Following Skipstone Ranch, our next tasting at Carpenter Winery, also arranged by our Healdsburg B&B, took us to the far south end of the Alexander Valley. Along an isolated stretch of Chalk Hill Road our hostess Laura Carpenter Hawkes greeted us at the entrance of a vast vineyard and we followed her Volvo station wagon on a dusty dirt road to the tasting spot she had set for us.
There was no winery there, nor a tasting room. In fact there were no buildings anywhere, just acres of vineyards all around. We parked our car in a clearing between rows of vines near a solitary picnic table that Laura had arranged with wineglasses, snacks and a plain vase with freshly picked sunflowers.
Attired in a simple red dress and cowboy boots (despite temperature in the high 90’s), Laura, slim, bespectacled and diminutive, was a charming chatterbox with a toothy smile and a casual, informal style. She had made her own cheese, a sweet, riccota-like oozy concoction that she served with her own homemade soft crackers full of dried fruit and nuts. We loved them. She told us that she was married to the winemaker Jake Hawkes who came from wine making family selling under his last name in the valley. We were at her in-laws’ property.
Despite the meal we’d had at Skipstone, we dipped Laura’s crackers in her cheese and could not stop munching on them. She served us Carpenter Semillon and Chardonnay, the former lackluster and dull, the latter bright and fruity, unoaked, finishing with crisp acidity. Both were refreshing in the afternoon heat.
We chatted about Laura’s life and ours. She was an air force brat who lived everywhere, an English major who now found herself a hostess and wine marketer, and a mother of two.
She then opened two Pinot Noirs, one labelled Sonoma County (a mix of vineyards), another more auspiciously marked La Tache Clone. They were both outstanding. Light and feminine as pinot noir should be, yet with a signature slightly sweet, light berry New World fruit. They had plenty of good acid in the finish, surprisingly so for a domestic pinot. Having made a point of spitting everything I sampled all day – we were biking in intense heat after all – I couldn’t help but swallow a sample of each.
It was Labor Day weekend, and Healdsburg was teeming with visitors. Yet, as at Skipstone, it was as though we owned the whole valley, with this charming young woman, sampling her wines. Our picnic table amid acres of vineyards, our lively, seemingly endless conversation reminded me of the idyllic picnic scene in the movie Sideways, in which Miles and Jack tipsily converse in their own bucolic picnic with two exciting women as the sun sets behind rows of vines.
Compared to the sophistication of Skipstone we were at a simpler, more pastoral setting, with a homey rather than urbane hostess. Yet Laura’s cheese and crackers were as special as the gourmet meal we had been served earlier, her hospitality identical. The experience was every bit as exclusive, private and special.
We didn’t intend to buy any of her wines, and had we been at a busy tasting bar, among a crowd, we wouldn’t have. But here, in a fitting coda to our delectable day, we did. Countless bottles. Laura didn’t have them. She delivered them to our B&B the next day.
Despite increasing consolidation and industrialization in an ever enlarging wine world, I believe there will be more room for niche producers that are willing to provide such private, personal experiences to willing tasters. I look forward for more. So should you.