March Wine Madness – Part 3

This is a continuation of our March wine experiences – winery 74 (Frog’s Leap) – 101 (Kokomo)

Wed 3/18

Frog’s Leap (Rutherford)

  • In the top 5 tasting and wine experiences in Napa
  • I actually expected something bigger, more commercial and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the name reminds you of the bigger Stags Leap behemoth, because I’ve seen it by the glass in a variety of restaurants, I’m not sure. However I couldn’t have been more wrong in my perceptions and I’m so glad we made Frogs Leap acquaintance! I expect the relationship to continue for years to come!
  • Turns out that the name was a combination of Stag’s Leap (where John was a winemaker) and the Frog Farm (where the first vintages were made)
  • Rebecca – attendant from Mexico City was fantastic, we talked about how reasonable their wines are and she said John’s philosophy is that he wants you to enjoy his wines twice a week instead of only for special occasions
  • Met the owner John Williams and chatted about our adventures, told him how much we enjoyed his wines. He encouraged us to check out the barrel and tank rooms and explore the property and to come back with the Chicago friends and families. He went to UC Davis – told us about how they would wine taste 5-6 days a week and they would run tests on the wine using hypodermic needles. He missed Merry Edwards by a few years there, but had a Cornell connection with Helen Turley. He is originally from Ithaca NY. His ex-wife has a vineyard as well and their son works for both of them.
  • Production: 60K cases, distribution to all states
  • Dry farmed vineyard – 250 acres, uses cover crops and compost, certified organic grapes since 1988, deeply rooted vines result in wines with a strong connection to the land, more minerality and roots that struggle produce quality product, sustainable practices. 50 other commercial crops are farmed at Frog’s Leap.
  • Frog’s Leap leans toward Old World production with reduced alcohol (they monitor grapes for ideal sugar/alcohol levels – theirs are lower than their neighbors), hint of acid for aging and food pairing, less heavy on the palate. They also have a non-interventional approach that seems to work well for many Napa wineries. They use more neutral oak, handle wine minimally, and fine and filter sparingly. Their wines are made for aging due to slightly earlier harvests, good amount of acidity.
  • They definitely were not hard selling at all – but they do have parties for their members in Chicago which makes membership more tempting!
  • Our attendant Rebecca shared with us that St Helena has the oldest one room cinema in the country.

Tasting – probably all 3*

  • 2013 Chardonnay Napa Valley 3-3.5* – oaked briefly then stainless, Burgundian style.
  • 2012 Zin St Helena 3-3.5* – cinnamon, cardamom (has some petite sirah?)
  • 2012 Merlot – not popular initially, many would have converted the earthy dusty Rutherford bench land over to cab, John did not
  • 2012 Cabernet – 3-3.5* – some cab franc, only recently called it an estate (waited until this vintage for that designation), shows restrained winemaker style – not in your face, and lovely

Special tastes included:

  • 1996 Cabernet – not for sale, opened for a heavy hitter earlier in the day
  • 2012 Heritage Blend 3* – John recently revived 75 year old vines that were trashed
  • 2012 Petite Sirah 2.5-3* – big bold earth truffles
  • 2014 Rose 3* – meant to be a rose, not run off, slightly sweet, gamay rose, picked early

4/8 Revisit – this time we took part in their winery tour, along with Kate, Mike, and Elizabeth visiting us from Chicago.  Our host Brandy was very informative and we picked up a few more interesting pieces of information including:

  • The plants around their vineyards help to protect the vines by attracting ‘good’ insects and predator birds (to keep the ‘bad’ insects off the grape.)
  • Irrigation can lead to more sugar and therefore more alcohol in the wines.  Most irrigated vines have a 5-10 year lifespan whereas dry farmed vines can last a very long time (close to 100 years.) Irrigated vines can go into shock during droughts.
  • John will occasionally host “Ugly Duckling” dinners showcasing wines from years known as bad growing years (such as 2011.)
  • Frog’s Leap employs 5 full time gardeners and they sell their fruits and vegetables to local restaurants and at farmer’s markets
  • More about how John Williams got into the business:  Originally he was planning on studying agriculture (cheesemaking in particular) at Cornell, he saw that the students enrolling in the wine studies programs were better-looking and he liked the idea of staying up late sampling wines!
  • He met up with Helen Turley at Cornell, she introduced  him to her brother Larry (an ER doc) who was buying a vineyard.  John ended up working for Larry in exchange for a place to stay.  The property that Larry bought had originally been a frog farm (they sold for .33/dozen to nice restaurants back in the 70s.) Next John got a job at Stag’s Leap and saw an opportunity some neglected chardonnay vines.  He worked with Larry to restore them and ended up fermenting them in a redwood hot tub.
  • Larry and John ended up starting Frog’s Leap with only $8000 and they spent only $200 on their label (Helen found a graphic artist in school who agreed to design the label for that very small price.)  The label, designed by Chuck House, won an award and was on display in the Smithsonian.
  • The first wine released by Frog’s Leap was a sauvignon blanc (cheapest grape at the time and easiest to turn over a profit) with grapes purchased from Spottswoode.
  • John was annoyed by the Surgeon General requirements for labeling (not operating machinery after drinking alcohol) that he added the instructions “Open at other end” to thumb his nose at the Surgeon General!
  • Each cork is inscribed with ‘Ribbit’ on it – John did it to mock the somms who would taste the wines at various events and for the free advertising.  Brandy told us a funny story about some drunk women who were visiting the winery who, when one of them heard that the cork ‘said ribbit’, quickly grabbed a bottle of wine and put it to her ear to see if she could hear it!
  • Brandy told us a story that when she first started working for Frog’s Leap and was about to do a tasting with John he told her before she took her first sip to be sure to always come up with at least 2 good points about a wine (even it’s the label) before critiquing it.  I thought that was some wise advice that goes way beyond wine tasting.  I plan to keep that in mind as well for my future wine postings (though these are drawing to a close over the coming weeks.)

 SUMMARY:  Frog’s Leap was one of the best unexpected surprises to date!  The setting is a perfect combination of laid-back and elegant, the wines are both subtle and unforgettable, and the staff made us feel like family.  It is one of those rare finds, especially on the valley floor!  Frog’s Leap is in our Top 5 of our Top 100!

Round Pond (Rutherford) Round Pond was recommended by the Odette somm. I’ve been intrigued at the stately tall palm trees that flank both sides of their driveway – very attention-grabbing!  Round Pond is situated in a spectacular setting with a huge deck and outdoor fireplace – you feel like you are on vacation here, and if it weren’t for the vineyard view I would think a pool, cabana, and tropical drinks w/little umbrellas were right around the corner!

2nd generation family-owned and operated farm and winery.  We met Ryan McDonnell, one of the owners and she was very intrigued with our new work/travel lifestyle.

Acreage: 362 vineyard acres, 5 acres of biodynamic gardens, 12 acres of olive orchard, 1 of 2 olive mills in the area. They use sustainable farming and onsite farm-to-table principles are a focus through their food and wine events.  In addition to some quality wines, Round Pond also produces a variety of olive oils, vinegars, and syrup.

Production: 30K cases, winery named after Round Pond NY, land was purchased in 1983. Up until 2002 they primarily sold their grapes to other wineries – they still have about 25 clients that they’ve been selling to for about 20 years. 2/3 of their grapes are resold to other wineries such as Vineyard 29, Duckhorn, and Franciscan. That’s when the kids took over the day to day operations – Miles the son focused on farming and distribution while Ryan the daughter focused on the olive mill. In 2002 they were only producing about 1300 cases of cab.

Round Pond is chock full of enriching and interesting experiences – Sun brunches, barrel tastings, an olive mill tour across the street, lunches, private dinners, etc.  Not surprising given the founders come from business backgrounds (KKR) and as a result have looked to fill a unique niche in the wine industry.

Our tasting:

2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford 3-3.5*, steel, no oak, really nice minerality, we both really enjoyed
2013 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 3* – 10 months on the lees
2012 Cabernet 3-3.5* – 86% cab, 9% petit verdot, 5 malbec), Robert Parker rating – 93
2012 Proprietary Red Wine – 46% cab, 24% malbec, 20% petit verdot, 10% petite sirah. Robert Parker – 94
2013 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (?) 3* – stainless steel, neutral oak, aged 10 months

SUMMARY:  Round Pond grabs your attention initially with its stunning entrance and gorgeous indoor/outdoor architecture; it holds it firmly with its award-winning wines. Round Pond will rank in our top 25-30 range.

Thurs 3/19

Barnett (Spring Mountain)

  • Recommended by our Twomey attendant and others have recommended as well
  • The tasting was in a special location – right outside of their cave and smack dab in the middle of their vineyard with sweeping views of St Helena
  • We actually met our attendant out Sat night when she was with Erin (our host over at Schweiger)
  • They only grow cabernet in their 14-acre vineyard – and they make 3 cabs, all other grapes for all other wines are sourced. Production is 5K cases.
  • Their flagship is Rattlesnake and they were sold out
  • Their first Rattlesnake vintage unintentionally made its way over to Robert Parker (was given to a friend, don’t even think they were planning on selling it) – he scored it 97 (only the second time he’s done that)
  • Like other wineries their owners didn’t really plan on being in the wine business, they bought the land to live on it (to sell grapes?), and then they got into it after the Rattlesnake success!
  • Rattlesnakes abound in the vineyard, like to sun themselves. There’s a little innocent looking sign telling you to watch out for them – kind of makes you chuckle.

