At Castoro Cellars Tasting Room, Discover the Charm of Cobblestone Creek Vineyard
In early February 2012, we hooked up our travel trailer and headed north on U.S. Highway 101. Our destination was the Wine Country RV Resort in Paso Robles, California. Arriving before dark, we finished our setup and then sat down to dinner. Accompanying our roasted turkey breast and trimmings was a bottle of Castoro Cellars Paso Robles 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. With a foggy chill setting in outdoors, the red wine and white meat became perfect gastronomic partners.
A day before, I had visited our local Costco. My mission was to buy provisions for our Paso Robles wine country adventure. Although I had never purchased a bottle of Castoro Cellars wine before, the simplicity and elegance of their label attracted me. At less than ten dollars per bottle for an estate-grown, produced and bottled “Paso Cabernet”, the Costco price was exceptional. As it turned out, my instincts were correct. Unlike many Central California Cabernet Sauvignon of yesteryear, from the first sip to the last, this 2010 Cab was a multifaceted jewel.
The following morning, we awoke to cloudy, cool weather. Undaunted, we planned to go out for wine tasting that day. By noon, the weather had warmed to almost sixty degrees and the sun shined lightly through a winter haze. Heading west on California Highway 46, also known as “Windy Way”, we soon saw a billboard featuring Castoro Cellars and their motto, “Dam Fine Wine”. In Italian, castoro means beaver. In this case, the “dam” refers to that industrious animal as well.
After a brief jaunt south on U.S. Highway 101, we regained California 46 West, known there as “Green Valley Road”. In the coastal live-oak parkland of the Paso Robles Wine Country, we found a profusion of small and medium sized estate wineries. As we turned on to North Bethel Road, Peachy Canyon Winery, with its oak-studded vineyard greeted us. A bit farther along the road, we turned right at a driveway leading through an old head-pruned Zinfandel vineyard. Nestled there in Cobble Creek Vineyard is the Castoro Cellars Tasting Room.
After parking our car, I stopped to take pictures of the vineyard in its winter dress. With its leafless grape arbor, the path led gently uphill to the tasting room. At the foot of the path, a big red cat greeted Carrie and me. Immediately, I realized that this was no ordinary red cat. For that moment, at least he had adopted us and was leading us up the hill. Upon arrival at the courtyard above, the cat waited for us to open the door and then disappeared inside.
While standing just inside the doorway, we surveyed the busy tasting room. Attracted to a flickering fire in the large stone fireplace, I spotted a love-seat that faced the glowing hearth. Thinking that it might be nice to rest and enjoy the fire, I moved toward the love-seat. Just before I sat down, I realized that a cat, camouflaged with the colors of the love-seat was sleeping there. Later, we discovered that both were “outdoor cats”, meaning that they stayed outside all night, even in cold, wintry weather.
Since the love-seat was off-limits, we entered the second of two tasting rooms within the building. Inserted neck-down in one of the large racks, I found a rare 1996 Paso Robles Zinfandel. Pioneers such as Ridge Vineyards and David Bruce Winery had made Zinfandel wines from Paso Robles vineyards as early as 1967. Because of their excellent reputations, current offerings from both David Bruce and Ridge include only recent vintages. Some will claim that Zinfandel does not have the longevity of Cabernet, but I disagree. If well vinified and cellared, an old Zinfandel can be every bit as good as an aged Cabernet. If the just released 2011 “Zinfusion” we tasted at the bar that afternoon is any indication, my old 1996 Zin should be quite an interesting wine.
In the courtyard, we found old head-pruned Zinfandel vines re-purposed as fanciful planters. Even with annual pruning and great care, some old vines must go and new vines must take their place. With an extensive array of solar panels on the roof of the tasting room and a commitment to sustainability, the “recycle, reuse and re-purpose” ethic at Castoro Cellars is strong. After seeing the beauty of dead grapevines sprouting a cornucopia of flowers, moss and succulents, we purchased two bare vines. After “planting” the dead grapevines on our patio, I will write an article about planting our forty-year-old rustic sculptures.
