Our self-selected vineyard tour during the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) came with unexpected surprises. Originally, Joe chose a 4-mile tour — probably thinking that with all the promised wine and food, he’d need an extra workout during the conference. Since I’d signed up late, I simply selected the same walk. However, because very few registrants had specified a particular walk, the specifics changed to a “first-come, first served” basis. Looking over the walk descriptions, I selfishly chose the Dry Creek Valley 1 tour, that promised “Participants will walk several miles downhill from Bradford Mountain through Michel-Schlumberger’s vineyards to the winery near the valley floor, an excellent chance to learn about the area surrounding Dry Creek ” Between you and me, I was thinking about the opportunities for photography, and the fact that it promised no uphill walks for my 40+ year old legs. I was pleasantly surprised that this walk provided all that, and more.
I grew up in West Virginia. And while, having lived in a big city (Houston, Texas) for the past 20 years, there are many things I don’t miss about living in the Mountaineer State; I do miss the West Virginia of my childhood. At my childhood home, our property also included 7 acres of “woods.” I did not expect to be transported back to my childhood on a “vineyard walk” in Northern California–but I was.
The Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate is in Wine Creek Canyon, a side pocket on the western side of the Dry Creek Valley. The estate produces 14 different varietals planted on 55 parcels of western hillside land, which receive the benefits of a niche of cool-climate temperatures. According to our hosts, no one parcel is larger than two acres. The Michel-Schlumberger property reaches from the peak of Bradford Mountain to hillside and valley vineyards beside the winery.
The excursion started with a treacherous drive up the hill in the van with Joel Vincent (WBC co-Organizer from Open Wine Consortium) at the wheel. I should have known not to sit in the next to last row of seats in the van. As the van wound its way up the hill, I remember why I didn’t like single-lane curvy roads– a staple in the state of my birth. Added to this was that, due to what purportedly was a morning marathon, the one-lane road was divided by orange traffic cones which created an impromptu obstacle course. Those cones Allan (Wright of Zephyr Adventures, and WBC Co-Organizer) managed to miss hitting, Joel made sure to take out. When the van finally came to the top of the hill, I was ready to kiss the ground! Luckily the vans were meeting us at the bottom at the end of the tour. I can’t imagine a van full of post-wine tasting people making it intact if we had to take those roads again!
At the top of the hill, we were greeted by Michel-Schlumberger’s own, Judd Wallenbrock, Senior VP and General Manager; Winemaker Mike Brunson, and Mo, the Vineyard Dog. We started through the vineyard, and down a number of hills, with Mike (and Mo) leading and Judd bringing up the rear to make sure no stragglers (me, and others taking pictures) were lost.
As we wound our way through the vineyards, I was reminded many times of walking through the woods of West Virginia — that is, until builders came and cut down all the trees to make way for cookie cutter houses in predictable subdivisions — to me the bane of civilization. Wherever I looked, I noticed natural beauty; in the crunch of gravel under my feet, in the rays of sunlight streaming down, to the rows of vines whose leaves were beginning to turn a vibrant red.
We learned the winery is currently in its second year of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification. Winemaker Mike Brunson has spearheaded the winery’s “Green Initiative” which includes sustainable farming techniques and fish-friendly farming. Several of us were surprised when we started walking UPHILL, saying to each other, “this is NOT downhill.” The extra work, though, was rewarded with some barrel-tasting with Mike as sommelier.
After tasting 2 or 3 new wines, we headed downhill (thank goodness) and through the woods. As we wound our way through the trees, Judd told those of us stragglers about Mike’s “adventures.” Just like one of those stories your family tells your new “significant other,” we learned of Mike’s dirtbike accident, and the time Mike ended up on crutches from some skateboarding or rollerblading adventure–Judd even showed us the spot that nearly kept Mike, who was at the time Assistant Winemaker, from creating his first vintage — in 2005.
We then finished our trek downhill to the winery; where we sat under a 400 year-old tree and enjoyed a fabulous Tuscan meal prepared for us by Liza Hinman, Chef de Cuisine, of Santi, a nearby eatery. Liza, who we learned was recently married, explained the ingredients and her inspiration for the dishes, treating us like esteemed judges on The Iron Chef.
We enjoyed family style braised pork with fresh greens and farro with a mixed greens salad that included fresh figs, grapes, and goat cheese. For dessert was a fabulous chocolate tart, topped with creme freche and glazed with caramel swirls and caramelized walnuts. Paired with our meal was Michel-Schlumberger’s 2006 La Brume Chardonnay, 2005 Estate Merlot and 2005 Coteaux Sauvages Estate Red.
Our vineyard walk was truly a special experience. Rather than just your run-of-the-mill tour, our hosts treated us like family. In learning of the history of the wine estate, the various varietals planted, even Mike’s injuries and Liza’s recent wedding –we were treated like new family members, rather than simply prospective buyers or random journalists. In sharing with us the winery’s “story” as well as the complex wines, Michel-Schlumberger provided us with an experience with which to hold other wineries in comparison.
Michel-Schlumberger winery is located at 4155 Wine Creek road in Healdsburg, CA, on the western side of Dry Creek Valley. tours and tastings can be scheduled by contacting 707.433.7427 or 800.447.3060.
~ Amy, aka WineWonkette