A taste of what California vintners will be pouring at this year’s Nantucket Wine Festival.
What does perfection taste like? Apparently, I’m about to find out. Three glasses of red wine are set before me. The one closest was given a rating of ninety-seven from the prince of palates himself, revered wine critic Robert Parker, while the other two were awarded straight-up perfect scores. A bottle of each of these wines retails for around the cost of a car payment — and a nice car at that. I reach for the furthest glass, give it a swirl, raise it to my nose, and then take a sip. Flavors explode in my mouth like Pop Rocks: fruits, spices, a silky essence of what I can only describe as “luxury.” I’m no Robert Parker, but every one of my taste buds knows that this is nectar of the gods. Indeed, sampling these wines is an incredibly rare opportunity, but come this May, you too will have the chance to taste perfection at the Nantucket Wine Festival.
Seated to my left is the man responsible for these award-winning wines, sixty-five-year-old winemaker Pierre Seillan of Vérité Vineyards in Sonoma, California. He’s flanked by the Nantucket Wine Festival’s executive director, Nancy Bean, as well as Mark Donato and his wife, Beth English. “Even after just eighteen years, Vérité is at the top, but we still have a way to go,” Seillan tells us, raising his glass and studying its muddy red contents with an air of showmanship. “In fifty years, I believe Vérité will be the most exceptional wine in the world.” Seillan is not alone in this conjecture. His winery holds the rare distinction of receiving perfect scores for not one or two of its wines, but twelve. As a result, the winemaker himself has become something of an icon, and the Nantucket Wine Festival has been longing to see him on Nantucket. This May, they’ll finally get their wish. Seillan and his wife will be pouring their celebrated creations at the Thursday night Gala, the Grand Tasting and at a wine seminar. Put Vérité on your list to seek out.
The Wine Festival’s connection to California wineries has been long and fruitful, stretching back to the early days of Denis Toner, who founded the festival twenty years ago this May. “The wineries are the heartbeat of the festival,” Toner told me. “And since the beginning, Californian wineries have grown with the festival, becoming ultra-high quality and an expression of the land.” Back when Toner popped the cork on his first festival, California was just budding in the wine world as a legitimate player. Today, Napa and Sonoma continue to represent a large swath of the vineyards and wineries featured at the festival.
“About 70 percent return to the island each year, and about 30 percent are new,” explained Nancy Bean, who took over the running of the festival along with Mark Goldweitz, in 2012. “Napa and Sonoma winemakers are down-to-earth and approachable. They are farmers and scientists and hippies and music-lovers. Big personalities. Nantucket embraces them all.” And that’s exactly why I’m here in California today: To meet a handful of the characters making for our shores this May.
After leaving Vérité, I drive thirty miles south, up a steep, switch-backed road, where Pride Mountain Vineyard literally straddles the border of Sonoma and Napa. Stuart Bryan, the operation’s vintner ambassador and husband of one of Pride Mountain’s founders, has been attending the festival on and off for over a decade. Pride Mountain is a festival favorite and Bryan’s tasting table invariably attracts a long line of attendees hoping for a generous pour. “We pay those people,” Bryan jokes, as he leads me into the depths of a candlelit cave lined with barrels branded with Pride’s insignia. More than 50 percent of the Pride Mountain wines sold in Massachusetts are purchased on Nantucket. In fact, Pride ships more wine to The Galley Beach Club alone than it does to most states. In addition to pouring at the Grand Tasting at this year’s festival, Bryan and his wife, Suzanne, will be joining five other top producers in a seminar that will dig into the rich terroir of California’s legendary Cabs. The seminar, “California Dreamin’”, will take place on May 20th at the Dreamland Theater.
Fifteen miles to the east of Pride Mountain, I pull into the heart of Santa Rosa where longtime
Nantucket summer resident Tripp Donelan welcomes me into the epicenter of his family’s boutique winemaking operation. It’s been a big year for Donelan Family Wines, having purchased the ten-acre vineyard, Obsidian, where they source their award-winning Syrah. “Nantucket and Sonoma County are two very special places for us,” Donelan tells me. “It was on Nantucket where my father began his journey into wine.” Donelan’s father, Joe, launched Donelan Family Wines (formerly Pax) in 2008, and today his wine is collected by some of the most discerning connoisseurs in the world. “The customers that we have on the island are the ones we’re looking for,” Joe Donelan told me over the phone. “They’re people that love to entertain, love things that are special and unique. They’re artists, chefs, and lovers of food and wine who are passionate about what they do and what they share with others.” At this year’s festival, Joe and his sons Tripp and Cushing Donelan will be pouring rosé, two chardonnays, pinot noir, syrah, and possibly a few surprises yet to be tasted at the festival. So seek them out — I promise you won’t be disappointed.
To top off my California tour, I swing by another East Coast / West Coast connection that will be bubbling to the surface at this year’s festival. Produced in the heart of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, Champy is a sparkling wine recently launched by Boston-based television host and longtime Nantucket-lover Jenny Johnson. The two-time Emmy-award-winning co-host of NESN’s Dining Playbook, Johnson has poured her passion for the restaurant industry into a bottle by teaming up with distinguished winemaker Penny Gadd-Coster. “Champy is all about transforming ordinary moments into extraordinary ones,” Johnson says as Gadd-Coster leads us into the heart of their operation. Workers scurry about, bottling, labeling, and moving giant pallets of sparking wine with forklifts. The scene is yet another reminder of how diverse the face of winemaking is in California. “Everyday is supposed to be fun, and Champy’s bubbles lend themselves to that,” says Gadd-Coster, who was named Winemaker of the Year in 2013. “You wake up in the morning and just want to be Champy.” While Gadd-Coster will not be able to attend this year’s festival, Johnson will be on hand emceeing this year’s Culinary Marketplace and pouring her brand new bubbles throughout the festival.
“Every year we are graced with the presence of wineries and winemakers from around the world, but there is something magical about our California vintners,” says Nancy Bean. “California is young compared to the old world regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, and Tuscany, so we keep discovering West Coast producers who are pushing the limits, continuing to perfect their approach to growing, harvesting, crushing, and blending.”
Indeed, the wineries and vineyards I visited make up only a fraction of the Californian showstoppers strutting their stuff at this year’s festival — which really illustrates what a remarkable festival it is. Within the confines of the White Elephant and other venues around the island, you can go on a tasting tour that would be otherwise impossible to pack into a month or year, let alone three days. And as I learned, it’s meeting the people behind the wines that makes the experience all the more delicious.
WHERE TO STAY IN SONOMA
If you’re looking to visit these wineries for yourself, make the Healdsburg Hotel your base of operations. Located on the corner of Healdsburg Square, the hotel marries exquisite amenities with impeccable hospitality. Bonus tip: Finish a long day of tasting by dining at their adjoining restaurant, The Dry Creek Kitchen. To make reservations, log on to hotelhealdsburg.com.