Quattro…cinque…sei…sette…otto…

4) Spring Mountain

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the early morning reception at Clos du Val, but Your West Coast Oenophile had reviewed the same wines served here back at their Vindependence function in July, and with my well-documented aversion to eggs, I could only try the wonderful baguettes along with the 2009 Ariadne (Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon), Pinot Noirs, and library Cabernets on hand. But I did manage to persuade Hospitality and Wine Education Associate Jim Wilkinson to open a bottle of the limited-release 2007 Primitivo that I enjoyed immensely.

Excruciatingly missing from Clos du Val’s fête was my essential AM Java jolt (I had anticipated getting my fix here and so had eschewed the hotel’s diluted styrofoam-clad version before driving up to Stags Leap). Miraculously, I managed to cruise on autopilot over to Yountville and locate the quaint Coffee Caboose I had espied the day before at the Napa Valley Railway Inn. Sufficiently caffeinated, I coherently would my way up St. Helena Highway to join in the festivities at Spring Mountain Vineyard.

Constrictions of time and space here preclude me from recounting numerous tales of this storied winery, which I had not visited since 1984. Suffice it to say, the facilities had changed dramatically over the past quarter century, as had the personnel. Still, I found it most welcoming to be greeted by Sostevinobile’s Facebook fan Valli Ferrell before descending into the bowels of the candlelit caves that had been excavated since my last tour.

To be frank, long-term, subterranean occupancy may well be suitable for bats, but it is hardly conducive to Homo sapiens, and while being capable of flying might mitigate reincarnation as one of the Chiroptera species in the next life, for now, negotiating a two-hour tasting in this dimly-lit environment utterly strained my endurance. That said, the wines, of course, proved more than delectable, and, despite the constraints of the setting, I managed to negotiate all 17 wineries pouring here.

First up, I stopped by Cain to chat with Associate Winemaker François Bugué and sample through his eclectic mix. We started with his non-vintage Cain Cuvée, a Merlot-dominant blend from both the 2006 and 2007 vintages, rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, as well as 7% Petit Verdot. With 20% Merlot and just 2% Cabernet Franc, the 2006 Cain Concept could have been labeled varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, while the flagship 2006 Cain 5 married the five Bordeaux grapes in differing percentages, with none dominating. Most intriguing, however, was Cain’s auction selection, the 2009 François’ Pick, an atypical blend of 67% Malbec and 33% Petit Verdot. By contrast, Frias Family chose simply to pour their excellent 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, while Sherwin Family’s lone entry, the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, softened with 12% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

I’d missed the table for Vineyard 7 & 8 at the Next Generation tasting, so was pleased to atone for my oversight here with their trio of Cabernets. I preferred the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to the(slightly) more modest 2007 7 Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2001 7 Cabernet Sauvignon proved an unexpected pleasure. And although I had tried both wines only a few hours before, I was happy to resample the 2009 Albion and 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Marston Family again poured.

Another all-Cab effort, Peacock contrasted their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District with winemaker Craig Becker’s East Napa venture, Somerston, from along Sage Canyon Road, and its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate Grown; like Vineyard 7 & 8, Peacock also treated attendees to a taste to a retrospective of their 2001 vintage.

The Spring Mountain District AVA was established in 1983, so I am at a los to explain of the significance of the 2001 vintage or why nearly every winery here brought a sample. Although they produce a number of varietals, Terra Valentine showcased a pure Cabernet play, starting with their 2001 Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I was just as pleased with the 2007 Wurtele, while the 2007 Yverdon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Spring Mountain District Cabernet both proved highly amiable wines. By contrast, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Barnett Vineyards poured outshone their current 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District, while the 2008 Merlot Spring Mountain District provided a refreshing contrast to this uniformity.

