“Never forget where you came from.”Lots of people, including me.
Those of us who are “into” wine – you know us crazy folks that are writing about, studying, teaching, pouring wine, etc. – usually have a specific wine or experience that gave us that “aha” moment and took us down the rabbit hole. For me, it was a glass of Etude Pinot Noir while sitting at a wine bar in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I was on a business trip and always make it a point to walk around the Ferry Building when I visit the city. It’s great people watching and really is such a treat for all the senses. But that glass of wine changed everything. After talking to the somm and learning more about the wine, including the fact that it came from Carneros, I was on a mission to find more of it. In fact, I wanted to find any Carneros wine that I could get my hands on. That was probably 13, maybe 14 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the experience. I did indeed visit Carneros wine country not long after and have been fortunate to be able to visit on a couple of occasions. And each time I have the wines, I’m reminded of why this is such a special place.
A Little Background
So where the heck is Carneros? The region sits just north of San Pablo Bay, an extension of the northern portion of the greater San Francisco Bay. The bay provides a key role for the grapes of the region and helps to keep the area cool and windy. The winds off the bay and the cooler climate means its a great place to grow both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for still and sparkling (y’all know I love my bubbles) wine. There’s an amazing dichotomy between the ripeness of fruit and the acidity that Carneros gets from those bay winds. These are wines that exhibit tension, acid, and complexity. In other words, damn good wines. Lately, more cool climate Syrah is cropping up and is certainly worth exploring. And impressive Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc can also be had.
For me, one of the most unique things about Carneros is that it straddles both southern Sonoma County and Napa Valley. And while parts of it reside in each of these famous regions, it is distinctly its own thing. The region received AVA status in 1985, and in fact was the first wine region in California to be defined by its climate characteristics rather than political boundaries. All the more indicative of how special its geographic and climate characteristics are. Another thing I like about Carneros is that given its southern locale, its possible to do a day trip (with a designated driver) from San Francisco. During one of my San Francisco work trips, I had a tight schedule and couldn’t devote as much time to wine tasting, so I hired a stretch limo for the day. And let me tell you – there is nothing like relaxing in the back of a limo after a great day of wine tasting. On another trip, I popped into a few places on my way to destinations north. Maybe next time, I’ll use it as my home base. Whatever you do, it’s hard to go wrong.
So ok, you’re making the trek out to Carneros wine country, where should you taste?
Without a doubt, the winery facade is as known as the wines are. The château is iconic and quite unmistakable.
Founded by the noble family behind Champagne Taittinger, Domaine Carneros was established in 1987 when Claude Taittinger selected a 138-acre parcel in the heart of Carneros for the purpose of developing the Taittinger style sparkling wine in Carneros. He chose Eileen Crane-often referred to as America’s doyenne of Sparkling Wine-to oversee the development of the estate’s wines. And she did just that for 33 years, making Domaine Carneros a distinctive brand in the world of sparkling wine. Recently in 2020, Crane passed the torch to a new CEO, Remi Cohen, whose role carries on the Taittinger tradition of visionary female leadership.
And for Domaine Carneros, it truly is all about Carneros. All of their wines proudly hail from the Carneros appellation, and 100% of their fruit is sourced from their six estate vineyards. Whether you decide to hang out on one of the terraces or have your tasting inside, you’re in for a treat. Winter is especially nice inside by the fireplace. I love the variety of tasting experiences available including their curated food & wine pairing that highlights the flavors of different cuisines around the world. Yes, their wine does work with Moroccan food! Interested in sabering a bottle? You can do it at Domaine Carneros. Now while they have really amazing Pinot Noir (and that’s what drew me there the first time I visited – I enjoy the entry level on up to their Famous Gate pinot) I can’t leave without indulging in some of their sparkling wine. Sometimes I do both and sometimes it’s all about the bubbly. I do sometimes feel guilty for neglecting the still wines, but when in Rome. After all, they are most known for their sparkling wines. And yes, you must add caviar!
Artesa Estate Vineyards & Winery
AKA, the folks with the building built in the side of the hill. Brought to life by the oldest winemaking family in Barcelona, Raventós Codorníu, Artesa was born in Barcelona and raised in Napa Valley. After tasting their wines well over a decade ago, I’ve continued to enjoy them over the years.
‘Artesa’ is Catalan for “handcrafted” and has been a leading producer of distinctive wines from the varietals for which Carneros is best known: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Of course, I was initially drawn to them for their Pinot Noir. But I’d be lying if I said their sparkling wines haven’t captured my heart of late.
I love the richness, concentration, and textural sensation of these wines. And given their Cava roots, these wines see some serious aging – longer than many of their contemporaries. And if Chardonnay, Pinot, or Sparkling aren’t your thing, no worries. Their portfolio also includes some exquisite Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon amongst other Bordeaux varietals.
And visiting the winery is a treat for the senses. Art, architecture, nature, views, and great wines. It’s all there. Whether you sit outside and take in the sweeping panoramic views or enjoy the sleek and modern tasting room, you’re in for quite an experience. If there’s great weather, the Terrace Tasting is always a nice option. And if you’re in the mode for some nosh, go for the Tapas and Wine Tasting.
The O.G. (for me). The one that started it all. Etude Wines was established in 1982 by pioneering farmer and winemaker, Tony Soter. After laying the foundation for modern Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, he set his sights on cool-climate Carneros to craft world-class Pinot Noir.
And without a doubt, they are masters of Pinot. Their Grace Benoist Ranch estate consists of nine Heirloom Pinot Noir clones plus eight additional Pinot clones. In fact, it was their Heirloom Pinot Noir that saw me joining my first ever wine club. It was also the first wine I ever purchased by the case. And that’s just unheard of for me, as I don’t like to repeat wines very often.
I almost feel “Miles-esque” in my reverence to this wine! I even penned a love letter of sorts to them on social media. Etude has also expanded their Pinot program and also make wines from the Santa Barbara region, which I visited recently and just love. Aside from my Pinot devotion, I do really enjoy their Oakville and Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Jon Priest certainly has the touch. As an FYI, they’ve recently introduced a blanc de noirs sparkling wine, which I’m yet to try.
A visit to the winery provides the opportunity to try their “Study of Pinot Noir” tasting, which gives tasters the chance to compare and contrast Pinot Noirs from different growing regions. And this year, in celebration of their 40th anniversary, they have put together an exceptional wine tasting experience that will walk guests through the history of Etude as well as provide the opportunity to taste a combo of library and new wines along the way. Hmm…I may be due for another visit.
Of course there are other wineries to visit in Carneros. I’m just particularly smitten with these. But, I do love the portfolio at Cuviason (including their sparkling wines) and like my friends at Domaine Carneros, they also offer a lovely caviar experience. Additionally, plenty of producers in Napa and Sonoma source fruit from Carneros for inclusion in their portfolios. So the next time you you see ‘Carneros’ on the wine list, you’ll be a little more in the know.
And for a taste before you visit, know that many of these producers’ wines have pretty good distribution, including some of the big box stores. As always, Wine.com is a good bet too. Cheers to returning to my Carneros wine roots!