We asked long-time Sunset Magazine travel editor Peter Fish to visit Winters and tell us what he found there ~ here is his entertaining report.
HERE WE ARE, my wife and I, in downtown Winters, California, on a fine Saturday afternoon. On the sidewalk on Main Street, just outside Berryessa Gap Vineyards’ tasting room, a small sandwich board sign shares a profound piece of wisdom: WINE IS ALWAYS THE ANSWER.
This day in Winters, we quickly learn the sign is correct. If your questions are: (A) how to spend a really fun afternoon; and (B) explore a very pretty downtown; and (C) meet interesting people, wine-tasting in Winters is always the answer.
WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT WINE TOURING IN WINTERS
Wine touring in downtown Winters offers the all the things you like most about wine tasting—notably sampling some really good wines–but avoids all the things you don’t like: traffic, crowds, snootiness. There are four tasting rooms within a few blocks, making it easy to fall in love with a Sauvignon Blanc on one block, and then fall in even deeper love with a Zin on the next.
Our first stop was the place with the sign: Berryessa Gap Vineyards tasting room. Berryessa Gap was started by the Martinez family about 15 years ago, although co-owner Corinne Martinez explains that her family has been in the wine industry since the 1960s, growing rootstock they sold to wineries. When Corinne’s brother Dan returned to Winters after graduating from Cal Poly, the family made the leap to growing grapes and producing their own vintages.
“We really try to be true to where we are,” Corinne told me. “We’re a warmer growing climate than Napa. We focus on the grapes that do well here. And we like to honor our Spanish heritage—that’s taken us to the Tempranillos and Verdelhos.
We began tasting. First I tried the Verdelho. “It has notes of green apple and mango,” the fellow pouring the wines told us. I could taste the green apple, but I wasn’t sure about the mango. In fact, I wasn’t sure what mango would taste like in wine. From there, we moved on to a sprightly Sauvignon Blanc—the wine Corinne Martinez had said was one of her favorites—and then to the reds, starting with the Malbec. “Very fruit forward,” the wine pourer said. My wife and I decided we liked fruit forward.
STROLLING WINTERS HANDSOME HISTORIC DOWNTOWN
After five tastes of five good wines, we walked back out onto Main Street. We watched Lyrica-clad cyclists zooming up from the historic bridge that crosses Putah Creek, and saw a lot of people like us wine tasting and window shopping. That’s another part of the Winters wine story—the tasting rooms have helped revitalize an unusually handsome downtown. Winters’ collection of late 19th and early 20th century buildings are so notable that Main Street has been put on the National Register of Historic Places. Still, says Corrine Martinez, for a while “downtown went very down and quiet.” The influx of tasting rooms, she says, has brought new vitality. “We have this real vibrancy, with multiple restaurants and art galleries. Winters is reinventing itself.”
Then a distraction. I was primed to taste more wine. But right next door is Cloth Carousel, a knitting shop—and my wife is a serious, passionate knitter. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said, and I found a seat outside the store, sitting on a bench beside a giant orange ball of yarn displayed on the sidewalk. The minute passed, and then a few more. My wife reappeared. “This is an amazing yarn store,” she said. “Really unusual yarns. I’m going to be awhile.”
That was OK with me. I liked sitting outside watching the Winters afternoon go by. I did learn that if you’re sitting in public next to a giant ball of yarn, people passing by assume that you are somehow responsible for the yarn.
“Boy,” they’d tell me. “That sure is a big ball of yarn.”
“It sure is,” I’d say.
“How’d you get so much yarn?”
“I collected it. I’m very thrifty.”
Finally my wife was done with her yarn shopping, and we realized we were hungry. Luckily part of downtown Winter’s revival means that there are a number of good places to eat. We walked around the corner to Preserve Public House. It’s a stylishly rustic restaurant, old ranch house meets dwell magazine, that takes pride in a seasonal menu making the most of Yolo County’s agricultural bounty. I ordered a Berryessa Burger. My wife, being health-minded, ordered the fried Brussels sprouts with bacon, kumquat ginger syrup, and chicharrones.
