Tag Archives: Napa

Napa Valley sign

Five Favorite Local Wineries to Visit in Napa Valley

When you visit the capital of winemaking, deciding on which wineries to visit or even where to start can be difficult. With so many incredible, one-of-a-kind wines to try, you definitely don’t want to waste time looking around. To make it easier, try one (or all) of these favorite local wineries during your next visit to Napa Valley.

Schramsberg Vineyard

Schramsberg Vineyards is known as “America’s House of Sparkling Wines,” and provides not only an impeccable wine selection but also an important piece of history in winemaking. The caves at Schramsberg were dug in Diamond Mountain in the late 1800’s by Chinese laborers after the completion of the Transcontinental railroad and included two sets of cellar tunnels completed before the turn of the century. Later, another set of tunnels were added in the 1980’s, increasing the square footage of the already-impressive tunnel system to 34,000 square feet. Now, visitors get the opportunity to enjoy these picturesque caves and the wine that is perfectly developed in them.
schramsberg.com

Castello di Amorosa

When you pull up to Castello di Amorosa, you may start to question if you actually did book your vacation to Napa Valley, or mistakenly were brought to Tuscany. Well, appreciate the authenticity of Castello di Amorosa, constructed with true Medieval techniques and meticulously designed by owner and builder Dario Sattui with all of the characteristics of a real castle. That’s right, enjoy world-class wine in a castle with a moat and drawbridge, dungeon, and secret passageways. The Castello di Amorosa is so impressive and fun, even your children are welcome to join in for a grape-juice tasting and tour.
castellodiamorosa.com

Cliff Lede

If history isn’t really your thing or it’s time to switch it up a bit, visit Cliff Lede for a modern yet unique experience. Canadian-born Cliff Lede purchased the land in 2002 and was quick to make it his own. He named each of the 39 wine blocks after his favorite classic rock songs, giving them the nickname “rock blocks.” You can even book a “Backstage Pass” visit that gives you access to a variety of limited production wines to enjoy in a comfortable lounge that features rotating art exhibits, all while being serenaded with classic rock hits in the background. For a destination with fabulous wine, thought-provoking art exhibits, and the feel-good vibes of classic rock, Cliff Lede is a must.
cliffledevineyards.com

Failla

A visit to Failla may very well be a bucket list item for true wine enthusiasts. Failla (pronounced Fay-la) Wines is home to winemaker Ehren Jordan, one of Napa’s most esteemed winemakers. This intimate winery allows its visitors to taste some of the most popular, sought-after wines on the market, and you may even find yourself picking Jordan’s brain himself as he hangs out with his guests in the courtyard. The 15,000 square foot caves also impress, and booking a cave tour is a favorite among many guests.
faillawines.com

Robert Mondavi Winery

The renowned and respected Robert Mondavi opened his winery in Oakville in 1966, and the rest is history. He succeeded in producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the entire world. His vision included a combination of classic winemaking techniques combined with new technology as it emerged, all while honoring the origin of the wines. Mondavi considered winemaking an art, which also inspired the decision to host several famous artists for a summer concert series held on the lawn of the winery.
robertmondaviwinery.com

Visit these five wineries on your next visit to Napa Valley, and don’t forget to stay in comfort at a luxury resort, and taste in style to make your trip unforgettable.

Content provided by Solage Calistoga, a luxury resort and spa in the Napa Valley. For more information visit solagecalistoga.com.

Patel wines

Patel: Small Winery with Big Taste

When Robert Parker awards your first wine a 95, you know you’ve made something special.

But don’t let that number bias you toward Patel Winery. It’s more of a treat if you taste the Napa wines without any preconceived notions. That’s how I came to meet owner Raj Patel, at last year’s High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction. His wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and the Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend – were among my favorite discoveries at the event. When I found out that Raj was returning for this year’s auction, I couldn’t wait to meet with him and taste his current releases.

Patel winesRaj founded Patel Winery in 2006. He secured fruit and a custom crush facility in 2007, and made some wine in 2008. In 2009 he joined the Napa Valley Vintners Association and submitted his Cabernet for review with Robert Parker. More recently he brought on Luc Morlet, one of Napa’s top winemakers. Patel Winery sources its grapes from six vineyards and makes the wine at Luc’s winery.

I could go on for several paragraphs about how the Patel wines are intense yet elegant, with layers of fruit and earth notes that end in a long finish. But here’s all you need to know: Patel wines are really really good.

Over breakfast the morning of the 2015 High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction, Raj and I spoke about Patel Winery, what makes the wines unique and what’s next. Continue reading

Faust Cabernet Sauvignon

AG Pick: Faust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

The Faust of legend sold his soul for knowledge and worldly pleasures. Fortunately for us, there is no need to make a deal with the Devil to enjoy the Faust 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The man behind the California legend is Agustin Huneeus, best known for Quintessa. With a career in wine that has spanned 50 years and 15 countries, Agustin sought the thrill of a new endeavor – to renew his passion, much like Dr. Faust.

Faust Cabernet SauvignonWhereas Quintessa is a reflection of the vineyard, Faust is a reflection of the grape. It’s a tribute to Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, made with grapes from Agustin’s family vineyards in Rutherford and Coombsville. Small lots from nearby appellations round out the blend.

