Behind the Vines

“Behind the Vines” – wining and dining our way through Sonoma and surrounding areas was the theme of our third annual Cordillera Ranch Cellar Club wine trip! Launched two years ago, the Club boasts over 140 Cellar Club Members of which 20 wine-loving aficionados embraced five days of exclusive behind-the scenes wine tasting, fine dining and vintner education. Hosted and put together by Debbie Pepper, Director of Membership (and unofficial Wine Tour Operator), and Manny Ortiz, Food and Beverage Director and wine aficionado the trip featured exclusive boutique wineries, vineyards, behind the scenes winery tours, and personal meet/greets with winery owners.

Leaving from San Francisco on Sunday morning, the group arrived in Sonoma at noon to begin our trip with a wonderful welcome lunch and tasting on the magnificent mountaintop terrace at Gloria Ferrer known for their sparkling wines, lovely Pinot Noirs and a special treat of Gloria Ferrer’s flagship, Tête de Cuvee, Carneros Cuvee. After lunch we headed to the Kenwood Inn, our charming lodging for the week in a very intimate and boutique Italian villa setting. Later that evening, we enjoyed our welcome reception dinner at the Inn in front of the fireplace on their garden patio with a sampling of Sonoma wines highlighted by wines purchased from St. Francis Winery Zinfandels and Petite Syrah specially selected by St. Francis winemaker, Katie Madigan. By the time dinner was over, the group had bonded with much laughter and memorable conversation exchanged! For four consecutive days thereafter, we toured three to four wineries/vineyards per day including wonderful lunch and dinner wine pairings.

winetrip2Monday’s schedule highlighted wineries in the Alexander Valley region with our first memorable stop at Silver Oak in Geyserville. Our day began with a very education tour of the production facility followed by a wonderful tasting of Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Twomey Merlot, Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet and snacks on the terrace. And last, but certainly not least, everyone received a very special tote gift bag containing a bottle of Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, wine bottle totes, and a matching pair of Silver Oak wine glasses from Cathy and Chris Cheatwood, Cordillera Members who were on the trip with us. Cathy, the niece of Silver Oak Founder Ray Duncan, presented everyone in our group this wonderful surprise as we were departing. Sincere thanks to Cathy and Chris for their unexpected generosity. As they say in Louisiana, we received “lagniappe”… an unexpected extra!!

Our next very special stop was Chalk Hill Estates, where we enjoyed a three course lunch and wine pairing featuring winery only available selections of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Botrytised Semillon. We were seated at the grand table in their exquisite pavilion facility overlooking the vineyards – truly very special. Before leaving, the group made a stop for a photo at the main tasting facility, where owner Bill Foley, a native Texan, proudly flies the Texas flag.

Another “unexpected extra” occurred enroute to an intended short shopping excursion to Healdsburg.

Guest, Teri Weinglein, serendipitously received an email from her personal friends, Kate and Tom Klein, owners of Rodney Strong Vineyard. The Kleins had just arrived at their personal residence which was just down the road from Chalk Hill and suggested we stop by for a personal tour of their private mountaintop home. We arrived shortly, with a very warm welcome by Tom and Kate and a  wonderful tasting of Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay, Symmetry, and single vineyard selection of Alexanders Crown Cabernet Sauvignon while Tom shared his personal story of how he acquired Rodney Strong and his journey thereafter; and after Kate gave us a personal tour of the gardens and home. What a wow….and again….lagniappe!

Fortunately, we had planned a casual and relaxing dinner at Simi Winery before heading back to the hotel. We enjoyed our last tasting of the day in the grotto garden where we enjoyed a smorgasbord of hand-fired pizzas highlighted by Simi Landslide Cabernet Sauvingon. A perfect end to a very perfect first day!

Tuesday’s trip began with a fun and informative wine blending class at Ravenswood Vineyards where we experimented with zinfandel, petit syrah and carignan to make our own blend which was bottled, corked and waxed to take home with us. It was also the site where the infamous smoke bush was discovered which created interesting conversation and photo opportunities for the rest of the trip! Our second stop was a gourmet picnic lunch and tasting featuring La Petite Etoile Fume Blanc, Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, and 92 pt. Robert Parker rated Cinq Cepage on the beautiful grounds of Chateau St. Jean before heading back to the Inn to prepare for our featured cave dinner at Benziger Family Winery.

