JAZZIZ Travel Diary: Five Days in California Wine Country with Saxophonist Mindi Abair

It’s been said about wines — even the very best wines — that so much of the enjoyment comes from where you’re drinking them, and who you’re drinking them with. The house red can rival a Margaux, Mouton or La Tâche when poured between lifelong friends, or sipped at the corner table a thousand miles from home. Another well-worn saying is that age improves a bottle of vino. But the truly timeless things — good friends, lively conversation, great music — make it unforgettable. 

So if you’re a jazz fan, just imagine how good each sip of wine must taste in the company of smooth jazz royalty. Fortunately, JAZZIZ didn’t have to do much imagining when they were invited to attend the inaugural Reserve Tastings Wine+Jazz Adventure in Sonoma Valley, California, with saxophonist Mindi Abair. JAZZIZ was lucky enough to tag along as one of the 40 participants for this five-day, four-night trip, with lodgings in Healdsburg, California, but with daily excursions through the rolling vineyards and majestic mountains of Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and other points along Napa’s sister county to the west. 

It was a week full of high notes both literally and figuratively, full of exquisite wines by some of Sonoma’s best winemakers paired with multi-course dinners and intimate concerts featuring Abair and a duo of special musical guests in trumpeter Rick Braun and guitarist Randy Jacobs. For fans of contemporary jazz, these performances alone — stripped-down, personal, full of warmth — would have been worth the price of admission. For fans of contemporary jazz who also enjoy a nice glass of vino — and that’s a pretty wide overlap — this was the trip of a lifetime.

JAZZIZ was fortunate enough to tag along on the inaugural Wine + Music Adventure with Mindi Abair

Jazz and travel have coexisted comfortably for some time. Just ask anyone who has ever rubbed shoulders with their musical idols on a jazz cruise, or flown halfway around the world to attend the festival of their dreams. There’s something about jazz that just sounds better in a new zip code. Jazz and wine are close compatriots, too. Who among us hasn’t uncorked a bottle of Pinot Noir as a jazz record spun on the turntable? Yet it’s rare that a travel package places equal emphasis on the musical, culinary and leisure experiences of its guests — especially in the niche world of jazz. Yes, there are jazz cruises. And yes, there are wine county tours. But what happens when you combine the best of both? Abair’s Wine + Music Adventure filled that much-needed gap. 

It should come as no surprise that a pairing of this sort should spring from the mind of Abair, who has been trailblazing her way through jazz one way or another for nearly two decades. She’s piloted a career through blues, rock and pop, having shared the stage and recording booth with the likes of Aerosmith, Smokey Robinson, Gregg Allman, Keb’ Mo’, Adam Sandler, Duran Duran, Dave Koz, Mandy Moore and the Backstreet Boys. Her husband, Eric Guerra, has followed a similar path through the wine business, selling more than 20 million cases and developing more than 500 wine brands. Their wine club, Reserve Tastings, offers its members boutique wines, music-inspired labels and personally curated playlists on a quarterly basis. The Wine + Music trip is this creative duo’s latest venture, hatched in partnership with Zephyr United, a Montana-based travel company. Its promise: an itinerary packed with reds, whites and plenty of blues. 

Below is a day-by-day travel journal of that inaugural trip. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed attending it. But here’s a chaser: We can only communicate so much of a wine’s bouquet through the written word, only so much of a roaring Mindi Abair solo through pictures alone. If you’d like to sign up for your own Wine + Music Adventure, visit reservetastings.com/adventures. Reserve Tastings has already announced a Wine + Music Adventure through Tuscany, Italy, in November 2021 and a repeat of their Sonoma County trip in June of 2022. 

Day 1: Blues and Bubbly

Mindi Abair serenades the crowd during a wine tasting featuring Reserve Tasting’s best offerings. 

