Now in the record books for 2012, the 31st Annual Vintners’ Holiday at the world class Ahwahnee Hotel is now concluded. This extremely popular event is a wonderful juxtaposition of extraordinary scenery, intimate winemaker conversation, fine food and a historic hotel. The eight (8) two or three night sessions each include four (4) seminars with well known and sometimes lesser known vintners from all over California, a welcome reception where you can meet the winemakers/vintners, a five course gala dinner prepared by the Ahwahnee culinary staff paired with wines from the attending vintners and a ‘celebrity’ moderator to tie the entire package together.
The Ahwahnee, located in Yosemite National Park, was built in 1927 and is a National Historic Landmark. It mixes architectural styles of rustic local granite, Art Deco, Native American and Middle Eastern influences. For shear impact the granite facades and redwood beams shock the eye against the monoliths of granite that surround it on virtually 3 sides in the heart of the Yosemite Valley. This year the early December rains fueled the stupendous Yosemite, Bridalveil and Horsetail Falls with their other worldly splendor.
Session VIII was moderated this year by noted wine writer and judge, Dan Berger. Dan grew up as a sportswriter for more than 14 years but ultimately migrated to wine writer for the Associated Press and the LA Times and resident of Sonoma County. He now publishes a weekly newsletter “Vintage Experiences” among his other wine related endeavors which includes syndicated columnist and international wine judge. Dan’s moderator efforts made the entire experience run smoothly and on subject while allowing and encouraging the four vintners in attendance to reveal their philosophies and passions as they described the wines they profiled and the terroir they ‘enjoy’.
The welcome reception featured wines provided by the four vintners and appetizers prepared by the Ahwahnee staff . This rapid fire 90 minutes allowed the opportunity to chat casually with the vintners in a relaxed social environment in contrast to the more structured seminar setting. Always fun!
The 4 vintners included in Session VIII were divergent in style and geography. Randall Graham is the iconic founder, winemaker and terroirist from Bonny Doon Vineyard which is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He has carefully crafted a persona of anarchy and independence in his unique approach to wine and winemaking. He has been known to cross pollinate complex clonal varieties and develop his own new clones. Randall specializes in Rhône varietals and the 3 variants of the 2008 Le Cigare Volant were included in the tasting. He also provided the 2010 Le Cigare Blanc and Blanc Reserve. Randall’s wines are as complex and unique as he and reflect the terroir and wide range of less traditional and experimental techniques he employs. Intriguing!
With a dramatic but equally fascinating shift from the Rhône Valley to Bordeaux varietals, Cain Vineyard and Winery, located on the crest of Spring Mountain in the Napa American Viticultural Area (AVA) was elegantly represented by winemaker and general manager Chris Howell. Cain produces 3 distinct Bordeaux blends: “Cain Concept – The Benchland”, “Cain Five” and “Cain Cuvee”, three different expressions of both terroir and winemaking Cain Five reflects the aromas and flavor profiles of the Cain Vineyard which is above 1400 feet in elevation. In contrast the Cain Concept is vinified and aged exactly as the Five but the grapes come from the benchland vineyard sources elsewhere in Napa as well as Cain vineyards. Chris offered 3 vintage verticals of the Cain Five and the Cain Concept, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The wines clearly follow New World winemaking techniques and reflect their terroir. Great ageability!
Day 2 was kicked off by Ancien Wines of Napa. Ken Bernards, founder and winemaker of this Burgundy house specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He graciously offered 6 Pinot Noir wines: five from various California AVAs and one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley (although he could not label it as such due to Oregon law). Each of these 100% Pinot Noir wines reflect their unique terroir. From Carneros and Coombsville (Napa’s newest AVA December 2011) in Napa County to Sonoma Mountain and the Russian River in Sonoma to the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. Ken was brilliant in talking and tasting though his six wines and allowing the audience to enjoy and understand the illustrative terroir differences at play in each. Balance, texture and structure were there with these mid-priced (under $50) Pinot Noir.
The last vintner before the Gala Dinner was Bob Lindquist from Qupé with home base located in Los Olivos in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. Another Rhône house, Bob has been specializing in Syrah (both cold and warm climate) for years. He also makes a very popular Chardonnay from Santa Maria valley, he says, to pay the bills. Four Syrah (three 2010 and one 2008) were presented for the seminar and all were distinctive and quite aromatic. Actual winemaking occurs at a joint venture facility (co-owned by Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat and Bob L) at Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Qupé uses both organic and bio-dynamic techniques in the grape growing and winemaking process. One take away from Bob: Syrah is always best decanted! These wines generally range from a reasonable $20-40.
The gala dinner is worth the price of admission. The Ahwahnee staff pulls out the stops with this 5 course extravaganza. Each course is purposefully paired with a wine selected from the participating vintners. Although the menu is not published at the time of ticket purchase, the concierge can make substitutions upon arrival if there is anything that a guest cannot handle. The actual menu began with Poached Tomales Bay Oysters & Calamari paired with a Qupé 2009 Roussanne. A fresh and succulent combination. This was followed by Swiss Chard & Sunchoke Ravioli with a 2010 Ancien Chardonnay. Another heart warming combination. Next was a Rotisserie Pork Belly paired with the 2008 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant. The main was a pairing of 2008 Cain Concept – The Benchland with Roasted Brandt Beef Strip Loin & Braised Cheek. The Braised Cheek literally melted in the mouth and the Cain Concept was a great compliment. Finally, the dolce was a Chestnut Honoré Puff Pastry with fig. Guests were provided as much of each wine as they desired. Tables of eight allowed for new friends and acquaintances to be made while the pomp of speeches was virtually non-existent. Perfect!
If the above in any way stirred interest in attending one of the 2013 Sessions check the Yosemite website. Six Sessions are already scheduled beginning November 11-12 and on through the final session 4-5 December 2013. A fairly pricey but exceptionally well organized and enjoyable event….even after three times!