Gabe's View

Wine: Reviews, Thoughts & Culture

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Winery Visit

Visiting Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain

I’ve travelled to Napa Valley often over the last two decades, and still the list of wineries I have yet to visit, that I want to visit, seems bottomless. Okay well perhaps not bottomless, but there sure are quite a few places I have yet to make it to. Every trip out in addition to recommendations and spots I stumble on I do my best to cross a few off the master list in my mind, of producers I need to visit. One that has been rumbling around in my mind for some time is Smith-Madrone. They’re a Spring Mountain producer that has been around since 1971 While I had tasted their wine a few times over the years my knowledge of Smith-Madrone was largely by reputation. So when I arrived at their property with a couple of friends I was a sponge ready to soak in whatever I could about them. Visiting on Spring Mountain is always particularly exciting to me. It’s off the beaten path and lots of folks don’t make it up there, so it seems a little like a secret wine mission. Once there we were greeted by Stu Smith, half of the Smith brother’s team at the helm of the winery.

Stu took us on a tour of their vineyards and taught us a lot about their property as well as things in Napa I wasn’t aware of. One example was the political struggle in the valley faced by mountain vineyards when compared to the folks on the valley floor. It was pretty fascinating to hear especially from a guy like Stu who is incredibly passionate, well spoken and unfiltered in the best way possible.

The Smith-Madrone portfolio includes Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. At one time they also made Pinot Noir. Touring their vineyards it was instructive to note the diversity in their topography, spacing, and training. Some of their blocks are being replanted so it was informative to see the plantings that dated back to the early days of the winery versus the current plantings as well as those in between.

After a fun, informative and sometimes rollicking ride through the vineyard with Stu as our guide we made our way back to the winery itself. It was at this point that we met his brother Charles. While they both seem pretty involved in every aspect of the operation Charles leans towards the winemaking side and Stu towards the vineyard management side.

Tasting through the wines was as much of a revelation as the vineyard tour. Between current vintages, prior vintages and barrel samples we were fortunate enough to taste a few examples of each of their three releases. I didn’t make formal note so I can’t go into great detail about each wine. However as a whole they were impressive. The Chardonnays were really clean and full of fruit. The older of the two (2007 I believe) we tasted from bottle was a bit leaner and had more mineral notes than its younger brother. The Rieslings also featured pure expressions of fruit. There was an impression of sweetness, though they were in fact quite beautifully dry. The Cabernets were simply a knockout. Of the ones we sampled the 2004 was probably my favorite. I have found that when they’re well made, wines that emanate from mountain fruit often show off a pure and intense expression of flavor that is unique. This was the case with the Smith-Madrone Cabernets. They are fruit driven and intense without being fruity and over the top. They are powerful and at the same time elegant and refined. I enjoyed all three varietals quite a bit as they are well made, correct expressions of the grape in question. However the Cabernets for me (at least on the day I tasted them) were just a notch above the Riesling and Chardonnay. Though I’d happily drink any of them.

Before the end of our visit we enjoyed a casual picnic lunch overlooking their vineyards at a table right outside their barrel room. The lively banter we all enjoyed about the world of wine in general was a lot of fun. It also gave me a window into Charles and Stu’s thoughts about some wines outside of their own. Most important to me tough was to have their wine alongside some food. As delicious as they were on their own, having them with a picnic lunch enhanced the experience, which is as it should be with wine in my opinion. Much sooner than I wanted to we had to say goodbye to Charles and Stu so we could make it to another appointment on time. While this was my first visit to Smith-Madrone, it certainly won’t be my last. Their open and gregarious nature, desire to share their vineyards and wines are refreshing and reason enough to visit. Of course the wines themselves makes a pretty strong argument as well. When you mix well made wine, with lovely people you have a sure fire winner in my book. Smith-Madrone is a winery I wish I’d visited sooner and one that it’s well worth your time to make an appointment to visit. When your trip to wine country is over it’s sure to be one of the spots you spend a lot of time talking about.

Visiting Jordan Winery In Alexander Valley

Last week I had the opportunity to tour Jordan Vineyards & Winery, as well as taste their wines. While I had been there once in the past, it had been a number of years, so I was eager to see what if anything had changed in the ensuing years. Jordan Winery is a classic Sonoma County Estate, both because of their facility and the wines they produce. In a world where many producers have an ever increasing roster of wines, Jordan has remained hyper-focused on two things; Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. If you’re going to train the laser so closely on two varietals, it’s a very good idea to get those wines right.

I had the fortune of being an overnight guest on the Jordan property. That allowed me to really take things in and spend quite a number of hours just thinking about them and their wines. In my time there I had the opportunity to taste through several vintages each of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn't make formal notes, but my general impressions are included here.

At one time the Chardonnay was taken from their home estate in Alexander Valley. That’s no longer the case as they now source fruit under long term contracts from growers in the Russian River Valley. In tasting through the 2005, 2007 & 2008 vintages of Chardonnay the overall quality of the wine was obvious. There was a clear consistency in style, yet obvious vintage variation that allowed each wine to speak on its own. Most impressive to me was the 2005. Not that it was significantly better than the other two. In fact it would be tough to distinguish between the three as far as general quality goes. What knocked me out was how fresh, vital and full of fruit the 2005 still was. At 5 years old it showed no sign of letting up and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t drink well for several more years. Certainly the younger wines were even fresher and showed off a bit more bold fruit, with the 2005 featuring more mineral characteristics. Looking forward they all seem headed down the same delicious and long lived path.

