Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Hunting Down Some Killer Big Reds (and 1 Great White)
Preisers’ Reserve: One of the hot new wineries in Napa is owned by the charming Gabrielle Leonhard. Producing some excellent bottles, we particularly like the Gabrielle 2004 Equilateral Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), which features cherries in the nose, bright acids and stone fruit on the front palate, and a general mouthful of sage and white pepper. We happened to first try the wine with Gabrielle at Napa’s new Creole restaurant, and it was surprising to see how well it paired with spices of all types.
Hunting Down Some Killer Big Reds (and 1 Great White)
Some wineries just bring a smile to our faces every time we talk about them. And when we actually visit . . . well, it’s a happy tasting, for we think it can be said with confidence that while these wines can be outstanding, no one makes better wines for the price than winemaker Tom Rinaldi.
Many (some would venture to say “too many”) wineries in California are now owned by conglomerates, a fact that often leads the wineries within the portfolios of these giants to uniformity and/or mediocrity. Provenance, on the other hand, is owned by Diageo Wines, and is a good example of how an owner can still, if it desires, allow a winery’s personality to shine through.
A visit here can take many forms. For $10 one can sample the Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($22), Merlot ($40), and Rutherford Cab ($45). For $15 one enjoys the above plus the single vineyard Beckstoffer Las Amigas Merlot ($50) and the single vineyard Paras Merlot ($50). And for only $20, all those wines are joined by the Reserve Beckstoffer To Kalon Cab ($75) and the simply delicious Hewitt Cab ($85), which alone is said to be the reason Tom Rinaldi left Duckhorn for Provenance. If so, we can understand why. The Hewitt evidences incredible structure, blackberries, and chocolate, all the while offering a finesse that is hard to describe.
While Provenance is one of those establishments with good wines at every turn, today we want to spotlight two others – the Sauvignon Blanc and the Las Amigas Merlot. The former takes the prize as the best Sauvignon Blanc we found this summer, and that is saying something in a time when, in our opinion, Napa Sauvignon Blancs have never been richer and more sophisticated. Aged for 8 months in 4% new French Oak, the minerality and tropical aromas thus tempered and rounded, making for a beautiful bottle of wine.
We choose to discuss the Merlot because in an era where Merlot is too often maligned as a varietal, this powerhouse shows what the grape is capable of in the right hands. The fruit is grown in Carneros and spends 16 months in 52% new oak, 11% of which is Hungarian – a little something different Rinaldi uses from time to time to impart that smidgeon of oomph to some of his wines. Quite bold in structure, we identified a bit of orange flavor that merged with the chocolate to create some unusually good pairings
You cannot talk about the wonderful wines coming from this estate (and we mean “estate” in most literal sense) without talking about the fascinating owners. Greg Martin exhibits the élan and dash of the adventurer he is, all the while quietly basking in the glory of being perhaps the leading antique weapons dealer in the world. French born lawyer Petra Martin, with movie star looks, is a partner in every way. Together the Martins have turned the dilapidated 1887 Henry Harris estate – 12 acres situated on the river in Rutherford - into a home and winery so unique that one feels as if the purchase of a case of some pretty expensive, yet most delightful, wine might not even be a fair trade for a tour.
Yes, Greg and Petra have done a masterful job of restoring the grounds, winery, and chateau itself to an 18th and 19th century feel, but you have seen variations of this before. What we doubt you have experienced is a home where old to ancient weapons and artifacts (many formerly belonging to the famous and infamous) adorn the walls and occupy valuable floor space at every turn. One of our evenings with the Martins was like a weapon focused tour through the history of nations and of art.
So what about the wine? Well, you would not expect people of this background and style to produce anything but quality, and they do not disappoint. Seven acres of Cabernet Sauvignon Clones 4, 6, and 337 surround the winery, and a bit farther south, but still on the estate, is an acre of Merlot. Within this area the soils change from 100% loam in the east to a more gravelly soil in the west. This of course allows for varying taste profiles. Each vintage we have sampled naturally has its own character, but all have deep aromatics, soft tannins, layers of fruit (cherries, blackberries, plums, and/or figs), and some earth (the renowned Rutherford dust indeed exists here).
When you are ready for some serious Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (the Martins produce an Estate and a Reserve), give the winery a call or an email.
You have to have a lot of confidence in your wine to charge $35 for a tour and a single tasting (sometimes two). And you have to produce a wine of quality in order to keep people coming. Judging by the always busy hospitality center at Quintessa, these goals, and by extension the successful dream of Agustin and Valeria Huneeus, have been realized.
The winery itself was built into one of the property’s many hills so that the grapes can be crushed on the roof. This permits the juice to flow by gravity into the fermentation room below, and, ultimately, to the caves for aging. The fruit itself, comprised of a wide selection of rootstock and clones, matures in varying microclimates throughout the property, thereby allowing great diversity of tastes. The agricultural practices are now fully biodynamic, proving that such practices are not alien to fine wine production.
The 2004 Quintessa ($125), a Cab made from about 15 separate blocks, is one powerful, yet elegant wine. The addition of a little Petite Verdot shoots mint to the front of the palate before the more traditional black fruit coats the mid mouth. In order to keep up with the concentration, the tannins are, by necessity, noticeable. Good as the wine is now, wait five years for something even more special.
The 2005 ($135) was not yet released when we tasted, but you can see by the already set price that Quintessa knows it has a home run. We experienced layer after layer of discernable tastes ranging from tobacco box to cedar to soft leather to cocoa. We would be surprised if this one does not compete for high accolades.
This year Quintessa has released a wonderful “buy” with its 2004 Faust ($50). Rutherfordian in character, with luscious, dusty, black fruit, we especially liked the fact that it can be enjoyed young. One need not wait five years to get the maximum flavors.
No discussion of this property can be complete without mentioning what might be the Valley’s ultimate view. For those who have read Ayn Rand’s legendary classic Atlas Shrugged,” recall how you pictured the expansive valley where Galt, Taggert, and the rest of the industrialists went to escape the trappings of a fallen society. At Quintessa you begin by walking up the part of the hill just behind the winery. At first you will think it resembles a dozen areas you know, but keep going and be prepared for a jolt. At the summit you will gaze upon, and probably slightly gasp at, a magnificent “valley within the valley,” which in its own world surely must be something like Rand envisioned. This illusion/analogy certainly works for us, and makes that $35 tour fee much more palatable.
This is one of those small, family owned businesses that permeate the Valley, and are so much fun to find. Jack and Diana Varozza now lease the farm on Pratt Avenue in St. Helena from Jack’s parents, live there as well, and grow 38 acres of prime fruit. All the Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc are sold to premium wineries such as Pahlmeyer and Frog’s Leap, while the Varozzas keep the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah from three blocks with sixty year old vines. This allows them to bottle about 550 cases each year. All the wines are Estate grown and 100% St. Helena Appellation.
We had the opportunity this past summer to sit with Diana on her porch and look out over the vineyards as we tasted her wines. Visits are by appointment only, but the family is happy to see you. We first sampled the 2000 and 2001 Cabs ($45), which both exhibited medium body with nice blueberry and cherry overtones throughout. The light tannins in the 2001 suggest the wine is ready to be consumed relatively early after release, a presumption with which the Varozzas agree. The 2002 boasted more structure to us, and thus will benefit with a few years of aging.
We thought the find of the day was a particularly excellent 2001 Petite Sirah ($35), which smacks of bright cherries and spices, and lingers on the back palate for an inordinately long time. Good at any price, this is almost a steal these days.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.