Tasting:

  • 2014 Sauvignon Blanc 3* – peach, mango, tropical fruits, grapes are from Dry Creek
  • 2013 Chardonnay Savoy Vineyard 2-2.5* – grapes are from near Mendocino County, cool coastal climate, aged in 80% neutral oak, small amount of MLF
  • 2013 Pinot Noir Tina Marie, Russian River Valley 2.5-3* – delicate, easy drinking cherry
  • 2011 Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard 2-2.5* – increased complexity, darker fruits, smoke, spice, earth
  • 2012 Cabernet Spring Mountain 3* – 92 rating. Because 2012 was so warm, no need to sit on it/lay it down for too long. Blend of cab, merlot, pv, and cf

Rattlesnake will be released in Sept, 2012 earned a 96 rating. $175. This year the staff voted/chose to add merlot to the Rattlesnake

SUMMARY:  Barnett was a solid experience – we really enjoyed a subset of their wines and would love to try the Rattlesnake in the future. I liked how it was relaxed, how we sampled wines right IN the vineyard, but I think it didn’t quite stand up to our outstanding experiences at nearby Pride and Schweiger. Barnett is likely to be ranked in the 25-50 slot of our Top 100.

Fri 3/20

A day of snootiness and pretension….took some wind out of our sails and made us take a break from tasting! It was quite surprising given our open-armed friendly experiences on Spring Mountain. In fact Dave and I have marveled at how often we thought they ‘rolled out the red carpet’ for us when they see we are interested in learning more about wine and their business. Even the wineries we thought had snooty potential didn’t turn out to be.

Cain (Spring Mountain)

  • Very cool winding private drive off of Spring Mountain Rd, definitely a journey to get there, at least 5 degrees cooler on the hillside than down in the valley.
  • Chris the winemaker was our host – I actually didn’t even realize that he was the winemaker until he gave me his card after our tour.
  • We started off on the wrong foot in that Dave had mentioned how much we loved the food in Charleston – how we thought it was the best in the country, better than New Orleans, etc.; and that to-date we were not blown away by the food in Napa. You would have thought he was the President of the Napa Restaurant Association because he insisted that we hadn’t been going to the ‘right’ places – we hadn’t been to Terra yet (which was on our list as our friend Tom had suggested it), blah blah blah….Just like wine, food is so subjective and personal – what is fantastic to one person may be ‘meh’ to another. We also mentioned the blog and a few things he said made me second guess maintaining it. Kind of sad….but the atmosphere was one of ‘why bother’?
  • We moved on to the tour portion of the experience and Chris was very informative, and not surprising quite cynical at various points
  • Cain started in 1980, the vineyard used to be a sheep ranch on the edge between Napa and Sonoma. 15K cases.
  • Recommended book called The Vineyards in the Sun (Jones)
  • Vineyards are irrigated using rain retention pods
  • We saw the team working on bottling
  • Cain uses lighter bottles – less carbon footprint
  • We had an interesting discussion on barrels – Chris mentioned how many wineries approach oak from a flavoring perspective. He thinks that many wineries let the barrels have too much of an impact. He sees the barrels as cooking utensils (not spices.) He is experimenting with very large barrels (600 litres/per) to see if they may have a smaller impact on the wines – the wines won’t breathe as much in these larger vessels.
  • Cain is a workplace, not show place – I liked that statement because there are certainly a number of wineries that may rely more on the experience than the wines. However I also appreciate a bit of an experience too – little did Chris know he was giving us one! J
  • They ferment with native yeast, no additional yeast added. Grapes have enzymes that ferment. In the tank they are in an anaerobic fermentation mode – on the vines they are in an aerobic mode – eventually if you left the grapes alone they would produce alcohol on the vines.
  • We talked about how Robert Parker’s tasting and rating is like a casting call – he’ll taste 300 wines in 1 day and it typically turns into a contest to stand out.
  • Their 3 wines, which are all blends were subtle, earthy, and not overpowering – very distinctive compared to other more fruity, powerful, and tannic wines common on the valley floor. They are made to pair well with food. However I can’t say we were blown away by the wines.
  • 2004 Cain Five – Bordeaux style, seems Old World, light, easy drinking
  • Cain Cuvee – lightest blend of 2 vintages 2009 and 2010. Very unique – merlot, c/s, cf, and pv blend
  • 2010 Cain Five – from on site vineyard, 5 hillside varietals
  • 2010 Cain Concept –grapes are purchased from the valley floor, true to the land, friendly wine, they pick earlier, more fruit-forward
  • He mentioned how Toney? On spring mountain is a gem

SUMMARY:  Cain was a unique and somewhat unsettling experience – unique in that we were hosted by the winemaker (has never happened before) and unsettling in that the experience left us a bit deflated given its negativity. To top it all off, none of the wines really wow’d us. Cain will either rank in the 75-100 range or not at all in the Top 100.

Newton (Spring Mountain)

  • This winery has been recommended on a few occasions.
  • First impression as we arrived to this mountain top location was one of awe, the beauty, the gardens, it was very striking – reminiscent of Kuleto.
  • At first we were warmly welcomed by our host, however things got very chilly after I mentioned that I was maintaining a blog and we were looking to showcase our top wineries in it. When she mentioned a Robert Parker rating of the Chardonnay I asked her to repeat something – she immediately said I should contact their PR person to confirm facts, etc. She also mentioned more than once that I should check my facts before publishing stories we hear, etc. I guess she doesn’t realize I’m writing a personal blog for family and friends and I’m not with the New York Times, Wine Spectator, or the National Enquirer. Lighten up lady! I get it though, Newton is part of the Domaine Chandon empire and they are used to keeping facts tightly-controlled, I get it (I would never talk to the media about Deloitte, however I’m not the media and no one would reach out to interview me anyway) – but then again when you’re dealing with the public every day you should be used to people taking notes, sharing information on reviews, etc.
  • If I have my fact straight Robert Parker gave their first Unfiltered Chardonnay vintage 97 points.
  • Acreage: 560 acres, 100 acres planted with 112 distinct blocks planted to the ideal varietal for that block. Acquired in 1977, irrigation – underground pipes capture the rain (similar to Cain). Production: 40K
  • Sandy soil on Spring Mountain results in finer / smoother tannins
  • Distinct terroir and unfiltered approach to wine making differentiates Newton (native yeast is used, not added cultured yeast.)
  • 1979 – 1st vintage – cab from Mt Veeder, 1982 – 1st vintage from Spring Mountain
  • A VRBO home is rented onsite
  • Newton actually built Sterling winery (named it after a paper company Newton worked for)
  • Pino solo – the solo palm is a landmark that you have a great view of from the winery and you can also see it from the valley floor
  • The ownership and operations were really centered with Peter’s wife Su Vay (from China) since he had a non-compete following Sterling. Peter was the first to plan merlot in the valley (hmmm…. really)
  • Rob Mann – Australian winemaker
  • Cool recycled barrel was turned into a wine serving unit

Production

  • Their rooftop garden was planted to provide insulation/cooling for the chardonnay barrel room below it
  • We went into the Chardonnay barrel room – saw the M+ for the toast rating. Barrels are filled based on location.
  • They use optical sorters for their grape selection and gravity flow for pressing, fermenting, and aging.
  • Chardonnay is whole cluster pressed and fermented – 30% new oak for chardonnay which gives it a carmel and honey flavor
  • They use batonage (stir the lees) for the Chardonnay
  • We were entertained to know that Newtown was a filming site for a Japanese version of the movie Sideways

More wine tidbits:
Cabs have thick skin, small berries
The larger the size of the bottle, the more you can age the wine (allows for a bit more air in the neck)
With aging comes more spice and earthy flavors

Tasting:

2012 Chardonnay Unfiltered Knights Valley 2.5*
2012 Unfiltered Chardonnay 3* – distributed to Whole Foods, 94 Robert Parker points, honey, apple caramel – if you serve it too cold it will bring out the acid (notes include: aromas of star anise, cardamom and jasmine lead to fresh fruit flavors of apricot, meyer lemon and comice pear – with cream texture that is a hallmark of unfiltered winemaking)
2012 Unfiltered Merlot 2.5*
2012 Unfiltered Cab 2.5-3*
2010 The Puzzle – 3-3.5*

SUMMARY:  Newton has a drop dead beautiful setting, quality wines, premium prices, but the pretense left a bad taste in my mouth. Newton will rank in the 75-100 range of our Top 100.

Sun 3/22

Girard (Yountville Tasting Room)

  • Recommended by Odette somm
  • We visited their tasting room before lunch at Hurley’s on Sun. After our tasting experiences on Friday, we took Sat off, and opted for a few relaxed tasting room visits in Yountville.

Tasting:

  • 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet 2-2.5* – 90% cab, PV, Malbec
  • 2012 Oakville Cab 2-2.5* – valley floor, ripen more quickly, more fruit forward, single vineyard
  • 2012 Diamond Mountain 2.5-3* – medium body, power taste, single vineyard, spicey
  • 2012 Mt Veeder 2.5-3*, medium body, smoother than Diamond, medium fruit forwardness

Attendant recently moved to Napa from CO, was very professional, and had just taken up paragliding

  • Girard is part of a larger corporate conglomerate that owns Cosentino, Clos Pegase, Kunde – almost disappointed to hear that but it’s also good to mix our smaller winery experiences with some larger ones.