The story with the Cabernet Sauvignon was similar. The older vintage of that wine I had the chance to taste was the 2000. It also displayed much more vibrant fruit than I would have expected at this point. I was particularly impressed with the holding power of this wine when taking into account all the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignons from both Sonoma and Napa Valley that are unimpressive. That wine goes a long way towards supporting the axiom that great winemakers shine in tough vintages. Rob Davis who has been at Jordan since the beginning has done an impressive job of helming these wines over the years without getting complacent. The Cabernet Sauvignon program has also had some changes over the last few years. At one time all the fruit was from their Estate. They now source some fruit from other growers. Mendocino is one of the notable locations they go to for outside fruit. Their goal is to make the best wine possible and if that includes some fruit sourcing that’s the direction they take. The more current releases of Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted again showed consistency of quality as well overall style. Despite being located in Alexander Valley Jordan is very much making wines that take old world styling into account. Balance and longevity are both big parts of the program.

The inside and outside of the Jordan Winery facility are beautiful and each has a charm that makes it seem it’s been there much longer than the 30+ years it has been. Touring the property is a revelation. It’s hard to properly describe how mammoth it is in size and scope. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than that is the shear beauty on display. Many wineries are almost all vineyard. This isn’t a surprise when you take into account the cost of acreage. Jordan has its vineyards of course, but they’re surrounded by acres and acres of unspoiled land.

Often times when I reach for a bottle of wine I go for the new and unknown. That can be fun and exciting. If you want a sure bet though Jordan Winery is a great go to choice. They continue to bring an excellent product to market almost four decades into their existence. Many producers with similarly big reputations have gotten apathetic and rested on their laurels. To the contrary it’s clear to me that Jordan keeps reaching for the brass ring. They respect their own past, but they constantly strive to tweak their present, on a constant drive for perfection. So if you’re reaching for Alexander Valley Cabernet or Chardonnay these folks are worth the time and the money. If you’re going to taste wine in Alexander Valley, it’s worth making an appointment. Their staff is filled with friendly people loaded with information about their winery. The photos below will give you a hint about the beauty that awaits you if you visit.

Photos by David Vermeire

An Afternoon Visit to Acorn Winery in Sonoma County

If you’re travelling to Sonoma County, or lucky enough to live there, one of the great places to visit is Acorn Winery. I was just out in Sonoma for a little over a week and visited them for the first time in a few years; I won't wait that long again. Betsy and Bill Nachbaur are the owners of Acorn and they’ll take you through their current release wines, the history of the property and more. 

It’s easy to make an appointment to visit at Acorn, but you definitely should make one to assure they’re available to pour for you. Once you get to Acorn Winery you’re going to learn a lot about their wines and the process of grape growing. Along with Bill & Betsy, Alegría Vineyards which is their property, stands at the core of everything about Acorn Winery. Their land is a combination of old vines planted as field blends many, many years ago and some newer plantings that they put in themselves. The love that both Bill & Betsy have for their land and the “get your hands dirty” wine life they live on a day to day basis is apparent and speaks volumes about them. Alegría Vineyards is sustainably farmed. 

Tasting through the current releases which included a Rosato, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Medley and Sangiovese it was easy to see that the Nachbaur’s allow the vineyards to speak for themselves each year. The wines have similar elements that form a connective tissue between them. But where they are grown and lack of manipulation is what shines through in their full flavored, balanced releases that bring to mind both old world winemaking and the beauty of excellent California fruit. With several of the wines I was able to taste a couple of vintages. This was very instructive and showed the consistent quality at Acorn as well as the individuality of each vintage. 

The biggest treat was saved for last. Bill and Betsy wondered if we were interested in Syrah vertical. Of course we were interested. Tasting opportunities like that are precisely the type of motivators which encourages me to visit wineries as often as possible. There’s just no substitute for tasting wines alongside the folks who are responsible for them, a few feet away from where the grapes are grown. In all we went through six vintages of Syrah. We got to sit with these wines for awhile and watch them develop in the glass over some time. The persistent quality of their Syrah just jumped out at me as I tasted these wines side by side. Picking a favorite was hard to do as it kept changing from one to another for me. These Syrahs drank quite nicely on their own but would complement a range of foods quite well. In general the Acorn wines are all food friendly which is another big positive. 

I find that the wines at Acorn are uniformly delicious, distinct and clearly made with care. Bill and Betsy are both warm and engaging. It’s apparent to me as it would likely be to any visitor that they love sharing their wines, their property, their experience and their story with people. Anyone who can is urged to visit Acorn Winery, both to sample their Artisan wines and to spend time with some lovely folks who exemplify the very best of  terrific California family wineries. Great Wine, Great Place, Great People.

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Visiting Robert Sinskey Vineyards

RSV_Circle_Logo_Brown_LowThere’s a specific trip to Napa, years ago, that really stands out in my mind. The reason I recall this particular one so fondly is that I visited several Wineries that have become favorites, for the first time. A couple of them in fact were recommended to me by the same person. One of those places was Robert Sinskey Vineyards. It struck a chord with me and I’ve returned to taste often. But I’d never toured their facility. In getting ready for my most recent trip I was speaking to a friend who I was going to taste with and she also mentioned wanting to visit Sinskey. It seemed the time to tour at Robert Sinskey had arrived. So last Sunday I arrived at Robert Sinskey with a couple of friends and we took the Cave Raider Tour. This tour takes place weekdays at 1:00 PM and 11:00 AM on Weekends. We were greeted warmly and poured a taste of wine as we waited a couple of moments for the rest of our tour. It turned out we toured and tasted alongside two winemakers from Jacob’s Creek in Australia. The 5 of us and our well informed guide made our way through the garden outside the winery. Robert Sinskey Vineyards is Organic and Biodynamic. Part of the commitment to that way of farming is a garden outside their door which is used by the onsite chefs to craft morsels for events at the Winery.