Healdsburg is one of about nine sleepy-chic cities that make up Sonoma County, which is situated an hour north of San Francisco. For this reporter, Day 1 of the trip began with a flight from Ft. Lauderdale into San Francisco International Airport (and a quick look around the newly redesigned, highly innovative Harvey Milk Terminal ), followed by a drive up Highway 101 through Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Pulling into Healdsburg, I was met by a charming, tree-lined downtown lined with hip hotels, Michelin-rated restaurants, antique shops, bars, coffee shops and, of course, wine stores. The beauty was panoramic, with each street seeming to end in a sprawling hillside. 

Homebase for the Wine + Music Adventure was the h2 Hotel, a boutique establishment with an emphasis on sophistication and eco-friendliness (just look to the hotel’s “green” roof, which was populated by succulents). After checking in and setting my luggage in the room — and a bite of the complimentary cookies and truffle potato chips — I headed to the hotel’s creekside patio for a group reception that also served as the trip’s first official wine tasting. Over tables bedecked with stemware and sweating bottles of champagne, and with the sunlight slanting through the trees, we sampled a number of perfectly named, perfectly balanced wines from Reserve Tastings, including So You Want To Be a Rock Star, a 2019 sauvignon blanc from the Rutherford region of Napa, and a 2018 Howl Mountain Viva La Musique, a cabernet sauvignon with notes of sweet cranberries, violet and that unmistakable Napa Valley spice. Good as the wines were on their own, their flavors were enhanced with musical pairings by Mindi, playing saxophone unaccompanied as the sun slipped below the horizon. No matter how sophisticated your palate, wines have a tendency to take on new depth and complexity when coupled with the sounds of a “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones, “Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith or a ballad by Sam Cooke. 

Dinner that night was outdoors at nearby Chalkboard, a true farm-to-table restaurant that marries the best of casual and contemporary, with fresh vegetables sourced from a dedicated 4.5-acre garden. As the rosé was poured, we dined on a multi-course feast featuring some seriously memorable dishes: a salad course of garden beets, pickled fennel, strawberries, toasted pecans and a goat cheese dressing; a bucatini pasta with parsley, garlic, chili flake and pecorino cheese; and roasted pork tenderloin with braised kale and huckleberry glaze. For those of us who weren’t too jet-lagged to party, it was followed by a night of drinks at the hotel bar in which good spirits — both literal and metaphorical — flowed freely.

Day 2: Jazz on the Hill   

Mindi Abair and a guest enjoy pre-wine glass of water at DeVaro Winery in Healdsburg, California.

Day 2 began bright and early with breakfast at h2’s in-house restaurant, Spoonbar. At 8 a.m., those of us who craved some morning exercise could attend either a creekside yoga lesson with Guerra or a casual stroll around town with Abair. Both were an ideal way to start a day filled with a healthy amount of wine-drinking and cheese-eating. 

First up on the agenda was a farm-to-table wine tasting experience at DaVero Farms & Winery. This 22-acre winery places an emphasis on sustainability and ecological harmony. It’s a biodynamic winery, which puts it a step above organic. No synthetic chemicals are used in the growing or manufacturing of the wine, and pests are controlled the natural way — “Good bugs help balance out the bad bugs,” said our host, Director of Operations Andrew Hock. Walking through the winery entrance we were welcomed into a bucolic garden, with trails winding through walls of flowers and fruit trees.

After a quick stroll the winery grounds — complete with a stop in a willow circle, a natural structure made from clippings of a single willow tree that grow toward each other in the shape of a dome — we settled into our seats in front of a spread of dried figs, smoked duck breast, cheeses, olives and other assorted nibbles, and awaited our wines. Out came a fine selection of DaVero’s vintages, beginning with a 2018 with estate-grown Frizzante with titillating fruit-forward aromatics, and through to the 2018 Sangiovese exhibiting bold red fruit and a pleasant chalkiness (and which is limited to just 60 cases). It was the ideal start to the trip, as it connected us to the flora and vegetation of Sonoma County in a very real way, showing us how the land itself can flavor an experience.

