Saturday, July 19, 2008

California Wine Tour Day 5 - Napa Valley

Being regular sparkling wine drinkers, we had neglected this style since our excursion to J Vineyards. We decided to head directly to Mumm Napa, where we knew a wide array of sparkling wines would await us. We had tried several of these wines at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival and thought that many of their wines were great values priced at $20. In 1979 Guy Devaux was sent by the French Champagne house, G.H. Mumm, and its parent Seagram to seek a location to grow and produce sparkling wines using traditional Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) and traditional processes: methode champenoise. He settled in Napa Vally and established Mumm Cuvee Napa, which became operational in 1986. Currently Champagne born winemaker Ludovi Dervin carries on this tradition, using only Napa Valley grown grapes and allowing the wine to secondary ferment in the bottle.

When we arrived the winery was quite crowded, but we were quickly seated on the patio. Their system for handling visitors is simple and makes the tasting process very personal. Basically you choose a table, and then the wait staff handles your wine order – answering any questions or suggesting flights. It’s like being at an outdoor café. Another nice policy is that they serve each wine with an associated coaster that contains the label of that wine. It makes it much easier to remember each wine. We sampled four wines, the Reserve Brut, Cuvee M Red, the Grande Annee, and the Sparkling Pinot Noir. Each of these wines retail for $30 and were excellent – flavorful with small bubbles. The Reserve Brut was as dry as its name suggests, but also fruity (white cherry) with a slight vanilla finish. It is a 60-40 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay aged three years on lees. The Cuvee M Red is a unique blend of Pinot Noir and a little Syrah. This is a dark red wine, which tastes a little like a sparkling elderberry wine that’s a little spicy. The whole Pinot Noir berries are soaked for five days to extract the color and flavors, and then fermented with the skins pressed off after fermentation. A Syrah-based liquor is added to each bottle after disgorgement. The result is one of our favorite sparkling wines and one of the winery’s best sellers. The 2001 Grande Annee or “Great Vintage” is only produced when the winemaker determines that the grapes will age perfectly. The 2001 vintage is another 60-40 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and is aged 5 years on lees, then another 3 months after being disgorged. This is a complex wine, with honeysuckle aromas and a vanilla finish. The mid palette is a jumble of differing tastes. It truly deserves the Double Gold at the 2007 California State Fair Competition. The final wine was the Sparkling Pinot Noir, another red wine with a slight plum and cherry flavor. For some reason this was our favorite; it was quite out of the ordinary – like a true Pinot Noir with fizz. If you are unable to tour Napa, Mumm Napa’s sparkling wines are generally available throughout the country. They are extremely affordable and great values.

While cruising Highway 29, we frequently passed an interesting line of trees bending over a driveway with a chateau inspired building in the rear. Our curiosity was finally relieved when we drove under the Sycamore tress into Peju Province Winery. Without even tasting the wines Peju became one of favorite destinations. The grounds are awesome, with multiple fountains, sculptures, gardens, and even a small creek. We toured the estate for at least 45 minutes before venturing inside the tasting room, which itself, is housed in a pretty cool building: the Peju Tower. The building is composed of stucco and stone and interestingly, the posts and beams are made of lumber salvaged from old Midwestern barns.

In the early 1980’s, Anthony Peju and his wife Herta Behensky (HB) decided to enter the wine industry and searched for the appropriate location throughout California. They found the perfect location in Rutherford, purchasing an estate of vineyards that included 60 or more year old Cabernet Sauvignon and French Colombard. Location was the key, since the estate bordered the existing Robert Mondavi, Inglenook and Beaulieu enterprises. They then turned to creating the proper tasting room that they envisioned as well as creating the fantastic landscaping we saw today.

Upon entering the tasting room, we were greeted by very friendly hosts who help facilitate a trip to the bathroom during a bad potty training episode. They were completely understanding. Afterward we were guided into the main tasting area where a large stained glass window greeted us. This magnificent window was created a century ago and depicts “the three Greek graces in a beautiful garden”. Whatever that means. Our official tasting was in the Uluru Room, or The Addition, which shares the stained glass window with the main tasting area, but also has a quartzite tiled floor and silk lamp shades. A very unique look.

We started out with a nice Estate Bottled Chardonnay from grapes grown in the Persephone Vineyard. The wine was aged in French Oak which gave it texture but not a buttery finish. The wine was quite refreshing – but not as interesting as their Provence, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and French Colombard. This is the type of unique wine that makes wine touring interesting – since it is probably not stocked in many retail stores. The wine is dry, yet fruity and refreshing which explains why it was the wine of choice for a few couples picnicking in the gardens. And after the tasting, this was the most popular wine purchased by our fellow visitors. After the Provence, we moved to the full-bodied Bordeaux reds, starting with the Estate Bottled Napa Valley Merlot. Even though the wine was aged 16 months in oak – it is a very smooth and fruity wine, probably due to the extra 10 months aged in the bottle. From this tasting and a few previous, it’s nice to see Merlot still prevalent among established wineries. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was also aged a year and half in oak and is a full-bodied wine. It has an intense dark cherry flavor with a slightly spicy finish – we describe a lot of cabs that way, don’t we. In any case, we like this wine, but even more the Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. It had a stronger cherry flavor and seemed smother than the Cabernet Sauvignon. In sum, the wines are excellent – another winery where each offering was suburb. Add in the architecture and you have one of our favorite places.

