Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

Napa Valley Visits

The first time I paid a wine tasting visit to Napa Vally I knew I was in trouble right away!  We drove up after some business meetings in San Fransisco and Cris and I spontaneously, and randomly, began stopping at wineries for tastings.  We had no plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. But before we even checked in to the Wine Country Inn the trunk was full of wine!  Napa still holds a special place in my personal wine world.

When you visit Napa it’s easy to get over-whelmed by the sheer number of wineries since there are about 400 or so with tasting opportunities.  As tempting as it is, don’t try to do then all in one visit!  There are lots of different tasting and touring experiences you can have, whether you are a first-timer, as I was those many years ago, or a veteran of the Silverado Trail.  But the main thing to remember is that it’s best not to over-schedule yourself.  Not only will your palate get worn out during the day, meaning your ability to really taste and enjoy the wines will decline, but you’ll end up consuming too much alcohol, even before you head out to dinner and bring that bottle of wine you just discovered with you.  It’s really easy to over-consume, even if you discipline yourself to spit your tastes into the dump bucket in the tasting room.  Unless you’re a wine pro odds are you aren’t there to spit, but to enjoy the full range of experiences that your wine country visit offers.  And then there’s driving. Getting a car and driver is best and it’s the safest way to fully embrace your winery visits.

Back to Napa.  Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long, and it’s narrow – just about 5 miles across at its widest.  This means that a few days will give you ample opportunity to wander it to your heart’s content.  I always suggest that first-timers do a blend of tours and tastings to include both large producers and small, stopping within the different AVA’s of Napa to get a sense of the diversity of wines and styles, and ending up with a fairly broad set of sipping experiences.  And don’t do more than four stops a day – frankly three is ideal since that gives you time to spend in each place, perhaps a nice picnic on the winery grounds, or even more selective tasting experiences.  And consider a booking a car and tour to jump start your time there one day.

If you’ve been wine tasting and winery touring before then you know the drill, so plan ahead with reservations at places that are must visits for you.  Over time I’ve enjoyed deep dives into the Napa AVAs, concentrating on particular subregions and varietals.  There are any number of special experiences you can participate in, including things like vertical or library tastings, winemaking seminars, component tastings, cooking classes, even getting your hands dirty during the harvest.  Here are a couple of really good websites to help you plan your time:

And here is our favorite “insider” tip… wherever you visit and taste be sure to ask the person doing the pouring where they like to go – what are their own favorite smaller producers or off the beaten track wineries. It’s a great way to discover some gems.

There are lots of ways to fully experience Napa Valley and all it has to offer in wining, dining and simply soaking up the whole ambiance. From the city of Napa itself to the mud baths of Calistoga, from the quiet of the Silverado Trail to the winding roads above St. Helena, from savoring some local cheese with a lovely Napa Chard in a wooded glen to the relative buzz at the Rutherford Grill and all of those wonderful wineries to give you sips, Napa is ready whenever you are.

I think I need another visit real soon!

A Taste of Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of Grapes.  Oops that sounds too sexist.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the Reigning Monarch of grapes!  Better?

It’s the Reigning Monarch not only because it is the most widely planted grape for quality wine in the world but because it is a commanding presence. The vine is well traveled and hearty and it plays a major role in the winemaking history, culture and economics, particularly of France, the USA, Chile, Australia, and to some extent, Italy, and it influences the tastes of the world.  What makes it so commanding?

Let’s start with Taste.  Cabernet from the US, Chile and Australia tend to be bold and muscular.  Full bodied and full flavored, they usually lead with vibrant dark fruit flavors, which can be rather intensely focused in higher quality young wines.  The “Old World” Cabs and blends of Bordeaux are also lushly flavorful but the fruitiness is not as dominant.  Instead  there is often a counterbalance that is more a taste of the terroir which may remind you of mushroom or cedar.

Black currant, blueberry and blackberry are the fruit flavors that are typically most pronounced yet you will also find some wines whose taste might bring to mind black cherries.  But it’s not all about the fruit.  Cabernet also may have characteristic flavors of green olives, bell pepper, graphite, cedar, mint and eucalyptus, even coffee or tobacco.  It is one of the beautiful things about Cabernet that the taste is layered and complex.