According to a recent count, there are more than one hundred eighty bonded wineries in the Paso Robles Wine Country AVA. Any place named for a beaver and run by cats is my kind of place. With its beautiful setting, organic architecture and great wines, Castoro Cellars is now my favorite winery in Central California. If you visit “Paso Wine Country” and partake of a Castoro Cellars’ classic Zinfandel, be sure to tell them that Moab Jim sent you.
at 03:24 PM |
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A 1965 Visit to Edward Abbey's old Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge National Monument
In 1965, when I was seventeen years old, my father and I embarked on a Four Corners States Grand Circle Tour. After our visit to Moab, Utah, including old Arches National Monument, the Book Cliffs and Dead Horse Point, we traveled south. I shall save our stops at the Goosenecks of the San Juan River and Monument Valley for later. First, I shall discuss our visit to Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
Although Edward Abbey’s seminal book, Desert Solitaire did not appear in print until 1968, I shall quote from that book regarding Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge. Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam topped out in late 1963. When we visited in 1965, the lake appeared to be about half full. Years earlier, Edward Abbey and his friend, Newcomb, had rafted down the yet untamed Colorado River through Glen Canyon. Leaving Newcomb at the river, Abbey had hiked to Rainbow Bridge. Abbey’s visit there was an early 1960’s whitewater, wilderness experience. Ours visit was a mid-1960’s powerboat cruise on a placid lake.
Glen Canyon – Like no other occurrence in Edward Abbey’s life, the inundation of Glen Canyon created a psychic scar in the man. He knew that Glen Canyon Dam was the first of three new dams then planned for the Lower Colorado Basin. His determination not to let another Colorado River dam arise became the meta-theme of his book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Using various characters in that book as a thinly veiled foil, Abbey expressed his own latent desire to eradicate Glen Canyon Dam.
Years before, in Desert Solitaire, Abbey wrote eloquently about a wilderness now submerged, hundreds of feet below the Lake Powell we know today. Following are his words.
Page 122, “We were exploring a deep dungeonlike defile off Glen Canyon one time (before the dam). The defile turned and twisted like a snake under overhangs and interlocking walls so high, so close, that for most of the way I could not see the sky.”
Page 152, “I know, because I was one of the lucky few (there could have been thousands more) who saw Glen Canyon before it was drowned, In fact I saw only a part of it but enough to realize that here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise.”
Page 156, “That must be where Trachyte Creek comes in,” I explain; “if we had life jackets with us it might be a good idea to put them on now.” Actually our ignorance and carelessness are more deliberate than accidental; we are entering Glen Canyon…”
Page 157, “If this is the worst Glen Canyon has to offer, we agree, give us more of the same. In a few minutes the river obliges; a second group of rapids appears, wild as the first. Forewarned and overcautious this time, despite ourselves, we paddle too far…”
Page 185, “Farther still into the visionary world of Glen Canyon, talking somewhat less than before - for what is there to say? I think we have said it all – we communicate less in words and more in direct denotations, the glance, the pointing hand, the subtle nuances of pipe smoke, the tilt of a wilted hat brim.”
Page 188, “The sun, close to the horizon, shines through the clear air beneath the cloud layers, illuminating the soft variations of rose, vermilion, umber, slate blue, the complex features and details, defined sharply by shadow, of the Glen Canyon Landscape.”
Rainbow Bridge – By definition, a “natural arch” spans an area of dry land. In contrast, a “natural bridge” spans a watercourse. At remote Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a stone torus known as Rainbow Bridge is the most celebrated landform. Before Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the only way to see Rainbow Bridge was on a river raft expedition. A visit there involved a long wet trip up or down the Colorado River, followed by a tedious, uphill hike at the end. Located almost fifty water-miles upstream from Glen Canyon Dam, Rainbow Bridge now resides in a short side canyon, off Lake Powell.
After our long boat ride from Wahweap Marina, near Page, Arizona, our skipper tied up at a floating dock. When the lake was full, the story went; lake water would rise almost to the base of Rainbow Bridge. In 1965, however, we had over two miles of hiking before cresting a ridge and seeing the immutable stone arch called Rainbow Bridge.
Other than a flood in the summer of 1983, Lake Powell has never been full. There are few 1983 photos showing lake water lapping near the base of Rainbow Bridge. Today, perennially lower lake levels call into question the dam’s main reason for being, which is to generate electricity. In late 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior admitted what longtime observers of the Glen Canyon Dam have known for decades – that drought, climate change and over-subscription of available water will result in permanently lower water levels in Lake Powell and throughout the Colorado River Basin.
