Let sleeping billionaires lie

Following the Annual Marin Pinot Tasting in Larkspur, Your West Coast Oenophile took in a number of visits to individual wineries before embarking on the major excursion that will be detailed later in this entry. The interesting thread that tied each of these operations wasn’t their wines but the striking facilities that house their operations.

I first stopped by La Honda Winery in Redwood City to take in what has to be the most eclectic structure this side of Tobin James. La Honda’s partner Don Modica framed portions of several buildings on contiguous tracts to create a warehouse-like interior into which other structures appear to intrude. The overall effect seems much like a film stage, illusory yet compelling at the same time. I had met assistant winemaker Colin McNany at a Santa Cruz tasting earlier this year, but was happy this time to meet winemaker/owner Ken Wornick for what turned out to be one of the most energized discussions of Sostevinobile I have had to date. Moreover, the selection of wines made my jaunt down the Peninsula well worth my while, with the 2007 Pinot Noir Sequence and their new 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese Modica Estate striking my particular fancy. I also greatly enjoy their 2006 Meritage, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc from the Windsor Oaks Vineyard in the Chalk Hill AVA.

With enough time to make one more stop, I elected to shoot across Hwy 101 and track down the new headquarters for Woodside Vineyards, a small-scale producer I had long meant to seek out. Like La Honda, the name somewhat belied its location, but the recent move to Menlo Park freed the winery from a number of local restrictions, notably a maximum allowable production scale of a mere 2,000 cases. Woodside’s new owner, Buff Giurlani, has transformed an industrial warehouse near the foot of the Dumbarton Bridge into an airy showcase for vintage auto collectors alongside his expanded winery production and tasting room, with the intent of creating event space, not unlike the nearby Museum of Aviation in San Carlos. With this expansion of the winery’s capacity, he and winemaker Brian Caseldon are looking to move beyond their current inventory of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Port and sparkling wines to include a number of Italian varietals, including Sangiovese and Dolcetto. But, for now, the noteworthy holdovers from their former facility that I had the chance to sample: the 2007 Woodside Chardonnay, the 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2004 Woodside Port, more than sufficed.

I finished this day with a half-mile swim at the Pacific Athletic Club in Redwood Shores, a much-needed tonic after my major bicycle excursion (documented in my last entry) between the two major wine tastings the day before. Not that I needed the rest of the week to recover and brace myself for my planned trek up Silverado Trail; still, I refrained from any major excursions until I drove to Napa the following Friday.


Before attending the debut of Andrea Schwartz’ art installations at Yountville’s eco-resort Bardessono, I squeezed in a visit with bocce giacatrice Elena Franceschi at Silverado Vineyards. I had forgotten this winery’s connection to the Disney Family, thus was unprepared for the sheer opulence of the estate. Perched on a hilltop just after Silverado Trail crosses into Yountville, this spectacular Mediterranean edifice offers sweeping views of their 93 planted acres and most of the Stags Leap District lying just beyond. Merely to sit out on the patio leaves one feeling quite regal, if but for a fleeting moment.

Of course, the wines lived up to the richness of this setting. We cooled down first with the 2008 Miller Ranch Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, the delightful 2008 Estate Chardonnay, and, for good measure, the 2008 Sangiovese Rosato before tackling a serious array of red wines, starting with the much-anticipated 2006 Estate Sangiovese that Elena had alluded to when we’d first met. Elena hadn’t mentioned Silverado’s amazing Super Tuscan, the 2006 Fantasia before, and naturally, this Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend led into a selection of select Cabernets, starting with the 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. After trying the 2006 vintage, she offered me a rare vertical from the late 1990s. While the 1997 and 1998 vintages lived up to my expectations for a Napa Valley Cab, the largely unheralded 1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was quite the unexpected pleasure.

I might have worked my way through half a dozen more wines, but I was past due for the Pulse Tasting at Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, where scion Justin Stephens of D.R. Stephens Wines pour a trio of his luxuriant wines, including the 2008 Estate Chardonnay, his 2007 DR II Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the breathtaking 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Moose Valley Vineyard. Next, I wound my way down to Bardessono, where Erin Lail was on hand to pair her 2009 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc with the array of artists Andrea had included in her opening. I managed to take in a quick dinner at one of Yountville’s lesser-known cafés before taking in a promised stop at Michael Polenske’s Ma(i)sonry, the venerable stone edifice he converted to a gallery and tasting room he describes as “pairing artisan wines with exquisite art and furnishings in an historic setting.” While not as grandiose as Jan Shrem’s Clos Pégase nor quite as imposing as Greg Martin’s artifact-laden Martin Estate, Ma(i)sonry manages to create an enveloping atmosphere that lends itself exquisitely to sampling the artisan wines its Vintner Collective features. Most of these have appeared in this blog at one time or another, and given the exhaustive tasting I was facing the next day, I limited myself to a half-glass of the 2007 Contrarian, the Pomerol-style Meritage from Polenske’s own Blackbird Vineyards. The perfect coda to a well-traveled day

I checked out of my downtown Napa hotel at 11 AM, but left my car in their parking lot for the afternoon. After many years of contemplation, I had decided to wind my way up the Silverado Trail on my Trek, a 22-mile pedal from point of departure to destination, with a formidable return trip after three hours of wine tasting and feasting.