Then there is the impact of the barrel aging and the winemaker’s philosophy. The use of French oak barrels can often add a note of vanilla, while  American oak brings forth more woody, toasty flavors.  And the balance of new versus old barrels and the amount time the wine is aged in them is all part of the winemakers art.  Sure, there are some simple Cabs on the shelves, but you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy the complexity and nuance of this wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon is tannic and can even be a bit harsh if very young.  That’s one of the reasons that most of the Cabernet you’ll buy has spent some aging time in barrel and bottle before release.  It’s also the reason why other wine varieties are frequently blended in with it… to soften those tannins in addition to also adding complexity.  The great wines of the Medoc in Bordeaux are not 100% Cabernet, usually containing some Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and/or Malbec.  Even in the US, it only has to have 75% Cabernet in the bottle to be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon. (see my post on Reading the Wine Label).

But it is that tannin that helps make Cabernet the wine that is so sought after and prized around the world because tannin lets it evolve and change over time.  It is that ability which gives Cab its undisputed place in the wine world.  wine_bottles_wide_view While a youthful California Cabernet may have fruit that leaps out at the first sip, after a few years that power becomes wrapped in a velvet glove, giving way to suppleness and elegance.  While a pricey Bordeaux may seem a bit lean and tight when its released, some time spent aging will bring out the richness and depth – and best of the best can drink well for years.

Cabernet is a conundrum – big, bold and powerful as well as elegant, refined and beautiful.  A pretty interesting balance of characteristics for the Reigning Monarch of the world of wine.

Everyday Sip
2013 BR Cohn Silver Label $20
Cassis and cherry cola.  Have a sip and listen to the Doobie Bros.

2013 Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon Max Riserva $15
Valle de Aconcagua, Chile.  Black currant and spice.  Drink it.

2013 J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Oaks Paso Robles $15
Always there when you want it. Ripe and drinkable

Guest Sip
2013 Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $25
A go-to Cab that always pleases.  Ready to drink.

2012 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $45
Soft and very well structured so you can drink it now or later.  And it’s from organically farmed grapes.

2012 Chateau Talbot Saint Julien $55
I haven’t had this vintage but here’s what Parker had to say:
“A juicy style of wine, Talbot’s 2012 has a dense ruby/purple color, plenty of black and red currant fruit, a touch of plum, soft tannin and a spicy, medium-bodied mouthfeel. It is excellent, with no hollowness or astringency. This is a very successful wine in this vintage and should drink well for 15-20 years.” – Robert M. Parker, Jr., eRobertParker.com #218, Apr 2015

Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 $60
Consistent winner.

Splurge Sip
Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 $100
I get this on allocation but you may find it on an auction site.  Fabulous Cabernet.  Big and bold fruit with amazing layers of flavor.  Needs a few years to do it full justice.

Sipping More Chardonnay Lately

I’ve been sipping more Chardonnay lately.  It wasn’t like I was boycotting it or anything like that, but my taste buds were wandering into different varietals.  True, there seemed to be too much “typical” Chardonnay being made – you know, the rounded, buttery and oaky style that was dominating those from California and Australia.  There were also delightfully more acidic and less woody ones too, especially from France.  But Chardonnay just fell off of my radar.  Since I was actually missing it I’ve set about to remedy that!

I’m delighted that the trend has been away from the big style and back to capturing more nuance.  And I am becoming particularly fond of the “unoaked” styles.  Unoaked Chardonnay are fermented and aged in either older, neutral oak barrels that don’t impart any of the woodiness or in stainless steel.  The reason I’m fond of these is that I think they are more versatile with food.  Unless the food has a lot of butter or cream, or is a richly flavored seafood like lobster or scallops, the unoaked Chardonnay are an easier complement to chicken or fish for me – typically they are higher in acid and have not undergone malolactic fermentation.

Wine Geek Alert: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.  It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way.  This results in the “buttery” taste description.  It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.