The 2011 wine is 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. It spent 19 months aging in French oak, of which 30% was new.

Intensely aromatic, the Faust starts off big and bold with notes of juicy red and black fruit, tobacco and spice. Decant it or let it sit in your glass, and the wine will soften into an elegant and complex sip. Blackberry, cassis and ripe red cherry are layered with dark chocolate, black pepper, leather and cigar box. It’s velvety in the mouth, with a lingering spicy finish.

For more information visit www.faustwine.com.

$50, 14.2% alcohol by volume

Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc

Standout Sauvignon Blanc from California

Made famous by France and today grown all over the world, Sauvignon Blanc is a favorite among white wine drinkers. But you don’t need to go international to find a world class Sauvignon Blanc – just look to California.

Here are the Amateur Gastronomer’s picks for standout Sauvignon Blanc from California.

If the warm weather isn’t reason enough to try these wines, pick up a bottle for International Sauvignon Blanc Day, on Friday May 16th. Share what you’re sipping with us @amgastronomer on Twitter and Instagram with #SauvBlanc.

Arkenstone NVD Sauvignon Blanc 2012

There’s a new Sauvignon Blanc from Arkenstone Vineyards. The Howell Mountain winery has expanded beyond its estate vines on the western shoulder to include grapes in the larger Napa Valley AVA.

Arkenstone NVD Sauvignon BlancWinemaker Sam Kaplan uses similar techniques with the Napa Valley District Sauvignon Blanc as he does with the Estate wine to add complementary rounded and creamy notes to the fruit and floral flavors.

The 2012 Arkenstone NVD is 100% Sauvignon Blanc. After fermentation the wine spent 11 months on the lees in a combination of new and used French oak and concrete.

Enticing aromas of green apple, pineapple, kiwi and white flowers invite you to take a sip. The taste is sophisticated with layered pear, white peach, mango, honeydew and jasmine. It’s soft in the mouth, with good acidity and wet stone minerality adding freshness. The finish is long with lingering apple and peach notes. Look for the official release of the 2012 Arkenstone NVD Sauvignon Blanc in July.

$45, 14.5% alcohol, arkenstone.com
335 West Lane, Angwin, California
707.965.1020

Bernardus Griva Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Just a short drive from the world-famous destinations of Pebble Beach, Monterey Bay Aquarium and picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea is the Bernardus Lodge and Winery. Owner Bernardus (Ben) Pon selected the location with the dream to make a red wine in the Carmel Valley equal to the finest from Bordeaux.

Bernardus Griva Sauvignon BlancA standout in its own right is the winery’s take on white Bordeaux. As is common in Bordeaux, Bernardus’ Sauvignon Blanc has a small percent of Semillon added to the final blend.

The grapes for this white wine come from Griva Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA, just south of Santa Lucia Highlands in the Salinas Valley. The Sauvignon Blanc was hand picked and fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures using three specially selected yeasts. The finished wine has 5% barrel fermented Semillon, added to enhance its richness and complexity.

Wonderfully aromatic with tropical fruit and citrus, the Bernardus Griva Sauvignon Blanc has flavors of white apricot, passion fruit, grapefruit and lime zest with subtle grassy notes on the crisp finish. Refreshing acidity gives the wine a lively mouthfeel, with gentle minerality adding structure.

$22, 13.7% alcohol, bernardus.com
5 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, California
831.298.8021

Galerie Equitem 2012

The debut vintage of Equitem and the newly launched Galerie series is an exciting introduction to winemaker Laura Díaz Muñoz, who brings together European techniques and traditions with New World fruit. Her education and Galerie Equitemwinemaking career began in Spain, with stops in New Zealand and Chile before arriving in Napa and working alongside acclaimed Cardinale winemaker Chris Carpenter.

Equitem, meaning “knight” in Latin, is made entirely of Sauvignon Blanc from Knights Valley in Sonoma. The wine was aged on the lees, half in neutral French oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks. It was stirred three times per week in barrel and two times per week in tank to enhance the mouthfeel of the finished wine.

Showcasing an artistry both inside and outside the bottle, the Equitem Sauvignon Blanc is nuanced and elegant with slate minerality and lively acidity. Golden apple, pear, white peach and guava mingle with white flowers, meringue and subtle vanilla, culminating in a crisp citrus finish.

You’ll also want to try sister wine Naissance, Galerie’s Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley.

$30, 14.3% alcohol, galeriewines.com
P.O. Box 328, Oakville, California

866.715.1993

Round Pond Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc 2013

How do you make your Sauvignon Blanc stand out in a region that is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon? You focus on the purity of fruit and make the wine as Round Pond Sauvignon Blancclean as possible to highlight the quality of the vineyard. That’s according to Round Pond managing partner Miles MacDonnell, whose family has owned the farm, winery and olive mill since 1983.

Working with winemaker Muiris Griffin, the MacDonnells aim to produce a more classic expression of Sauvignon Blanc that is stylistically closer to Graves in Bordeaux. After a near perfect growing season in 2013, the grapes were hand harvested, whole-cluster pressed and fermented entirely in stainless steel. No malolactic fermentation was allowed to occur.

