Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Some Wineries and Vineyards are Still Pure Wine Country
Preisers’ Reserve: It is often hard to choose a wine for our “Reserve” because we are fortunate to taste so many good ones. It becomes especially difficult after we attend a high ticket event like the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, where the excellent portfolio of Southern Wine and Spirits is on display. Nevertheless, one beautiful wine seemed to rise above the rest – the 2002 Nicole’s Vineyard Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), expertly crafted by winemaker Jennifer Higgins. This rich, full wine is dominated by black fruits (cherries and berries) which dissipate gradually as you enjoy the silky body and startlingly long finish. Granted, the wine carries a pretty high price, but this is one of those special occasion wines that helps make the occasion more special.
Truth in Labeling Wins Out
Did you know that for a number of years the owners of some so called value wine brands have been putting names of Napa locations on their bottles yet (intentionally, mind you) producing their wine from grapes grown outside the Napa Valley? Their argument favoring the legality of this practice has been, in simplistic form, that if the business is located in Napa, it can use the name of the place on their wine (and in the process save a lot of money by buying less expensive, and usually inferior, grapes from lesser valued regions – all the while trading on the valued name of Napa). It doesn’t take much imagination to see that such a practice undercuts those in the Valley who have worked so hard to produce high quality products, as well as sends a misleading message to the consumer about where the grapes in their wines were cultivated.
At long last, the Courts agree. The Supreme Court of the Unites States has refused to review a lower tribunal’s decision barring companies from using the name Napa on their label unless (a great majority of) the fruit actually is grown in the Valley. Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners Association said, “Our goal has been unwavering from the start: if it says Napa on the label, the wine in the bottle better be from Napa.” Well, now it will be.
Some Wineries and Vineyards are Still Pure Wine Country
The other day we sought the answer to a simple question about, and from, a well known winery that is now owned by a huge international corporation. Just finding a live person to speak with, much less one that could resolve our problem, was a task unto itself (there were lots of prompts and options, however). So we left a few messages. Not until the next day did we receive any return calls – and not just one. We heard from at least 5 people at the winery trying to help. Shades of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, where protagonist Finch decides he needs to work in a corporation that is “just big enough so no one really knows what anyone else is doing.”
We lamented a bit about modern economics and gadgets, and decided to feature smaller wineries today that not only produce quality products, but still give you that family feeling of what one might call “Old Napa” or “Old Sonoma” – a time when you could reach a sister or nephew when you called for an appointment, and expect to meet the patriarch or matriarch (not to mention the wine dog) when you arrived. So here we go.
The everyday team here includes former Princeton and Harvard graduate Fred Fisher (patriarch), his wife Juelle (matriarch, who is responsible for the wonderful atmosphere at this mountain winery and often travels on its behalf), daughter/winemaker Whitney (also a Princeton grad who decided to work in the vineyards for one year but never left), and former Wall Street denizen Robert (who recently found his way “home” to help with the business). On significant occasions, such as when Fisher hosts its best customers, you will even see more of the family (those not in the business on a day to day basis) strategically placed to give a helping hand.
Because we were privileged to be invited to the Fisher Vineyards First Annual Spring Fling (can it be 9 months ago already), and because we enjoy their products, we have had the opportunity to taste a wide range of their wines. The family makes 9 of them (4 varietals and 1 blend), with our favorites being:
-2003 Whitney’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($55), which exhibits the vineyard’s richness along with combinations of honeysuckle and peaches on the nose and palate. You have to buy this one at the winery if any is available, but, if not, there is always the next vintage;
-The highly rated 2003 and sure-to-be-the-same 2004 Mountain Estate Chardonnay ($45), which fill your nose with apples and pears before giving way to hard to describe, but delicious, spices; and
-The marvelously full bodied and well proportioned 2001 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125), with its (let Whitney tell it) “hints of graphite, melted asphalt, black currants, blueberries, and white flowers.”
We also enjoy the always well made RCF Merlot ($50 in 2002), which uses a small blending of Cabernet Franc to produce a chocolaty wine with bright cherry finish; and the winery’s most famous offering, the Bordeaux blend Coach Insignia ($70 in 2002), with the 2002 release showing off big black cherries, plums, and elegance. All the wines at Fisher Vineyards are designed to honor the family’s traditions, which are not only wine related. Interestingly, they include automobiles with “Body by Fisher.”
