Bud Break 2014

Yes, the 2014 growing season has begun and the beginning of the season starts with bud break. It can be seen all over Napa and Sonoma right now. What is bud break? Well, the yearly annual growth cycle of the grape starts in the spring and this is called bud break.

Vines at the beginning of bud break

Vines at the beginning of bud break

Here in Northern California, bud break usually begins sometime in March. After last season’s harvest was completed, the vines still had leaves and they continued to soak up the sun’s rays, preparing for winter by storing nutrients in the vines’ root stock. Then when we have our first frost, the vines go into their dormant state and the leaves fall off. Last year’s vine growth is all that is left on the vines at this point.

In January and February “bleeding” of the vine occurs, in which the vines are pruned of last year’s growth. The root system of the vine contains a low concentration of organic acids, minerals, sugars and hormones. The soil begins to warm and osmotic pressure forces water up from the roots, where it is expelled, or “bled,” from cuts on the vine created during the pruning process.

You can see the tiny buds on these vines!

You can see the tiny buds on these vines!

This prompts the vines to instinctually start bud break and, at this point, tiny buds on the vine start to swell and eventually shoots begin to grow from these buds. The buds are the small part of the vine that rest between the vine’s stem and the leaf stem. Inside, each bud contains three shoots. Eventually the shoots sprout tiny leaves that begin the process of producing energy to accelerate growth. In warm climates, after about four weeks, the growth of the shoots starts to rapidly accelerate with the shoots growing an average of about four inches per week!

So, while you are on your next Platypus tour go out into a vineyard and see for yourself the tiny little buds that will be made into 2014’s wine.

Written by tour guide Chris Largent

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Are you ready to BottleRock?

BottleRock Napa Valley is back! Come to Napa May 30 – June 1 for outstanding live music, great food, wine, beer and good times. This year’s BottleRock 2014 festival will feature over 45 bands on four stages, including The Cure, Heart, Barenaked Ladies, Third Eye blind, LL Cool J, Weezer, and Outkast. And, of course, some of Napa’s best food offerings, dozens of top wineries and plenty of beer on tap.

Single Day Tickets and 3-Day Passes are on sale now from the BottleRock Napa Valley website.

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Vote for Platypus in the 2014 Bay Area A-List!

We’re delighted to announce we’ve been nominated again this year for CityVoter’s Bay Area A-List! According to their website, this contest features more than 7,000 local business competing to be named the best in their respective categories. The winner is determined by YOUR votes! When you have a couple minutes, please vote for us in the Best Wine Country Tour category and help us win the top spot this year!

Just sign up and vote here: http://sf.cityvoter.com/platypus-tours/biz/406626

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From Napa Valley Register: “Tour company grows from dream to reality”

We recently got a nice write-up from local paper Napa Valley Register on the origins of our company in honor of our 10th anniversary. Check out the article here: Tour company grows from dream to reality. Text of the article below.

Platypus Wine Tours owner Don Rickard with wife, Kathy, and their companions (left to right) PJ, Roscoe and Gertie. Nicole Marino/BigShot in Wine Country photo

Platypus Wine Tours owner Don Rickard with wife, Kathy, and their companions (left to right) PJ, Roscoe and Gertie. Nicole Marino/BigShot in Wine Country photo

Platypus Wine Tours officially celebrated 10 years of service to the Napa and Sonoma valleys this past September, though owner Don Rickard said he had dreams about creating this touring company long before its launch.

Rickard’s inspiration to start Platypus came from a tour he took in Bruges, Belgium, in 1999. It was his first trip to Europe.

“It was magical,” recalled Rickard.

Though traveling alone, Rickard said he was surprised at how much fun he had. “I could do whatever struck me at the moment; people would strike up conversations with me all the time,” he said. “Since I was alone, I was approachable — travelers tend to be very social people.”

Which is how he heard about a little bus tour in Bruges called Quasimodo Tours.

Rickard admitted he wasn’t inclined to take a bus tour as this trip was supposed to be his great backpacking adventure. Nevertheless, several travelers Rickard met while on his travels emphatically recommended that tour. “I learned firsthand the persuasive power of a personal testimonial,” he said.

Reluctantly, Rickard purchased a ticket, took the tour and loved it. He said the entire experience was more than he could have asked for: a tour guide who not only owned his bus, but had back-door access to all of the places toured that day.

“He was more than just a guide, he was a true insider,” recalled Rickard.

Three years later, Rickard settled down in Napa Valley, and took on the position of general manager for a restaurant called Market in St. Helena. This job gave him the perfect opportunity to connect with guests who were visiting the area to taste wine. At the same time, Rickard was building treasured relationships with owners and employees of many local wineries, including top-notch winemakers, he said.

