A Visit to Napa Valley After the Fires

Note: This post was originally published on the Inside Customer Service blog.

"I didn't know if I'd have a job to go back to."

That's something Sally and I heard over and over from winery employees, restaurant servers, and other customer service professionals we encountered in Napa Valley.

We visited during the first week in November. By then, the multiple wildfires that spread throughout the valley in October had been extinguished. The loss of life and property was terrible.

Now locals faced another potential disaster—job losses.

An estimated 9,000 people lost their jobs due to the October fires throughout Northern California, including Napa Valley. Many are worried that job losses are yet to come as the local economy deals with the aftermath.

My wife and I consistently heard one message while we were in Napa. "We're open for business. Please come to visit."

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

What Actually Burned

It's tough to follow a disaster on the news. Print and television media often confused the basic geography of the area when reporting on the fires.

As a result, people I've spoken to from around the country saw coverage of the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties and assumed everything was burning. In reality, there were multiple fires that were large and devastating, though the majority of Napa Valley emerged unscathed.

That's not to say the damage wasn't extensive.

Lives and homes were lost, which is the most tragic consequence. We saw images like these throughout certain parts of the valley.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The hills surrounding parts of the valley were also extensively burned as the fire raged unchecked through the backcountry. For those who haven't visited the area, Napa Valley is quite rural in places.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

One stroke of luck was the grapevines themselves acted as a natural firebreak. Many wineries were saved when the fire was stopped at the edge of the vineyard. At William Hill Estate Winery, one of our favorites, the signed was burned and the flames crept up to the side of the winery.

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Images like this might discourage you from visiting, though the wine was flowing, the wine room and surrounding garden were still intact, and the hospitality was still warm and friendly.

Even parts of the area that didn't burn were impacted by a thick cloud of ash and smoke that hung over the valley for several days. Some wineries lost grapes not from fire but from the air. Wine made from grapes exposed to smokey air can develop a distinctly unpleasant smoke taste.

Everywhere we looked there were remnants of soot from the fire. Workers at the Soda Canyon Store told us it took them three days to clean the store before they could reopen. I'm happy to report the store is now clean and the sandwiches are as delicious as ever.


The Economic Impact

Sally and I rented a house in downtown Napa for a week-long working vacation.

We secured the rental months earlier. A week or so before our trip we weren't sure if it was still a good idea to go. I emailed the property manager and asked.

She quickly replied and asked us to please come. The house had experienced a number of cancellations during one of the busiest times of the year. Her business, like so many others in the valley, could really use the revenue.

The valley is still sorting out the long-term economic impact of the fires. There will be costs to rebuild houses and businesses as well as replace burned out vehicles. 

We consistently heard about cancellations. The upside is we often had personalized tasting experiences like this one at Saintsbury.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

That was good for us, though not so great for the winery. The Napa Valley Register shared a recent story indicating many wineries have seen the number of visitors decline considerably over this same time last year.


How to Help

The best thing you can do is plan a trip to Napa.

The area is beautiful. Most of the wine and wineries are perfectly fine. The fall can be a special time of year as the leaves on the vines change. Some places are just magical.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

You can also buy Napa wine if a trip is not in the works. Your local wine shop is sure to have some great selections. You can also buy directly from a favorite winery and have it shipped directly to you.

Finally, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. This is an organization that works closely with other local nonprofits to funnel money to areas where there's the greatest need such as food, shelter, childcare, and transportation.

The area will recover. This is a close-knit community that became even closer in the wake of a disaster. One of our winery hosts told us, "We're farmers. Farmers help each other."

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Posted on December 3, 2017 and filed under Adventures.

First Impression: Texas Hill Country Wine

Sally is from Texas.

This means we have friends and family from Texas. Which, in turn, means we've been exposed to a few bottles of Texas wine. We're fans of any wine that tastes good, and some of it definitely tastes good.

So a recent family wedding in the Texas Hill Country town of New Braunfels gave us the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the local wine region. With Sally's mom, Mabeth, generously handling the driving duties, the three of us set out to taste some wine.

We were lucky to find two gems on a three winery tour. Not bad for any day of tasting. You can find these and other wineries on the Texas Wine Trail website.


Sister Creek Vineyards

Much of the wine we discover comes from shared bottles. Longtime family friends Robin and Dick Hesse shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sister Creek Vineyards. It was really good, so we added the winery to our list.