Juslyn Vineyards may not be Justin Vineyards (now incongruously part of the Fiji Water empire), but their wines created no ambiguity, with a superb 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, complemented by their proprietary 2006 Perry’s Blend, a Merlot-based Meritage tempered with 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. Behrens Family Winery, producers of Erna Schein, featured their Behrens & Hitchcock label, bulking up with their 2006 Petite Sirah Spring Mountain District and the evocatively illustrated 2007 The Heavyweight, an equal Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot mix, tempered with 20% Petit Verdot.

Keenan Winery virtually wrote the book on blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Their flagship 2001 Mernet combined 50% Merlot with equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Just as impressive was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District, while the 2008 Chardonnay Spring Mountain District brought a most welcome white wine into the mix. Similarly, Fantesca showcased not only their impressive 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon but what they claim is winemaker Heidi Barrett’s first foray into white Burgundy, her 2008 Chardonnay.

Schweiger first poured their 2008 Estate Chardonnay, then followed with the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and an utterly compelling Meritage, the 2006 Dedication, a wine easily 5-10 years before its peak. Their best effort, however, was assuredly their ten year old 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, an omen for these later vintages. Newton’s iconic 2007 Unfiltered Chardonnay definitely stood up to its considerable legend, but their coup here came from two near-perfect wines, the superbly aged 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2007 The Puzzle, a marriage of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, and 3% Cabernet Franc.

Before coming to this event, I cruised to the top of Spring Mountain and inadvertently found myself driving through Pride Mountain’s vineyards. Here I intentionally navigated my way through their superlative 2009 Chardonnay, then onto the 2008 Merlot and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, before settling into their luxurious 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. Last up, our hosts, Spring Mountain Vineyards gallantly provided the final pours of this tasting, starting with a most refreshing 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. The 2007 Syrah proved a welcome alternative to the near monotony of Bordeaux reds, while their own 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon held its own in this crowded field. Finally, the 2006 Elivette, a Cabernet Sauvignon with touches of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, led into their crowning achievement, the 2001 Elevette.

And with this final wine, I re-emerged from the bowels of darkness into a bath of welcome sunlight. Gradually regaining my bearings, I quickly thanked Valli (“Farewell, Ferrell”) for her hospitality and proceeded to “de-elevate” from the mountain slope to the floor of the Valley for my second round of the afternoon.

5) St. Helena

Even before I arrived at the Charles Krug Winery, it had become apparent that I would never be able to taste every wine and visit with every winery, with barely an hour to devote to each of the events remaining on my itinerary, Highway 29 traffic notwithstanding. I headed down Spring Mountain Road, turned north, and followed Main Street almost the juncture where the St. Helena Highway resumes.

I’ve attended enough events at Krug now that I instinctively knew to head for the restored 1881 Carriage House behind the main winery facilities. My head was still throbbing from spelunking at Spring Mountain, but Whitehall Lane’s Do
uglas Logan-Kuhs heroically managed to round up some aspirin. Revitalized, I proceeded to ply my way through the various wineries I had not yet contacted for Sostevinobile, and then some.

Commencing with Bressler, I found their superb 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon to be everything one should expect from a Mia Klein/David Abreu collaboration. Another boutique producer, this time with Chris Dearden consulting as winemaker, V Madrone poured a noteworthy 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon V Madrone Vineyard, along with its even more fetching predecessor from 2006.

I suspect the generic name of Peter Story’s St. Helena Winery may have caused me to overlooked this unassuming venture over the years, so finally being able to sample their 2006 Scandale and superb 2006 Sympa, both Estate Cabernet Sauvignons, proved truly serendipitous. Another discovery, Casa Nuestra, seems delightfully bent on going against the St. Helena grain, beginning with the once commonly planted 2010 Estate Dry Chenin Blanc. What they label the 2007 Tinto St. Helena is a field blend not of Portuguese but of traditional Napa varietals including Refosco, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Zinfandel; their special bottling for Première, the 2009 Ellis blended these same grapes, along with Mondeuse and Valdiguié, from their Oakville vineyard where they produce their self-described Tinto Classico.

