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Wine at Disneyland’s California Adventure

wine vines grow at Disneyland's California AdventureA few weeks ago, I had the absolute joy of bringing my 4 year old son to Disneyland for the first time.  A little background, my wife and I both grew up about an hour south of the Disneyland in northern San Diego County, so we’ve both experienced the park on at least a dozen occasions.  Well, she might have been there hundreds of times, but no matter the number of visits, there is something about the original Disneyland to those of us that grew up around it, that seems like a right of passage. He’s still at the age where things are magical and seeing the whole thing through his eyes for the first time was a special experience.

My son was finally tall enough to ride the rides that wouldn’t scare the life out of him and some of the ones that might (more later), he was adventurous enough to enjoy them and he was completely, utterly, without a nap under any circumstances…so he’d be awake enough to not only enjoy the hotel, the hotel pool in the afternoon and of course, everything at the park.

A quick note on hotels near Disneyland, the Disney hotels (there are 3 of them, the original Disneyland Resort, the high end Grand California & the Paradise Pier) are still the nicest places to stay, in large part because of the added benefits.  You’re in walking distance of either the park itself, or a monorail station and you’re granted an extra hour in the park through their magic hour program.  I know an extra hour doesn’t sound like much when the park is open 13 hours as it is 9am-10pm during the off season, but when there’s so few people around that you can simply walk onto rides….that’s a great advantage.

Given pricing though and the fact we were planning on 2 days at the park, as well as 4 at the hotel, we stayed off site.  Our hotel choice had a few requirements, first we wanted a good pool.  Second, we wanted to be far enough away to have a shuttle instead of having to walk. That led us to the Marriott which sits just over a mile away from the park, but is a 4 star hotel and offers an awesome place to stay.  We definitely enjoy our trips, my son included and from room service to yes, the pool, the Marriott Anaheim Suites was a great place to stay.  The shuttle picks up downstairs and drops you off a short distance from the front of the park (closer than the parking lots to be sure) and was a real advantage for us. The staff was nice, the room was comfortable and exactly as advertised and finally, room service was great! Oh and the pool was at least 10 degrees warmer than it has to be.  All in all, we’d certainly stay at the Marriott again.

Disneyland is traditionally an alcohol free destination, which I appreciate, it’s a place where you really don’t have to worry about other adults behavior and usually, people despite the sometimes large crowds (that can border on 100,000 people on holidays and around Christmas and New Year’s like the last time we went a few years back) are on their best behavior.  The original park has one main exception, there is wine and beer at Club 33, which is a private, high end restaurant in the park.  I’ve never  eaten there, but they’ve carried a number of wines, including a high end Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon from Vellum Wine Craft that I absolutely love.

walkway to the winery at Disneyland's California AdventureA few years back, Disneyland took over their large parking lot, built parking structures elsewhere and erected California Adventure: a secondary theme park that gives space for another 30,000 people but also has regular alcohol sales.

California Adventure seems at least 10 degrees warmer than Disneyland, but that might be largely because the trees are still growing, the park is still new and that there is a decidedly 20’s and 30’s crowd. As I mentioned, alcohol is allowed and there is a pretty nice beer selection at a number of sites throughout the site, it’s pretty normal to see people walking around on a hot summer California day with a beer in hand.  Having spent plenty of summer days walking along the beach, it’s still a bit of strange sight to my eyes to see a full beer in someone’s hand, as they walk with a small replica of the Santa Monica boardwalk in the background.

Wine is sold largely through their “winery” which I was comped another day at the park (along with my wife) to talk about in this space.  Since I would have anyway, it was a nice addition to our trip.  As I mentioned before, my son doesn’t sleep a ton, so spending another 6 hours in the morning and early afternoon at Disney parks, before taking on the 8 hour drive home, gave us hope for a nap during the ride.  30 minutes was all we got.