Back to oak – don’t get me wrong, I don’t think oak barrel aging is bad for Chardonnay.  To me it’s just a question of degree.  The amount of flavor added by oak can vary greatly depending on the type of oak, the toast of the barrel and its age.  So winemakers have lots of room to play.  Oak generally adds flavors of vanilla, caramel or a toasty, woody quality.  Newer barrels add more; older less.  French oak is finer grained and adds less than American or Eastern European barrels.  But let’s get back to sipping.

In general there is often a noticeable flavor of peach or pear common to Chardonnay. However, Chardonnay from the warmer growing areas in the US, like   Sonoma and Napa Valley appellations  such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga, Dry Creek and others, as well as Australia, tend to be more tropical fruit forward – think pineapple and melon.  Those from cooler areas like Monterey and Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and France tend more to apple or citrusy flavors and are usually more acidic.

There are magnificent Chardonnay’s from Burgundy – arguably the best in the world.  These are nuanced and many are age-worthy and will increase in complexity over time.  Chablis, which is the northern-most  area of Burgundy, brings us terrific Chardonnay which also have a flinty minerality to them due to the very cool growing conditions and the unique clay soil of the vineyards there.

Chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the world and can suit every taste.  I’m making it a point to sample and sip my way through as many as possible!  Why don’t you join me?

Everyday Sip
Talbot 2013 Kali Hart Chardonnay, Estate Grown $16
Medium bodied and lively with melon. A little bit of oak.

2013 Yalumba Series Y South Australia Unwooded Chardonnay $10
Fresh and peachy. Simple and easy to drink.

2012 Mer Soliel Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands Monterey $20
Chablis-like with crispiness and minerality.

Guest Sip
2012 Miner Chardonnay Napa Valley $30
Yum.  Great balance between weight, fruit and oak.

2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Apple and citrus with classic Chablis minerality.

Splurge Sip
2011 Domaine Louis Latour Meursault Charmes $55
Lovely white peach. I’ve loved Meursault since visiting ages ago and enjoying this wine with garlicy frogs legs!

2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa $65
Tropical and intense.  A mouthful that has many layers.

A Visit to Calistoga

I recently spent a few days in Calistoga.  Lucky me!  We were there for a lovely wedding – you can be sure when the invite came in that we weren’t going to miss this one!  What a great destination to tie the knot.  We had a terrific time celebrating with friends and even managed to – gasp! – taste some wine.

Calistoga is at the northern end of Napa Valley and is well known for spas and mud baths and is surrounded by some of Napa’s best vineyards and wineries.  It’s a laid back little town dotted with B&Bs, some good casual dining and lots of wine to taste.  In the immediate area are Chateau Montelena, Larkmead, Frank Family, Schramsberg, Sterling – and some smaller, perhaps lesser known spots like a favorite of mine, Laura Michael.  Laura Michael Wines is a small production, family owned winery just on the edge of town.

Calistoga

Calistoga is a great spot to explore the north end of Napa Valley for sure, but also to explore the Alexander Vally, which is home to some fine Cabernet and Zinfandel.  And it’s only about 30 minutes to drive over to Healdsburg, the charming town that is right at the edge of the Russian River and Dry Creek areas of Sonoma.  Or you can just wander up and down Napa Valley.  St. Helena is 15 minutes away and Yountville is only 30 with lots, and I mean LOTS of wineries all around.  Here’s a tip for you driving in the valley – The best way to get where you’re going north or south is to stay on the Silverado Trail and just use the crossover roads to zig zag through the vines and to any particular winery.  Also, please don’t taste too much if you’re driving – get a car and driver instead.

The best thing about Calistoga is that it’s completely easy-going. We chose a B&B on this trip and had a perfect stay but you can also go high end and just soak up the spa time too.  Here are two places to check out:

Luxe
Right in the heart of town.  Only 5 well-appointed rooms, it’s charming and amazingly welcoming due to warmth of owners Chris and Brent.  Breakfast is terrific – as is the conversation during the daily wine tasting each afternoon on the wrap-around porch.
http://luxecalistoga.com

Solage
Intimate and California elegant.  Fabulous spa.  Great dining either inside or out and a pool that you can laze into all day.  Just outside of town and one of the best resorts in the valley.
http://www.solagecalistoga.com

Here are some Calistoga sips:

Everyday Sip: Sterling Napa Valley Chardonnay $17
Clearly a Napa Chard with rounded flavor and more full bodied style. A little oaky and buttery. A good choice for some seared scallops.

