What do you get when you add eight blondes, four brunettes, one bachelorette and wine?
My trip to Napa Valley.
Yes, my first-ever trip to Napa was for my college friend Courteney’s bachelorette weekend. She made it clear she wanted to be surrounded by her closest friends and wine for her last hurrah, and those who know Courto know she always gets her way.
And lets be honest, what wine lover would say no to a trip to California wine country?
So the tickets were bought, a house rented in Napa, a limo booked. We arrived Friday and set out early Saturday morning on our wine-tasting adventure.
We hit all these spots, plus one, on Saturday. I’ll write about each stop, the wines we tried, and my overall impressions.
We also ventured to Sonoma on Sunday to kill time before our flight. Those of you who recommended Sonoma over Napa were definitely on the mark. I felt downtown Sonoma fit my preconceptions of what I’d experience while there. We also stumbled into a tasting room while we were there. The wines were superb — in fact I think they were better than most we tried the day before in Napa. (More on that later).
A couple other observations: I went to Napa expecting to try some delicious, full-bodied, oak-filled Chardonnays. In fact I was really looking forward to trying California Chardonnays in California. So you can only imagine my disappointment when the three wineries that served us Chardonnay served us what they proudly proclaimed to be unusual Chards for California — no malolactic fermentation, no oak and lots of citrus. (I’m convinced there’s a small revolution brewing in California where winemakers are rebelling against the oaky Chards they’re known for.)
My other observation has to do with the Cabernet Sauvignons we tried. Many were blended with other varietals and almost all that I tried left my mouth dry on the finish — like bone dry.
This really surprised me. I can’t say why I was left with a dry finish. Maybe it was the style in which they were made? Or because the terroir is different from the Washington growing regions, which results in a different wine? Regardless, that’s what I took away from my tastings: the Napa Cabs are dry. They were delicious, don’t get me wrong, but they were dry.
And finally, my review of the wines we tried on our four-stop tour Saturday:
To start, let me say I loved everything about this winery. While the weather was downright cold, we were still able to imagine spending a hot summer day sipping wine on the deck overlooking the winery’s lush gardens with the vineyards in the distance. They’ve created an ambiance reminiscent of a cozy house, where when you walk in, you instantly feel like making yourself at home. (Sidenote, no one lives at the winery except for the cat).
The wines match that “sit, sip, stay a while” impression, making you second-guess your decision to leave for another winery when it comes time to go.
We were given the star treatment while we were there, which also made our experience that much more enjoyable — it helps that one of our bachelorette attendees was the sister-in-law of a winery employee.
Tasting flight included:
2009 Frog’s Leap Chardonnay (Napa): One-third of this wine was aged in stainless steel tanks, while the rest was kept in neutral oak. This resulted in a Chardonnay that had no oak tones (and subsequently no butter on the finish). It did however have a strong citrus impression, which was noticeable immediately on the nose. This Chardonnay is described by the winery as having a “mineral-and-slate essence” which I would say is correct. Everything about the wine is cold, which makes it a good choice to drink while trying to cool off on a hot day. The finish is described as “clean” by winemaker John Williams, and I’d have to agree100 percent. I found the finish tart, leaving my mouth to pucker ever so slightly, reminding me green apples.
2008 Frog’s Leap Merlot (Ruhterford): This wine was released two months ago, and grown on site at the winery. The nose reminded me instantly of oak, because of the hints of sweetness that were quickly followed by full-bodied fruit aromas. This is a wine that instantaneously fills your nostrils and your mouth. My first taste sent me to a state of relaxation. Flavors of cherry and plum produce a jammyness upfront, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this wine doesn’t have anything to offer after that. It leaves your mouth full and the finish is smooth, leaving you wanting more. (It left me eager to buy a bottle, which I did).
2007 Frog’s Leap ‘Rutherford’: This is the winery’s premium Cabernet. It’s a blend between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc. We were told this wine would have notes of the Rutherford AVA’s “classic dust” and boy they weren’t kidding. After sticking my nose in the glass, all I could smell was the dust. It actually reminded me of the smell a wineglass gets after being inside a stuffy china cabinet for a month or two without use. I liked this wine, but found the finish dry (see my above observation about the dryness of the Cabs we tried). I was surprised by this because of the oak on the nose — guess I assumed the finish would be fuller. I was wrong.
