If I had a nickel for every time Colleen and I drove past the Korbel winery on River Road in the Russian River Valley, I might have enough money for a BART ride to the East Bay. Truth be told, I hadn’t had a Korbel wine in many years, if ever. All I knew is that they mass-produce sparkling wine. Colleen and I have been saying that we need to go on the tour for years…
Well, just this last weekend, Colleen bought me a night at our favorite somewhat-sketchy wine country hotel, The Sandman, as a birthday gift. It’s a magical place; loads of pillows, hot tub, pool, Carrow’s across the parking lot, and most importantly a waffle iron in the continental breakfast room. That’s right, after sleeping atop your mountain of pillows, you can wake up and go eat as many waffles as you can before you rupture your stomach, then get into the hot tub. It’s heaven. Rooms are only about $100 per night and they have good availability.
Looking for things to do to pass the time while in wine country (or Winelandia, we we call it), we decided that a trip to Korbel was in the cards. We are big fans of cheap-or-free things to do, and we’ve pretty thoroughly burned ourselves out on wine tasting in the area. At the very least, we thought it would be fun to pretend to be wine tourists for the day.
Above: Colleen being a wine tourist
The tour itself lasted about an hour and was led by a very enthusiastic guide. She showed us some of the older structures which were built when the winery was a saw mill. The land the winery resides on used to be a dense old-growth redwood forest, which was clear-cut to make room for the winery. They milled and sold the wood to builders in San Francisco, and later built a winery. Next, the guide took us down to the old cellars, by far the most interesting part of the trip. Down there they had huge, old, large-format oak casks, which until about 2012 were used for aging the Korbel wines. These casks were retired and left in the cellar since they would be difficult to remove due to their size. I noticed the barrel hoops were loose and the staves were beginning to separate, due to being left empty.
Next, we were taken to the area where the wines were riddled before riddling was taken off-site. The second owner of the Korbel winery actually invented an automated riddling rack, which made the riddling process much easier and faster than doing it by hand. It was a pretty cool machine, and with the flip of a switch the bottles on the riddling machine would rattle and shake, then jolt into another position. The tour guide demonstrated this process, which was both noisy and fascinating.
There were oddities all over this place, strange equipment from yesteryear that you would probably need a historian to identify. If anyone knows what this thing is, please let me know, because I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me (and was also too lazy to ask!).
At the end of the tour, we were taken to a room which hosted the World’s Largest Bottle of “Champagne”, as well as the World’s Largest “Champagne” Goblet. This was definitely the icing on the cake. The only thing left to do was taste the “California Champagne” that made Korbel a household name.
After being led to the tasting room, we tasted a flight of 8 wines, picking the ones we thought were most interesting. Our favorite was the Korbel Brut “California Champagne” made from organic grapes, which was the most palatable of all the wines. I lost it when we got to the “Moscato Frizzante California Champagne”, because there is just so much wrong with that sentence.
In conclusion, the Korbel tour is full of history and interesting factoids about the early California wine industry, how Korbel survived prohibition, and the industrialization of Korbel wines. We learned why Korbel is allowed to call their wine Champagne, which is something that France wants them to stop doing. The building itself is really cool, and worth checking out if you’re in the area with some time to kill. The tour is free, as is the tasting. More information can be found here: http://www.korbel.com/winery/