There is a whole heck of a lot of good wine being made in California; so much so that it is difficult to narrow the field down to just 5 wines — as required for the tastings I conduct at Jet Wine Bar. Fortunately, there all sorts of arbitrary ways to limit the selections! In this case, I chose wine from along Route 101 as the filter. I decided on the 101 for a few reasons. First, it is scenic and historic — two qualities of which I’m fond. Second, it runs through varied wine regions that offer a range of grapes, with well-priced options for tasting. In other words, it’s cheaper than, say, Route 29.
Route 101 goes by numerous names across its route, including the Pacific Highway, Santa Ana Freeway, Hollywood Freeway, and the Screaming Eagles Highway. Notably, the latter does not lead one to- or past- the very-expensive cult winery of similar name.
The history of the route begins with the Spanish, however, and a different name: El Camino Real, or “the Royal Road”. The moniker refers to the route (not precisely on the modern 101) that led between the 21 Franciscan missions between San Diego and San Francisco, which were financed and supported by King Carlos III. In the 18th century, that area was part of Alta California, a West Coast entity of Spain’s colonization of North America. Mission San Diego de Alcala (the first within California’s modern territory) was built in 1769, the year Gaspar de Portolá founded Alta California for Spain, by Junipero Serra — recently canonized by Pope Francis. Over the next 60 years, 20 more missions would be built, ending with the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (which, by the way, lies roughly halfway between the 101 and Rt 29).
The route between the missions to the south of San Francisco Bay and those to the north would have been achieved by ferry, but now that is accomplished by the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to that picturesque bridge, the 101 passes numerous stands of California’s giant Redwoods. This iconic route was further popularized in pop culture, in songs by Herb Alpert and Jan and Dean.
It is safe to say, however, that our interest is in the myriad small towns and vineyards through which the 101 passes.
California wine country is basically divided into four regions: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and Central Valley. The Central Valley does not border the 101, and we did not taste any wines from the South Coast — which are nigh impossible to get in Pennsylvania. So, we concentrated on the parts of the North and Central Coasts that are proximate to the 101. That still left a lot of wine…
The North Coast region contains some of the “big” names in California Wine production, such as Napa and Sonoma — to which we’ll return later. At the northern end of the region is Mendocino County, which abuts Sonoma County. This area is well beyond the last of the Franciscan Missions of Alta California. Nonetheless, the name “Mendocino” is of Spanish origin, as a variant on the surname of its Spaniard founders, “Mendoza”. Grape vines were planted in the 1850s by Italian immigrants who’d been “busted” in the Gold Rush. Broke, they turned to farming. In addition to grapes, hops for beer were a major product — particularly around Ukiah. Now, Ukiah is at the center of a major wine-production area.
Follow the 101 into the east side of Mendocino County to Ukiah. Just north — and just off the 101 — is Redwood Valley; its name comes from the copious amounts of Redwood trees found there. Some of Mendocino’s earliest vines were planted in the Redwood Valley, which was granted its own appellation in 1996. This AVA is at the northern limit of the North Coast region, and the wine region is one of California’s coolest. Aside from great grapes, Redwood Valley has a certain notoriety as the one-time base for Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. They settled there under the assumption that it was the safest place in which to withstand a nuclear disaster — perhaps protected by Redwoods??? Anyway…
Folk Machine Film and Camera Valdiguié Redwood Valley 2013 is a product of Hobo Wine Co., so named because, prior to 2013, the company owned neither vineyards nor a winery. Instead of working in one location, owner Kenny Likitprakong is/was a self-described “hobo winemaker”. For this wine, he traveled to Redwood Valley and a 70 year-old stand of Valdiguié grapes (thus pre-dating Jim Jone’s arrival!). Valdiguié is native to France, and produces lighter-bodied, juicy wines similar to those from Gamay (and was long mistakenly-called “Napa Gamay”, a name that has since been outlawed). This wine has very bright fruits — some strawberry, some cherry, and some tart cranberry. The mouth is zippy and juicy, and has an earth/spice component that keeps evolving. This is a great wine, well worth the long trip up the 101!
Leaving the Redwood Valley southbound on the 101, pass Ukiah and enter Sonoma County within the Alexander Valley AVA. You may notice the decidedly un-Spanish names within Sonoma — like Alexander, Russian River, Sebastpol… This is due to early settlers at Fort Ross — which was founded as a Russian outpost in 1812. It was the settlers at Fort Ross, too, who planted grapes in Sonoma. Russia’s southern movement along the West Coast was one impetus for King Carlos III to fund Alta California’s missions, but none made it so far as Fort Ross. The most northern of the Missions, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, is in Sonoma, but roughly 50 miles southeast of Fort Ross. It was built roughly a decade after the Russian Fort.
Fort Ross was found right along the western Coast, and not on the 101. However, settlers from there soon set out for farming opportunities further inland. At the confluence of the Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley is Healdsburg. This is the heart of the Sonoma Valley, located right on the 101. Healdsburg was founded not by a Russian, but by an Ohio-an named Harmon Heald. Like many others from the East, Heald rushed to California for the gold, but ended up farming. Fortunately, the lands on the Russian River are quite fertile; just like Ukiah, the area was known for its grapes, hops, and lumber. Today, the Russian River Valley is still known for its grapes, particularly its chardonnay.
Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2012 is a product of Ramey Wine Cellars. David Ramey had already had a long history of making wine in the North Coast before he and Carla Ramey opened their winery in Healdsburg in 1996. The 100% chardonnay wine is made from grapes from 15 Russian River vineyards from the “close to ideal” 2012 growing season. The juice has native-yeast fermentation, full malo, and spends 12 months in oak. The result is a clean chardonnay with mineral and acid crispness, while still offering ripe fruit (pear and pineapple). The mouth is appealingly full, without feeling viscous. This is a complex wine, with additional hints of smoke and light cream. This is a great, multi-purpose wine. It can be drunk on its own or with food, and will please “red” and “white” drinkers, alike.
Leaving Healdsburg southbound, take the 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Central Coast. The Central Coast region includes a huge chunk of California coast land, from the San Francisco Bay to Santa Barbara thus encompassing 13 of the 21 Alta California Missions on el Camino Real.
L.) Alta California’s 21 Missions*. R.) northern Central Coast, the 101 in Red.
Passing between the Missions at Santa Cruz and San Juan Batista brings you to Gilroy, right on the 101. Gilroy was founded by John Gilroy, a Scot, who was Alta California’s first, naturalized English-speaking settler. Gilroy was known for its agricultural production, which today includes garlic — it is known as “The Garlic Capital of the World”! It is also known for wine production. Like Healdsburg, Gilroy is found at the junction between different wine AVA — in this case, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara. Mission grapes were planted in the area by the Spanish in the late-18th century, and a half-century later Old Almaden Winery opened as California’s first commercial winery in the Santa Clara Valley. By the mid-1800’s, the bulk of settlers were not Spanish, but rather French. The Old Almaden Winery was founded by Frenchman Etienne Thee, who planted French vines. The winery eventually passed on to another Frenchman, Paul Masson, who came to California following France’s Phylloxera epidemic. Masson popularized “champagne” via Almaden, but the Masson brand achieved even more lasting fame a century later with Orson Welles as the face for the company’s iconic ad campaign: “We will sell no wine before its time.”
Bonny Doon Vineyard Clos de Gilroy 2014 is the product of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Randall Graham is the loquacious pioneer behind this iconic label. The wine is made from 89% Grenache, 9% Mourvèdre, 2% Syrah. “Clos de Gilroy” is neither produced in Gilroy, nor sourced with grapes from Gilroy. Graham explains this in his inimitable way, calling the wine “The Wine Formerly Known as Clos de Gilroy” in the fine print. In his words, these grapes are from “Clos” to Gilroy. In fact, the Grenache is from the Alta Loma vineyard in Greenfield, which is South of Gilroy… on the 101. The wine is great. Deep cherry notes are mixed with some coffee and a lot of black pepper. There is a decided eucalyptus tinge, and a leisurely finish. As usual, Bonny Doon makes a stellar wine.
Leaving Gilroy behind, head southbound on the 101 past a few more Missions. Just past Mission San Miguel Arcangel is Paso Robles. Paso Robles grew around the bounty of the land — cattle ranches, almonds, olive oil, grapes — and mineral hot-springs. The first known inhabitants of the area, the Salinan Native Americans, referred to Paso Robles by the name, “Springs”. The Salinan people occupied territory later inhabited by the Mission San Miguel Arangel. A result of interaction between the Salinan and the Mission’s evangelizing Franciscan monks was the latter’s building of the area’s first mineral baths late in the 18th- or early in the 19th- century. After the modern town was “founded” later in the 19th century, Paso Robles became an international destination for mineral springs and baths. Franciscans from the Mission were also the first to plant grapes in the region, though their Mission grapes have long since been replaced. Now, Zinfandel is one of Paso Robles main grapes.
Four Vines Biker Zinfandel Paso Robles 2012 is the product of a project known as Four Vines. Other than a single bottling of Chardonnay, Four Vines is devoted to Zinfandel production, Paso Robles’ “heritage” grape. The “Biker” zin is made with grapes sourced from the Paso Robles wine region: 83% Zinfandel, 9% Petite Sirah, 7% Primitivo, 1% Syrah. The juice is aged 14 months in oak. The resulting wine drinks just like a zinfandel should; it is deep, dark, and spicy. The oak mellows the fruit and ups the flavor, giving notes of sasparilla and coffee stout, in a surprisingly “juicy” wine. Hearty, earthy, and spicy. Drink up.
Paso Robles is not only known for its Zinfandel. Thanks to the efforts of Gary Eberle, it is also known for its Syrah. He is credited with propagating a successful clone of the grape, and also with producing the first 100% Syrah varietal in the States.
Eberle Vineyard Syrah Paso Robles 2013 is the product of Eberle Winery, owned by Gary and Marcy Eberle. The wine is made with hand-harvested Syrah from the Steinbeck Vineyard — just east of the Eberle estate. The juice was aged for 14 months in oak. This is, quite simply, a big, bold, and beautiful wine. There are ripe fruits (certainly dark cherries and black berries), some dried tobacco, brewed coffee, whatever herbs are growing in the vicinity (what is that?), and maybe some of that cute little boar from the label — made into jerky. Do not make the mistake that I did. Serve this after the Zin.
Drinking these wines has truly given me a new appreciation of “California” wines. Each one is tasty, and each one is unique in some way. The 101 seems to be populated with a pioneering breed of winemaker — perhaps in a nod to the pioneering settlers?
*“1920 Alta California mission trail”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons — https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1920_Alta_California_mission_trail.jpg#/media/File:1920_Alta_California_mission_trail.jpg