Thursday, December 24, 2009

For the True Love of Wine

Yesterday was a slightly abbreviated day of tasting as the Holidays draw near. But, that did not deter making a few stops at some places that I had not been to before. This venture was going to be one of true tradition as we had sights on the oldest winery in Napa, Charles Krug, (just outside St. Helena) run by the Peter Mondavi family...if nothing else, good for your wine trivia friends. After the usual lunch at the Rutherford Grill, my wife and I were off with our bellies full and prepared for the day.

As luck would have it, while we were tasting, Mr. Peter Mondavi, Sr. himself was at the tasting room with a friend. Now, this is one of the most iconic figures in Napa outside his now deceased brother, Robert Mondavi. At 95, Peter was moving around just fine and I wished I had been able to corral him for second to get a picture but he was busy with his friend. All I could muster up was a quick "hello" and praise about the wines I had just tasted. Charles Krug is making some surprisingly good wines these days combining a few great value wines with the usual high-end stars. My favorite among the value wines was the 2007 Zinfandel ($25). On the private reserve side, my two favorites were the 'Voltz' Cabernet ($80) and the 'X' Clone Reserve Cab ($100). All in all, a really nice job of bringing the wines to premiere status again.

Our second stop was at a small private winery, Allora Vineyards, owned and operated by the Klein family. Terry and Nancy Klein along with their children have created quite a slice of paradise here that any of us would aspire to. They live on the property with 10 acres of vineyards and create an enticing 'Tuscan' feel amongst the California landscape. We tasted in the cave below their house where all 1000 cases of production reside. It had all the elements of small, artisan style production along with the personal touch of being hosted by the family and Terry Klein himself and his daughter, Cortney. All the wines were as friendly and enjoyable as the hosts. We loved the Super Tuscan 'Cielo' ($40) and the 'Tresca' Cab/Cab Franc ($50). Terry and Cortney were very gracious spending a good amount of time with my wife and I telling all the stories about the wines, the backgrounds and some fun anecdotal bits about the famous artist, Margaret Keane, in creation of the 'Lusso' Cab ($100) label art.

Our last stop was a winery I was very familiar with, but had never had a chance to visit the tasting room, Ehlers Estate. This group has been know for its wines for quite a while, but arguably more known for its philanthropic efforts. They donate all proceeds to the Leducq Foundation that is 100% focused on research to fight cardiovascular diseases. They are also an organic vineyard and bio-dynamic farming estate. But, make no mistake, their wines are phenomenal and hard pressed to pick out a favorite. If had to pick my two that combine good value and early drinkability, it would be their Merlot ($45) and my personal favorite, their 'One-twenty Over Eighty' ($45) (i.e. perfect blood pressure numbers) Meritage red. However, for outright weight, complexity and well-structured big red, the '1886 Cab' ($95) is well worthy of cellaring for several years and the '05 I tasted had the 'WOW!' factor. The bottle design and overall package alone make this wine must-have. Along with an incredible historic structure for the tasting room and background, the staff (Mo & Scott) make this one the must visits when heading north past St. Helena.

Ahhh, just another day in wine country where the holidays seemed so distant only to realize it was Christmas Eve-Eve. Time to prepare for wrapping up 2009 and see what 2010 has to bring.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Napa's Quandary and Hidden Pinot Gem

Since I had some business to attend to in the actual town of Napa, I decided to spend a little time tooling around some of the downtown venues for wine tasting. Surprisingly, most people do not know that there are several tasting rooms downtown and it presents a dilemma for those wineries that have set up shop here. Most people that are visiting for the first time here (or several times for that matter) just buzz right on by Napa "proper" because once you hit the highway coming in from San Francisco, you never really notice 'Napa' off Hwy 29 and it is a bit of jog in to the actual town of Napa. Before you know it, you're down the road past the town and your next stop is Yountville where everyone stops.

Anyway, Napa has a bit to overcome unless you are actually staying in the town. Event then, most people head up Silverado Trail or Hwy. 29 where are the wineries reside. But, there are some hidden gems from a wine tasting standpoint and some very good wineries represented in town.

One of the great spots to leverage your tasting efforts is a little known historic building that was turned in to a collective tasting room called - Vintners Collective. They usually represent 16-20 wines that do not have their own tasting rooms and is a great place to try several featured wines in one spot.

There are also several tasting rooms scattered around the town including - Ceja & Whetstone along with Mason and Gustavo Thrace at the Oxbow Market just outside of downtown - that is more like the walk-up tasting bar type experience.

One stop that I was excited about was Robert Craig Winery. I had been very familiar with the brand from previous tasting experiences and always loved the wines. Bob Craig is also a very nice gentleman and has a very good reputation of consistency of fine winemaking here in Napa. They have a new tasting room a bit outside of town next to the River Terrace Inn and new Westin properties. The wines are phenomenal and definitely worth the visit whether in town or just passing through. My standout favorites are their Affnity, Howell Mt. Cab and Mount George wines, but enjoyed the entire lineup. Ask for Jeff Roman, the tasting room manager, and he'll take real good care of you when there. Look them up or stop by on your next is an easy diversion on your way up or down Silverado Trail and you'll be glad made the effort.

It was a short day and I hit a few other places on the way back home. One of note was a place that I have passed at least a dozen times and never stopping was the Silverado Trail Wine Studio custom crush facility that is home to Bighorn Cellars and Expression Wines. This unassuming studio is easy to miss, but don't. The Expression Wines are great and known for their mastery of Pinot Noir in both Napa/Sonoma and Oregon. Apprently they are also coming out with a big Bordeaux style red that is called Tetra Wine that I am anxious to try as well.

One last stop was to Stag's Leap Cellars just because it had been over 15 years since I had been there, but they were just finishing up a remodeling and were not quite finished. I quickly tasted a few wines but had to be on my way.

Although a fairly uneventful shorter day of tasting, I was glad to have made the stops I did in such short order. And, some good finds as well. All in a days "work"...

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, December 3, 2009

From Castle to Mountain

I finally made it to the infamous Napa Castle, or more technically named, Castello di Amorosa, just north of St. Helena. I'd heard about the extensive project many times and everyone had raved about it, but I was generally not all that interested as it seemed to fall in to the "touristy" category not for real oenophiles. I must say, I was impressed on many fronts.

In short, the castle was patterned after castles from 10th to 16th centuries and is an amazing piece of vision, construction and attention to detail 15 years in the making. Our guide, Kerry, was extremely knowledgeable, informative and organized in her presentation. She whisked us through the labyrinth of levels within the walls and through the myriad of cellars, cubbyholes and chambers finally arriving at our own private tasting room.

The wines were actually better than I had expected with so much attention to the aesthetics of the property and really enjoyed the entire experience. Two wines stood out most was the Gewurztraminer and the Super Tuscan blend. What was most impressive is their model to hold on to the wines in bottle longer than almost anyone giving the wine up to 4 years in bottle before release. Walls and walls of wines from the early 2000's still waiting for release...I'll be waiting.

Second was our visit to CADE on Howell Mt. This is one of Napa's newest properties and one of the most contemporary designs to come along in quite a while. The views are amazing and I really enjoy their wines. We tasted - '07 Sauvignon Blanc, '06 CADE Cuvee, and '06 Cab - along with some simple but delicious food pairings to go with each. DJ & Kent Nielsen are the resident chefs there and they have always done a great job in both presentation and attention to wine pairing. My favorite wine was definitely the straight Howell Mt. Cabernet.

Anyway, short week this time around with family in town...more to come next week!

Till the sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino