By Ruthann Terrero
If you’re seeking a total immersion into all things wine in Sonoma and Napa counties, Artisan Wine Tours is a great option. Luxury Travel Advisor recently spent an entire day with Lin Durling, founder of the company, and learned that he provides more than just a classy way of getting around the backroads of one of our favorite regions in the U.S. (Think custom-designed Lincoln Navigator, which comfortably seats six.) In fact, we found that he is the go-to person to personally take you to the little tucked-away gems in the winery world, not readily open to the public, which can be visited by appointment only.
The planning process: Durling, who works only through travel advisors, is meticulous at determining your oenophile leanings before plotting out your customized experience, which can last for a day or more if you like. He’s a great listener and is keenly intent on preparing as much as possible ahead of time to make certain that you’ll have a great day. Best part? He is local, living north of Kenwood, so his neighbors are the wineries. This means he’s close friends with most of the great vintners in the region who highly respect him, so you’re ensured of a top-notch experience, wherever you go. Of note is the fact that he doesn’t accept gratuities from the wineries, so his only bias leans toward making sure your needs are served. Bonus: He also has an insider’s perspective on the area’s top hotels, restaurants and shopping experiences.
Consider these options: If you’re in San Francisco on business, or even on leisure, and don’t have a car, Durling, who has been the owner/operator of Artisan Wine Tours for five years, will pick you up at your hotel and drive you north to wine country for a day of immersion with the best wineries. If you’re in San Francisco on a long layover, say, en route to Hawaii, he can still do the same.
Our day in Sonoma County with Durling went something like this: We first visited Robert Hunter Winery, the home and winery of a former banker in San Francisco. Kurt Hemenway led us on a tour of the beautiful grounds, on which every step of the way you’ll find an unusual planting. That’s because when Hunter married Seattle landscaper Ann Smith, she brought her plantings to Sonoma with her. All of them; in three 18-wheeler trucks. You won’t find grand gates to the estate here, just a comfortable home on a fabulous plot of land overlooking the vineyards, where guests by appointment are invited into the living room to sample the estate’s wines. We tried Brut de Noirs, a Sonoma Valley sparkling wine from 2001 whose bubbles are so refined you don’t have to worry about having a champagne headache the next day. We also sampled a 2006 Pinot Noir and “red-wine lover’s Chardonnay” and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, all delightful. Don’t expect any so-so wine at the Hunter’s; if the crop of grapes that comes in doesn’t suit standards, management will sell the grapes.
Next stop was Hanzell Vineyards, which is acclaimed as having the oldest chardonnay vines in California. Nice Touch: The Hanzell house is a replica of a chateau, and its grounds are strategically placed so that on a clear day you can see straight to San Francisco. For over 50 years, Hanzell Vineyards has grown, produced and bottled Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which are produced solely from its estate-grown grapes.
Our exclusive experience included several hours with Michael McNeil, who is responsible for all of Hanzell’s wines “from the grape to the bottle.” He started here as a harvest lab technician and evolved into the role of winemaker, yet now considers himself a farmer. In fact, a visit with McNeil to the estate’s vineyards revealed an acute sensitivity as to how the vines were faring as he examined their status carefully at every step.
That’s significant of traveling around Sonoma or Napa with Artisan Wine Tours, with Durling. You get up close with the winemakers and out into the vineyard to examine the buds on the vine.
We tried a 2010 Sebella Chardonnay (fermented in all stainless steel barrels), a 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay and a 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir.
Key to McNeil’s winemaking is that he has deep respect for Hanzell’s tradition and wants those sampling his wines to know they are indeed from Hanzell. (“I appreciate the legacy,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.) As exclusive as the wines are, visitors to the by-appointment-only vineyard get to drive around the entire grounds in an SUV and enjoy a private tasting with the winemaker.
Our final stop was at Loxton Cellars, where Durling treated us to a sumptuous picnic lunch of artisan baguettes of bread and triple crème cheeses from local purveyor, Chez Panisse.
What’s unique about Loxton is that the tasting room is the actual workplace for the winery; the wine is bottled right there, so guests get to experience winemaking firsthand. Loxton serves up a variety of wines, but owner and winemaker Chris Loxton says his desire is to develop the best possible.
Luxury travel advisors take note: Durling says he can help your clients to plot a surprise engagement and even let the vineyard management in on the secret. He emphasizes that he is not a DMC, rather, his goal is to keep experiences small and personal. He also prides himself on not adding on layers of fees, which isn’t necessary, since he is the owner/operator of Artisan Wine Tours.
That’s the scoop. Durling dropped us off at our San Francisco hotel just as dinnertime was rolling around. We felt we’d spent a day fully immersed with the best Sonoma has to offer and in a very concentrated period of time. Charter programs can begin at your door in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, San Francisco, Oakland, central Contra Costa County or Marin County.
Contact Lin Durling directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to create your own experience.