The Willow Circle at DaVero Winery

Our next stop of the day was for lunch and a private show at MacRostie Winery & Vineyards, home of some of the most acclaimed wine in Sonoma County. Our crew settled into a cluster of outdoor seating atop a hill overlooking the Russian River Valley, where we were treated to a lunch of locally sourced cheeses, almonds, grapes and dark chocolate. MacRostie pinot noir and chardonnay were in ample supply, and glasses were rarely empty for long. But the pinnacle of this stop was a “Jazz on the Hill” concert featuring Abair and singer Ashling Cole, a veteran of bands led by Prince, Carlos Santana and Bootsy Collins and a vocalist whose natural balance of power and precision-made her the perfect foil to Abair’s soul-stirring saxophone.

Ashling Cole, Rick Braun and Mindi Abair performing hillside at MacRostie Winery

The group received a jolt of additional star power with the addition of trumpeter Rick Braun, whose trumpet runs the stylistic gamut between silky smooth and sizzling hot, and who — it isn’t said enough — also plays himself a mean tambourine. By this time, this reporter had accumulated an impressive number of empty glasses around his plate, and with a pleasant buzz settling in, the scenic outdoor setting — overlooking lush, sloping hills in every direction — began to feel like the front row at a personal jazz festival. The air was crisp and clean. Songs by Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Sly and the Family Stone echoed across the hill. And yes, wine was poured until the very end. No one was surprised when the dancing began. 

Saini Vineyards, our final stop for the day, made for a pleasant transition into the late afternoon. Established in 1917, the vineyard has been in the Saini family for four generations, and everything about the vineyard reflects that history. Its above-ground wine cellar, for example, was built using bricks from the estate’s original wine cellar. Out in the vineyard, under an open sky, we walked through grapevines that were over 100 years old, with trunks thick enough to stand without trellises. It was out among those century-old grapevines that we sipped wines made by Mike Saini, a fourth-generation owner. A couple of those wines were even named for Mike’s kids, symbolizing the future of Saini wines. 

Enjoying good conversation and great wine amid 100-year-old grapevines at Saini Vineyards

That evening’s dinner took place at the Dry Creek Kitchen, where family-style plates overflowing with braised lamb, baked chicken and local root vegetables were the stars of the show, second only to the personal rendition of “Happy Birthday” that Abair played to a fellow traveler who was marking another year on the books with a trip for the ages. 

Day 3: West Coast Cool

Cheers to good jazz, good wine, and the good life

After a morning of yoga and a stroll around town, things got off to a pleasant start with a stop at Roth Estate Winery, home to some of the best Bordeaux varietals in Sonoma County and a beautiful new wine cave. It was here in the cavernous hollows of the cave — under cathedral-like domed ceilings and outcroppings of exposed cave wall — that we were treated to a sampling of some of Roth’s best Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. Familiar flavors mingled on the tongue, but even those with the most sophisticated of palates probably didn’t expect the appearance of SPAM sushi, rolled with homemade SPAM and a mortar-ground garlic-chili paste. The unusual snack is apparently a favorite of Roth’s vintner, Bob Foley, who served in the Air Force and developed a fondness for the canned meat while serving overseas. It made for an odd pairing, neither quite delicious nor detestable, but it was certainly a snack to remember.

More memorable, by far, was the performance by Abair atop the wine bar at the back of the cave. Without an amplifier in sight, she played through soulful renderings of “Amazing Grace” and “Summertime” that swirled across every corner of the cave in deep, resonant gusts. It was a real treat, however, when she was joined by Braun on trumpet, who surprised us all by walking in through the entrance of the cave playing strains from “Ave Maria” and “Carnival of Venice” before joining Abair in an impromptu blues duet, which the acoustics of the cave made cooler than cool. 