Van Ballentine didn’t pour his acclaimed Chenin Blanc but did offer a sample of the newly-released 2009 Malvasia Bianca Betty’s Vineyard, followed by his 2006 Merlot St. Helena. And certainly there was nothing small about either 2006 Petit Verdot and 2008 Petite Sirah, two wines I greatly enjoyed. Stellar quality seemed to be the rule of thumb at this event, but, after Ballentine, few of the wineries I tried showed little daring to venture outside of Bordelaise orthodoxy. Jaffe Estate, which had so impressed me at November’s St. Helena tasting, revalidated my laudation of their wines with the 2007 Transformation, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot. Boeschen Vineyards complemented their fine 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon with their 2008 Carrera Estate Blend, a Meritage of unspecified proportions.

A familiar name with which I first became acquainted in 1982, Freemark Abbey’s 2007 Josephine could almost have qualified as a blend, but with only 12.6% Merlot, 7.9% Malbec, and 4% Cabernet Franc, its 75.5% Cabernet Sauvignon met the varietal threshold. I tried to convince Joann Ross of Shibumi Knoll to incorporate the Rolling Stones’ Shattered (okay, so maybe Jagger is actually singing “shadoobie”) before delving into their inarguably wondrous 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.

I’ve ceased being surprised at all the AVA tastings where I find Steve Lohr pouring; his family’s Silicon Valley-based J. Lohr Vineyards may very well source grapes from every single one! From St. Helena, his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Carol’s Vineyard proved surprisingly appealing, as did the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Tomasson Vineyard from Midsummer Cellars.

Just a notch higher, I found the 2006 Bisou Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Bisou Cabernet Sauvignon, James Johnson’s sole endeavor, equally excellent. On par here was the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Sabina Vineyards, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Forman Vineyards, and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Revana.

Although I’ve sampled his wines on a number of occasions, this tasting marked my first meeting namesake Dr. Madaiah Revana, who graciously invited me to one of his storied house parties the next evening (alas, I was already committed to a tasting back in San Francisco). I also met Austin Gallion of Vineyard 29 after numerous e-mail exchanges over the past several months while tasting my way through their phenomenal 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and their Première bottling, a 2009 Cabernet culled from their several Napa vineyards.

By now, I was approaching the time I had allotted St. Helena, but did take a final taste of the 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2006 Estate Petite Sirah from Varozza. I had hoped to see my friends Marc and Janice Mondavi before I left, but they were not in the Carriage House. H
owever, my friend Douglas Logan-Kuhs pulled off yet another coup, introducing me to 96-year-old Peter Mondavi Sr., and poured us both a taste of a 1960 Zinfandel (I believe it was bottled under the CK Mondavi line—the label was too faded to read!), a wine that had withstood the tests of time almost as well as the winery’s patriarch.

6) Rutherford

In retrospect, maybe I ought to have attended the Phillipe Melka party at David Stevens’ 750 Wines instead of the Rutherford event, or skipped both and taken in the Oakville tasting from the beginning. Not that the wines poured upstairs at Peju weren’t wondrous—it was just that I’d had the opportunity to sample all of them several times previously.

Several of the staff recalled me from my sorry-I-can’t do-eggs luncheon visit this past summer. In turn, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find my longtime associate Dan Gaffey, with whom I’d worked at Real Beer.com, now part of the Peju team. (The irony here is that I wrote the content for nearly 30 craft beer brewers’ websites throughout the latter part of the 1990s, yet probably consumed the equivalent of one 6-pack a year—or less)!

Running into Dan probably set the tone for this gathering, which ultimately proved more of a klatch than a tasting. Doyen Huerta Peju may not have been in attendance, but Rutherford’s sonsiest winemaker, Bridget Raymond warmly greeted me at the top of the stairs. As we caught up with each other and discussed her upcoming San Francisco Vintners Market, I sampled her latest effort, the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon she bottles under her Courtesan label, as well as the Meritage from her secondary line, the 2006 Brigitte.

