Friday, January 30, 2009

Entertaining Wines

In years past, the principal wine makers in California came from a wine making background. You would think it would still be that way, but that’s not always so. Many wineries have been bought by conglomerates with all that that implies. Others have been purchased by money made in Silicon Valley, sometimes the new owners utilizing their engineering background to apply modern technology to wine making. Others have been purchased by those in the entertainment business. Niebaum-Coppola and Fess Parker come to mind here. Francis Ford Coppola even has a museum of artifacts from his movies at the winery, now called Rubicon Estate.

Another example, possibly one of the best, is Frank Family Vineyards of Napa Valley. If you are in the entertainment business then the name Rich Frank is well known. Saying he is one of the leading lights of the Disney TV and feature film enterprises and founder of the USA network only begins to tell the story of his influence. What began as a friendship with Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards developed into a passion for winemaking. When Kornell Champagne Cellars on the site of historic Larkmead Winery went on sale in 1992, Koerner and Rich purchased it jointly. In 2007, Rich assumed total control.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the newly built, but ageless looking, multi-story home that contains the tasting room. The second thing you’ll notice is that there are no tasting fees, which in Napa is almost unheard of for a quality winery. I found out why quickly enough when I left with a case of wine. The wines are irresistible. However, they are not inexpensive, unless you consider quality. In which case, they’re a very good buy!

One of the other things you may notice is dedication. The staff I met there were knowledgeable, enthusiastic about the wines, and loved showing them off. After sampling the sparkling wines, which were very impressive, we were invited to the back office with Pat Cline. I’ll focus here on the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Tasting Behind Closed Doors

The office proved to be large and comfortable, with a desk big enough to accommodate many wines and glasses. I sampled three Chardonnay wines, each one an eye-opener for those like myself who have become disenchanted with California versions. Tasting these wines was like falling in love with Chardonnay all over again. I have always loved the French Montrachet interpretations of the Chardonnay grape, and the Frank Family 2006 Carneros Chardonnay and 2007 Carneros Reserve Chardonnay exhibit flavors that will please any lover of the French versions.

The Carneros region lies at the top of San Francisco Bay, or more specifically, San Pablo Bay. The winery’s Lewis Vineyards are 138 acres of rolling hills ideally suited to produce Chardonnay wines of great balance, acidity, mouthfeel, and depth. The maritime influence and clay and loamy soil both play a part in the creation of great fruit for making exceptional Chardonnay. The low rainfall contributes to stressing the vines for low but high quality yields.

For many, Napa is synonymous with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. The most awarded, most expensive, and sometimes most over-rated Cabs have come from here. My first surprise was that their basic Cab was less than $50, and my second shock was finding it to be an awesome wine. I learned from Pat that this wine beat out Opus One, Caymus, and other $125+ cabs in blind tastings. I believe it.

The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is close to the classic Bordeaux blends of this grape with Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc adding to the complexity and balance of this wine. The tasting notes must have been written by someone sampling the wine at the same time, as the notes wax poetic on the myriad of flavors to be found therein. Heck, I can’t blame them, this may be the best $45 Cab in Napa or Sonoma and that’s covering a lot of ground.

I was sure they couldn’t top this until I tried the 2005 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This one almost brought tears to my eyes, it was so good. Tasting notes will do little to describe the experience of this wine or their signature cab, the 2005 Winston Hill. Both of these wines source fruit from the Winston Hill vineyards in Rutherford, hence the Rutherford classification of the reserve wine. Tasting is believing, so make sure you include them in any tour of Napa.

Check out their website at for details and pricing. The website is well designed and provides extensive information of the wines I’ve mentioned including the 2006 Zinfandel, which is also exceptional. I promise you, you will get your money’s worth no matter which wines you choose. Salud!

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