, is a wine columnist for the Los Angeles "Times" and "Wine Spectator" magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon

Sidebar: Wine Country, One Glass at a Time

Even if you aren't traveling to the Bay Area in the near future, remember that wine can come to you. The trick, as always, is knowing what to ask for. California, like any other major wine area, produces wines that range from awful to awesome. The following half-dozen recommendations constitute a six-pack of California wines at their most convincing. Though none sell by mail, all are available at major wine retailers.

Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot. ($32) Howell Mountain is a subdistrict in Napa Valley that creates terrific Cabernet Sauvignon. Beringer planted some Merlot, however, and the results are sensational. This may well be California's single finest Merlot, year in and year out.

Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. ($22) This Napa Valley subdistrict's specialty is creating rich, luxurious Cabernets. Stags' Leap Winery owns one of the best vineyards and has improved its wine making mightily, starting with the 1990 vintage. Its price is lower than some others, as the word on its successful comeback isn't fully out.

Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay ($35). Kistler makes several different Chardonnays, all from vineyards in various parts of Sonoma County. Kistler's Estate Vineyard is located 1,800-feet up in the Mayacamas Mountains. It's intense, stony-tasting, and memorable. Any Kistler Chardonnay will do.

Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Chardonnay. ($36) If I had to name California's single greatest Chardonnay, this would be my pick. Mount Eden is located in Saratoga -- high in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley. The soil is stony, yields are low, and the result is stupendous and long-lived. Get the Estate Chardonnay, as Mount Eden also buys grapes from Edna Valley for a less expensive, vineyard-designated bottling.

Spottswoode Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. ($42) This one is hard to find, if only because Napa Valley's Spottswoode has earned a reputation for producing impeccable Cabernets. While these subtle, gentle Cabernets go down without a catch, they are far from boring.

Amador Foothill Winery "Eschen Vineyard", "Ferrero Vineyard," or "Grand-pere Vineyard" Zinfandels. ($10 to $14) Amador County is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains -- Gold Rush country. The Grand-pere vineyard is California's oldest: most of the vines date to 1868. Amador County Zinfandels are redolent of prunes, berries, and tar. They're not for everyone, but they are original. Amador Foothill Winery makes some of the best.

Sidebar: Resources

The following California wine retailers specialize in mail order and sell everything at discount prices. Call for free monthly newsletters and catalogs: Wine Club, San Francisco, 800-966-7835; Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, 800-331-3005; The Wine House, Los Angeles, 310-479-3731; outside L.A., 800-626-9463.

The most widely read newsletter is Robert Parker Jr's "The Wine Advocate". Parker's palate gravitates toward somewhat large-scale, intense wines. His integrity is unquestioned, his followers are legion. Coordinates: The Wine Advocate, 410-329-6477; $40 for six issues a year. The single best wine book is "The World Atlas of Wine," fourth edition, by Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $50). Wine is all about place. This book, a cartographer's dream, has the best maps of the world's vineyards.

Most Web sites on wine are boring. One exception is the Napa Valley Virtual Visit, which offers lots of useful information for visiting Napa Valley. You can also link to a comparable Sonoma Valley Virtual Visit. Coordinates: Napa Valley Virtual Visit,
(http://www.freerun.com/cgi-bin/home).

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