Crisp and refreshing are words that immediately come to mind. Aromas of lemon, golden pear and just ripened peach expand on the palate along with bright flavors of white grapefruit, melon, starfruit, lime and a hint of lemongrass.

$24, 14.5% alcohol, roundpond.com
875 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, California
707.302.2575

Séamus Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013

You can’t beat sipping a chilled Sauvignon Blanc outdoors on a hot afternoon in the South – one of the reasons owner and winemaker James Foley Jr. was inspired to make it. Working with his father James Sr. in Marietta, Georgia, James Jr. divides his time between his home in Savannah and winemaking facility in San Francisco.

Seamus Sauv BlancSéamus (the Gaelic equivalent of “James”) focuses on premium, handcrafted wines from California, sourcing grapes from top appellations. The grapes for the Sauvignon Blanc come from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma.

“I try to stick to the traditional European style but I don’t want to hide the opulence of new world fruit,” says Foley Jr., who used a slow fermentation technique in stainless steel to preserve the tropical fruit characteristics.

Apple and citrus aromas introduce flavors of green apple, honeydew, mango and pineapple. The wine is well balanced with refreshing acidity, and ends with a deliciously crisp and dry finish.

When you pick up a bottle of the Séamus Sauvignon Blanc you’ll notice a tribute to home – the label is an image of the live oaks that line the entrance to Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah.

$29, 14.4% alcohol, seamuswines.com
2455 3rd Street, San Francisco, California
415.939.1735

For information on purchasing the wines visit their websites, and look for the wines at wine shops and restaurants.

More White Wines | Red Wines | Under $20

AG Pick: Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

The Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is everything you look for in a Napa Cabernet. Its intense dark fruit aromas draw you in. The palate is lush and layered, with rich blue and black fruit flavors that are enhanced by the finesse of a skilled wine maker. The velvety texture coats your mouth and the finish goes on and on so you can’t help but linger over every sip.

2009 Mt. BraveThis wine is a true tribute to place, starting with the name. It honors the Wappo Indians, known as “The Brave Ones,” who settled on Mt. Veeder in the 1800s.

The grapes for the Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon are grown on Mt. Veeder’s rugged terrain, at elevations ranging from 1,400 to 1,800 feet. The unique growing conditions result in small berries with concentrated flavors, and produce a wine that is expressive of the mountain and the soil.

Winemaker Chris Carpenter (well-known to Napa wine aficionados for Cardinale and Lokoya wines) adds the finishing touch. His knowledge of the terrain and passion for winemaking are evident in each bottle.

From your first sniff of fragrant ripe black cherry and blueberry, you know that this will be a delicious wine. The berry notes expand on the palate, and are layered with dark chocolate, tobacco, violet, a hint of vanilla and gentle wet shale minerality. Chewy tannins add to the luscious mouthfeel, and the finish is long and satisfying.

If serving the wine at your holiday gathering this year, the AG recommends decanting it for fuller enjoyment.

For more information on the wines of Mt. Brave visit www.mtbravewines.com. The wines may be purchased on the website.

$75, 14.5% alcohol by volume

photo credit: Mt. Brave

More Red Wines | White Wines | Under $20

It’s Time for Wine: The Big Three Napa Dining Experiences

It’s Time for Wine and Other Things: The Big Three Napa Dining Experiences, Plus an Alert about OpenTable

By Monty and Sara Preiser

Affirmed vs. Alyidar. Frazier vs. Ali. FDR or Abraham Lincoln. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Duke Snider. Ludlam, Follett, or Baldacci? Casablanca vs. Gone With the Wind.

Each and every person, horse, or film named above has at one time been at the pinnacle of their existence, and while sometimes circumstances allowed one to actually best the other in head to head competition, on other occasions that was never possible. Americans, however, when there is no criteria for a clear winner, love to debate who, or which, is better in the hypothetical – they hate ties and always look for number one. And if they can’t have a clear victor, they at least want to learn the pros and cons so they can comfort themselves that they understand the differences.

fine diningSo it is today that we write about what we consider to be the three dining giants in the Napa Valley – The French Laundry, La Toque, and the The Restaurant at Meadowood. All are presently at the top of their games, though we have never seen a major critic or magazine analyze them as we will do below (Michelin uses some strange criteria and, as are too many of the noted food writers, seemingly over-swayed by reputations). Of course, there are other outstanding places in the Valley, some that people will be surprised we have omitted from this discussion. However, we have covered most Napa restaurants of note in the past 6 months and believe the three mentioned, all things taken into consideration, are in a class by themselves.

A Chef on Property is Worth Two in New York

We are great believers in capitalism, and so if Thomas Keller can continue to fill every table at the Laundry and its New York sister restaurant Per Se (which we love and visit every other year or so), we have no qualms at all. That being said, the food at La Toque and Meadowood is at least the equal of that served at the French Laundry, and on some occasions better. And why shouldn’t that be so? Famed Chefs Ken Frank (owner of La Toque) and rising star Christopher Kostow (THE man at Meadowood) are on property most evenings overseeing their kitchens, while the Laundry is overseen on a nightly basis by a younger, less experienced chef. Thus, given the fact that there is no evidence that Chef Keller, a true innovator, is presently any more creative or technically superior than his contemporaries named above, it only makes sense, if one is truthful, that better food will more often be found at the other two establishments when Thomas is not present at his. Again, this does not mean the dishes at the Laundry are not exquisite – they are. But so they are at the other two restaurants as well.