The ride from Napa to St. Helena could not have been more pleasant. Despite its formidable length, the road remained relatively flat the entire stretch—enough so that I never had to shift out of high gear! The temperature hovered around 75° F, maybe a tad less, and a cool but gentle breeze from the rear kept conditions ideal. I clocked in a markedly quicker pace than the 1:56 that my iPhone’s GPS estimated, and would have finished closer to an hour and a half, had I not stopped briefly at Judd’s Hill and Chimney Rock along the way. As with cycling in San Francisco, the ability to cover a known route at a leisurely pace and with sightlines unimpeded yielded a plethora of discoveries, like the hidden gem of Razi Winery or the new home for Crushpad being built at Silverado Trail Wine Studio. Ever mindful of Sostevinobile’s ecological commitment, I made mental notes of the water levels (or lack thereof) of the many creeks I crossed, surveyed the various arrays of solar installations and CCOF-tagged vineyards, and promised myself I would return to make a more detailed exploration when not so pressed for time.

Just before 2 PM, I arrived at the Charles Krug Vineyard for the Taste of Howell Mountain Wine Tasting Garden Party & Auction. This annual benefit for the Howell Mountain Elementary School marks a special convergence of professional, social and charitable interests in Napa Valley. This year’s event precluded the Howell Mountain Tasting that usually takes place later in the summer in San Francisco, so it especially behooved me to attend and renew acquaintances with the many vintners and winery owners I had met at last year’s functions.

Remarkably, of the 30 wineries on hand, only one had not participated in last year’s tasting, so I beelined over to Bremer Family’s table just as soon as I had locked my bicycled, registered, and downed the glass of chilled 2009 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc with which Charles Krug greets attendees. Bremer turns out to be an extraordinary winery (not that most of the wineries on hand could easily qualify as extraordinary in a less comparable setting), with a focus on Bordeaux reds. I felt fortunate to sample both their 2004 Howell Mountain Merlot alongside their striking 2004 Los Posados Merlot, as well as contrasting the 2004 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon with their delightful 2003 Seek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I do look forward to trying their vintages from benchmark years.

Little of the literature I’ve encountered extols the virtues of the 2006 vintage, but quite a number of the wineries on hand showed how even a non-storied vintage can garner tremendous respect, especially if it heralds from one of California’s premier AVAs. While my resampling of the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Roberts + Rogers showed remarkable consistency from last year, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly a more compelling vintage. I also found the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Ladera quite excellent, while W.S. Keyes made as profound a statement with their 2006 Merlot Howell Mountain. Meanwhile, La Jota demonstrated superb vinification with each, though I gave a slight nod to their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon over their 2006 Howell Mountain Merlot.

Denis Malbec’s pedigree from Château Latour has been well-documented and I would have stopped by his Notre Vin table even if I hadn’t received his e-mail invite just the day before. As anticipated, his 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, artfully blended with 83% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot, drank splendidly. As did the organically grown 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Estate from Neal Family Vineyards, an unblended bottling. In addition to their delightful, single-varietal 2007 Merlot, O’Shaughnessy Wine Estate deserved kudos for the authenticity of their Bordeaux-style bottling of the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a historic assemblage of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Carménère, 2% St. Macaire (!), and 1% Cabernet Franc. I am hoping for single-varietal releases of each.

W.H. Smith saves its complexity for its nomenclature, as the 2006 Purple Label Piedra Hill Cabernet Sauvignon attests; the wine, a straightforward, Bordeaux-style Cab, remains a gem vintage after vintage. Calling one’s wine the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel Yee Haw Vintage may evoke images of Li’l Abner, Dogpatch, and Kickapoo Joy Juice, but this delectable bottling from Lamborn Family Vineyards is anything but Boone’s Farm. Both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage IV and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage III struck me as being quite cellar-worthy, as well. Meanwhile, as if to refute those skeptics who believe Zin doesn’t age, Duane D. Draper showcased his 1996 D-Cubed Zinfandel Howell Mountain.