Abair and Braun trade fours at the Roth Estate Winery and Caves

The next stop on the trip was at one of the most popular winemakers in Sonoma County, Kendall-Jackson. The KJ’s Estate and Gardens reside in Fulton, California, about 13 minutes from downtown Healdsburg, where a palatial cream-colored building under a mansard roof and a picturesque courtyard welcome visitors to a hub of culinary and horticultural luxuriousness. Our stay began with a tour of the gardens by Kendall-Jackson’s Winemaster Randy Ullom, who has been working for the company for almost 30 years. With his cowboy boots and push-broom mustache, Ullom looked the part of the venturesome winemaker, and certainly had the stories to back it up. During his tenure at DeLoach and Kendall-Jackson, the wines he produced were consistent gold medal winners at wine competitions.

Winemaster Randy Ullom (left) and Eric Guerra

Under the shade of a walnut tree, we sat down to a feast of food and wine from the estate. The pairing of reserve Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Russian River Valley were nuanced and fragrant, the perfect complement to the dinner that had been prepared by chef Justin Wangler, who specializes in farm-to-table cuisine. In this case, there wasn’t much distance from the former to the latter. About 15 feet from where we were eating was an organic garden tended by Master Gardner Tucker Taylor, whose produce is used by Michelin-rated restaurants across the region, and whose vegetables are in such high demand chefs must sign up for a waiting list that is currently several months long. They lent an undeniable fresh and savory touch to the slow-roasted salmon with peas, nettle spaetzle and preserved lemon, as well as the Snake River Farms beef, carrots and potato with red wine sauce. The care and attention to detail given the guest experience made it clear why Kendall-Jackson became a ubiquitous name in winemaking.

It was a nice change of scene (as well as scale) to visit our final stop of the day, F. Teldeschi Winery in Dry Creek Valley. This family-owned vineyard of 70 acres can be traced back to 1929, when its namesake founder, Frank Teldeschi, arrived in California from Italy and shortly after started a winery. His grandsons John and Frank run the company today, growing Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane, some Cabernet, a little Gamay, some Malvasia and Cinsault, and specializing in big, vivacious reds handcrafted in small lots and bottled unfiltered. Several bottles of those big reds — including their unique blends, Terranova and Terraluna — were making the rounds at our tasting, which took place in a converted barn stacked to the ceiling with wine crates and barrels. The vibe was casual and familial, the perfect setting for a concert by Abair and her longtime guitarist from The Boneshakers (and formerly of the band Was, Not Was), Randy Jacobs. The duo put on an energized, funk-infused set as the Zinfandels and Petite Sirah flowed, swinging through fan favorites from across Abair’s career such as “Spring,” “Wildheart,” “I’ll Be Your Home,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” (which Jacobs performed on a cigar box guitar) and Abair’s calling card, “Pretty Good For a Girl.” By the end of the set there were very few bottoms still sitting in seats, as even the Teldeschis, dressed in their NASCAR jackets, jeans and sneakers, tripped the light fantastic with the Reserve Tasting guests. If you wanted proof that fine wine can be fun, here it was. 

Mindi Abair and Randy Jacobs jam out among the wine barrels at F. Teldeschi Winery

Dinner that night split the group according to preference — surf or turf. Half the group attended the local seafood joint Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar with Abair, where there were plenty of freshly fried oyster strips to go around, while the other half attended KINSmoke BBQ with Guerra. Never divided for long, the group reunited for a sip of 60-year-old port and a puff of some premium cigars (for those who wanted to indulge) as night settled in. 

Day 4: The Good Life at its Best

And so it was upon us: the final full day of the inaugural Wine + Music Adventure. (Well, for most of us. Reserve Tastings did offer a bonus day of luxury dining for an additional fee, which included an 11-course tasting menu at the three-star restaurant Single Thread). This was our opportunity to explore the beauty of Healdsburg at our own pace. After a leisurely breakfast of eggs and farm-fresh bacon, this reporter took to the town to peruse the many bookstores (Copperfield’s Books), coffee shops (Black Oak Coffee Roasters), tea shops (Russian River Tea Company) and toy stores (The Toy Chest). Lunch was taken in typical California style, outdoors over a pizza topped with arugula and fire-roasted veggies at PizZando, with a cone of chocolate-dipped ice cream to boot. 