[Comment: Our own experience, almost without exception, is that a restaurant with its excellent chef in the kitchen, even if s/he is perhaps not widely known, is quite often better than the famous establishment owned by big name chefs who are commonly on TV or overseeing multiple properties. It is difficult to logically dispute this.]

Service in General Takes Many Forms

Service at the three great establishments in today’s spotlight is uniformly outstanding, yet different in formality and concept. Here, it is hard to say which is unequivocally best as diners prefer different approaches. At La Toque, the vested servers are trained to recognize and encourage the individuality of their clientele, all the while interacting to keep the evening upbeat and fun in a pleasantly energetic manner. At Meadowood and the Laundry the tuxedoed staff reflects a far more formal manner while they guide the diner through a semi-set degustation menu in a very quiet atmosphere. The latter is indeed very appealing to many diners, especially those who feel that a classically formal presentation is an integral part of fine dining.

Ambiance – The First Thing You Notice

Monty’s dad used to say that you “dine with your eyes,” meaning, of course, that your surroundings (and plate presentation) influence your meal. This is even more so when you realize that the first thing one sees is vitally important in an overall evaluation. All three restaurants are beautiful, though in different ways. The room at Meadowood is stunning and could be out of a Gatsby style movie. The Laundry is in an impossibly beautiful setting, welcoming its diners to an old two story home reminiscent of a film about the Civil War. La Toque opts, as it often does, to be more modern, though the room is perfectly lit, comfortable in the extreme, and much like New York. No one would be disappointed spending three hours in any of these dining rooms.

Wine Service Can Set a Restaurant Apart –
Especially in Napa

The wine program put in place by Chef Frank and Scott Tracy at La Toque many years ago is a tradition being carried on by the present sommeliers, who are always on the floor, personally pour the beautiful wines, and take time to explain why each wine is paired with a particular dish. Importantly, there are always enough somms on duty here to handle the night’s crowd, even if one has to be called in at the last minute. At Meadowood and the Laundry the sommeliers have top qualifications and will of course help with your selections, but they are not always so visible throughout the meal, nor do they always take time to interact as much with the diner as they do at La Toque.

Curiously, Meadowood’s procedure is to not offer a food menu before you dine – they want the meal to be a surprise. That of course is all well and good (and can be fun), yet they still offer you a pre dinner wine list. We ask you – How can one properly select a wine if s/he does not know what food is coming? Can’t be done by anyone but David Copperfield. We had a recent excellent experience at Meadowood, and we think it was enhanced because we asked for a run-down of the menu before we decided on wines. We suggest you consider requesting the same. At La Toque you select your meal from many options, so you control your own wine destiny if you desire. The Laundry does not offer so many food options, but you know what they will be so that you can decide how you want to have your wine service presented.

None of the above should be taken to mean that one of these Big III has a particularly better wine list than the other. They each have their strengths and know their clientele. All three have wonderfully balanced lists – mostly U.S. and French, but many other countries are represented. Something we love to see, and for which we give credit to all three establishments, is their seeking to pair your meal with the best wine for the job, regardless of place of origin.

Finally in this category, we have to talk about corkage fees for bringing your own bottles. La Toque charges a more-than-fair $25/bottle – they know you are in wine country and want you to enjoy the fruits of your exploration. The Laundry and Meadowood ask what is (and you can’t say it any other way) an outrageous $75/bottle, and the Laundry limits you to one per couple. It seems sadly obvious that both of these high-corkage-charging restaurants do what they can to discourage the diner from bringing a favorite, which we would criticize in any city, but which in wine country seems particularly out of place. “Bad form” comes to mind. More than once we have decided where we will dine based on the fairness of the corkage charge.

No Matter How Rich You Are, You Should Ask the Price

The price for your dinner at each restaurant is a fair consideration for comparison, given the fact that you will receive all you really want to eat at any of them (La Toque a bit heavier on savory dishes than Meadowood or the Laundry, while the Laundry serves more sweets than the other two). Before wines, the 9 course tasting menu at French Laundry costs $270 each, the 12 course tasting menu at Meadowood $225, while the 5 course menu at La Toque is $90 (don’t be deceived by “5” as you may select from a number of choices here and the servings are larger than at the other two). After wine pairings and tips at the two more expensive restaurants you will see a check in the neighborhood of $800/couple. At La Toque the bill will usually be a touch less than half that.

Can You Guess Our Conclusion?

So Affirmed nosed out Alyidar three times. Ali won the rubber match against Frazier. The best New York center fielder depends on which Borough was your home. The best modern author depends on who you read last. And the best movie depends on your mood when voting. What about the Big III (which wouldn’t be our Big III unless we thought the world of them)?

