For the five years I lived in San Francisco, I probably secretly wished I could have spent most of my time up north in wine country. Now that I’m older and more mature, I can admit this is true, which is why I went to wine country twice during my recent Bay Area vacation.
To my Pennsylvanian soul, California wine country was pretty much Utopia. Like San Francisco, it was so beautiful I couldn’t believe it was real. No matter which valley I was in, I enjoyed the pastel landscapes, including yellow mustard flowers that blossom everywhere, and the fine wines of magenta, cherry, chocolate, pink, and gold that look even richer when saturated by the midday sun (drinking alfresco isn’t off limits here, even in February). On my first wine country trip, I visited two wineries in Healdsburg on my way to and from Ukiah, where I spent three days at Orr Hot Springs.
The town of Healdsburg is home to three incredible appellations: Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and the Alexander Valley. Both the Russian River Valley and the Dry Creek Valley are cited as two of the best locations for growing Zinfandel in California. Zinfandel, the deeply delicious yet vastly misunderstood relative of the Croatian grape Plavac Mali. Ever since “White Zinfandel” came to the east coast, most northeast people don’t have much respect for the grape, and many don’t even know it exists. In fact, the last time I brought it up to one of my friends, he said it sounded like something a Drag Queen would name herself.
Luckily the ignorance of such folks just means there’s more sinful Zin for the rest of us. Zinfandel is known for its big nose, usually reminiscent of fresh jam, and its full-bodied, sometimes peppery palate. One of the things I love about Zinfandel is that it tends to hold up even when you buy a cheap bottle at a Bodega. I wouldn’t say it’s hard to screw up, because no one would ever say that about wine, but I do think it’s more stable than a lot of other grapes. You can buy a $10 bottle that still tastes distinctly like a Zin.
However, my trip to Healdsburg had nothing to do with Bodega wines, because I was about to taste the best Zin of my life. And yes, it was a bit more than $10 bucks.
Limerick Lane is near the end of a tiny road off the 101. It’s likely you’d miss it if you didn’t already know about its reputation. The tasting room is small with a large garage where the wine is made adjacent to it. We visited the tasting room in the late afternoon and sampled the 2012 1910 Block Zinfandel, the 2012 Rocky Knoll Zinfandel, the 2012 Headpruned Syrah, and the 2012 1023 (We actually started off with a Chardonnay, but it’s vintage and name were not listed on the Limerick Lane site.) The Chardonnay was excellent with a subtle melon and citrus flavor adding an extra layer of complexity to the buttery palate finish so famous for California Chardonnays.
But what really stunned me, and why I’m even writing this article, is to tell you about the Zin and how it smells just like the wine from the Dingac region of Croatia (Or at least the 2009 Matsuko Dingac I tried in Split and Dubrovnik). It smelled like candied caramel and plums. While I realize this is hard to imagine, try. Have finishing the bottle of Dingac I brought home from Croatia, I assumed I would never smell these aromas again. I guess I was wrong. What’s better is that Limerick Lane’s wines were a bit more robust and tannic. Especially the 2012 Rocky Knoll Zin, which became extremely earthy and dry on the palate. I was about to buy a bottle of the 1910 and the Rocky Knoll when I tried the 1023, a wine that combines Limerick Lane’s best Zinfandel, Syrah, and Grenache grapes. The 1023 is a bit more balanced, fruit forward and bold without being too tannic.
My friends and I all bought two bottles each. The wine was WAY out of my budget at $56, but since it was one of the best wines I ever had in my life, I wanted to share it with my loved ones back in Pennsylvania. How else will I convince them all to move to California some day?
On the way back from Orr, I convinced my friend to take another stop off the 101 in Healdsburg. After much searching on Yelp, we decided on J Winery and Vineyards. I read that it had an award wining tasting room and several different flights to choose from, including a bubbles flight.
J Winery and Vineyards
We arrived in the early afternoon on a Tuesday. It was sunny outside, so I was excited to enjoy some vino in the sun. Luckily for us, we were the only visitors at the vineyard. We decided on a $30 wine flight, one regular, one sparkling. We were then lead up to a tasting room where we sat in leather chairs and were served by a waitress/wine host. While I felt like the winery was very hospitable, I wasn’t a fan of the tasting room because it had no windows. It had an aerial view of the wine cellar and we could see the workers creating the wine at different stages, but they soon ended their shift before we began the tasting. Had we come earlier, we may have gotten more out of this awesome aerial view as we’d have been able to see wine making techniques in action. However, luckily for us our host was really good at explaining the wine making process. I particularly enjoyed it when she explained the process of freezing yeast at the bottle neck when making sparkling wine, and the machines that quickly yank the frosted yeast out of the bottle without oxidizing the wine.
J Winery is known for it’s sparkling wine, but the winemaker also specializes in Pinot Noir. After tasting both flights, I’d really only recommend the sparkling wines. While I enjoyed the light bodied Pinot Meunier, with its rose petal nose and strawberry palate with hints of white pepper, the rest of the wines didn’t really impress me. However, I really enjoyed the sparkling 2013 J Cuvée XB which, interestingly enough, was one of the first wines we were served. What I loved about it is that it was half Chardonnay which gave a creamy finish on the palate. As the winery says, it tastes a bit like crème brûlée, but not too sweet.
After that we went home to San Francisco. I was excited to see friends but, as you guessed it, very sad to leave the wine.