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!

Duckhorn Wines Served at Inaugural Luncheon

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to sample the wines of Duckhorn Vineyards, a consistent producer of fine wines. This was organized by my good friend, Judy Diaz, who provides exclusive wine tours in the Napa Valley. In a later email, she mentioned that Duckhorn wines had been selected for President Obama’s inaugural luncheon. I’ve always been impressed with Judy’s instinct for turning up great wines for me to sample, but this was over the top! If you were at the luncheon, this is what part of the menu would look like.

First course: A fish stew served with Duckhorn Vineyards
2007 Sauvignon Blanc

Second course: Duck and pheasant served with sour cherry
chutney and molasses sweet potatoes, and paired with
Duckhorn Vineyards 2005 Goldeneye Pinot Noir.

I’m not sure I’d have room for a third course.

While we didn’t get the Presidential repast, we did get a personal tour and felt like honored guests. We toured the vineyards with a glass of the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. This is a big wine, with 25% Semillon added to enrich the creamy mouthfeel. Lots of citrus fruit and good acidity make this a good food wine as the menu above proves. The tour ended at a private tasting room.

Wine Tasting in Style

Our tasting was done in a very large room with wine barrels climbing the walls and a long table that could serve forty guests. Subdued lighting and a cloistered feel added to the ambiance. We were somewhat dwarfed at one end of the table with a number of Duckhorn red wines arrayed in large Riedel glasses. Each glass sat atop a coaster duplicating the wine label, and beside it were a number of cheeses specially selected to complement the wines. Tasting in style, I loved it.

My first thought was to invoke the old wine merchant saying; buy with water, sell with cheese, which means a mediocre wine can taste much better with the right cheese. However, I only invoked it, I didn’t follow it. These were premium estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines after all. The wines were paired with premium cheeses like Bleu D’ Auvergne from Liverdois, France. I think even the merchant that coined that phrase would have succumbed.

Just to be sure, however, I sampled each wine first, and then went back and tried them with the cheeses. With my attention focused on the wines, I paired the cheeses in reverse order and came up with some odd combinations before our host pointed out my mistake. Well, heck, I’m not used to wine and cheese tasting.

Wine and cheese are perfect compliments, as there is always at least one unique cheese to compliment any wine. Yes, even mediocre wines. The Duckhorn wines, on the other hand, would taste great in a beer mug, with not even a cracker to pair. The correct matching of wine and cheese also emphasized different qualities of each wine that could also provide inspiration for food pairings.

Although all the wines were exceptional, the 2005 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot was my favorite. Done in a similar style to Bordeaux Merlot-based wines, it included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. A nose of baked cherry pie and vanilla led to a palate of red and dark fruit with hints of cinnamon and earthy notes. The fact that the grape harvest lasted for two months may account for the wonderful complexity of this wine.

We then went back into the tasting room where we tried some of the other wines Duckhorn offers, including the 2005 Goldeneye Pinot Noir. Goldeneye is an alternate label of fruit sourced from Anderson Valley. If only they’d offered it with duck and pheasant. We also were impressed with the 2006 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

Check out their website at for details and pricing. While none of these wines comes cheap, the full value is in the bottle, and if you’re looking for some of the best wines coming out of Napa Valley, this is an easy choice. Salud!

Blending Technology and Art

Growing grapes and making wine have, from time immemorial, been a mix of experience, art, passion, and patience. Not so in the 21st century. We now have technology working in many areas once considered the exclusive province of the artisan grape growers and wine masters. Wine technology takes much of the guess work out of deciding what to grow, how and where. That same technology can be used to monitor, sample and adjust the nutrients, and determine how much water to use. A master of this new winemaking strategy is Dave House, founder of House Family Wines.

Dave’s center of operations is also his home, a sprawling fieldstone and glass house that sits atop one of the tallest hills in Saratoga, California. Saratoga is an exclusive community that rests in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and, with its neighbor, Los Gatos, serves as the gateway to Highway 17 and Santa Cruz on the Pacific.