At the other end of the spectrum, Diamond Terrace’s Maureen Taylor pour her yet-unreleased 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain alongside her bottled 2006 vintage, with the younger wine portending of amazing complexity. So too did host Charles Krug new 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon show intimations of greatness. And while beneficent owner Gordon Getty dozed perilously at a nearby picnic table (oh, if only his attendant hadn’t moved the somnolent billionaire out of the sweltering midday heat—I might have hit him up for the $3,000,000 in funding Sostevinobile is still seeking!), CADE Winery sizzled with their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain.

I found myself more impressed with Summit Lake this time around. Their 2006 Emily Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon was a pleasure indeed, but the 2006 Zinfandel really put them on the map. Red Cap’s lone effort, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, nonetheless made them a player with which to be reckoned, while the indubitable White Cottage proffered their own 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Another Howell Mountain stalwart, Piña impressed, as usual, with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Buckeye Vineyard while Highlands excelled with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Howell Mountain.

Amid the overall superior quality of virtually every wine I sampled, a handful of vintages distinguished themselves as a cut above. Once again, Cimarossa dazzled with their proprietary Cabernet, the 2006 Riva Di Ponente Estate Wine. Outpost contributed an extraordinary Chardonnay, the 2007 La Blonde. Robert Craig’s 2008 Howell Mountain Napa Valley Zinfandel tasted almost Cabernet-like in its texture and complexity, while SPENCE Vineyards brought their 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, an amazing expression of this varietal. The 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for Cornerstone Cellars proved just as enticing, while Bravante Vineyards, Wine & Spirits’ Winery of the Year in 2007, made a most profound statement with their 2006 Trio, a Merlot-based wine with balancing infusions of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The source of Robert Craig’s Zinfandel, Black Sears, demonstrated their profound œnological skills with their own 2006 Estate Zinfandel. Merlot virtuoso Duckhorn Vineyards impressed with their modestly titled Meritage, the 2005 Howell Mountain Napa Valley Red Wine, artfully blending 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. And reborn Atlas Peak continued to demonstrate how the skills of their revitalization with their much-lauded 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

As happened at Silverado, the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain from Dunn Vineyards proved quite the revelation from a somewhat obscure year. And certainly a rather obscure varietal for Howell Mountain was the nonetheless wonderful 2006 Petite Sirah from Retro Cellars.

Maybe I should have spent less time trying to figure a way to reintroduce myself to Gordon Getty (we had met some 22 years ago at a fundraiser at his Presidio Heights mansion, where soporific Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had me dozing in my seat this time). Maybe I should learn to read the fine points of a program before mapping my schedule. I only had time to sample the elegant 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Steinhauer Ranch from St. Clement before we were briskly ushered indoors for the two-hour auction. Regrettably, I can only note the presence and generous contribution of Arkenstone, Blue Hall, Cakebread Cellars, Haber Vineyards, Howell at the Moon, Rutherford Grove, and Tor Kenward—all of whom I covered last year and, with several, at other tastings. I will strive to highlight them in subsequent entries.

We climbed to the second floor of Charles Krug’s renovated 1881 Carriage House, where glasses of much-needed sparkling wine were liberally poured alongside an assortment of Howell Mountain and other donated wines, plus an array of desserts that included caffeine-laced brownies! This magnificent edifice features a naturally illuminated, vaulted ceiling that seems almost ecclesiastical (little wonder why it is often rented out for vineyard weddings) and served as a perfect coda to the architectural focus of my week. 

I stumbled upon a pair of interesting wines that had not been featured at the tasting proper before I settled in: the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Villa Hermosa and the striking 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Fleury, whose website extols their wines as “100% good juice.” Auctioneer Greg Quiroga, a fellow veteran of Jim Cranna’s Improv Workshop, regaled the crowd as he cajoled them into bidding for lots that ranged from 16 of Thomas Brown’s acclaimed wines to a sports extravaganza dinner at Bottega Restaurant Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (owner of GTS Vineyards) and other sports luminaries involved in the wine industry. By the end of the event, over $85,000 had ben raised, an increase of 10% over last year’s auction.
Growing up on Long Island, I was transfixed throughout the 1969 baseball season, as Seaver led the New York Mets to their first winning season and an astounding World series championship. I was gratified, years later, to learn that Tom had taken up the game of squash and then viticulture, two of my more pronounced passions. I’d like to think that these pursuits—plus the fact that neither of us command bank accounts anywhere near Gordon Getty’s—now puts me on relative equal footing with my childhood idol.
OK, maybe we don’t have tremendous athleticism in common, but I did record a personal best for the 22 mile cycle back to Napa.

5 thoughts on “Let sleeping billionaires lie

  1. Craig Camp

    Many thanks for the nice comment on our 2005 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Please come by our tasting room in Yountville where we’re also tasting the 2004 and 2002 from our library. It is always impressive at any Howell Mountain tasting to see how many outstanding wines are being made on Howell Mountain. It’s hard to think of an AVA with such high overall quality.

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