Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.
“The Carneros wine region is like Switzerland,” said Jon Priest, General Manager and Winemaker at Etude winery. “Carneros straddles the southernmost Napa and Sonoma wine countries. Our estate vineyard is on the Sonoma side and our tasting room is in Napa. Much like Switzerland, we need to remain neutral as to which area makes the best wine.” Many visitors to wine country have driven through Carneros without realizing the area has long merited its own American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation. The official name of Los Carneros, meaning The Rams, refers to the region’s heritage of sheep ranches and dairy farms.
As a wine writer, I often zoom past Carneros on my way to wine country events. But recently I toured the area on press visits with an open eye and hunger for good sparkling wine, Chardonnay, and especially Pinot Noir. On a visit to five wineries, one distillery making grape (wine) based vodka, and accommodations at a nearby resort, I discovered what sets Carneros apart from its neighbors. Much like fine Swiss watches, you can count on Carneros winemakers’ attention to detail and pride in their wines.
As a native Delawarean, I looked forward to visiting Bouchaine Winery when I learned the owners had First State roots. While there, I spoke with Tatiana Copeland, the president and co-owner of Bouchaine. A wine lover and world traveler, Copeland explored Napa Valley while her husband Gerret Copeland, a member of Delaware’s prominent du Pont family, attended business meetings in San Francisco. I asked Tatiana what motivated her purchase of a Carneros winery in 1981. “The climate is special with cooling winds off San Pablo Bay and the rolling hills above the marshes. A feeling of peace and contentment comes with being far from the maddening crowd.” I had heard about the cool climate influence on Carneros wines for years. But when Bouchaine General Manager-Winemaker Chris Kajani drove me atop one of the estate hills, I finally felt the cool marine breeze. As I gazed over the bay, I visualized why Carneros was the first AVA based on climate and not strictly location.
In Napa, Copeland appreciates the milder weather and the ability to find fresh produce year-round to accompany grilled salmon paired with her favorite Bouchaine Pinot Noir. She also relishes the new Terraces Hospitality Center that she helped design with recycled redwood from older wine barrels. “The semicircular design of the tasting room overlooking the garden, winery, and vineyards is like an embrace,” said Tatiana. “It is special to look at the vines curling around the hill —so different from just straight rows.”
As I sat on a comfortable couch overlooking the vineyards for the reserve terraces tasting, I immediately delighted in the peaceful, rural ambiance. After the first glass of refreshing Vin Gris, I moved on to the outstanding sparkling wines including my favorite, Bouchaine Brut Rosé. I also enjoyed the Estate Chardonnay and Terraces Estate Pinot Noir. The Bring-Your-Own-Picnic experience on picnic tables in the flower-laden garden is family and dog-friendly. During the Falconry in the Garden experience, a certified falconer shares a perspective on falcon behavior and the falcon’s key role during harvest. GM Kajani often joins the experience for the wine tasting.
En Route: When you drive north from San Francisco to Sonoma, you arrive at Cornerstone Sonoma in the heart of Carneros. A wine country marketplace, Cornerstone Sonoma resides at the crossroads of Highway 116 heading straight to Sonoma and Highway 121 bending east to Napa. Cornerstone hosts shops, a Michelin Bib Gourmand awarded restaurant, Folktable, and two wineries.
On this trip to Carneros, I had my sights on the Obsidian winery at Cornerstone. Hungarian emigrant Nicholas Arpad was a pioneer grape grower on land near the San Pablo Bay decades before Carneros became an AVA. Despite their father’s warning not to become vintners, co-owner Arpad Molnar and his brother launched the winery in 2002. Obsidian makes wine from some of the lowest elevations in Carneros and from the highest elevations at Obsidian Ridge Vineyard in the Clear Lake Volcanic Field of Lake County which is packed with the winery’s namesake obsidian or black volcanic glass.
What attracted me to visit Molnar’s winery was the wine and his adventurous spirit. As Molnar explained, “We take risks in planting grapes in extreme terroirs and established an experimental part of the winery called the Rabbit Hole. We also present wine adventures at the edge of where people and nature meet.” You can taste Obsidian wines in unusual venues. At Molnar’s Obsidian Ridge Vineyard, you can join the “Hike a Volcano” package. Since his brother is a licensed pilot, Molnar offers an unusual Seaplane Wine Flight. You can also taste wine during their “Sail on the Bay” package. Back at Cornerstone during one of the daily outdoor tastings, I sampled a variety of wines from Bench Chardonnay in Carneros to the high elevation Obsidian Ridge Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. A block of obsidian serves as a paperweight for tasting notes.
