10 Stunning Wine Destinations You Need To Visit
One of the best things about the end of a year is reflecting back on all of the highlights of the past 12 months! This year has been action-packed, that's for sure. Instead of naming my Top 10 Favorite Wines of the year, like so many wine writers tend to do, I wanted to share with you my favorite wine moments. Because that's really what The Lush Life is all about--- not only what's in your glass, but who you're sharing it with, the stories of the people that made the wine, and the scenery and food and music that you're enjoying while drinking it!
Pictured above was the first day of my first ever trip to Sicily.... I was straight off the plane visiting Stemmari Winery, and since I was staying at the winery I went up to my room to freshen up quickly. When I came down for apertivo, I was handed a glass of rosé and brought out to this gorgeous view overlooking the vineyards, planted on millions of years of volcanic ash and lava rocks. The sea is just beyond the hills in the background! Needless to say I thought I was in absolute heaven... a true 'pinch me' moment I never would have imagined 3 years ago when I started this site (#followyourdreams y'all!). The evening extended into a feast of delicious Sicilian food in the winery courtyard while a jazz band played the night away. I definitely fell in love with Sicily during the week I was there.
Here are my 9 other most memorable wine moments:
Cruising California's Central Coast
The best way to explore the Central Coast wine country of California? In a vintage Mustang convertible, of course! This experience was such a memorable one because not only is winding up the Pacific Coast Highway in a classic car pretty incredible, but getting to take in the beauty of the region through the lens of the awesome wineries there was a total eye-opener. I had spent a lot of time previously in Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles- but driving from Santa Barbara up to San Jose and discovering the diversity of terroir and the quality of the wines being made in the Central Coast--- at relative bargain prices--- proved to me that this emerging region is one to watch! I visited Bridlewood Estate, located on a former horse ranch in Santa Ynez, Edna Valley Vineyards making excellent cool-climate Chardonnay just 5 miles from the beach in San Luis Obispo, and Talbott Vineyards pouring awesome Pinot Noir at their tasting room in Carmel.
Harvesting Pinot Noir Grapes in Austria
Believe it or not, 2017 brought my very first harvest experience! I was thrilled to be invited by Esterhazy Winery in Burgenland to get a hands-on experience picking Pinot Noir grapes in one of their estate vineyards. After a couple hours, I definitely got the full picture of how labor-intensive hand harvesting is- our backs and knees were truly feeling it, as we tried to keep moving and stay warm in the chilly Austrian morning. Because they have constant issues with hungry birds sweeping down to plunder the ripest clusters, they hire people to walk through the vineyards, shooting guns into the air to scare the birds away (they halfway joke that it's a way to offer the old men of the village a bit of fun and a little extra income!) A bit unnerving for this New Yorker to constantly be hearing gunshots in the vineyard, but a truly memorable day, with a well-deserved cup of hot cocoa on Lake Neusiedl afterwards.
Falling In Love with Old Vine Garnacha in Spain
2017 brought my first-ever trip to Spain! I travelled to Cariñena, the wine region right outside of Zaragoza, to go straight to the heart of legendary Garnacha country--- of which many of the vines are 80-100 years old. These bush-trained vines (as you can see in the pic, they are not trellised), were just beginning to generate buds as I was there in early spring. They are tough and gnarly, and the soil is rough and rocky- not exactly what you would imagine as fertile ground! But the truth of vine cultivation is that to an extent, the poorer the soil is, the stronger the vines are and give the most high-quality, concentrated fruit: you want the vines to struggle a bit; and that they do in Cariñena! The wines there are all produced via Co-op: hundreds of small family farmers sell their grapes to whichever Bodega they are a member of, and as each Co-op has a technical director overseeing the agriculture and fruit quality, it's a fascinating study in how communities can bond together to produce something truly extraordinary. The wines are fabulous: I visited Bodegas San Valero, Bodegas Paniza, and Grandes Vinos Y Viñedos.
Going With The Flow: Biodynamics in the South of France
At Gerard Bertand's estates in France's Languedoc-Rousillon region, Biodynamic farming is serious business--- and their crown jewel is definitely the stunningly beautiful Clos d'Ora Estate, tended by my new buddies Victorieux (the mule) and Link (the dog)! If you're not familiar with Biodynamics, it's a farming system that embraces among many methods the view of the vineyard (or farm) as a complete ecosystem- and animals connecting with the earth are an important part of that. Biodynamic wines are a subject I will be covering a lot more in 2018, so keep your eyes on this space for more on that! The Languedoc is in and of itself a fairytale--- other highlights of the trip included a visit to Carcassonne (a medieval fortress city and castle), a beach day (French Mediterranean, so beautiful) and a successful attempt at cooking like a French girl when I made the perfect cheese souffle! I can't wait to return to France.
