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Yosemite National Park and The Ahwahnee Hold the Spectacular 29th Annual Vintners’ Holiday

Christine Graham • 12/16/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

Fabulous wine, delicious gourmet cuisine, the majestic Ahwahnee and the exquisite grandeur of Yosemite National Park in late autumn. Can you imagine a more enticing combination?  Ron and I certainly couldn’t and obviously we’re not alone.  That’s why Yosemite National Park’s Vintners’ Holiday series at The Ahwahnee, celebrating acclaimed winemakers and their exceptional wines, is still a resounding success after 28 years.

This very special event includes a stellar lineup of 32 of California’s best winemakers showcasing their latest vintages, many of which are rare and of limited release, in a series of eight sessions that take place from October 31 to December 2.  Each session features four wineries with winemakers and other experts leading tasting seminars and panel discussions.  The sessions commence with a Meet the Vintners Wine Tasting Reception where you can speak with the vintners and taste their wines.  After two days of tasting seminars and enlightening discussion, the sessions close with a spectacular five-course gala dinner, the highlight of the event.  Stewart Good, The Ahwahnee’s Beverage Manager, has been in charge of the series and its extensive wine list since its inception in 1982.

Ron and I have enjoyed many wine and food events but never had the opportunity to attend Vintners’ Holiday which promises to be one of the best ever.  We debated the merits of taking the train vs. driving but a road trip won out. With great anticipation, we stowed our luggage in the trunk of the car and set off.  We’ve been to Yosemite numerous times and in every season, but never stayed at The Ahwahnee.  We’ve camped in Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass, fishing at Ellery and Tioga Lakes, slept in an RV and in the rustic canvas tent cabins, swimming and brushing our teeth in the icy Merced River, stayed at Yosemite Lodge and spent one lovely Christmas in the Curry Village home of friends.  I particularly remember fishing at Ellery Lake because it was the first time I put a worm on a hook myself (luckily I have since graduated to fly-fishing and Yosemite has many streams and lakes).   All of these lodging accommodations were memorable and fun but nothing like the experience awaiting us at The Ahwahnee, renowned for its rich history, gracious hospitality and elegance.

Yosemite –America’s Most Visited National Park

After several hours of driving past the cities, towns and farms on Highway 99, we turned off onto Highway 41 just past Fresno.  The landscape changed dramatically as we entered the Sierra Foothills, a long winding drive to the Park.   After Oakhurst, Yosemite’s southern gateway, adjacent to the popular Bass Lake, the road climbs considerably.  Inside the Park, we drove past the elegant, Victorian-styled lodge, the Wawona Hotel, a National Historic Landmark.  Emerging from the granite-chiseled passage of the Wawona Tunnel, we were rewarded with the dramatic, postcard-perfect vista of Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, marked by El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks and Bridal Veil Fall.  Eons ago glaciers had carved a U-shaped valley and polished the granite cliffs encasing it.  The glacial valley, certainly one of the world’s most beautiful places, is seven miles long and one mile wide. Driving on to the Valley floor, we observed the charms autumn delivers in Yosemite – brilliant fall foliage, colorful leaves of the Elm and Oak trees, the afternoon light filtering through the trees, and the bright dogwood leaves.

ahwahnee-fall

Our first glimpse of the majestic Ahwahnee  set among the trees, dwarfed by the towering granite slabs of Royal Arches, never ceases to delight and amaze.  From the sunny meadow around the hotel, you can see Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point.  Reluctantly, we went inside to check in.  The desk clerk warned us of the bears voracious appetites so we unloaded the entire trunk including locally produced honey and walnuts we got from a roadside stand and even some wines we bought on the Madera wine trail (bringing coals to Newcastle?).

Our room on the fourth floor was a delight down to the last detail (a little rubber duckie in the bathroom).  Our view out the window was incredible – Yosemite Falls in all its glory, woodlands of fir, pines and oak, a lovely, grassy meadow and mountains in the distance.  Normally, this time of year, the Falls are only a trickle but recent rains replenished the Falls to its frothy glory usually seen only in the  Spring.  The world’s third tallest waterfall at 2,425 feet, spills over sheer granite cliffs in three tiers to the Valley floor.  Opposite the Falls is El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in Yosemite.

My Yosemite Pictures 013.yosemite falls

It wasn’t easy to tear ourselves away from this scene, but the Meet the Vintners Wine Tasting Reception beckoned.  In the Solarium, we mingled with the other guests, talked to some of the winemakers, tasted the wines from each winery and munched on an array of delectable appetizers and artisan cheeses.

The Ahwahnee — One of the Most Distinctive
Hotels in North America

Fortunately the first event for the next day started at a civil time of 10 a.m. for an historical walking tour of The Ahwahnee.  We learned that the Hotel, California’s leading man-made wonder, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood using massive slabs of native granite and timber. It took 5,000 tons of stone, 1,000 tons of steel and 30,000 feet of timber to make the magnificent, seven-story fortress.  It has delighted guests since opening in 1927 except for a time in the 1940s when the U.S. Navy took over the hotel converting it to a convalescent hospital for war veterans.  The design of the Hotel blends an array of influences:  Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and the Arts and Crafts movement reflected in tapestries, paintings, murals, baskets and pottery.  The AAA, Four-Diamond Hotel is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and has earned a Historic Hotels of America designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I had been hoping for snow, but the weather was beautiful, with a bright blue sky and crisp, clear air so we went for a walk on our own around the hotel, where we saw rabbits, blue jays and deer.   While it was warm in the sun, the roaring fire in the massive, walk-in fireplace in the Great Lounge was welcoming.  The Great Lounge has a 24 foot high ceiling, floor to ceiling windows, giant beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, original hand-stained glass panels, rich tapestries and huge oak tables.  The Lounge, which is 77 feet long and 51 feet wide, was the site of the first seminar.

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Vintners’ Holiday Session #1

Moderator for this session, Gilles de Chambure, Master Sommelier, is Director of Wine Education at Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley and a former senior wine educator with Robert Mondavi Winery.  De Chambure opened the seminar and introduced Chris Benziger.  Our old friend from when we were publishing The Underground Wine Journal, Chris, representing Benziger Family Winery, spoke on “The Beauty of Biodynamic Wine.”  Benziger is a certified Biodynamic estate producing Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from its vineyards in the Glen Ellen area of Sonoma.  According to Chris, Biodynamics is the highest level of organic farming.  It calls for the elimination of all chemicals and anything artificial in grape growing and winemaking, in order to create the most natural and healthy environment in the vineyards and the winery, with the end result being a higher wine quality with a sense of place.  Chris discussed the four fingerprints that make up Benziger wine:  varietal, vintage, vineyard and winemaker.  Chris brought five wines for tasting, Sauvignon Blanc, two Pinot Noirs, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet blend.  Tasting notes for Benziger and the other wines are given below.

tasting-session

Later in the afternoon, Ken and Akiko Freeman, proprietors of Freeman Vineyard and Winery, discussed “Pinot Noir – Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast – A Comparison.”  Freeman, also located in Sonoma, founded in 2001, is dedicated to handcrafting elegant, cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines that embody the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast’s charm and character.  They have a 6-acre vineyard next to the winery in Sebastopol and a new estate vineyard about five miles away in the hills above Occidental.  The Freemans brought four Pinot Noirs for tasting, the notes of which are below.

That evening, a group of us rode the shuttle to Yosemite Lodge at the Falls where we had a lovely dinner in the Mountain Room.  The Mountain Room menu features steak, seafood and pasta, with a local, seasonal preparation.  The Mountain Room Restaurant and Lounge offers striking views of the 2,424 foot high Yosemite Falls, a mountain-themed atmosphere, a large, open fireplace and a patio.  The Yosemite Valley shuttle bus operates frequently from morning to night.

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Tami von Isakovics of Ellipses Public Relations is standing in front of the Yosemite Valley map and shuttle bus schedule.

The next day, we boarded a coach for a two-hour, 26-mile floor tour of the Valley.  During warmer times, the tour is on an open air tram.  On one of the stops, while trying to spot climbers clinging to El Capitan’s 3,000 foot high face, a bear came up to look at our group but he quickly scampered away.  The guides for both of our tours were very professional, incredibly knowledgeable and exceptionally entertaining.  Our valley floor tour guide related the history and geology of some of the Valley’s most famous sights and anecdotes about the most notable people.

Back at The Ahwahnee, Gilles de Chambure opened the second day’s seminar, introducing John Conover, General Manager and Partner of Plumpjack Winery and Cade Winery.  John addressed the subject “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Hillside vs. Valley Floor.” Plumpjack Winery, formerly the Villa Mt. Eden Winery, is situated in Oakville, which is Cabernet Central, in the Napa Valley, producing Chardonnay, Cabernet and Cabernet blend wines.  Plumpjack, which is owned by Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsom, was the first high-priced wine to use a screw cap closure.  Cade Winery, located in Angwin on Howell Mountain, the top of Napa Valley, produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  Conover brought three wines for tasting, Chardonnay and Cabernet from Plumpjack and Cabernet from Cade.  Tasting notes for the wines are below.

For the final seminar of this session, Casidy Ward, Proprietor of Hidden Ridge Vineyard, spoke on “The Terroir of Hidden Ridge:  Mountain Viticulture and Winemaking.”  Oklahoma natives Casidy Ward and Lynn Hofacket purchased 160 acres of land in the rugged Mayacamas Range of Sonoma County in 1991.  Their initial plans were to develop the property for residential use but soon learned it was a better home for grapes than for people.  Their first vintage was 2003.  Hidden Ridge is 100% estate grown Cabernet planted on 21 blocks on slopes with elevations ranging from 900-1700 feet and as steep as 55%.  It is accessible only by 4-wheel drive.  Grapes are hand-picked and driven down the mountain in an all-terrain utility truck modified to hold grape bins.  Casidy brought four Cabernets for tasting, the notes of which are below.

Candlelight Vintners’ Gala Dinner

That evening, the finale of the session was a sensational five-course Candlelight Vintners’ Gala Dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room.  The Dining Room, with its soaring, 34 foot high, beamed ceiling, granite pillars, sugar pine trestles and floor to ceiling windows, offers spectacular views during the day.  But at night, it is even more impressive with chandeliers and candles setting a romantic mood.  The elegant, gourmet menu, created by Executive Chef Percy Whatley, is designed to showcase the session’s featured wines and provide more opportunities to talk with the vintners.

great-lounge

The dinner commenced with a 2009 Cade Winery Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a perfect foil to the cold scallop ravioli and fennel-grapefruit salad, really bringing out the flavors of the dish.  The 2008 Benziger Chardonnay West Rows Sangiacomo Vineyard paired beautifully with a dish of house smoked Crescenza cheese, late harvest heirloom tomatoes and crostini.  The 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir Akiko’s Cuvee was a great match for slow cooked California quail, with sunchoke puree and sunflower seed essence.  An excellent complement to the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 55 degree slope from Hidden Ridge was the Texas antelope loin from Broken Arrow Ranch, with giant corona beans, cardamom roasted carrots and sweet onions.  A Triple Chocolate Terrine, conceived by Executive Pastry Chef Paul Padua, was a wonderful finale to the dinner, served with a pistachio macaroon, Grappa cherries and green apple sorbet.

This was definitely a not-to-be-missed wine and food event, offering everything and more than what we anticipated in this place of unparalleled beauty.  Unfortunately, we had to leave the next morning.  Since we had come into the Park via Highway 41, we decided to go west on Highway 140 to complete the entire 105-mile scenic loop from Oakhurst through Yosemite Valley to Mariposa.  This route takes you through the deep gorge of the serpentine Merced River, where the gravel banks are flanked by grassy meadows, high granite ridges, forests of towering pine, fir, oak, giant sequoias and manzanita.  After Mariposa, we continued on to Oakhurst, picking up Highway 41 again.  To bring ourselves back to earth from the food and wine high experienced at The Ahwahnee, we stopped in the little town of Coarsegold for a lunch of beer, tacos and beans at Alfonso’s Hideaway.

My Yosemite Pictures 047.merced river

Photos were taken by Kenny Karst, Chris Andre, Christine Graham and Ron Brown

Tasting Notes

Following are tasting notes for the wines tasted during the four seminars of  Session #1 of the Vintners’ Holidays.  All the wines tasted were very good to outstanding.

Benziger Family Winery.

The 2009 Benziger Sauvignon Blanc, light gold, has an intense tropical fruit nose.  It has lively pear fruit, balanced acidity, an attractive minerality and resembles a Sancerre – very inviting.

The 2008 Benziger Pinot Noir Terra, medium red, has a candy apple nose and flavors of cherries, berries, toast, earth and spice – delicious velvety wine.

The 2008 Benziger Pinot Noir Bella Luna, medium red in color, has a rich, spicy berry nose that follows through to the palate, with added notes of cherries – a well-balanced, rich, lip-smacking wine.

The 2007 Benziger 3 Blocks (60% Cabernet Sauvignon/40% Merlot), a dark red color, has rich aromas and flavors of blackberries, spice, tobacco and earth, with medium tannins – lovely wine.

The 2006 Benziger Tribute (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, balance Petit Verdot/Cabernet Franc), dark red, has scents of blackberries, spice and tobacco, and is round and balanced with ripe tannins – really tasty.

 

Freeman Vineyard & Winery.

The 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir Russian River (blend of four vineyards, 300’ high), has a candy apple, cherry/berry nose.  The flavors of rich black cherry, chocolate, plums, sweet oak and herbal tones are balanced, with fine acidity, soft tannins and good length.  This is an elegant, food-friendly wine.

The 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (1200’ high), medium red color, has a cherry/berry, floral and spice bouquet that carries through to the mouth, with added nuances of violets and roses and a lingering finish – absolutely delicious.

The 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Russian River, medium red, is very aromatic, offering cherries and spice in the nose and a palate of cherries, berries, red currant and spice – terrific wine.

The 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir Akiko’s Cuvee, medium red, showcases cherries, Asian spice, violets, rose petals, smoke, and blackberries in the nose and on the palate.  This is an extraordinary, lip-smacking wine.

Plumpjack Winery.

The 2009 Plumpjack Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay, light gold color, reveals bright fruit of apple, pear, banana, papaya, orange blossom, spice and vanilla.  With no malolactic, the wine is clean and fresh, with good fruit depth, balanced acidity and a lush finish – very attractive.

The 2007 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (99% Cabernet/1% Petit Verdot), dark red, has a coffee, chocolate and berry bouquet.  It is well-balanced, with flavors of cassis, chocolate, oak, blackberries, black cherries, plums, vanilla and ripe tannins – delicious and a candidate for cellaring.

 

Cade Winery.

The 2007 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain (blended with 2% Merlot), dark red, has aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis, oak, cola, black cherry, smoke, cocoa, sage and black plum, with silky tannins – terrific wine.

Hidden Ridge Vineyard.

The 2007 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 55 degree slope (blended with Petit Verdot, 1700’ high),  dark red, has a nose resembling La Mission Haut Brion, is perfumed with cassis and blackberries.  The flavors are similar, with added nuances of oak, black cherry and blueberries — lovely.

The 2006 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 55 degree slope, dark red, reveals scents and tastes of blackberries, blueberries, chocolate, red plum, red cherry, black tea, herbs and tobacco and is balanced, with velvety tannins and good length – delicious.

The 2006 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Hidden Lot, dark red, has an aroma of blackberries, tobacco, spice and chocolate, with similar flavors.  It is balanced, with good depth and some tannin – very nice.

The 2004 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, dark red, offers aromas and flavors of black cherry, blueberry and spice.  It is well-integrated, balanced, round, soft and supple, with some tannin – a terrific wine.

Vintners’ Holidays Lodging Packages

Vintners’ Holidays lodging packages feature the choice of lodging at The Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.  Two-night packages are available, but three-night packages are recommended as some of the sessions begin before the check-in time.  All packages include accommodations for two plus admission for two to one session, which includes the Meet the Vintners Wine Tasting Reception, four wine tasting seminars, a five-course gala dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room with a menu designed to complement the session’s featured wines and opportunities to talk with the vintners.

Package prices (double occupancy, not including tax) at The Ahwahnee start at $942 for two nights and $1,245 for three nights.  Yosemite Lodge at the Falls rates start at $744 for two nights and $867 for three nights.

Individuals may also purchase gala dinner tickets, including wine, tax and gratuity, for $249 each.

For reservations, call 801-559-4853 or visit YosemitePark.com/Vintners.

Both The Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls are managed and operated by Delaware North Companies, a leading global hospitality and food service provider, through its Parks & Resorts subsidiary.

Earlier this year we published an article on The Ahwahnee Hotel’s annual Bracebridge Dinner, written by John Tilson.  John and his wife, Laurie, have attended this 17th Century English Christmas celebration in Yosemite Valley on a number of occasions and always found it to be an exciting and memorable event.  Please click on the link below to access the article.

http://www.undergroundwineletter.com/2010/03/the-ahwahnee-hotel-bracebridge-dinner-and-yosemite-valley/

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