If you veer right from Cornerstone onto Highway 121, you soon arrive at Hanson of Sonoma Distillery. A welcome break from wine tasting, Hanson of Sonoma presents a grand array of organic vodkas and a whiskey with tasty food and non-alcoholic drink options. Here Chris Hanson, the head distiller, and Darren Hanson, operations manager, pull out the organic Hawaiian ginger infusing for their Hanson of Sonoma Ginger Vodka.
During the Three Vodka Expressions and a Cocktail tasting. I correctly predicted my appreciation for the Meyer lemon and the mandarin expressions. What surprised me was the Habanero. When I learned that the infusion was a blend of lemongrass, Sebastopol habanero, and mild sweet peppers, I realized why the drink did not knock my socks off with spice. Since then, I’ve stocked up on the habanero expression to jazz up Bloody Marys. The Pommes and Roses cocktail with the Meyer Lemon vodka, pomegranate purée, orgeat syrup, and bitters topped off the tasting. As a garnish, the organic edible flower garnish bestowed a fresh, colorful touch to the drink. Other tastings featured Bloody Mary Sundays, vodka and chocolate truffles, or martini and caviar. On weekends you can purchase wood-fired pizzas and relax outside in the Hanson tasting garden.
A five-minute drive from Hanson leads to a touch of France at Domaine Carneros. The imposing gate and chateau reflect the influence of former owner, renowned French Champagne producer Claude Taittinger. First impressions, though, can deceive. Behind the grand main building, modern, sustainable production facilities such as the Pinot Noir winery boast a roof-based solar microgrid that creates and stores energy for the property.
Domaine Carneros’ talented CEO Remi Cohen who trained as a viticulturist at Bouchaine and other wineries focus on empowering her staff and innovating for quality. When it comes to growing grapes and making wine, she says, “Sure, you have to take samples and measure. But sometimes you have to use intuition.”
Cohen shared one of the favorite aspects of her job—walking through the neatly planted vineyards on the rolling Carneros hills. As I drove through the area, I was reminded of a press trip to Switzerland to explore the hilly vineyards and wine cellars of Switzerland. Yes, the nation produces wonderful wine from their precisely planted vines but unfortunately, most are consumed in-country or exported to Europe.
At Domaine Carneros, the sparkling and still wines are exquisite. Recently I shared the Bubbles & Bites experience with Cohen in their Jardin d’Hivers, the Glass House, a glassed-in setting overlooking the fountain patio and vineyards. The first wine, Domaine Carneros Rosé Brut 2017, delivered a refreshing and tantalizing start. The food and sparkling pairing at the time featured Mexican gourmet bites. Two of my favorite pairings were the 2016 Ultra Brut paired with Dungeness crab esquites (corn snacks) and the 2016 Verméil Demi-Sec with lamb mole. The rotating food menu currently now features Moroccan courses such as harissa crusted Mahi Mahi and North African spiced beef short rib. During my tasting, a nearby couple joyously celebrated their engagement with a custom “Your Ultimate Carneros” experience. Other tastings include Chips and Dips with three caviars and their most acclaimed bubbles. The Art of Sabrage brings four wines and a charcuterie platter with a demonstration of sabrage, the dramatic sword removal of the top of the sparkling bottle. Upcoming summer events include their top sparkling wine Le Rêve & Lobster Dinner Series.
A quick note about the exceptional Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir. I had the opportunity to dine with Cohen and Kajani of Bouchaine at The Farm restaurant at the Carneros Resort and Spa near Domaine Carneros. Cohen brought Domaine Carneros Le Ciel Serein Pinot Noir and Kajani, the Copelands’ favorite from Bouchaine, Pinot Meunier. Though I might normally pair my New York strip steak entrée with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cohen’s Pinot Noir and Kajani’s Pinot Meunier were outstanding matches given their winemaking finesse to coax out deep, savory flavors from their grapes.
A quick drive down Highway 121 leads to Etude winery on Cuttings Wharf Road. The address reminds us how close to the water the historic and secluded Carneros tasting room resides. Once a distillery, the winery was reimagined as an early producer of Pinot Noir in 1982. Etude’s current owners, Treasury Wine Estates of Australia, wisely leave the management of the estate to Jon Priest, General Manager-Winemaker.
Similar to a Swiss watchmaker’s obsession with precision, Priest is focused on high standards of viticulture at the winery’s vineyards. “My style is more about winegrowing rather than winemaking. I capture the purity of the grapes and guide their potential into wine.” Priest oversees many vineyards including the estate Grace Benoist Ranch with 1,500 acres divided into 12 vineyards designated by soil type. When asked what makes Carneros so special, he said, “You can set your watch by the appearance of the afternoon winds which cool the grapes and bring balance to the wine.”