After the garden we walked by the production area and then made our way to the caves. I couldn’t possibly begin to count the number of caves I’ve seen when touring wine regions. But there is something about them that remains fascinating, invigorating and incredibly exciting to me. Part of it might be the fact that I know I’m many feet below the earth, and the recognition of the work that went into creating these underground wonders. Another is the stacks of barrels full of wine all around. While I may not think of it with every cave I visit, subconsciously I recognize that I’m surrounded by the wine I’ll probably taste next time I visit, or pick up at my local shop down the road sometime.

When we emerged from the cave we tasted a flight of wines on the patio at their outside bar. After a couple of whites, of which Abraxas was my favorite, we moved to Pinot Noir. This classic grape is the workhorse at Robert Sinskey. They make both cuvee’s and single vineyard designate versions. The Vandal Vineyard Pinot we tasted was a standout for me amongst the couple we sampled. Each of the wines was paired with little morsels prepared by the kitchen. I’ve always been particularly fond of their Cabernet Franc and was quite happy when our host Caine, pulled one out for us to taste. This is also made from their Vandal Vineyard. Another treat was a 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon. While this wine is quite delicious now it still showed plenty of fruit and seems to have quite a number of years of positive evolution ahead of it. In total we tasted about half a dozen wines.

In addition to delicious wines and in this case tasty bites to match them I’m very fond of the atmosphere at Robert Sinskey Vineyards. More than just welcoming it’s warm, hospitable and very comfortable with a combination of rustic charm and modern accommodations. Their Organic and Biodynamic approach is also one I appreciate. Throughout the tour we learned a lot about their methods of winemaking and commitment to Organics. That said much of what we learned was driven by questions from those of us on the tour. Our host provided a perfect amount of information himself and gave us plenty of room to inquire about what we wanted to know.

The Cave Raider tour is one I can heartily recommend. It’s by appointment and the cost is $30 per person. That’s partially refundable with a purchase. However in addition to this Sinskey offers a Culinary Tour and Bento Box Tasting. Each of these has designated times they are available for appointments. Of course if you simply want to taste Robert Sinskey Vineyards is open daily from 10:00 Am to 4:30 Pm. They’re located at 6320 Silverado Trail. This continues to be a stop I look forward to time after time. Give them a try; it may become one of your favorites too.

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Visiting Enkidu Wines In Sonoma Valley

shamatWhenever I'm out touring wineries I try to find a happy medium between scheduling appointments and letting each day take me where it may. I keep my eyes open for things that are new and interesting; more importantly I try to keep an open mind to suggestions I hear throughout my travels. Recommendations come in all shapes and sizes. When they're good ones they can change the entire course of a tasting day. That happened to me last week in Sonoma County. I was tasting in Dry Creek Valley and fully intended to spend the whole day there. But then someone recommended and described Enkidu Wines to me. I was probably about 45 minutes away, but I felt like it was where I needed to head next. Suffice it to say I'm glad I took the recommendation. I was immediately impressed when a member of their terrific staff (Abby) asked if I wanted to listen to Al Green or the Black Crowes while I tasted. I happen to like both artists a lot, but I never turn down the Reverend.

There are a lot of places to sample, and all sorts of wine in Sonoma Valley. So how do you decide where to taste? Let me tell you, Enkidu is a place you should most definitely put on your itinerary for the next time you taste in Sonoma. They have an interesting back story, and their name, label art, and overall style complements their wines. But how about the wines?, you ask.

Across the board the wines are well made, tasty and balanced. I sampled close to a dozen wines and while I had favorites, there wasn't a clunker in the bunch.  Their dry Rosé (Shamhat) was the first selection that stood out above the rest for me. It was clean, crisp and dry in a very pure and refreshing way. There are several varietals that they make distinct offerings of; Pinot Noir is one of them. Each of the three Pinots I tasted was made in a genuine style for the varietal, the Tina Marie which is made from Russian River fruit was perhaps my favorite of the trio. Petite Sirah is one of my weaknesses and their 2005 Fazekas Petite sourced in Napa Valley almost had me crying uncle it was so tasty. While I'd expect it to age well, it's a particularly approachable Petite Sirah for barely being 4 years old. Dark fruit and earth characteristics are the standouts in this offering.

Those are but a handful of the wines Enkidu makes and pours. The tasting room at 8910 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood is warm, tastefully decorated and incredibly welcoming. It's a fun place to hang out for a while. As my stay progressed I met several other members of the Enkidu team and they were uniformly friendly. When the combination of well made, fairly priced wines, intersects with a great atmosphere to taste them I think it's important to take note. When I take everything they having going for them into account I doubt Enkidu will under the radar for very long. My advice is to go now and avoid the stampede when everyone else catches up.

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Tasting At Regusci Winery

regusciThe Regusci Family has a long tradition of wine-making in Napa Valley. It dates all the way back to 1932 in fact. However the current incarnation of Regusci Winery in Stags Leap didn’t open its doors to the public until 1998. That was a couple of years after their first crush as a reborn winery. I’d visited their tasting room a few times before, but not for several years. This trip I decided to make stopping there a priority so I could see what they’re up to these days. In general they offer two tasting flights, Current Release ($15) and Heritage Wines ($25). If you take the second flight the first is also included. The current release flight offers three wines and the Heritage Flight adds two, though they often throw a bonus in somewhere.

