Wine Country: The Perfect Pairing

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DO you hear that?” asks Kelvin Pye, with a sly smile.

He’s slowly, almost methodically, pulling the cork from a bottle of sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros, California’s Napa Valley winery founded by Champagne Taittinger. Pye is the senior wine educator here, and he’s teaching us the fine art of popping the cork. “Six and a half turns of the wire tab, remove, then grip the cork and the neck of the bottle,” he instructs, “and then gently turn the bottle – not the cork – until the cork comes away. Again, gently.”

He’s a wealth of champagne and sparkling wine trivia, things that might make water cooler fodder for oenophiles – if the water were bubbles and the cooler a bucket full of ice. “Before the wire hooder,” he imparts, “the French used twine to tie down the cork” – that is, until a 17th-century monk named Dom Pérignon (yes, he was a monk, dedicated not just to his maker but also to making quality champagne) developed the wire still used today to help harness the cork against bursting.

Although the vineyards of northern California are considered New World, Old World influences have their place. At Round Pond Estate, a winery in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa Valley, olives take a close second to the grape.

We’re there in time for a tasting of olive oil on the first day of pressing. Started in 1993, the making of oil is a newer enterprise than that of Cabernet wines (they’ve been in the biz for 30 years). A decade later, Round Pond is one of only two privately owned and operated mills in the area. The fruit of Spanish and Italian trees, it is pollinated by the wind and, when ripe, pressed to create an organic blend of peppery oil that’s flavourful and rich.

But it’s the Cabernet – and the scenery – that strikes one most. The wines are a reflection of the sophistication of this place; an alfresco terrace overlooking acres of grapevines is large enough for a wedding party, yet the outdoor fireplace begs for more intimate conversation. Terracottas, yellows and oranges play off the golden sun and blue sky pairing – just right with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc – on this heavenly California day. I don’t want to leave, but lunch is about to be served.



No trip to California is complete without a farm-to-table experience or two. In Sonoma, a green salad at El Dorado Kitchen tastes like it was freshly picked that morning (it probably was); in Napa Valley, comfort food meets locavorism at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, led by the award-winning, pink-smock-wearing chef Cindy Pawlcyn, considered one of the mothers of wine country cuisine.

Alas, it’s the wine that truly beckons. “I think the best wine comes from Northern California,” opines Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar Tour’s global chief executive officer and our host.

That’s saying something, as Tollman heads up the 66-year-old company from Europe, where he has access to some of the world’s best wines. He’s also spearheaded the brand’s The Insider concept, and that includes having a backstage pass, so to speak, to unique experiences through travel. What would you say, for example, to having the chance to blend your own vintage, according to your taste buds?

At Ravenswood, we say yes. We’re given three different types of wines, three wine glasses and a glass straw (talk about Old World!) marked with increments of one through 10. Through the straw, we pull different ratios of each wine to add up to 15 – say, three of one, 10 of another, two of the last, all of which may represent tannic, dry, sweet, etc., in hope that some mathematical magic will meld to make my perfect sip. Try as I might, what the winemaker pours for us from Ravenswood’s stock makes my “perfect” sip pale in comparison. I suppose I’ll stick to the blending of words.

Speaking of words, when I started this yarn, it was all about using them to describe a sound – the sound a cork makes when it comes away from a bottle of bubbles. Pye reveals the reason for his sly smile. “It’s the sigh,” he says, “of a satisfied lover.”

Go to for Trafalgar’s At Leisure San Francisco & Wine Country Delights.