As spring break approaches, many families look toward a beach or maybe Disneyland. For my son and me, we chose a Disneyland of sorts. Not the one envisioned by Walt Disney but instead the one envisioned by Robert Mondovi, The Napa Valley. While Napa might seem like a peculiar spring break trip, it was perfect for us. My son, Conch, had just turned 21 and he is studying viticulture and enology (winemaking) at Texas Tech. It was time to get him out of the dusty vineyards of Texas and on to the land of kings.
Early spring weather in Napa can be unpredictable but Bacchus smiled on us, providing clear skies and temperatures in the low 70’s. The grape buds were days away from breaking and we could feel the anticipation. Golden mustard in full bloom lined many vineyard rows. When the weather cooperates, spring is an excellent time to visit because there are fewer tourists and the winery representatives have a little more time to chat.
The trip was intended to be as educational as it was fun. That meant private tours and time to chat with winemakers. Corrine Deloso at Bounty Hunter Wine was instrumental in setting up much of our tour along with Cassi DeTrinidad at The Mount View Hotel in Calistoga . For three days we toured and tasted three wineries a day and stopped into a few tasting rooms. Each tour took between 1.5 and 2 hours. Some even included a chef inspired food pairing along with the wine tasting. This full schedule fit our needs but for most, two appointment only tours a day is plenty, leaving time to stop into additional tasting rooms or enjoy a leisurely wine country lunch.
The first destination was Shafer Vineyards located in the southern part of Napa in the Stag’s Leap District. In contrast to the many palatial wineries within Napa, Shafer’s signage on Silverado Trail is so understated we drove right past it. The elegant winery sits atop a hill overlooking many of Shafer’s vineyards. Our small group was seated at a beautiful dining table overlooking the vineyards through open glass sliding doors. We were joined by Tucker and Tanner the two winery dogs. Tucker, a Yellow Lab, and Tanner, A Golden Retriever, have wonderful noses for wine and their own Facebook Fan Page.
John Gretz, Shafer’s Director of Wine Education, professionally took us through the repertoire of Shafer’s award winning wines. It appeared we would end on the lush and velvety Hillside Select Cabernet but, no. To our surprise John brought out a few bottles of their 1994 Cabernet. The fruit was soft and the description of Library Wine was right on many levels. While we were enjoying the wine, the door behind us opened and in popped Doug Shafer, winemaker and son of founder John Shafer, who joined us at the end of the tasting. Coffee cup in hand, Doug greeted us all and asked how we liked the ’94. The group lavished the wine with compliments. To my surprise, Doug said he appreciated our enthusiasm but in his opinion the wine was a little too old. I admired his casual frankness, but left with a couple of bottles anyway. There’s no accounting for taste
We then visited Robert Biale Vineyards which endured prohibition by selling bootleg wines to locals with their order for local produce. Locals would use the code Black Chicken if they wanted bootleg wine with their eggs. Biale is now best known for their bold yet balanced Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The Petite Sirah is aptly nicknamed “The Punisher.”
The last scheduled stop was in the town of Napa at the Bounty Hunter Restaurant where we met with Corrine and Tim Milos, the winemaker for Bounty Hunter. Tim was very generous with his time providing Conch with great insight into the life and work schedule to a head winemaker. We then shared a bottle of Tim’s 2005 Waypoint Dr. Crane Single Vineyard 100% Cabernet. The fruit, oak and tannins were beautifully balanced and proved a good example of Tim’s artistry. Conch walked away from the meeting with some excellent career advice.
The beautiful weather continued Thursday and after a brisk morning vineyard walk, we were off to the Diamond Mountain District above Calistoga to the 89 acre estate, Graeser Winery for a blending seminar. The beautiful Estate House was built in the 1880’s and harkens back to an era long before the corporate wineries that now dominate the landscape. Once again we were greeted by winery dogs, two playful Great Danes and Richard Graeser dressed in his trademark outback hat.
Mr. Graeser led us to the barrel room to learn the art of blending wines in the Bordeaux style using his 2007 wines still in the barrel. We were supplied with glasses containing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. We were given a chart that showed each of their trial 2007 blends and the corresponding critique. We then took a measured syringe and created our own concoctions in the wine glasses provided, then tasted. It took a number of trials but Conch and I both came up with our perfect proportions. They were quite different. Conch favored a more balanced blend where mine was light on Merlot and heavier on Cabernet Franc. We filled and corked our bottles and headed off to Merryvale and then Rombauer. My aspiring winemaker had blended his first vintage.