Guest Sip:  Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs $35
Lovely bubbly fit for any occasion.  Toasty yet crisply acidic with subtle flavors of red berries.

Guest Sip: 2010 Laura Michaels Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Barlow Vineyards $45
A single vineyard treat at this price.  Small volume Cabernet that shows off the warmer, riper nature of Calistoga.

Splurge Sip: Larkmead 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon $110
This is a fabulous wine.  Larkmead sells on an allocated basis so you either have to get on the list or try the auction houses.  Dynamic estate Cabernet.  Certainly age-worthy, but this 2012 we had tasted great, especially after decanting and letting it open up for a couple of hours.

Calistoga Maps

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Much Maligned Merlot

I feel sorry for Merlot.  Here’s a grape that is one of the most widely planted in the world which you’ll find in some of the best wine made and yet it’s completely dissed.  You would think this grape the French call the “little blackbird” would get more respect.  Those of you of a certain age can insert your favorite  Rodney Dangerfield saying here (mine, by the way is “Come on. While we’re young!” from Caddyshack, but I digress).

Merlot had turned into a bar pour as in “I’ll have the Merlot” since people viewed it as a step up from “I’ll have a glass of red.”  To be sure, there was a lot of very average, grapey, flabby merlot out there on the shelves – then the movie Sideways came out in 2004 and really trashed it.  Merlot’s reputation and sales plummeted and, worse yet, it became very uncool.  Ironically, the star wine of the movie was not the Pinot Noir that the characters gushed about, but the long-saved and much anticipated bottle that the lead, Miles, was just waiting for the right moment to drink.  It was mostly Merlot!  The wine, Cheval Blanc, from the right bank of Bordeaux between the villages of Pomerol and St. Emilion is comprised of a blend that is half Merlot.

But, hey folks, that was eleven years ago!  Its time to get past it and rediscover Merlot.  It’s time to R-E-S-P-E-C-T (insert your favorite Aretha song here) Merlot.  And it’s ready to drink now.  Merlot is usually soft and approachable, with no bitterness or sharpness.

Merlot is the most planted grape in France, but usually you have to know the village or region to know what you are buying.  The home of Merlot is the so-called Right Bank of Bordeaux, which is to the east of that city. Look for the names Pomerol, St. Emilion, Fronsac, Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Castillon and their combinations on the label.  These wines are typically blends that are mostly Merlot. They tend to be less fruit in your face dominant than American Merlot and a little more astringent or tannic (which people describe as tight).  American and other new world Merlot usually are very fruit driven, meaning that you’ll find lush flavors of dark cherry, blueberry or plum and often some chocolate mocha when you take a sip.

You can enjoy Merlot with lots of foods.  My personal favorites are a cheddar cheeseburger or some thick pork chops right off the grill.  And it’s out there in all price ranges.  If you want to buy the Cheval Blanc (the latest vintage is about $500 per bottle), let me know and I’ll be right over – but there’s lots to choose from between $10 and $25, with some truly exceptional wines up to about $60.

Everyday Sip:  2012 Columbia Crest “H3” Horse Heaven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley $12
A lot of wine for this price. Horse Haven Hills is a subregion of the Columbia Valley putting out some outstanding wines. Black cherries and cocoa.  Easy to drink and versatile.

Guest Sip:  2012 Ferrari Carano Merlot, Sonoma County $25
Dark fruit with a little vanilla accent. Lush wine that’s very food friendly.

Splurge Sip:  2012 Pride Mountain Vineyards  Merlot $60
With apologies to Emeril – BAM!  This is a big juicy Merlot that shows off what this grape can be.  Bold plummy fruitiness with a dash of mocha.  Ripe and full bodied.