Over in the main room, Greg Martin stood out in a corduroy jacket that understated his encyclopædic command of antique weaponry and other artifacts of medieval societies. I see Greg quite often at our health club and have sampled his wines almost as frequently, so after retasting Martin Estate’s 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, I deferred to my friend, aspirant œnophile Lisa Mroz, while I roamed about the other stations. I didn’t see my former neighbor Michael Honig, who used to run his family operations from their home in Pacific Heights when the winery solely focused on Sauvignon Blanc. Now firmly ensconced in Rutherford, their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc displayed redolence of the mastery that gave this winery such acclaim, but the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Campbell Vineyard showed even stronger, as did the 2008 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

Nearby, Alpha Omega also showcased their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and their special Première bottling, the 2009 Red (52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 13 Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot). I sampled Cakebread’s anomalous 2009 Red, a blend of 75% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 10% Syrah, before I meandered to the back room and ran into Julie Johnson.

At Julie’s insistence, I worked my way through her range of Tres Sabores wines, starting with a luscious 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. As we traded recollections of Spring Mountain Winery from the 1980s, I sampled her organic 2008 Estate Zinfandel and 2008 ¿Por Qué No?, an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Petit Verdot, before trying her best effort, the compelling 2007 Petite Sirah. As a couple out-of- town buyers commandeered Julie’s attention, I turned to introduce myself to Sharon Crull of The Terraces. As we chatted, I revisited her 2009 Chardonnay and the intensely aromatic 2009 Riesling, an uncommon Rutherford varietal. As usual, I found the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon thoroughly enjoyable, while the 2008 Zinfandel and 2008 Petite Sirah were clearly superior wines.

Napa Smith Brewery also manned a table here, a first time (in my experience) that a Napa wine tasting also featured a beer maker. By now, however, I was clearly past the hour I had slated to arrive at Oakville’s Opening Party for Première, and, besides, there was no way my stomach could tolerate mixing beer with wine at this point. Instead, Amanda Horn sent me off with 22 oz. bottles of their Organic IPA and the Amber Ale to explore at home for the local, sustainable beer program Sostevinobile will feature. I liked these beers, to be sure, but I realize my palate is far too unrefined to be assaying the beers we will serve. Still, the unfamiliar sight of me cradling a pair of ales definitely put a smile on Dan Gaffey’s face as I left.

7) Oakville

I’ll know better for Première 2012. I should have paid closer attention to the times on my invite. I should have scheduled my other visits more precisely. I should have consulted the GPS Map on my iPhone and realized Nickel & Nickel’s facilities and the Far Niente estate, where the Oakville tasting was being held, weren’t situated all that close to each other. And ever since the time we drove to Oxbow Market’s special reception for successful Auction Napa Valley bidders on the wrong day, I should have known not to rely on Karen Mancuso’s inside scoops.

Despite the glaring typo on its program cover, Première Napa Valley Begins in Oakville was the focal event of the day, but I only caught the last half hour or so. Once I managed to find a space in the makeshift parking lot, I elected to walk up to the caves rather than wait for a shuttle, which dissipated another vital 15 minutes I might have spent interacting with the participating wineries. Once I did arrive, the labyrinthine caves felt more like a maze; finding in which corridor the individual wineries had set up might even have confounded Dædalus!

I did connect with quite a few, nonetheless, while others that I missed, like Detert, Ghost Block, Gargiulo, Swanson, and Gamble, have been covered here quite a few times (not that I would have had any reluctance to taste them again)! First up, I managed to catch up with Groth’s genial winemaker, Michael Weis, while sampling his 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville along with the Duck Rillettes on Crouton from Groth’s chef Peter Hall. Deeper into the cave, Brix chef Anne Gingrass offered up a glimpse of her culinary wizardry with her Fennel & Mushroom Risotto Fritters, fittingly juxtaposed between Kelleher, with their 2005 Cabernet Brix Vineyard, and the always delightful Kristine Ashe, who poured her superb 2008 Entre Nous Cabernet Sauvignon.