SUMMARY:  Girard was a fine experience with solid wines and customer service. It will likely rank in the 60-75 range.

Priest Ranch (Yountville Tasting Room)

  • Off to a bit of a shaky start as we ask about Napa Neighbors – the attendant Eric probably thought we were cheap-os!
  • 2007 – 1st vintage
  • All wines estate grown (on Somerston ranch?)
  • Somerston only produces a few hundred cases
  • 40% of their grapes are sold off to Hall, Heidi Barrett, Robert Biale
  • The space had the western ranch theme, the bar was very inviting with comfy seats and a curved cool lacquered bar top with bark on the side

Tasting:

  • Sauvignon Blanc 1.5-2*
  • Grenache Blanc 2-2.5* – 90% SS – muscat clone (tropical fruit, melon)
  • 2009 Syrah 2.5-3* – hillside fruit
  • 2012 Cab Franc 2-2.5* – 1st vintage, 44 cases, floral, bright, CF prefers cooler conditions, it’s a tempermental grape, fragile, gets hit with disease before others, he said CF bud break happens first (thought it was chard and pinot)
  • Coach Gun 3* – 347 cases, named after the double-barred sawed off shot gun used on stagecoaches, blend of cab, PV, merlot
  • Zin 2.5-3* – grown at 2100 ft, cool climate, peppery, jammy, acidity goes nicely with tomato sauce, BBQ chicken
  • Malbec 2.5-3* – 44 cases, 1st vintage
  • 2010 Petite Sirah 3* – winemaker’s favorite, big BBQ, Dave and I both loved it – 2009 vintage got 95 pts from Robert Parker
  • 2012 Cabernet 2.5*

SUMMARY:  Priest Ranch was a pleasant surprise. While we started off a bit shaky with the attendant (asking about the discount program), we ended up having an informative and enjoyable conversation and we tasted more than a few wines that we really loved, namely their petite sirah. Priest Ranch is likely to rank in the 50 range of our Top 100.

Mon 3/23

St Clement (St Helena)

  • I picked up a rental car so I could continue the tasting adventures while Dave was away in St Louis working.
  • A couple over at V Sattui highly recommended the cabs at St Clement, and I was motivated to visit since they are located right up the street and the Victorian house looks very inviting and pretty.
  • I was a little concerned about visiting given some of the reviews online but decided to give it a shot and glad I did!
  • First I was treated like a special industry member! I sat outside enjoying the view and while I didn’t ask a lot of questions the attendant offered up information on each wine and could see I was taking notes and taking the experience a bit seriously. Not only was my tasting comped but I also got a discount on the wines! Nice!
  • St Clement was one of the first bonded wineries in the valley – 1879 was their first vintage
  • Malbec – typically made with black fruits / silky texture.  Petite verdot provides structure and donnay 2* – 100% SS – tasted hints of oak somehow, this wine is distributed
  • 2012 Ark & Dove 2.5* – 1st vintage, Malbec and PV, named after the Patron Saint of Mariners. Some ‘fattiness’ in back with the PV, fruit with the malbec. Owners can trace their lineage back to some of the first settlers. Unique blend, haven’t quite experienced anything exactly like it.
  • 2012 Oroppas 3* – also distributed, blend of Cab, PV, Merlot, refers to Saporro spelled backwards – yes, the Japanese beer! They used to own the winery, but that was short-lived. Very smooth, softer/medium tannings. Bright red fruits. Vineyards include Coombs, Rutherford, Diamond, Veeder, and Mount Howell.
  • 2011 Johanna Cab 3-3.5* – limited release, the house onsite was originally built by a German stained glass merchant – this wine is named after his wife Johanna. 90% cab, 8% PV, 2% merlot, flows across the palate with dark fruit, very similar to Oroppas perhaps a bit smoother and more fruit than Oroppas
  • 2010 Star Vineyard Cab 2.5-3* – only single vineyard cab, can age for 15 years, Rutherford, 92 pts Wine Spectator

SUMMARY: St Clement provided a classic and classy tasting experience with excellent service complemented with complex and delicious wines. It will rank in the top 30 in our Top 100.

Ballentine (St Helena)

  • Small, warm tasting room – very casual and warm and welcoming – again, was a bit nervous after reading the reviews, but the experience was great! Also expected huge alcohol ‘in your face’ wines but didn’t find that either. There probably is something to be said for showing up sober, spitting, and being interested in the business.
  • Megan – host, 1:1 discussion
  • The owner Van had the land handed down to him at the age of 16. His grandfather owned wineries.
  • There was a winery on the premises in 1933 , it closed in the 60s.
  • Van’s father was a grower and he worked with him.
  • Betty – who was she – obtained the 115th permit in Napa to operate a winery
  • All wines are 100% estate (no sourced grapes, bottled on site)

Tasting

  • 2013 Chenin Blanc 2.5-3* – apple
  • 2012 Chardonnay 2.5* – classic Napa, apple, citrus, lemon, with a butter scotch finish
  • 2012 Old Vines Zin 2-2.5* – producing zin the longest here on site, 50 years, berries & spice
  • 2010 Cab Franc 2.5* – firm to astringent tannins
  • 2012 Merlot 2.5-3* – 92 WE pts, while I thought it had a wonderful taste, the aroma I was not as crazy about – will be interesting to try at home, very soft and supple
  • 2012 Cabernet 3* – probably would’ve gone for it if it was a little cheaper
  • 2011 Petite Sirah Fig Tree Vineyard 3*
  • 2009 Petit Verdot – 2500 cases

Meghan suggested Del Dotto wine tasting as they have you sample the same wine aged in American Oak then in French Oak. I also thought they did a vertical (by year) tasting too.  She also suggested wine country in Montevideo Uruguay (super cheap transportation

SUMMARY: Ballentine has a quaint tasting room, friendly service, and a wide variety of solid wines with a few that were standouts. It will rank in the 30-40 range of our Top 100.

Tues 3/24

Clif Lede (Yountville)

  • Large tasting room and patio located at the Poetry Inn
  • The stray cat adopted by the winery has his own reserved chair by the fireplace – he was also the genesis of and featured in the Wine Cats book!
  • The owners love rock music and play it in the tasting room and had REO Speedwagon memorabilia on display
  • Learned that sugar can make tannins more harsh (if you go back to a cab after having something sweet)
  • They had their To Kalon Cab with a 96 RP rating for pre-sale at $165

Tasting

  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – twice Food & Wine has named it the best white wine, 10% concrete fermentation, bright, med acidity, grapefruit flavors, served at the White House
  • 2012 FEL Pinot Noir Ferrington Vineyard 3* – tart cherry cola, spice, earth, pleasant aroma, medium body, actually has punch for a pinot, soft tannins, med acid, PR rating – 90?
  • 2011 Clif Lede Cabernet 2.5* – Bordeaux blend, 75% cab, 14% merlot, 5%CF, 3% PV, 3% malbec – this wine has not received anything lower than a 91 from Robert Parker throughout all of its vintages, distributed. Body – full, tannins – firm to strong
  • 2011 High Fidelity 3* – probably would have bought if it were cheaper! Blend of 46% merlot, 29% CF, ,23% cab, rest PV. Aromas: cherry, red fruit – raspberry, pomegranate
  • Pinot Gris FEL 3* – Anderson Valley, nice minerality, tropical fruits, mango

SUMMARY: Clif Lede had a well-appointed tasting room and patio, friendly and attentive hosts, and some very nice wines but with a steep price. Cesar the Wine Cat was pretty cool to see owning his throne by the fireplace. Clif Lede is likely to rank in the 50-60 range of our Top 100.

Robert Sinskey (Stag’s Leap)

  • Recommended by my friend Joe
  • Certified organic, they make minimal adjustments during winemaking (similar to Frog’s Leap)
  • 5K case production
  • The attendant wasn’t the nicest – he did his thing and gave me a few extra tastes, but just answered my questions matter of factly with no interest or curiousity, very different than the vast majority of the other wineries who tend to want to engage with people who are interested in learning more about their brand and about wine

Tasting

  • 2013 Abraxas Carneros 2.5* – blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling – very unique!
  • 2012 Pinot Noir 2-2.5* – light body, low acid, soft tannins
  • 2011 Merlot 2.5-3* – med body, lighter than most merlots, 2011 cooler year resulting in more earthy dusty wine
  • 2011 POV 3* – their flagship blend of merlot/CF/Cab – earthy aromas, very drinkable
  • 2009 Marcien Reserve 2.5-3* -thought of as POV reserve – medium body, smooth, soft to firm tannins, red fruits, more structure

SUMMARY: Robert Sinskey has decent wines at very reasonable prices, more elegant and light than powerful – but none truly blew me away. I thought the snack pairing was creative and a very nice touch. The service was a bit indifferent, but it was toward the end of the day and I’m sure they didn’t want people lingering more than usual. Given this combination I wouldn’t make it a point to return or to highly recommend it to others. It will rank in the 75-100 range of the Top 100.

