I’ve talked before about the great people at Sawyer and their wonderful wine. The 2004 vintage has received a lot of hype and it is deserved. This casis and coffee laden wine is stellar and to quote an anonymous friend, “I love the way it just hangs in my mouth”. The continuous nature of this cab is prevalent and I urge anyone with Napa travel plans to visit the geat people at Sawyer.
I’m a bit different in my perception of wine. Since I’ve visited so many of the vineyards that I enjoy, I tend to associate the wine to the experience I have with the vineyard visit, the people, and the back-story of each wine. In this case, we visited Barb Richards 2 years ago and while we stood on her deck, she told us about how they farmed their vineyard and the history of Spring Mountain.
Her Paloma Merlot is just perfect. The flavor is a smooth vanilla/blackberry/coffee with little tannin and a solid balance. It will go well with anything and nothing all at the same time. Barb was such an endearing host as she explained the roots of her Merlot and the pride which goes into it. As I drink it, that effort and pride is palpable and reminds me of the first taste I had as we stood in her dining room. My only regret is that we only bought one bottle; that will change on our next visit for sure. If you’re in Napa, email her in advance and schedule a visit – it’s one of the must-do’s in the valley!
I’m learning to pick vineyards I like that I can rely on rather than specific vintages, especially from this (Napa) extremely reliable growing region. However, with that said, 2004 was reported to be a low-yield, high-quality year for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley. It is for this reason that on a visit to Conn Creek a couple years ago that we picked up this specific Napa Valley wine. When we visited, we found the wine to be a bit tight and hoped that it would mellow a bit in time to drink it. With a little patience, which I admit I’m generally low on when it comes to wine, we were rewarded.
This weekend, I picked up a strip steak at the Rittenhouse market from local purveyor Rineer Family Farm in addition to some great sweet potatoes. The steak, simply prepared went perfectly with this Cabernet. Many people automatically pair Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak,but I feel that there is some restraint required here. Many Cabs, especially those from (one of my favorite regions) Napa and its surrounding AVAs are very fruit forward and thus challenging to pair with food.
In the case of this Conn Creek Eisele Vineyard Cab, that was not the case. I found the fruit restrained and the overall wine quite balanced. If anything, I noted a dried raspberry and some mocha overtones to round it out…or maybe that was the coffee infused chocolate I had after the steak. Either way, for $45 this is a very reasonable Cab which I’m sorry to report is only available from the vineyard; I guess it’s time for a return trip.
Rutherford Grove is one of our (newer) favorite stops on our trips to Napa. This family owned winery produces many wonderful estate wines and this 2004 Merlot is a great example. Its blackberry, cassis and vanilla goodness comes through and gives Merlot a great name – - many people think Merlot is a boring wine, but there are many to try which clearly prove this is not the case and this is one such wine.
Merryvale is a fun spot to visit when we go to Napa and this is a more rare wine they produce as it comes from the Beckstoffer Vineyard X, and features a more restrained style. We opened it up last weekend and this 6 year old opened up nicely into a balanced cab showing some fruit, but clearly the rest made an impact on it. We’re just starting to drink our older (for us older anyway) Napa wine and starting to appreciate and understand the impact of resting or aging the wines a bit. If you like the big fruit, I think you should consume the Napa and other wines while they are young, but if you’re more about the restrained, balanced wine, then you’ll need a fair amount of patience.
We gave my cousin a bottle of the Ghost Pines cab a while ago and have since enjoyed it on our own. Ghost Pines is a venture by the Louis Martini winery with grapes from both Napa and Sonoma. It’s interesting as the Napa grapes bring the big fruit and Sonoma the more dry tannic properties leading to a very balanced Cab without the pretense of a true Napa Cab. It’s widely available in Pennsylvania (for those who live in the commonwealth) and in other states too for around $20 and it’s a great value for that. This is a drink by itself wine and one that will work well with food due to it’s greater balance than the typical big Napa cab.
We had this Luna Howell Mountain Merlot last night with dinner and it was INCREDIBLE! Some folks shy away from Merlot thinking it is a second fiddle grape to Cabernet, but I’m telling you (if you’re one of them) that you’re missing out. This was one of our oldest bottles which has aged well and was silky, with the requisite fruit and cocoa mixed in. My only regret is that we only bought one bottle.
As we left San Francisco behind, our focus for day 1 of our wine tasting was squarely on the Napa Valley on our way up to Healdsburg. We “worked” our way north and enjoyed some familiar and new spots along the way. We planned an ambitious day of visits and have the following tips if you’re planning the same (and are driving yourself):
1) Bring lots of water and snacks in the car
2) Share your tastings! The vineyards pour many different wines at a tasting and you have lots to try, so if you’re with significant other, definitely share.