2008 Frog’s Leap Petite Sirah (Rutherford): Maybe it’s because the woman who poured the wine planted this word in my head, but my one-word description for this wine is “funky”. This is a 100 percent Petite Sirah, made in a classic European style. Only 600 cases were produced and the wine isn’t distributed outside of the winery. This is my first experience with Petite Sirah. Using the descriptor again, I found the nose “funky”. The first sip was a blast of flavor, but it didn’t last. There was virtually no finish. I asked my fellow bachelorette tasters their impressions. Alexa said the finish reminded her of “beef jerky”. Before anyone laughs, gaminess was actually a descriptor of the wine — which Alexa didn’t realize when she said it. The winemaker says the wine has hints of “tobacco, smoke and game.”
We also were given the chance to try a few more wines not on the tasting flight list, including:
2010 Frog’s Leap La Grenouille Rougante: This Rose was a crowd favorite with its dry finish that had just a spritz at the end.
2008 Frog’s Leap Zinfandel (Napa): This wine had a good nose with hints of spice. The flavor balanced spice with its upfront jammy hints.
2008 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa): This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Merlot. This was preferred to the Rutherford Cab. I found it too had a dry finish.
Crowd favorites: I preferred the Merlot, as did our bachelorette; the Rutherford Cab was labeled “best experience” by Kelly, our expert Cab drinker; while Alexa (our beef jerky connoisseur) opted to label the Zin her favorite. Carly was so wowed by the Rose that she bought a bottle — at $14 it was hard to pass up.
With some time to kill before our next stop we used the “two-for-one” tasting cards given to us by Frog’s Leap to visit Grgich Hills Estate.
Grgich Hills Estate:
This fun side trip included a few snaps of the camera with the winemaker himself: Mr. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. (Sidenote: Mr. Grgich was inducted into the Vintner Hall of Fame in 2008 for his lifetime of achievements, including his showing at the 1976 Paris Tasting where his wine outscored the best of France, thus revolutionizing the wine world, according to the winery’s website.)
We tried his 2008 Chardonnay, 2009 Fume Blanc (aka Sauvignon Blanc), 2007 Zinfandel, 2006 Merlot and 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. All of these are estate grown in Napa.
To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed with any of the wines. They were drinkable, but they didn’t wow my mouth. Here’s just a few impressions I wrote down:
The Chard was another without malolactic fermentation, so there was more citrus than oak up front. Our pourer told us Mr. Grgich has been making his Chard this way since the 1970s, making him unique in the region — at least at the time (again see above for my conspiracy theory that there is a small rebellion brewing among California winemakers to create non-oaky Chards).
The Zin had a fruity nose — definitely smelled strawberries on this one — which surprised me and reminded me more of a Burgundy than a Zin. I traditionally think of Zin’s as a heavier wine that can stand up to strong dishes (think Chili, BBQ, something with a lot of spice). This one however came across much lighter.
Lastly the Cab underwhelmed me. The nose was minimal and the finish was almost nonexistent.
Our next stop was V. Sattui.
The primary goal on this trip: Food. We didn’t try wines here, and frankly I’m glad. The place was a zoo. Think Disneyland for adults. The lines at the bathroom were long, the picnic grounds crowded and the tasting rooms packed.
After our quick nibble outside (under blankets to stay warm), we hopped back into the limo and headed to…
Alpha Omega Winery:
This is another winery with great scenery. The tasting room overlooks a patio area with a fountain spouting from the vineyards out front. If it’d been warm we would have enjoyed a glass out there, but alas we stayed indoors — where it was also a little chilly.
Our tasting included:
2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa): This grape is estate grown. It was crisp with sharp citrus notes. Because of its clean finish, I imagined enjoying this on a hot day, or with raw oysters bathing in a vinegar shallot marinade. The winemaker describes flavors of banana, pineapple and vanilla balanced by crushed stone, white peach and melon. Can’t say I tasted any of those (it has been a while since I last ate crushed stone after all), but the wine reminded me of a crisp white Bordeaux blend. (This makes sense because winemaker Jean Hoefliger, a Switzerland native, spent time in Bordeaux).
2010 Chardonnay: This was yet another unoaked Chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel for six months, this wine was focused on its citrus flavors.
2010 Rose (Napa): The first thing I noticed about this wine was its deep color. We later learned the juice spent 24 hours on the skins, which is why the color was richer than the light pink Roses we’ve come to expect. The blend was 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Merlot and the rest a blend between Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. I would describe this as a dry Rose, that offers something more for those who think they don’t like Roses. I have to include the winery’s description of the wine because to me they listed everything but the kitchen sink for what you might taste in your glass. Drinkers of this wine might notice on the nose: “touches of milk chocolate and white chocolate with cherry, rose, strawberry, yogurt and basil.” (Really yogurt and basil?) On the palate you could expect a “fresh entrance with an evolution into citrus, cedar, grenadine and cherry syrup lingering on fresh lemon zest and grapefruit.” Hmmm.
