We left our heroes on their way to California with an aching in their bellies. Cuz, you know, their hearts are okay and all, but, well, its not really... I mean, their bellies didn't actually hurt, per se, but the lyric and all. Zeppelin. You understand.
After an evening of California Mexican food so good it probably made my brother spontaneously turn green on the other side of the country and a religious experience with hippy ice cream, all hosted by the amazing G, we slept well and woke on a mission. But not in Mission, because G lives in Oakland. It took awhile to get the Ford Focus because, according to the Enterprise guys, we were attempting to rent a car on the busiest rental day of the year, so its a good thing that the California attitude toward scheduled meeting times is not like its counterpart in New England.
Our first stop in wine country was (shocker warning) NOT in Napa Valley. Sacrelige? I think not. We drove northeast from Northeastern Oakland into the Suisun Valley. Now that's: suh-SOON. No, I don't think it looks that way either. But I got corrected, and now you don't have to. Fairfield, CA in the Suisun Valley is about 2mi south and 9mi east of Napa city (Napa city is essentially the southernmost part of Napa Valley). Before researching for this trip, I'd never heard of them. I had, however, heard of a winery called Scholium Project, and those folks I really wanted to see.
Scholium Project and Tenbrink Vineyards both have nice websites. You can buy their wine through the sites as long as you can ship somewhere other than MA and a couple other silly, stubborn states. The sites are also more informative than I'm going to be in this space, so check 'em out, but...
Scholium Project was introduced to me by Nick Cobb, a super cool wine sales dude who really gets it. And plays blues guitar. The winemaker's name is Abe Schoener. His praises are all over the internet, written by wine-geeky bloggers and legit journalists alike. He was a professor of ancient Greek studies, and a handful of years ago decided to make a batch of wine using vinification (wine-making) methods as close to those of the ancient Greeks as possible. His stuff is crazy - wild, challenging, exciting. His wines are all vinified and aged in barrel, but almost entirely old ones.
Follow my swinging gold pocket watch and listen to the soothing sound of my voice... you are getting sleepy... not too sleepy, you have to keep reading... but still, sleepy... you are now subject to my suggestion... when you wake, you will no longer associate toasty vanilla and butter with all wine barrels, only with brand new ones, particularly those that have been given a heavy toast during cooperage (barrel-making)... instead you will know that in even-handed wine-making, the most important thing a barrel does is slowly and gently expose the wine to air, because the wood is porous... this affects the character of the wine in more subtle ways; in the best cases adding complexity to aromatics, softening texture, and increasing longevity of the wine... you'll wake when I snap my fingers...
Where was I? Scholium Project wines are all very small production, single-vineyard wines of intense character and integrity. I really wanted to visit. Researching Scholium did not yield any information about tasting or touring or even the existence of a place to visit. But I did learn about the close relationship between Abe Schoener and Steve and Lisa Tenbrink, owners and farmer (Steve) of the vineyards that provide the most significant source of grapes to Scholium. I also learned that a couple years ago, that relationship produced a small winery that now serves as base of operations for Scholium Project and for the Tenbrink's own label, for which all fruit is estate-grown and Abe oversees wine-making. There was a contact email address on the Tenbrink website, and I used it. Lisa Tenbrink wrote back to me and we made an appointment for Becca and me to see the Tenbrink vineyards and the Tenbrink/Scholium winery in Suisun Valley.
Lisa was sitting outside waiting patiently for us when we arrived. She greeted us warmly and began to introduce us to the vineyard and winery. The coolest thing in the world interrupted us: three large crows flushed a juvenile Golden Eagle out of a nearby tree. The eagle buzzed the tower right in front of us and landed on the Tenbrinks' house to our right, then alighted, again crossing just a few feet before us to land at the apex of the red-barn winery. Awesome - an amazing greeting.
Steve Tenbrink arrived shortly thereafter, followed by Graham, Abe Schoener's assistant winemaker. The Tenbrinks own and farm vineyards in three separate zones of Suisun, each with a distinct microclimate determined largely by position relative to the surrounding mountain ranges. The closest vineyard to our location at the winery ran right up to the driveway and stretched back and out on either side. Steve took us into the vineyard and gave us fantastic insight into his farming operation and techniques. He showed and discussed with us his vine-training (lyre, named after the harp-like instrument) system and pruning, even plucking a grape bunch off an overly ambitious vine shoot as we spoke.
After vineyard 101, we made our way into the small winery. Graham showed us the winery's two wood fermenters and some vinification equipment and then lead us back to the barrels. Now, many popular wine-country tour stops will invite you into a beautiful house whose atrium opens into a tasting room and walk you up to a marble bar behind which stand winery employees trained to lead you through a tasting of the house bottles for a small fee. Tenbrink had no bottles to open and no bar at which to stand. What we got to do was very special, and I'm still tickled over it. Graham produced a wine thief, a turkey baster-looking object used to siphon wine from the barrel, and proceeded to taste us through eight aging Tenbrink and Scholium wines, all barrel samples. My favorite aspect of the tasting was that some of the wines were clearly not ready for bottling, and displayed really weird characteristics. Tasting these wines as they were growing through their infancy with Graham's commentary gave great insight into the wine-maker's process and offered a rare demonstration of the incomprehensable range of smells and flavors through which one batch of grape juice travels on its way to your glass. The most awkward of the bunch was the 2008 Scholium Project Verdehlo. I mention this because later this same night Becca and I ate dinner at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's bistro in Yountville in Napa Valley, and drank a carafe of the 2007 Verdehlo, which is so different from the 08 barrel sample, you'd never have thought them related at all. Of course, I know they're different vintages, and that accounts for a lot, but the night-and-day difference between the aging and completed wines served as a great show of the magic of the winemaking process.
The Tenbrinks were super nice and so gracious, as was Graham. Steve is the full-time farmer of not only his vineyards, but also several acres of produce, and we're deeply grateful for the time he took to spend with us. Best of all, the wines were amazing, and like our experience at Tenbrink, complete unique.
We weren't able to walk away from this visit with any bottles, as they're not set up to sell much out of the house. Graham told us the name and address of the only shop retailing Scholium in Napa, and nobody has Tenbrink, so we had to resolve to order some stuff online when we got home. Scholium produces two 100% Verdehlo wines: Naucratis and Gemella. We were able to find only two Scholium Projects bottles in that one shop. One was the 2007 Gemella. I'm thinking of having it this summer with paella, which I make in a pan Becca got me that I put on the Weber kettle. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it. A lot.
Many thanks to the enormous crowd of roughly a dozen of you currently reading - you've already given me topics I hadn't thought of and I think this is going to be a lot of fun to write. However, beware: what you're doing to my ego is like feeding mogwai after midnight! Okay, not really as dangerous. But seriously: DO NOT feed the mogwai after midnight. No water either. I'm not kidding.