ACROSS THE GRAPE DIVIDE

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1 ACROSS THE GRAPE DIVIDE More than a mountain range separates the neighbouring wine districts of Napa and Sonoma valleys in California. One is forward and flashy, the other more laid-back, but luckily, as Brenda Christian discovers, they are close enough for a visit to encompass both. The Carriage House, Hotel Healdsburg photography: cesar rubio

2 taste California gourmet Sibling rivalry between twins may not be inevitable, but it s common enough, so it s no surprise to find there s a little competition between the twin valleys of Sonoma and Napa. The two winegrowing regions sit side by side just a half-hour drive and the Mayacamas Mountains separate them about 70km north of San Francisco, but comparing them is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Napa is flashy, confident and extroverted. Sonoma has a more understated, rustic charm. The Napa Valley is California s most famous wine appellation becoming the US superstar when Stag s Leap and Chateau Montelena beat France s distinguished wineries in the Judgement of Paris wine tasting in Since then, its big, bold reds have achieved a formidable cult following and price point to go with it. And despite the fact that its cabernets possess the lion s share of the global cachet, the region is also no slouch when it comes to chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, pinot, merlot and syrah. Yes, it s crowded you will get stuck behind lines of limos on Highway 29. And yes, it s a bit precious (appointments are needed for most tastings and are imperative for the big guns) and pricey, but with a slew of swanky wineries, Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury lodgings, with a bucolic backdrop of vine-covered hillsides, Napa is a bit like Vegas in the vines. Make an appointment and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the landmark winery and taste one of the most sought-after Californian wines at Opus One. The brainchild of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Opus One produces a classic Bordeaux blend based on cabernet sauvignon that s in short supply. With just 20,000 cases produced each year and a recommended retail of $US310 ($347) for the 2009 vintage (although prices can reach much higher), the $US60 ($67) tour makes the rarefied accessible. Mind you, even a tasting of this liquid gold will lighten your wallet by $US40 ($45). Meadowood Napa Valley october 2013 QANTAS 171

3 california gourmet taste Red Room, Raymond Vineyards For flamboyant theatrics, Raymond Vineyards is hard to beat with its themed chambers. Sniff the scent jars in the Corridor of Senses and identify aromas found in wine including coffee, cherry and chocolate, and then sample several cabernets under a Baccarat crystal chandelier in the candlelit Crystal Cellar. Members sip wines while playing pinball or pool in the plush, velvet-lined Red Room. For attention-grabbing entrances, it s hard to go past Sterling Vineyards, where a cable car whisks visitors from the car park up 90m to a hilltop tasting room with spectacular views of the valley. Meanwhile, the Hess Collection winery and art museum offers the chance to savour benchmark wines and one of the country s most impressive private contemporary art collections at the same time. Napa is known for its massive wine estates, but with more than 400 wineries, there are still small family affairs that offer an intimate tasting with the winemaker. These include Fleury Estate Winery, which produces just 3000 cases a year, or the boutique Frank Family Vineyards, which sells its wines only at the cellar door. Famous not only for blockbuster reds, Napa is also one of the hottest gourmet destinations in the US. There are more than 100 restaurants, eight of which have Michelin stars. The tiny town of Yountville is the place to immerse yourself in the region s most exclusive epicurean experiences, with the three Michelin-starred The French Laundry, the one Michelin-starred Redd and Bouchon, as well as celebrity chef Michael Chiarello s Bottega and Thomas Keller s casual comfort-food venue Ad Hoc all within a short stroll. It s virtually impossible to score a table at The French Laundry, but if you re one of the fortunate few, grab it. The fine diner seats only 60 and the waiting list is months long. Regarded as one of the best restaurants in the country, it s surprisingly unassuming, with formal but friendly service and flawless food. At $US270 ($301) for a ninecourse tasting menu it s a lavish feast. Duck confit with broccolini, JCB Lounge, Raymond Vineyards English walnuts and black winter truffles and sweet butter-poached Maine lobster vie for hero dish. For most, it s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The 120-page wine collection has legendary wines including a 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild for $US24,500 ($27,388). Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto s restaurant in downtown Napa, Morimoto Napa, is a stark contrast to The French Laundry s hushed, hallowed dining experience. From the eye-popping, canary-yellow sofas in the bar and the culinary paraphernalia in the shopping gallery to the energetic preparations of the chefs behind the open kitchen and sushi bar, it s a vibrant, buzzing food emporium. The signature dish on the East-meets-West menu is a sculptured Toro Tartare: top points for taste, presentation and originality. Other local hot spots include Press in St Helena for exceptional steaks and one of the largest collections of Napa wines in the region; Oakville Grocery or the nearby Italian deli at V Sattui Winery for lunch snacks and picnic provisions; and the hilltop bar terrace at Auberge du Soleil for sunset drinks and panoramic views. Garden beets, The French Laundry french laundry photography: deborah jones; previous page: courtesy meadowood napa valley 172 QANTAS october 2013