The tour at Merryvale Vineyards proved as interesting as their wines. We were able to see some of the most state of the art small fermentation tanks from Germany. We then were seated for a wine and food pairing in The Cask Room. The room, with a medieval air, is lined with two stories of century-old two thousand gallon oak casks. There we enjoyed a perfect pairing of small bites. The wines were excellent but the standouts were the Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux style Merryvale Profile. Both found their way to my cellar.
Rombauer was a special treat. Not only am I a fan of their bold and buttery chardonnay but I had had the opportunity to dine with Koerner Rombauer some years ago. We met in the tasting room by Richie Allen, Rombauer’s young Australian head winemaker. As we toured the winery, Richie gave Conch some invaluable advice. The kind of stuff you’ll never hear in the classroom, like how to learn in the world’s great wine regions by taking part in the harvest and crush as the seasons change. We tasted all the Rombauer offerings and it was obvious that Richie was particularly proud of his newly released 2006 Cabernet. His enthusiasm was not misplaced. We finished with Rombauer’s Joy, a late harvest chardonnay and their Zinfandel Port. With so much hype and praise directed at Napa’s well known varietals, don’t overlook the beautiful dessert wines and ports coming from the area. As we were leaving, Koerner Rombauer was walking in. I took the opportunity to renew our acquaintance and compliment the winery under Richie’s guidance. Then in true tourist form, we all posed for pictures.
During this trip I tasted a couple of 100% Cabernet Francs and was impressed. They reminded me a bit of Petite Sirah back when vintners made a more peppery style. Any number of locals had suggested I try the Cabernet Franc at Ehlers Estate Winery. As luck would have it Ehlers was our first stop on Friday. There we learned about organic vineyard methods and met the valley’s smallest winery dog, a Chihuahua. After the tour we sat for another wine and food pairing. The duck, smoked with wine barrel wood, and the Cabernet Franc was a perfect match. Winemaker Kevin Morrisey joined our small group and provided interesting insights into his wines.
Our Friday was a somewhat slower pace so we took time out for lunch in St. Helena at Taylor’s Refresher (recently renamed Gott’s Roadside), a old time whitewashed drive-in serving gourmet burgers on picnic benches. Here’s a tip, Rombauer Chardonnay goes perfectly with a seared Ahi Tuna burger.
Our last winery was Newton Vineyards and it was probably the most visually breathtaking. Newton is situated on 560 acres high above the valley floor on Spring Mountain, near St. Helena. The breathtaking Asian gardens were designed in the 1970’s by Su Hua Newton. The gardens include corkscrew junipers and box hedges and serve as the rooftop for the Chardonnay caves below. Our group of four toured the winery then was seated for yet another wine and food pairing. I particularly enjoyed the side by side tasting of their 2002 and 2005 The Puzzle, a Bordeaux style blend. The 2002 won out, in my opinion, and a few more bottles found their way to my cellar.
Newton was scheduled to be our last winery stop and on Friday it was. But as fate would have it, something wonderfully unexpected was yet to come. Conch and I headed to Yountville to eat at Bottega, the Michael Chiarello award winning restaurant. The warm evening allowed us the opportunity to have a glass of Frank Family Chardonnay on the beautiful covered Terrazzo. Soon we learned that we were about the only people not affiliated with a local winery. A very friendly Lori Nuss of Vinoce Winery on Mt. Veeder joined our conversation. Once she learned about Conch’s studies in viticulture she invited us to meet her and her husband, Brian, Saturday morning before we left for the airport. We took them up on the offer and they gave us a delicious send off with their well refined 2005 Mt. Veeder Cabernet.
Our experience with Brian and Lori Nuss was typical of the people we met along the way. The winemakers truly seemed to take an interest in Conch’s studies even if he wasn’t at the much acclaimed University of California at Davis. We both learned more than we had expected. While sitting in a medieval tasting room sampling smoked duck with a $100 bottle of cabernet may seem intimidating to some, don’t let it scare you. There is no quiz on flavor subtleties, “can you taste the sublime currants and the hint of tobacco?” These were just artists who want very much for you to enjoy the “fruits” of their labor. We did enjoy and learned what I already knew…you are never too old for spring break!