Visiting the winery property at Judd’s Hill is similar to dropping in on your relatives for Sunday brunch. The house is full of reminders that the Finkelstein family is not only wine driven, but in love with the arts, quite fitting since the founders are in fact Art and his wife Bunnie, who came to the Napa Valley and built the legendary Whitehall Lane Winery in 1979 before founding Judd’s Hill. Son Judd married Holly in 2003 and both moved from L.A. to Napa, where the couple’s business skills and attuned senses have been a boon to the business. But we digress – back to the family’s artistic side.
Just talk to any of the four, or take a moment to study the walls, and you will learn about Art’s pottery, Bunnie’s tuba playing and poetry fascination, Judd’s ukulele expertise (he even leads a Hawaiian band in Napa), and Holly’s graceful and interpretive hula dancing. An eclectic mix of people and interests to be sure, but the extra curriculars do not in any way interfere with the production of some pretty good juice. Crafted by Art and Judd, we had the pleasure of tasting a few bottles with Judd and Holly in an intimate setting at the winery/house [Judd’s Hill will be opening a new winery soon – we hope they are able to maintain the same type of ambiance we shared on our visit].
Like everyone else, we try to only buy wines we like, and we ordered some of all we tasted that day. Not only were the wines good to our palates, but the price was quite right.
-2002 and 2003 Judd label Milliken Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir ($26): Both are medium bodied with raspberry and wild strawberry flavors, though the 03 has a bit brighter fruit.
-2001 Judd label Juliana Vineyards Syrah ($26): A powerful wine with touches of tar on the nose, blackberry in the middle, and a cinnamon/clove finish.
-2001 Judd label 2001 Petite Sirah ($26): The fruit comes from a small block in hot weather Lodi. Good tannins enhance plum and pepper flavors.
-2001 Judd’s Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): The percentages change, but Merlot and Cabernet Franc are blended with the Cab to produce a terrific wine with plums and spices on the nose, blackberries at mid palate, and a finish of cherries and cocoa with cream.
Not on a mountain like Fisher and Judd’s Hill, nor as long established, Vic Bourassa nonetheless offers that old time hospitality in his tasting room/warehouse near the Napa airport. Founded in 2001 after Robert Mondavi tasted Vic’s homemade Pinot Noir and encouraged him to try winemaking on a professional level, all of the Bourassa wines exhibit beautiful balance between fruit and tannins. Much of this is due to consulting winemaker Gary Galleron, a local who has worked with some of the valley’s best.
We highly recommend:
-2003 Sauvignon Blanc ($16), a Rutherford appellation that proves how good Napa Sauvignon Blancs can be. It is fresh and crisp, with tropical and gooseberry flavors, and that Napa Sauvignon Blanc giveaway, a lemon meringue finish;
-2002 Harmony Bordeaux ($50), a blend of 63% Cab, 22% Cab Franc, and 15% Merlot. Tastes of black current, chocolate, and orange peel abound in this complex wine with silky tannins; and
-2003 Odyssey Zinfandel ($32), not a fruit bomb, but an elegantly smooth wine of red fruit, spices, and pepper. The addition of 16% Syrah and 4% Cab Franc is a nice touch.
-We probably shouldn’t bring it up since Vic no longer has his contract for the grapes, but the 2003 Viognier was as good a bottle of wine as we tasted in Napa all year.
Though not as superb to us as the wines we mentioned above, we also enjoyed the 2003 Rhapsody Syrah ($32), which showed good terroir, plums, and chocolate; and the 2003 Primitivo Port ($30 for 375ml), a smooth, easy quaffer. To be fair to Vic since we did not rave about it, we should report that the Syrah won Gold and Best of Class medals at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Savor Wine Magazine Competition.
So there you have three of our favorite places to visit. While there are plenty of mega corporations that also make extraordinarily good wine, thankfully there remain those special consumer oriented “somethings” that many smaller family style wineries still offer – even if it is only having a live person pick up the phone and say hello.
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.