The home would have made Frank Lloyd Wright envious, capturing views of the surrounding hills and mountaintops of this eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation. An appellation, Dave was quick to point out, that offered enough diversity to contain several mini-AVAs within its region. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine/grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features. The boundaries are set by government agencies.

The wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains have been among my favorites since I lived only footsteps away in Los Gatos. This is mountainous terrain I’d bicycled hundreds of time, criss-crossing every back road on which the wineries and vineyards lay. In fact, I routinely cycled the feeder road on which Dave’s mountaintop vineyards reside, never realizing what hidden treasures the land held for the right developer. Dave, as it turned out, was the right developer.

Grape Growing Technology

This is where the technology comes in. Dave had his eye on this parcel of land while building a home below in Saratoga more than 15 years ago. He decided the breathtaking views and various slopes of varying exposures would be perfect for a home and vineyards. He hired a dirt doctor – yes, you read that right – and had numerous cones of earth punched out of the hillsides to verify the composition of the soil. Dr. Alfred Cass probably prefers his descriptor -- soil scientist, and he has a resume that must have him in high demand in California’s wine industry.

That analysis gave Dave insight into the types of grapes to grow, the layout and planting of the vines, and type of irrigation best suited to growing world-class grapes. Dave added numerous weather stations to record wind direction and intensity, rain patterns, moisture content of soil and vines, and other parameters that were then sent wirelessly to his computer to perform extensive yearlong analyses of the land.

The French would call this information the basis of the terroir, a belief that the unique aspects of an area’s soil, climate and topology dictate what types of grapes to grow. In France they have consultants that do the soil analysis to determine what to grow and how, but they have nowhere near the kind of information that was collected here. Dave is also not constrained by French regulatory organizations.

Some of the slopes on which the grapes reside are very steep, how steep I didn’t realize until Dave took me for a ride through his vineyards. The little cart we rode was only equipped with a roll bar (I always disliked the term roll bar, with its suggestion of the need for immediate employment) and no seatbelts. So, here we were on the top of a hill.

The first part of the journey was not too bad, but when I looked down a steep slope that appeared to be 90 degrees, I grew a bit apprehensive. This was like a roller coaster ride, but without the safety bar that keeps a body from launching into space. Calm down, I told myself, he’s done this before. Nonetheless, I glanced sideways to assure myself that this was part of his routine vineyard tour.

Dave pointed out that the type of furrow etched into the hillside for the vines was created with a special wing-shaped augur that cut a wide, two-foot deep trough through the soil. The vine would have an easy time getting down the first two feet, after which it would encounter much higher soil density to fight through. Since these vineyards are dry-farmed, the roots had to expend a lot of energy to get to the deeper water. Stressed vines yield smaller clusters of dense and flavorful grapes, a prime reason for this technique.

Even the ground cover was chosen for soil and water retention, using a custom seed mix adjusted for soil type and slope and specified by his viticulturist, Dr. Roberts. Did I mention that Dave never does things half way? By the time we returned, thankfully unharmed, my head was spinning with the amount of detail and thought that went into creating the vineyards that surround the house.

Working with the Best Grapes

Even if the science is correct, and the art of grape growing is religiously applied, it still requires a good winemaker to turn excellent grapes into excellent wine. For that, Dave called upon Jeffrey Patterson, who began winemaking with Mt. Eden Vineyards in 1981. Jeffrey also makes the wines for Mountain Winery, where Dave has an interest. Mountain Winery resides on the historic site of Paul Masson vineyards. All three vineyards are within miles of each other, carved out of a special part of the Saratoga Hills.

Repairing to the tasting room--airy, glass and stone, incredible views--we sampled Chardonnay as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. The proof of all that technology still had to show up in the glass. And it did in abundance. We began with a limited release 2006 Chardonnay, followed by a 2004 Merlot with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Merlot. The grapes came from vines that surround the home. There is something special about drinking wine where the grapes are grown. These vineyards are young and still evolving, but tasting the harbingers of what is to come, I’d say it won’t take long for the demand for these wines to become very high. The line forms behind me when Dave announces the first official release later this year. Salut!