Routes Du Zin
While just about any part of the world can produce wine, only a handful of places have routes du vin. A route du vin has world-class wines. It's also home to good restaurants and hotels and postcard-worthy scenery. And, of course, bicyclists. (If the car-to-bike ratio is terribly high, you can be pretty sure you're not traveling on a true route du vin.) But most of all, a route du vin has a single grape as its star. In Germany's Mosel Valley, it's Riesling, as it is in Alsace. In Italy's Piedmont region, Nebbiolo is the premier grape, while in Tuscany, Sangiovese—the chief component of Chianti—reigns supreme. In Napa, of course, Cabernet is king. Every great grape has its routes du vin. Except one of my favorite grapes of all: Zinfandel.
Although several California regions—Amador, Mendocino and Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley—are acknowledged as great Zinfandel zones, none offers a real route du vin. At least not in the way Napa or Tuscany does. I knew this wasn't the fault of the wines, since some truly great bottles are made in those places. Was it, I wondered, because of the scenery? Were the restaurants subpar, the hotels short of amenities? Weren't there enough cyclists on the roads? Or were Zinfandel winemakers simply too modest to promote their routes properly? I decided to find out for myself.
Driving what passes for a sports car in rental-car parlance and armed with only an oversize map (why are all road maps as large as most car interiors?), I set out from the San Francisco airport. My quest would include all three Zinfandel zones and cover nearly a thousand miles before I was through.
Clint Eastwood was once mayor of Carmel, California, but he really should have been the sheriff of Amador County. Not just because Amador, in the Sierra foothills (about 125 miles northeast of San Francisco), looks like the backdrop for one of his movies—rolling brown hills, grazing horses and towns with still-operating saloons—but because so many men in Amador look like him. Wherever I went—gas stations, grocery stores and of course wineries—I ran into Clint Eastwood stunt doubles; not to mention some would-be John Waynes and a few ersatz Gary Coopers.
Indeed, the Wild West lives on in Amador, the first stop on my route du Zin tour. Part of this is by design; the region's claim to fame—aside from its Zinfandel—is its gold-mining past. The great California Gold Rush of the late 1840s started just outside Amador and that history seems to exert the greatest tourist pull. At least it gets a lot bigger play. As I drove through the county, I passed a working gold mine (currently open only for tourists) and small towns full of stores that sold mining memorabilia (they all seemed to be closed).
Unlike some routes du vin, where the vineyards actually touch the town limits, Amador's Zinfandel wineries are mostly up in the hills. The closest town, Plymouth, is a few miles away. But there didn't seem to be much in Plymouth beyond barbecue, groceries and gas. The grocery store, Pokerville Market, did, however, have an impressive number of Zins on its shelves—not to mention cowboys in its parking lot.
I chose to stay in Sutter Creek, about five miles away. I'd been told it was the best town in Amador in terms of its ambience (think the opening shot of High Noon) and its array of good restaurants (the array in this case totaling three). Lodgings were limited to bed-and-breakfasts in Victorian houses, some of which were said to be haunted. I booked a room in the Hanford House Inn, a well-appointed establishment which I'd been assured was apparition-free.
I had a brief chat with Hanford House proprietor Karen Tierno about the local restaurants I wanted to try. There was Caffè Via d'Oro, whose owner was a former partner in Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse restaurant. "I think it's closed today," Tierno replied. "How about Daffodils, the restaurant at the old Bellotti Inn?" It was another place I'd heard good things about. "It's really nice—run by a young couple up from the city," she said enthusiastically but added, "They're closed until Wednesday." I didn't bother to ask about the third, Zinfandel's at Sutter Creek. It was next door to Hanford House, and I'd already seen it was closed too. Apparently no dining could be done—nor mining memorabilia bought—on Mondays or Tuesdays in Amador County.
I decided to have a walk around town. Caffè Via d'Oro looked promising, with its comfortable wooden booths and unpretentious menu (pizza, pasta and chicken), not to mention its wonderfully Zin-centric wine list. Dozens of Amador Zins were offered at reasonable prices, plus the $7 corkage fee was the lowest I'd ever seen. It was, however, definitely closed. So was Daffodils across the street, though a few people were drinking beer at the bar. "Come back in a few days," one said to me as I looked at the menu (traditional Italian with a twist).
