I always try to look for bright spots in dark moments. None of us has ever gone through what we are now experiencing. No one knows what the future will look like. It seems clear to me, though, that we will never return to what we considered normal. As of last month, I’m unemployed. I have Social Security, but that’s it. It won’t even cover half my rent. I do know that I will survive. I absolutely know that I have a multitude of blessings to count, that there are so many others far worse off than me. I am grateful. One thing that’s a positive is the time I now have to get things done.
Or so I thought. I started writing this a few weeks ago. Between looking for work, cleaning my garage (and finding so many treasures there!), and figuring out my next steps, I find time is still an extremely precious commodity. So I now begin my tale.
I come from a large family. My first cousins on my mom’s side are not only spread across the country, they live around the globe. This past October I helped organize a cousins reunion, and dozens of us gathered in Santa Cruz from near and far. When I arrived late in the afternoon, I was stunned to see one of my cousins had traveled to be with us from the Seychelles Islands, off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. We ate well, drank lots of good wine, and caught up with each other.
I had forgotten my cousin Scott is a winemaker. In fact, he produces exceptional wines for ROAR, renowned for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It was the end of the 2019 harvest, and a handful of us joined Scott at the winery to help sort a load of Syrah grapes that had just come in. It was great fun to be hands-on, as we looked for and sorted out MOG (material other than grapes). One of the benefits of lending a hand is getting to taste the fruit. If you haven’t tasted wine grapes, they are a rare treat, so sweet and juicy. Scott and his wife Laura also produce their own label, Flywheel Wines, and I found their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Grenache to be exquisite.
I had already decided that since I had already traveled so far, I might as well keep heading north and pay a visit to Sonoma and Napa counties. I was staying with a friend in Santa Rosa. Driving into town, I was stunned to see how visible the damage was from the devastating fires of a few years ago. With a bit of time to spare, I turned off the 101 freeway and onto River Road. One of the first wineries I spied was Fogline Vineyards. I stepped into their charming tasting room and received a warm greeting from Ursula Cain. Founded just over ten years ago by Brent Bessire and Evan Pontoriero, they produce small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel. I tasted all of their excellent wines while visiting with other guests. Just a few short miles from Santa Rosa in Fulton, It’s a stop I recommend quite highly.
Before leaving Fogline, I asked where else I should visit. I decided to stop at Harvest Moon, as I was told Owner Randy Pitts was quite a character. Lucky for me, Randy was behind the bar and was happy to pour all of his wonderful wines for me. I was intrigued by the sound of sparkling Zinfandel and decided to try it. It was surprisingly tasty. Primarily a Pinot Noir and Zinfandel house, they offer produce a bold Cabernet Sauvignon and a Gewurztraminer. Randy also produces a 50/50 Pinot Noir/Zinfandel blend. My stops at these two small wineries convinced me to add more time on my next visit to explore this enticing region. In this period of time where most of us are homebound, it’s good to know both of these places will ship wine to your door.
The next day I had my eyes set on the Napa Valley. I had visited Larkmead before on a family gathering, but didn’t really have a chance to properly explore this historic place. Larkmead is by appointment only, so I spoke with Daniel Stoch and arranged a visit. The winery was established in 1895, and is now under the stewardship of Cam and Kate Solari Baker. It sits on a stunning 110 acre site. As we strolled the grounds, its rich history was evident everywhere I turned.
I love weekday winery visits because there are typically much smaller crowds. On this lovely morning, Daniel and I had the place to ourselves. After touring the property, he brought me to a table so I could taste Larkmead’s prestigious wines. They specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, and I tasted some of the finest, starting with their 2016 vintage. This wine spends 19 months in 60% new French oak. I also tasted the 2016 Dr. Olmo Cabernet as well as their flagship Solari Cab. These extraordinary wines start at $100 per 750 ml bottle. Tasting fees range from $75 to $125 per person, and trust me they are worth every penny.
I contacted Heather Griffin to set up a visit to Summit Lake Vineyards on Howell Mountain. Heather’s dad, Bob Brakesman, graduated with a degree in engineering when he had an epiphany that he really didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. A friend of his in San Jose had planted some grapes, and Bob ‘confiscated’ a garbage can full and made wine in the garbage can in his kitchen. He fell in love with the process and thus begins the story of Summit Lake Vineyards. He began traveling through the Napa Valley and ran into a real estate agent who told him about a property in Angwin. The first thought that crossed his mind was “where the hell is Angwin?”
He looked at the property and knew it was exactly what he’d been looking for. Six acres were planted to pre-Prohibition Zinfandel that had been abandoned more than thirty years. After two years of pruning and clean-up, he had a viable vineyard. He added an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, 17 acres are planted about 50/50 to Zin and Cab with about one-third of an acre planted to Petite Sirah. “It’s an adventure every year” Heather laughed. Bob’s son Brian is the chief winemaker now. Bob stepped back from those duties, but is still very much hands-on. As an engineer, “he fixes everything. If it’s not fixable, it’s ‘McGyverable.'”
The focus at Summit Lake is keeping the wines authentic. Their wines are built to age 20 plus years. I found their wines to be complex and wonderful. I savored each sip. In 1996 they produced their first Port vintage. The season saw an extended fall with no rain, leading to a plentiful second crop. The grapes contained so much sugar it was hard to stabilize the juice. The knew they needed to fortify it, but a taste of brandies from the supermarket convinced them they needed something else. They found a producer of high-proof grape alcohol and loved it. Through trial and error they dialed in the right proportions. They left it in barrel five to six years, and by the time it was ready to bottle, half the barrel was empty.
Most of the wines are named for Bob’s granddaughters. When they told the second granddaughter they were naming a private reserve for her, she thought they said pirate reserve and thought that was pretty cool! The name stuck. Summit Lake Vineyards is high up Howell Mountain. You will need to follow the directions she will email you. Your GPS won’t get you there. Email email@example.com if you want to visit. I recommend it quite highly.
I had hoped to get all of my stops into one post, but this is too lengthy as it is. When I resume the tale, I’ll share my stops at Girard, Raymond, Venge Vineyards, Tamber Bey and Tedeschi. Many of the wines I mentioned are available at wine.com, and directly from the wineries.