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California Dreamin

Posted in: Happenings
California Dreamin

Tips from The Corner Table


Hello there! Your local restaurateurs here, Larry and Carla Erickson of Jesse Camille’s Restaurant, providing you with foodie tips and wine lines, travel tales and suggested ales from The Corner Table which we hope you will savor, sip and find satisfactory to your palate!

 California Dreamin’

 It was long ago, in utero as a matter of fact, that I first heard about the place. My pregnant mother, an admirer of The Mamas & The Papas, often hummed a song about it, and as I grew up, the melody frequently rushed to my psyche, especially during this time of year when the lyrics are so poignant. I can hear Mama Cass’ soulful voice emerge from the group’s harmonious blend, “All the leaves are brown, leaves are brown, and the sky is gray, sky is gray.” Ever since I became involved in the restaurant business, the land 3000 miles west became even more fascinating. I longed to travel to where the terrain and climate are perfectly suited to propagate twisting vines resplendent with black berries bursting with the juice of the Sun Gods.

After 30 years of wishin’ and hopin’, this Dusty Springfield took flight a couple of weeks ago and, with the guidance of my fellow oenophiles, landed in grape heaven . . . Napa Valley, California, where some of the most celebrated vintages of wine are born. I have so much to share with you about the journey, but for this article, I will limit my babblings to our visit to Caymus and Opus Vineyards, and perhaps next month, if you are still interested, I will acquaint you with wines of the smaller, yet equally impressive O’Brien, Fortunati and Franciscan Vineyards.

Our troop landed in San Francisco like many travelers to wine country do, and we impatiently hopped into our rented SUV and headed north. We did take the scenic route, however, and like Robert Frost, stopped by the woods, Muir Woods, to see the Sequoias, which were lovely, dark and deep, but we had promises to keep, and approximately 60 miles to go before we sleep.

The next morning, after a swift breakfast, we visited a quaint, boutique winery in downtown Yountville named Elizabeth Spencer. We sampled tasty wines in a scenic courtyard bordered by a couple rows of grape vines, bright green lime trees and flourishing raised herb beds. This was my first up-front and center peek at Napa grapes, and yes, I was gushing. Fortunately, our indulgent wine host snipped a bunch of peaking purple berries and laid them upon our table to sample, along with pencil-thin bread sticks in between swirls, sniffs and sips the Syrah and Cabernet blends. If you go, this is a lovely little destination, and I highly recommend spending time in downtown Yountville, which has fancy restaurants with famous chefs and kitchen stores peddling high-end cookware and hand-blown wine glasses that will entice you to max out your credit cards.

Next stop was a visit to Rutherford where Larry had reserved a private wine tasting for us at Caymus Vineyards, home of the Wagner Family of Wine. This visit was truly special for Larry and me. The very first food and wine pairing dinner we ever hosted at Jesse Camille’s Restaurant featured Caymus wines. That was the fall of 1996, when my sister Candy was still charming the dining room with her azure blue eyes and entertaining wit. George Lewis, a Naugatuck native, was the Caymus representative for the New England region and he flew in especially for the evening and brought amazing Caymus wines, including a 1994 three-liter Caymus Special Select Cabernet, known as the cadillac of Caymus wines. It was an incredible night – our chefs served amazing culinary delights, we drank incredibly high-rated wines, and our guests were contentedly inebriated. A huge success!

At Caymus, our SUV pulled up to a modest, ranch-style tasting room that was surrounded by vine-covered trellises and olive trees. It was not pretentious by any means, but warm and inviting, yet the property was sprawling – 73 acres in all. We were greeted with a taste of Mer Soleil Chardonnay to freshen our palates, and then whisked off to the childhood home of Chuck Wagner, the current master winemaker, just a few steps from the wine tasting room. The décor was simple and traditional, including a lighted china cabinet with antique tea cups and porcelain dishes, and a small secretary desk with black and white photographs of family members. We had a fantastic wine educator for the tasting, Liz, who told us that Chuck Wagner’s grandparents were from the Alsace region and in the late 1800’s, they moved to San Francisco. They then migrated to Napa during the prohibition era, and mainly grew fruit and nut trees, with approximately 6 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. When prohibition was lifted, the family planted more vines, and they established Caymus Vineyards in 1972, which is named after an old Mexican land grant.

