They call it the Great Lounge at the Ahwahnee Hotel, and that’s not even a scintilla of upsell, especially if you’re there for one of the eight annual Vintners’ Holidays held each November and December. The room itself, and the entire National Historic Landmark hotel, are what insiders dub “park-itecture,” which features lots of stone, wood (which may be fire-safe concrete made to look like wood), windows, and blazing hearths — think Frank Lloyd Wright goes Native American. But it’s not just the room that awes, for as you’re sipping your way through the seminars, you can look over your left shoulder, out the window, and indeed, that’s Half Dome fringed in snow. It’s as if both the natural and manmade worlds are conspiring to teach you a lesson in beauty.
A spoonful of Yosemite can help anything go down, and that’s what these two- or three-day events make clear, as they have for 30 years now. Everything, it seems, takes on historic dimensions at the Ahwahnee. At a recent “meet the winemakers” reception, George Bursick of Villa Toscano Winery addressed the crowd from a balcony: “People of the Ahwahnee, go forth and gather nuts and berries; we’ll reward you with wine.” And when Ed Sbragia of Sbragia Family Vineyards claimed, “You’ll be hearing things you’ve never heard from winemakers,” it was pretty easy to believe. It was an opinionated group that had earned that right — the four winemakers had almost 200 years of experience among them, helping shape enological giants like Duckhorn, Mumm, Beringer, and Ferrari-Carano. They were led by emcee/host Evan Goldstein, who was the eighth American to pass the Master Sommelier test and went on to consult for Auberge du Soleil in Napa and Chez Panisse. (Goldstein’s best line might have been his aside, “Pinot grigio is the vodka of wine, what people who don’t want to taste anything drink.”)
Those attending the event definitely did want to taste wine, and there were five or six at each of the four hour-long seminars. There’s time for you to get your hike on, too, as it is Yosemite and you should work off the calories — of course, all wine and no play makes Jack a dull boy (you did know Kubrick modeled some of the hotel in The Shining on the Ahwahnee, didn’t you?). Each winemaker took a slightly different tack in his presentation, too: For instance, Rob McNeill of Mumm told the story of Napa sparkling wine in six samples while Tom Rinaldi of Provenance Vineyards brought four barrel samples, plus a five-liter bottle of 1981 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot.
Each Vintners’ Holiday culminates in a five-course, wine-paired gala dinner in the Ahwahnee’s grand dining room, the 34-foot-high beamed ceilings of which are lit by the beams of giant candles. Executive Chef Percy Whatley, who doesn’t mess around on his regular nightly menu either — the scrumptious red curry mussels pack a Southeast Asian punch you’d never expect in an American national park — delivers full regular and vegetarian menus. So the meat-eater in your party can drool over roasted squab breast with foie gras en croûte, beet rösti, broccoli rabe, and curry spice soubise while the veggie can be just as awed by a spelt risotto with beets and horseradish. It’s not the kind of place where they just pull the meat off the plate and claim, voilà, vegetarian.
The Ahwahnee Vintners’ Holidays are for learning, pleasure, and the pleasure of learning. Sbragia summed up the mood best when he was asked how long his wines should be cellared before drinking. “I think the best time to drink them is next Tuesday at 2:15,” he replied. “I have no idea. I like young wines, but where is your button pushed? Drink them then; we’ll make more.” And let’s hope they keep serving them up at Yosemite events like this one.
Wine, dine, and smell the pines at Yosemite National Park during the Ahwahnee Vintners’ Holidays (through Dec. 8), the Christmas festival Bracebridge Dinner (Dec. 13-25), or Chefs’ Holidays (Jan. 8-Feb. 2, 2012). Call (801) 559-4884 or see yosemitepark.com.