On the Etude patio, we tasted a well-balanced Chardonnay and a delightfully refreshing Pinot Gris on our visit. The Pinot Gris was so intriguing that I ordered it later to pair with lightly crusted halibut. The depth, complexity, and finesses of Priest’s winemaking are most prevalent in his Pinot Noir. I wrote these notes after tasting the Heirloom Pinot Noir: “Mysterious and approachable at the same time. Not too dry and not overly fruity, this balanced wine would pair with salmon or short rib.” A unique Etude tasting option is The Study of Pinot Noir, a customized experience with Priest who demonstrates how different Pinot Noir expresses reflect their origin. A special 40th-anniversary tasting will be available soon.
A quick northerly drive leads to the stunning architectural entrance to Artesa Winery. An ode to the rolling countryside of Carneros, the winery was built into a hillside by Raventós Codorníu, one of the oldest Spanish wineries.
A stellar producer of cava sparkling wine, the team at Raventós Codorníu mixed the best of the Napa with the heritage of the Catalonia region. On my first visit to Artesa, I was struck by the grandeur of the tasting room and Spanish sensibility of the décor and the quality of the sparkling and still wines.
I recently participated in a virtual Artesa tasting with Ana Diogo-Draper. The winemaker embodies the spirit of the name Artesa which is the Catalan word for artisan. She takes the technical aspects of the job seriously but takes time to listen to guests discuss the wines. Originally from Portugal, Diogo-Draper embodies a European sense of elegance in her wines which range from the textured and lively Sauvignon Blanc to her Grand Reserve Brut and newly released La Jefa Late Disgorged Sparkling Brut.
Visits to Artesa begin with a welcome glass of sparkling wine. For the Tapas and Wine tasting, visitors first tour the production facility, learn about the winery and the 100-acre estate, and then are seated in a private salon to sample five wines, each paired with a tapas plate. There is also a Wines and Vines tour, limited to four guests, for a touring cart exploration of the Carneros estate accompanied by a wine tasting.
While touring the region, a stay at the nearby Meritage Resort and Spa is a sensible choice. Strategically located in south Napa and nestled below acres of vineyards, the resort offers easy access to the Carneros destinations to the west. Heading north you soon reach the town of Napa and many familiar Napa Valley wineries. A sister property located across the street from the Meritage, Vista Collina Resort resembles a small village with its gourmet grocery store, cooking classes, and on-site tasting rooms. The expansive lawn at Vista Collina hosts activities for families with its winter ice rink, summer concerts and seasonal festivals. A gourmet grocery store, cooking classes, and on-site tasting rooms add to the offerings.
Spa Terra at the Meritage is the only spa in Napa built into a cave, and the resort offers periodic wellness retreats. With organic products, some made from local lavender, the spa evokes a Napa and European sensibility. I enjoyed a CBD massage by a gentleman schooled in Asian massage techniques. The spa experience brought a great sense of serenity and relaxation which carried over to the evening’s dinner at Olive + Hay restaurant at the Meritage Resort. We were warmly greeted by Maitr’ d Mounir Fahmy who remembered us from our dinner two years ago and personally dished up our pasta course.
When I first looked at the one-page menu, I wanted a Margherita pizza with burrata, a Big Italian salad, and all the sides from blistered shishitos to eggplant parmesan. I decided on the cauliflower mushroom chips which were roasted cauliflower bites dusted with a savory mushroom powder that triggered an I-can’t-stop-eating-them response. Our main courses of roasted chicken and halibut exceeded expectations, and we also nibbled on outrageously tasty desserts including panna cotta with stone fruit and Italian donuts —vanilla bombollini with gianduja sauce.
Musings on a return
Yes, we did have a sumptuous dinner, and yet the next morning, we were happy to revisit Olive+ Hay for breakfast waffles and eggs. That desire to return grew throughout the Carneros tour. My to-do list now includes tasting more expressions of Hanson of Sonoma vodka, sampling the current tapas at Artesa, and learning about falconry and Pinot Meunier with Kajani at Bouchaine. Carneros merits many return trips to discover more of the Swiss-level standards of quality and hospitality.
IF YOU GO:
|Artesa Winery https://www.artesawinery.com/|
|Cornerstone Sonoma https://www.cornerstonesonoma.com|
|Domaine Carneros https://www.domainecarneros.com/|
|Folktable restaurant https://folktable.com/|
|Hanson of Sonoma https://hansonofsonoma.com/|
|Meritage Resort https://www.meritagecollection.com/meritage-resort/spa|
|Olive + Hay restaurant https://www.meritagecollection.com/meritage-resort/dining/olive-and-hay|
|Vista Collina resort https://www.meritagecollection.com/vista-collina|