Wed 3/25

Cakebread (Rutherford) (85)

  • I decided to visit Cakebread as Dave was not totally into going there – now that we’ve spent so much time at these smaller Mom n Pops, Cakebread does seem to be a big behemoth in comparison. However, because of my love for their Chardonnay and their quality wines in general I decided to give it a go, I’m glad I did!
  • The reception was warm and welcoming and I was immediately greeted with a taste of sauvignon blanc. I joined a group of very friendly ladies – a reunion of college friends who travel somewhere every year (that reminds me to check in with Trish and Michelle!) and 2 women from NY and Columbia (who I ended up providing some winery recommendations to!) Our wine educator James joined us and started with an overview of the company beginnings:
    • Family-owned, 2nd generation – founded in 1973 by Jack and Dolores Cakebread – they bought the property with a down payment of only $2500
    • Again, what a cool name – if your last name is Cakebread or Duckhorn you have to start a winery – there is a Page Cellars here too!
    • 1973 Chardonnay – 1st vintage
    • Production: 150K cases
  • We then spent the rest of our time outside standing around a large table enjoying the rest of our tastings. I LOVED that as I was able to drop the camera, have a place to write and not have to worry about balancing a wine glass, spit cup, camera, camera bag, and purse.
  • Our wine educator James was super – very knowledgeable and personable – he spoke individually to each person in the group, shared with us how we used to own a winery in Oregon, he used to work for Nato, and he is writing 3 wine and food oriented books!
  • Following the tour James offered to take me on a quick tour of one of the barrel houses and the grounds – it pays to be taking notes! We went to the white barrel room and it was impressive, the largest barrel room I’ve seen to date – then again, Cakebread is the largest producer we’ve been to to-date! Then he pointed out the old barn where all of Cakebread operations used to take place – this is probably where Dave visited in the 80s when he came to Napa and was mistaken as a special ‘industry’ guest – the red carpet was rolled out for him and his friends then!
  • They have a biodynamic garden on-site and they use their produce in their onsite culinary institute where they host cooking demonstrations and classes. I am on their email list and they often send out recipes to pair with their wines. I guess I didn’t realize these recipes originated from their facility! (Long Meadow Ranch and Round Pond are similar in that they either offer culinary experiences through their winery, or in the case of Long Meadow Ranch, they have an on site restaurant)
  • Cakebread provided detailed info sheets for each wine as well as a leaflet on aging with recommended aging for each varietal

Tasting:

2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5*
2013 Chardonnay 3* – can be aged for 5-10 years
2013 Chardonnay Reserve 3* – can be aged for 8-15 years, 6 dijon clones, smaller grapes, increased impacts on phenolyics, barrel fermented for increased mouth feel, golden color comes from Oxygen coming into the barrel
2012 Pinot Noir, Apple Barn Vineyard (Anderson Valley) 2.5-3* – this is less available in the marketplace, I think I’m liking Anderson Valley pinots (had some wine from there at Clif Lede that was great too!)
2011 Merlot 2.5-3* – less available too
2012 Napa Cabernet 3* – 84% cab, CF, Malbec, Merot, PV – Bordeaux blend, full body, soft tannins, (med acid), black fruit

Their upcoming Dancing Bear Ranch release earned 99 pts! James indicated that this wine along with the Benchland Select have almost cult status.

SUMMARY:  A special way to spend an afternoon – while Cakebread is one of the larger producers you are welcomed as though they are a Mom and Pop! The experience was a mix of fun and education and the wines, as always, are top notch! I managed to pick up some reasonably priced non-distributed wines and I look forward to drinking them! I would place Cakebread in the top 25-50 wineries.

Sequoia Grove (Rutherford)

  • Popped by here as we’ve heard good things about the winery and it has high ratings on Trip Advisor. It was also located right next door to Cakebread.
  • Production: 32K cases, with 22K cases being their Napa Valley Cabernet
  • Founded in 1978, named after the sequoias on the property
  • Tasting room used to be a horse barn
  • My attendant was relatively new and was just hired from Beringer – very fun chat
  • American oak (cloves, more spicey, from KY or MO) while French oak tends to have more coca vanilla (in whites), toasted almond, sometimes Russian oak is used too
  • Attendants went to a very cool sounding barrel demo nearby – they kick over the barrels during toasting – sounds dangerous!
  • French govt controls the barrel industry now – they had too many requests for barrels from a specific forest – as a result you can now only request a certain grain and they decide what forest it comes from. Some in the US have made their own barrels with wood planks from France. Lest you think that all of France is completely socialist, they have decided to make American Oak Barrels there
  • Remnants used for burning must match the type of oak you’re toasting (American to American)
  • Cabernet – only wine that uses American oak
  • They have a 100% cab franc releasing in april

 

2014 Rebellious Red 2.5* – red blend, different composition each year, 59% cab franc, rest merlot – very unique, med body, fruit forward, med acidity
2011 Malbec Napa Valley 3* – 85% malbec, 15% PV – earthy aroma, med/full body, lo/med acid, soft tannins, 35% new oak
2011 Petite Sirah 3* – hugs you, doesn’t punch and then hug you – 1st vintage
2012 Syrah 2.5* – new offering
2012 Napa Valley Cab 3* – only wine that uses American oak, 22K cases, 77% cab, rest CF, Merlot, Malbec, med body, med tannins, low acids?
2012 Historic Vines Cab 3* – 75% cab, 23% CF, 2% Merlot, racked twice
2007 Lamoreaux Cab 3-3.5* – coastal, cooler, fruit-forward, blackberry, cherry, dark chocolate

They do sell a Morisoli single vineyard cab – 08 and 09 for $100 – wonder how it compares to Elyse

This is a place I’d like to bring Dave to – it reminded me of Miner Family – reasonably priced wines with a wide selection.  We could probably go back here and ask for a barrel tasting.

SUMMARY: Sequoia Grove was a true treat – a little boutique gem tucked away off of Rt 29, in the middle of some much big players. This little winery holds it own with friendly staff, an inviting tasting room, and a wide assortment of wines that I would welcome the majority of in our collection! This is one of those rare finds – great wines, reasonable prices, good variety, and some interesting blends and varietals you don’t see everywhere. Sequoia Grove will be in our Top 15!

Thurs 3/26

James Cole (Stags Leap)

  • Production: only 2K cases/yr, 10 acres
  • Offers 11 different wines, primarily distributed to wine club
  • Their tasting offerings change based on what is available, as they sell out, etc.
  • James and Colleen are the owners – Cole is short for Colleen, they had a long distance relationship – James in CA, Colleen in SF. James’s Canadian roots come up later in the tasting when I enjoy a very delicious ice wine, sourced from his family’s Canadian winery.
  • My attendant Brinna took me on a quick tour of the tank and barrel room – on each tank is a pic of a musical icon – there’s also rock music playing in the small tasting room
  • Their labels include a graphic of a statue on display in the tasting room – it is of a diver (though on first glance it does look like a Texas longhorn) , created by Olivia Gusman – it is a diver on the threshold of diving and it represents how James and Colleen ‘dove into’ their personal and professional relationship.
  • James was in the wholesale and distribution side of the wine business
  • Winery built in stages and from the ground up – bought property in 2000, started the business a few years later, built the winery facility and tasting room in 2007
  • Use biodynamic farming – they make their own compost, put in inside cow horns, bury the cow horns, and then spray it on the vines
  • Brinna told me a funny story related to how it’s hard to taste wines in a noisy, distracting tasting room. In Japan there is a famous ramen noodle place where the chef makes you eat your dish in a boxed in cubby area so that you don’t get distracted. I’d love to see it!

Tasting

  • 2013 Chardonnay 2* – 30% oak, Carneros
  • 2012 Malbec 2-2.5* – med body, med tannins and acid, malbec grapes sourced
  • 2011 Cabernet 2.5-3* – 3 different clones, estate wine, full body, sharp tannins, black cherry. Dark chocolate
  • 2011 Umbral Reserve Cabernet 3* – winemaker barrel selection, 100% new French oak
  • 2012 Jaden Merlot Icewine 3* – would have probably purchased if it wasn’t so expensive!

SUMMARY: James Cole was a pleasant tailored experience with quality wines. However the prices were exorbitant. It will rank close to 75 in our Top 100.

