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Friday Getaway Day:
Wine Country Destinations

By Charles Olken

I have a couple of road trips coming up in the near future, and I always consider them to be one of the nicest parts of my job. Wine country is a nice place in which to hang out. The mix of natural beauty, good wine and well-prepared food is inviting, and because those visits are not formal tastings of the type that engage most of our time here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, these are the relaxing times despite the fact that they are also work.

Today, for instance, I am on the road to the Napa Valley. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have made this journey, and yet I love the drive up Interstate 80 across the Sacramento River and then into wine country. I have changed my route in the last several years as the area around Vallejo has become increasingly urbanized. Now I stay on I-80 to the Red Top road exit and then connect to Jamison Canyon Road taking what is still a country road that is beginning to look like its own wine valley over to Highway 29 just south of Napa town. It may be a few miles longer if you are a crow, but it is prettier and less congested.

I am headed this day to Shafer Vineyards in the Stags Leap District. With all the debate about so-called “high-alcohol wines” and the sneering attitude with which too many people use that term, it turns out that Shafer is one of the wineries whose offerings I haul out as proof that wines over 14%, and typically nearer 15% can be balanced, free of excessive heat and work well with food. And it is my contention that wines like those crafted by Shafer have very admirable longevity as well. This trip is occasioned by the opportunity to taste a Shafer’s Syrah, called Relentless, back to 1999. There are no older versions of the wine, so I won’t be able to judge how they have held up for two decades, but wines that are ten years old have begun to give themselves away. They tell you by their depth, vitality, structure and complexity if they are aging well or not, and they allow you to form reasonable expectations of their futures.

We know that ripe Napa Valley Cabernets hold up in bottle for two decades and more. When the concentrated 1970 era Napa wines bested the French in the famous Paris tasting of 1976, it was said that the results reflected the early maturity of the California wines and that the results would be absolutely turned on their head two decades later. Well, it is now forty years since the birth of the California 1970s and the Bordeaux 1970s, and the best of California wines are still hanging in their nicely—easily the match for their French cousins. But, we don’t yet have a full body of evidence for Syrah. Indeed, we do not yet have an agreed upon notion whether ripe and extracted Syrahs will age better than wines made from cooler climes. This tasting of Shafer Relentless Syrahs is going to give us clues that will be irrefutable. I can’t wait. And we will offer a Special Report on those wines next week right here in the blog.


Next week brings another road trip, this one to Healdsburg to speak at the Annual Book event at the Sonoma County Wine Library. Three authors with new books will be on hand to share our views of the state of the industry and to talk about how our books came about. I would welcome any and all who are in the area to come by. I will be happy to sign a book for you. The event runs from 7 PM to 9 PM on Thursday, December 9th. You all come.

The Sonoma County Wine Library,, is located at the corner of Piper and Center streets in downtown Healdsburg. Healdsburg in itself is a great wine destination whose array of excellent restaurants would put many big cities to shame, and while I won’t have time for a long sit-down meal at Cyrus, one of the Olkens’ absolute favorite restaurants in wine country anywhere, I do plan to visit Jeff Mall’s Zin restaurant where everything that can possibly be done on the spot is, right down to the ketchup.

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