Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tunneling Into the Hills of Coombsville

If a winemaker made a wish list of everything he or she would need to make the best wines, and price were no object, it might look something like Porter Family Vineyards. When our guide, Curtis Strohl of Ancien Wines, drove us up the final hill to the Porter property, there were breathtaking views to the north. Below us lay Napa Valley, gently curving through sloping hills. In the near distance, a dilapidated building indicated the last vestiges of a long defunct stage line that brought early settlers to this lush farmland.

We met Tim Porter and entered the nearest building, which also housed the lab for testing brix and other parameters. Tim took over the tour and poured the 2008 Sandpiper Rosé, made from 100% Syrah. Gazing out the west-facing windows, I explored the rounded hill just above us. Grapes blanketed the hill with row upon row of gently undulating vines, but at the base I spotted the entrance to a cave. A wine cave, no doubt. But, no. Upon closer inspection, that cave was actually the winery!

Taking our glasses of wine with us, we climbed the hill and looked down upon a large grape-crushing machine, covered by a tin roof, and resting on the downward slope. This design permits the grape juice to be gravity-fed below to the rear entrance to the cave, a structure that travels the entire length of the hill’s base, and contains more than 17,000 square feet of wine-making equipment and storage, plus a tasting room.

Entering the Cave

We descended the stairs to the rear entrance. The complex looked like a giant mole had cut a huge hole into the hill, magically coating its sides with smooth concrete before continuing its mad scamper through to the downhill opening. Power cables clung to the sides and numerous branches off the main tunnel appeared as we proceeded further into the cave. It was an unreal feeling, as though I’d stepped into a James Bond movie, with a criminal mastermind lurking just around the next corner.

One of the major branches contained a long row of stainless steel fermentation tanks. Above them a long metal track housed an apparatus for automatically performing the daily punch-downs in each tank. What winemaker wouldn’t kill for a setup like this, I thought. Many automated systems used pump-overs to keep the cap broken up, but punch-downs are generally considered a better way to handle the process, except for the added labor usually associated with it. Not here.

When we finally made our way into another branch that was the tasting room, I was ready to sample the wine all this technology was designed to bring forth. Over thirty-five feet in circumference and rising to a rounded top, the enclosure sported indirect lighting along the sides and a huge round table that could have seated all of Arthur’s knights. On it was the Porter Family Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, our holy grail and much easier to find than Sir Galahad’s goal.

Was it worth the quest? In spades. The wine is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, and 3% Merlot; not a typical Bordeaux blend, but it works. The nose yields notes of violet, cedar, and spices. Packed with dense, dark fruit of blackberry, plum and black currant, the 24 months in French oak added vanilla bean and dark cocoa. The tannins provide good structure and enhance the long finish. There may have been tears in my eyes after sampling the wine, but I quickly brushed them away. The 91 rating from Wine Spectator is much too low. Just goes to show you, some things you have to discover for yourself. Salud!

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