Pine Ridge (Stags Leap)

  • This place was recommended by the Odette somm, as well as the attendant over at Twomey.
  • My attendant was Meredith
  • Production: 25K cases
  • 17 different wines representing five famous Napa Valley AVAs, specializing in Cab, other Bordeaux-style reds/blends, and Chardonnay
    • 3 are distributed including their very popular chenin blanc-80/vioginer 20 blend (made from Dijon clone) which brings people to the winery, as well as their Napa Valley Cab – they do make 135K cases of the whit blend (Whole Foods, Trader Joes)
    • Really enjoyed the white blend
  • Host wine cave food/wine pairings

Tasting

  • Rose 2* – recent release, med body, hi acid, light, refreshing, floral
  • Luminary 3* – red blend of four different estate wines from different vineyards in CA and Oregon, a joint partnership with friends, cool idea, cab, merlot, zin, and syrah.   From Healdsburg sister winery Seghesio (zin and Italian varietals), cabernet was from Yakoma, Washington. Red fruit – strawberry, red cherry, some spice – cinnamon, clove, pepper, a little smokiness, medium tannins, med/full body acid – med? Sweet cream, cocoa, 2300 cases
    • 55% cab – Pine Ridge
    • 19% syrah – Double Canyon, Horse Heaven Hills, WA
    • 8% syrah – Chamisal Vineyards, Edna Valley, CA
    • 2% merlot – also from Pine Ridge
  • 2011 Rutherford Cabernet 3* – bold, full body, firm to strong tannins, med/hi acid (?), blackberry, dust, earthy, brighter fruit
  • 2011 Oakville Cab 3* – higher acid, better with food, preferable to Rutherford, expected 93-95 for 2013 from Robert Parker – spice, dried berries.   May have been my favorite out of the 3 standard cabs (and the cheapest) and would like to buy!
  • 2012 Stag’s Leap Cab 3** – cocoa, leather, coffee, chocolate, tobacco, lovely – estimate 93-95 Robert Parker rating, would consider buying second to Oakville
  • 2012 Contemplate 3* – 1st vintage – 57% PV, 35% CF, rest Cabernet – unique blend, loved it, medium firm tannins, med/full body, med acid? Smoky
  • 2011 Fortis Napa Valley Cab 3-3.5* – estimated 96-97 Robert Parker rating, we got a bottle signed by the winemaker
  • Black Diamond Port 2.5* – 96% cab, 4% merlot

SUMMARY: Pine Ridge was a delight in that all of the wines were fantastic and they had the friendly customer service to match! I also liked their creative red blends (even though Dave is concerned that red blends are just leftovers, I see it differently – I see it as a creative expression.) She mentioned how if we’d like to come back they’d take us into the barrel room, etc. They are also family friendly and a potential for our friends visiting us!

Fri 3/27

Sutter Home (St Helena)

We had to visit Sutter Home, not expecting to fall in love with the wines, but to add variety to our experience and to take advantage of an experience right down the street! This place is busy – quite a few people at the tasting bar and people popping in to buy wine, people calling about their tasting, etc. A beautiful Victorian home sits right next door with impressive landscaping.

Sutter Home is owned by the Trinchero family (who have the gorgeous looking Trinchero winery right up the street from us on Rt 29.)
4th largest winery in the US and the second largest family owned winery.Sutter Home’s history dates back to 1874 when a Swiss German immigrant started a small winery and distillery on the property. The winery and the Victorian home were sold to the Swiss Leunberger family and the estate was named after the wife’s father, John A Sutter.

Prohibition highlight! Sutter Home was shut down and was abandoned until 1947 when John and Mario Trinchero purchased it – immigrant brothers from NYC and from a family active in the Italian wine industry. They started out mom and pop style – customers would fill their own barrels and bottles at the back door. Their mission was to provide a great product at a fair price.  Offers no alcohol wine called Fre.

My attendant was very knowledgeable and had a great style explaining the characteristics of the wine and corresponding food pairings. He may be related to the Trincheros (via his great uncle). His great uncle Bob created white zin believe it or not – and it was an accident of good fortune like post-it notes – ha ha!   In 1972 he was experimenting with ways to increase the robustness of his zin. He ran off some free-run juice and accidentally fermented it as a white wine. The first vintage was called Eye of the Patridge and instantly sold out – the family changed the name to White Zinfandel in 1975. In 1987 it was the best selling wine in the country.   White Zin brought Sutter Home from a 25K case/yr business to 1.5 million cases a year. Talk about an explosion! Bob is still in the business

SH

Retro Pinot Grigio 1.5-2*, aroma – light, citrus, tropical fruit, green apple, lt body, hi acid
2013 Retro Sangiovese 1.5-2* – clear rub red, soft body, fruit forward, jammy, cherry, goes well with red sauce and cheese, light body acid – med, tannins – soft, overall very light
2010 Retro zin 2.5* – lt/med body, med acid, med tannings, v light, from Amador County, 100 yr old fines, good with BBQ – chicken, ribs, vegs, spicey, pepper, jammy
Red Blend 2.5* – scored 91 pts with ‘the Tasting Panel’ – no vintage – a blend of different varietals across different vintages, 50% zin, 40% merlot, 10% cab, versatile, lt-medium body, lt/med tannins, med acid

Trinchero

Specialyst Red Blend 2.5* – 46% merlot, 40% zin, 12% petite sirah, 2% syrah – big brother to the Red Blend, smooth, more tannins on end, acid – med/hi, body – med, tannins – firmer Barbed Wire Cab 2* – Sonoma North Coast, smooth, not much power/boldness, jammy full mouth feel, 1 yr French and new American oak, body – med, tannins – soft, acid – med, to me tasted more like merlot
Sea Glass Riesling 2* – from Monterey, crisp, acidic, spicey foods – lt body, hi acid,
White Sangria Sol Rico – fun, sweet, can add add’l alcohol 1-1.5*
Red Sangria 1.5* cranberry, lemon/lime, getting a patent
Zin port – 1.5-2* chocolate notes, syrupy

And I did buy – their red blend which was pretty tasty and $6! I also bought the ‘big brother’ version that is a joint venture with Trinchero for $16.

SUMMARY: Sutter Home had a welcoming large tasting room and store, a friendly and knowledgeable host, and an institution with rich history in Napa. The wines in general were not my cup of tea but there were a few I took home. Sutter Home will rank in the 75-100 band of our Top 100.

Peju (Rutherford)

I was intrigued by the entrance to Peju – a pink building with tall curved sycamore trees flanking the entrance – looks almost fairy tale-like and inviting! They organize groups at each of the 2 tasting tables – I liked joining another group and chatting with them. The tasting room was quite loud though and sometimes that can be distracting when you’re trying to listen, pay attention to the wine, etc. Tough problems to have… ha ha! A bit loud, a bigger operation, but many tasting rooms on the Rt 29 ‘strip’ are busy like that.

Production: 30-40K, 80-90% is direct to consumers.  Their current release list had 15 wines on it.

Richie our attendant was very animated and cool – he seems like he comes from an acting background – was very engaging, knowledgeable, and funny.  He indicated that ‘People come for the cab and come back for the cab franc’.

Tasting:

  • 2014 Sauvignon Blanc 2-2.5* – bright, lt/med body, med/hi acid, won gold/double gold – Int’l wine Competition in Denver.

Sauvignon Blanc in different regions are known for different flavors– France (minerality), NZ (fruit such as grapefruit over herbal), CA – fruit over fruit – tropicals, mango, pineapple, passion fruit

  • Provence 1.5-2* – red and white blend served chilled, easy drinking, most popular wine, dry finish, keep it chilled to keep the dry texture
  • 2011 Piccolo 2.5* – little wine, light end of Bordeaux spectrum. Similar to Claret (I’d disagree, thought Claret was more cab like). Bright fruit, peppery spices, baking spices, lt tannins mean you don’t age the wine for long – not a wine for the ages – 4-5 months – Tues-Thurs wine. Pairs nice with tomato sauce. This is likely to be a one-off that they won’t make agin.
  • 2012 Merlot Napa Valley 2-2.5* – 94% merlot, 6% malbec, they thin the crop aggressively – yield is about 2 tons/acre – expensive to do – usual yield could be 6 tons/acre. Chateau Petrose is a merlot that could end up selling for 4-5k / bottle in the secondary market. Even progression across palate. Lt body, med acid, med tannins
  • 2012 Cabernet 2.5-3* – tannins that soften early, fruits are still ripe in fresh in younger wines, CA cabs are all about the performance of the fruit, age 5-8 years, fruit forward, med body, low/med acid, soft/low tannins, double gold, best of show in Houston, easy drinking
  • 2012 Cab Franc 2.5* – can be aged for more than 20 yrs, they are recognized for it, 5 grapes from Bordeaux, extra layer of green/herbal – you don’t want vegs (that can be ugly), these green flavors can get it into trouble, med body, med acid, hi tannins – talked about pencil box. WE rated the reserve 2001 Cab Franc as one of the best.

SUMMARY: Peju was loud and lively, using a busy turn and burn model to get people in and out. I really enjoyed some of the wine selections, which were large and varied as well as the entertaining attendant who has a tough job keeping about 10-12 people engaged at one time. Peju will rank in the 50-75 range of our Top 100.

 

 

Sat 3/28

Vincent Arroyo (Calistoga)

I came here to try the petite sirah as I met a big fan of them at Clif Lede.  The drive up Silverado Trail was beautiful.  Winery was founded in 1974 by Vincent Arroyo (he was in the tasting room for a bit.)  Production: 10K cases is a big year, no distribution, they sell direct to consumers.  Dry farmed vineyards. Petite Sirah focus: 50% of their production is dedicated to one of my favs petite sirah, they make 11 other wines. I barrel tasted one of their petite sirahs and it was FABULOUS, can’t buy until Sept, can’t wait to do so! They make

All wines here are estate – this means:

  • 100 percent of the wine must be made from grapes either grown on land owned by the winery, or controlled by the winery
  • Winery and vineyard must be in the same AVA
  • The winery must crush and ferment the grapes, and then finish, bottle and age the wine on their own premises, and in a continuous process. The wine may not leave the premises at any time during its production.
  • 4 tons/acre – average yield, their cab yields 2 tons/acre, plant vines far apart ike Schweiger
  • Shafer, Turley, St Clement and Markham have bought fruit from Vince (I hate to be critical but I find this hard to believe unless it was the petite sirah grape)
  • A bit awkward to be totally on my own with the attendant – he was very nice, but I felt watched as I took my notes, so I censored what I wrote and I felt pressured to ask questions I just didn’t have. I’ve been tasting at a variety of places on my own and haven’t really been at a loss for conversation before.   Oh well, it was still cool. I think my issue was that I really didn’t like the wines and was disappointed to not be able to try their petite sirahs J

David showed me their cab vineyard and their neighbor’s zin and cab vineyard. The old zin vineyard makes about $4K/acre while the cab makes $40K/acre.