3) Don’t be afraid to pour out the wine in the glass. That’s what the containers on the bar are for and no one is offended when you do it.
4) Have fun and remember, no one can tell you that you have to ‘like a wine’, it’s your opinion.
Now, on to the spots we visited and my thoughts on each:
- Sawyer Cellars: This is usually our first stop on our trip through Napa. They are open at 10, which makes it easy and the people are so friendly. Their wines are held in oak for a little longer than most, so the vintages are a bit older than others in the valley. When we were there, they were pouring their 2006 vintage. They will take the time with new visitors to explain the history of the valley as well. Their wines are always wonderful.
- Alpha Omega: While it sounds like a fraternity, it’s really a warm space serving outstanding, big, reds. They had some chardonnay as well, but I’m not a big fan of chard, so I generally skip it. This was a new spot for us this year and the wine didn’t disappoint. Their tasting room is a warm space, but our server, while pleasant wasn’t very chatty. I like to get a feel for the winery in addition to the actual wine and I missed out on this one. The wine does stand on its own quite well, however.
- Rutherford Grove: We found Rutherford Grove on our last visit to the Napa Valley and it’s a great spot. This family owned winery produces ~8,000 cases a year which is small for sure (and another reason we like it there). The tasting room is hit or miss, but the wine is solid for sure (and reasonable). We still have a Merlot from our last visit.
- Plumpjack: This is on the Oakville cross road and they produce wine under both the Plumpjack and their new Cade labels. This is a real Napa spot with big wines (and crowds) and strong performers. Cade is a new label for them and we really enjoyed the 2007 Cade Cuvee. The tasting room is cool and the two servers did their best to keep up with the heavy demand. We didn’t hear much about their vineyards or the story behind their wines, but the wine itself was quite enjoyable.
- Honig: This was far and away the best find of our trip. While they generally require appointments for the tasting room, they were able to accommodate us as a ‘walk-in’. Their tasting room is like being in a neighbor’s kitchen as their team deftly takes you through their history and wines. Within minutes, we felt like we were socializing with friends and enjoying their home. Most know Honig for their Sau Blanc which they produce in earnest, but their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is incredible if you can find it outside of their winery. We will definitely add Honig to our ‘must-visit’ list for our next time in the valley.
- Whitehall Lane: We always stop here, but usually later in the day and it seems like happy hour. On this occasion, were there in the morning and it was more relaxed and chill. Our server was great – he really knew about the grapes and their vineyards and was able to compare past vintages for us. We even tasted something that we bought on our last visit that’s sitting at home in our wine frig (always a fun thing to do). This is quintessential Napa Valley to us and will be a constant on future trips.
- Hall Wines: Beyond the great wines, there was a couple there at the same time as us that had an adorable dog with them. My wife took a special liking to him for sure. Their tasting room offers the ability to taste wines which are only available there which is the road we prefer. This place was hopping, but they shared the love well. If you’re a fan of port, try their Cab Sauv Portfolio – really good stuff.
- Trinchero: Yep, they’re owned by the Sutter Home conglomerate, but this is their high-end label and they produce single vineyard wines at vineyard blended prices. Their tasting room is generally very chill and rarely very busy which suits me just fine. We’ve had great luck there and have picked something up on each visit.
- Lava Vine: Truly small production, hand-crafted wines served by Joe, the owner and winemaker. He’s a character, so bring your wit, but also really gets the wine and the whole experience. The room is small and he keeps up with everyone well. In the meantime, enjoy the bread and cheese on the bar with your reds and the chocolate with the port. His prices are very reasonable for the production and quality.
Rather than my traditional inclusion of the wine label, I’m instead including a picture of the inside of the facility at Chappellet on Pritchard Hill in the Napa Valley. This serene location with the natural light shining in was magnificent. Opening up the 2005 Syrah with a good friend last night, we were all transported back to our visit to Chappellet 2 years ago (it’s worth a visit). The Syrah was more of a traditional Rhone varietal with some ground pepper notes holding up the fruit – translation is that it’s not a fruity exhibition, but rather a more balanced, restrained presentation that we enjoyed.
We had dinner with friends last night and one of them mentioned that he liked big, bold wine, but didn’t have much experience with Napa Zins (yet). Since we were heading to a BYO, we snagged the 2005 Biale Valsecchi Zin and opened it up at dinner. In my mind and taste buds last night, this is the best house of Zin in Napa and the Valsecchi which is sourced from Sonoma vines is a great representative. It had the big jammy fruit with raisin undertones and a bold, but not too spicy/peppery backbone. We’ll have to make a stop there on our next wine country visit to stock up on some more…