The Regusci tasting roomhas a warm, inviting and somewhat rustic atmosphere. The folks behind the tasting bar are very friendly and welcoming; they also know the Regusci Wines inside out. That said they’re very good at not shoving too much knowledge down your throat too soon. In some tasting rooms it seems the person wants to tell you what you’re going to taste or experience before you take your first sip. This of course puts that suggestion in your head and you’re more likely to think you taste it, even if you don’t. The folks at Regusci don’t do this. In my opinion they carefully and deftly balance the line; offering as much information as they find each taster is looking for. Questions are answered cheerfully. They pipe in with their opinions when you ask, making it clear just because it’s how they feel, it’s not necessarily how someone on the other side of the counter will. And while that may seem like a simple thing, and it should be, it’s often not the case in some tasting rooms.

Stags Leaps District wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, can be wildly expensive. That’s another area in which I think Regusci Winery does a rally nice job. While they do have some more expensive offerings the current Stags Leap releases I tasted were good values. Their 2006 Merlot is a well structured wine that demands attention. It’s loaded with rich berry fruit and dusty layers of chocolate and spice. While $40 might not be everyday drinking for most people this is a serious Merlot. Their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon sold for $48 and was equally impressive. Cherry fruit notes were most prominent. The finish was long and persistent. Cabernet Sauvignon of equivalent quality from Stags Leap is often far more expensive than this offering from Regusci.

Their Heritage Wines which are more expensive were also interesting to taste. The 2006 Patriarch is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (64%), Merlot (27%) and Cabernet Franc (9%). This is an intense and immense wine. It’s loaded with berry flavors, good tannic structure and layers of earth. This one had me craving a T-Bone. This offering sells for $80 and should simply get better with some time in the bottle. I wouldn’t drink it for 5 years and then I’d enjoy it sometime over the following 6 or 7. This would be a good choice to tuck away for a special occasion or holiday dinner somewhere down the road.

In total I tasted 6 wines at Regusci during my recent trip. Each of them was well made and pretty tasty. The ones I mentioned above stood out most to me. The Merlot was my overall favorite. If you like Stags Leap District wines Regusci Winery is a really nice, as well as, casual stop. They’re open daily and no appointment is necessary for a tasting. Being right on Silverado Trail they’re quick and easy to find too. Well worth some time.

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Visiting Gargiulo Vineyards

Whenever I travel to Napa or other Wine Regions I’m always looking to check gargiuloout producers I haven’t visited before. Often times I get recommendations when I’m out and about tasting. What I find really interesting is that just about every trip there is one place that seems to have some undercurrent of buzz about it. No matter where I go or who I speak to eventually it seems that folks get around to mentioning a specific winery. This trip I lost track of how many folks suggested I check out Gargiulo Vineyards. The people making the suggestion ranged from individuals at other wineries to folks I tasted side by side with elsewhere. After a couple of days of hearing about them, the groundswell building in my head convinced me to go see what they had going on; so I called and scheduled an appointment. Gargiulo is a boutique family owned Napa Valley Estate Winery. They produce 3,500 cases of wine, primarily from two separate Estate Vineyards in Oakville; one at their Winery site right on Oakville Crossroad near Silverado Trail and one on Money Road. In addition to Bordeaux Varietals they have Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio planted as well.

When I arrived at Gargiulo Vineyards I was immediately taken by the lovely and welcoming grounds. I made my way to the tasting room which was incredibly comfortable and warm, with rustic flourishes. In one corner a handful of guitars stood on their stands. Apparently everyone who knows how to play is welcome to pick one up and strum. All of these things come together to form a tranquil space to spend some time and yes, taste wine in.

The first wine we were poured was the Rosato di Sangiovese. This dry Rosé was refreshing and an excellent way to get things going. Tastings at Gargiulo are by appointment. Once everyone who was going to be in my tasting group settled in we sat around a nice large square table with ultra comfortable chairs. We were then led through our wines by a member of the Gargiulo team. The second wine we tasted was accompanied by a dish of morsels for each guest to munch on. Olives, cheese, nuts and more made up the treats on hand. That second wine Aprile, was my overall favorite. This offering, named for the owner’s daughter is a blend of Sangiovese (97%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (3%). They call this their Super Oakville Blend which is a nod to the Super Tuscan blends that inspired it. What impressed me about this offering was its combination of complexity, length, drink-ability and good acidic structure. This is a classic food wine and I was craving a dish of pasta.

After that we tasted a Merlot and several Cabernet Sauvignons. I’m happy to report that there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Each wine was a fine example of Oakville fruit and the varietal in question. I was particularly impressed with the Merlot which was made with structure, length and most importantly true varietal character. When they are well made Merlots appeal to people who like Cabernet Sauvignon. The Money Road Ranch offering from Gargiulo is such a Merlot. The Cabernets were nice too and each had the stuffing to age for a number of years. Each of the Gargiulo wines I tasted was well made and would match well with typically appropriate cuisine.

After we’d gone through all the wines we took a tour of the grounds and the winemaking facilities. This being Oakville, Gargiulo has some pretty well known neighbors surrounding them; Screaming Eagle is amongst them.