Setting records for its number of diners over the past 6 months, La Toque, for the reasons set out above, continues to be our choice* as the overall top fine dining experience in Napa. The more inexpensive price is just a bonus, as it is the equal of its more expensive cousins in most other respects.

We are aware that the still fabled French Laundry has sold out every meal for years, and is on every top ten list. We are also cognizant of Meadowood’s deserved popularity among the well-heeled. In fact, we dined at both restaurants not too long ago and were absolutely enthralled with each. They were practically perfect in every aspect, and there is nothing (other than the corkage charge) of which to be critical if you accept the prices as being consistent with world class dining rooms. At this juncture in our lives, however, we prefer our fabulous food in an atmosphere of collegiality as practiced at La Toque. Saving over $400 is never a bad thing either.

We can even go a bit farther. There are certainly restaurants throughout the world on a par with La Toque, Meadowood, and the Laundry, but almost universally the charges are in the range asked by the latter two. We believe that we have never dined better for $350 (everything in the world is relevant) than in Ken Frank’s place in downtown Napa. When you know that the Laundry and Meadowood each have 3 deserved Michelin stars, the one star for La Toque is a restaurant world travesty.**

French Laundry, 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2380

La Toque, 1314 McKinstry Street, Napa, CA 94559
(707) 257-5157

The Restaurant at Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Lane, St Helena, CA 94574
(707) 967-1205

* In the interest of full disclosure, we are (very) small investors in La Toque. We made that decision because we believed it to be just as good as we have described it herein. Our venture has not diminished our appreciation for Meadowood and The French Laundry. We hope our reporting has been factual where appropriate.

** The other five excellent Napa Valley restaurants that have earned one star are Auberge du Soleil, Bouchon, Redd, Solbar and Terra. We like them all and agree that the stars are deserved, but we obviously think the three about which we have written are a step above (and Michelin agrees with us on two).

OpenTable Alert

We know that many of you make reservations using OpenTable. It is the smart thing to do. No charge, it is easy, there are restaurant menus to peruse, and you receive dining credit from them after a specified number of reservations are honored.

Sometimes, however, we all go to a restaurant website for a more thorough picture of the establishment. Quite often (more common all the time) the restaurant invites you to make reservations through a link which is to OpenTable. All well and good, EXCEPT when you do that OpenTable does not reward you with any points. In other words, you have to make reservations through the OpenTable website directly to be awarded dining points. We did not know that until this week. Did you?

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

It’s Time for Wine: What’s New in Wine Country

It’s Time for Wine & Other Things:
Valley of the Moon, Jamieson Ranch, Lulu’s and a La Toque Report

By Monty and Sara Preiser

We suppose the newest element of wine country is, after about 20 years, the retitling of our own column. We know it qualifies as the most recent as it us happening this very moment while we keyboard. We will still write primarily about wine, but have increasingly found ourselves sharing thoughts and information about restaurants, theatre, travel, and (to the chagrin of some) politics. The name of the column is now more apropos to what we do, and gives us a greater feeling of flexibility – just what all writers seek.

La Toque Breaks Records

What we perceive as the best ultra-fine dining establishment in Napa has been busy breaking reservation records for the past few months, and expects an even more crowded October. Ken Frank’s cuisine continues to rival that of any chef in the Valley, and the wine pairing service (should you choose to accept it) is an experience one should not miss when visiting anywhere nearby. Beautiful La Toque is in downtown Napa at the Westin Verasa (which presently happens to be the Valley’s most sought after hotel).

Valley of the (New) Moon Changes Phases

If you have visited Sonoma you have probably passed Valley of the Moon winery, which is located on Highway 12 just south of the village of Glen Ellen. If you have stopped in, and we doubt many of you have, it is unlikely you were too impressed. The winery was part of a huge wine and spirit conglomerate, and we have been told that it was far from Corporate Papa’s priority.

Valley of the Moon winesThat fate has changed, and continues to change big time, with the purchase of the winery by two innovative, clever, outgoing, and history-loving partners – Canadian Tony Stewart and long-time area resident and other winery founder (can you say ZD?) Dan Zepponi.

We attended what was, for all intents and purposes, the winery’s coming out party Saturday night, and couldn’t have been more impressed. Wine aside for a moment, this was a helluva soiree. Greeted by both the new owners and costumed “deceased” ones, we were steered toward the barrel room where a lovely blonde out of a Cirque du Soleil troupe was performing acrobatics half way up a sheer curtain. The courtyard surrounded a seven foot tall “walking vine,” which we enjoyed watching as we tapped our feet to a terrific New Orleans style band on the old crush pad. Passed hors d’oeuvres were tasty, and there were gourmet sausage, pizza and other stations available – some in the separate garden area where keyboard music ruled.

Other whimsical touches abounded as well. Photographers with props allowed you to create a 7 second “scene,” and then transferred the results to your own old time flip book as a personal souvenir. Just around the corner was a chef from one of the county’s best Italian restaurants demonstrating how he makes fresh cheese. And the back of the property hosted a world champion Bocce Ball master who took on all challengers – and he did it on one leg or with his eyes closed. If you beat him you won a magnum of wine. We think the winery was pretty safe.

