Donna and I began Sunday morning at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company located a couple of blocks off Main Street in St. Helena. The coffee shop has a great old house feel and was full of locals. The late harvest and cool summer seemed to be hot topics of conversation. The coffee was excellent, possibly the best soy latte I have ever had, as were the pastries. I had an oatcake that while it may not sound too exciting was delicious. After Donna devoured her Asiago cheese bagel, we were once again ready to start our day with a 10AM wine tasting. Hopefully, you see what tough duty being a wine blogger can be, being stuck in a beautiful place, with great people and amazing wine. It is not for the weak or faint of heart.Our day of tasting and parties began at Caymus Vineyards. Caymus was high on our list because this is where I fell in love with Napa Cabernet on our first visit in 1985. On that trip we were lucky enough to spend a few hours tromping through vineyards and drinking Cabernet with founder, Charlie Wagner. We were met in the gardens outside the tasting room by Frankie Gutierrez and his lovely wife Anita Gouloomian. Frankie serves as the social media director for Caymus and is also an extraordinary wine documentary film maker. I encourage you to check out his blog, Frank Loves Wine, and take a look at the short films he’s made for Wagner Family Wines. These films are so entertaining and educational that I often send them to our son who is studying to be a winemaker at Texas Tech.
Frankie and Anita had our tasting set up on a picnic table on the edge the Caymus vineyard vegetable garden which you can also enjoy with wines from the adjacent Caymus tasting room. A more in depth review of the specific wines offered by Caymus and the Wagner family will be posted a later date. As you would expect, the wines we tasted from Caymus and Belle Glos labels were all very good. The 2008 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet was the biggest surprise. I jokingly asked Frankie if we were committing infanticide to drink a bottled cabernet that should be sleeping in its crib. While this wine will age well, it was unexpectedly soft and drinkable, for one so young.
A walking tour of the property included the biggest wine bottle I’d ever seen. As you can see from the picture it is huge (note: I am 6’2”). The label is etched into the glass and yes, the bottle is full of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet. As a special treat, Frankie took us out to the vineyards we would have toured with Charlie Wagner nearly 30 years ago. As we once again tasted cabernet grapes, we could see the Wagner residence where Donna and I sat with Charlie at his kitchen table, sharing Caymus Cabernet. It all made for a perfect start to the day.
Next up was the Harvest party at Judd’s Hill off Silverado Trail. While many of our tastings and tours were opulent and elegant, Judd’s Hill was down home. The winery is now run by Judd Finkelstein (son of founders Art and Bunnie Finkelstein) and his wife, Holly. The party was held outside between the winery and the vineyard. When we approached the check-in table a very happy and enthusiastic woman greeted us by saying “Hi, I’m Bunnie, Judd’s mom.” The rest of the party was just as relaxed and fun. There was even a guy dressed in pirate gear and make-up making sure we all had an “ARRGG” good time. The wines flowed, the band played and folks did indeed have a good time.
By this time in our trip we’d had so much cheese paired with our wines, we were glad to see hot dogs on the grill. In addition, they had flown in hot dog chili from the world famous Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood. We’d never had Pink’s hot dog chili and I can now say I think it is the best we’ve had (sorry Skyline in Cincinnati). Earlier Frankie told me about Judd’s Hill’s Burkes Blazing Barbecue Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi. If you saw our video on “Zins with Funky Names”, you know I am no fan of Lodi Zins with that cherry cola flavor.
When will I ever learn not to taste wines with a preconceived idea? This Zin was great and had no cherry cola going on. Let me tell you, it paired perfectly with a Pink’s Chilidog. We hated to leave the party early but duty called us back to Hwy 29 and Nickel & Nickel.
At Nickel & Nickel, we were back in the lap of luxury. The offices and tasting room are in a beautifully restored Queen Anne-style farmstead, Sullenger House, built in 1880. Nickel & Nickel began in 1977 as an offshoot of Far Niente. The first wines were released in 2000. All wines a 100% varietal and 100% single vineyard. Our tour began with a glass of their lush Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay and an informative stroll around the property. The Nickel family also owns one of North America’s largest wholesale nursery companies, Greenleaf. The beautifully manicured grounds are covered with colorful and fragrant flowering plants. We then entered the Gleason Barn, a fully restored circa 1770 barn that was spared from demolition in 2001, dismantled, moved and reconstructed on the site. The barn now houses the winemaking staff and a state of the art laboratory.