In addition to the tasting I attended Gargiulo offers some other options. At least one of them includes Lunch prepared by owner Jeff Gargiulo. I found the wines, surroundings, people and overall tasting experience at Gargiulo to be an excellent and impressive one. More and more wineries are doing sit down tastings by appointment these days. Some of them work very well and some fall flat, the one at Gargiulo is a keeper.

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Visiting Terra Valentine

terravalentineOne of the great things about visiting Wine Country is the number of stories and history each Winery has. While these vary greatly, one of particular interest is that of Terra Valentine. While that winery as an entity only dates back to 1999, their facility has a much longer and pretty fascinating back story. The building that is the Terra Valentine Winery as well as a guest cottage on their property were both built by original owner Fred Aves. Over many years he built everything by hand. This included stained glass windows, doors, cast metal stairs, a multitude of stonework and much more. Visiting Terra Valentine is a fascinating insight into the vision of an iconoclast and his singular drive to create something unique. Fred Aves did make wine at the winery which he called Yverdon, for a number of years. But he was a reclusive fellow and didn’t really share his craft or his creations with many.

About a decade ago Angus and Margaret Wurtele discovered the property up for sale after Fred had passed on. They purchased it and spent time cleaning it up and adding modern winery equipment. While they make a number of other wines the focus at Terra Valentine is on Cabernet Sauvignon. They make several single vineyard designates both from the property the winery sits on and another Spring Mountain District parcel the Wurtele’s own.

Each of the Cabernet’s I tried was delicious and well made. Amore, their blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon really stood out to me. It was a classic food wine that paired very well with the bites of food served with the tasting.

Visiting Terra Valentine requires an advance appointment. They have several standard tour times per day. Outside of that they do their best to accommodate visitor’s needs. Once you’re there you get a tour of the facility while tasting the first wine. The day I went it was a lovely Viognier. Once the tour is over you proceed to a spacious tasting room. There at grand table you sit down and go through quite a few of their other wines. As I mentioned above these are paired with some small bites to nibble on. Overall you spend a bit over an hour there. You’ll get to tour a fascinating and beautiful facility with a unique history and taste some really nice wines. This is an excellent way to spend some time in my book. When you do go, give yourself plenty of time to get there. The road up Spring Mountain is windy and takes longer than the actual distance might seem to indicate.

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Visiting Swanson Vineyards

Someone has to be the best. At the very least, with any interest or passion I have, there needs to be a faswansonvorite. It doesn't mean there aren't others I love, but there is always one that for some reason has something on the others. Ask me who my favorite ballplayer is and there will be no space from the time you ask until the name "Don Mattingly," rolls off my tongue. I love many Yankees a lot, but Donnie Baseball is number one for me. The same is true of wineries, tasting rooms and wine tasting experiences. There are many regions I adore and a ton of wineries doing a terrific job in each of them. But if you ask me what my favorite is, the one that gets me back every time I'm in the area, the answer is Swanson Vineyards. They also happen to make some of my favorite wines in Napa. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case I'm not sure. But I can tell you that if I didn't love the Swanson Wines it wouldn't matter how good the tasting experience was, eventually, I'd get bored. Because let's face it, wine is the reason I'm in Napa to begin with. Swanson Vineyards doesn't have a tasting room per se. What they do have is a facility in front of their Winery known as the Salon. Decadence with a wink is their stock in trade. And believe me they do that as well as it can be done. Tastings are by appointment and come in standard (Jean Lafite) for $30, or reserve (Harvey) for $55. Both tastings are similar in style the difference being the selection of wines being poured. Swanson has three wines that see wide distribution, Pinot Grigio, Alexis (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Merlot their workhorse which represents 2/3 of their production. The bevy of other wines they make, including an entire line of dessert wines (up to 8 at any one time) are mostly aimed at their wine club and tasting guests.

At most eight guests are accommodated at one time for a tasting at Swanson. The moment you arrive and park your car someone will greet you warmly before you reach the gate. More often than not, they come bearing Rosato, their dry Rosé made of Syrah. As you're ushered into the Salon it's like a trip into a good friends home. The Salon is an absolutely gorgeous and serene environment. In the center of it all is a table that looks to be setup for a dinner party. As people arrive they're allowed to settle in and sit at their leisure. At that point the Salonier (host or hostess) will tell you a bit about the winery and take you through the wines on tap for that day. The Harvey tasting which is the one I tend towards usually features 7 wines. Truth be told, they often throw an extra one in during the proceedings if things are rolling. What I mean by that is cross talk and fraternization amongst the guests who have just met, and with the host are both highly encouraged. Great groups inspire more of the host and enthusiastic crews often get a bonus. Each wine has something to pair it with. At my my most recent visits, several were matched with cheeses, one with caviar on a potato chip and one with a signature bon bon. The wines poured and what they're matched with change; however the Merlot and Alexis are almost always part of the mix.

It's been my pleasure to be in the Swanson Salon with just about every size group. That includes with just myself and the host on a quiet winter afternoon and most often as was the case today with a full house. Both experiences are terrific, but when the room is full with the right people as it was today with myself and some lovely folks from North Carolina things reach a higher plane. As I said above, this all wouldn't matter much if the wines weren't excellent, which they most certainly are. Swanson is the largest producer of Estate Merlot in Napa and theirs is one to be reckoned with. It has structure, length and a load of flavor. Having had it over the last decade this wine is always delicious upon release but personally I like it better with about 5 or 6 years of age on it. If you lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll like the Swanson Merlot. The Chardonnay is hands down my favorite Chardonnay in Napa Valley. The production is tiny and aimed at the wine club; ask nicely and they'll sell you some at the Salon. Other wines such as small production Petite Sirah and Sangiovese are also full flavored expressions of each varietal. I'm a sucker for good Petite Sirah and I always look forward to my shipment from Swanson. The dessert wines are so varied in range and style that they deserve their own article. The Swanson dessert offerings are made of everything from Chardonnay to Petite Sirah; my personal favorite is Angelica which is made from Mission grapes.

