Sailboats frolicked in the bay like impish elves, rocking lightly in the wake of yachts that cut through the water like dolphins, as the sun slipped out of sight in Sausalito. I was back in this same little haven-by-the-sea in north California, in the Ondine restaurant with good friends, sipping good wine — pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, viognier — while awaiting a meal prepared by Ondine’s much-acclaimed young chef Seiji Wakabayashi.

Of all the glorious ways to enjoy wine, this is emphatically one, and great stress relief as well. In addition, just thinking about visiting Guenoc Winery, 150 km north of San Francisco, was starting to soothe my travel-frayed nerves. In a month I’d packed about 25,000 air miles into an already airtight wine-world schedule, and I had another 10,000 air miles coming up. But I was buoyed by the “Ondine experience.” Beyond the restaurant’s wide floor-to-ceiling windows the Pacific stretches out as far as the eye can see, a pastel panorama that nostalgically wanes away as day drifts into dusk.

This was the perfect preface to visiting Guenoc Winery to sample its wines, see its extraordinary vineyards and hear the Japanese “Yujiro story” from Guenoc’s multitalented owner, Orville Magoon, a world-renowned coastal engineer, a descendant of Hawaii’s royal family and a producer of wagyu beef cattle as well as world-class wines. In 1981 the U.S. government recognized Guenoc Valley as a distinctive viticultural area and as America’s first appellation under single proprietorship.

The “Yujiro story” centers on Yujiro Ishihara, the late younger brother of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and a wine lover long before the first of Japan’s five wine booms. From the late 1950s, Yujiro, tall for his time at 180 cm, was the Japanese youth-idol equivalent of James Dean, Paul Newman and Jean-Paul Belmondo. His fame never waned; it endures to this day.

Yujiro was crazy about Hawaii, and it came to light that during his visits there he frequented a restaurant where Guenoc wines enjoyed enormous popularity.

Guenoc and the old established Takara Shuzo Co., Ltd. (fax [075] 211-6385), importers of Guenoc wines and their own Anthology label of excellent California chardonnay and merlot, quickly saw the possibilities and launched Guenoc wines with a Yujiro commemorative label bearing a likeness of the late idol in his heyday. Takara Shuzo worked closely with Ishihara Productions to bring everything to fruition.

To say that the Yujiro/Guenoc idea succeeded brilliantly is an understatement. “It was sensational,” said Mike Schochet, VP for Magoon Estate and Guenoc Winery and a longtime resident of Hawaii. The wines sold out quickly, again and again.

At the Guenoc stand at Vinexpo 2000 in Tokyo (June 6-8), a Japanese visitor who spotted a display bottle of Yujiro-label Guenoc wine retailing for a few thousand yen offered Schochet 200,000 yen for it, on the spot.

“I quickly put it in a safe place,” said Schochet. “The Yujiro wine project was a blockbuster because of Yujiro’s enormous popularity, and now many more of Japan’s increasingly sophisticated wine lovers, the younger ones and the elderly alike, are familiar with Guenoc wines.”

No doubt. You should familiarize yourself with them too, and with the beautiful Guenoc Estate and Winery, including the most northwestern area of Napa Valley and claiming some of California’s best and oldest vineyards (tel. +1 [707] 987-2385, fax +1 [707] 987-9351, e-mail info@guenoc.com, Web site www.guenoc.com). It’s an exciting place to visit, brimming with history.

Guenoc’s established label depicts a house built on the property in 1874, and owned from 1888 to 1906 by Lillie Langtry, a legendary English singer/actress. In the 1960s the Magoon family bought the estate and began developing vineyards. Magoon researched France’s great vineyards and became California’s first wine producer to grow five traditional Bordeaux varietals in California (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot). Later he added St. Macarie, gros verdot and carmenere. He also grows chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, petite sirah and zinfandel.

Guenoc wine grapes are so meticulously grown, and the wines so well made, that you can choose at will. Consider the 1998 Genevieve Magoon Vineyard Reserve Unfiltered Chardonnay, and any of the reds, for openers.

If you happen to be in the area this fall, add these events to your itinerary: the annual Lake Country Wine Auction Gala, Oct. 7, on the Langtry House grounds; and a performance by the California Baroque Ensemble at Guenoc, Oct. 14.


In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.