They produce what may be the two best cabernet sauvignons in America – among the best in the world and they are just 34 miles apart. Yet, in many ways they couldn’t be more different in their approaches to almost everything having to do with wine making.
They are Jordan Winery in Healdsberg and Silver Oak Cellars in Geyserville in California’s other great wine producing region – Sonoma County. We toured and tasted at each of these great wineries during a recent visit to the area.
I’ve been a devotee of Jordan cabernet sauvignon since I first tasted it at dinner at the Oak Room at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in the mid-1980s, before that restaurant was down-scaled.
Silver Oak cab sauv came into my life more recently, about 15 years ago at the Firehouse restaurant in Old Sacramento. It was recommended by a waiter. One sip and I knew I had something special.
Soon after, I brought some Silver Oak home from in a local wine store. It didn’t taste anything like what I drank at the Firehouse. I did a little checking and learned there are two different Silver Oak wineries that produce two different wines, one in the Napa Valley and one in the Alexander Valley.
For years I would tell friends I could blind taste the two Silver Oaks and know which came from each of the areas. I never missed.
I would love to have the kind of palate that could do that. But until this recent visit to the winery, I didn’t know how I did it. I knew the taste was very different, but I didn’t know why. Now I do. I told our tour guide about it and she told me Silver Oak from the Napa Valley is a blended wine, about 75% cabernet sauvignon grapes and 25% others; the Alexander Valley cab sauv is produced with 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes.
There lies the first and perhaps the biggest difference between Jordan and Silver Oak. Jordan makes only blended cab sauv; Jordan representatives will tell you wine made from 100 percent cab sauv grapes is not drinkable.
Jordan’s fermentation tanks are the same French Oak that were installed when the winery was founded in 1972, the same tanks that held the first Jordan harvest in 1976. Silver Oak’s fermentation tanks are stainless steel.
Jordan’s blending barrels are about 74 percent French oak and 26 percent American oak. The percentage may vary by as much as 10 percent in any given year depending on the harvest. Silver Oak uses only Missouri Oak. Each winery will use its blending barrels for two harvests before replacing them.
Silver Oak has a traditional tasting room and commercial gift shop. Jordan has no public tasting room.
Jordan blending barrels never leave the building in which they are housed; they are topped off in the building. Silver Oak uses fork lifts to move large numbers of barrels to an outdoor area for topping off and keeps the barrels hosed down to prevent heating in the afternoon sun.
Each winery releases its new cab sauv vintage four years after the harvest. However, Jordan ages the wine in bottles for up to two years before releasing. Silver Oak bottle ages the Alexander Valley cab for 14 months and the Napa cab 20 months.
Our tour of the Jordan facility began on a picturesque patio. The ivy covered Jordan chateau in which all wine processing is conducted towered over us. It’s an adobe-roofed building and the ivied walls provide additional insulation that makes air conditioning inside unnecessary. Before us and around us were 1,200 acres of hills and vineyards, three-quarters of which are dedicated to natural habitat.
Tom and Sally Jordan bought the property in 1972. The chateau was completed in 1976, about the same time the first Jordan cabernet grapes were harvested. At a dinner party at our house just a few years ago, our friend Jeff Daar, who is a co-host at our sister restaurant recommendation website atLarrys.com, arrived with a bottle of 1976 Jordan cabernet reserve – the winery’s first release. We opened it not knowing what we would find inside. What we found was heaven.
Winemaker Rob Davis has spent his entire career at Jordan. He was hired and mentored by famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who played a major role in the emergence of Napa Valley wines in the 1960s and was serving at the time as a consulting enologist for Jordan.
We signed up for the 90-minute Winery Tour & Library Tasting at $40 per person, with a limit of 12 people per group. The first tasting was on the patio, where we sampled the just released 2012 Russian River Valley chardonnay accompanied by an amuse bouche of Hokkaido sea scallop ceviche.
After a very informative tour of the facility, led by Clair Smith, we were ushered into a private tasting room – The Library. There we sampled the 2002, 2006 and 2010 vintages of cab sauv. They were served with a plate of pork rillettes and cherry compote, black truffle triple crème brie cheese, a Basque style Ossau-Irate unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, and a Beemster classic cow cheese imported from Holland.
As important as anything else on this tour: Clair told us the 2012 cab sauvs are going to be something very special when they are released in 2016. It seems the weather in the area conspired to produce a 2012 harvest beyond extraordinary. I asked about buying futures as we do with Bordeaux some years. The answer was “no.” So I’ve made a note at the end of my 2015 calendar to start checking for release dates.