Also on hand were the winemakers, whose first harvest was last year (2012), so not much in the way of new bottlings were ready to sample. The winery will be re-planting, purchasing new vineyards, upgrading their winemaking techniques and, in short, doing all that a top of the line business needs to do to be a player in the industry. That being said, the 2012 Zinfandel was ready and on display in four ways – in a new French barrel, a two year old French barrel, an oft-used neutral French barrel, and an American barrel from Pennsylvania. The vintners have not yet decided how many different types they will actually bottle, but each barrel was outstanding in its own way. Watch for the Zin, in whatever form it appears, soon.

In fact, watch for Valley of the Moon and its revitalized property and wines to become another star in the beautiful constellation of wineries that make up the so called “Valley of the Moon” that lies between the cities of Sonoma and Santa Rosa. This Moon is rising.

Lulu’s New in Town

1313 Main has been one of the hot spots in Napa for a year now. Last week it was also transformed from a mere wine bar to one of the more interesting restaurants in the Valley (what’s happening in the town of Napa insofar as new drinking and dining establishments just doesn’t seem to stop).

Maintaining the high wine standards set by GM Steve Distler and extraordinary Director of Wine Jordan Nova, the dishes being offered are geared to pair well with wines – and there are plenty of staff members there to help you accomplish the mission. We truly enjoyed the front of the menu, which included artisan quickbreads; trio of ceviche (shrimp, veggie, and scallop); sweet breads with spatzle; duck confit ravioli with peppers and plums; and the pan seared scallops with carrots, beets and red cabbage. What a wide selection. But don’t miss the “Secret Menu” on the back, which trumpet the Korean wings and the amazing poutine (a Quebec dish of French fries topped with gravy, cheese and other goodies). You can find some pretty good music here too – it is one of our favorite places.

Jamieson Ranch Provides New Gateway to Napa

For a number of years those entering Napa from the east (i.e. Sacramento or Fairfield) were greeted just before they hit Rt. 29 to Napa by the most southern winery in the Napa Valley, Kirkland Ranch. Understandably, many people felt this estate was allied with the Kirkland brand of goods carried primarily at Costco, and, whether it was a good decision or not, passed the winery by. Well, as with Valley of the Moon we have new owners and management dedicated to transforming an underachieving property into a 300 acre showcase for a number of wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a few other varietals that thrive in the cool air, fog and breezes that pervade the area.

Jamieson RanchFounded by Bryan Gordon and Alyssa O’Hare, he a long time hospitality expert and she an Oregonian who grew up in the countryside surrounded by vines and crops, the winery’s architecture is a stunning reminder of a majestic western lodge with (our favorite attribute) a wrap-around veranda that on the right day allows views of the Sab Pablo Bay and much of Napa. Serving as President of the Ranch is Bill Leigon, a wine industry veteran of over 40 years with some of California’s best known producers, and as Hospitality Director and wine guru comes Doug Fitzgibbon, who impressed us in our first visit as just the right guy for the job. Former Pine Ridge assistant winemaker Nori Nakamura rounds out this august group, and will craft what promises to be excellent wines at affordable prices.

Not surprisingly, the new team has not had much of a chance yet to make wines in their own style. This is especially true of the Bordeaux Reds, which will be sourced from some of Napa’s best areas and take a few years to be ready. We did enjoy the already available Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé and Pinot Noir – all not only drinking well but offering excellent values.

Jamieson Ranch is a good bet to become a destination winery for consumers on their way in and out of the Napa Valley, as well as for those who have become wine tasting weary and want to relax in the cool weather and unhurriedly enjoy a day’s final libation. Another new winery, folks – one you will want to visit early and often.

images from wineries’ websites

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

It’s Time for Wine: Napa Valley 2013 Harvest Report

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association Reports on the 2013 Harvest

By Monty and Sara Preiser

Most of those receiving our column do not have the opportunity to read press releases periodically sent out by the varying industry trade associations. One of the most interesting groups on an ongoing basis is the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Rather than babble and self- congratulate like some other associations, the NVG puts out facts that keep us reading and instruct us on the state of the vine, so to speak. Below are excerpts from the August 7, 2013 press release as sparsely edited by us, but only for ease of reading.

Diamond MountainGeneral:
The Napa Valley harvest, which is now underway, is forecast to be of average yield but high quality. Medium rainfall levels, a warm spring, and a heat wave in late June/early July, are producing smaller berries and loose clusters – signals of high quality. Valley-wide, harvest is taking place 10 to 14 days earlier than 2012.

Weather:
Though rainfall has been average for the season, minimal rain and a warm spring forced grape growers to use a variety of viticultural practices to mitigate heat damage, including:

• Early spring irrigation and, during the heat wave, afternoon watering. The latter was accomplished by micro-sprinkling and pulse watering to allow careful water management.
• Less canopy management (allowing natural shade and dappled sunlight), and the use of shade cloth to protect the grapes in their early growth stages.
• Early “suckering” (a “sucker” is a clone of the mother plant that grows from a root far from the plant’s base) to remove unwanted growth.

July 2013 was the warmest Napa July since 2003.