In any case, you’ve seen a number of images from the winery at Disneyland’s California Adventure.  First, I absolutely loved that they had real, honest to goodness grape vines growing on the property. It looks like it’s about an acre, but so often people have absolutely no clue what a vine looks like (it’s a hell of a lot bigger than most people expect) any number of vines is a good start.  I’ve long thought that areas with an incredibly large number of tourists (and yes, 130,000 potential visitors per day at Disneyland parks in Southern California, certainly qualify) could sell a ton of wine, all the while educating people a little bit. After all the serious wine drinkers, might spend $100 on a bottle of wine, whereas the regular consumer is buying a $9 glass.

my glass of Oregon Pinot Noir at California AdventureDisneyland and California Adventure share a common trait, first that you’re allowed to basically bring in whatever food you want.  We took advantage of that, largely with snacks and most importantly, water bottles (which we refilled liberally, at free water fountains). Of course, you can’t bring in everything you might want to eat and drink throughout the day, so Disneyland is counting on another $100 or so per day, per guest. That’s my estimate, your spend will of course vary, but given the setup they really don’t gouge you too badly (nothing like movie theatres, sports stadiums or even airports for that matter).

So there’s some good and bad parts about the wine list at California Adventure.  First, the good.  There’s some care and concern going into the list here.  This isn’t a generic list that shows up at most chain restaurants. I’ve complimented Mondavi, Gallo and the big boys in this space before and there are times you should throw them up as part of your list to be sure, but they aren’t a fit everywhere.  For that reason alone, it’s nice they aren’t here-California Adventure is trying to have a bit of a more exclusive experience.

Here’s the rub though: everything on the list that I find interesting, comes from Southern Wine and Spirits. I want to be clear about a few things before I go on.  First, I have absolutely no issue with Southern.  None at all.  Of all the major distributors, I really do think they do the best job.  There’s plenty of interesting wines in their portfolio and anyone looking to really expand their business into the 100,000+ case land, wants and maybe even needs Southern to represent them at least in some states. Also from Disney’s perspective, having a singular invoice to deal with would both be nice and likely make me jealous!

California Adventure Red Wine SignThat being said, Southern keeps a separate Northern and Southern California book and the difference does not tend to be kind to the Southern California folks when it comes to smaller production wines.  That’s ok and I’ll make some suggestions about how the buyers at California Adventure might handle that, if you’ll read on.

Here’s some of the wines on the menu when I visited California Adventure that I thought deserved a specific mention:

Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon: Ok, so the menu wasn’t exactly clear about exactly what Cabernet Sauvignon this was, but I can make some inferences given price point.  They’re selling a glass for $9, which makes me certain that what’s here is the Sonoma Valley, Family Estate Series.  It’s a $25 bottle of wine.  Let’s be clear on this point, the average restaurant would be charging at least $14 by my count for a similarly priced wine.  They’re offering, what sounds like blasphemy for a captive audience, a good deal, on a nice wine that would be scored at 90+ points by many significant wine critics. Kunde’s a name that should probably be more recognizable than it is already, but the interesting parts include it’s 100+ year history and it’s size: about 1,000 acres in total.  On it’s 5th (or 6th by my count) generation of ownership Kunde Winery was the 202nd winery in existence in California’s history.

California Adventure White Wine SignArgyle, Oregon: Again, a good deal.  The cheapest Pinot Noir made by Argyle (if you are not familiar, Argyle is one of the classic producers in Oregon) is $40, give or take based on the vintage. If a restaurant has a bottle, they’re charging about $20 a glass, if they have it by the glass at all, not the $12 on the menu here.  If you’re interested, yes, this is what I drank as I sat and enjoyed a glass of wine, shaded by the trees, looking out into the distance and seeing what must be an exact replica of the background of Piston Springs for the Cars movie. Wine Spectator called Argyle the premiere winery in the state of Oregon in 2000 and in the ensuing years since its founding have purchased close to 300 acres of vineyards.

Justin Winery: Justin is a classic name in Paso Robles wine, but admittedly, seeing the Cabernet here instead of something that’s a bit more obscure is a bit of let down.  Justin’s one of the first names in Paso Robles wine to make a name for themselves with Bordeaux styled blends.  Heck, the website and the winery when you’re there in person are really, really clear on that point. One thing I’ve talked about ad nauseam in this space, wine can really run together, even for professionals.  Try and get people to recognize what makes one wine different from another and you run into issues pretty quickly, even esteemed wine critic Robert Parker has admitted as much which is why Wine Advocate is so heavy on tasting notes (they don’t believe people are picking these all out on their own).  One thing that is different and memorable about wine that people can remember and pick out, are the stories behind the vineyards and wineries on a restaurant wine list.  Why not tell the story of someone in 1981 taking a chance on a relatively unknown area of California for wine production and choosing to focus on Bordeaux varietals in that region, whereas everyone else around was focused on Rhone’s? Of course he also doubled down and purchased close to 200 acres to start, which to the locals in ‘81, must have seemed like a crazy endeavour indeed.

