DTour Part 1: When in Sonoma Valley… Drink a lot of wine!
Ever since July I have been aching to get my DTour started! It’s a trip I was lucky enough to win in a competition run by DoubleTree by Hilton (read about my full itinerary for the next 17 days here), so not only am I staying in some amazing DoubleTree hotels all over North America, but I also have the locals and the experts themselves on hand to help me plan the trip and work out what to do and see while I’m here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m still in shock that it’s actually happening to me.
So I arrived in San Francisco airport last night after a tortuous journey from Cape Town, via Johannesburg and London, which took me 40 hours in total, involving three flights and three different continents. It’s safe to say that I never want to eat another aeroplane meal again. Luckily for me I’ve landed in one of the most ‘foodie’ parts of the US: California. I was whisked away to the DoubleTree hotel in Sonoma Wine County and given a very warm welcome by the hotel staff, before being treated to a delicious dinner that put those horrible plane meals right out of mind.
Sonoma Wine County is famous for one main thing – guess what. So the obvious way to spend my time while here was to go on a wine tasting tour guided by a local, who in my case turned out to be Trevor from Terrific Tours. Picked up at 10:30am from the hotel we headed into Sonoma Valley and to a series of smaller vineyards, starting with a wine estate called Russian Hill and the scenery couldn’t be beaten. It’s set in rolling hills with rows of vines in every direction, and combined with exceptional Californian weather (sun, sun, sun, even in October) it as the perfect place to begin my first full day as a DTourist on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton.
After five or so delicious wines, among which I really liked their Viognier, I found the wine for me: a late harvest white dessert wine. Given I have an impossibly sweet tooth, dessert wines are like nectar to me and I couldn’t resist buying a bottle to take back to England. I managed to restrain myself for the rest of the day and not purchase any other bottles, but were my luggage allowance unlimited I would definitely have bought a lot more.
Vineyard number two was Merriam a winery that looked very new, but which also has an idyllic sun terrace – and I simply couldn’t believe the temperature. Before I arrived I was under the impression that it would be quite chilly, but here I have finally found the summer weather that seems to have deserted the UK entirely over the past few years! Heaven. My favourite wine from Merriam had to be the 2009 Rockpile Cabernet Sauvignon – delicious.
Driving between wineries Trevor would show us the scenic route and tell us the odd fact too, about how the wine industry began in 1812, how it grew thanks to the Gold Rush in 1849, how it almost collapsed during the Prohibition Era from 1920-33 and how it’s now thriving once again.
Up next was Seghesio, a vineyard dating back to 1895 with Italian heritage, specifically from Piedmont. Here we went down into the cellar to learn about the barrelling process and the various wines they have on offer. This vineyard does actually distribute wine in Selfridges in London, but sadly for me, they don’t export my very favourite of their wines: a Sangiovese wine ominously called ‘Venom’.
After lunch in the cute and amazingly ‘perfect’ town of Healdsburg we went to our fourth vineyard of the day, Hawley in Dry Creek Valley, a family-run establishment that feels a lot less commercial than some of the others. Instead of tasting room decorated with branded merchandise, our tasting table was out in the open next to the barn containing all the machinery and containers, and was simply a plank of wood balanced on top of two barrels. The afternoon sun combined with the effects of plenty of wine created a very relaxed, mellow atmosphere and I felt like I was million miles away. Having just harvested the grapes they’re currently in the process of adding yeast to ferment them, and we even got the chance to get involved in the stirring of the grapes, although I clearly don’t have the muscles required! I’ve now realised just how much effort goes into producing a good wine, and frankly it looks exhausting. While we may have a romanticised vision of what life would be like as a vineyard owner, I think the reality would be a lot harder. This was my favourite of all the five wineries.
The fifth and final winery is lovely in a completely different way – at Truett-Hurst you can take your wine down to the bank of Dry Creek and watch the river pass by, and they also have goats and chicken and it feels like more of a farm. A really nice end to quite an alcoholic day that left me struggling to stay awake in the evening!
Afterwards I went to dinner at the exquisite Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, one of celebrity chef Charlie Palmer’s restaurants. I had the three-course set menu and felt utterly spoilt – it has indeed been an amazing couple of days for food and wine…
Up next: San Francisco!
[I am travelling around North America as a DTourist on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton. You can find out more about how I won this incredible opportunity here]