You've heard more than once that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected Zinfandel boosters' hopes for an official heritage grape proclamation. Perhaps you've even read the proper noun "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger" more than enough. But the Governator has agreed to pump up California wine in general, proclaiming September to be "California Wine Month" for the third consecutive year. He "applauds California vintners and winegrape growers," and retailers and restaurant chains like Safeway, BevMo and Trader Vic's pile on to highlight California's status as a churner-out-er of a stupendous quantity of wine. (It's at least worthwhile to Google Schwarzenegger's action-photo from last year's press release, in which he appears to be pressing a few reps with a seriously outsized wine bottle.)
What can one do to celebrate, here, in the absence of aP.F. Chang's, where it's Wine Month all year long? Gas up the Hummer, take a joyride to the far-flung reaches of what this great state has to offer. Go big, head north. Go, in fact, to Cloverdale.
If you haven't been to Cloverdale recently, there have been some changes since the Highway 101 bypass sent the faded citrus queen into a predictable funk. They're spiffing it up, getting it noticed. The town's new motto could well be "We're Here." Actually, it's "Where the Vineyards Meet the Redwoods," but I like "Cloverdale, It's on the Way." On the way to where? Mendocino, for the most part. First Street Wines kicked off a brand-new tasting room in July. It's half a block off of the main street, a cooperative of two family wineries, serving Hart's Desire Wines and Pendleton Estate Wines in an art gallery setting. Besides the requisite minimum of vineyard art, a variety of styles are represented so that even the jaded big-town elitist may soften to at least one piece.
Hart's Desire continues on in an artistic, lust-for-life bent, the label art featuring a rotating cast of women with come-hither eyes. John Hart makes a fine 2006 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($24), light in oak with butterscotch and lemon-butter notes. His 2005 Sonoma Coast "Rocking H Ranch" Syrah ($24) is full and juicy, with something ineffable on the palate's horizon, like the deep warm glow of a long day's end. Pendleton's 2005 Ponzo Vineyard Petite Sirah ($33) is a blend with Zin, while the remaining Petite finds a home in the 2005 Ponzo Vineyard Zinfandel ($27): fragrant deep berries, and jammy and substantial, respectively.
While you're up that way, why not turn west on Highway 128 and see what's been going on in Anderson Valley for the past 30-plus years? Find wines such as earthy Pinot at Husch (4400 Hwy. 128, Philo; 1.800.55.HUSCH) and Riesling at Greenwood Ridge (5501 Hwy. 128, Philo; 707.895.2002). At Esterlina (1200 Holmes Ranch Road, Philo; 707.895.2920)—one of California's premiere family-owned African-American wineries—one can be seated on a deck overlooking the valley, leisurely enjoying flights of wine and Cheetos. Start with brunch at the Boonville General Store
(17810-B Hwy. 128; 707.895.9477). The young couple who own this funky cafe are passionate about preparing an all-organic menu of breakfast and lunch items, and it's populated with Boonville's most cosmopolitan locals. And take the biodiesel Hummer.
First Street Wines
Address: 105 E. First St., Cloverdale.
Open Friday–Saturday, 11am to 6 pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm.
No tasting fee.
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