Our Journey to the "Dark Side"
Napa Valley April 23-24, 2011
After too many years of visiting a number of great wineries in other areas, we finally decided to visit Napa County, also known as “the dark side” by some of our Sonoma friends. We’d heard rumors that the Napa Valley is a lot more formal and less fun than the easygoing Sonoma or southern wineries. The rumors can now be put to bed as we found the folks at the wineries, shops, and inn where we stayed to be just as much fun as anyplace else. I guess you find what you expect. If you treat people nicely, they tend to reflect that back at you.
We were going to Yountville for Easter on April 24, 2011 and decided to take an extra day and spend the night in town so we could wine taste Saturday, have a nice dinner, and then stay at a B&B overnight. We’ve never stayed at a B&B before, so we weren’t sure what to expect. I’ll give a plug to the Lavender Inn here because it was just a wonderful experience. The assistant manager who greeted us (Danielle) was terrific. On some days it seems hard to find people who care, but she made it clear from the very beginning that she wanted us to enjoy our stay, and everything was as close to perfect as it could be. Lavender is a Four Sisters Inn located on Webber a ˝ block off the main drag in Yountville. From there we could walk to wineries and dinner. The exterior hides the very plush rooms with outside jetted tubs, fireplaces, and all of the creature comforts you need. There was a wine and cheese spread laid out in the afternoon and a full hot breakfast ready in the morning. We’ll be back.
Mac the wife invited a friend from work along with his wife and daughter to join us on our first excursion into Napa Valley wines. It wasn’t actually our first excursion, but it’s probably been 25 years since we last tasted wines up there. We arranged three tastings before hand and then stopped by for a fourth on Sunday. There were no disappointments.
The second "rumor" is that Napa wines are overpriced compared to other areas. It is true that they are generally more expensive, but I think when you compare them to the best of other areas, you'll find that their prices are still reasonable for the quality.
Alpha Omega Winery
We were greeted and ushered into a very nice tasting room just off the main tasting area, where we met our host for the day, Steve Trosch. His card says "Wine Maven" and "Foodie." Steve proved to be both informative and fun. He was also very tolerant and explained a lot about the costly grapes and exquisite care that go into making their wines. The facility is very nice with ample room inside and available outside sitting areas with tables, so you can take your time and sit down to enjoy your tasting. We let Steve pick the wines and he held nothing back. Everything we had was beautifully balanced and expertly crafted. Each was "balance in a glass." We started as usual with a couple of whites and then moved into the reds. Most of the reds at Alpha Omega are big and capable of being stored for several (or more) years before they will reach their peak. There wasn't anything that we wouldn't enjoy now, but the strong structures in some of them indicated to me that they will get better and better over at least the next decade.
Sauvignon Blanc, 2010, Napa Valley, $36. I got a nose full of pineapple and citrus. The taste was like fresh grapefruit that had somehow been clarified and refined. This Sauvignon Blanc is almost colorless. It looks nearly as clear as water. The flavors that come out of this clear wine are bright, fruity, smooth and clean. There is absolutely no bight to it. This Sauvignon Blanc is light with just enough oak to give it some depth and a smooth finish. It is superbly clean and smooth.
Chardonnay, Unoaked, Molbonato Vineyards, Napa Valley, 2010. The nose was like fruit cocktail with all of the intricacies of peaches, pears, citrus, and other fruit swimming around. The flavor is fruity with no oak. It is smooth and rich enough that I would have expected it to be oaky, but it just isn't because it's all stainless steel. This is a very pleasant and fruity Chardonnay.
Rose, 2010, Napa Valley. This Rose is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. It has a buttery strawberry nose. The taste is chocolate and light cherry. To quote one of our group, "This is the best Rose I've ever had." I can't argue. A warm summer day by the pool would be a perfect place and time to enjoy this all by itself or with a bowl of fruit and light cheeses. Even if you, like me, are not big Rose drinkers, this one is worth trying.
Red Proprietary Wine, 2007, Napa Valley. This is a blend of 50% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. The nose is very dry and oaky. This blend seemed to be pretty dry and tight when we first started with it, but as it got some air it softened and showed a great balance of fruit and acids. The tannins didn't seem to be very heavy, but they were still pretty prominent in this young and dry wine. I don't have a lot of experience with Merlot based blends of this quality, but I'd guess holding it for five to seven years would do a lot to bring allow the fruit and acids to develop and bring the complex structure of this blend into balance. It is already very good and should be superb.
