The Pacific North West coast of America: that’s what Mr Whirly means by the USA, at this present time….
…and this means California….oh California ( Great Joni Mitchell song, can you name it?) and of course further north to the more laid back Oregon and then onto Washington state.
I first came to California on a Trailway’s bus from New Orlean’s in 1986, aged 19 and away on my first adventure, spending 11 months in North America and Canada. I will always remember heading over the San Bernardino mountains with the Joshua Tree National park and beyond that the Mojave desert, the brown, parched land covered with wind propellers generating electricity and arriving in downtown Los Angeles amazed and in wonder that I was in this enthralling city. It had taken me three days on a bus. It took me via some wonderful places like El Paso, where there entire congregation of the bus departed, Mexican’s, heading south to the border.
I was lucky enough to have some friends of the family, the wonderful Liebman family, that lived in Encino, just down the road from Michael Jackson’s home as it happens and I stayed with them for a whole month, having the most wonderful time getting dressed up for Halloween and eating Sushi which was totally in fashion in Los Angeles at the time. My love for wine was there already, but John Liebman introduced me to the intense and powerful wines of California and I immediately took a liking to them.
I have been returning to the wine area’s of California since 1999 thanks to the friendship born whilst at the Liebman’s with John’s god daughter, Karen Frankel, who I met for one fun night in 1986 and then thirteen years later we met again in the beautiful Tuscan hilltop town of Cortona. She invited me to San Francisco and to the Burning man festival in the Black rock desert, so I have been returning to California every August to take in this crazy event followed by 2 weeks traveling and tasting from the Santa Barbara mountains all the way up to Mendocino, Oregon and Washington state.
There’s a massive thrill when you get behind the wheel of your hire car at LAX ( Los Angeles International Airport) or SFO ( San Francisco International Airport) and head north: it’s those wide open roads, that do-dum, do-dum as the wheels traverse the gaps in the large concrete slabs of the freeway that signal, YOUR BACK!! YIHAAAHHHHH!!
Whether its driving over the San Ynez mountains to Los Olivos, great wine country with top wineries here like Stolpman and Zaca Mesa or off route 5 on 152 over the Pacheco pass to Gilroy, garlic capital of the United States of America or along 128 off 101 in Mendocino along the cool Anderson valley, the countryside is simply thrilling. The Santa Cruz Mountains, the San Louis Obispo wine country and wonderfully vibrant student town also which has the most amazing tasting room called simply “ Taste” or simply picking up a good friend, John Stockdale, at San Francisco International airport in a red Mustang convertible and watching his face purr with excitement and adrenalin as we boot it north on 101 to the crimson red of the Golden Gate Bridge over the hills south of the city, driving in California is the real deal.
California wine country is diverse and the main influence is how close your vineyard is to the coast and whether there is a cool wind that flows through and down the valley from the Pacific: if this is the case, like for example in the Anderson valley in Mendocino or around the bay area of Southern Napa near Los Carneros where the fog and cool Pacific air moves in from the San Pablo Bay to cool the vineyards, then the varietal choice is very defined. This is a definite contrast to Calistoga for example, at the Northern end of the Napa where it’s as warm as you would want it to be to grow vines.
I have been lucky to visit most of the vineyard regions of California: Mendocino is the most laid back, in the north and probably therefore, my favourite. There’s a drive from Ukiah, in the Ukiah valley on route 101,( this valley is hot vine country where they grow grapes like Shiraz, Cabernet and Viognier) over the hills to Mendocino town on the coast. It goes through the Montgomery woods and over the rolling green hills to Comptche. It’s spectacularly beautiful so if you ever get the chance, take a convertible over the top. Further south the Santa Cruz mountains, Central coast areas of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Olivos and Monterey are also delightful and full of wondrous discoveries. But you do need time. These wine regions are spread out over 900 kms of rugged country of hills and gorges so don’t be in a rush to get anywhere fast. It’s worth taking your time.
I am lucky enough to work with Greg Graziano in Mendocino and Amity and Bethel Heights further north in Oregon the new world home of Pinot Noir. I hope at some point to represent some vineyards from Washington state eastern wine region, which is a fabulous new wine region and after my second visit there in June 2013 I hope this might become reality soon.