If having a great time, making new friends, drinking elegant wines perfectly paired with little morsels to munch on, in a warm, welcoming enviornment isn't your idea of a good time, then by all means don't go to Swanson Vineyards. But if you're like the other 99.9999999% of us then you need to go to Swanson Vineyards Salon. Imagine the liveliest and most memorable dinner party you've ever been to. Now add amazing wine and you might start to get the idea.  Like I always tell my friends who are travelling to Napa, "If You've been to Napa Valley but you haven't been to Swanson, you really haven't been to Napa Valley."

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Visiting Fontanella Family Winery

TastingroomWhen I got up this morning I had no plans to visit Fontanella Family Winery. In fact, I wasn't familiar with them. That all changed pretty quickly. For the second time in a few months I had the opportunity to spend some time with Peter Rubissow of Rubissow Wines. It was once again an excellent time; a detailed report of my first visit to Rubissow is available. The offshoot of all that is that Peter recommended Fontanella. I headed straight to their tasting room a bit further down the hill on Mount Veeder when I left Peter. Karen Fontanella greeted me warmly when I arrived. I got a brief history of their winery which is a pretty new operation. Work on their tasting room was completed just about a year ago in the summer of 2008. They've been pouring wines there by appointment ever since. We went through their current releases which are made from purchased fruit. They have extensive plans to plant on their own property in the area surrounding the winery and tasting room. For now though they have sourced their fruit from sources they are familiar with, both friends and others. While there is quite a bit of Mount Veeder fruit in their wines they also source in Calistoga, Rutherford and Carneros. Once their vines are planted and bearing fruit they will ultimately make Mount Veeder Appellation wines.

Jeff Fontanella is the winemaker and he founded this winery along with his wife Karen. His prior wine-making experience includes work at Opus One, ZD Wines and Saddleback. Along the way he picked up a host of experience which helped him hone his craft and find his personal sweet spot in terms of wine-making style and philosophy. I didn't get to meet Jeff this time out but his wines spoke for him, quite loudly:

The 2007 Fontanella Chardonnay is an even split of Carneros and Mount Veeder Fruit. This Chardonnay reminded me of the Van Halen song "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love." Specifically when David Lee Roth sings, "I've been to the edge, and there I stood and looked down." The reason for that is that this wine really skated the oak edge for me. I found it had just enough oak treatment to add layers of complexity and make it really interesting to drink and contemplate, but not enough to bog it down or mask the fruit. The nose of this wine is very expressive and the finish has a nice rich and creamy edge. The wine retails for $30.

The 2006 Fontanella Cabernet Sauvugnon is made from Rutherford (86%) and Mount Veeder (16%) fruit. More than anything I was salivating, hoping someone would show up with some fork tender Filet Mignon when I tasted this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. As there was no grill in sight I was left to think about this wine. It's a well structured wine that features lots of berry fruit flavors and firm but yielding tannins. Rutherford dust, baker's chocolate are out in force on the finish along with some espresso notes. This is a really nice Cabernet that should improve with some bottle age. It sells for $55.

The 2007 Fontanella Zinfandel is made up of Calistoga (67%) and Mount Veeder (33%) fruit If I wanted to sit in the corner, sip wine and contemplate life this Zinfandel would be a good choice. It has a big, bold, hedonistic nose that draws you to the glass. Rich, ripe, berry jam fruit notes are copious throughout the palate along with some spice reference points. The finish of this Zin is soft, smooth, silky and of excellent length. As soon as it's fades you'll want another sip.

In addition to these current releases I had the opportunity to taste barrel samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon components for the next release. They seemed to indicate consistency of quality and style, good signs in my book. As I mentioned above to visit Fontanella you need to make an appointment, so keep that in mind before visiting. Picking up the phone to make that call is well worth your time. The tasting room at Fontanella is cozy, welcoming and well appointed. It has a nice view of their property which will be under vine before long. Most importantly the wines are delicious, well made, artisinal offerings that are worth the extra effort to seek out. Karen Fontanella is a very gracious and charming host who will be happy to tell you about the wines and the burgeoning history of their winery. They're already on my short list to revisit on my next trip to Napa as I expect the lovely wines to continue. Special thanks to Peter for the recommendation.

Visiting Rubissow Wines on Mount Veeder

Peter Rubissow A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of visiting Rubissow Wines in Napa Valley. Rubissow is located on Mount Veeder, west of the town of Napa. Truthfully, before my visit I didn't know that much about Rubissow, their wines, or their history. However I got to spend about 4 hours with Peter Rubissow and all that changed.

Rubissow was founded in the early 80's by Peter's dad and a business partner. At that time, and up until a few years ago they were known as Rubissow-Sargent. Each year they made approximately 3,000 cases of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc & Merlot are the varietals they worked with. This brand had a strong following, particularly in restaurants and retail. Peter Rubissow took over the label in 2004 and he had a vision to make some changes to the brand. When he and his wife bought out Rubissow-Sargent they rechristened it Rubissow. The change in names made sense, because for all intents and purposes this is a reborn winery enjoying a second life.