Blending My Own Wine in Napa
Nothing teaches you more about of winemaking than blending your own! Last April, I visited Conn Creek Winery, the source of some of Napa Valley's finest Cabernets, where their barrel blending experience kicks off with a tasting of barrels from all over the Valley guided by the amazing tasting room staff- so you can get a good grip on how all the varied terroir and different microclimates show up in the wines from all the different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas)... aka, a wine geek's dream come true. Then, put your winemaker hat and blend, blend, blend away! You can even trick out your cuvee with dashes of other Bordeaux varietals like Merlot or Malbec. Your custom blend is bottled for you, and you get to create the label artwork also (I made a label in tribute to my brother Matt who I lost earlier this year). The final product is a souvenir like no other! I recommended this as a Father's Day gift this year. It's the perfect intro to Napa Valley: Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience, $125/person.
There's No Place Like Home: Wine Tour of New York's Fingerlakes
At some point this year, I realized that I have spend far more time in the vineyards of Europe than checking out the local wine scene in my own state--- and I knew that had to change. I dedicated some time this summer to the Fingerlakes region in upstate New York. I have to tell you, nothing could have prepared me for the incredible quality of the wines I experienced! I came back to Brooklyn just feeling so incredibly excited about Lakewood Vineyards (pictured above), Wagner Vineyards, Sheldrake Point, Lamoreaux Landing, Red Newt Cellars, and so many more. The scene is so vibrant with tons of breweries, distilleries, farmstands, and just fun little surprises. If you go treat yourself to a wonderful chocolate-and-cocktail pairing at Rue Claire--- and tell Claire I sent you!
A Meaningful Wine In The Italian Mediterranean
Wine benefits the soul--- I'm sure you all agree or you wouldn't be here!--- but can it also benefit society? This was the question posed by Lamberto Frescobaldo, President of the legendary Tuscan wine family, who wanted to find a way to positively impact the world in a bigger way. So he formed a partnership with Gorgona, a tiny prison island off the southwest coast of Tuscany. Accessible only by boat, and open to visitors only one day a year, the beautiful and idyllic island houses a farm with a cheesemaking operation and livestock, vegetable gardens, and also a vineyard where Frescobaldi pays prisoners a fair union wage to tend the vines, harvest the grapes, and make the wine (under the supervision of their expert team). The result? 4,000 bottles of wine every year (based on Ansonica and Vermentino grapes) and prisoners who now have a skilled trade giving them hope for active employment upon their release. I was so honored to be one of the chosen few to visit--- and I will never forget the day I spent on Gorgona. Hearing one of the prisoners tell me, 'my son is so proud, he can tell his friends that his father works for Frescobaldi' was so incredibly inspiring. The fact that these prisoners are reclaiming their humanity through connecting with the earth and the vine is a story that is so much bigger than just a bottle of vino.
Sipping World-Class Sauvignon Blanc at the J Class World Championships
I was thrilled to be a guest of iconic New Zealand winery, Cloudy Bay, up in Newport over the summer as they sponsored the J Class World Championship: a thrilling race of the finest vintage yachts in the world. Being on the ocean, in a naturally luxurious setting was pure bliss.. and getting to hang out with winemaker Tim Heath and get a front-row view of the races was a dream! Plus, I got to drink Cloudy Bay in these awesome nautical pants, so.... I'd say that's winning ;)
Family Rosé Picnic in Walla Walla, Washington
Traveling the world for wine work professionally has given me opportunities I would never have dreamed of a couple years ago when I started this blog. But this summer, I got to visit Walla Walla, Washington with my family--- celebrating my Dad's 70th Bday--- and we did some wine tasting together which was so much fun! One of my favorite memories of the trip was a picnic we had at Va Piano Vineyards. On a tip from a friend, we picked up lunch from gourmet sandwich spot Graze, and drove out to Va Piano where their courtyard had us feeling Tuscany vibes. A bottle of Cab Franc rosé was the perfect sipper for a harmonious afternoon. On a personal note, we have had a tough year as a family and I am so thankful for them, their support, and the time we get to spend together.
Wishing all of you a smashing, peace-love-and-wine-filled 2018!