It ain’t just about the wine!

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Back when The Staples Singers released this album in 1972, Napa Valley wine had yet to earn a decent modicum of respect beyond limited confines within the Bay Area. Thirty-seven years later, it seems fairly inarguable that these wines have elevated themselves to more than a pinnacle of success.

Last Thursday, the insightful crew over at Uncorked Events put together a tasting from some of the finest recent viticultural endeavors in California. April 23rd has long been one of the more propitious dates on the calendar, marking the birth of both William Shakespeare (1564) and Vladimir Nabokov (1899); Napa Valley with Altitude did its considerable part to complement this historical legacy.

The event focused on wines from the three sub-AVAs that demarcate the Mayacamas Mountains: Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. Not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon, along with kindred Bordeaux varietals and blends thereof, dominated the tasting selections. Chardonnay had numerous proponents, as well, along with a smattering of Syrah and one heteroclitic Sangiovese to appease Your West Coast Oenophile.

With 36 wineries on hand, it would be nigh impossible to highlight each here. Virtually every wine I tasted offered depth and complexity, and it is in no way intended as critique if I fail to delve into greater detail.Certainly, Sostevinobile will be pleased to offer the preponderance of these distinctive vintages (as fall within the economic determinants we are compelled to observe). But before I attempt to assay the list of wines I felt warranted particular kudos, I’d like to elucidate what truly distinguished this tasting from so many others that I attend.

I probably sample a few thousand wines each year, both within my professional capacity and for my private enjoyment. This process often requires me to attend many of the large trade and public tastings put on by various wine associations and commercial promoters. While these duties may not prove as enviable as, say, being the official ice cream taster at Dreyer’s, it is definitely one of the more pleasurable tasks to which one can be assigned. Still, these events can be overwhelming—the ZAP Grand Tasting, for instance, fills two exhibit halls at Fort Mason!

However, for a tasting of its scale, Napa Valley with Altitude was the most pleasurable event I have encountered in quite a long while. Three rooms at the Fort Mason Officers’ Club were commodiously laid out to accommodate each of the sub-AVAs, creating an intimate locus for sampling wines and interacting with each winery’s representative. The rooms all afforded panoramic views of San Francisco Bay and Aquatic Park, which were bathed in sunlight Thursday afternoon. Generous helpings of both warm and cold hors d’oeuvres—a must for keeping up with five hours’ worth of wine tasting—were continually replenished by the caterers from Mariposa Kitchen and from AG Ferrari. Sofas, tables, and even a fireplace in the vestibule offered a welcome retreat from the din of the gathering when such was needed for composing notes or merely collecting one’s thoughts. All-in-all, even with a moderate crowd in attendance during the public segment, this venue seemed closer to a private living room than a leviathan warehouse. If only all wine trade events could feel so accessible!

And then there was the wine. Most of my colleagues beelined over to Spring Mountain Vineyard’s 2004 Elivette, a Bordeaux blend that emphasized Cabernet Sauvignon. Back when my friend Mike Robbins owned this winery, it was featured as the setting for Falcon Crest; the current ownership still makes an enviable Cabernet Sauvignon (2005), as well.
Another old friend whose Cabernet never disappoint was Peter Thompson, who was on hand to pour his 2005 Andrew Geoffrey Cabernet Sauvignon. I confess to indulging myself more than once at his table. On the other hand, I never knew the late actor Richard Farnsworth, who, despite his appearance in Olympia Beer’s insipid commercials from the 1980s, nevertheless always managed to evoke a kind of warm & fuzzy feeling in whatever role he played; Richard Graeser’s portrait on his Graeser Winery labels might seem a veritable doppelgänger for the Grey Fox star, but his flagship Bordeaux-style 2005 Couer de Leon was unmistakable. Other standout Diamond Mountain District Cabs from the Class of 2005 included Dyer Vineyard, Diamond Terrace, the old pros at Martin Ray Winery and Schramsberg scion Hugh Davies venture into still wines with his J. Davies tribute.

Perhaps “old pro” is a tad premature for describing Newton Vineyard, but their strict adherence to offering unfiltered wines shone exemplarily in their 2005 Merlot, 2006 Chardonnay and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. As with their fellow vintners from Diamond Mountain, the rest of the Spring Mountain contingent shone most brightly with their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon—notably Marston Family Vineyard, Peacock Family Vineyards, Vineyard 7 & 8, and, with striking panache, Sherwin Family Vineyards 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
A Spring Mountain newcomer to me, Terra Valentine Winery, poured a trio of their estate-bottled Cabs. Ever-so-slightly, the 2005 Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, stood out among the three. Unabashedly proclaiming itself, Mount Veeder’s Vinoce Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon might have inspired one to abjure all others (OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme). Still, my remaining notes do seem to focus on other vintages, like the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Diamond Mountain’s Kiss Ridge Vineyards or the bi-county mélange Pride Mountain Vineyards assembles for its stellar 2006 Napa/Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. From Spring Mountain, Paloma Vineyard’s 2006 Merlot heartily echoed the 2001 vintage that garnered them a #1 ranking among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines.
Mount Veeder’s representatives tended to feature standout blends. sounding almost Shakespearean, Godspeed Vineyards married Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Syrah to produce their 2005 Trinity. Marketta Fourmeaux, the longtime producer of her eponymous Marketta Vineyards label, introduced her latest foray, Hand Made with its 2006 Mt. Veeder Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot). Wine ingénues Mary and Whitney Yates might have had the Ginkgo Girl fuming at the attention I paid them, but their Yates Family Vineyard’s 2005 Alden Perry Reserve, a Merlot-dominated blend balanced out with both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, would surely have appeased her.
The sisters Yates also impressed with their 2005 Cheval, their showcase 100% Cabernet Franc. Another breathtaking 2005 Cabernet Franc came from Spring Mountain’s Guilliams Vineyards, a fitting tribute to the birthday and translated surname co-owner Shawn Guilliams was sharing with the aforementioned Bard of Avon. Despite the name it shares with the nomenclature-obsessed Grand Cru châteaux, LaTour Vineyards shared a superb Burgundian-style 2006 Napa Valley Chardonnay. With no conflict to its name, Paras Vineyard offered a remarkable array of wines, resounding with their 2007 Grenache, 2005 Syrah and a contrasting pair of Viognier from both 2005 and 2006.
The earliest vintage of the tasting came from Random Ridge, with a 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon that hopefully proved a harbinger for where all the wondrous 2005 Cabs I tasted at Napa Valley with Altitude will be heading. But readers of this blog will not be surprised that the 2006 Fortunata, their extraordinary expression of Sangiovese, was the wine that held me rapt at this most delightful event.

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