It’s easy to bash California and her wines. Having lived in Oregon for the past two decades, I’ve heard a joke or two about the wines. Shoot, I’ve probably joined in on the jokes and bashing. About a month ago I ran across a good one. It was a bumper sticker created by some of my winemaker friends up in Washington. It read: “Napa makes auto parts, Washington makes wine.” It’s a version taken from the same slogan some winemakers in Sonoma came up with a few years back. So even within their state, Napa takes a beating.
Now, some background. When I was just starting to get into wine, I cut my teeth on many a Napa Cabernet. It was a bottle of the 1996 Chimney Rock Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon that hooked me. For about two solid years I was in love with the Stags Leap District wines. Pine Ridge, Darioush, S. Anderson (RIP), Robert Sinskey, and Signorello were my “go-to” wines. My family and I joined the wine clubs, drank them during the holidays and special occasions. We all revered those wines. As my palate changed and my wine world expanded, those Napa wines just sat in our cellar. Wine, like music, is something that you can come back to and revisit and rediscover again.
I’ve just spent the past two weeks down here in the Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino areas visiting, exploring, tasting, talking, and taking the temperature of the current wine market down here. What strikes me is the extreme fractured nature of the wine business. Sometimes when you’ve reached the top of the mountain, it is covered in clouds. Sometimes the view from that clearing on the middle of the mountain is much, much better.
Below are some highlights from my self-guided tour of St. Helena and Rutherford. These all come highly recommended. Next time you are planning a trip to ‘Napa’, I encourage you to visit these wineries. You will find people, places, and wines that truly reflect this much maligned area.
Tres Sabores (1620 S. Whitehall Lane, St. Helena, CA)
*Please call and make an appointment
Nestled at the base of the Mayacamas Range, lies a special vineyard, winery, retreat, and home of owner & winemaker, Julie Johnson. I’ve visited Tres Sabores on two other occasions and each time without fail, Julie is there knee deep in work. Authentic, soulful, and passionate are words that are conjured up when I think of Julie and her wines. It is rare in these parts of Rutherford to actually meet a winery owner who gets their hands dirty on a daily basis. The vineyard is dry-farmed (another rarity in these parts) and is surrounded by old olive trees, pomegranate, and a wide variety of flora and fauna. They have done such a great job of using cover crops to maintain the nutrient balance in the vineyard and the guinea hens and sheep are best at managing the insects and weeds. The care and attentiveness that guides their vineyard management is showcased in the wines.
2009 ‘Farina Vineyard’ Sauvignon Blanc ($22) – Finally, a Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma that has balanced acidity, freshness, and laden with minerality. This is NOT your NZ style passion fruit, guava, pineapple bomb. Tasting this was a relief from many overly sweet Sauvignon Blancs made here in Napa. (Native Fermentation)
2008 ‘Por que no? Red Blend ($25) – One of the more exciting blends in the Napa area. A unique blend (why not?) of mostly, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sirah, and Petit Verdot, this wine is a crowd pleaser. To say it’s a BBQ wine I think is a disservice. This wine is very generous, in that it has layers and layers of flavors. Certainly, there is lots of pride in this blend as this is the 9th vintage of this wine. (Native Fermentation)
2007 ‘Estate’ Rutherford Zinfandel ($35) – Honestly, one of the best Zinfandel’s from the Napa area, this wine was produced from 35 year old, dry farmed, organic grapes. This wine has the ‘terroir ‘which the native ferment expresses. This is NOT a Zinfandel that looks and tastes like molasses. If you want to get an idea of why Zinfandel is the ‘heritage’ grape down here, look no further than Julie’s example.
2006 ‘Estate’ Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Perspective’ ($80) – Aptly named wine as this Cabernet Sauvignon gives you a better ‘perspective’ of what tasting a wine that has a sense of place really means. The 35 year old, dry farmed, organically grown grapes showcase that legendary Rutherford Dust. I tasted this wine in the rows where it was grown and as I look out into the valley floor, I can see BV from here. Man, these wines are so far from each other. (Native Fermentation)
2007 Calistoga Petit Sirah ($45) – Here is a massively delicate wine. If you are a fan of a ‘bigger’ style wine, this Petit Sirah will make you very happy. The depth of this wine is what is so haunting. Cedar box, tar, blackberries dipped in dark chocolate. This is a wine of decadence, but yet is still restrained. Another lesson here is the well integrated use of American Oak. Admittedly, I’m usually not a fan, but this wine is integrated beautifully. All dry farmed and native fermentation.
Corison Winery (987 St. Helena Highway St. Helena, CA)
*Please call to make an appointment
If you have driven up and down highway 29, then without knowing it you have passed this gem of a winery. Cathy Corison (who I don’t know) has been making wine for over 30 years, in a more ‘traditional’ style (emphasis hers). I had read great things about the wines, so I was excited when I was able to book and appointment (thank you, Sean). The old converted barn was a great setting for these surprises.
2007 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon ($70) – Clearly, Cathy and I share similarities in what we want out of Cabernet Sauvignon. The power and elegance in her wines is extraordinary, especially coming from a region that is really just known (as of late) for over oaked/highly concentrated Cabernets. In tasting the wine and then seeing the price, I was struck by what an amazing QPR (quality to price ratio) this wine has. Aged Cabernet Sauvignon is a treasure and Cathy makes her wines to age. I would put up her wines against many of the ‘trophy’ wines that are 3x’s this price and I bet you hers will survive father time. Her wines have that acid backbone that is CRITICAL in successfully aging wine. Certainly, you could drink this wine now (after decanting) but those with patience will be rewarded. How can I be so sure? Read about the next wine.
1999 Acappella Petit Sirah ($50) – Wow, I love it when I winery finds a “couple of cases” of a wine that was previous thought as SOLD OUT. I was lucky enough to be at the winery when they were pouring it. Right place, right time. The wine was irresistible. Just around a decade old, this wine poured out of the bottle as if it were free run juice. I could not notice ANY color degradation. Plums, All Spice and boysenberry were all enveloped in a dense package of earth and sky. If ever the joys and rewards of aging wine were ever in doubt, this wine brings it all home. This wine is completely unfined and unfiltered, so there is a lot of sediment. Ladies and Gentlemen, that is where the life is, that is where the goodness comes from. Slowly decant and serve with your favorite meat dish, preferably rare.
El Molino (3781 Silverado Trail Calistoga, CA)
*please call for an appointment
Here is a winery that I knew very little about, but it was on my radar and I’m so pleased that I got a chance to visit. Jon & Lily Berlin are doing an amazing job of continuing the legacy of this winery that has been around in one shape or another since 1871. You would think that in that amount of time, that there would be drastic changes and that the place would have turned into a caracture of itself. But Lily’s family has done an amazing job of keeping things simple and very authentic. The winery is extremely efficient, using a genius gravity flow system and a three tiered winery that leads to the original wine cellar. Approximately 2/3 of the winery is underground. The wine offering consists of two wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Jon was a fantastic tour guide; his intimacy to the place and the wines was obvious. The tour and wines reminded me again how individual this beverage is and how ‘styles’ can be misunderstood.
2008 Rutherford Chardonnay ($50) – This is what I mean about a wine being ‘misunderstood’. Here we have the complete antithesis of what a ‘typical’ Napa Chardonnay is. I love this Chardonnay because it has something that most Chardonnay’s down here don’t have and that is acid. Acid is the cargo plane. It carries everything with it, the fruit, the minerality, the tannins, and terroir. This Chardonnay is only going to get better with age. It reminds me of a Grand Cru Chablis right now. I bought a bottle to cellar and enjoy in a year or two.
2007 Rutherford Pinot Noir ($60) – Again, a misunderstood wine. First, you can count how many Pinot’s are made in Rutherford on one hand. Jon is clearly a fan of the grape as evidence by the empty bottles of Burgundy that I saw in the winery. This is a big boy Pinot Noir, mostly due to the 2007 vintage which Jon states as one of the best he has seen. A taster that was on the same tour described it as “haunting”, I would have to agree. The depth of this wine comes from the fruit and the gentle winemaking techniques. The oak profile is beautifully integrated as is the acid. Again, the wines of El Molino are very ageable and generous. These wines will have long lives.
So, the next time you are traveling to the Napa Valley and you want to visit places that are less “Disney” and more authentic, give these three wineries a visit.
Just don’t forget to call ahead.