April 2013 was seven degrees warmer than 2012. It was almost as warm as 1997, which produced a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon vintage.

The weather helped cause much uniformity throughout the growing season (uniform bloom and uniform harvest), which is key to a good vintage.

Demand for Napa Valley Grapes:
2012 harvest value was over $650 million.
2012 average ton was valued at $3,500.
2012 average ton of Cabernet Sauvignon was valued at $5,000.

There is a worldwide concern following the discovery of “Red Blotch,” a virus that appears to reduce the Brix levels of infected vines. Napa Valley grapegrowers, ever vigilant (our comment) test for the virus before planting to ensure they are planting “clean” vines.

Current replanting echoes the replanting of the 1980s, forcing a decrease in supply in the short term.

Demand for Napa Valley grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, remains high. All 2013 grapes have been sold.

Technology:
Many vineyards are equipping vineyard managers and supervisors with iPads, which allows broad sharing of information, once held only by vineyard senior staff and the winemaking team; the iPad’s camera to send immediate, geo-tagged photos of areas of concern, which then allowing immediate action; and fun pictures, like a major brand delivery truck getting ‘stuck’ in a vineyard.

Labor:
There were minimal shortages this spring. In fact, labor shortages are being eliminated since grape growing is now a nearly year round enterprise.

Napa is the only county in California to assess all growers. The money raised has been used to build three farmworker centers, where individuals benefit from lodging, meals, laundry, and recreational amenities.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers Farmworker Foundation (the only one of its kind in the nation) has educated over 4,000 farmworkers through programs stressing quality in the vineyard, safety, and personal success tools such as financial advice and information on various community services.

Our final comment: Everyone out here is already salivating over the 2012 vintage, and it looks as if we may get a stunner right on its heels.

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

Chimney Rock: Showcasing Stags Leap

Driving along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, you can’t miss Chimney Rock’s bright white Cape Dutch-style estate. Though the building was influenced by architecture in South Africa (where the original owner worked as an executive at Pepsi Cola), the wine has always been true to place.

Chimney Rock“Our wine should paint a picture of the appellation,” said Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock’s winemaker. Elizabeth visited Atlanta in June and shared the winery’s history and a taste of their current releases.

Hack and Stella Wilson purchased what was then the Chimney Rock golf course in 1980. They dug up the first nine holes with the ideal of making small production, high quality estate-grown wine. Today Chimney Rock is owned by the Terlato family who, in partnership with the Wilsons in 2001, dug up the second nine holes to plant more vines. Elizabeth joined as winemaker in 2002.

Chimney Rock’s focus is on red wine, Bordeaux varieties in particular. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and a small amount of Malbec are grown on their Stags Leap District estate. Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris are grown just north in Rutherford. The goal is to grow the best fruit possible. To achieve this Elizabeth is very active in the vineyards, pruning vines and monitoring the grapes’ growth.

Elizabeth’s passion for wine and winemaking is clear when she speaks about Chimney Rock. “I think about this as abstract art,” she said, “because it’s about shape, about texture.”

Chimney Rock winesThe artistry comes in once the grapes have been harvested – blending the grapes, stirring the lees and determining the use of oak – to produce high quality wines that capture the essence of the Stags Leap District.

“I think there’s an honesty to our wines. We want to be truthful to the vintage and place.”

With the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Elizabeth aimed to showcase the purity of the fruit. The wine was fermented in stainless steel, and did not spend time in oak or undergo malolactic fermentation. There was some stirring of the lees to give the wine a more creamy mouthfeel.

You won’t find grassy notes in this wine. The 2012 Chimney Rock Sauvignon Blanc is fresh and lively, with crisp flavors of stone fruit, white peach and golden pear.

Elevage BlancRich, lush and layered are the adjectives that come to mind when describing the 2010 Elevage Blanc. The Bordeaux-style white wine is a blend of 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Sauvignon Gris. New and used French oak as well as lees stirring were used to enhance the flavors and texture.

The Elevage Blanc is wonderfully aromatic and velvety smooth. Mouth-filling flavors of white apricot, nectarine and lemon meringue are layered with white flowers, chamomile and a hint of vanilla. This is a wine that can age for an additional five to fifteen years.

Elizabeth’s objective with the 2009 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon was to show off Stags Leap District fruit. The wine spent 18 to 20 months in French oak barrels, and has a small percentage of Merlot.

The 2009 Chimney Rock Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon is intense yet refined. Aromas of black cherry introduce a palate of ripe dark fruit. Blackberry, cassis and plum mix with sweet cedar and vanilla. It’s smooth and supple in the mouth, and culminates in a satisfying finish with lingering berry notes.

ElevageWhile the Stags Leap District Cabernet is all about the fruit of the AVA, the 2010 Elevage is all about the texture, according to Elizabeth. The proprietary red is a blend of 56% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot (the percentages of grapes vary each year in both the Elevage and Elevage Blanc). The wine was aged in 100% new oak barrels from Burgundy, selected because they impart more elegance to the wine.