In 1965, when I asked our skipper if he preferred the ease of lake travel to a rafting trip, he tactfully said that each method of conveyance had its advantages. He went on to say, he would have preferred that Glen Canyon stay as it had been before the dam. As it was, on our visit, we hiked to Rainbow Bridge over hot, dry land, just as Edward Abbey had done years before. Following are passages from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, describing his raft trip down the Colorado River to Rainbow Bridge.
Page 186, “We pass the mouth of a large river entering the Colorado River from the east – the San Juan River. Somewhere not far beyond this confluence, if I recall my Powell rightly, is the opening to what he named Music Temple. “When ‘Old Shady’ sings us a song at night,” wrote Powell in 1869, “we are pleased to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds”.”
Page 188, “The river carries us past more side canyons, each of which I inspect for signs of a trail, a clue to Rainbow Bridge. But I find nothing, so far, though we know we are getting close.
Page 192, “Rainbow Bridge seems neither less nor greater than what I had foreseen. My second sensation is the feeling of guilt. Newcomb. Why had I not insisted on his coming? Why did I not grab him by the long strands of his savage beard and haul him up the trail, bearing him when necessary like Christopher would across the stream, stumbling from stone to stone, and dump him finally under the bridge, leaving him…
Page 193, “But I am diverted by a faint pathway which looks as if it might lead up out of the canyon, above Rainbow Bridge. Late afternoon, the canyon filling with shadows – I should not try it. I take it anyway, climbing a talus slope.
Page 193, “From up here Rainbow Bridge, a thousand feet below, is only a curving ridge of sandstone of no undue importance, a tiny object lost in the vastness and intricacy of the canyon systems which radiate from the base of Navajo Mountain.
Page 239, “Through twilight and moonlight I climb down to the rope, down to the ledge, down to the canyon floor below Rainbow Bridge. Bats flicker through the air. Fireflies sparkle by the waterseeps and miniature toads with enormous voices clank and grunt and chant at me as I tramp past their ponds down the long trail back to the river, back to the campfire and companionship and a midnight supper.
From Wahweap Marina, near Glen Canyon Dam, to Rainbow Bridge is about sixteen miles, as the crow flies. On the lake, our circuitous canyon route was nearly three times as long. As we drank Cokes from steel cans along the way, the cognoscenti told us that we should punch a hole in the bottom of each can before throwing it in the lake. That way, the cans could sink, rather than bobbing half-full on the surface for years to come. Although a nationwide ethic of recycling was still decades away, I pictured snags of drowned trees far below, each festooned with Coke and beer can ornaments.
From 1965, it would be over a decade before Abbey’s motley cast of fictional characters wreaked havoc with infrastructure and land development throughout San Juan County, Utah. To read about those queasily exciting adventures in incipient eco-activism (some say eco-terrorism), please watch for my upcoming treatise on Edward Abbey's book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. When posted, you will find it HERE.
Thanks to filmmaker ML Lincoln, we shall soon hear again from the spirit of Edward Abbey in her new feature documentary, titled "Wrenched". For a synopsis of the movie, click HERE.
at 05:27 PM |
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From La Jota Vineyards to W.H. Smith Wines, Bill and Joan Smith are Howell Mountain Pioneers
In September 2012, I watched as two old friends greeted each other in the warm California sun. While touring the Napa Valley with my father, Dr. Loron N. (Duke) McGillis * and Carrie McCoy, we decided to visit the W.H. Smith Winery in the Howell Mountain hills east of Angwin. As he shook hands with W.H. (Bill) Smith, my father reminisced, “Bill, I first met you and your wife, Joan in 1978”.
In those days, Bill & Joan Smith lived in a century-old farmhouse at La Jota Vineyards, a few miles down the hill from where we stood. Subdivided from the original Spanish land grant of the same name, La Jota featured an 1898 gravity-fed, fieldstone winery. Despite the remaining early infrastructure, Howell Mountain had seen little wine produced or bottled since the Great Depression. Although the history of viticulture in around Howell Mountain was rich, the place was little-known to most wine critics, consumers and historians.