More about Vincent:

  • Mechanical engineer, very humble, doesn’t seek out attention (like other wine makers who like to use their titles to meet the ladies!)
  • He went against the grain and didn’t replant his vineyard to chardonnay and cab like many others in the 70s.
  • He devised a tool to help facilitate easier drainage from the tanks.
  • They have a very simple and smart solution to earthquake-protect their barrels – $3 c clamps to secure the barrels to the racks (Russian River Brewing uses them too)

Tasting:

2013 Chardonnay – new French oak 1.5-2* – 20% barrel, 80% SS, blended before bottling, no MLF
2012 Nameless 2* – named after a cat who actually had many names, strawberry, cherry, firm tannins, med acid, med body, subtle – 70% merlot, they taste individual lots when making it, 10 barrels/245 cases
2012 Tempranillo 2-2.5* – lt body, firm tannin, med acid, American oak 22 months, tasted a second one after being open for an hour – sharper, increased tannins (odd given that it had been breathing)
2012 Zin 2.5-3* (geez what was I thinking – after drinking it I’d give it a 1.5) – med body, spicy, firm tannins, long length – after drinking it – lt/med body, short length, finishes short, leaves limited/no flavor in the mouth, reminds me of Michigan wines
2012 Cab 2.5* 2011 Cab Reserve 2.5* – 3 yrs in barrel, French oak two times (not sure what that means – racked twice, or is the aging double what it normally is?), medium/firm tannins, med body, bottled in Aug – still young

SUMMARY: In general I would buy all of Vincent Arroyo’s petite sirahs (in order to find my favorite) and the petite sirah port, but the other wines fell a bit flat for me – a little too light, not enough punch or complexity. But I haven’t found any other winery with 4 types of petite sirah – that makes it special in my book. In addition, the staff was very friendly, passionate about the business, and they provide you with an insider’s view of their winemaking and farming practices.   Vincent Arroyo will rank at about 60 in our Top 100.

Laura Michael (Calistoga)

This was an unplanned stop on my way into Calistoga for lunch and to check out August Brigg’s petit verdot. I parked the car and was immediately greeted by Rocki the black lab (who has a page in Wine Dogs!) and a newer addition to the family, a young yellow lab. So sweet! Rocki escorted me up to the tasting room and both dogs were in an out of the tasting room (usually on the hunt for disregarded paper cups to chew on.)

  • In business for 20 years, changed name from Laura Zahtila to Laura Michael after marrying
  • Production: only 1800 cases/yr (love that)
  • Focus on zins and cabs, but offer other varietals

The attendant Tim was cool to chat with. He used to own A Dozen Vintners – a co-op for smaller production wineries to sell their goods. Kendall Jackson bought him out, along with Freemark Abbey across the street. They are putting up a big resort.

Tasting:

2013 Chardonnay 2* 2013 Rose 2* – strawberry, watermelon, Provence style, lt body, lt acid, lt flavor profile
2010 Dry Creek Zin 2.5* – lt-med body, med/firm tannins, length – short, spices – cinnamon, pepper
2011 Oat Hill Estate Zin 3* – different soil and composition than dry creek, low complexity
2008 Cab Barlow Vineyards 2.5* – firm/strong tannins, fruity
2007 Cab 3* – vertical, same vineyard, same block, different year Petite Sirah/Zin Port

Recommended Regusci, Sherwin Family, Larkmeade, Pasalacua (across from Dry Creek vineyard Sonoma – they have a variety of zins). Dry Creek got bought out by a big corp, still good

SUMMARY: Laura Michael was a nice Sat afternoon experience, liked some wines more than others, enjoyed the conversation and the black lab escort to the tasting room. Pleasant but not a standout – it will rank in the 75-100 range of our Top 100.

August Briggs (Calistoga)

In business for 20 years, started winery out of garage after being a consulting winemaker to a variety of wineries. Owner retired 4 years ago and relatives/employees took over the business. Nephew is now the winemaker.  Production: 3K cases/yr ~200 cases for most wines. They source the grapes, don’t own the vineyards.  Wines are all 100% single vineyard varietals, except for one red blend.  2011 – you want to age those wines a bit more given the cooler temps.  Petite sirah and zin get more complex the more they age, they are susceptible to disease. They can hold up to the heat.

Tasting:

  • 2012 Chardonnay 2.5* – Sonoma, light, more Old World, light on the oak
  • 2012 Sonoma Pinto Noir 3* Dutton Estate (they have a great rep), lt body, med tannins, bright, fruity/cherry, lt flavor intensity
  • 2012 Napa Valley ‘Dijon Clones’ Pinot Noir 2* -warmer, fuller body, preferred the other one
  • 2012 Napa Valley Wishes 2.5* – local Calistoga fruit, grapes do better in the warmer climate, charbono is in this blend (only 90 acres in CA – 45 in Calistoga near Solage), nice fruit, light body, long, smooth/soft tannins
  • 2012 Charbono 2.5* – 100% varietal, nice acidity, great with tom sauce, similar to Chianti, ‘has its own voice’
  • 2012 Old Vine Zin 2.5-3* – 90-100 year old vines, most chard and cab have about a 20 yr lifecycle
  • 2011 Petite Sirah 3* – dk purple color, concentration, easy to pair with food, firm tannins, long length, round mouth feel
  • 2011 Cab Monte Rosso 2* – west of Napa, 1000 ft, above fog, iron rich volcanic soil, a bit non complex, one dimension, earthy, hillside, fruit from valley fl

SUMMARY: August Briggs has a quaint tasting room conveniently located in downtown Calistoga. I enjoyed more than a few of their wines and liked how they offered 100% varietals you can’t find everywhere (such as Petit Verdot and Charbono.) The experience itself is not all that unique given the tasting room venue. They are likely to rank in about the 50 range of the Top 100.

Sun 3/29

Hendry (Mt Veeder)

1939 property was purchased in the Hendry family – initially it was all planted to prune. The matriarch of the family Margaret Hendry had a 2 and 4-year old when her husband unexpectedly passed due to a heart attack in 1944. She was a tough woman who did not give up and sell the property (as many urged her to do as she had no income at the time) – instead she took on the task of managing the vineyard and the livestock. She was a talented musician who attended Juliard (before it became Juliard), and before taking on the huge farming task, she had been a teacher and set up a private school in Berkeley. Another defining moment in her life was while she was still in the hospital after having her second child she got a call from her sisters in New York that they had put her father in a nursing home. She would not have that – she took the next train to NY, and brought her Dad back to CA, and hired a nurse to care for him – he was 69 at the time and she cared for him until he passed at the age of 93!

Production: 11 varietals, all estate, cases/ yr Acreage: 224 acres on estate, 114 planted to vines

George and Andy grew up here. In the 70s they re-developed the vineyard, back then they sold grapes (they still do a small amount of grape sales, including zin to Biale, Turley.) In the 90s they began wine-making, not on site – they did so by renting space/equipment at other wineries. In 2000 they built their winery.

They have 11 full time vineyard guys – they have been working for Hendry an average of 22 years.

Their property is unique in its variety. On the south side is Carneros (Carneros = chard and pinot, cooler climate) – whereas the warmer northwest is suited for and planted to Cabernet. It is divided into small blocks, designated for the varietal that grows best given its topography, soil, sun exposure, etc. etc. Similar to Storybook and Kuleto, some different varietals are planted side by side. We chatted a bit about how some varietals from the same vineyard can taste different due to clonal variations – for example, when a clone is grafted onto a new plant it can morph/transform and develop its own characteristics (i.e.; genetic mutations.)

Vineyard is irrigated – water levels are low in their reservoir. Only about 2” on hand for the summer. Younger vines do need more water/care since their root systems aren’t deep to get that subterranean H2O. They use gravity flow crushing and barrel aging in their multi-level facility.

Molly Hendry was our host and she was lovely, had a great style of providing information in an easy-to-understand way. You can tell her goal is to make everyone comfortable and welcome and to try to de-mystify wine and wine tasting. Much appreciated.

The placemat for the tasting was a vineyard map – it was very cool to see their blocks mapped out and we were taught how to decipher the coding including: block, varietal, year planted, rootstock, acres, and clone. I thought it was cool to ‘see’ where the cooler-weather chards and pinots are planted vs. the warmer weather cabs. It was a nice touch to help educate and inform.

Talked about racking and how work intensive it is – use a hose and pumps to move wine from barrels to tank, barrels are cleaned out, samples are tested, pumps are reversed to move wine back into barrels

Think this is specific to zin but it may be whole vineyard – very low yield – 1-2 tons/acre – low yield typically results in increased quality as plants put their energy into fewer plants which increases the power of the grapes. Average yield is 2-4 tons/acres. Too much water can dilute the grapes (we don’t want that!) Central Valley vineyards have huge tonnage due to lots of watering.

There used to be eucalyptus trees in the vineyard, but wines started to have the aroma/flavor – they were removed.