The second life that Peter imagined, began naturally, in the vineyard. The goal was to make wines with a deeper intensity of flavor, speaking more obviously of their origins. The old model, which made some lovely wines, leaned towards case production. A new team was brought on board to help both in the vineyards and cellar. I got the chance to walk the vineyards with Peter and he showed me obvious things like where the Cabernet Franc was planted. But I also got to see the cover crops Rubissow plants to help with nutrients in the soil as well as other aspects of grape growing. This is an organically run farm and we spent a chunk of time discussing that. Rubissow isn't certified. The reason for that seems natural to me; they're farming the way it's been done for generations, naturally. The government giving them a stamp of approval isn't what these folks are about. They are about intent and execution. Walking the vineyards it was also easy to see how rugged their ranch is. Their vines, like mountain plantings often do, have to fight hard to make all that delicious fruit.


After walking through the vineyards we sat down and tasted through a couple of vintages of their wines. One of the big changes in philosophy on the growing side was to drop a lot more fruit than the previous incarnation did. By doing this, the fruit you're left with is richer, more intense, and has greater character. They now make approximately 1,500 total cases. Each of the wines Peter poured was a really impressive offering.  Trompettes, their proprietary blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is a real gem. The Franc really comes out in the nose and carries through the wine's palate. Along with their other offerings which are a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon, it was impeccably balanced. The Rubissow wines have some commonalities. Power, elegance, intensity and richness all apply. But when it comes down to it, proportion is the key. Everything about these wines is in check. In addition to the regular release wines they also make a Rubissow-Sargent Reserve. The name is of course a nod to the previous team. In the bottle, you will find a big powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, which is quite nice now. I imagine it will be a tremendous wine to lay down for a decade or more. Great mountain Cabernet tends toward longevity. The reserve from Rubissow falls right into that category while showcasing it's unique origins.

While Rubissow is a new winery in so many ways, there are some things that aren't new. Peter has been part of the operation from the get go and obviously knows the fruit and the land incredibly well. Just as important, the vines aren't new. These vines have been producing excellent fruit for a couple of decades. With Peter at the helm, and his team around him, the fruit from those vines is now speaking louder than ever, expressing itself in the unique wines of Rubissow.

I plan to take a closer look at some of the Rubissow Wines here in the future. For now I can tell you that if you have the opportunity, these honest, well made wines, are certainly worth tasting. If you're planning a trip to Napa, I'd highly suggest scheduling an appointment to visit them. It's likely to be an unforgettable stop, punctuated by great wine. What more can you ask?

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Visiting Bouchaine Vineyards

bouchA couple of days ago I visited Bouchaine Vineyards in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Carneros is in many ways Napa's answer to Burgundy. There are vast differences of course, but in simplest terms, both regions are best known for their production of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Each is also known for emphasizing the impact that a specific place has on the profile of a wine. In Carneros this is a newer movement than in Burgundy where it's been that way for generations. While I spent time with a number of the folks that work in varying positions at Bouchaine, most of my time was spent with winemaker Mike Richmond. Mike has been with Bouchaine Vineyards since 2002. He has over 30 years experience in the Wine industry, much of it within the Carneros appellation. Touring the vineyards and facility at Bouchaine it was clear that Mike has guided this winery in the direction of making the best wine they can from their little spot on the map. From planting the vines, picking the grapes to selecting barrels from different coopers and countries with varying degrees of toast, every decision is constantly in flux from vintage to vintage with the aim of producing world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

While I referenced Burgundy earlier it would be a bit of an misnomer to say they are making wines in a Burgundian style. The similarity is not so much the style as it is the intent. That is to get the best out of what nature gives them in Carneros within their vineyards. While they make a host of other varietals and several distinct Chardonnays and Pinot Noir's, the Estate designate version of each are at the heart of what they do. Everything else strikes me as working off of those two wines and helping to illustrate the wines that Bouchaine is making.

At some point I lost track of the number and variety of barrel samples we tasted through. In some cases, the samples were different clones, in others the same varietal and clone in varying barrel types. What this exercise illustrated is the machinations and live experimentation they go through on a continual basis to not only improve the wine and make the best wine from a particular vintage, but also to ultimately learn more about the place they are making wine and what sort of fruit it yields.

Their Estate Chardonnay, was amongst 2 or 3 that stood out among the sea of them I tasted on my recent trip to Napa & Sonoma. Quite frankly it's right in my sweet spot for Chardonnay. It features excellent fruit, restrained used of oak, plenty of complexity in the form of spices and mineral notes as well as a long lingering finish. It was lovely on its own, but it'll go well with a wide array of lighter foods. The Estate Pinot Noir was also impressive and true to what this varietal can be when made in a pure style without trying to turn it into something it's not.

Single vineyard efforts as well as wines made in small quantities in slightly different styles were a fascinating case study of the directions one can sculpt wine in. A limited production dry Rosé was amongst my favorites of the small lot offerings I was poured. In truth, each wine I tasted at Bouchaine was a quality offering that told parts of their story. The balance of their story was filled in by Mike, a gracious host who clearly loves what he does as well as showing it off.

The bottom line is that if you have the opportunity to visit Bouchaine Vineyards and taste wine by all means, do so. If you get the chance to speak to Mike while you're there and take a tour, better yet. But if for some reason you can't see the place, taste their wines. Whether it's the Estate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or one of the smaller production wines, drinking them will not only be enjoyable, but tell you a lot about their origin. If you enjoy pure and true expressions of these varietals, Bouchaine is a name to look out for.

