The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley is known around the world as the epitome of rustic grace and charm in the middle of one of Nature’s most spectacular settings. The global attraction of Yosemite’s natural beauty: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Tuolumne Meadow and the Merced River make it one of the most popular and heaviest trafficked of the National Parks in California. Nearly 4 millions visitors packed into cars, buses, RVs, campers and riding motorcycles converge on Yosemite National Park annually with a monthly average of 450,000 between May and October. This means that one does not get to stay at the Ahwanhee (or the Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village, for that matter) during high season without parting with a significant chunk of change and a year’s worth of advanced planning. Now that the challenge has been posed, here is a solution to enjoying Yosemite and the Ahwanhee without the high season crowds.
For nearly 35 years, the Ahwahnee has hosted its Annual Vintners’ Holiday, a series of wine education events moderated by widely known and respected wine educators and wine writers. Vintners’ takes place during the last few weeks of November and extending into the first few days of December. The aforementioned ‘crowd factor’ is reduced by 70% as the monthly average of visitors during November and December is less than 140,000. These events, call them seminars if you like, are centered around, usually well known but sometimes lesser known, wine producers from around California’s wonderful wine grape growing regions. The number of sessions may vary but for the past couple years there have been 6 sessions. Packages can be 2 night, 3 night or 5 night (2 and 3 nights combined)
This very popular event is a wonderful juxtaposition of extraordinary scenery, intimate winemaker conversation, fine food and the opportunity to enjoy an historic hotel. The six (6) two or three night sessions each includes four (4) seminars, a welcome reception where you can meet the winemakers/vintners, a five course gala dinner prepared by Executive Chef Percy Whatley and the Ahwahnee culinary staff, each course paired with wines from the attending vintners and, finally, a ‘celebrity’ moderator to tie the entire package together.
We have enjoyed this special tasting series 5 times over the past 10 years and we have never been disappointed. The winemakers are typically full of personality with insightful stories and humorous anecdotes about how they started in the business as well as candid comments about successes and failure. The welcome reception is a cheese and hot hors d’oeuvres extravaganza with copious amounts of the various wines available for your enjoyment. The winemakers and the ‘celebrity’ moderator always make themselves available at the reception and through out the series. This rapid fire 90 minutes allows the opportunity to chat casually with the vintners in a relaxed social environment in contrast to the more structured seminar setting. Always fun!
The elegant gala dinner is worth the price of admission all by itself. The Ahwahnee staff pulls out all the stops. Each course is purposefully paired with a wine selected from the participating vintners. Although the menu is not published at the time of ticket purchase, the concierge can make substitutions upon arrival, if there is anything that a guest cannot handle. A sample menu from the past included: Poached Tomales Bay Oysters & Calamari, Swiss Chard & Sunchoke Ravioli, Rotisserie Pork Belly, Roasted Brandt Beef Strip Loin & Braised Cheek and finally Chestnut Honoré Puff Pastry with fig. Of course the wine pairings were perfect. Tables of eight allowed for new friends and acquaintances to be made while the pomp of speeches was virtually non-existent. Perfect!
Session moderators have included Fred Dame, Southern Wine & Spirits; Evan Goldstein, President & Chief Education Officer at Full Circle Wine Solutions Inc.; Dan Berger, Vintage Experience and the driving force behind the Riverside International Wine Competition and Peter Marks, Master of Wine, Constellation Brands. All amazingly knowledgeable and able to keep the seminars fun and fast paced.
Of course, after the wine, food and the Ahwanhee personality, the real star remains Yosemite! What a great time to be there in late fall with plunging waterfalls, deer in the meadow and the Merced rushing briskly though the valley. Hiking in the morning before the sessions, walking before dinner and just looking outside can be a meditative experience in the Yosemite Valley. Deer and other wildlife are everywhere and sometimes allow you to get quite close for pictures. Weather permitting, bike rentals are available and of course the guided (bus or walking) tours with park rangers are great. Everywhere you look there are breathtaking scenes and it feels like you have the entire valley to yourself.
The Yosemite experience and the Ahwanhee should not be a once in a lifetime experience. To enjoy it without the crowds and with the bonus of the wine seminars and the gala dinner at very attractive room rates makes it an unbeatable combination.
The Ahwahnee, located in Yosemite National Park, was built in 1927 and is a National Historic Landmark. It mixes architectural styles of rustic local granite, Art Deco, Native American and Middle Eastern influences. For shear impact the granite facades and redwood beams shock the eye against the monoliths of granite that surround it on virtually 3 sides in the heart of the Yosemite Valley. Yosemite National Park was established October 1, 1890 making it the third national park in the United States, behind Yellowstone (1872) and Sequoia (1890) and it is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.