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Carignane at Porter Creek Vineyards

I found the perfect wine to suit my peasant palate!

On a recent trip to visit C.C. in San Francisco, aka foodie HEAVEN, I had the opportunity to eat at Bouchon and Cyrus—two of the best restaurants in the country—on the same day. But more about that in a future post.

The hours between those two glittering jewels were spent driving around the countryside of Napa and Sonoma with C.C.’s boyfriend (B.F.), who also took us to some of his favorite wineries. We started the day at Chimney Rock, where we sampled what was described as a “bright and sassy” Cabernet and a sophisticated rosé. They were both, as everything is in Napa, wonderful, perfect, and polished to a rustic sheen.

Later that afternoon in Sonoma, BF suddenly turned the car onto a long unpaved driveway leading us to Porter Creek Vineyards. We parked in the grass and walked up a small hill to a large, open, garage-like room that was packed with people tasting wine. A sweet, shaggy dog hovered near a gate separating the wine hut from the house he shares with the people that own both him and the vineyard. As we approached, he put his ears back and came over for a good back-scratch and then returned to staring at the gate.

Photo courtesy of seungpyo/David Hong

“Where did all these people come from?” said a confused B.F. “Every time I’ve been here before, I’m the only one. People must be catching on.”

C.C. and I shrugged and accepted a glass from the man pouring wine. We tried two pinots. One was lovely, the other less so. (Our server noticed us staring into our glasses and advised us to toss it in the bushes. The dog momentarily turned his gaze from the gate to watch.) The third wine, however, was outstanding. I loved how full and drinkable it was. It tasted like a strong, dry but fruity table wine that you could easily cook with as well as enjoy with a big meal of pasta or a nice steak. It wasn’t a nuanced, sophisticated affair. Instead, it was just good and it appealed to what I’ve come to describe as my peasant palate. Though haute cuisine is a tremendous privilege and pleasure, the food I crave is simple earthy stuff, mostly Italian.

“The wine you just tried is a Carignane,” explained the server. “It’s a very old vine that was planted here before Prohibition by Italian immigrants.”

“Of course!” I exclaimed loudly. “I’m able to taste my people.” C.C. laughed, knowing my nose for all things Italian. The dog got tired of the whole scene and ricocheted his body over the gate, teetering for a moment at the top before landing safely on the other side. He trotted off toward the house door and probably his own bed and blanket.

Back home, I did some reading and learned that the Carignane grape is planted far and wide but not particularly well regarded. It is often the source of the nondescript table wine found all over Spain, France and Italy. It descends from peasant grapes rather than royalty, resulting in its frequent dismissal. In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was described as the “frizzy-haired cousin to mellow Grenache or sharp-tongued Syrah.” (For those of you who know me personally, this description makes me like it all the better.) There are a few winemakers in California, Porter Creek included, who are giving Carignane a new shot at prominence.

Hence, it’s my new favorite wine and just in time for the winter and the big, long-simmering meals I’m looking forward to cooking. And doesn’t America always like to root for the underdog?

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  1. The Carignane grape is so unheard of outside of Europe. It is so great that you would try it in Sonoma. That is why traveling to wine country makes it so special. Finding places like this are great.

  2. I absolutely adore the wine country in California – it’s always a destination I return to again and again. Some of my best vacations have been spent there. Enjoyed learning about your experience!

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