4 california wine trails taste For a lavish base, book into the secluded Meadowood Napa Valley resort, which boasts the Napa s other three Michelin-star restaurant and a nine-hole golf course. Alternatively, stay in the heart of Yountville in the Mediterranean setting of the Villagio Inn & Spa, within walking distance of a medley of Napa s best restaurants, or opt for the studio suites at Solage Calistoga as a more family-friendly option. Sonoma is a bit more laid-back than its illustrious neighbour. Sprawling farm country is sprinkled with quaint towns and boutique cellar doors where you can drop in sans appointment. While cult cabernets reign supreme in Napa, in Sonoma the emphasis is on chardonnay plus an assortment of other varieties including cabernet, pinot, merlot, zinfandel, sangiovese and more, thanks to a variety of microclimates. There is also a wide mix of winery experiences among more than 200 wineries, including large estates that could comfortably sit alongside those in Napa on any level, such as the Francis Ford Coppola Winery with its Hollywood glamour and memorabilia including the chair and desk from The Godfather and Ferrari-Carano, a magnificent Italianate villa with opulence aplenty from the decor (green marble floors) to the wines (chardonnay and cabernet). But it s the more humble operators such as Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen that really typify the Sonoma experience. Francis Ford Coppola Winery (above and right); Alexander Valley (below) Tastings are held daily in the working winery among the barrels and winemaking equipment where Australian winemaker Chris Loxton focuses on syrah, zinfandel, port and chardonnay. On weekends, there s a Walkabout with the Winemaker tour (a nod to Loxton s heritage) offering a backstage peek through the vineyards and winery. Sonoma can also lay claim to the oldest commercial winery in California, Buena Vista Winery (1857). Founded by Agoston Haraszthy, one of the first vintners to plant grapevines in the region, the landmark winery offers daily tastings in the historic stone Press House. It s possible to ditch the car and flit between tasting rooms in town as Sonoma s leafy central square is lined with shops, restaurants and about a dozen tasting rooms at last count, including Sonoma-Enoteca, which offers tastings from 10 different small producers. However, that would mean missing out on a quintessential Sonoma experience the meandering drive through postcard-pretty Alexander and Russian River valleys, dropping in at such boutique producers as Arista (pinot specialists) and Stryker Sonoma (which features a semillon in the line-up). photography: getty images

5 california gourmet taste Hotel Healdsburg While Sonoma lacks Napa s culinary clout Farmhouse Inn, Madrona Manor and Terrapin Creek are the only Michelin-star restaurants it has plenty of less-exorbitant cafes and restaurants using seasonal local produce. When the tasting rooms close, you can still enjoy a vino from the valley as most restaurant wine lists focus on Sonoma producers. The Girl & The Fig and El Dorado Kitchen are local favourites on Sonoma Plaza offering California country cuisine. In Healdsburg, Bistro Ralph has a locally inspired French- Californian menu with an exclusively Sonoma wine list. Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar offers farm-fresh classic fare and flights of three local zinfandels. Sonoma prides itself on its artisan bakeries, so take the opportunity to break locally made bread at Basque Boulangerie Café on the Sonoma Plaza, or Downtown Bakery & Creamery in Healdsburg. For pizzas and panini (and local cheese platters), drop in to the deli at Kenwood s VJB Vineyards & Cellars and listen to Italian opera in the sunny courtyard. Then head to Jimtown Store in Healdsburg to sample its famed chocolate pudding. Bed down in the luxury surrounds of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which also has a golf course, or the boutique Kenwood Inn and Spa. Perhaps stay right on the square at the hip Hotel Healdsburg, which has an excellent on-site restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen. Napa and Sonoma are blessed with a bevy of knockout wines, trendsetting food and fabulous scenery, so why choose just one? They re only 30 minutes apart split time between the two and enjoy the best of both worlds. c For airfares and holiday packages to California call Qantas Holidays on or visit qantas.com/holidaysaustralianway

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