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Visiting Nicholson Ranch Vineyards

One of my first stops this week after the Wine Bloggers Conference concluded was Nicholson Ranch Vineyards. I'd had a couple of their wines previously, but had never been to the tasting room. They really straddle the line over at Nicholson, and I don't mean their wine. They're situated in Carneros, right on the appellation line really, in Sonoma, but not very far from Napa. Not surprisingly for a Carneros based producer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are at the heart of their operation. Their 2006 Estate Chardonnay was the first wine I tasted and it featured lots of ripe fruit, good balance, acidity and a spicy finish. Next I went though three Pinot Noirs. Pinot was the varietal that first attracted me to Nicholson. The Russian River, Estate and Sonoma Coast were all from the 2006 vintage. My preference leaned towards the Estate Pinot which featured dark, brooding fruit as well as some smoke and spice on the finish. The Sonoma Coast is quite nice as well but seems like it needs a bit more time to fully resolve itself and shine.

Once I had tasted through the Burgundian selections I tried a few other offerings. A 2004 Estate Syrah featured tobacco, leather and dark fruit in the nose. Nutmeg and continued dark fruit notes filled the palate which led into a brambly, earthy finish. This Syrah turned out to be quite indicative of the examples of the varietal I'm finding on this trip. That is, they are often well balanced, earthy and reminiscent of their Rhone counterparts.

The last wine I sampled at Nicholson was a 2005 Estate Merlot. Black Cherry notes were the most prominent characteristic of this offering. At 3 years of age it's still a very youthful wine with a solid structure. It's tasty now but will definitely benefit from cellaring.

Wine wise the 2004 Syrah was my favorite of the selections tasted at Nicholson Ranch. It has a $40 price-point and delivers plenty of complexity, pleasure and potential age-ability to justify that cost.

The tasting room at Nicholson Ranch Vineyards is a bright, cheery place to visit. The staff is friendly, eager to please and knowledgeable about the wines. Most importantly though, they feature well made wines. This a good stop, recommended for those looking for a spot to hit in the Carneros region.

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Visiting Palmaz Vineyards

There are many pleasures to be had when visiting a wine region. Tasting wine is certainly one of the big ones. Interacting with and getting to know people at a winery who work in some aspect of the operation is another. For me, having travelled to Napa & Sonoma many times, the discovery of a new winery often stands at the top of the heap in terms of wine country excitement. So I listened intently when Palmaz Vineyards was recommended to me as a must visit. After looking them up, I made an appointment. When I arrived at Palmaz Vineyards I was greeted by Florencia Palmaz who founded the winery along with her parents and brother. Florencia gave me a tour of their facility which is situated mostly underground in the side of a mountain. It was built this way to maximize vineyard space which is somewhat scarce within the rough terrain of the Palmaz Vineyards property relative to the overall size. The site had been a winery many years ago but lay fallow after prohibition.

After the tour, which included information about all aspects of the winery and the history of the vineyard site, Florencia and I tasted through their wines. While Cabernet Sauvignon is their bread and butter, we also went through several small production offerings that don't reach distribution.

Riesling was the first wine we went through. It's color was lovely with a very pale, almost white hue. This is a dry wine that makes an appealing choice to serve at the beginning of a meal or with light appetizers. It's nose is effusive and really leaps from the glass.

Chardonnay was next up and it truly hit my sweet spot for this varietal. While also light in color, it's incredibly rich in flavor. Oak treatment is barely apparent and provides some added complexity, but never intrudes. The finish is lengthy enough to be impressive with mineral notes as the highlight.

Cabernet Sauvignon is their benchmark wine and I tasted four consecutive vintages of their trademark release. 2002, 2003, 2004 and the about to be released 2005 were the years I sampled. There was a connective tissue of style linking them all together. Elegance, grace, richness and restraint are all characteristics that come to mind. Each wine was well balanced and clearly has the ability to age. The not yet released 2005 showed a much richer and fuller palate than many of the other 2005 Cabernet's I've sampled so far on this trip. So many of the 2005's I've tasted are softer in style with less richness than their respective wineries previous vintages. The Palmaz is just as rich if not more so than their previous vintages and may well prove to be the best of the four I tasted.

All of the Cabernet's above are Bordeaux style blends. Florencia also poured the limited Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon for me. This is a 100% varietal wine limited to under 400 cases. While it's not quite as complex as the flagship wine, it's not meant to be. Instead it's an expression of their best Cabernet Lots from 2002. In that regard it's a fascinating look at a place and time for Cabernet Sauvingon.

Palmaz Vineyards also makes a Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon. This was the name of the original winery on the site. As an homage to their predecessors this wine bears the original Cedar Knoll logo and a photo of the founder. This was a solid Cabernet Sauvignon and may well be an entry point to the winery for some folks.

The last wine I tasted was a Muscat Canelli dessert wine. This offering features a huge nose and a much lighter touch across the palate than most dessert wines. It has sweetness but in a very restrained manner. It certainly stands apart from most other dessert wines with it's gentle touch.

Across the board, the wines of Palmaz Vineyards are impressive. In addition to that, the hospitality of the Palmaz family which I experienced by spending well over 3 hours with Florenica is beyond reproach. If you're visiting Napa Valley, I urge you to do yourself a favor and schedule a tour and tasting at Palmaz Vineyards. The wines are terrific and the experience is filled with a personal touch not every winery provides.

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