Soon after trying Denver's version of Napa (see Cafe, previous page), I visited the original for the first time. The weather was beautiful, but my California dreams of a leisurely vacation strolling through vineyards sipping vintage wines went down the crusher with the grapes. Since it was the busy season, nearly all of the larger wineries in Napa and Sonoma wanted us to make appointments for tours, but the tours never started on time, because somebody always showed up late. So then we had to race to the next vineyard, which meant that we were the ones who were late. Still, the experience was invaluable--there's a lot of information (and wine) in them thar hills.

But we quickly realized that most of it was to be had at small operations. Our first stop was the Robert Mondavi Winery, which turned us off large wineries forever. The group taking the tour was too big, which made for endless jostling to hear the guide. We caught about a third of her spiel, and most of that was dirt about the rift between the Mondavi brothers. Once we'd been herded through the massive complex and shown only the most basic elements of winemaking, we were treated to three glasses of what tasted like grape water and then told to have a nice day.

After that, we stuck with the smaller wineries and had a blast. Athough at first we thought we would tire of hearing the same speech over and over, we found that each winery featured some different twist (American or French oak, egg white or diatomaceous earth filter, domestic or imported yeast) that was key to the end result; determining the cause and effect made for quite an education. We visited too many wineries to write about all of them, but some were particular standouts. The first gem was Grgich Hills Cellar, which makes beautiful wines that we have admired for years but can't afford to buy for anything other than a special occasion. The speech here made much ado about decanting, and we got a strong sense of the art of winemaking. Like many of the wineries, Grgich doesn't charge for tastings if you take the tour; we managed to sample several superb vintages. Our favorite wine here (which means we shelled out bucks for a bottle): the 1993 fume blanc.

At the tiny Ravenswood winery in Sonoma, we were the only people touring at the time, and we were treated to a series of tasters right out of the barrels, showcasing the various grapes Ravenswood buys from other wineries (only a small percentage of their wines comes from grapes grown right there). This was the soul of winemaking, and we came away with a feeling of the chemistry involved when people who love wine make it whatever way they can. (Ravenswood actually had its fermentation tanks under tarps, because there's not enough room for them anywhere else.) This winery is known as a mecca for zinfandel fans (and we're not talking about that aberration, white zinfandel), and while we weren't bowled over by most of the zinfandels we tried from the bottle--with one exception, the 1991--we can hardly wait until May, when the stuff we tasted out of the barrels will be bottled. Particularly exemplary were the 1994 Wood Road zin, the 1994 Cook zin and the 1994 San Giacamo merlot.

The wines at Benziger, also in Sonoma, are among my favorite values, and we were delighted to find the largest roster of tasters offered right here. The Benziger tour hit hard on the scientific and agricultural aspects of winemaking with an interesting demonstration of how the amount of sun affects the fruitiness of the product, as well as a lesson on soil structure that showed how the winery is actually able to isolate the types of dirt that cause grapes to give off the flavors of chocolate, blackberries, smoke--you name it. There was also a lively story about how the family acquired the property from a dope-smoking Hugh Hefner type who clinched the deal sitting next to his pool while scantily clad babes looked on. Here the 1992 merlot, the 1993 zinfandel, the 1992 Alexander Valley petit verdot and an intense dessert riesling stood out. The staffers behind the tastings bar explained the wines thoroughly, and they seemed genuinely happy to answer questions and keep the glasses coming.

No one had anything on the generosity of Orville Magoon and his staff at Guenoc, however. We had met Magoon months ago at a wine dinner at the Augusta, where we were repeatedly bowled over by his wines. We grilled him about our impending trip to wine country, and he had insisted that we stay at Guenoc, a 23,000-acre piece of property at the north edge of Napa County. This was an offer we couldn't refuse, particularly since his description of the place was so inviting--the land once belonged to the Victorian actress Lillie Langtry, whose face appears on most of Guenoc's wines--and Magoon himself was so intriguing (he came to the dinner in a suit and filthy work boots).

He was even more colorful during the evening we spent eating dinner at his house along with twelve other people. He and his wife, Karen Melander-Magoon (who was the girlfriend of a man visiting the winery years ago, until Magoon told him to leave her there), handed us steaks and told us to go grill them while they uncorked untold numbers of wine bottles. Melander-Magoon, an opera singer who spent twenty years in Germany, sang arias and drinking songs (her own composition, I Love Wine, was one of them) while she passed around corn on the cob to the accompaniment of a pianist they'd hired for the night. The stars were out, the lake could be seen shimmering in the distance from the Magoons' patio, and the Genevieve chardonnay was magnificent. Some of the Guenoc wines, particularly the 1994 sauvignon blanc and the 1993 estate chardonnay, backed up Magoon's assertion that he makes the wines for himself (some years, when he didn't like the grapes, he didn't make any wine at all), because they were one-noters that could be truly appreciated by only a small group of imbibers. But others--the whole line of Bella Vista that includes a zinfandel and a petite syrah, as well as anything labeled with the name Genevieve (after Magoon's mother)--were so complex and inviting that I'm surprised I haven't heard more about them.

Magoon himself has a story worth telling. His family descends from royalty in Hawaii, and they still have a lot of land there. In the Sixties, the University of Hawaii traded the Magoons the Langtry estate for twenty acres in Hawaii; the family moved to California and raised sheep and grew hay until Genevieve asked her sons, Orville among them, to do something more romantic with the land. And so Guenoc was born. It has since become one of the premiere producers of Bordeaux grapes in California, and Magoon has become a master at blending them (the 1990 estate cabernet sauvignon is a great example of this and retails for about $10). The enormous Guenoc property is the only designated single-proprietor appellation in the U.S., which prompted us to joke that Magoon should see about becoming his own state. "That's a silly idea," he said, and before we could reply that we were only kidding, he added, "I looked into it with my lawyers, because the state of California has provisions for it. But, you know, it just isn't worth the trouble.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner