Letter From USA

Wine & Friendship

Renu Chahil-Graf visits the USA after more than two years and celebrates wine and the friends she met again

Published on Sommelier India,  Summer 2022

It all started with the announcement we had been waiting for … The United States of America was now open for visitors from Europe as of 8 November 2021. I immediately bought my ticket to the East Coast. How heartwarming it was to be welcomed back by friends I had not seen in over two years. Invitations to dinner, tennis, yoga, group walks… I was greeted with open arms and engulfed with affection! 


So when my dear friends, JoAnn and Michael on Cape Cod invited me home for dinner, I headed straight to my favourite wine store. Falmouth Wine and Spirits on Palmer Avenue, which always has the best selection in town. Now it had new owners – an Indian couple from Gujarat – committed to maintaining its high standards. I browsed the shelves and found an award-winning Chardonnay from Overlook Vineyards, sensing it would pair well with JoAnn’s excellent vegetarian cuisine. At the first sip around the dinner table, there was a collective gasp! An excellent wine, appreciated also by those who felt they were not necessarily connoisseurs. More later… 

"The memory of both, the Overlook Chardonnay and the Educated Guess Cabernet, kept nagging at the back of my mind"

Next, escaping from freezing weather, I arrived in St Petersburg, Florida, to be greeted by another dear friend, Liz, who wisely migrates to warmer weather every winter. Liz, with the most sophisticated palate, always knows where to find the best restaurants, best wines, freshest foods – not only in all 50 US states, but in Italy and France as well. So when she suggested a French restaurant, “The Left Bank Bistro” on our last evening, I readily accepted. The choice of wine was left to me. Scrolling down the wine list I hit upon the Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon which I sensed would pair well with the Filet Mignon, rosemary garlic Yukon mash, veggies and green peppercorn brandy cream, which I had just ordered. It left me spellbound, as I knocked back the better part of the bottle. More on this later too… 


Well, it was finally time to head west to visit family, in what’s called the Bay area, around San Francisco. But further north lie the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, America’s wine Mecca. I had decided to put this firmly out of my mind; I was not going to work, I was not going vineyard hopping, I was on holiday! Deliberately, I had not carried my notebooks. However, the memory of both the Overlook Chardonnay and the Educated Guess Cabernet kept nagging at the back of my mind. And finally, my curiosity overtook me. I had to learn more about them. Soon enough I was setting up appointments at both vineyards.

Wine tasting at Landmark’s Kenwood Estate with tables laid out in the courtyard
Wine tasting at Landmark’s Kenwood Estate with tables laid out in the courtyard

Landmark Vineyards, Chardonnay and beyond (landmarkwines.com). On a cool mid-January morning, arriving at Landmark Vineyards, which produces the Overlook Chardonnay I had tasted on Cape Cod, I was amazed to find all the outdoor tables at their Kenwood Estate engaged in a tasting at 10.30am! The setting was beautiful, with tables laid out at safe distances in the sunny courtyard adjacent to a small lake. A Bocce Ball court set out beside the vines is a thoughtful addition for some gentle exercise between sips! 


I got down to serious tasting. Of the Chardonnays I tasted, the Hillard Bruce 2017 is made with grapes from the Santa Rita valley — a light wine for easy drinking, using native yeast, handpicked grapes and matured in French oak barrels. With warmer weather than found in its native France, and cool breezes, the wine is buttery and creamy, with pear and apple notes. The 2017 Lorenzo Chardonnay with grapes from the Russian River Valley, where the fog lingers long and a cool creek runs through the vineyard, the Chardonnay has complex aromas of white peach, chamomile and toasty oak. Not to be missed is the 2018 Grand Detour Pinot Noir produced with grapes from the Sonoma coast. It has an amazing, rich bouquet which makes you want to keep breathing it in! I’m told the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean nurtures the Pinot Noir grapes to create these luscious and complex wines.

The flagship at Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay was first released in 1991 and has received 90+ points for the past 15 years, and featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List seven times since 1995. With a production of 30,000 cases a year, Overlook is distributed in the open market throughout the US. Amazingly, the rest of their production (albeit smaller) is available only through their wine club and at the cellar door. This includes nine different Pinots, five Chardonnays and more — all of very high quality. I was lucky to sample these wines which sell out fast due to their loyal customer base. A recent crown to boast of came when the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition announced its winners on January 14 of this year and the Best Red of Show went to the 2018 Landmark La Encantada Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills. In conversation with winemaker, Greg Stach, I learnt that he is passionate about Burgundy wines and follows that mode of production. I was told that they have the first Dijon clones bought over to the US and use these for their Hot Kiln Estate Pinot Noir Reserve, which I was fortunate to taste: a fulfilling bouquet, dark cherry on the palate, a full-bodied wine. Now in his 20th year working at Landmark, with the last 10 as winemaker, Greg is inspired constantly develop the wines like an estate winery. Not only does he advance his own capabilities, but he also hires young interns every year from around the world – Italy, France, Austria, New Zealand – and even India! Greg now aims to make a “reserve quality chardonnay at a reasonable price”.

He travels  abroad for work and every two years to burgundy, which is in my backyard… see you there, Greg !

Just as one needs to cleanse the palate between tastings, it was time to clear my head between my vineyard visits. What better place to do that than in Hawaii! Deliciously warm weather, beach reads, turtle sightings, energetic swims, canoe rides, macadamia nuts, fabulous fish and Kona coffee. Not likely to be any vineyard distractions, I figured. But I was wrong! More on Hawaii later...

Roots Run Deep, What’s in a Name. Returning to the mainland, I start my search for the producers of Educated Guess, the Roots Run Deep winery and was invited to their tasting room in Napa village. A charming classic villa, with various livingroom style areas for tastings in small groups which gives you the feeling of being in a family and a household. And as Justin Sandoval in the tasting room informed me, it is very much a family with a small team of committed individuals who work hard to organise a completely different model of wine production. Winery owner, Mark Abrecht, a former wine buyer from New Orleans, with good business instincts and an appetite for risk, sold all his assets to come West in 2005 with one ambition — “To produce unparalleled wines from the Napa Valley” and he succeeded. His efforts, creativity and determination paid off. 

Winemaker Macario loves what he produces, especially Hypothesis, 96% Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Napa Valley Merlot and Malbec
Winemaker Macario loves what he produces, especially Hypothesis, 96% Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Napa Valley Merlot and Malbec

His is a unique business model. The company owns no vineyards, but they source grapes from the best vineyards in the region and make the wine at Sunset Ranch in Southern Napa. Mark is personally involved at every stage of the process, working hand in hand with winemaker Macario Montoya. They select the grapes together, scouring vineyards for the best fruit for each season. A true partnership. With a team this small, the production is comparatively large. In 2019, 150,000 cases were produced.


Justin starts the tasting with a 2019 Chardonnay, while I try not to get distracted by the artistic tattoo on his left arm. The wine is light in taste, easy drinking for a beautiful summer day but high in alcohol at 14.3%. We move on to a 2018 Pinot Noir. Described as “truly a labour of love”, this handcrafted pinot from the Sonoma coast is deep and rich in colour, tastes of ripe strawberry, dark plum and wild berry fruits. What about the 2018 Cabernet I flipped for in Florida? It was just as good. Winning 91 points in wine ratings, it had blackberry, cherry and chocolate flavours with an oaky finish. 

Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon, served at ”The Left Bank Bistro” restaurant
Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon, served at ”The Left Bank Bistro” restaurant

Justin’s descriptions were beguiling. Wine has a story, he says. Every bottle has a history, and both large scale and small scale wines are “fun to make, encouraging you to find new sources to challenge yourself.”


I’m bowled over when I taste Hypothesis, 96% Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Napa Valley Malbec and 2% Napa Valley Merlot.  I’m bowled over when I taste Hypothesis, 96% Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Napa Valley Malbec and 2% Napa Valley Merlot. A small production, just 1200 cases, this Cabernet spends 18 months in French oak barrels. Characterised by depth and complexity and delicious black fruits, its silky texture is “a quintessential mark of the Oakville area”, he says. A wine to die for…


Some days later I chase down Macario, the winemaker, who is kind enough to spare a few moments on the phone while in the middle of bottling, which runs from January to March. This time it is the Napa Cabernets: Hypotheses and Bound and Determined. Which leads me to ask where these names come from. I’m told that Mark, who is the ceative one, has “an arsenal of names” for other upcoming projects. For instance, the next wine is Truth be Told — a Washington State Cabernet in collaboration with Goose Ridge Cellars. The label has quotes from writers and philosophers. Check it out at www.rootsrundeep.com


The name of the company, Roots Run Deep is apparently in homage to Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which run deep in the soil

Prizewinning Macadamia Nut Honey wine
Prizewinning Macadamia Nut Honey wine

The name, Roots Run Deep is apparently in homage to Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which run deep in the soil. There are wine names that are aspirational such as The Scholar, The Graduate and PH.D. for the more exclusive and pricey wines in the Higher Education Reserve Cabernet series. 


In the words of Macario, Roots Run Deep wines are “uniq z aue in the marketplace right now. No-one has the same story in sourcing, with the personal touch and personal scale,” he says. Relationships have been established with selected producers and, even though there is a “stable core of backbone vineyards”, the company is constantly searching for “undiscovered vineyards”.

Volcano Winery welcomes visitors to paradise
Volcano Winery welcomes visitors to paradise

Volcano Winery, How High Can you get! Did I mention Hawaii earlier? However you arrive in Hawaii, by air or by sea, you are first and foremost informed that you have arrived in Paradise. So too does the Volcano Winery announce that you are about to have a winetasting in Paradise (www.volcanowinery. com). The winery was an unexpected find on a visit to the volcano on Big Island in Hawaii. A selection of four to six wines, mostly on the sweet side with names like Volcano Blush, Hawaiian Guava-Grape, Macadamia Nut Honey and Volcano Red and the much awarded Infusian Tea Wine. The winery needs to be congratulated on its efforts to keep up production in not the easiest circumstances of soil, climate or elevation. In fact, it bought good soil from the mainland and vines from the cold Cayuga region of the lake district in New York state to enable better production at its vineyard based at an elevation of 4100 ft. This spring they plan to release 145 bottles a dry white with citrus notes and good minerality from Estate Cayuga.

Moving on… Visiting California? Be sure to stop at Landmark Vineyards and Roots Run Deep winery to discover some great wines.