One of the most interesting exhibits on the tour were clear boxes of soil samples from many of the vineyards used in Nickel & Nickel’s single vineyard wines. The soils ranged from soft and dusty to very rocky. It was a great visual reminder of how many different soils and terriors there are in Napa Valley. After touring the fermentation barns and the barrel cellar, we were back in the Sullenger House for an elegant yet relaxed tableside tasting. We were offered five different Cabernets, each with its own distinct character. They also produce, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Merlot. My favorite of our samples was from Vogt Vineyard on Howell Mountain. Our tasting ended with a sample of the delectable dessert wine, Dolce.
As late afternoon approached, I didn’t want Donna to leave Napa without a chance to catch a bite at Bottega Restaurant and visit the Napa Style shop in Yountville. There was obviously an event wrapping up as we arrived on the grounds. Food Channel Star Chef and Botegga owner, Michael Chiarello, was seated at a table on the lawn finishing a book signing so we took the opportunity to buy one of his cookbooks and get it signed for my mother’s upcoming birthday (we couldn’t keep the secret…she knows).
After touring Napa Style, we found an open couch on the covered porch that wraps around Bottega. The odd thing about this place is that even though tourists abound, it is a local’s hangout. We ordered a bottle of Frank Family Chardonnay and kicked back to enjoy the summer like evening. There was a couple on the couch across the table from us. Who joined them? Michael Chiarello. He was great fun. A few minutes later another couple walked up looking for a seat. We offered the two empty seats near us. They seemed hesitant until Michael moved over and encouraged them to join.
Napa is a small world and you never know who you’ll meet. The couple that joined us were locals and asked where we toured. I mentioned that we’d started at Caymus. His response was “have you ever had the Belle Glos Pinot Noir Rose’? My father grew the grapes that went into that wine.” If you read my piece “Do Real Men Drink Rose’?” you may remember I rated that wine the best Pinot Rose’ to come out of California. Small world.
After packing for our return flight and breakfast the next morning, we ventured up Spring Mountain to visit with another historical Napa figure, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Stu is featured prominently in James Conway’s second book on Napa Valley, The Far Side of Eden. We met Stu a few weeks earlier at a winemaker’s dinner in Denver. Being a Texas boy, I was immediately drawn to Stu’s no B.S. view of winemaking and Napa Valley. Much like Randy Dunn at Dunn Vineyards, Stu calls them the way he sees them and damn the torpedoes, to mix metaphors. To see what I mean, check out Stu’s controversial blog – Biodynamics is a Hoax.
Smith-Madrone is a no frills winery that dates back to 1972. The winery operation is housed in an old barn-like structure which adds to the charm. We were warmly greeted by Stu’s brother and partner, Charlie and soon Stu appeared with his energetic dog Curly. Smith-Madrone makes an excellent dry Riesling and we began our tasting there. We were familiar with this wine and enjoy it very much. We then moved on to their Chardonnay which has a nice balance of oak and butter but still subtle enough to pair with food. At the Denver winemaker’s dinner, we’d enjoyed the Smith-Madrone Cabernet, so this time Stu pulled out a yet to be released or even named, 2007 Reserve Cabernet. This Cab had a much bigger structure than their normal offering. Still young, it needed to open up in our glasses.
We left the Reserve Cab to breathe in the winery barn and jumped into the gator with Stu to tour the property. Curly served as our very excitable tour guide. Smith-Madrone has been systematically replanting for a number of years so we were able to see vineyards in every stage of maturity. The view from Spring Mountain to the Napa Valley floor alone was worth the trip. Stu shared some great stories and tales from his 40 years in Napa Valley. Upon our return, we were anxious to see how the Reserve Cabernet had developed. Wow…once this Cab had a chance to open up it was great. Big Cabernet flavors from mountain fruit…just the way I like it.
It then was time to head to San Francisco and our flight back to Denver, another Napa and Sonoma adventure came to an end, thanks for travelling with us.