Fortunately, a number of Amador wineries are open seven days a week. Also, they're all located more or less along the picturesque Shenandoah Road. Zinfandel has been grown in Amador for over a century (the vines are some of the oldest in the state), and some of the wineries look like they were built back then. There aren't many Napa-style upgrades in Amador. I actually mistook a few wineries for horse barns. (There are lots of horses in Amador—cowboys, after all, must have something to ride.)
The wines, however, were unmistakable. With their spicy, briary, blackberry, even tarry flavors, Amador Zins are also invariably high-alcohol (most are at least 15 percent—and some are much higher). But the best—wines from producers such as Karly, Sobon Estate, Easton, Montevina and Story—combine their power with great finesse. These were all stops on my route du Zin.
Karly's small tasting room was located just off Shenandoah Road, not far from Story Winery. When I arrived, tasting room manager Steve Miller was slicing bread and pouring Zinfandel for a UPS saleswoman. It looked more like a social encounter than a commercial exchange. The same was true at the other wineries I visited, from small producers like Sobon Estate (which even has its own museum) and Story (whose tasting headquarters looked like a park ranger's cabin) to big outfits like Renwood and Montevina (probably Amador's best-known name and a source of some great value wines). All the wines could be tasted for free, and everyone was remarkably friendly—everyone, that is, but the UPS saleswoman, who kept showing up at the same wineries as me. At the third winery I finally remarked, "We seem to be on the same schedule." The UPS woman just glared at me and quickly got into her car. Perhaps she thought I was from FedEx?
My best meal in Amador turned out to be at the barbecue joint back in Plymouth, Incahoots, home of "Santa Maria style-BBQ" and "Cowboy Style BBQ Catering." According to my waitress (whose Incahoots uniform had more than just a few consonants in common with those of Hooters), "all the local winemakers" ate there, though it wasn't clear if that was every day or just Mondays and Tuesdays. I ordered the house specialty, Beef Tri-Tip, "cooked over oak Santa Maria Style." The cut was a bit tough for my taste (it was a lot like brisket), but the baby back pork ribs, another specialty, were quite tender. The wines were almost all priced in the unheard-of teens. I splurged and spent $21 on Sobon Estate's well-made 2001 Rocky Top Zin.
On Wednesday morning, I left for Mendocino, about a 180-mile, four-hour drive away. Between the friendly producers and the wines that they poured (to say nothing of the gold mines and Clint Eastwood—style scenery) Amador seemed to have everything a route du vin required—except, of course, on two days of the week.
Everyone I know who's been to Mendocino describes its attractions in near-mythical terms: towering redwoods, dramatic ocean overlooks and roadside cafés run by hippies, some serving remarkably good food. Unfortunately, none are near where most Zin is made.
The best Mendocino Zinfandel is grown in the hot Redwood Valley on the county's east side. Here Zinfandels have distinct flavors of ripe red and black fruit as well as notes of chocolate and spice. The Redwood Valley, however, doesn't have much in the way of good hotels, restaurants or Zin tasting rooms—almost all of those happen to be in the Anderson Valley on Mendocino's west side. (Never mind that Anderson Valley is less noted for Zin than it is for Pinot Noir.) And so my one Mendocino Zin route necessarily became two.
I started at Fife Vineyards in Redwood Valley, a hilly region that looked like a tamer version of Amador. Fife, which has something of a cult following, may be Mendocino's best Zin producer, turning out deep-colored old-vine wines with hints of spice and notes of black fruit and chocolate. The fact that Fife's best vineyard is named "Redhead" is of course a big plus in my book. Fife also has the best picnic-table prospect of any winery around—a panoramic view of nearby Lake Mendocino. It has a good view of the valley's other producers as well. John Buechsenstein, Fife's winemaker, gestured to a few far-off dots. "There's Lolonis. There's Elizabeth Vineyards, Silversmith and Chance Creek," as I just nodded and pretended to see.