The visit started with a self-guided tour of their winemaking operation. Next, we did a flight of several wines, including a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and several Cabernet Sauvignons.

Prices were reasonable at $13.95-$39.95, which seemed right because these were everyday drinking wines to our palate. Good mellow flavors, a little acidic (which is great with food), and not too much heat.

Oh, and the winery was in an old barn that used to be a cotton gin.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Bending Branch


Mabeth picked this one out, and it turned out to be a wise choice.

The winemaker, Bob Young, smartly chose grapes that were well-suited to the Texas Hill Country climate such as Cinsaut, Charbono, and Tannat. These grapes tend to fare better in warmer summers than cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The 2012 Texas Tannat was a standout for us. It's what Sally calls a "fighter grape" because the vines' roots had to work hard to find water in the soil, which leads to smaller grapes but more intense flavors.

This one had big tannins, with a splash of bright fruit up front along with some mushroom and earthy undertones.

And of course there was this pick-up truck parked outside!


Bonus Knowledge

The Texas Hill Country consumer loves sweet Muscat. Every winery we visited sold it, and our host at each one said it was one of their top sellers.

It's not our style, but you can't argue with them for knowing their customers!

Posted on March 14, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

Five Bottles, Eight Friends, Endless Fun

We're big fans of themed wine parties.

It's a fun and easy way to enjoy some good wine with friends without getting too fussy or pretentious. The formula is pretty straightforward. 

  1. Pick a wine theme, such as Bordeaux-style blends or Zinfandel
  2. Pair the wine with a tasty meal. We cheat and use this awesome guide.
  3. Invite some friends over. We prefer a small group of six to eight.
  4. Serve the wine blind.
  5. Sip, swirl, chew, and discuss.

The theme for our latest wine party was Cabernet Sauvignon. Like our last "Call Me a Cab" party, we served up several Cabs that we picked up on our travels. Each had its own interesting story. 

2010 Raymond Burr. We visited the now-defunct winery in northern Sonoma County a few years ago. Yes, the winery was founded by its namesake, the actor Raymond Burr who is probably best known for playing Perry Mason in the television series by the same name. A friend recommended we go there (why else?) so we stopped by as we were passing through town. The wine was excellent and we were saddened to learn the winery is now gone.

2010 The Label. A 2013 trip to Paso Robles brought us to Turley Wine Cellars, a winery famous for its Zinfandel. Unfortunately, we caught them between vintages and most of their good stuff was sold out. They only had a few selections available for tasting that were all so-so until our host invited us to try some Cabernet Sauvignon called The Label that was a bit of the side project. Wow, it was good! They were selling magnums for the price of a regular 750ml bottle, so we said, "Yes, please!" 

2010 Cade Howell Mountain. This sister winery to the famous PlumpJack is becoming well-known in it's own right. We've visited a couple of times and have enjoyed their beautiful views overlooking Napa Valley and their incredible wine. 



Do your guests arrive in the same car?

Ours don't. People spill in at different times, but it would be impolite to keep people's palates dry while we wait for the whole crew to assemble. We usually like to start people off with a bit of white wine, such as a 2014 Cuvaison Sauvignon Blanc.



We like to start with a cheese course.

I wish I could tell you we were cheese geniuses. We're not. I mean, we took a wine and cheese pairing class once, but that's about as far as it goes. That's why we take the guesswork out of the whole process and trust the folks down at Venissimo Cheese to help us find a few selections to go with our theme.  

Dinner ideas come from What to Drink with What You Eat. You really can't go wrong with that awesome guide. The book suggested steak would go well with Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Don't over think things, right?


The Verdict

We keep the wines' identities secret until we've all had a chance to enjoy them with the meal. We do ask a few just for fun questions:

  • Which wine do you think is the oldest (or youngest)?
  • Where do you think the wine is from?
  • Which wine goes best with the cheese? With the meal? On it's own?

Finally, we ask our guests to vote on their favorites and then we reveal the selections.

The winner this time was the 2010 Raymond Burr. Alas, we drained our inventory that night and the winery is no more.


Post-Verdict Aftermath

It would be a sad party that ended right after the wines were revealed! There's always a call for a third bottle or two. 

This time, we shared a Cabernet Sauvignon Port that we picked up at Elyse Winery in Napa few years ago along with a Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina's Mendoza region that we picked up on the cheap from San Diego Wine Company.  