The lifespan of the Caymus vines is approximately 10-15 years, and they include 5 varietals. Caymus also leases vineyards throughout California because Chuck Wagner believes that different soils and micro-climates enhance the subtle flavors in wines. Earlier, I mentioned that Caymus is the Wagner Family of Wine, and indeed, this is a family affair. Dad, Chuck, Sr., manages the Caymus and Conundrum labels, while son Charlie, Jr. manages the Mer Soleil label, which includes the Silver un-oaked Chardonnay, son Joe directs the Belle Glos label, which includes a trinity and compilation of Pinot Noirs, and their little sister Jenny, who at the ripe old age of 26 has created the Emmolo label, whose mission is to re-enliven the much maligned Merlot, an unexpected victim of the movie “Sideways.” Chuck has one more daughter, Erin, who is still in college right now, but people are talking . . . will she be the creator of the Caymus bubbly???

We sampled 2013 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir, which is crafted from grapes grown on a vineyard in Monterey Bay in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Belle Glos, by the way, is the last name of Joe’s paternal grandmother, Lorna Belle Glos. In that same line of Pinot Noirs is the Clark & Telephone which is from Santa Barbara vineyards, and Dairyman which is from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Meomi is a compilation of all three of these. I happen to be passionate about Pinot Noir, so needless to say, these wines swoon me!

We tasted several Caymus wines, including the 2012 Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 40th Anniversary, which scored an impressive 96 points by Robert Parker. Our wine educator capped off the afternoon by graciously providing us a sample of Emmolo Merlot, which was produced in only limited quantities. Jenny Wagner was featured in the Wine Spectator this past May and her Emmolo, which bears her maternal grandmother’s maiden name, scored an average 88 points. Can you imagine? Already an A-list producer and it was her first shot at this!

Our day ended with a visit to the opulent Opus vineyards, which emerged like a modern, monastic castle from the sprawling vine-covered acres of Oakville. Striking and impressive, Opus, like the musical work that inspires its name, is a collaboration between winemaker Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the famous French winemaker of Chateau Lafite. Opus, as opposed to Caymus, was pristine and intimidating, but it offered educational peeks into the production areas, where we observed towering stainless steel equipment that separates, crushes and ferments the thousands of grapes that are grown on its vineyards. We tasted their namesake wine, Opus One, in the lower level of the rotunda, which descended from a spiraling marble staircase into an observation room of the barrel cellar. We were awestruck. Before us, hundreds of oak barrels containing millions of dollars of their elite wine neatly lined up in single rows hugging the curved outline of the building. Indeed, Opus One is a must-see on any Napa trip, but like any masterpiece, once you’ve seen it, la raison d’etre satisfait.

When our plane touched down in New York and we loaded into the car to head home, I was surprised by what I saw. It was as if new eyes were planted in my sockets. Suddenly, the rolling hills of Connecticut, appearing like an impressionistic painting brushed with fiery orange and rosy tones, came into view. How had I not noticed how special and unique this phenomenon is before? It’s ironic. All those years, I’d been California dreamin’ on a winter’s day, and it wasn’t until I came home that I realized, my dream was right in my own backyard.

If you are interested in arranging a private tasting of the Caymus wines in our private wine cellar at Tavern 1757, give Larry a call as we have all current vintages in stock. Tavern 1757 is located on Route 34 in Seymour, amidst the rolling hills of Connecticut, and we offer rustic Italian food, wood-fired pizzas and a fantastic Sunday Brunch with bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas. For reservations, private dining or wine cellar events, call us at 203-516-5461.