SILVER OAK CELLARS
Ninety minutes after we left Jordan, we were at Silver Oak Cellars in the Alexander Valley appellation of Sonoma County. Here, too, we had reserved a tour and tasting. But only three of us – me and cousins Barry and Beverly – signed up, so it became a very private affair after some initial confusion.
Silver Oak stresses its commitment to sustainability and the environment. Integrated Pest Management practices are employed in the vineyards and nesting boxes have been installed for bluebirds and owls to help with pest control. Cover crops grown between the rows of grape vines reduce weed growth, help retain nutrients in the soil and improve the soil structure. State-of-the-art water conservation methods also are emplooyed in the vineyards.
Its new winery in Oakville in Napa County was built using reclaimed materials. It features 1,464 solar panels, which produce more electricity than the winery requires. The fermentation room is cooled with natural air conditioning.
The family owned winery was founded in 1972 and produced its first vintage that same year.
Only cabernet sauvignon is bottled with the Silver Oak label. The winery also produces a pinot noir, merlot, and sauvignon blanc under a Twomey label.
Our private tasting began with the 2012 sauv blanc. The original plan was to follow that with three vintages of cab sauv. But with just three of us in the room along with the tour guide, the conversation led us to sample three additional cab sauvs. That was too much wine – good wine but too much. With just bread sticks as cleansers, my palate became numb. That didn’t stop me from buying a few bottles of 2007 cab sauv, one of which I gave to my son Lloyd and daughter-in-law Edie. The rest are in my cooler at home.
Our choice of where to stay for our visit to the Sonoma County wine country turned out to be extremely fortunate. Hope-Merrill House in Geyserville is a restored 1870s Victorian converted to a bed and breakfast. Proprietor Cosette Scheiber is an encyclopedia of wine knowledge, particularly local wine and wineries. Her guidance led us to discover the other two wineries we visited during this five-day stay.
This is an organic winery and farm in the Dry Creek appellation near Cloverdale. It’s small and nothing fancy. The entire facility would fit comfortably in the tasting room at Silver Oak.
Preston is a family owned and operated organic farm that produces a limited amount of wine each year as well as a variety of other items available in the farm store. Distribution of the wine is centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, although there are a few outlets in Los Angeles and at least one in San Diego.
Cosette sent us to Preston when we told her we wanted a wine picnic someplace pretty – by a river if possible. We didn’t get the river but what we got instead was an exquisitely memorable afternoon. Lunch was a bottle of Preston sauvignon blanc, French bread freshly baked on site, olives grown and brined on site, and two wdges of cheese produced by the Preston family. All this at a picnic table under a shade tree.
J. RICKARDS WINERY
The owner is Jim Rickards, an emergency room registered nurse at a nearby hospital. At Cosette’s advice, we phoned ahead to arrange a tour of the vineyards before our tasting. Retired firefighter Jay led us through the vines, showing us how to tell the difference between zinfandel, cabernet, and petit syrah grapes by their clustering habits. It was just 10 days before the tentatively scheduled start of the first harvest of the season. The grapes we picked and ate from the vines were luscious.
“Don’t spit out the seeds,” Jay instructed. “Chew them and see how they dry out your mouth.” That, along with the measured sweetness of the grapes is how winemakers know when to begin the harvest on various sections of the vineyards.
My introduction to good wine came in a bottle of zinfandel at Beringer’s winery in the Napa Valley in about 1963. At J. Rickards we picked and ate zinfandel grapes from 106-year-old vines.
After our stroll through the vineyard it was time for some serious wine tasting. Camped under a shade tree at a picnic table, with a magnificent view of rows of grape vines as far as the eye could see, we were served a dish with a variety of cheeses and wines to pair with each. First up was a wonderful sauvignon blanc. I’m not a white wine drinker, but four bottles of that wine found their way into the case I would have shipped home.
Next was a Malbec. This isn’t a commonly bottled wine in either of the northern California wine regions. It’s used mostly as a blend with cabernet sauvignons. The Malbec at J. Rickards was eye popping. Four more bottles for the shipping case.
Then came the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel, the one for which I had been waiting. It was very good, but when I said I preferred the Malbec, Jay said, “Just a minute.” From somewhere in the wine barn – yes, it really is a barn – he produced a bottle of 2007 Reserve Old Vine Zin. There were only seven bottles of the reserve left in stock. Four of them went to finish off my case. The other three were bought by cousins Barry and Beverly.
