The Real Time Canine II

After spending 2 years writing the Real Time Canine, the adventure continues with The Real Time Canine II. Read along as I look for just the right puppy to continue the experience. After false starts with Tim and Jed, I am currently training young Tam, and Spot, which are both off to a strong start. Please visit the RTC II to read about training sessions as they occur.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Sonoma Wine Country Trial

Unfortunatly, Sandy and Arthur Milberg have cancelled their trial this year. I believe they've been hosting it for about 9 years and, if you've never been, you can't imagine how much we're going to miss it. Their stunning farm is in the heart of fabled California wine country. It's a small, picturesque hill farm with live water, majestic oak trees and beautiful organization. Each of the 2 trial fields is small but deceptively challenging. Many make the mistake of thinking that their size means easy, but they only do that once. Sandy usually brings across foreign judges and the trial benefits the local FFA.
I pull a 5th wheel travel trailer to trials and the Milberg's is too small for parking. Everyone camps at the fairgrounds in historic Calistoga, famous for mineral baths, mud baths and water, about 12 miles away. The fairgrounds and the town are virtually empty in March, so hands and dogs pretty much have it all to ourselves. Last year, my friend, Angela Akers, and I decided to go wine tasting. I'm a California native, but I had never experienced this local phenomenon and figured it was about time. What follows is an article I wrote about the experience for American Border Collie Magazine.
My wine tasting expedition began at 10am. Yes, that early in the morning. Wine tasting is big business and while vintners won’t serve any wine before it’s time, they like to start pouring properly aged wine early. I don’t know which is more surprising about the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the incomprehensible accumulation of wealth in such a small geographic area or the astonishing amount of acreage planted to grapes. It is one wine shrine after the other with grapes of every imaginable variety as far as the eye can see, in every direction, up and down and over every hill. Think of Las Vegas for winophiles.
We followed the storied “wine trail” starting at the head of Napa Valley in the historic town of Calistoga famous for mud and mineral baths, spas and bottled water. We wound down and around Calistoga Road to Highway 12 through big city Santa Rosa and the mission village of Sonoma then back up Highway 29 past Napa, Rutherford and St. Helena. With good reason this is luxurious and hallowed wine ground. Some of the very best wine in the world is created here and our first stop at Chateau St. Jean gave us a taste of a Cabernet Cinq Cepages that was once judged best in the world. I learned the meaning of wine words such as balance, body, character, complexity, nose and finish in a relaxed, non-threatening environment where the stewards are at your service to make the visit enjoyable. The 2 kind gentlemen at Chateau St. Jean suggested other stops we might enjoy so from there we moved on to the small village of Glen Ellen where Jack London was inspired to write and volcanic soil together with just the right blend of moisture and cold produce the regions best red grapes. They don’t like it too hot.
The Benziger family operates their vineyard and winery under biodynamic conditions, which means they’re a notch above organic. Everything is recycled including the water used in fermenting and there are islands of raised bed planters called insectaries created to lure beneficial insects that replace the pesticides used in less progressive wineries. It was oh so cold when we were there, but we paid $10 to ride in the open air tram pulled with a farm tractor that is partially powered by organic fuel planned to be used exclusively in the near future. Here I tasted wine they called Sonoma Red, which I bought either in memory of another red I once enjoyed call Panama, or because it was the best wine I had ever tasted up to that moment. When grapes are bottled by the winery that grows them the product is called an estate wine. Benziger poured us a really good estate claret. I didn’t buy a bottle and I regret it. On to Artesa.
There is rivalry between the Napa and Sonoma valleys. In Sonoma Valley, Napa is a four-letter word. Artesa is at the bottom of the Napa valley built into a grassy hilltop from concrete with sharp angles and mitered glass windows. The water features and the 360 degree view make the trip up worthwhile. It was our goal to visit 9 wineries that first day and it didn’t take long to figure out just how silly we were. Simply taking in the beauty of each stop takes time, then you have to park, stroll the gardens, admire the architecture, elbow your way in at the bar and taste/savor/enjoy as many as 6 different wines. By the time we got to our first champagne stop, Domaine Chandon, we knew we were finished for the day.
On day 2 of our wine tasting adventure we visited Beaulieu Vineyards, pronounced “bowl-you”. In a former life as a dinner waitress I poured BV Gamay Beaujolais by the bucket and wanted to re-visit a bottle for old times sake. I was told lack of demand caused them to stop production so I had to accept that old times can turn out to be just plain old fashioned.
By pure luck our last stop on day 2 was Rubicon Vineyard and turned out to be the highlight of our mission. Rubicon recently changed it’s name from Neibaum-Coppola and is owned by Oscar-winning movie director, Francis Ford-Coppola famous for such epochs as Apocolypse Now and The God Father. With the name change came a price change and while we had been paying from $5 to $10 for tasting, a waist-coat’d gentleman met us at the gated entry with a pronouncement that entry would be $25….. each. We proceeded up the long drive to a valet who took our truck complete with 6 dogs in the back and directed us to the winery. In 1981 with money made from Apocolypse Now, Ford-Coppola bought what was then Inglenook Winery founded by a Finnish sea captain named Neibaum who created his vision to rival the fine French wines of his time. The main building was built in 1881 and is relatively unchanged except for light renovation and a massive arching wooden stairway that leads to a second story museum of Coppola’s work. There you find vignettes with pictures, awards, Oscars, costumes and props from his and his family’s most famous works. The desk from a prominent scene in the Godfather was there as was a menacing bamboo cell from Apocolypse Now. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite Coppola movies and an unforgettable wedding dress worn by the character who was a bride then became a vampire was on display and, to me, completely worth the price of admission, but we hadn’t tasted the wine yet. Back down in the wine room we met the steward who would really educate us on wine tasting. We were presented with a flight of 5 wines, one at a time, with a couple of extras thrown in to help make his many salient points on the finer qualities of wine. He explained the difficult relationship between acidity and sugar in pinot grapes in particular to create balance and good finish. He tipped his glass on its side to demonstrate that the red in red wines extends all the way out to the edge of the wine when it is sufficiently aged and ready to drink. He twirled our glasses and laughed at the fat “legs” visible draining down the glass of the 2004 Captain’s Pinot Noir and when I bought a bottle, he complimented my choice. This was the perfect end to an enlightening journey and I highly recommend it, price notwithstanding.
Just pay the money. Wine this good will never, ever be cheap and should not be. We were in town for the Milberg’s Sonoma Wine Country Sheepdog trial, but we were thrilled by the area’s beauty and some of the very best wine in the world.


  1. Wow. You should write more often. That was a quite a post. My wife and I generally prefer Sonoma to Napa. Seems a little less touristy a little more authentic. Of course parts of Sonoma are getting really overrun with the over-development bug too. Now, one county north in Mendocino is really spectacular, especially if you like pinot noir. Worth a trip.

    My wife made a list of our favorite stuff in Napa and Sonoma for your next trip. We live in SF so we go quite frequently.

    Favorite Things To Do in Napa and Sonoma

  2. Thanks for your comment, Noah. That is a gorgeous place and I always have a great time there.