I think the Brussels sprouts were the highlight of her year. “I’ve eaten a lot of Brussels sprouts,” she told me, “And these are the best Brussels sprouts I’ve ever eaten. Try them,” she insisted.
I did. They were as good as she said.
“Plus,” she added, “once you’ve had Brussels sprouts you can feel virtuous and then go have more wine.”
WINERIES HELP WINTERS RE-INVENT ITSELF
And that is what we did. Next stop: Turkovich Family Wines tasting room, housed in one of those handsome historic buildings Winters specializes in. Turkovich is another example of a Winters family reinventing itself—and helping reinvent their town.
“I grew up in Winters,” Chris Turkovich told me. “I went down to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo knowing I was going to do something in ag. Our family farmed lots of other crops, but wine wasn’t on my radar at all. Then I got interested in viticulture.”
He got so interested, in fact, that his senior project was a business plan for a vineyard and winery. When he graduated he returned to Winters and showed the plan to his father. The project had earned him an A in college; his dad was a tougher grader. “He ripped it apart,” Turkovich says. “It took three or four tries before we got it to something acceptable.”
But the end results are more than acceptable, they’re inspiring. We sat in Turkovich’s handsome tasting room and sampled a fine Albarino, an appealing Grenache, and one terrific red, Cosecha VII (it’s only available at the tasting room and from the Turkovich wine club) that blends Graciano and Grenache and Tempranillo. Even better, all the wines were paired with cheeses from the Winters Cheese Company, which shares space in the tasting room (and is run by Chris’ brother Dan).
The finale was Turkvich’s most famous wine, a red blend named The Boss. And, yeah, it’s named not for Springsteen but for the guy who gave Chris Turkovich so much trouble over his business plan: his father. “Actually,” Turkovich said, “if you ask him he’ll say the wine is named for my mom because she’s his boss.” Whoever the true family boss is, The Boss, the wine, is just terrific.
Then I made a short drive out of town to see two more Winters attractions—Berryessa Gap’s winery tasting room and, next door, Berryessa Brewing Company. I would have been happy to linger an hour sampling more wine and maybe an IPA or two, but I was saving myself for the day’s finale.
That was back downtown at Buckhorn Steakhouse. Housed in the gorgeous old De Vilbiss Hotel and now owned by John Pickerel, the Buckhorn is probably the most famous place in Winters, drawing hungry, carnivorous diners from all over California. Even before the doors opened, there was a line stretching half a block down Main Street.
It was worth the short wait. Buckhorn is a joyous temple to beef—sure, there are lots of other things on the menu, but what most people head towards are the tri-tip, steaks and prime ribs. My wife and I were briefly tempted by the “Dinner For Two,” featuring a 48-ounce Certified Angus Beef Tomahawk Rib Eye, but realized we weren’t the two people who could eat that much beef at one sitting. (If our 19-year-old son had been with us, well, that would have been another story.)
Instead we opted for the Peppercorn Sirloin and the Buck Sirloin. And wine, of course. As it happens, Buckhorn serves its own signature red wine, produced for the restaurant by Turkovich Vineyards. It tasted like a cousin to The Boss: authoritative, forceful. It was time for a toast. What’s the perfect accompaniment to a sirloin? What’s the perfect way to end a really fun Saturday? Once again, in Winters, wine was the answer.
WHERE TO GO
Berryessa Gap Vineyards. 15 Main Street; (530) 795-3201; open 11:30m,-8:30pm Tuesday-Sunday. Winery tasting room: 27260 Hwy 128, Winters; (530) 795-3345; open 12-6 Thursday-Sunday.
Turkovich Family Wines. 304 Railroad Ave.; (530) 795-3842. Open daily 11-5.
Buckhorn Steakhouse. 2 Main St.; (530) 795-4503; open daily for dinner.
Preserve Public House. 200 Railroad Ave.; (530) 795-9963; open for lunch and dinner daily except Tuesday.
Cloth Carousel. 14 Main Street, Winters; (530) 794-6114. Open daily 10-5.
Peter Fish is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He worked as a senior travel editor for Sunset Magazine for many years; his more recent work has included contributions to San Francisco Chronicle special travel sections.