It was nearly spring—so they said—but California was dragging its feet against the change of season. The day was bright, yet the sunshine was no match for the chill that snapped in the air. The hills of Sonoma were verdant outside the car window, striking against the blue of the sky, and well-ordered rows of bare vine stretched across the valley as we sped through wine country, towards Cline Cellars.
A white, plantation-style house rose before us, with ornate scrolls and a hardwood wrap-around porch. The lawn beside it was full of picnic tables and merry families uncorking bottles. Weeping willows draped trailing locks above our heads, and gazebos overlooked the ponds and the sprawling grounds.
There was a clubhouse nearby where members did their tastings, but we were an of-the-people crew this day, so we made our way inside the main house, where the party was already going strong, and people were crowded around the bar, lifting glasses nearly elbow-to-elbow in happy camaraderie. We joined them, and stood four-deep at the oak counter, while our Sommelier explained the notes in the various wines and gave her recommends to our group, over the cheery chaos.
Cline was known for its Zinfandel, so I scanned the twenty-two options on the wine list, and made a plan towards that end, starting with Pinot Gris, which held delightfully crisp accents of fresh pear. I then continued my fruit kick with a Champagne—though, of course, they weren't calling it that—a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with refreshing notes of apple and lemon that harkened to spring. At this point, my friends pointed out to me that I was lagging a glass behind, so I caught up quickly, and had I not kept notes, the rest of the tasting would have been lost in a blissful blur.
I moved to reds, and had a Pinot Noir with a rich color and sweet floral undertones, mixed with dark chocolate, and from there jumped to a Syrah that was off-list—which had a bit too much tannin for my taste—and then to a wine called Cashmere Black Magic, that was the prettiest color I'd ever seen in a glass, with lovely nuanced layers that unfolded endlessly. I sipped this one slowly, since it was my last, and raved so much about its flavor that my friend beside me grumbled for a tasting of my tasting, which I thought was in bad taste.
Our server, who was growing on me by the minute, told me with a wink that she had only counted four tastings for me, and not being one to protest generosity, I asked her to pour her choice for my fifth. She filled my glass with the Heritage Zinfandel, which was a spicy, robust blend of grapes from three vineyards, some of which boasted the oldest vines in California.
As we set our empty glasses down on the counter with happy sighs, a man with white hair and mischievous blue eyes announced to the tasting room that the tour was leaving in five minutes. The day was still bitingly cold, but one of our group was insistent about seeing the barrel-room. We felt sufficiently emboldened by the wine, so we proceeded outside and were immediately checked by the icy wind. The guide announced jokingly that the tour was off because it was freezing, but then turned back and said he was game if we were, and our friend who wanted to see the barrel-room spoke for all of us that we were game as well, so off we went.
We went first to the rows of Chardonnay that stood across from the main house. Our guide explained that though vineyard rows are typically laid out north-to-south for optimal sunlight distribution, these were laid east-to-west, because the wind currents ran this direction through the valley, and were so strong that the gusts would have taken the grapes right off the vine had they been perpendicular to the fruit.
"Now these vineyards," he proceeded, in a recitation I could tell he both enjoyed and had done more times than he could count, "are mowed twice a year by sheep."
"How long does it take them?" One of our party asked.
"About three days," he replied, turning to continue.
"How many sheep?" I interjected.
"Depends who you ask," he replied with dryly. "Somewhere between five-hundred and two-thousand."
I laughed at the broad margin of error, and he flashed a good-humored grin.
"So...what keeps them from eating the grapes?" asked the persistent lady, who was now hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm. We all murmured at the mystery, and the guide turned towards her approvingly.
"Good question. If we brought the sheep in when the grapes were ripe, they would strip the rows in hours. But sheep won't touch green grapes, so we put them to work early in the season."
We hmmmm'd and nodded, satisfied with the good sense of the sheep, and let him resume his recitation, as he led us around the bend to where the Catholic church had set a blessed cross so that members of their church could be married here. Cline Cellars was the last mission site in California, and as such, they had a lot of history preserved on their grounds, including a mission museum, and a little square house made of adobe bricks, that was now used as a dressing room for the brides. We paused to admire its construction and peer in through the windows.
"You point a hose at this wall," our guide rested a hand on the rough brick, "and in an hour you'd have stubble and a puddle of mud. It's just horsehair, straw, and clay, after all." He patted the wall with gruff affection and moved on, and we followed close, huddling together for shelter from the swift bursts of wind, as the warmth of the wine began to wear off. Half our group looked heavy-lidded, and frozen, and took to glaring at anyone who asked questions, so I contented myself with taking notes that I had difficulty deciphering later.