After a fulfilling late lunch at Taylors (try the meatball sandwich and coconut milk shake), we explored the back roads of Howell Mountain in order to allow someone to sleep in the car. After an hour driving, we got the urge to visit another winery before the 5:00 o’clock closings. While driving from the Silverado Trail to Route 128 we came upon a sign for Silver Oak Cellars and charged ahead. And found a construction site. Actually, the winery is being completely reconstructed after a fire destroyed the historic dairy barn where the winery was located. The new winery\tasting facility is expected to be completed by the end of the summer. In the meantime, the tasting room is housed in a temporary – but spacious – trailer. Upon entering the facility we found a very different enterprise than those we had visited earlier.

Over thirty five years ago Ray Duncan partnered with Justin Meyer (then the winemaker at Christian Brothers) with the idea to make wine from a single variety: Cabernet Sauvignon. And not just a typical Cabernet that’s tannic content requires several years of aging. They wanted to produce a wine with “fully developed flavors and a velvety soft texture on the day it is released for sale”. In order to do so, they purchased vineyards in two premier appellations (Napa and the Alexander Valley) and developed a partnership with a Missouri cooperage to ensure a steady supply of high quality American oak. Over the years they manipulated the blends within the appellations and between new and used oak to produce duo of wines that evidently have a large following. Mr. Meyer selected Daniel Baron to succeed him as winemaker and eventually sold his shares back to the Duncan family. With several years working experience in the Bordeaux region, Mr. Baron’s experience further contributes to the Silver Oak Cellars philosophy.

We were both relieved and surprised to find only two wines awaiting us in the tasting room. After a day of tasting, we were starting to tire of wine, so we figured we could handle two more. On the other hand, we have never visited a winery that had this few offerings. Interesting. We started with the 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from several Alexander Valley vineyards. The irony of finding an Alexander Valley wine in Napa the day after traveling specifically to Alexander Valley and finding mostly Napa grown wines was not lost on us. The wine is aged in 50% new and 50% once-used American oak barrels for 25 months, and then spends another 15 months aging in bottle. The wine has a full black cherry flavor that lasts throughout – from the nose to the tail. This wine is a fine example where wineries should serve beef cubes while tasting – it must pair well with beef.

The 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was actually a Bordeaux blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. The wine is blended than aged in 100% new American oak barrels approximately 25 months, and then spends another 20 months aging in bottle. No need to store this wine; drink immediately. This is a smooth wine that is probably worth its steep price ($100). It is neither fruit forward or earthy, but rather a nice combination of the two. Even though this wine appears a little spicier than the Alexander Valley wine, it seems to be more drinkable on its own – without a meal – and even during a hot day. We enjoyed this wine – an instant classic. And good luck to Silver Oak Cellars on this reconstruction.

After leaving Silver Oak, we decided to drive once more along Route 29 near Rutherford, before finishing our last day in Napa. Along the way we noticed that Alpha Omega Winery was still open. Why not one more. The winery is a little over a year old and the permanent tasting facility is still under construction. We walked around the front after our tasting to examine the new facility and it will be impressive – particularly the large deck\patio that overlooks the lake. For now, the temporary tasting area is located next to the fermenting tanks. Who cares, the wines were great. Winemaker Jean Hoefliger has crafted wines in several styles that we really enjoyed. Unfortunately, we lost our tasting notes of the session – probably left behind in the rental car. The rest is based strictly from memory.

Alpha Omega was offering two white wines, a few red wines, as well as a rosé styled wine – finally a few white wines to finish our trip. Both the 2007 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and 2005 Napa Valley Chardonnay were very nice; both refreshing with the Chardonnay fruity not “oaky”. The Sauvignon Blanc will be very popular once the deck is finished – we can envision spending an afternoon basking in the Napa sun. The 2007 Napa Valley Rosé was a hit – a dry wine with a strawberry flavor and an acidic finish that popped in the mouth. It’s nice to see this wine style being offered along with the full bodied reds. As for red wines, we tasted the 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2005 Napa Valley Proprietary Red. The Cabernet Sauvignon was jammy, while the Proprietary Red was earthier – but they both were very drinkable now. We were also privileged to sample the 2006 Napa Valley Proprietary Red in the barrel. This will be a great wine – already smooth and earthy. We were ready to drink directly from the barrel all day. We will keep an eye open for when this wine is bottled.

After a long week of tasting, our trip was over; time for fireworks and sleep in order to catch an early flight in the morning. Thanks to everyone we met for their hospitality and for making this a wonderful experience. As always, see the Compass Tours section at for pictures.

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