Facing this alcove, what turned out to be the central nexus of the caves housed a dizzying array of endeavors, all bearing the Oakville name: Oakville Cuvée, Oakville East, Oakville Ranch, Oakville Terraces, and Oakville Winery. I’m still not sure which represented bonded wineries and which were cooperative bottling projects, but I did manage to sample the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Gary Raugh’s Oakville Terraces and both the 2008 Estate Zinfandel and 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville Winery.

From there, following the map became far too confusing, and in my efforts to locate Opus One, I stumbled upon my friend Phil Schlein, whose protégé at Stanford Business School co-wrote the business plan for Sostevinobile with me. Phil produces three distinct lines of organic wines at his estate, including Emilio’s Terrace and the whimsically named MoonSchlein, but here I only sampled the 2007 Sophie’s Rows, a Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Unfortunately, I missed out on both Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet selections and the Braised Lamb Bouchée from their chef Jeff Mosher, who had been sharing this station, but the overpowering aromas of Mu Shu Pork served up by Mustard’s Grill chef Cindy Pawlcyn lured me to the deepest recesses of the cave, where I found the tables for Rudd and for Bond/Harlan Estate. Regrettably, Rudd had already packed up and Bond could not even muster a drop from its last bottle of 2006 Vecina, but I did manage to garner the final pour of the 2004 Harlan Estate, a Meritage best described as “mind-blowingly great.” I completely savored every drop.

Just before I left, I did catch my old friend Ren Harris pouring his Paradigm. His Heidi Barrett-crafted 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon deftly blended 7% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot. I knew both Ren and Jeannie Phillips when they shared a real estate office in the Napa Valley, prior to launc
hing their individual labels. I suppose if Screaming Eagle had been on hand for this event, I might never have made it through the front door!

8) Stags Leap

By now, I was fairly exhausted, but I had promised Clos du Val’s Tracey Mason I would make it to the 2011 Stags Leap District Bar and Lounge at Pine Ridge. Here the veneer of valet parking and ornate name tags belied the reality of yet another plunge into the depths of a cave, albeit without even the perfunctory guidance of a map or event program.

Despite the hazy lighting of the disco-like atmosphere, I did manage to stumble upon most of the wineries that had been scheduled to participate and hastily scribbled notes on whatever paper I could muster. Cliff Lede poured his ever-reliable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, a wine he rounded out with 12% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. Foster’s Group’s Stags’ Leap Winery offered its 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon—the wine tasted just as wonderful here as it had when I had tried at the estate last summer.

I was surprised at how much I liked the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Terlato Family Vineyards while the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from their Chimney Rock Winery seemed almost as approachable. Next to their table, Baldacci poured their 2007 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon alongside a striking barrel sample of their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon being offered at Saturday’s auction.

On my first Napa swing of 2011, I had stopped at Regusci and lauded their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon as much then as I did this evening. From there, I had meandered down Silverado Trail and tasted with Steltzner, similarly enjoying their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon as much then as this evening. On a different trip, I had visited with host Pine Ridge, but most assuredly had not been poured the well-rounded 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon they featured here.
Pine Ridge’s nook here also featured the Bar and Lounge’s DJ, and while I enjoyed most of the selections he played, the music only complicated my efforts to sample and evaluate the wines on hand. Barely legible notes list my favorite wine here as the 2007 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, but I cannot make out my shorthand for the winery. Silverado? Shafer? I am completely lost.
No matter what I had written, it was apparent that I had reach my saturation point. I stopped by Clos du Val’s table to try their contribution to the auction, the 2009 Cabernet Franc, and to thank the two blonde Traceys for inviting me. And with that, I headed back to the less frenetic pace of The City.
Eight tastings and then some in less than 36 hours. I don’t know how many wineries I covered and won’t even try to guess how many wines I had sampled. On my way back to San Francisco, I vowed I would abstain from touching another drop—for at least 18 more hours, when I was due to attend the Affairs of the Vine’s 9th Annual Pinot Noir Summit

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