Day 97

Tuesday, August 30, 2005San Bruno, CA
Miles: 11422When in Sonoma . . .
. . . do as the, uh, Sonomians do.

We woke up and headed in to the heart of wine country. Well, first we stopped at the Petaluma visitor center to pick up some hot tips on winery touring for dirty hippies. We drove in to the center of Petaluma; Ceridwen reviewing our options while Keath drove. After some phone calls and much cogitation we settled on starting with the Benzinger Family Winery, a skosh north of Sonoma. They offered a tram ride tour which included history, process, and so on. Although a little more expensive than the other tours, it sounded more sanitized for the enthusiastic, but not so knowledgeable, wine appreciators, such as us.

Benzinger turned out to be quite a good plan. Their "tram" was one of those open air trolly car type things that they use in amusement park parking lots, but towed by a tractor. It worked. Their vineyards are on the inside of a big basin in the valley below Mount Sonoma, so the tractor is probably the best way to get up and down the hills without trashing the place or killing the tourists. They started out with a brief geology lesson, explaining that long ago Mount Sonoma was volcanic, which put some good stuff in the ground. Wind, rain, dirt, and time made this basin an ideal place for grapes. They showed off a little model made by the local college's geology department and then took us in to the vineyards.

They grow several different types of grapes in the different vineyards, using an seasonal report card on the soil to determine what the soil needs and what type of wine they should make with the grapes they expect next season. The coolest part is that the whole property is organically farmed using an old process called biodynamics. In 1924 Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner outlined a process through which farms and gardens could be maintained through a balance of the "health giving forces of nature." It predates the organic agricultural movement by two decades and is used in only a handful of farms throughout the world. They reuse all the waste they can in a huge compost pond or by feeding it to local farm animals. Instead of pesticides and herbicides they have planted several species of wildflower and shrub which draw in insects and animals which prey on the insects and animals which can harm the grape crop. All in all, a very cool way to farm, and a warm fuzzy reason to buy their wine.

They also took us inside the cave they dug inside the hillside along the side of the vineyards. A few years back they lost a batch of wine due to the California energy crisis, so they started the investment in a series of tunnels and caves to hold their wine while it ages. Aside from requiring no electricity for air conditioning, the humidity level is naturally maintained at a level that reduced evaporation by a couple of hundred bottled per year. The only electricity they need, aside from light for tourists, is a couple of small circulation fans that turn on once per hour to prevent mold from growing.

We tasted two of their reserve wines which they only serve at the winery and then two more off their tasting menu. We resisted the urge to drop $100 on a case (but they had a discount!) and settled on the first desert wine we'd ever tasted that didn't taste like a syrup for flavored coffee. Wahoo! We also bought a corkscrew, since the corkscrew we thought we had has yet to be found and every time we decide to have a bottle of wine we end up endagering our lives in removing the cork with all manner of pointy devices.

We spent a bit more time at Benzinger than we planned, so rather than do another tour we headed out to the Jelly Belly factory to learn how exactly they make jelly beans. We were worried that the process was scientifically horrid and a crime against nature, but it was actually a pretty cool process. In fact, Jelly Belly holds the honor of being Reader's Digest's 2005 pick for the best factory tour in America. Wahoo!

In short, they mix the jelly bean juice in a huge kitchen, squirt it out in to huge panels of molds dusted with corn starch, bake it for a bit, cool it for a bit, and call it a Stage One Jelly Bean. If we're remembering correctly, this bean is then put in a steel tumbler (copper if chocolate is involved), and workers add more jelly bean goo and confectioner's sugar in alternating cycles over several hours. This coats them and makes them yummier. They add a shiny confectioner's something to shine them up. Then they call them a Stage Two Jelly Bean. These guys get passed through a big ol' tumbler that sorts out the belly flops (the jelly bean version of a Bad Nut; too big, too small, mutant double beans, etc) and lets the survivors go on through the printer to get the tiny little Jelly Belly logo printed on them via a marshmallow fluff transfer sheet. (The belly flops can be purchased at the store at gigantaur discounts) This Stage Three Jelly Bean gets passed on to packaging in to any one of the tons of different marketing packages they have. Variety mixes are kept separate until this stage, where a batch of each flavor is put on a huge conveyer belt, tossed in to another tumbler, and doled out casually mixed.

When we were done we sampled some flavors, though neither of us were gutsy enough to try the Bertie Botts snot, bacon, dirt, or vomit flavors that they make. We had our fill and set off on the highway to finish the drive to San Bruno, where we were staying for a couple of days before Ceridwen flies off to Romania. Neither of us finished our free samples. We found ourselves some food and picked up some supplies Ceridwen needed for her trip before turning in for the night.