The sample tasting that began in the wine country as a marketing effort akin to those of a bakery or produce stand, keeps evolving into more elaborate, previously unimaginable experiences. Recently, during a weekend in Sonoma, we encountered the latest in two back-to-back visits. Welcome to the new world of the ultra-private, personalized wine tasting.
It began with a word of mouth referral from our B&B in Healdsburg, Honor Mansion, itself a small boutique outfit where the owners Steve and Cathi Fowler provide their own version of private, personalized service. It was Steve that suggested we try Skipstone and Carpenter Wineries, for unique t.astings
Located north, along the eastern slopes of the Alexander Valley near Geyserville, this 200 plus acre estate is a fifteen minute drive from Healdsburg. It took our group of six longer on bicycles. After being let in at a remote controlled gate with a cow barrier, we climbed a long, meandering uphill road lined by olive trees as far as the eye could see before we reached the main building. It was not a winery, nor was it a tasting room. It could only be described, as it was by our hostess, – and as it later turned out, our pastry chef – Amy Schaefers, as a hospitality center.
The building was a house with a porch overlooking scenic vineyards with majestic hills in the backdrop. Inside was an open space with a spacious dining room and kitchen. Chef Anne Sibbaluca was fast at work,
preparing what would turn out to be our best, -and most unexpected – meal during our Healdsburg sojourn.
Suppressing our curiosity about the enticing smells that wafted from Anne’s kitchen, we left the house and took a tour of the vineyards with Amy who handed us some water bottles. So far no wine had touched our lips.
The vines were planted along the valley floor and terraced along the hillside that surrounded it. The varietals planted were a curious combination of Viognier, their only white, and Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, Merlot). It turned out that when the property changed hands the Viognier was already there and the current owner, who liked this grape, decided not to uproot it.
As we strolled along the vineyards bearing ripe fruit ready for harvest, we sampled merlot and cab franc grapes that we picked off the vines. They were juicy and sweet, packed with flavor. Soon we met the proprietor of Skipsotne, Fahri Diner. A Turkish Cypriot emigre, Fahri turned out to be a Silicon Valley techie who made his fortune in some obscure but important networking solution that he sold years ago. Now a venture capitalist, he spends most of his spare time overseeing the olive oil and wine making operations of his ranch, currently still a work in progress. He was unpretentious, articulate and friendly. He greeted us warmly.
Lunch, when we returned to the dining room, was a three course affair. Commencing with a quail breast, estate almonds, table grapes and chutney paired to their ’13 Viognier, it moved on to braised beef cheeks with corn pudding, kale slaw and tomato jam, paired to their Bordeaux mix, ’12 Oliver’s Blend. We finished with an olive oil carrot cake with Meyer lemon olive gelato made by Amy who remained a gracious hostess, accompanying us through the meal.
The Viognier was not true to its French roots, devoid of its characteristic floral bouquet, more like Marsanne-Rousanne in the palate, and with prominent oak in the finish. The Oliver’s Blend was an elegant wine, well made, age-worthy, smooth, but still too young and tight. It nonetheless went well with the food. The wines were expensive, the Viognier $50, Oliver’s Blend $ 120. Yet, the servings were super-generous, essentially as much as anyone could drink.
At the end of the meal we were served the estate extra-virgin olive oil. Fahri, the owner, came by and chatted with us, telling us how he had grown up in an olive oil producing area in Cyprus and thus he was re-living his childhood. His wine-making philosophy was primarily terroir oriented, letting the land and grapes speak for themselves. Currently their vinification and bottling occurs in Napa but he has plans to move it on site in upcoming years.
Our personal tour and tasting, scheduled for two hours, actually took three. There were no other tasters following us. On a busy Labor Day weekend, with Healdsburg and its surroundings teeming with crowds, we were the only ones in this vast estate, and we felt special.
Chef Anne, proprietor Fahri and hostess-pastry chef Amy.
Now for the price for this outstanding meal, tour and tasting. How much would you guess?
It was free!
But then a curious thing happened. Despite the lack of any hard sell, (actually any “sell” at all), the warmth and hospitality, the exclusivity, the amazing gourmet meal compelled us all to order some wine. The six of us left Skipstone with over $ 700 worth of orders, something we would never have done had we sidled to a busy bar in Russian River or Dry Creek, elbowing others.
Therein lies the secret of the new tasting experience. Targeting certain hotels and B&B’s that attract affluent return clientele, and treating them to a special, personalized tasting, the new marketers seek free spending converts one person at a time. We fell for it and loved the experience.
In the next blog, Carpenter, an entirely different and yet similarly unique experience.