Holiday to Remember
Sitting in the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park listening to great winemakers talk about their craft, I marveled at how simple they make it sound.Find good land. Take care of the grape vines. Get out of the way in the winery.
Looking out the windows at Half Dome and El Capitan on two cold, crisp December afternoons, I wasn’t sure which I was more inspired by—the breath-taking scenery, the fabulous wines or the legends who made the wines. I’d have to call it a pulse-pounding draw.
As winemakers and growers explained how they made great wines during a recent vintners’ holiday session, they made it sound like anyone could do what they do. They didn’t dwell on how single-minded each of them can be in search of great wine or on how they don’t play to fads or popular tastes.
They focus on bringing the best out of a particular grape grown in a particular place and don’t worry about how it will sell. Of course, all of these people are highly successful, as evidenced by the 100-plus wine drinkers who braved the mountain cold for their three-day session. And they all took big risks to become successful. The speakers were Jason Haas of Tables Creek, Tim Carl of Great Bear Wines, Andy Beckstoffer, who owns some of the best vineyards in California, Ehren Jordan, winemaker for Turley Cellars and his own Failla Wines, and legendary Larry Turley. The moderator was long-time wine writer Dan Berger, who drew everything together nicely.
They entertained, delighted and informed the wine lovers who gathered for one of the eight vintners holidays last year, the 30th anniversary of this unique wine experience. They all brought great wines, including some that are hard to get and a couple of Wine Spectator Top 100 wines.
The Ahwahnee gatherings occur over four weeks (two sessions per week) in November and December each year. This year’s lineup will be set in March. The sessions offer unique opportunities that most of us would never experience otherwise.
Though attending can be pricey, it is an incomparable experience real wine lovers won’t want to miss. The setting in the middle of one of the most beautiful places on earth makes the event unique, especially when you consider how empty the park is during the winter months.
When we were there there was snow on the ground and lots of it at higherelevations. There had been some warm, sunny days, so Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil falls were flowing. When we weren’t in the three hours of sessions every day we had plenty of time to hike and enjoy this incredible place. The Ahwahnee itself if a true treasure, built in 1927. Free tours are offered daily. The restaurant is breathtaking with high, wood-beamedceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. And the food is world class.
With all of that, the best part still was listening to the winemakers, growers and owners. The setting is relaxed, with the speakers all enjoying themselves. Besides their formal presentations they show up for a cocktail party the first night and a spectacular dinner with their featured wines the final night. And they hang out to answer questions the rest of the time.
Haas talked about Rhone varietals in Paso Robles, especially Grenache and Grenache Blanc.
Beckstoffer talked about how the vineyards have gained importance inwinemaking. “In the 1980s the winemaker was the magic chef,” he said. “Bring me what you have and I’ll create something. Fifteen years ago it changed and now the focus is all on the vineyard.”
Tim Carl of Huge Bear Wines said, “This event has changed the wine industry because of the passion of everyone involved.” He also showed us how to build a relationship with a wine while tasting by bringing it slowly to your nose and mouth pulling in the aroma gradually. Ehren Jordan talked about the difficulty in growing central coast wines and why he is careful in how he oaks his wines.
“Oak for me is like salt,” he said. “I like salt until it becomes intrusive and then it’s horrible.”
Finally, Larry Turley wrapped things up with three of his huge Zinfandels.
“You’ve had the see-through wines and now you can have some real wine,” he joked. Asked why he has 24 single-vineyard Zins and doesn’t blend any of them, he said, “I have four daughters and I can’t imagine mixing all four of them together. It’s the same with wine. Each has its own charms.”
Turley also had a joke at my expense, giving me the award for bravest man in the room because while I was at Yosemite I became engaged to Teri Moore.“Think about what that ride home would have been like if she had said no,” said Turley with a huge laugh.
I have been to many wine tastings, seminars and presentations, and I can’t think of one that was better. I’m hoping to return next year.
Editor’s Note: If you would like more information on the Yosemite vintners’ holidays go to http://dev.yosemitepark.com/SpecialEventsPackages_SpecialEvents_VintnersHolidays.aspx.