Long Haul to California

Aug 2, 2013 by

Long Haul to California

Witten by Christopher  Fielden

Our second long-haul trip was in October 1990 to California. At the time there was much interest in the trade in the wines of northern California, largely inspired by Harry Waugh, who founded the Zinfandel Club, which gave regular tastings of wines from the better producers in the region. The West of England Association also had two pioneer importers of their wines in Avery’s and Reid Wines.

The party was a strong one, including for the first time many who were to become regulars on our travels. Amongst these were Susan Anderson (to become McCraith), Ron Brierley, Geoff Collins, John Durston, Rosalind Garner, Desmond Payne, Raj Soni and the Reynolds. We were all issued the John Moran designed tie, which featured a grizzly bear passant.

From our arrival at San Francisco airport we were taken to Monterey, where our hotel overlooked the Pacific Ocean and we were wakened by the barking of sea-lions. Our first working day was spent South of the Bay, visiting Chalone, Smith & Hook, who at the time were experiencing financial problems, and Jekel, where we had dinner.map of california

For me, perhaps the second day was the most interesting as we were to be the first trade group to visit the Gallo facility in Modesto. We all had to sign up to the Official Secrets Act and no journalists were permitted in the party. To say the premises, of the, then, largest wine company in the world were discreet, would be an understatement.  It was only after fifteen minutes driving around that we spotted someone sweeping leaves wearing company overalls, that we realised that we had arrived. We were welcomed by a person with the title ‘Vice-President Corporate Hospitality’, but he was the first to admit that this was something of a misnomer, as the last thing that the company went in for was corporate hospitality.

We were able to drive round the plant and able to admire the warehouse as big as 14 football pitches and one blending vat that could hold the total production of 60% of the wineries of California. (These statistics may not be precise, but they were impressive, as was the plant for bottle production. For once, a bottling-line proved to be the highlight of the visit. This, the fastest wine-bottling line in the world, jammed before our eyes and there was broken glass and wine everywhere. It was rumoured that the manger was taken out and summarily shot! As there was nowhere on the site where group tastings could be held, we were taken to a local hotel, where we sampled some of their range and had lunch.

After that day in the Central Valley, we moved to the Napa Valley, where we spent a crowded first day visiting Beaulieu Vineyard, Trefethen, Shafer, Stag’s Leap, with a dinner to round it off with Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, for whom Reid Wines were the agents.

Napa valleyOn day four we stayed in the Napa Valley, where we visited Joe Heitz, followed by an impressive lunch at Mondavi’s (where one of our members Plymouth restaurateur Steve Barratt sought employment as a commis chef. In the afternoon, we continued up the valley to Joseph Phelps, Schramsberg for their marvellous sparkling wines dinner with Clark Swanson, who had recently purchased Avery’s, at his winery in Oakville.

We were again in Napa the following day at Rutherford Hill, followed by lunch with Chuck Carpy at Freemark Abbey. Following a Sunday’s relaxation, we went over the hill to the Sonoma Valley for lunch, Chardonnay and croquet at Sonoma Cutrer, with visits also to Simi and Château Saint Jean. Lunch on the Tuesday was at the Allied Domecq winery Clos du Bois, followed by a visit to Iron Horse and on Wednesday, our final working day we visited Domaine Chandon and finished up with the historic motor museum and a marvellous ‘harvest luncheon’ at Far Niente.

Our thanks were due to John Avery and Bill Baker for arranging such an intensive, and exhausting programme.

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