GEORGE BALLING: Preserving history

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One of the bright spots, if there are any, from the fires that burned through wine country over recent weeks, is that many of the truly historic spots escaped serious damage. It in no way makes up for all that was lost in lives, homes, businesses, wine and grapes. The stories are devastating. The history of wine and Northern California goes back to the 1800s when wine grapes were first planted there.

Back then, though, it was a more diverse economy. Farming of all kinds flourished in the fertile valleys of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Walnut groves were spread across the land, on both sides of the Mayacamas Mountains. The Carneros district was known more for its sheep and cattle ranches than wine grapes, which is where this area derived its name. The Stag’s Leap district was known for its huge herds of deer. The Russian River Valley was one of the largest apple producing regions anywhere.

Much has changed since the area was first settled, now wineries dot the landscape and wine grape vineyards stretch for miles in all of the valleys and on the mountain sides of this world renowned area. The recent disaster makes these memories all the more poignant, and it makes a trip to wine country seem more urgent. You should go, now! Talking to folks in Northern California, now that the fires are contained, you learn that the farthest reaching effects in the wine industry are likely the hit to tourism. Folks are cancelling and they want all of us to know wineries, hotels, and restaurants are up and running and open for business.

Many of the most historic sites have been preserved and there could be no better time than now to go. The weather in the late fall is glorious, and with the lesser crowds attention at wineries will be welcoming. I traded emails this week with the director of marketing and communications for Treasury Wine Estates, the owner of Beringer, Etude, Chateau St. Jean and others. St. Jean is one of the most iconic estates in all of Sonoma County. Located in the heart of Sonoma Valley in the town of Kenwood, the chateau was the former home of the founding family of the winery. The winery was named for Jean Goff who was related to the three founding partners, she was a sister, wife and sister-in-law to the three men. They figured that anyone related to all three founders of a winery should be declared a saint.

The chateau sits on a slight rise up from the valley floor overlooking huge vineyards of Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. The Old World feeling and finishes on the inside are stunning. The view from the patio is fabulous and a great place to take in a reserve tasting. You can almost picture the pool that had been in the front yard before it was filled in. You will feel the rich history and a visit should be on everyone’s list.

Further down the valley a stop by the old Pagani Ranch Vineyard is a must. No winery here, but some of the oldest vines in wine country — dating back over 100 years — are planted in this lovely field. All are head pruned, and the show of colors in the fall is breathtaking.

On the Napa side of the hill, Chateau Montelena is so historically significant — not just for Northern California but for the American wine industry as a whole — it is a must see. This is where one of the wines was produced that won the Judgment in Paris in the 1970s, that first tasting when wines from the Napa Valley stunned the wine world by besting the great wines of France in a blind tasting. The facility is largely unchanged since then and makes for a great tour.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was one of the properties rumored to be heavily damaged early on during the fires. While some outbuildings did burn, the winery is unscathed. Like Montelena, one of the wines from Stag’s Leap walked away from the Paris judging winning many awards. The tour will fill you in on all of the history.

Truchard Vineyards in Carneros is historic not just for the winery, vineyards and pioneering of this area by the Truchard family, it also happens to this day to be their home. The setting is unrivaled, and their welcoming nature unparalleled. When the fires tore through Carneros, it came quite near their doorstep. We are happy to report all is still standing and fine on the property; it will be a great visit.

History abounds in the wine country of Northern California, go now and see it. It is all still there and the chance to see it should be embraced.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com, or contact the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press to make suggestions.

• • •

George Balling is co-owner (with his wife Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and table top décor shop located by Costco in Coeur d’Alene. George worked as a judge in many wine competitions, and his articles are published around the country. You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. Be sure and check out our weekly blog at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com/home/blog-2 You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.

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