Later I regretted pretending. Although Redwood Valley is topographically similar to Amador, its wineries are much harder to find—they don't seem to have spent much money on signage. Buechsenstein admitted, "We're so hard to find that when people finally arrive they're pretty frustrated." I did manage to locate two, Elizabeth Vineyards and Lolonis. At Lolonis, I surprised winemaker Ed West in his lab. Nonplussed, he stopped work and opened a few bottles. This, he claimed, was where all tastings took place. "What about big groups?" I replied, savoring Lolonis's deliciously chocolaty 2001 Redwood Valley Zin, trying not to knock any equipment to the floor. "We take them to the picnic table outside," he answered. I'd noticed it on the way into the winery; it seemed to have a view of machinery.
Over in Anderson Valley, the tasting rooms were more formal, not to mention easier to find. The valley, which runs roughly from Boonville to Navarro, is where some of Mendocino's best-known Zinfandel makers—Greenwood Ridge, Claudia Springs and Edmeades—have their headquarters. It's also where some of Mendocino's great roadside restaurants are reputedly located, not to mention two of its best-known hotels, the Boonville (a bastion of Zen minimalism and home to one of the region's best restaurants) and the Apple Farm (a working-farm-cum-cooking-school with three modish guest cabins surrounded by orchards).
The Greenwood Ridge tasting room was impressive though perhaps a bit severe; when I spit out the 2000 Zinfandel, the woman behind the counter reprimanded me: "That wine won a gold medal." Others were more relaxed. Like the Mendocino Specialty Vineyards Tasting Room in Boonville attended by Sharona—"as in 'My Sharona,' the song," she explained. Sharona even waived the $3 tasting fee when I told her I had come to taste Zins. "That's what I like to hear," she said.
Three wineries pour their wines at the Tasting Room (which also brokered pottery, T-shirts and olive oil), including Zin specialist Claudia Springs. Of the four Claudia Springs Zinfandels, I liked the 2000 Rhodes Vineyard bottling the best, with its lush flavors of chocolate-covered cherries, but Sharona was adamant in her admiration of the Vassar Vineyard wine. "Maybe it's too big for you," she said pityingly to me. I started to tell her that was impossible— I'd just been to Amador where the Zins can reach 17 percent alcohol—but she changed the subject: "You should visit Esterlina. They make a really great Zin." Sharona called the winery, but they were sold out. "They said you could taste it at the Bellagio, in Vegas," she said helpfully.
I decided to find some of Mendocino's famous roadside cafés instead. I discovered two that were memorable. The Horn of Zeese, a brown shack in Boonville (one of many Boonville buildings that could be described thus), was a breakfast and lunch joint. ("Zeese" means coffee in Bootling, a local dialect. In fact, the Boonville grocery store sells a Bootling dictionary.) Zeese's short-order cook had talent (his eggs and his Hobo Potatoes—fried potatoes, tomatoes, red bell peppers, mushrooms and onions—were perfectly cooked), though he was perhaps a bit lacking in energy. I overheard him telling a waitress to take the breakfast burrito off the menu because it was "too much work."
Better still was Libby's, an unadorned, under-air-conditioned Mexican restaurant in Philo, not far from the Apple Farm (where I spent a night in a steel-roofed orchard cottage). Although the waitress was clearly rankled by the demands of her job (customers were greeted with merely a shrug), and there was only one Zin on the list (Greenwood Ridge again) the food was first rate—from the salsa fresca to the camarónes alla diavola (spicy shrimp with rice and beans) and the carnitas (braised, shredded pork over tomato salsa, a specialty of the house). And it was quite inexpensive. Libby, I later learned, had been the chef and a partner in the Boonville Hotel's restaurant before buying a place of her own.
Was there really a Mendocino Zin route? While there had been some great discoveries—some memorable wines, a good dinner, a night spent in an orchard, a good view or two—I wasn't sure it added up to a route du vin.
