Ah, Memorial Day. A day to reflect on heroes past and present, to honor them by visiting their graves and saluting the flag.
Or, as is closer to reality at least in this part of the world, to hop in the car and head to a) the beach, b) Lake Tahoe or c) the Wine Country. We opted for the latter. So we landed ourselves a lengthy reservation via City CarShare, using the new Prius in the neighborhood, and headed north. (Can I tell you how cool this car is? It's like driving the not-too-distant future.)
Now, we are no strangers to the Wine Country. In general, we prefer Sonoma County to Napa, and within Sonoma we love both the Russian River and Dry Creek Valley appellations. But they are a tad on the far side, especially when you're paying by the mile, so we opted to explore the Carneros region, which straddles the border of Sonoma and Napa counties along the northern shores of San Pablo Bay.
The only winery we had been to previously in this area is Viansa, which we still like a great deal. We even used to be part of their wine club. But their wines are pricey, and moreover it is a major stop on the tourist trail, with busloads of thirsty Midwesterners crowding the tasting tables. It's a bit of a scene.
When we went to VinoVenue the other evening, one of the wines we tasted was a lovely pinot noir from Bouchaine. This winery sits at the periphery of the Carneros region, at the end of a lonely country road close to the shores of the bay. Sounded perfect to us!
En route, we stopped and had a lovely lunch at Boon Fly Café, the casual restaurant in Plumpjack's Carneros Inn. I had a nice smoked salmon flatbread (read: pizza) with farmer's cheese and cilantro cream; DPaul had eggs-in-a-hole with ham and hash browns. The inn is a quirky development, a sprawling complex of barn-like buildings combining both rentable cottages and, soon, purchasable residences. Can't beat the location, though, a mere stone's throw from some of the best wineries in the neighborhood and the cities of Napa and Sonoma themselves.
Getting to Bouchaine is half the fun. Once you peel off the Carneros Highway, you go down increasingly small country roads flanked by vineyards; the last turn is marked by an almost illegibly small blue sign that simply states, BOUCHAINE.
On nearly every level, this is not your typical Napa winery experience. It's not on the beaten track. There are (or at least were) no buses. And though they do charge for tastings, it's a reasonable $10 for no fewer than nine pours; if you buy wine, the tasting fee is waived. By comparison, if you go to Opus One, you pay $25 and get exactly one taste. (As Monica, our lovely tasting coordinator pointed out, that's why they're called Opus One and not Opus Many.) Best of all, you can sit on their back porch under dappled sun overlooking the vineyards toward the bay while Monica keeps the good stuff coming.
Normally, when I go to a winery that produces many variations of the same varietal, I am leery. Typically they end up tasting more or less the same. Not so with Bouchaine. Focusing almost entirely on chardonnay and pinot noir, fruit well suited to the cool Carneros region, each rendition is utterly distinct.
I am not a big fan of California chardonnays, as too many producers use too much malolactic fermentation and then over-oak them to disguise inferior fruit. Bouchaine's Chène d'Argent uses no oak or malolactic whatsoever, much in the vein of Chablis, so it is crisp, dry and full of apple, pear and apricot notes. As you go up the chain from there, they use incremementally more oak and malolactic, but even their estate chardonnay is not overwhelmed by those heavy notes. They may make a chardonnay lover out of me yet.
But the pinots are where they truly shine. Both the Carneros and estate pinots have strong, spicy notes with the trademark pepperiness of Carneros pinots, but also heavy leather, cinnamon, violet and mint. Truly excellent representations. But I am a die-hard pinotphile, so I may be slightly biased.
They do also produce a reasonably good pinot gris, a lovely and newly released rosé of syrah and a full-on syrah as well. She also broke out some of a dessert wine that the owners had held in their stash since 1997, and just re-released back to the winery. It's seriously good stuff, but clearly at the very peak of its development and must be consumed NOW before it goes utterly flat. We'll oblige.
Two days ago, if you told me I would grow to love a Napa winery and its chardonnay, I would have been skeptical. But Bouchaine has made a believer out of me.
1075 Buchli Station Rd, Napa