Diavola in Geyserville was the clear winner of the trip. It’s a pizza joint with an extensive list of antipasti and a few other dishes. The four of us ordered three antipasti to share – house cured salumi and cheese, burrata and fresh anchovies, and oven roasted beets – and two pizzas – sausage with red onions and pecorino, and another with tomato, mascarpone, prosciutto, and arugula. It was delicious, but too much food. The antipasti were all large. We could have gotten by with one pizza. The wine list is two pages of locals and Italians.
Willi’s Seafood in Healdsberg is a small plates restaurant in the heart of the city. Seven plates and skewers were plenty for the four of us – ceviche, lamb skewers, Dungeness crab cakes, fried Ipswich clam strips, sautéed spinach, and duck carnitas. We sat on the patio, which is separated from street traffic with plant life.
Bravas in Healdsberg is owned by the same owners as Willi’s. This is a tapas restaurant. We shared plates of Jamon Iberico, roasted red beets, duck meatballs, cider braised chorizo, and crispy pig ears. My sangria was a winner – so strong that I left half of it.
Catelli’s in Geyserville probably has good enough food. But the place was so noisy that it ruined the entire experience. We downed our entrees and left without desert of coffee. Later we learned there is a patio out back that’s much quieter. But they won’t take reservations that specify the patio.
Shed in Healdsberg is a kitchen store, market and restaurant. It’s a great lunch place, with a variety of interesting and original salads, sandwiches, and pastries. All dishes are prepared with locally sourced ingredients. There’s also a coffee bar. Be prepared to wait. This place is packed at lunch time. Use the wait to browse the kitchen store and marvel at the selection of cheeses, salumi and sausages.
We visited four wineries in five days. That’s enough. The goal isn’t to see how much one can drink. It’s to visit places that produce wine you love and discover new wines. That’s what we accomplished.
There are 13 appellations in Sonoma County, each with its own soil and climate conditions. The Carneros and Russian River Valley produce grapes best suited for chardonnay and pinot noir. The warmer Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile areas provide some of the best zinfandel grapes. For cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the Alexander Valley appellation is prime territory.
Chardonnay is the county’s number one variety, with some 16,000 planted acres. Sauvignon blanc is second among white wines at 2,500 acres. But that limited crop produces some terrific sauv blancs.
Cab sauv tops the red wine list at about 12,000 acres, followed by pinot noir at 10,000 acres, merlot at 7,500 acres and zinfandel at 5,000 acres.
Winemakers in the county produce some 30 million gallons of wine each year from about 200,000 tons of grapes.
Back about 60 years ago there was a joint marketing campaign to promote wine from Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino counties. It helped build the reputation for California wines. The effort faded when the folks in Napa broke off and promoted themselves into one of the top wine tourist areas in the world, offering great wines and excellent restaurants.
Many of those who pay attention to such things have long believe the Sonoma County wines were, in many instances, just as good and sometimes even better that the more famous Napa Valley wines. That’s not to leave Mendocino out of the mix. Some top notch stuff comes from wineries in that county, too.
In an effort to boost its market strength, Sonoma County vintners recently decided to put ‘Sonoma County’ on the label of every bottle of wine produced in the area, just as Napa producers put ‘Napa Valley’ on all their wines.
Will great wine and stronger marketing in time turn the tranquil Sonoma Valley wine region into another over-crowded, traffic-choked tourist mecca just like the Napa Valley? Not unless someone figures out a way to vastly improve and expand the local infrastructure. Right now most the roads in the Sonoma County wine area are two lanes, with the exception of U.S. 101 which speeds through the area. You can drive along those roads at 50 miles an hour or better, something that hasn’t been possible in the Napa Valley for a long time. If Sonoma is going to grow as a tourist attraction it will need road improvements, more hotels and all the other trappings that go along with tourism.
In the meantime, let’s be thankful for the Sonoma County wine industry. It’s quite, warm, welcoming and all the other things the Napa Valley was 50 years ago. And it turns out some terrific wine that doesn’t need to take a back seat to anyone.
(NOTE: We were in Sonoma County just two weeks before the Napa earthquake of August, 2014. I remember looking and floor to ceiling wine casks and racks of bottles and wondering if “these people” know they are in earthquake territory. Damage from the Napa quake did almost no damage in Sonoma County. But it’s still earthquake territory.)