2007 Proprietary Red (Napa): This is a Bordeaux blend of 50 percent Merlot, 39 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Cab Franc and 4 percent Petite Verdot. The grapes were sourced from different vineyards, including Stagecoach. I noticed hints of oak on the palate and nose — but couldn’t discern the “chalk” I was told I should be able to smell. (To be honest, I’m not sure I even remember what chalk smells like. It has been a while since I was in elementary school).
2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa): Our last wine was the Cab, which was a blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Merlot and Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. The grapes were sourced from Stagecoach and To Kalon vineyards — two historically well-known vineyards in Napa. This Cab had the same dry finish I noticed with the other Cabs. This was the crowd favorite of our group.
Overall the wines at Alpha Omega were well-made and interesting, which left me wanting to try them again. However for the price points — the Cab and Proprietary Red were $84 and $86 respectively — I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to buy them. We also got a few good laughs out of the descriptions for the wine (you may have noticed my poking fun at them), in part because they used descriptions of things we’d never taste or eat (i.e. crushed stone and chalk).
Our last stop of the day was Pina Winery.
Even though we called in advance and scheduled an appointment, Clare, the only employee on hand, was not expecting us. You can only imagine his surprise when 12 women and a baby (the bride’s twin sister Kyle had her beautiful 9-week old daughter Ellie along) burst into the quiet tasting room, which also doubles as the cellar and stockroom.
While he was a little rough at first, we finally won Clare over after he learned most of us were fellow University of Washington alumni.
Pina is a small-scale winery, only producing 2,000 cases a year. Their wines are largely available online, through the wine club or for purchase from the winery. You’re probably not going to find them in the grocery store or wine shop.
Their focus is Cabernet Sauvignon, and as Clare said: “We make six, 100 percent Cabs that all taste different.” (However a quick glance at their website shows only five Cabs and a Chardonnay, but who’s counting right?)
Clare poured us four Cabs:
2008 Cahoots: This Cab has 5 percent Syrah, which I felt lent a slight jammyness to the finish, making it less dry than the other Cabs we’d tried. I really enjoyed this wine because of the hints of fruit, and the lingering rich mouthfeel. The wine exhibits black cherry, crème de cassis, graphite and forest floor, according to the winery’s description. (We liked this one so much, we bought five bottles).
2007 D’Adamo: This Cab is named after the vineyard where the grapes are sourced — D’Adamo. The Pina family leased the land and planted the vineyard in 1982. One of the four brothers that currently run the winery manages the vineyard, which he juggles with his day job as a tire salesman, according to Clare. With 15.4 percent alcohol by volume, you can imagine this wine had very dry finish. Aromas of black cherry, huckleberry and mocha were noticeable. The winery’s description says “sweet ripe fruit” will coat the palate and layers of oak and vanilla will follow. I don’t recall that experience — instead I felt the wine was a bit tannic. However with time I’m guessing the oak flavors will step up and the tannins will subside. This would definitely be a wine that would benefit from some time in the cellar.
2007 Howell Mountain: This wine is sourced from the Buckeye Vineyard on Howell Mountain in Napa. It spent 20 months on 100 percent French oak, 73 percent of it new. I quickly detected the famous Rutherford dust on the nose again and in the finish. (Sidenote: the grapes from this vineyard are pretty pricey, $10,000 a ton, according to Clare).
2008 Stone Corral Vineyard: This special bonus pour was in honor of our bachelorette. It was smooth and tasty, and honestly because it was the last wine of the day, I don’t remember a whole lot about what it did to my mouth — I did however drink all of it, which was the first time all day I allowed myself more than a single sip without spitting.
A quick last thought on our Sunday visit to Sonoma. We visited the tasting room of Eric James Vineyards. It’s a small production winery — only 800 cases a year. We loved all of the wines we tried here — I’d put them up there with Frog’s Leap for my favorite wines of the weekend.
We tasted a 2009 Chardonnay, which was by far my favorite Chard of the weekend (and yes it too had minimal oak). It reminded me of a white Burgundy, with a perfect balance of citrus and floral notes. Next we had a 2010 Syrah Rose — also my favorite Rose of the weekend — which was dry but with a slight sweet note, and a 2007 Pinot Noir, the weekend’s first.
The bouquet on the Pinot was striking and the finish lived up to the expectations of the nose. All of the wines are around 14 percent alcohol by volume and made to pair well with food. Because I purchased two bottles the day before and had already packed my suitcase by the time we visited Sonoma, I didn’t buy anything.
However I wished I had. The Chardonnay and Pinot are still on my mind.
Sounds like another trip is in order.