On July 4, 1978, I had the pleasure of attending the first La Jota Vineyards holiday barbecue. This annual event later achieved near cult status among the Smith’s friends and neighbors. Arriving a day early, we slept overnight in sleeping bags out in a small pasture. The next morning, Bill Smith used his new Kubota tractor to dig a pit for slow-roasting crabs or lobsters over the coals.
Several years later, during another celebration at the old farmhouse, Bill’s fine new Howell Mountain Estate - La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon flowed freely. Dinner that night was to be poached salmon. My father’s wife, the late Joyce McGillis had what must have been a twenty-pound salmon poaching atop the stove. When we finally wrestled the huge fish onto a cutting board, the first slice told us that the fish was still raw. Somehow, we got that huge fish back into the boiling water. The second time we tried it, the entire fish was poached to perfection. Since fish, wine and miracles go well together, we all broke bread, toasted to our chef and enjoyed the meal.
In his early days of winemaking, Bill Smith was an admitted amateur at the craft. If something was not going well in the old stone winery, he studied it, and then fixed the problem. If the problem was beyond his own expertise, he sought qualified help. Bill's strategy of continuous improvement worked well. Critics and consumers alike enjoyed each new vintage of La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon. Those on the vineyard’s mailing list enjoyed limited releases of exotic varietals such as Viognier and Nebbiolo. While Cabernet Sauvignon remained the basis of La Jota’s fame, respect for the label grew. In 2001, the prestigious Markham Vineyards purchased Bill and Joan Smith’s La Jota Vineyard Company.
Not only critics and consumers loved the flavor concentration and firm structure of a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Historians, as well looked at the viticultural history of Howell Mountain. On its eroded and forested plateau, Howell Mountain had more vines planted in 1900 than it does today. Based on research by wine historian Charles Sullivan, Howell Mountain became the first sub-appellation to the Napa Valley. In 1983, Howell Mountain received recognition as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Bill and Joan Smith’s leadership in reviving Howell Mountain as a premium winemaking area helped make that prestigious designation possible.
In 2003, my father and I traveled again to Howell Mountain. This time it was to see the Smith’s new home, winery and vineyards. Their new place was only a mile or so up the road from their old La Jota Vineyards. Their beautiful new house featured a permanent barbeque pit large enough for a whole roast pig. On the next July 4, there would no need to dig a hole with a tractor. With its long view to the Napa Valley below, the Smith’s new Piedra Hill Vineyard looked like a sure winner. Later, when the Smiths purchased a Pinot Noir Vineyard in Sonoma County, the Piedra Hill label gave way to the new and current, “W.H. Smith Wines” label.
During our 2003 visit, Bill Smith had just begun his most ambitious construction project. Although Napa Valley vintners could build large-scale production facilities on the flatlands, no commercial building on Howell Mountain could protrude above the ridgeline. In order to create the perfect temperatures for finishing and storage of wine, Bill opted to go underground. With help from the experts, Bill Smith drilled three parallel tunnels into a Howell Mountain hillside. Today, the artificial caves house operations, barrel storage and finished inventory for the winery.
During our September 2012 visit, Joan Smith was in Kauai, conducting business for the winery. After a quick visit to their Spanish style home, we drove a short distance to the caves. After visiting with the office manager, we prepared to leave. Then, in a flash of light, Bill Smith drove up in a new black Chevrolet pickup truck. After greetings all around, Bill admitted in his own humble way, “It is a great vehicle, but I still cannot figure out how all the gadgets work”. Just as he did at La Jota Vineyards thirty-five years ago, I am sure that Bill Smith will figure out how to take full advantage of what his new acquisition has to offer.
* (Author's Note) On February 9, 2013, Dr. Loron N. (Duke) McGillis passed away peacefully, in his sleep, at his home in Berkeley, California.
at 04:26 PM |
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How Robert Mondavi's White Smoke Captured the Wine Industry
In the history of Napa Valley, California, Robert Mondavi (1913 – 2008) holds a special place. In 1965, Robert had a much-publicized split with younger brother Peter Mondavi. The rift precipitated Robert’s leaving the family business at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena. In what seemed like no time, Robert Mondavi then created the California premium wine business, as we know it today.
Among his first moves was to secure a location in Oakville for his new winery. Mondavi hired architect Cliff May (1909 – 1989) to design his new winery. It also happened to be the first new winery in the Napa Valley since the passing of Prohibition in 1930. Well known for his California ranch style homes, the Mondavi Winery soon became May’s most prominent commission. Even today, the arched entrance arouses both our contemporary esthetic and our search for timeless beauty. From his first vintage onward, Mondavi featured the building’s front façade on his label. Experiencing only minor variations in style, the Mondavi premium contemporary label looks much like one from the 1960s. To this day, the Mondavi label is a reliable symbol for quality California wine.
Mondavi was a marketing genius. The first vintage for Robert Mondavi Winery was his 1966 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Upon its release in 1968, the entire vintage sold out almost immediately. Soon after his Cabernet Sauvignon sold out, Robert Mondavi rechristened an otherwise plebeian Sauvignon Blanc, calling it “Fume Blanc”.
By featuring the “white smoke” designation on the label, Robert Mondavi succeeded in convincing many neophyte wine consumers that he had invented a new varietal wine. Advances in large-scale cold fermentation were still years away, so making a distinguished Sauvignon Blanc was not easy. I will leave it up to others to determine if Mondavi succeeded in making a remarkable Sauvignon Blanc.
On my first visit to Robert Mondavi Winery in 1969, the ubiquitous Fume Blanc was the only wine available for sale to the public. Although I have since consumed many bottles of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, I have not noticed a bottle of Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc on sale for years. However, there are images of 2007 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc on the internet, so they must still make that wine.
For those who bought land early, like Joseph Heitz, producing the only other 1966 Oakville Cabernet on the market was a natural step. Before Mondavi and Heitz, Beringer, Inglenook and other Napa Valley winemakers saw the place as just another California viticulture area. It was after Mondavi opened his winery that the Napa Valley became one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States. Wealthy individuals and corporations alike rushed to own a part of the California premium wine business.
Until Napa Valley real estate prices skyrocketed, Sonoma County and Mendocino County held nearly equal viticultural status to the nearby Napa Valley. After a string of international accolades for its premium wines in the 1970s, Napa Valley rose to preeminence in the minds of most California wine aficionados. To the present day, a Napa Valley "domaine de origin" still holds sway with wine aficionados, both young and old. Regardless of how imperfect a Napa Valley wine may be, most vinophiles will unconsciously give a Napa Valley wine the benefit of the doubt.
For Robert Mondavi, one could say that he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Although he was certainly in the right place, he capitalized on several trends, including the rush to varietal wine labeling. Until ridiculed by Mondavi and others, the term “California Burgundy” was in common usage. Soon thereafter, new laws required winemakers use accurate geographical and varietal wine labeling.
As with the red wine tradition in Bordeaux, France, a blend of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot often makes a wine preferable to straight Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Robert Mondavi’s push for varietal labeling won the hearts of both legislators and consumers. Unless a wine could meet the seventy-five percent-of-content threshold, such a blend might be labeled “Claret” or worse yet, “Red Table Wine”. Out of misplaced deference for Robert Mondavi and his successful push for varietal labeling, we now drink our California Cabernet Sauvignon and even Merlot mostly straight, rather than in more thoughtful blends. For a winemaker to do otherwise, risks having his or her wine languish on the shelf, rather than consumed by the public.
Another reason for the success of Robert Mondavi and his fellow Napa Valley Vintners is the compact geography of the appellation. The valley is only twenty miles long and several miles wide. In the 1970s, a tourist could visit almost every winery in the valley in one day. In the early 1970s, stops at Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Charles Krug, Inglenook, then newly reformed Freemark Abbey and the new Sterling Vineyards might make for one full day of Napa Valley wine tasting.
Today, a tasting-trip north on the same California Highway 29 might take a week, given the large number of wineries now along that road. From Calistoga, a return trip south along the Silverado Trail yields scores more wineries, all still in the Napa Valley. On a weekend during the crush, the Napa Valley can seem like one giant amusement park for adults. When at Sterling Vineyards, be sure to ride the overhead tram out to the tasting room and back. After a glass of wine, it is a real experience.
at 05:38 PM |
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