Tasting

  • 2013 Pinot Gris 3* – grapes are picked in the cool morning hours, don’t want to accidentally kick start fermentation if it’s too warm, after getting picked they send some samples to the lab for testing, cooler climate, low acid, lt body, fruity – peach, lemon
  • 2013 Unoaked Chardonnay 2.5* – more fruit flavor, clear color, med body, med acid, long length
  • 2011 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2.5-3* – whole cluster press with stems, SS first, while pressing them into barrels, some spice, med body and acid, long length
    • Both chards come from the same block
    • Both had a lt creamy aroma, but moreso with the oak
    • Learned that in MLF, you add a bacteria to start the process, diacetyl is produced in MLF, used in fake butter
  • 2012 Pinot Noir 2-2.5* – soft tannins, not as much structure, lt body, length, red fruit
  • 2011 Mike & Molly Zin 2-2.5* – famous old zin vineyard, sell to Turley and Biale – aroma was fantastic, fruity, and full – however the wine itself did not deliver as I had hoped, enjoyable but didn’t blow me away – perhaps too light. Zin vines are head trained not trellised, they grow on canes, no support system added.
  • 2011 Primitivo (Zin) 3* – more structure and tannins (firm), chocolate, spicy, peppery, med/full body, juicy, fruity
  • 2011 Block 28 Zin 2.5* – a bit bigger (not sure I agree), more time in barrel and in new oak, lt body initially, lighter on spice/, little less fruit, medium tannins
  • 2011 Cab 3* – rich deep red,, almost purple, goes well with fatty foods (acid breaks through), full body, herbs, vegetal aromas hit nose first, compared to zin fruit

SUMMARY: Special, intimate, and fun experience. I learned quite a bit without it being boring or pretentious. Enjoyed many of the wines – not all of them spoke to me, but overall it was enjoyable. The family story of hard work and perseverance is inspiring.  Hendry will rank close to the 50-60 range of our Top 100.

 

Hess Collection (Mt Veeder)

Interesting modern art museum in the winery building

Tasting room was temporarily located on the 3rd floor of the museum – the tasting room is being renovated as it was damaged due to the earthquake in Aug.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the wines (except for 2) are only available at the tasting room, are made in small batches, are estate wines, no commonly distributed Hess Select brand. It was after all a long drive up the mountain J

1978 – Swiss entrepreneur Donald Hess purchased the vineyard

The attendant Andrew shared a sad Prohibition story with me about Hess – the owner, Theodore Gear, a German immigrant, owned quite a bit of land in Napa. He was making wine during Prohibition, and like Mrs Nichelini he sold to an undercover agent. Unfortunately Mr Gear met a fate so much worse than the Nichelinis. He was sent to jail and committed suicide there. Sad. It’s speculated that he was discriminated against due to his German roots. He had sold the winery over to the Christian Brothers during Prohibition and the land is still owned by them today.

Carignan – 100 yr old vineyard, grows in sand and is disease-free since micro-organisms don’t move around in the sand

2012 Small Block Pinot Noir – overheard: smells big, tastes silky, made by MacPhail (who was also recommended by Odette som) – he has a pinot cult following, they purchase grapes from him. Pinot specialist.

Tasting

  • 2013 Small Block Viognier 2.5-3* – floral, limestone, iron-rich soil, med body, herbal, med acid, creamy
  • 2013 Small Block Gruner Veltliner 2-2.5* – lt body, hi acid
  • 2012 Malbec 3* – 1K cases, is now used for blending with the cab (instead of PV, merlot, CF – they believe, and I agree that the malbec is top notch)
  • 2012 Petite Sirah 3* – super dark color, neutral oak makes this different, silky, jammy, fruity, nice for aging, texture and structure, full body, med/firm tannins, full length, aromas of fruit and earth
  • 2011 Charbono 2-2.5* – aroma – fruit and earth, winemaker sub-brand called Artezin, toasted sugar aroma, jammy, short length – mid palate/cuts off shorter, good with tomato
  • 2011 Mt Veeder cab 3-3.5* – aroma: black fruit, earth, med/full body, long length, fruit forward, malbec in blend, med/firm tannins (it’s a $100 wine priced at $60)

SUMMARY: Hess Collection was an unexpected treat. I was hesitant to make the journey up Mt Veeder but am very glad I did! The setting is very pretty and very unique given their tasting room location inside of a modern art museum. The wines were powerful but not overwhelming, complex, and delicious – Hess Collection will rank within the top 25-30 wineries.

Mon 3/30

Charles Krug (St Helena)

Located just a hop skip and a jump from our house we decided to visit Charles Krug on Monday after Dave returned from work in St Louis.

Oldest operating winery in the Napa Valley – the first commercial wine was produced here by Charles Krug in 1858

Production: 85K cases overall across 12 varietals

Peter Mondavi Sr lives on site and is frequently seen being driven around

Very spacious modern tasting room sits opposite their barrel/aging room

Friendly and fun attendant, a bit skittish about the blog

Tasting:

  • 2013 Sauvignon blanc 2.5-3* – Robert Parker gave it 91 points last year, lots of melon and citrus, they make 12K cases
  • 2013 Chardonnay Carneros – 100% stainless steel, crisp finish, fresh fruits, no MLF, med/full body, low/med acid, lt/med flavor profile, medium finish and length
  • 2011 Oakville Cab blend 2-2.5*, cab(87%)/merlot(3%) with a touch of PV and Malbec blend, Robert Parker rating of 92, making it since 1993, and created by Mark Mondavi, smooth, fruit-forward, med body, med length, some spice, low/med complexity
  • 2012 Howell Mountain Cab 2.5-3*, grown at 1400-1600 ft, 18% Petit Verdot. Robert Parker – 91 pts (pre-rated), med body, low/med tannins
  • 2012 Zinfandel 3* – from St Helena, only 425 cases produced, powerful firm tannins, spicy, med to full body, great demand for this, starts mid palette then goes longer, 2011 good year for zin, 2012 even better

SUMMARY: Charles Krug is an historic winery located just down the street from us. We liked a few of the wines though overall didn’t find many to be outstanding. Charles Krug will rank close to 75 out of 100.

 

Tues 3/31

Jordan (Healsburg, Sonoma)

I was a bit hesitant to schedule the Jordan visit as its availability was limited, but I’m so glad we went! It is definitely in the top 10! Jordan’s property is beautiful located just northeast of downtown Healdsburg. Our tour with Lydia started with an overview of the winery’s history and food/wine pairings as we walked around the property.

The Jordans were from Denver and traveled quite a bit to France. They originally wanted to move there and start a winery. However France restricts (and I wonder if they still do?) winery ownership to locals – so instead they ended up moving to Sonoma which they heard was similar to Bordeaux (clay rich soil similar to Bordeaux’s left bank.) In 1972 they purchased their 225 acre parcel (with 112 acres planted to vine) and had their son John on the same day! They modeled the current buildings after a French chateau and went so far as to fly their architects over to France so that they could study the architecture, culture, etc. and bring their knowledge to bear on the construction of their own chateau in Sonoma. The 58,000 square foot Jordan chateau was built in 1975-1976 and houses all steps in the winemaking process within its walls.

Jordan is about to celebrate their 43rd anniversary and John’s 43rd birthday. In 2005 the son John took over the winery operations.

Jordan, like many wineries, grows some of their grapes and purchases some from other growers.

Rob Davis is their wine maker has been there since 1976 – joined when he was only 22 years old. All bottles released he has made. Longest standing winemaker not related to the owners in the entire Napa Valley. He attended UC Davis and was mentored by Telechef (the maestro), contemporaries of Hurley and Merry Edwards.

Prior to 2005 Jordan wasn’t open to the public – only invited guests visited.

Wine Enthusiast named Jordan the Winery of the Year in 2014.

John Jordan owns the software that runs the new iPad wine lists you see in many restaurants

Similar to Kuleto and other full-service farm wineries, Jordan maintains a full-service farm onsite, including a chef’s garden, livestock, olive trees (to make 7 different types of olive oil), and flowers that are all used in a variety of Jordan’s gourmet dining experiences. Solar power provides 100% of Jordan’s electricity needs and they sell the surplus back to PG&E.

California poppies are the state flower and believe it or not it’s a felony to pick the flowers. Violators will have to do community service. Previous guests picked Lydia a bouquet and she didn’t have the heart to tell them they just committed a felony! Jordan has a bass tournament regulation lake on site and a reclamation pond for reuse of water, including vineyard irrigation.

We visited the barrel fermentation room – there are 21 6000-gallon tanks which were truly impressive and very unique, built in 1975, every vintage has spent time in one of these tanks. You can see in some of the pics that there is a small round ‘door’ towards the bottom of the tank – in the past someone small would squeeze into this hole to clean the tank – one time one of the workers go stuck. They had to go get butter from the kitchen to grease him up and out!

First the grapes go through a first round of fermentation in stainless steel, then the wines go through secondary fermentation (MLF) in these massive tanks then they age in other barrels – primarily French oak with some American.

From the 2014 vintage on, only French oak will be used – American oak used initially to neutralize the green elements including green pepper. American oak has vanilla notes that help mask the bad ‘green’ elements. They no longer have the green pepper element in their grapes so the American oak is no longer needed.

The tanks are neutral, they breathe a bit and helps to accelerate the aging process.

