Monday, January 18, 2010

1st Annual 'Local Wino Awards' from 2009

Ok, I'm giving in to the popularity and handing out my version of "Best Of" awards. Although some standard categories are covered, I've done my own personalized 'Local Wino Awards' that will cover my unique travels and observations through wine country over the past year.

Let's get started...

Best New Winery/Tasting Room
Tie - Cuvaison Carneros and CADE Howell Mt.
Both very worthy of this as they combine incredible views and contemporary design with fine wines to back it up. Cuvasion (right) has one of the more unique views looking from South to North with a very special room that is a must see when down south. CADE (part of the Plumpjack wine group) has an equally impressive view from North to South from up on Howell Mt. with a well placed infinity fountain pool that brings it all together so well.
Honorable mention: James Cole - Napa

Best Overall Value Wines
Hill Family Estate - Yountville
This was an easy choice as Hill Family Estate wines in Yountville produces some of the best wines and specialty blends you'll find anywhere. Winemaker Alison Doran continues to progress with her creativeness in putting together a lineup of wines that in these times consistently over-deliver. Match that with a great staff and unique atmosphere within the antique shop that is one of the most welcoming experiences you'll find. Their red Barrel Blend ($25), Carly's Cuvee ($27) and Syrah ($34) alone are worth the visit, but they have a fabulous overall lineup.
Honorable mention: Elyse Winery - Napa

Best Overall Tasting Room Experience
Lynmar Estate - Sebastopol
The minute you walk in to this place, you feel the weight come off your shoulders and the experience continues to delight from there. Very clean, open and somewhat understated, they definitely did their homework on the "feng-shui" presence making you feel comfortable all around. There is a very pleasant table & umbrella patio on one side and an open air porch on the other with big soft comfy couches that both look out over the vineyards. You can stroll through the organic vegetable gardens where they grow almost everything they need for the private dinners they conduct on-premise just down the hill from the tasting room. And oh, by the way, some of the best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs I tasted all year...hands down favorite all-around tasting day.
Honorable mention: Trefethen Vineyards- Napa

Best Day 'Road Trip'
Alexander Valley
I've done this trek numerous times and I never get tired of it. The stretch up Hwy 128 from North of Calistoga to Geyserville through the valley provides some of the best open spans of road combined with so many great wine stops it is hard to beat. Views at Hanna Winery, entertaining staff at Alexander Valley Vineyards, subdued atmosphere and delicious wines of White Oak, uniqueness of Styker Wines and their tasting room, and the Zins at Sausal Winery all provide for an adventurous day. Not to mention easy side trips along the way to Lancaster Estate and Chalk Hill make this my favorite diversion from Napa.
Honorable mention: Russian River Valley

Best Private Tour/Tasting
Schramsberg Caves
Between the history (they are the 2nd oldest 'winery' in the valley), the grounds, the caves and the bubbly, it is hard not to fall in love with this experience. Just looking at the landmark 1800's picture when you come in of Jacob Schram, Charles Krug and the Beringer brothers, entices you to listen intently on all the stories from the late 1800's to-date. They are touted as "Americas's First House of Sparkling Wine" and so rich in history that it is a must visit for any true wine enthusiast. The great variety and quality sparkling wines make you want to spend the whole day there. Oddly enough though, one of my favorite reds of the year is their J. Davies Red Bordeaux blend as well.
Honorable mention: Crocker & Starr

Best Random & Most Fun Tasting (Tie)
Milat Winery & Del Dotto Caves (St. Helena)
These wines are miles apart in style and costs, but the one thing they have in common is the relentless desire to make sure you have a good time tasting. The Milat brothers usually are manning the post themselves at the small tasting room mid-Hwy 29 and are very entertaining talking about the early days in the valley regardless of your level of wine prowess. We happened to get Dave Del Dotto himself to kidnap up for his barrel tasting in the caves and we were barely able to escape with any brain cells or tooth enamel left after at least 2 hours tasting through 20+ barrels of his special blends. My teeth were never so purple at the end of a tasting day...which by the way, you want to make sure Del Dotto is your LAST stop of any tasting day. They don't call it "Del Blotto" for nothing!
Honorable mention: Fleury Estate - Rutherford

Most Relaxing Wine Tasting
Paraduxx - Yountville
First off, it is the only place to offer almost exclusively Zinfandel blends as their core tasting. The wines are delicious all the way through the lineup and the uber-comfortable outdoor lounging environment under the large oak trees easily make for the most relaxing tasting experience. The staff is very friendly waiting on your every needs as you just sit back and let it all just come to you. They offer a small cheese/cracker accompaniment that just lends to the tastiness of the wines while allowing you to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Honorable mention: O'Brien Estate - Oak Knoll/Napa