It was then that Rickard started thinking about that little tour in Bruges, and how well that venture might play out in the valley.

In September 2003, Rickard purchased a used bus on eBay. After procuring all of the necessary licensing and permits, he started driving. He said his primary focus was on taking folks to back-road wineries, where he believes guests will be privy to an experience like no other.

“Getting my tour business off the ground was tough at first, but I did my very best to knock the socks off of every person who was willing to tour with me,” Rickard said. “Eventually that elusive word-of-mouth referral network began to kick in, and our little tour business started to grow.”

Rickard admitted that the name “Platypus Wine Tours” might be a tad unusual for those who don’t know him. After all, his tours have no connection whatsoever to marsupials, Australia or anything remotely aquatic.

The answer might be surprising, but is rather quite simple. “First, I like that word. It’s short and sweet. It’s also informal and sort of playful, which are themes I have always sought to associate with my tours,” Rickard explained. “I didn’t want us to be confused with any other tour company.”

Today, Platypus conducts multiple tours each day in Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River/Healdsburg area. The business runs like a well-oiled machine largely thanks to its culture, the business owner said.

“We are a family of tour guides and support staff who embrace the same philosophy: Find a way to live up to, and hopefully exceed, the expectations of every single tour guest, every single day,” Rickard said.

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A Platypus Tour Guide Shares Hidden Treasures of the Napa Valley

This Week: Whetstone Wine Cellars

A hidden historical winery estate sits in the northeast corner of the city of Napa, just a few blocks south of the Silverado Country Club. Whetstone Wine Cellars occupies a beautiful structure built in 1885, and is located at 1075 Atlas Peak Road. Jamey and Michelle Whetstone are the co-owners, with Jamey as the winemaker and viticulture expert, and Michelle as manager of everything else.

Inside Whetstone

Inside Whetstone

Jamey learned his craft from the very best in the wine industry: Larry Turley and Ehren Jordan. Jamey started at Turley Cellars in 1998, where he was first assigned to care for the vineyards. He took one summer to intern in France at Domaine Dujac, which solidified his love for Pinot Noir. Jamey started Whetstone in 2002 while still learning at Turley, and 2005 saw Jamey departing Turley and getting Whetstone started full time.

Jamey Whetstone creates some of the most stunning wines in the Napa Valley, with his Pinot Noirs created from several Sonoma County locations. The locations of these Pinot Noir grapes are where a lot of world class wine originates, such as the Sonoma Coast Appellation and the Russian River Appellation. Pinot Noir is known as the most troublesome grape to grow, with its thin skins creating all sorts of potential headaches. This is where Jamey’s long history managing vineyards for Turley really helps. Jamey also creates a yummy Viognier from the Russian River Valley and a Syrah from both the Sonoma Coast and the Phoenix Ranch in the eastern part of Napa. Also, Whetstone produces some delicious Chardonnay from the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Though the winery is headquartered in Napa, Jamey seeks out the best fruit from all over Napa and Sonoma Counties.

Lovely indoor fireplace

Lovely indoor fireplace

I will share the “Winemakers Tasting Notes” regarding his 2010 Phoenix Ranch Syrah, to illustrate the amazing passion and attention to detail of Jamey Whetstone’s winemaking: “Bottled unfined, unfiltered, all neutral French oak, 55% whole cluster fermentation, 28 months in barrel with one racking at bottling, deep garnet in color. Super big nose full of violets, black licorice, cassis, white pepper and animale. Secondary aromas of bacon fat, camphor and red meats. Bold ripe flavors of cassis, blueberry, dark peppery plums, chewy pomegranate, and cigar. Long, velvety finish of plum and tobacco. 158 cases produced. Alcohol 16%.” All of Whetstone’s other wines are fantastic, and you may think you have never tasted a better Pinot Noir in your lifetime.

The Whetstone family has progressed this far through sheer hard work, and they have four young children at home to raise. I met Michelle Whetstone a couple of years ago when she was pouring her wines at another location, and she told me she was securing her present Atlas Peak Road building soon. I made sure I was one of the first visitors at her new location, and tasted her wines. I was extremely impressed, and have since brought many visitors to Whetstone.

Whetstone exterior

Whetstone exterior

When Michelle found her present building on Atlas Peak Road, it had been unoccupied and overgrown with vines for over 15 years. The structure was a complete mess due to no maintenance for all those years, and Jamey and Michelle had a huge project to restore the beauty to the building. After many months of extremely hard work and lots of money invested, the present winery structure is now one of the most beautifully restored historic structures in the Napa Valley.

You will really enjoy any trip to the Whetstone Wine Cellars, because the facility is unusually attractive, the hosts are super friendly, and the wine is really excellent!

Written by tour guide Steve Hunter

Next Week: Chase Cellars!

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A Platypus Tour Guide Shares Hidden Treasures of the Napa Valley

This Week: Tedeschi Family Winery

If you really desire a trek into “the way things used to be” in the Napa Valley, before the large corporations exuded so much influence, consider visiting the Tedeschi Family Winery. Located at 2779 Grant Street in Calistoga, this winery is open seven days a week by appointment (707) 337-6835 from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. If you desire any glitz and glamour in a winery visit, you should stop reading now. Tedeschi Family Winery features a totally handmade winery structure, with simplicity as the driving theme. The family that owns this winery consists of Emil Tedeschi (Vintner & Owner), and his two sons Emilio Tedeschi (General Manager), and Mario Tedeschi (Winemaker).

Lovely outdoor spot at Tedeschi

Lovely outdoor spot at Tedeschi

Emil has a long history of winemaking, and is the founder of another winery still operating in Maui, Hawaii (Tedeschi Maui Winery). The Tedeschi family has been in the Napa Valley for several generations, starting with Emil’s father (Eugene) planting grapevines and a walnut tree orchard on his Calistoga property in the 1960s. The ownership of the property dates back another generation to 1919, where that generation of the Tedeschi family owned a bed and breakfast catering to visitors traveling up from San Francisco. Emil Tedeschi redeveloped his father’s orchards and vineyards in 1991.

Emilio Tedeschi poses in the winery's lovely outdoor seating area

Emilio Tedeschi poses in the winery’s lovely outdoor seating area

The Tedeschi Family Winery wines represent a “farm-to-table” experience. When you arrive on the property, one of the family members will greet you and take you on a tour of the vineyards and winery. You will get some education on how the family grows the grapes and maintains their vineyards, as well as a tour of the crush pad and all winery equipment and barrel storage room. The winery only produces less than 900 cases of wine annually, which is a microscopic amount here in the Napa Valley.

Some of the wonderful wine offerings made by Tedeschi

Some of the wonderful wine offerings made by Tedeschi

Most of the red wine at Tedeschi Family Winery is made in an ancient method, called “open top fermentation.” This method features a one ton plastic box filled with fermenting grapes and juice. When fermentation commences, the carbon dioxide pushes the red grape skins up to the top of the tank, and these skins float and become a cap. Since all red grape juice starts out clear, the contact of the clear juice with the red skins is critical for producing all the color in a red wine, plus lots of additional flavors. The floating grape skin cap at the top of the box will not deliver enough contact between the grape skins and the bulk of the juice below, so the winemaker has to manually stir the grape skins back down into the juice below with a hand held “punch down” device several times each day during the two to three week fermentation period. This method of small lot winemaking is the most ancient method, and produces wonderful results. If you visit the winery during harvest time of September & October, chances are excellent you will see the various boxes of wine fermenting, and this can be a rare hands-on experience for those who visit wineries in the Napa Valley.

Tedeschi’s wine is produced on site and actually labeled and bottled one bottle at a time by hand. This is truly the opposite of mass production! The wines come from single vineyards that are dry farmed, and consist of estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Rosé of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Semillon, and dessert wine made from Tempranillo. The wines are really delicious, and the family produces wines that are a little lower in alcohol than most, desiring better wine pairing with food.

Emilio with a little platypus!

Emilio with a little platypus!

The family is set up well for the future: Emilio Tedeschi is in his twenties, and received a biochemistry degree from Gonzaga University in Washington state. He first desired a career in the oil and gas field, but after a couple of years in that field in Washington, yearned to join the family winery business. He handles the General Manager role, and will be pursuing his MBA soon. His brother, Mario, has become the winemaker and vineyard manager, and is one of those handy people who can fix just about any piece of equipment. The family is so down-to-earth and real, and you will really relax and feel welcome while visiting their winery.

Don’t form an ironclad concept about the Napa Valley due to the slick commercial presentation of the wineries lining both sides of Highway 29. There are still a few small, family-owned wineries that are hidden in the Napa Valley, and they are well worth a visit. For one of the most educational experiences that can be found in the Napa Valley, step back in time and visit the Tedeschi Family Winery.

Written by tour guide Steve Hunter

Next Week: Whetstone Winery!

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A Platypus Tour Guide Shares Hidden Treasures of the Napa Valley

This Week: St. Clair Brown Winery!

I will share an ancient story to start describing St. Clair Brown Winery: A man was walking on a journey, and was joined by another traveler. The first man gradually told his companion that he was carrying some riches of gold coins. The two travelers went to an inn and shared a room for the night. While the man who possessed the gold coins departed the room and walked downstairs to dinner first, the companion ransacked the room, searching frantically to locate and steal the gold coins. However, he found nothing. The same scenario repeated itself during the next two nights at various inns where the two travelers stayed along their journey. Finally, the two travelers were parting ways and the companion of the first traveler stated: “We are now parting ways and I have a confession to make: I am a thief who learned about your gold coins, and every night in the various inns when you departed for dinner, I searched each room for your gold coins to steal them. Tell me – where did you hide the gold coins?” The first traveler said, “I knew you were a thief, so I hid the coins under your own pillow, knowing you would never think to search there.”

