Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Any Port in a Storm as Long as it's Prager

Anyone who loves port wine knows how challenging it can be to find a domestic one that is consistently good and also available every year. Most winemakers will only make port wine serendipitously; that is, when the grapes are right for making port. Alternately, if they have an excess of grapes one year they might decide to make port. What is needed is a winery whose main focus is crafting port wines. Enter Prager Winery and Port Works in Napa.

The Prager family has been making port wines since 1979, and the knowledge of three generations of winemakers attests to their commitment and passion. Many California ports are made with Zinfandel grapes, but I’ve found ports made with Petite Sirah grapes superior. Prager uses Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and a trio of Portuguese grapes for a more authentic port. Prager makes tawny, ruby, traditional and vintage ports and two white ports. All Prager ports are in 750ml bottles, most other domestic producers use the 375ml size so don’t be misled by the higher prices of Prager ports. Just divide by two.

Some folks may think port is reserved for special occasions, but I’d reply you can make a special occasion by including port. Valentine’s Day chocolate and port, most definitely, a way to get through that chocolate Easter Bunny, why not? How about a round of Stilton cheese with a hole gouged into the center into which port is dribbled for a more esoteric choice? Perhaps you can see the possibilities.

Prager also makes two very good wines. Sampling the robust 2005 Petite Syrah provides insights into the reason their red ports are so good. The nose of cedar, cigar box and cherry leads to a dark cherry and spicy palate, mellowed with 2-1/2 years aging in American and French oak. The 2007 Sweet Claire of 100% late harvest Riesling is nicely balanced and the apple, apricot and spiciness of this not-too-sweet dessert wine work with any fruit-based desserts and Asian fusion dishes. They also make premium vinegars and a Port Chocolate Drizzle that is seduction itself.

The tasting room is also fun. The walls and ceiling are layered with currency from around the world. Imagine the myriad of visitors that wished to leave their mark on this house of port before they went home. And then there’s the special spider window, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

Chocolate and port wine always pair well, but Prager ports have a lock on the symbiosis of port and chocolate. In fact they even have jellied port in their truffle-styled chocolates. Did I mention this place might not be good if you’re on a diet? Oh, what the heck, live a little! Salud!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sampling Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon in Baccarat Crystal

Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena has a sweeping set of low-slung buildings amid, incongruously, a front yard sporting a set of empty picture frames slung across a wire line. Add cast white armed chairs set around them and be prepared for something out of the ordinary. And this was before we even entered the place.

The tasting room is large, spacious and clean. A wall-sized picture depicting a scene from the past is a celebration of the end to prohibition. Three cheers for that. I met Bill Farmer there who looked the part of a wine host and guide in his perfectly trimmed beard. We began with a very good 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay, a reserve selection that reinforced my opinion of Raymond Chards in the past. Crisp with a good acidic bite, this wine is not bludgeoned with oak and lets the good fruit shine.

There are signs everywhere on the property that this is a place to spend a leisurely afternoon, which is not typical of Napa. But if you’re into Bocce ball, there are courts here to test your skill. Looking for a seat under a sheltering shade tree? You’ll find it here. The tour took us through the winemaking area with a forest of stainless steel fermentation tanks gleaming in the subdued light.

Turning a corner we entered an area with racks of barriques climbing to the high ceiling, separated by a long, long table that ended at the Baccarat display. It looked like it could handle a seating of 50, but the far end was set for three. That would be for us. Backlit and red light seemed to suffuse the casks racked against both sides as if hinting at the contents.

Every shade of red radiated and reflected off glass and crystal, and if the lighting had not been dimmed I might have thought we’d entered an amusement park. A gaily costumed mannequin hanging from a trapeze certainly suggested that possibility.

That is until we were fully into the room and the display cases of Baccarat crystal dazzled the eye. For once my powers of description failed me, which is why a picture of this room is included. But even the picture does not do it justice. And that was before we sat down to taste the flight of wines reserved for us. That’s a heck of a prelude.

Bill Farmer as our guide/host was superb; he’s engaging, knowledgeable and passionate about Raymond. As an added bonus it appears we are both fans of the Addams Family, John Astin and the movie Wheeler Dealers. What are the odds of that happening?

The focal point of the tasting were three 2006 Appellation Collection Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wines that had been poured into heart-shaped baccarat crystal carafes. Each sourced their fruit from a different region within Napa; St. Helena, Oakville and Rutherford. Not surprisingly each had a different flavor profile even though the processing and aging were similar. Each showed the impact of terroir on the finished wines and all three were outstanding.

These are all classic Napa Cabs, and since I couldn’t decide which one I loved best I bought all three. By the way, if your last name is Raymond, do they have a deal for you. In fact, I’m almost thinking of changing mine to Raymond. Jim Raymond, it has a nice authoritative sound to it; don’t you think?