Dry Creek Valley
Although Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley is only an hour's drive south of Mendocino, it seemed almost urban compared to the places I'd been. A stop at Ridge Vineyards' high-tech winery-in-progress just outside Healdsburg helped confirm the impression. As did its tasting-room policy, which tasting director Bob Hattaway regretfully informed me allowed him to pour only certain wines. "It's part of corporate policy. We have more structure to our tastings now," he said.
But a more-structured Ridge was nothing compared to the slick operations of Seghesio, Rosenblum Cellars and Gallo of Sonoma in downtown Healdsburg. Decorated in Pottery Barn shades of brown and green, with comfortable chairs grouped around tables, the Gallo operation was clearly more of a wine bar than a tasting room. (The woman behind the counter had to search for some time to locate a spit bucket.) It was also the first place that the wine hadn't been free; though $3 a pour for its rich, concentrated 1999 Frei Ranch Zinfandel seemed fair.
It had been almost three years since I'd been in Healdsburg, the main town of Dry Creek Valley. Quite a few changes had taken place since then. Chef Charlie Palmer's long-awaited Dry Creek Kitchen had finally opened in the sleek new three-story Schrageresque Hotel Healdsburg. And former Long Island winemaker Peter Lenz had debuted his own fashion-forward lodging, Duchamp, about two blocks away. Duchamp, more an in-town retreat than a hotel, was comprised of six villas and four private, postmodern cottages arrayed around a swimming pool, which I admit compelled me almost as much as tasting Zinfandel. My cottage was the Andy Warhol—whose ghost wasn't in evidence, though his prints and a copy of his biography were.
New restaurants that showcased local wines and cuisine had opened in Healdsburg as well. In addition to the Dry Creek Kitchen (where there is no corkage fee for Sonoma wines) there was Manzanita and Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar, which has an extensive list of Zins, offered by both the bottle and glass. Even restaurants from Healdsburg's earlier era, like Bistro Ralph and Ravenous, had either relocated or seemed somehow new. There were now fashionable shops selling ceramics and handbags, and newsstands displaying out-of-town papers. Healdsburg had become, in a word, chic. Or as Linda Root, a local wine merchant put it, "Healdsburg has become a place where you can't buy a bra but you can buy a $400 fish platter." (Her shop, Root's Cellar, is a great source for Zin.)
Whether or not underwear stores were now scarce since the change, I was pleased by Healdsburg's transformation. Not just because there were better dining options and fancier places to sleep but because all that was new was balanced by plenty of things that were old—like the Music Man-style bandstand in the town square and the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, not to mention all the secondhand furniture stores. As long as all these things were still there, it didn't seem like much harm could come from a new handbag store.
I felt much the same way when I drove out to the wineries along Dry Creek Road, where the region's biggest, most famous Zinfandel producers coexist with up-and-coming producers. While there were plenty of polished operations with well-known names—Dry Creek Vineyard, Preston of Dry Creek, Chateau Souverain, Pezzi King, Rafanelli and Quivira—there were also small producers, like Unti and Yoakim Bridge, whose owners were in their tasting rooms pouring their own wines.
And some good, even a few great, wines were being poured in both kinds of places—wines with the structure and flavors that make Dry Creek Zin famous. There were Seghesio's well-priced examples; the 2001 Old Vine bottling at $26 was a particular find. There was Preston's suave 2001 offering ($24 a bottle) as well as Pezzi King's deeply flavored 2000 Maple Vineyard. From smaller producers, like Unti, there was a juicy 2001 Zin simply bursting with red berry flavor (poured by George Unti himself in his garage-like facility) and Yoakim Bridge's concentrated 2000, whose maker, David Cooper, personally proffered a tasting along with salami.
From great wineries and fancy hotels to serious restaurants and simple joints, Dry Creek certainly had every amenity a wine route could need. It even had crowds of spandexed cyclists on its roads. And yet, I couldn't help considering the other places I'd been—the quirky charm of Mendocino, the rugged unpretension of Amador. Perhaps, I thought, what made each a route du vin was that I wanted to travel all three of them all over again.