They have a quake-proof barrel room – engineered structure where the barrels are placed on rubber, they aren’t attached to the floors or the walls. Mr Jordan was originally a geologist – makes sense!

Following the barrel fermentation room we were taken to Mr Jordan’s office where our tasting was arranged on a 400 year old desk imported from France. We tasted the 2006 cab there and enjoyed a duck pairing. Then we had a very special treat! We were told that like many other French chateaus, this one happens to also have a secret hidden room, a wine cellar that was located off of the office we were in. I did locate the wall but not the actual bookshelf that led to the ‘secret’ wine celllar!

We were led through the secret door and a gorgeous cellar room awaited us, a large table set with a cheese pairing and 2 more glasses for us to sample 2 more vintages of cab.

  • Grapes are blended a few months prior to bottling.
  • Bordeaux blend typically refers to a 5-grape blend.
  • You wipe off the top of wine bottles due to lead that may be in the foil wrappers.
  • Decanting is recommended for cabs (though not for zin or a pinot noir) – the staff at Jordan is blind tested as to how long a wine has been open/decanted.

Tasting:

Jordan makes only two varietals – Chardonnay and Cab, but they do both so well you don’t mind it, and each cab did taste a bit different than the others. No complaints here!

  • 2012 Chardonnay 2.5* – French oak, Burgundian style, age it ‘on the lees’ and use Batonage (stirring the wine while it ages), new and neutral oak (their definition is >1 year old), 29% MLF, low sugars
    • The gravelly, porous soils in the Russian River Valley impart minerality in their Chardonnay, similar to Burgundy whites.
  • 2006 Cabernet 3* – 75% C/S, 19.5% merlot, 4.5% PV, 1% Malbec (1st time they’ve used malbec in their cab). 66% French Oak, rest American oak.
  • 2008 Cabernet 3.5-4* – 75% C/S, 18% merlot, 5% PV – 60% French oak, smooth – medium tannins, full/med body, full fruit and earth flavor profile, but subtle too
  • 2010 Cabernet 3* – blackberry, blueberry, coffee, lighter in flavor intensity than the 2006, 76% C/S, 16% merlot, 7%PV, and 1% Malbec – low/medium tannins, a bit firmer than the 2008, bright acid, can age 10-15 years

SUMMARY: Jordan was top-notch, start to finish. They provided a special and memorable experience (where else can you access a secret room in a chateau?) paired with incredible food and even better wine! I’d love to go back and use Jordan points for one of their special lunch or dinner events. Jordan will be ranked in the top 10 of our Top 100.

Preston (Dry Creek, Sonoma)

We’ve heard Preston mentioned a few times at wineries we’ve visited and the attendant over at Ridge specifically mentioned it. It was a real pretty drive down some very quiet roads to get there. The winery grounds were cute, very old school and charming with a bocce court and a picnic area. The wines were very unique in that most were French and Italian varietals, and not just cabernet – in fact I don’t even think they had a cabernet! I would have liked to have tried more, but didn’t want to press it.

Tasting:

  • 2013 Madam Preston white blend 2-2.5*, blend of 5 Rhone wines (viognier 56%, marsanne 5%, 30% rousanne, 9% Grenache blend), medium body, medium acid, light on oak (new oak – 12-15%, rest is S/S)
  • 2012 Marsanne 2* – floral, honey, hi alcohol, 20% oak
  • 2012 GSM (Grenache Syrah Mourvedre blend)
  • 2013 Barbera – medium tannins, low-med complexity, full fruit flavor, med body
  • 2012 L Preston 2.5* – 60% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre, 14% Grenache, 6% Cinsault, and 6% Carignane. Cinsault (French blending wine) from Rhone Valley softer than PV. Lighter than Barbera. Lt-med body, soft tannins, fruity, simple and light flavor profile

SUMMARY: Preston is a unique place to visit in Sonoma County in that the wine varietals are all unique and European. The setting is also very relaxed and inviting. We liked a few of the wines, but in general were not blown away by any of them. Preston will rank in the 50-75 range in our Top 100.

Truett Hurst (Dry Creek, Sonoma)

This was one of the first wineries recommended to us by locals – a cool couple we met over at Russian River Brewing Company who were from Glen Ellen.

Winery started in 2007 by former Fetzer employees, including Phil Hurst. Truett came from a name of a sheep ranch. Use biodynamic principles in their farming.

Tasting:

  • 2013 Salmon Run Zin Rose 2* – some pepper, light body, dry, med acid
  • Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2-2.5* – tropical fruits, low/med acid, fruit forward
  • 2013 Chardonnay 2-2.5* – 80% neutral, 100% MLF, med body, med oak, med/hi acid, creamy
  • 2012 Pinot Noir – Black Sheep 2.5*, heavy, 1 dimensional
  • 2012 Pinot Noir – White Sheep 3* Green Valley, earth aromas, some spice, some complexity
  • 2012 Rattler Rock Zin 2.5-3* – spicy
  • 2013 Luci Zin 2.5-3*, more fruit, smooth
  • 2013 Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyards Zin – 2.5-3* – pepper, spice, fruit
  • 2013 Dragonfly Red Field Blend 3* – 73% syrah, 27% zin
  • 2012 Cab Osprey Rutherford 2-2.5*

SUMMARY: Very casual and relaxed tasting room and very friendly host. We didn’t get a chance to check out Dry Creek at the back of the winery and we may need to go back to do so. We enjoyed some of the wines but I can’t say we were truly wow’d by any of them. The names/marketing of each of the wines was memorable but did kind of make me think of lower quality wines. Truett Hurst will place in the 75-100 range of the Top 100.

Papapietro Perry – #100!! (Dry Creek, Sonoma)

Recommended by the Somm from Odette, Papapietro Perry was winery #100!

Production: 6-8K/year, with 90-98% of sales taking place in the tasting room and through the wine club.

Winery was started in 1980in a garage – the owner used to buy all the fruit , barrel age the wines in French oak for 11 months

Make 10 pinots and 1 zin

If you age the pinot for more than 10 years it take on a mushroom flavor

Tasting:

  • 2012 Pinot Noir, RRV blend 1.5-2* – light body, low tannings
  • 2012 Pinot Noir RRV Nunes 2-2.5*
  • 2012 Pinot, RRRV Peters 2-2.5* – located southwest of Sepastopol, light body, light tannings, red fruits
  • 2012 Pinot Charles Vineyard – light body and tannins, bright cherry, rhubarb, shorter cooler growing season
  • 2012 Pinot RRV Pommard Clones – more plum, voluptuous mouth feel, low-mid tannings, a bit more complex than others
  • 2011 Zin, Dry Creek Valley – blueberry, raspberry, known as the zin for pinot lovers, 300 cases

SUMMARY: Papapietro Perry is definitely for pinot noir lovers, however I have had better pinots at other wineries. The tasting room is simple, located in a bit of a strip mall with other wine tasting rooms (which is very convenient), and the service was pleasant and friendly. It was not one of our favorites and therefore will likely place in the 75-100 range.

Kokomo (Dry Creek, Sonoma)

Kokomo was recommended by our attendant over at Truett Hurst and we were very happy with our visit!

The winery has a young, hip feel to it – started by Eric Miller (he dropped by to introduce himself) who went to Purdue and then studied at the infamous UC Davis. Kokomo’s logo of the coastal cypress represents Eric’s move out to the west coast. There are a lot of photos on the walls and the wine menus are handwritten professionally with lots of color. It’s got a cool vibe to it and the service was extremely friendly. In fact they stayed open I think about 30 min later than their scheduled close time for us and another larger group. That is unheard of in Napa.

Winery started in 2004, they produce 9K cases of 18 varietals.

Learned that La Crema and Murphy & Goode are owned by Kendall Jackson.

Kokomo has quite a few highly rated zins, including the Timber Crest (93) and Rockpiles (92), where the vines are literally growing in a man-made pile of rocks – good for stressing the vines)

Tasting:

  • 2014 Rose – Provence style 2.5* – Grenache, easy drinking
  • 2013 Sauvignong Blanc 2-2.5* – citrus, crisp, not very fruity
  • 2012 Chardonnay Peters Vineyard 2.5-3* – award winning, med body, nice viscosity, medium length. Randy Peters is a 4th generation grape farmer – farms 4 different vineyards across different AVAs, another famous vineyard of his is named after his mother in law Pauline, with 12 acres being the smallest
  • 2012 Pinot (Peters) 2.5* – spice, lt body, lt tannins, fruit forward
  • 2012 Zin Pauline’s Vineyard 3* – 91 points Wine Enthusiast, spicy, med/full body, nice fruit
  • 2012 Merlot Pauline’s Vineyard 2.5-3*
  • 2012 GSM 2.5-3* – lt/med body, sharp tannins
  • 2011 Ruth’s Cab – neighbors of Silver Oak in Alexander Valley, med body, firm tannins, fruit forward, smoky, some veg

SUMMARY: Kokomo is an off-the-beaten path kind of winery that rewards you for dropping by! The atmosphere is unique and the variety of great tasting highly rated wines is much bigger than you’d expect for a winery you likely haven’t heard of before. And of course the name resonates with those of us from the Midwest (you may also think of Kokomo by the Beach Boys!) We would definitely return and likely buy from again – though we have quite a few zinfandels I’d like to pick up some of theirs! It will likely rank in the 35-50 range of our Top 100.

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