The 2010 Elevage is a wine to plan your meal around. Soft, velvety smooth and sophisticated, it’s the most feminine of Chimney Rock’s red wines. The Elevage has delicate flavors of cassis, blackberry and boysenberry, woven together with layers of black pepper, black tea and vanilla. Big tannins are balanced by the wine’s acidity. Ending with a long finish, the Elevage is a pleasure to sip. This wine can age for an additional 8 to 10 years.

For more information on Chimney Rock visit www.chimneyrock.com.

Bottle shots of Elevage and Elevage Blanc from Chimney Rock’s website

It’s Time for Wine: Napa Valley Barrel Auction

The Napa Auction Showcases Vintages 2011 and 2012

By Monty and Sara Preiser

We love the annual Napa Valley Barrel Auction, where 100 of the best wineries in the Valley have their best barrels of unreleased wines trucked to a common spot for tasting and subsequent bidding. This year the event was held on the grounds of Raymond Vineyards, and a perfect place it was – large enough (and flat enough) to accommodate both the barrel room, which needs to be indoors and cool, as well as the surrounding “Market Place,” where scores of wineries pour their current releases and dozens of restaurants show off their cuisine in the gorgeous Napa sunshine.

Auction Napa ValleyAbout 50% of the vintners brought their best work from 2011, while the other half chose to pour their 2010 or 2012 vintages. As you probably know by now, due to inordinately cool weather the 2011 harvest was difficult, and has led many writers to disparage the entire vintage. You have also heard, no doubt, that 2012 was, according not just to writers but winemakers, a perfect harvest – perhaps the best in decades.

With the above as the backdrop, we found the tasting and information gathering this year even more interesting than usual. By the way, we happily note that those wineries participating were, on this day, almost universally represented by the owners or winemakers – quite often both. Unhappily, time (and our well known schmoozing) would not allow us to sample all 100 wines – only about 80.

2011

Unlike award shows, we won’t wait until the end to announce the “Best Film” or “Best Musical.” We’ll begin by telling you that many 2011 wines were absolutely stunning, especially those from Beringer, Blackbird, Crocker & Starr, Darioush, Far Niente, Frank Family, John Anthony, Kongsgaard, Oakville East, Pride Mountain, Realm, Red Mare, and Vineyard 7 & 8. Strong tannins are clearly a hallmark of this vintage, and those wineries that had access to quality fruit that can stand up to the tannins are the ones that will put superb wine in the bottle, but only IF they were smart enough, and able, to pick late enough in the harvest season so sufficient ripening could occur.

Napa ValleyWhen you look at the wineries we enumerated above, you will see a common thread. They all boast great pedigrees, highly trained personnel, wonderful fruit sources, and intuitive winemakers of note. This is what allowed what we sampled to be so good. Conversely, there were some 2011s that were certainly not ready for prime time, and we suspect there will be many like wines throughout the Napa Valley, as smaller and less successful wineries did not participate in the barrel pouring and often will not have been able to cope with the problematic weather.

We had already been told that a number of winemakers were adding a touch of 2012 fruit to the 2011 to buck it up a little (it is legal to have 5% from another year and still call a wine “vintage”). We put the question to many winemakers, and the answers and attitudes were astonishingly different. Some unabashedly said that they absolutely did so, and the addition helped greatly. Others said they certainly experimented with supplementing, but felt the differences were not too great or that the small amount of 2012 was not really affective. Then again, others were taken aback and said they would never do so, and were surprised anyone would. We guess that if one needs proof that winemaking is an individual art, here it is.

2012

Every writer we know has been salivating to start sampling the 2012 vintage en masse, which has been aging for about 8 months now. While we think it is still too early to say it may be the best California vintage of our wine-writing years, we were certainly not disappointed.

Literally everything one looks for in a fine wine could be discovered in most of the 2012s. Lush fruit, complexity, strong but supple structure, lingering finish, and identifiable layers converged to make a formidable showing out of the gate. Our personal top selections came from Acacia, Artesa, Continuum, Dancing Hares, HALL, Nickel & Nickel, and Rombauer (to be clear, wineries only pour one vintage so none of those mentioned above for 2011 had a 2012 to compare). It seems 2012 is one of those rare years that a winery has to be truly poor in skill to make a bad product.

Interestingly, a number of the vintners or winemakers that chose to bring the 2012 were clear that they did not think their 2011 vintage was good enough for this day. As writers who have long been critical of wineries that harvest everything, and then tell the public how good it is (true or not), the candor of these representatives was most appreciated. To be clear once again, this does NOT mean that those wineries featuring the 2011 vintage were pouring inferior wines. We have already mentioned how superb many were. Our intent here is only to show that the best wineries make the best decisions for the public. If you made a great 2011, you showed it off. If yours was not so good, you passed on it and moved to something else. Either direction chosen features the ethics of the industry and reflects why Napa wines are probably the best in the world.

Conclusion

What a day it was. For those who have not attended a Napa Valley Barrel Auction, watch for the announcement early next year as to how and when you can purchase admission. There is no better time to be in Napa. The hotels and tickets sell out quickly, so plan early. And to the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which sponsored the event, as it does every year: “Great job!”

For more information on the 2013 Auction Napa Valley visit auctionnapavalley.org.

First image from Auction Napa Valley’s website

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.