So where is Carneros?

If you’ve read a few posts here on the blog you may be a bit confused as to where the home office is located. I use Napa and Carneros interchangeably but Carneros is actually a distinct region that spans both Napa and Sonoma counties.

The AVA is home to many wineries, but sheep and cattle farms also dot the region. Several marinas are connected to the nearby San Pablo Bay as well as the Napa River and its many sloughs. The land is a mix of vine covered rolling hills, wetlands and oak and eucalyptus groves.

courtesy

courtesy

Bordering the bay, Carneros enjoys cool Ocean breezes that make it an ideal area for Burgundy grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, yet it also is good for Syrah. The strong coastal influence also means the weather is much cooler in Carneros than Sonoma or Napa valley. Cool and foggy mornings, even during the height of summer, are common.

While we live in the Napa part of Carneros, one could also claim to live in Carneros but live in Sonoma or Sonoma County as well. Being part of both of California’s premier wine counties gives Carneros a unique character. It also is quite literally where the two regions meet as it is bridged by Highway 121 the main road from Sonoma to Napa.
Carneros means rams or sheep in Spanish and reflects the area’s agricultural roots that were tied to the Spanish mission in Sonoma. The last, and northernmost of the Spanish missions in California.

A cool day in Carneros.

A cool day in Carneros.

The Carneros Wine Alliance has an excellent Web site with a wealth of more information about the region and its wineries.

A sparkling flight

One of the more impress front doors in Napa.

One of the more impressive front doors in Napa.

Sometimes you just don’t appreciate a place because you see it damn near every day. Growing up in Sonoma but having close ties in Napa I would drive by the Domaine Carneros winery on an almost daily basis. I watched it get built when I was a small child and I noticed every little change in the landscaping or exterior of the French style chateux. Some days, as I made the run over from Sonoma to Napa, or vice versa, I would see this place three or four times a day.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a beautiful, stylish winery, but to be honest its “in your face” location right on Highway 121 and the countless tour buses I would see in its parking lot always gave me the impression it was a tourist trap. Then a few years ago while picking out a sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve I snagged a bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut for a steal at Safeway. Later that evening I was struck by the sophistication and elegance of the wine as well as its reasonable price. I also noticed that the label read “Domaine Carneros by Taittinger,” and before then I had no idea that this Carneros winery was owned by one of the premier French Champagne houses.

Christine and I found ourselves with some time on the recent Sunday afternoon and decided we should pay this winery in our backyard a visit. We were in Napa for the weekend and Domaine Carneros is about a five minute drive from the cottage. Walking up the 80 odd steps from the parking lot, I paused at a plaque that informed me the chateaux design is based upon a 17th century abbey press that is now the country home of the Taittinger family. After we made our way to the summit, Christine and I were greeted by a friendly host who informed us tastings were offered by table service and we were welcome to sit inside or on the expansive patio.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

I was a little disappointed  by the main lobby. After the magnificent entrance, I found it to be rather small and uninspiring, but I reminded myself this is a working winery and not a real chateaux. There is also a tour that Christine and I missed and that could very well offer peeks into Domaine’s hidden elegance.

The patio is a real stunner. Even though the temperature was pushing 96 degrees, Christine and I opted for a shady table on the patio. Table service wine tasting was new for me. We were presented with a menu that offered a selection of the sparkling flight or a red wine flight featuring Domaine’s well regarded Pinot Noirs. We opted for the sparkling flight that included the Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brut Rosé. I was familiar with the Brut and enjoyed it as much as I had in the past. The Blanc de Blancs I found to be bit yeasty and heavy, yet this could be because it was paired in the middle with the other wines. The Brut Rosé was simply delicious. I do think the hot weather had something to do with it, but this was a wine that was just well made, exhibiting notes of strawberry and peach but with a minerality in the finish that is emblematic of wines from the Carneros region. Christine and I opted for a glass of the Rosé after our flight and Christine flirted with the idea of purchasing a bottle but we knew we’d probably be back soon.

The main lobby.

The main lobby.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

A wind machine at sunset.

A wind machine at sunset.

Grilled meat and plinking

After dinner shooting

The perfect digestif, firearms.

During the past weekend, Christine and I had some friends over at the cottage for dinner. It was a typical, breezy evening in Carneros and we started off with drinks outside on the patio. When our friends Kate and Justin showed up, I should not have been surprised that Justin had brought his .17 rifle along. The sight of a couple of jackrabbits off in the vineyards got him primed for some shooting. I had never shot a .17 before and found it similar to a .22 magnum. His .17 had a smooth lever action and a dialed in scope. I had read quite a bit about the .17’s high velocity and how that translates into accuracy and can attest it’s true. I brought out my Ruger 10/22, a classic albeit a bit boring. We had a good time shooting (and missing) at the rabbits that are really more like vermin than lil johnny cotton tail and then had fun setting up and knocking down some beer cans.

For dinner I grilled up some tri tip and asparagus and Christine made a cilantro rice dish with queso fresco. I tried something new with the tri tip this time, I slow cooked it on a Weber with mesquite wood chips. I’ve never really believed that a handful of wood chips would translate into real smoky flavor but I was wrong. I slow cooked two roasts using indirect heat and sprinkled the water soaked chips on the hot coals. I changed the chips after flipping the meat over, after about 40 minutes of cooking. After about a hour and a half of cooking, the meat had that deep, dark color of barbecue and also a lovely aroma and taste of mesquite smoke. I’m not a complete convert to slow, low and smoky — because gas is just so much easier — but I have to admit that wood chips really do bring the flavor. I’ve got an old Weber at the house in Lodi and I think my next grilling adventure will be slow cooked brisket.

After dinner we did a little more shooting, (Christine even shot a few rounds with the .17) and then played some board games. Now, Bennie had brought over several different bottles of wine from his collection and I was a bit enthusiastic in my approach to tasting as many as possible. Justin and Kate, I swear next time I’ll make it through a round of Cranium, I swear!

The penance for my overindulgence was spending the next morning picking up spent brass with a raging, raging red wine headache.

Ahhh, the good man’s weakness.