Okay fellow wine lovers, what is the moral of the story here? You may think the great wines are in some beautiful vineyard in the Napa Valley, but one of the greatest has the most humble location right in the city of Napa, in an industrial warehouse, and features no vineyards whatsoever! Welcome to St. Clair Brown, 1601 Action Avenue, Napa, alongside the Wine Train tracks, near the intersection of Soscol and Vallejo Streets.

A view of the winery's garden, with the main building in the background

A view of the winery’s garden, with the main building in the background

St. Clair Brown is a new winery that just opened five months ago, and is co-owned by winemaker Elaine St. Clair and Laina Brown, two long-time wine industry veterans. Elaine St. Clair has an amazing resume of 30 years of winemaking of both still and sparkling wines, and a decade as a brewmaster of craft beers. She was head winemaker for Black Stallion Winery, and was an associate winemaker at Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros. She also owned Napa Aleworks for a decade, where she was the brewmaster. Laina Brown was the CEO and founding president of Black Stallion Winery, and former Director of Marketing for Domaine Carneros.

View of the kitchen from the outside

View of the kitchen from the outside

The two owners enjoyed fifteen years of working together, both at Domaine Carneros and Black Stallion. However, they both tired of the large corporate winery experience, and wanted to create something new and unique. Their vision for St. Clair Brown Winery is the most creative one Napa has seen in a long time, and you are now getting informed during the early stages. They have built a greenhouse, kitchen, and raised beds for organic vegetable gardens alongside tables, umbrellas and chairs. On the other side of the street, phase two of their project is underway: A winery, craft brewery, and 60 seat restaurant. The wine and small bites of food are available now, while the brewery and restaurant may not be ready for another year or more.

Some of the wonderful wine offerings by St. Clair Brown

Some of the wonderful wine offerings by St. Clair Brown

Now to the real heart of the matter…the wine! St. Clair Brown makes nine wines, all in microscopic allotments of 200 total cases per year for each varietal…or roughly eight barrels of wine per varietal. The wine is absolutely stunning! One of my favorites is the 2007 Syrah, which is the third release from Elaine St. Clair’s one acre estate in the Coombsville appellation of south eastern Napa Valley. Coombsville is Napa’s newest appellation, and is known for its cool temperatures and unique volcanic soil.

Regarding the winemaking style for her Syrah, Elaine St. Clair said that “With the Syrah, I pull from my background making Pinot Noir. The must is de-stemmed and cold soaked for four days and then fermented using Bergundian yeast. The wine is aged in a combination of my favorite Bergundian barrels that impart the subtle spice characteristics that best compliment the complex Syrah fruit.” When I taste this Syrah, I get aromas of currents, cherry, lavender and plum, with the palate receiving full flavors, bright acidity, balanced structure, and a long finish.

View of the winery's interior

View of the winery’s interior

Another of my favorite St. Clair Brown wines is the 2010 Rosé of Syrah, which is made in a highly unusual way. Elaine St. Clair states that “I find that the standard process of siphoning juice from a red fermentation to create rosé can produce wines that are astringent and lack elegance. I make our Syrah Rosé similar to how we make our Chardonnay; I gently press the whole clusters using a white wine press until the color and depth of flavor I am looking for is achieved. The juice is then fermented in stainless steel at a cool temperature to preserve the delicate flavors. The finished wine is well-balanced and bursting with fruit.” I can truly say this wine is the most remarkable rosé of my life thus far, and it redefines the whole rosé experience. This is a truly serious rosé, far from the typical summer “patio pounder!”

The kitchen

The kitchen

The remainder of the St. Clair Brown wine lineup contains a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, the best Napa Zinfandel I have ever tried, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Muscat sweet wine. I could go way too long talking about all these wines, but now maybe I have piqued your curiosity to stop by St. Clair Brown and give them a try yourself! After you arrive at the winery, peruse the food tasting menu, and make sure you sample several small gourmet food bites along with your wine tasting experience. Some favorites of mine are the Citrus Roasted Almonds, Cheese Selections and Hummus.

I can’t finish without talking about how NICE the people are at St. Clair Brown! When you visit, you will probably have a chance to meet either the winemaker or co-owner of the winery (or both!) The owners have created a wonderful, relaxing atmosphere, with great wine and food, and are open daily from 11:00 am – 8:00 pm.

Written by tour guide Steve Hunter

Next Week: Tedeschi Winery!

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