We passed a pool that had been a hot spring until the great San Francisco earthquake rerouted the waterways, and then went on past the Mission Museum and the animal stalls, to the industrial area where the grapes were cut. I was impressed with how immaculate it was—it seemed as if the ground had just been mopped and swept, and every metal surface just polished.
"This right here, is the pad crusher," he said gesturing towards the sky, and we looked up to see two gaping metal frames overhead, one of which looked like a silver guillotine. "And that round cylinder there, see,"—he put a hand on the nearest shoulder and sighted down his arm—"That machine is magic. The clusters of grapes go in, and when they leave the cylinder the stems come out there"—pointing to a vat—"and the grapes come out here,"—indicating a conveyor belt—"without so much as a skin broken. Magic." He spread his palms wide to show us there were no tricks, just that good, pure magic.
"From there," he continued unhurriedly, unaffected by the cold, and seemingly determined not to notice our shoulders hunched against the wind, "they come to the press where they are cut. The longer they soak with the skins, the darker the wine, and the stronger the tannins." He went on to explain how chemists with Ph.D.'s had tested the soil conditions around the vineyard to determine where each strain of grape should be planted for optimal flavor and harvest.
Past the white silos with stucco-like exteriors and vivid blue portals where the wine was cooled, was the barrel room where casks were stored floor-to-ceiling, in aisles and rows that disappeared into the warehouse shadows before I could see their end.
"You'll notice some of these casks say 'Jacuzzi' on the side." He ran a hand over their rough exteriors. "That's because the family who invented hot tubs owns this vineyard, and Jacuzzi vineyard across the road."
I liked these people. Hot tubs and wine were two of my favorite things, after all.
As I scanned the casks, I noticed that some of them looked cut from new wood, while others looked aged enough to be props from a Shakespeare play, with purple streaks running down the sides. Our guide told us the casks they procured ran between 1k-3k, depending on the wood, and that most barrels were only given a life of seven years.
"Now these bigger vineyards can afford to just toss their casks after that, but we are a pretty small operation in the grand scheme of things, and the price is just going up because the trees that the barrels are made from are massive, and they can't grow as fast as we're cutting them down. It seems inevitable that the future of wine-making will be to move away from oak kegs and cork-stoppers, and towards stainless steel and HDPE casks, and some vineyards are already making that transition, though many are still putting shafts of Oak inside these casks to give it a some of that same aged flavor. Someday it might be a rare thing to taste wine aged in Oak. For now, as a smaller vineyard, we're doing everything we can to extend the life of our casks."
As he spoke, we walked down a barrel aisle and into an open space. A wedding party was rehearsing somewhere within the maze of barrel walls, and peals of laughter were echoing through the kegs. The open-space was softly lit, strung with white string lights that glowed from the elegant, silk-draped ceiling.
"Weddings are a big deal here." He remarked matter-of-fact, to no one in particular, looking up and down at the people making the space ready, as they adjusted speakers and placed candles here and there. I could see why weddings were a big deal. The walls were barrels of wine, after all—who could ask for more ambiance than that?
"Well, that's about it," he ended, clasping his hands together. "Any questions?"
We hadn't any, and walked back in a huddle past the crush pad, as he told us about the way they used to make wine in the terra cotta pots, much like the vineyard I'd toured in Peru. Some vineyards were starting to bring it back now as a niche thing.
"What's the difference in taste?" I asked.
His blue eyes twinkled. "Well, unfortunately, I can't tell you that, because I don't have the most discerning tastebuds when it comes to wine."
We laughed in surprise at his answer, and he allowed himself a full grin as we reached the parking lot, and the tour concluded.
"Been a pleasure meeting you all. If you want a discount on the wine, tell them you went on the tour. If they give you a funny look, tell them I authorized it, and then if it looks like they don't like me, just tell them to forget you said that, and that you should at least get a discount for how cold you are." He grinned again and shook our hands. "Take care," and headed back for the warmth of the main house. As we left, the vineyard was filling with more families and more young people, stemware in hands, in laughing conversations beneath the weeping willows, lingering at the gazebos by the spring.
In a place like the Bay Area, often criticized for being rife with money-walls and businesses models based on snobbery, it was pleasant to find a place like Cline Cellars. As we drove away, I felt a strong affection for the vineyard and the five-hundred to two-thousand sheep it employed—
but it might have just been the wine.