I’ve been spending a lot of time at Chimney Rock Winery lately, partly because I’ve been signing books in their tasting room (and we’ve been selling a lot of books, which is fantastic), but mostly, it’s because the people are so nice, like Tom Trzesniewski (pronounced “tres-new-ski”, with an emphasis on the “tres”). Tom is the retail manager at Chimney Rock. He owned his own business for 11 years, ran businesses for other people, and retired in 2003, so he could do what he loves the most. The other day, Tom gave me, and some friends of mine from Chicago, a vineyard tour of the estate and barrel tasting. We were standing in the vineyard, and Tom was pointing out to us an outcropping of crags on the eastern face of the Vaca Range, called Chimney Rock, which the winery was named after. Tom tells us that a chief of the Wappo tribe that settled the area thousands of years ago had chased a white stag up into the palisades, and to escape, the stag leaped from one palisade to another. Considering the distance between those palisades today, either the chief was an awfully good storyteller, or it wasn’t a stag at all, but a reindeer. But Reindeer’s Leap doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Stag’s Leap does.
Tom moved on to explain how these palisades on the eastern face of the Vaca Range tend to heat up during the day, causing thermal winds to swirl around the Stag’s Leap district in a unique way. In the summer months, the swirling air keeps the region cooler, lengthening the time the grapes will hang on the vines. This translates into softer tannins in the finished wine, while giving them an enviable ability to age.
Maybe the reason why Tom knows so much is that he’s not just the retail manager, he’s also a wine educator. It’s says so on his business card. Actually, all the wine tasting staff are wine educators, come to think of it, like Mike Morf (with an emphasis on “morf”). He was telling me this story the other day about his late father-in-law, which has nothing to do with wine, but it’s a really funny story. His late father-in-law immigrated to California at the early part of the last century with his identical twin brother, from the north coast of France, which, incidentally, is a region known for pirates. Mike jokes with a twinkle in his eye that the instinct for piracy was probably embedded in their genes. They somehow became owners of a gas station in the early 1940s and quickly made enemies of all their competitors by underpricing their gas and cornering all the retail trade by buying bulk parts and supplies by the box-car load. The funny part comes when the brothers discover that if they buy three box-car loads of parts, or more, they can get them even cheaper. So they hire a guy to go around to their competitors and his job is to bad mouth the brothers, complaining bitterly how they won’t do business with him, and he has all these cheap parts and supplies, and if they buy them from him, they can screw the brothers. No one ever caught on that they were actually buying from them. Classic.
And then there’s Tom Ebert (who needs no emphasis), who I’ve noticed is building his dinner menu while he’s pouring wines for guests. Some of them sound so delicious, when I hear him describe them, my mouth waters -- like his dry shiitake mushroom encrusted halibut. It sounded so good that I went home that night and tried it myself. What you do is you take some dried shiitake mushrooms, and you pulverize them in a food processor with some garlic powder, salt and pepper, and some rice flour to crisp up the coating. You coat your fish with the mixture, and sauté in some butter for 1-1.5 minutes on each side on medium high heat. And what a fantastic fish recipe it turned out to be, and I might add, a perfect pairing with Chimney Rock’s award-winning wines, red or white.
All the people I’ve met at Chimney Rock – Tom, Mike, Tom, Joan, Ashley, Curtis, and Doug Fletcher, the winemaker – have been a delight. Mrs. Wilson seems to agree with me. She is 94 years old, and started Chimney Rock with her husband in the mid 1980s. She lives in the house on the hill above the vineyards, and still comes to the winery to pick up her wine, shake hands, and visit. Who wouldn’t?