Best "Up And Coming" Winemaker
Massimo Monticelli - Monticelli Brothers
When your dad (Marcello at Gallo) is one of the longest tenured winemakers in all of Napa, your pedigree definitely precedes you to high aspirations/expectations. But, Massimo is making some phenomenal wines while keeping the pricing very reasonable during these times. He has 'M Bros.' (with his brother Mario who is also at Trinchero Winery), Razi Wines, and BURLY Wines to his credits. My every day favorite wine is his non-vintage 'Rolando Rosso' - Cab/Syrah/Malbec blend ($39) that combines up to eight years previous vintages that have been held back in barrel making for one of the most delicious layered 'quaffable' reds you'll find. His '05 BURLY Cab ($60) from Coombsville fruit is one of those Cabs that I ALWAYS have on hand for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser of a wine that shows off a complex well-made Cab that is very drinkable early as well.
Honorable mention: David Yorgensen - KIND cellars

Best "Off the Beaten Track" Wine Experience
Kuleto Estate Winery - St. Helena (Lake Hennessey East)
This wine experience is so multi-faceted, it is hard to fully just need to go and experience it yourself. Everything from the private drive up the super-tight single wind-ey road (we had to back down twice to let vehicles get by) to the sipping view from 3500 ft. above lake Hennessey sitting in Adirondack chairs just takes you completely aback from the valley floor. It is a complete half-day experience, so allow for it, but completely worth the day. The wines were decent and the small artisan food pairing that comes along with it make is special as you sit and listen to stories about the property. Also, stories about founder Pat Kuleto and the special events they've had there are equally enticing making for a very entertaining few hours while touring the grounds/vineyards high above the lake.
Honorable mention: David Arthur Vineyards - St. Helena (east)

Best "Non-traditional Winery" Tasting Room Experience
Falcor Wines - Napa Valley
To clarify, there have been an abundance of tasting rooms crop up in industrial park settings, but that does not take away from the quality of wines being made. One of those would be Falcor wines in So. Napa in the corporate center near the DMV. With well-known winemaker, Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery, as part of the team, they are making some of the most approachable best-value wines around. For all-around "quaffability" the '05 Le Bijou Red ($45) is a must try when down at their facility, but all of the wines tasted well through vintages going back to 2003 right now.
Honorable mention: Robert Craig Wines - Napa

Best Tasting Where I Felt Most Compelled to Purchase Wine
Ehlers Estate - St. Helena
History, tradition, location, friendly staff, charitable cause and beautiful wines all contribute to a tasting experience where I wanted some of everything. Ehlers Estate is unique in so many ways, but their philanthropic activity through the wine channel is very impressive. They are non-profit in that they donate all proceeds to cardiovascular disease research in honor of the Jean Leducq Foundation. They are also a completely organic facility from vineyard to production. All of the the wines are outstanding and my favorite overall wine for the money is their '120 over 80' ($45) red Bordeaux blend that I should (and will) always have on hand.
Honorable mention: Hill Family Estate - Yountville

Best Overall 'WOW! Factor' Wine Tasted
Tie - '06 Brandlin Cab (rt.) & '05 Ehlers Estate '1886' Cab
The Brandlin Vineyard Cab ($85 - Cab/Malbec/Petite Verdot/Cab Franc) from Mt. Veeder is surprisingly approachable early and you can tell this wine will only get better and better with time. I've revisited this wine many times and I get more impressed each time. The Ehlers '1886' Estate Cab ($95 - 100% Cab) is just one of those wines that you want to savor all night long. After about 45 min. in the glass, you realize that you will be finishing the entire bottle. Not for the faint of heart, it is a huge wine that is complex, rich, and many layers of aromas and fruit going on that you get something different on each sip.
Honorable mention: '05 Louis Martini 'One' Cab

Other 'Wino' Honors:

Best Value Wines to Drink Every Day
Rose - Ideaology, '07 Rose of Cabernet ($9)
White - Milat Winery, '08 Chenin Blanc ($18)
Red - Elyse, '06 C'est si Bon Naggiar Vineyard ($28 - Rhone varietals)
Red Blend - Hill Family Estate, '06 Barrel blend ($25)
Sparkling - Schramsberg 'Mirabelle' Rose ($28)

Best Single Varietal/AVA Discovery
'05 BURLY Cabernet, Coombsville - soon to be the newest AVA, great cab fruit coming out of here.

