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examination napa, w/ dr. 2b--chapter two

by Jon Rusciano

Friday morning’s rays of sunlight awakened me through the shades of my room.  It was early Pacific Time, but my body clock told me differently.  After a quick trip to the restroom, it was time to roust Dr. 2B from the depths of his catatonic slumber.  The first shake was like an attempt to raise the dead.   These progressed, along with a series of louder and louder calls for consciousness.   Soon, I received signs of success with a cross moan, followed by a cranky “Leave me alone!”  The relentless annoyance process would continue, until I had him sitting up in bed, assured that he would not plop right back into a comatose state.   With his head elevated, he was in full realization that this was going to be a painful recovery.   There were several proclamations of “I feel sick,” followed by the words “I need to puke.”   With his head buried in the toilet, the pitiful noises of “recovery” filled the Highland House.

I was amazed at how quickly this all passed.  In my younger days of foolishness, my hangovers were typically all-day events.   Miraculously by 7:15 am., we were loaded into the car, heading downtown for breakfast.  Equally surprising, was the fact that he could order and actually eat something that quickly.  By the end of our meal, he seemed ready to continue the adventure.   Yet I could tell, henceforth, that his wine consumption would be much more carefully managed.

The first stop in our mission for Friday morning was the Altamura Winery, due-east of downtown Napa.  The morning was cool and crisp, with a cloudless sky.  Ms. Garmin (my GPS girlfriend) brought us right to the front gate of their vineyards.  Entering, we noticed the future wine tasting facility (under construction) and as we followed the signs, we came upon the winery (also in a state of “in-no-hurry” incompleteness).   There was a large sized office trailer adjacent to it.  Inside, business operations were handled.  From appearances, I wondered how they rated such high Robert Parker marks with their ’05 Cabernet in this facility, which seemed to be limping toward completion as a few more dollars became available to tackle the next small phase.

Frank Altamura came driving up in his “well-utilized” pick-up truck and asked if we (just the two of us) were ready for the tour.  We followed him through the large “barn door” entrance into the area where the wine was produced.  We hardly paused as we received a briefing on the equipment. Then we walked through another set of doors into the caves which had been bored into the side of the hill.  A lovely array of bottles and sparking glasses adorned a collection of on-end barrels which had been arranged to accommodate the tasting.  Frank was definitely not the smooth talking salesman.  He pointed to various bottles and mumbled in a fashion befitting a ranch-hand cowboy, “You wanna try some of this?”  Turns out, he really did not need selling eloquence.  His product “did the talking.”  The ’05 Cabernet was a bold, flavorful wine, with some Bordeaux overtones.  Complexity existed, without a sacrifice to the dark fruit aroma and flavor.   It made me want to twirl a lasso, jump up and “click my heals.”  Next, I sampled his Sangiovese.  It was one of the smoothest I had ever tasted, with a slight hint of sweetness.   He also had a bottle labeled “Sundance.”   Frank indicated that Robert Redford liked his wine so much that he requested special bottling and labeling for his purchases.   This was (no doubt) a smart move.   With Redford’s popularity, if his favorite wine was displayed in the Altamura bottle, hordes of movie-festival-maniacs would be seeking to purchase it (from celebrity popularity alone), making Redford’s orders more difficult, and eventually costly.  I asked Frank if Redford came to visit him on occasion.   His answer was “Yep,” without any further comment.   Both of these wines will be in my storage, come early November, when temperature-safe ground shipping from Magid is possible.

I dedicated the balance of Friday to exploration of Howell Mountain.  A friend of mine (Dave Belding) swears by the virtues of this region and offered suggestions on places to visit.  Arrangements had been made in advance, and after a tasty sandwich at Soda Canyon Deli (BTW, I give it higher marks than Monty and Sara) on Silverado Trail, we headed up the mountain for our first appointment.   Bremer Family Winery was the first visit, just off of Deer Park Rd.   Their Cabernet was the only wine I sampled.   In my book, it was just OK.  The staff there was very hospitable, I must say.   And, like many of the wineries on and around Howell Mountain, the tasting was without charge.

Next stop was Lamborn Family Vineyards, off of Summit Lake Drive. This is a truly family-run operation.   Mike Lamborn spends all day out in the vineyards, clipping and pruning, a task many larger operations pay migrant workers to perform.  When arranging this visit, I had left messages for Mike to call me.   He returns calls and emails once, maybe twice a day, while taking a break.  Over the phone, he conversed like a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.  When we approached the entrance gate (much like you would find at someone’s private ranch), Mike met us with pruning tools in hand on a four wheeler.   He asked us to follow him through the vineyard pathway to the house.   There we met his lovely wife Terry, who gave us a tour of their residence and the stone-clad deck out back which overlooked a vast beautiful valley on the north side of the mountain.   The view was breathtaking and without a doubt the reason their house had been built on this part of the property. 

We all sat down at an umbrella covered picnic table on the deck, and Mike brought out the two wines we would taste, his ’06 Cabernet and Zinfandel, crafted by famous winemaker Heidi Barrett.  Both exhibited the proud results of his care and Heidi’s profound expertise, proving worthy of an order upon our return home.  We sat and slowly sipped each offering as we talked a “blue-streak” with Mike and Terry.  We collectively cured the nation of all its ills and laid the foundation for world peace, tossing in various tidbits of Napa Valley gossip along the way.  The visit lasted an hour and a half, yet if I did not have other appointments, I believe it would have lasted all day, concluding with dinner.   They were just that friendly and hospitable.

Down this same road a bit further was Outpost Winery, the spot that my friend Dave had emphasized as important.  Dave, Calvin (previous episodes) and I all sat down to a long Friday afternoon lunch (weeks before), where we drank a lovely aged bottle of Outpost Zinfandel.  Thus “Zin” was the primary focus of my visit here.   Outpost had the typical larger winery type front entrance, with a motorized metal gate.   Unfortunately, I had not been given the proper access code, so I jumped the fence and walked to the tasting building to ask them to open-up.  They apologized and soon had us sitting down with a host named Dan, who appeared to have been sampling wines with several previous visitors throughout the day, resulting in his memorized “sales-pitch” becoming a bit jumbled in spots.   The Cab was nice (yet a little too expensive in my judgment), but the ’06 Zin was indeed as memorable as my first experience.   There was a slight French Bordeaux finish that provided its distinct character.  I did order some, since I knew in advance that Magid’s distributors could not acquire it.

Our final stop was down the winding Howell Mountain Rd. at Amizetta Winery.  We arrived early to a locked front gate, much more formidable than the one I had scaled at Outpost.  Thus we waited until someone finally noticed us and pushed the open-button.   Their lovely home and business overlooked Lake Hennessey, with terraced vineyards down the sloping mountainside.  There was a tasting room just in front of their wine-making equipment.   It was not long before the co-owner, Spencer Clark, appeared and told us the story of the property’s acquisition and the winery being named after his wife.  Turns out Spencer had been a “rock-star” of sorts, performing for a nationally touring band, before settling down into winemaking.  He was very accommodating to me and my son, showing us their impressive caves and opening three separate bottles of his Cabernets and Meritage for our tasting.   All were very good, yet somewhat lacking of the characteristics (especially the finish) I seek in wines at his moderately-ranged price points.   Spencer re-corked all three bottles and gave us two to bring “back home.”  To my surprise again, there was no charge at all.  I have asked Magid to see if he can acquire their products, at his lower price, making them more worthy of future purchase.

The drive back to the Highland House was pleasant.   All day, my son had “towed-the-line,” consuming only tastes of selected offerings.   The memory of the morning’s woeful episode remained with him for the balance of the trip.

The first evening in Napa (then and forever-more) begets Mustard’s Grill.   My beloved Mongolian Pork Chops awaited at Cindy’s newly restored (post-fire-damaged) original Yountville location.  We brought along Spencer’s donated bottles and their contents pleasantly accentuated the heavenly fare.  I recently heard from Sally that Mustard’s Head-Chef has changed.  He will not remove my treasured dish… Will he?   What a frightening possibility.  Yet as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Chapter 3 of this adventure will contain more entertaining surprises.   I promise.  So, keep those computers “fired-up, tuned-in” and awaiting Sally’s announcement of its arrival.


Highland House
www.vrbo.com – Listing 190935

Altamura Winery

Soda Canyon Deli

Lamborn Family Vineyards

Outpost Winery

Amizetta Winery

Mustards Grill

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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