Benziger Family Winery -Our evening began with a personal meet and greet with owner Mike Benziger followed by a very interesting tram tour up the mountain into the Benziger vineyards where we learned all about sustainability and organic farming which is the hallmark of their natural wine-growing practices creating truly artisan wines. Following the tour, we enjoyed tasting and shopping in their tasting room before heading to our magnificent cave dinner. What a spectacular site – dimly lit elegance with exquisitetable settings while we enjoyed a truly wonderful “Five Course Pinot Dinner” featuring Benzinger’s de Coelo Pinot Noirs – absolutely a trip favorite!

Wednesday -After three days of fabulous wine and food, Wednesday was a welcome “free day” allowing some of our group to take the day off to golf, spa or shop in Sonoma. The rest of the group headed to Sebastopol where we had another memorable lunch and tour with owner Ulises Valdez, Valdez Winery. Ulises, his wife Adelina and three children warmly greeted us with his wonderful selection of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and fajita lunch under majestic redwood trees. Ulises shared his heartwarming story of coming to America as a young vineyard worker and how he succeeded in the American dream of becoming a US citizen, moving his family here and eventual vineyard owner producing notable reds as well as outsourcing grapes to well-known wineries – Paul Hobbs, Mark Albert, and Pahlmeyer. After lunch, the group enjoyed a vineyard tour where Ulises shared grafting and growing techniques and we sampled pinot noir grapes off the vine. Everyone enjoyed the Silver Eagle Syrah so much that we purchased a bottle for each couple on the trip to enjoy back home at Cordillera Ranch.

Evening took us back to Kenwood Inn with a lovely Italian themed five course family style dinner on the beautiful terrace under the stars with background Italian music. Another laughter-filled memorable evening!

Our final day on Thursday we headed to Sonoma County’s Bennett Valley and then on to Russian River Valley known for their fabulous Pinot Noirs. Our first stop was Matanzas Creek Winery where we enjoyed a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Also known for their fields of lavender, this stop allowed another fun shopping opportunity for lavender and unique gift items, as well as being able to sample different clonal varieties of chardonnay. Our next stop was another memorable lunch and tasting at Lynmar Estates, famous for their pinot noir and chardonnays where we enjoyed another wonderful farm-to-table “Rustic Wine Country” luncheon under the redwood grove featuring winery only selections of La Sereinite Chardonnay, a 94 pt. Wine Enthusiast selection, Quail Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, a 95 pt. Wine Enthusiast selection and three wonderful pinot noirs. A luncheon highlight was their Chef who passionately shared all the preparation of the meal from their vineyard owned gardens. After lunch everyone toured their gardens oohing and ahhing at all the specimens of unusual flowers and vegetables. The group favorite wine, Old Vine Pinot, was so well-liked, that Manny purchased a case to enjoy at our farewell dinner that evening.

The day ended with a short garden tour at DeLoach Vineyards followed by a five course (small bite) mustard and wine pairing featuring Deloach Pinot Noir Rose, Russian River Chardonnay and Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir in the vineyard dining room. Robbie Shelton and Gary Lynd were given the opportunity to grind the mustard seed into mustard – thank goodness they are strong because it took a lot of hand grinding!

Our farewell dinner – Finally back to the Inn, a quick change and off to our farewell dinner at the five star Michelin rated Santé Restaurant at The Fairmont where we enjoyed another four course dinner and wine. We toasted a memorable week of fabulous wines, lunches and dinners in settings as special as their menus, personal and engaging tours with vineyard owners and viticulture education, and most importantly, newfound camaraderie laced with unforgettable fun, laughter and group bus sing-alongs and a little bus dancing from “Dandy

Don Akins”!

Special thanks to all our Members who joined us –

Mac and Carla Northington, Chuck and Keitha Schofield, Don and Barbara Akins, Warren and Lettie Goehringer, Don and Barbara Akins, David and Gail Sanders, Chris and Cathy Cheatwood, Ed Sypniewski and Bettie Burton, Benjamin and Selina Pena, Gary and Jeanie Lynd and Teri Wenglein, guest.

Hope you join us next year for another fabulous trip and a new wine destination!

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