Posted on January 24, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

I'm Not Drinking any F*@#ing Merlot!

Way back in 2004, Merlot had a bad name. 

Myles, the main character in the movie Sideways, famously uttered his contempt for Merlot in this classic scene. That reputation was probably well-deserved as the market had been flooded with a lot of cheap, crappy wine.

Not anymore. Our friends, Alisa and Ken, recently hosted a blind tasting that proves Merlot is worth a try.

They served a line-up of four wines. For each one, we tried to guess the year, the cost, and the region. We also discussed what we liked and didn't about each one.

We attended a similar party at Alisa and Ken's last year, and a mid-priced Syrah from Ramona was the surprise winner. It proved the value of tasting wines blind - without any preconceived notions of price, region, or relative quality.

Would we have another surprise? Here were the vintages, regions, and price points. Which do you think was the winner?

  • 2010, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, $12
  • 2011, Ramona, $28
  • 2011, Napa Valley, $30
  • 2013, Napa Valley, $40

Perhaps it would help to know the wineries? Here's a photo line-up of the bottles:

And, the winner is...

The crowd favorite was the 2011 Clos du Val Merlot. It has a classic California Merlot taste. Dark fruit and a little spice on the nose and a little fruit-forward with blackberry and plum on the finish complemented with nicely balanced tannins.

Three notes:

  • We've visited all the wineries except for the one in France.
  • Trefethen displayed this funny sign outside their winery not long after Sideways came out.
  • Sally and I both had the Trefethen Merlot marked as #2 on our ballots. That's a surprise, because the last time we visited the winery we thought it was a dud.
Posted on August 20, 2016 .

How to Throw a Hassle-Free Single Varietal Wine Party

It's fun to focus on one varietal.

You really don't appreciate how different wine from the same grape can taste until you try several examples side-by-side. This can make for a fun party.

Here's one way you can do it that's relatively easy.

First, pick a grape that you know you and your friends generally like. We have a few friends that are crazy about Pinot Noir, so we recently decided to go with that one.

Next, invite some friends and ask each couple to bring a bottle of wine made from that grape. If you are inviting singles, you can ask half your guests to bring a bottle to keep things from getting too boozy. 

Now, you'll want to plan a menu that goes with that wine.

Wine pairing doesn't have to be difficult if you have the ultimate cheat sheet! We use What to Drink with What You Eat as our go-to guide for wine pairing. Just pick a grape and the book will give you a list of possible menu items that are sure to go well with that wine.

For our Pinot Noir party, Sally decided to go with beef brisket, mashed potatoes, and green beans wrapped in bacon.

We also started with a cheese course since wine can be fun to pair with cheese. Lucky for us, there's an amazing cheese shop in San Diego called Venissimo. All we have to do is tell one of their knowledgeable employees what varietal we're serving and they'll have several stellar recommendations at the ready.

The day of the party, it's a good idea to give your guests one wine glass for each bottle of wine being shared. Just be careful - this can make your table a little crowded.

We've found that dispensing with unnecessary items like table clothes, place mats, and center pieces can free up a little extra space.

There's one last prep item to mention. You want to get a bag of some kind for each wine bottle. Open yours just before guests arrive and then hand one to each guest.

This way, guests can open and bag their own wine so you won't see what they brought. We mark the bags with numbers so we can keep track of each wine while we're drinking it. Number one is the glass on each person's left, number two is the glass immediately to the right of that, and so on.

This helps during the tasting so you can all compare notes by referring to number one versus number two, etc.

OK, that covers the party planning. Once your guests arrive, it's time to enjoy yourself! We pour a small glass of each wine for our guests once everyone arrives and then start with the cheese course. This gives everyone a chance to try the wine with and without cheese.

We then move on to the main course. We all discuss the wine along the way. Part of the fun is discovering how people's perceptions change depending on what you're eating.

Finally, we see if there's a consensus favorite among the group.

At our Pinot Noir party, we were all surprised to learn that everyone brought a Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley region! Here's the line-up:

  • 2012 Maison L'Envoye Two Messengers Pinot Noir
  • 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir
  • 2013 Solena Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir
  • 2014 Erath Pinot Noir

All of the wines were tasty, but they had some big differences. Some were earthy while others were fruitier. Some were lighter while others were darker. It was fun to compare.

As always, we voted on a winner just for fun. The crowd favorite this time was the 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir.

Posted on May 21, 2016 .