Growing seasons for wine, shown at California Adventure and DisneylandOk, so about that Cars Radiator Springs ride. We were all tall enough.  It wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.  Much like Splash Mountain, the ride spends its first moments, lazily almost moving through scenes of the movie.  Then things start to change and there’s a moment in the ride when your “car” pulls up alongside a mirror with drapes, the drapes are pulled back and you “see” your tires being changed. I had some idea what was coming, my son was busy smiling at himself in the mirror.

Then the damn thing takes off like a race car, it’s a really, really fun ride….if you like race cars and roller coasters.  The couple in the seats in front of us and yes, my little guy, didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did. Probably a better ride for a 6 year old in total, but Disneyland brings the Cars movie to life in a way that, dare I say it, only Disney seems able to do.  For at least a five minute walk in any direction you’re literally immersed in the movie.  From the Hollywood style backdrop in the sky looking like the mountains in the movie, to the fact that every building comes from the movie itself, it’s wonderfully put together.

Ok, so last thing about the wine and wider alcohol in Disneyland’s California Adventure. They’re doing a good job, actually quite a good job considering the circumstances that they are afforded, captive audience, limited sales spots etc.  Tasting menu’s look good and there’s plenty of national restaurant chains not taking as much care with their list as Disneyland does at California Adventure.

That being said, I do wish they would give us some more information on the menu.  What vintage is this from? Exactly which wine is this?

Maybe, some people don’t care.  Hell, maybe most people don’t care.  But, if you’re willing to create a list at an amusement park, geared to little kids, but complete with a selection of wines priced at $40 or more retail, then some of your customers care.  In fact, I’m guessing that given the $100 per day ticket price most of us paid, a higher percentage of their guests, than the general public for sure, might be interested in an even more upgraded wine list-or at least some better information about the wines being served.

wine list at Disney's California AdventureIf I could humbly offer some advice to the winery at California Adventure, it would be this.  Give people more information: they want it and in the age of the internet, they’ve come to expect it.

Adding vintages to the wine list is an obvious start, it’s the sort of thing that’s common everywhere, including the most casual of casual restaurants.

Secondly, California Adventure already has quite a few wines on their list, with absolutely great stories.  Try and tell them.  People at Disneyland are willing to play along, we spend most of the time there telling our kids about movies that we try to remember as kids, stuff like my attempted explanation of why Dumbo flies…..wait, I don’t actually remember but my wife did remember, of course, that Dumbo flies because of the size of his ears, not because of magic (let’s be clear, magic is a clearly understood preschool topic these days after Frozen).

Lastly, there’s plenty of great information out there on wines and wineries.  Disney and its parks take their food more seriously than most people expect and the beer list at many spots can be both extensive and well thought out.  It wouldn’t take a full time employee to help create something of a workable list of small production wines at California Adventure and adding a bit of interest and change, even seasonally, would likely help keep annual passholders engaged with the alcohol program (if you aren’t familiar, Disneyland offers an annual pass for locals that runs almost $800 and covers admission to the park, year around)

California Adventure is doing a good job thus far and they’ve created a virtual winery that can really educate people about a significant part of California’s past and its future.

Adding more information about what’s on the list, as well as some more interesting information on the wineries providing it would be a start. During September and October, it’d be fun to see some grapes fermenting on site as well, if you’re growing them, minus well make something out of them right?

Overall I hope no one takes this as overly critical, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found at Disneyland’s California Adventure in terms of wine choices and quality.  They could do better given the clout behind the Disney brand, but it isn’t like they’re dropping the ball here, not at all.

I do wish they’d lead a little bit in terms of quality and storytelling, much like they do for the rest of their business.

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