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008, Napa Valley. This wine is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, which to me is a much more typical Cabernet Sauvignon based wine. The nose hit me as cherry with a little tobacco. The taste very politely exploded with blueberry and dark chocolate. Just when I decided it was wonderful, the dark chocolate hit me some more. This Cabernet Sauvignon is awesome. It will certainly stand up to several years of aging, but can also be enjoyed right now which is pretty rare for a big Cabernet Sauvignon at this young age.
ERA, 2008, Napa Valley. This is their boomer; or at least I thought it was before we dove into the barrels. This is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Merlot. Some of the grapes come from a source that costs $25,000 a ton; many times the price of most of the premium Napa Valley grapes. ERA has a very dry nose, but it is already velvety smooth with subtle fruit underlying a very complex flavor of deep red berries. Give it a few years and the fruit will come forward to more prominence.
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009, Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley. This one came from the barrel where it still had some months to go. It seemed a little simpler with less complexity than the ERA, but it is still superb. I got a raspberry/blackberry taste with good but not overwhelming richness. It is a gorgeous dark red color. When bottled, it will be one of the best I've had.
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009, To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley, $140. Remember those $25,000/ton grapes? We found them and started to understand why they cost so much. This Cabernet Sauvignon is already awesome with superb balance. Even Steve (our host wine maven/foodie) said, "It doesn't suck." This wine isn't even out of the barrel yet and it is so smooth that you could sit down and enjoy it right now. It would be a sin to do that. The flavor brings in cherry, vanilla, and a little cocoa with enough astringency to let you know that the acids are there somewhere. Tasting out of the barrel usually has a little disadvantage in realizing the balance and complexity that the wine will achieve after resting in a bottle for a while. Tasting this wine as it already is and taking my best guess as to what it will be in a few years leads me to believe that it just doesn't get much better than this. There is a three bottle minimum, no discounts (no matter how much I begged), and our futures will be ready before Christmas 2011.
April 23, 2012:
Ok, we received our To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as described above. I hope for a VERY special occasion in 5+ years, or 10 maybe. I have never spent that much on a bottle of wine before, since it is more than we paid for an autographed bottle of "Stature" from Kendall Jackson. But, the record wasn't meant to stand. I got an email offer to attend Alpha Omega's weekend tasting of 2010 ERA, their boomer described above. I couldn't go so I got an email that offered me an allotment anyway. I meant to email my wife and said "Gee, how many allotments shall I buy?" but I accidentally (fumblefingered) sent it back to Rick Patton at the winery. He said I could buy up to two allotments of three bottles each at the member's price of $150/bottle (regular price $175). I emailed back to him and said "oops, that was meant for my wife who is in charge of our financial affairs." I asked my wonderful and dear wife and she amazingly said, "If you think it's that good, go ahead and buy three bottles." I emailed Rick back and said, "My wife said that if I order any wine at $150/bottle, she's going to divorce me. I'm going to miss her. Please enter my order for three bottles." When I talked to Rick he said it really made his Friday and he and the winemaker got a big chuckle out of it. So, now they're happy and I'm broke as usual.
Grgich Hills Estate
Ouch! This was a wonderful tasting and I can't find my notes. We enjoyed this experience immensely and fourteen bottles mysteriously followed us home. They make one of the best Chardonnays on the planet with a retail at $75 that is worth every dime. We also bought their Yountville Collection Cabernet Sauvignon and Fume Blanc. This tasting was arranged by the daughter of good friends and neighbors, so I shall search far and wide to fill in the missing pieces here. It's worth writing about. Failing that, I shall just be forced to visit again. Darn!
Grgich Hills Estate is locatd at 1829 St. Helena Highway in Rutherford, California.
We were hosted here by the proprietor, Pat Roney, who we had met previously at St. Francis High School where he graduated at least a few years ago with Mac's brother Frank. We were both very surprised and pleased that Pat was able to take the time to meet with us and take us through many of his wines. We had the pleasure of meeting and tasting in a private room next to their very nice and good sized (new I think) tasting room. Having the opportunity to talk with Pat about the wine industry trends was a real opportunity since he is one of those who really understands what's happening on a scale that I don't often get exposed to. Besides being a really nice guy, Pat Roney really knows his business. My notes here on the wines are a little abbreviated because I was listening to everything else Pat had to say.
Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 ($16). This is one of those Sauvignon Blancs that you find very pleasant with flavors of grapefruit through the taste which finishes with a nice soft butter.
Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2009 ($20). I tasted vanilla with a nice buttery tone to it. This Chardonnay is 100% malolactic fermentation and is very smooth and pleasant.
Petite Sirah, Napa Valley, 2008 ($28). This is a dark ruby color Petite Sirah with nice dark cherry flavors. Although dark and rich, it is very easy to drink now or you can hold it for a couple of years.
Mixed Blacks, Napa Valley, 2007 ($50). This wine is made from a vineyard of 100 year-old vines consisting of Rhone varietals and Zinfandel. I picked up a rich blackberry with a little pepper and then revised my notes to say "more than a little pepper." This is a gorgeous crystal clear dark red. What's really telling here is I underlined "Mac LOVED it!"
Artistry, Five Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley, 2008 ($40). This wine has a soft nose with a little raspberry to it. It is very complex and rich; much bigger than I thought the nose would tell. There is a lot going on here in this young and bright wine. It has moderate tannins that will build and make this even nicer than it already is. It was one of my favorites and I figure 2-3 years will treat this wine well.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 2006 ($75). This is a Robert Parker 92 point wine. It is 100% Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and it stands well among the excellent wines I've seen coming off Diamond Mountain. It is big, rich, deep...it's all there and it's all good. This wine is superb; very smooth with moderate tannins. It is wonderful now but will certainly be just as good or better for five or more years.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, 2007 ($75). This Cabernet Sauvignon hit my nose with some nice pepper. It is dry, rich, slightly spicy, and exhibits stronger tannins than the Diamond Mountain. This is certainly a keeper, but hey, when's the last time I found anything less off Mount Veeder. I think this will benefit from 2-4 years of cellaring to calm the tannins into more depth.
Girard Winery's tasting room is located at 6795 Washington Street, Yountville, California.
M. Consentino Winery
Now you get a strange story that is absolutely true. It was Easter Sunday and we stayed at a nice little bed and breakfast. We had breakfast (duh, that's why they call it a B&B) and since it had rained the night before I decided we needed to blow the water off the car (Jag XK8 convertible) so we could put the top down. So we head to the highway and attempted to get a decent amount of wind over the hood before the cops found us. We accomplished that task and turned around in the next parking lot, which was Mustard's Grill. Guess what's right next door; M. Cosentino Winery, a winery that was just recommended to us by Pat Roney from Girard. We couldn't pass it up, so we went in for a pre-Easter-Egg-Hunt tasting. It was time well spent.
Merlot, Reerve, 2006, ($50). This Merlow had a nice blackberry-cherry flavor with bright fruit. It was fresh with a big mouth full of fruit and a long finish with just a little tannins showing. Very nice.
Sangiovese, 2007 ($22). This Sangiovese was a lightly spiced one with smooth cherry tastes. It has time to settle its remaining acids into more fruit and cried out for some nice pasta in a spicy red sauce.
Merlot, Estate, 2006 ($65). If you take really good Merlot grapes and put them in French Oak for 40 months, you have made an investment that warrants a hefty price tag. You have also made a great Merlot that picks up copper highlights and a big cherry nose. The Merlot is VERY smooth with big fruit. It is complex with great balance. I wrote that it is a "big wine that is well behaved."
The Poet, Red Blend, 2006. This is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Merlot (I love it when my notes add up!). This is another wine with a big nose of dark fruit. The fruit is moderate and dry. It's tough to pin down what's really prominent because there is a lot going on. The Cabernet Franc shows well with a dry, spicy, and smooth taste. This wine is ready to drink now.
CE2V, Red Blend, 2005 ($95). This is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. It has a little pepper and a dark berry nose. My first impression was simply "SMOOTH." This complex wine is very easy to drink and you can just sit and contemplate everything going on while you taste its complex balance.
Estate Meritage, 2006. I wrote down "More dark berries playing very well together." The balance and structure was very nice in this medium weight wine with nice dark berry fruit flavor.
Cabernet Sauvignon, "Secret Clone", 2005 ($100). This is a solid and classic Cabernet Sauvignon. It is very smooth and I said "silky" on the tongue. Everything is in balance and everything you expect from a premium Cabernet Sauvignon is in this bottle.
Zinfandel, "Cigarzin", Lodi, 2008 ($22). This is a medium heavy Zinfandel with just a touch of sweetness to it; not as much as the heaviest Livermore vintages, but bigger than most Sonoma Zins. It is fresh and sweet without being jammy or syrupy (is that a word?). I found myself craving a Cubano and ribs to compliment this wine.