Early one Thursday morning we leave an icy apartment (broken boiler) and a cold grey city (London mid-March). Twelve hours later we are banking over the San Francisco Bay where the temperature is in the high 80's and dry. Hallelujah!
The weather is still beautiful for a weekend trip up to Cloverdale, where my sister Jennifer and her husband Dave have a weekend 'cottage'. Surrounded by ancient oaks, pines and redwoods, the house is a work-in-progress but has a guest barn, pool, patio and hot-tub. It also has stunning views over the Alexander Valley.
My brother Dan and his wife Meredith join us and on Saturday we do an impromptu wine tour of the nearby Dry Creek Valley. In the course of a perfect afternoon we visit seven fabulous vineyards: Fritz, Lake Sonoma Winery, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards, Preston, Bella, Raymond Burr Vineyards, and Amphora. Each of these wineries has something special to offer. Fritz gives us a warm welcome and a stunning ruby Carignane. Lake Sonoma Winery has amazing views over vineyards and olive trees on the surrounding hills, startlingly green after last month's rains. Here we eat a picnic lunch under a white canvas parasol. Ferrari-Carano looks like a villa in the middle of Tuscany; it also has stunning cellars and formal gardens. Preston Winery has its own home-grown olives for sale, also a great Barbera. The tasting at Bella Vineyards takes place in a smooth, hobbit-like cave blasted deep into Lily Hill, whose grapes (growing overhead) contribute to a memorable Zinfandel.
Raymond Burr was a famous actor. He appeared in an American TV show called Perry Mason. Europeans might know him better from the classic Hitchcock film, Rear Window, in which he played the baddie! We get the warmest welcome so far at his winery, Raymond Burr Vineyards, where we are encouraged to sit at a table in the shade and drink our wines as we read about his life. Here is one of my favourite quotes from the info sheet about him. 'By some coincidence, and not a little skill, the Raymond Burr Cabernets are very like the man: big, full of gusto, complex and jubliantly alive.' We are very 'mellow' by this time and I buy a 1999 Cabernet described as sleek and focused, black cherry, black currant, vanilla and chocolate... Who could resist?
It is late by now, after 4.00 pm, but I really want to go to a Winery called Amphora. Why? Because of the name, of course! We have no clue what it will be like.
The sun is sinking in the west and the light is golden as we turn off the main road and take an unpaved, straight road which dips and then rises like a roller coaster. There are vineyards on either side, bare and twisted, like tiny charred scare-crows. Later I have a close look and see the first pale green grape leaves blossoming in the blackened vines.
As we approach a ramshackle white building with several outbuildings and tanks, I remark that it doesn't look very impressive. 'Don't worry,' says my brother Dan. 'A lot of the best wineries in Napa look like this.' He hops out of the car to see if it's open and a few moments later beckons us down.
We find two other couples sitting at a wooden picnic table covered with a white cloth. They are enjoying wine so dark it's almost black in the warmth of the late afternoon.
The owner of the winery, Rick Hutchinson, appears. He is a round-headed man with an indelible grin. He wears glasses and a baseball cap with the name AMPHORA on it. Rick is of indeterminate age; could be anywhere from 30 to 60 years old. At one point he jokingly claims to be 86 but later shows us his driver's license; he's not quite 50.
'Why did you call your winery Amphora,' I ask, as he guides us into his tiny cellar. 'Did you study Latin at school?'
'I barely finished high school,' he laughs. 'A few years ago I took some pottery clases. One of our assignments was to copy an ancient form of vase. I saw some amphoras in a book and fell in love with their shapes.' Rick gestures towards a wall covered with photos, mostly of pretty young girls in shorts treading grapes, their legs stained pink. (You can read a fun article about the female treading HERE)
Among the photos of pink-thighed girls are some photos of various amphoras he's made. I can see now they're not ancient because they are finished with an attractive marbled glaze. Ancient amphoras were never glazed, as far as I know, because they had to breathe.
His cellar or cave (say it with a French accent) is a cramped space with a wooden counter on one side and dozens of oak barrels the other. Each barrel seems to have a different provenance; I notice one from Hungary. Crowded along the wooden counter are his five wines: a spicy, purple Zinfandel, a beefy Cabernet Sauvignon, an indecently earthy Merlot, a seductive Syrah and an irresistable Petite Sirah. You are supposed to just sip a little of the wine when you are tasting, and then toss the rest into a 'spit bucket'. At Amphora Winery we see no spit bucket. Rick is drinking along with the rest of us. When he wants to try another wine he just chucks his dregs out the doorway, towards the couples sitting at the picnic table.
Rick's wines really are fabulous. They have something different about them. Later on we discover what the secret ingredient is: Rick Hutchinson. When we move up a dusty slope to another shed to taste from the barrels of wine from the 2004 harvest, Rick dips a hollow glass tube into the barrel, sucks on it until it is full of purple wine, then siphons a little off into each of our glasses. He sips from his own glass before pouring the extra back into the barrel! 'Never mind,' he grins. 'Human pathogens don't survive fermenting wine.' He is telling us stories and flirting with some pretty girls who have just arrived and he has us in stitches. 'This 2004 Zinfandel,' he says, 'is like a high-school student who has just graduated but hasn't yet decided where to go to University. It still has its whole life ahead of it and it's not quite sure how it will develop.'
This naturally brings us to a discussion of the film Sideways which is bound to come up. 'I didn't particularly like the film,' admits Rick, 'but I loved the seduction scene on the porch, where Miles and Maya are discussing wine. I've played both parts. I especially like what Maya says about how wine is always developing and changing...'
Then Rick leaves us to attend to some very pretty women, one of whom has a chihuahua in her purse. He really reminds me of a satyr, a grinning cheerful bon vivant who especially loves women and wine. Earlier, he had told us about seven beautiful undergraduates from Berkeley who came to tread grapes for him one afternoon and became so enthusiastic that they shed every stitch of clothing. Later, as a thank-you present to Rick, they painted their naked bodies and rolled on giant sheets of artist's paper. This image will become the label for Rick's latest wine, Seven Sisters, under his new Kylix trademark. I can't wait to see that one.
Believe it or not, I haven't told you the best bits about Rick Hutchinson; he's definitely going to be a character in a future book and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you!
P.S. You can find out more about Amphora Winery at amphorawines.com