Our tour picked up again with a trip to Goldschmidt Vineyards, purveyors of some of the best wines from the Napa and Alexander Valley region, Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. In fact, it’s from New Zealand — the Paradise of the Pacific — that Goldschmidt’s owners/vintners, Yolyn and Nick, originally hail. (Nick is quick with a rugby reference or sheep joke to prove it.) They moved to the United States in 1990, and now manage two brands under their portfolio – the prestigious Goldschmidt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon label and the international Forefathers label. Goldschmidt’s tasting table, atop a beautiful hillside vineyard, was the site of a good-old-fashioned wine shootout, taste-testing a pair of Chardonnays and two pairs of Cabs. Each pair was of the same vintage, but of a different appellation.

The wines were excellent. No surprise there. More surprising was how much this reporter enjoyed the Alexander Valley wines in comparison to the much more famous (and much more expensive) Napa Valley wines, an opinion that was also shared among the group. Less surprising was that Nick and Yolyn were more than hospitable hosts, sharing family stories of their five children and cracking jokes with each glass of wine. At times it felt like we had stumbled into an outdoor comedy show — only with much better vino and a more-than-two-drink minimum. It was a reminder of why we drink wine in the first place, or why, for that matter, we gather to listen to jazz: It’s to commune with others, to create bonds that can span the distance of continents — and maybe crack a few jokes in the process.

Wine and wisecracks flowed freely at Goldschmidt Winery

Those good vibes carried us on to the final stop of the trip, at the luxurious Francis Ford Coppola Winery, a massive estate founded by The Godfather director in 1979. Ascending the steps to the winery entrance, we were met with a poolside gazebo serving Coppola wine and cocktails, and more than a few of us partook in the free wine ticket to enjoy a glass by pool. Others, myself included, perused the Coppola Winery gift shop and museum, where visitors could catch a glimpse of the writing desk presided over by Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, as well as an original Tucker sedan from the 1988 film Tucker: A Man and His Dream.

A view from the top floor of the Francis Ford Coppola Gift Shop and Museum. The Tucker car sits below; Vito Corleone’s writing desk occupies a space in front of the top-floor window

Finally, it was time for the main event, and the whole group was shepherded to a rotunda overlooking the Alexander Valley, where a concert by Abair, Braun and Jacobs took place amid the stunning backdrop. It was truly a family affair, attended not only by the guests on the Reserve Tastings trip but by a number of winemakers we met along the way, like Randy Ullom and the Teldeschis. As Abair performed hit after hit from her illustrious career — “True Blue,” “Flirt,” Rick Braun’s “Notorious” and “Flirt” — it dawned on me what the world had been missing out on for a year and a half. Not the wine or the music alone, but the ability to experience them with other people, the opportunity to meet strangers who become friends, to learn something new in the presence of a real, actual person, to clink glasses in a symbol of solidarity, to hear music unfiltered by a laptop speaker. Reserve Tasting’s Wine + Music Adventure gave us all of that and more, and even had COVID not robbed us of the world for a year, I would tag along for another one of these trips in a heartbeat. Because it’s not like the good things ever get old. In fact, with the passing of time, they only get better. 

Day 5: ‘Til Next Time

Early breakfast and a car ride back to San Francisco. A phone full of pictures, a notebook full of notes. A belly full of wine, a head full of melodies. Thinking of what it would be like to raise a glass in Tuscany, and who I might want to raise it with. Cheers to that. 

If you’re interested in taking part in a Reserve Tastings’ Wine + Music Adventure, visit the company’s website

Photos by Stephanie Zimmerman

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