Best Tasting Room to Revisit Over and Over Again (Tie)
Jessup Cellars, Yountville - ALL the wines are great right down to the port at the end with some chocolate...yum!
Hope & Grace, Yountville - nice atmosphere with new art displays, great wines & staff, regular tasting events showcasing new artists

Best New Discovery/Lesser Known Winery
Allora Vineyards, St. Helena - small family owned property where you taste with the owners in their 'basement' cellar and the wines are very solid efforts with an Italian spin.

Best Winery Event
Hill Family Estate 'BLT' Heirloom Tomato Festival - several types of world-class bacon, over 40 types of heirloom tomatoes along with the their delicious wines make for an event I will always look forward to and already marked on the calendar. HUGE kudos here!

That about wraps up 2009 and a true expression of my ventures. I only visited about 130 wineries/tasting rooms with many more to try this year. It is hard to get to them all and sure to have some new discoveries this year. All the more reason to make these awards an annual thing so as to not leave anyone out...lots of work to do, but someone has to do it!

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, January 7, 2010

First Outing of 2010

After enjoying the break during the usual holiday activities, I was anxious to get back out and hit the ground running on my first exploration for 2010. It has been one of the most interesting starts of any year that I can remember on several fronts. Hard to put in exact words, but the overall 'vibe' in this first week has revolved around 'Karmic' type activities and experiences. Not to get too spiritually out there, but there has been an odd "cause & effect" type theme that has continually played itself out so far and I am just rolling with it as seemingly negative activity turned to positive results have proven to be 'fruitful', so to speak...this outing did not veer from this.

After putting out the usual fires from the morning, I got a bit of a late start. Strangely, while preparing for the planned direction of the day, I received an email from an acquaintance I had met over the weekend about his new job with a winery and wanted to taste me on the wines. We were able to quickly make a lunch meeting plan at a new local joint called the Norman Rose Tavern here in downtown Napa. I was excited to try the new spot out along with the new wine tasting introduction.

After surveying the room and greeting various recognizable faces, some obviously more receptive than others (see Karmic activity above), we proceeded to wait for our table taking notice of the buzz in the (crowded) room with several other wine industry personnel saying the usual warm "hi and byes". This was definitely THE new hot spot in town and great choice.

I was meeting with Michael Magee, representative of "MadoroM" wines. Michael continues to refer to it as the "best red wine in Napa you've never heard about". Right up my alley! MadoroM is a collaboration between Andy and Melissa Amador and winemaker Mike Blom. As often is the case with "under the radar" wines, their story is unique and interesting...their wines extraordinary. Andy comes from a hunting & fishing background and has come up with one of the most intriguing concepts of creating a red wine called 'Camouflage' that showcases hunters and their 'kills' on the back label and a well-designed subtle camouflage front label.

With their first vintage in 2000, I was amazed I had not come across this wine before. I tasted the 2006 'Camaflouge' Red and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Camouflage is a juicy red blend of Cab/Syrah/Cab Franc/Merlot that was outright delicious. And, at $38 retail, I was ready to place an order right there, but the '06 is mostly sold out and '07 just released. We moved on to the '05 Cab ($80), and for a 100% Cabernet, extremely approachable and easy drinking...the 34 months in barrel had been kind to this wine. Almost a bit 'minty' on the nose, but with plenty of good ripe fruit that paired perfectly with our lamb burgers. They also have a Merlot that I did not taste, but surely a winner as well. I look forward to having these wines again with our tasting panel evaluations for the next catalog coming in February.

After a few business stops, I ended up at Patz & Hall winery in the Napa Corporate Center where a few tasting rooms reside that you'd never know to visit. Patz & Hall is a very well-established wine known for their Chardonnays and Pinots. I tasted through several of their '07 single-vineyard Pinots from Sonoma Coast enjoying all of them. My two favorites were the Jenkins Ranch and the Gaps Crown vineyard Pinots. The "tasting salon" as they call it was most impressive with a very well-designed contemporary feel that you'd remiss not to visit.

Although I did not get to taste a great number of wines on this day, it was definitely one of 'quality vs. quantity' and was equally enjoyable.

If you are interested in purchasing any of the featured MadoroM wines mentioned above, I offer the one-week only special Chief Wino Explores discount of 20% and comp shipping good until Jan. 14 with a special coupon code of CWE20 (3 bottle minimum). Contact me directly here.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino