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Merlots Surprise, but Viader Never Does

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: Last week we happily attended a Foxen wine tasting at the invitation of sommelier extraordinaire Jenny Benzie of Café Boulud in Palm Beach. We have long enjoyed this Santa Barbara County winery, and the opportunity to taste with owner Jenny Dore` was a welcome one. The entire flight deserves recognition, but we only choose one Reserve per column. So after some interspousal “discussion” we have selected a Pinot Noir. Please know that Foxen manages to purchase a few tons of grapes from the highly desired Seasmoke vineyards, and with these, of course, makes an unbelievable wine - but we are unlikely to run across this baby at any price. Fortunately, viticulturist/winemaker Bill Wathen also makes other extraordinary single vineyard Pinots – these at more approachable prices. But for "drink me now" elegance with a bold and extremely sensuous mouthful of red fruit and candied violets, go for the very reasonable blend of fruit from the Bien Nacido and Julia's Vineyards - the 2007 Foxen Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($35 – $40).

www.foxenvineyard.com 805 937-4251

Viader in June
One of the perks of frequent visits to, and then living for a substantial part of the year in, Napa is the opportunity to meet and get to know a great many vintners and winemakers. As with any profession or business, these individuals, who are brought together by their life’s choice and their success, are also as different as the proverbial night and day (or maybe we should say, as distinct in their own way as Chardonnay is from Syrah).

Representing the quiet owners who are confident in allowing their wines to do the talking for them are the brilliant and talented owners of the winery bearing their own name – founder Delia Viader (vee-ah-DARE), her son Alan, daughter Janet, and daughter in law Mariela. Now this is not so much a story about the family, but about one day each year when the Viaders open their hearts and wines to those fortunate enough to visit the Valley on the Sunday following the Napa Valley Wine Auction.

The weekend of the auction is full of unique wine events (for example, we dined at Opus One’s private dinner a few years ago and during sit down appetizers on the front lawn we were serenaded by the entire string section of the San Francisco orchestra). It seems that winery after winery strives to show their wares and hospitality in a light as good as, if not better than, their competitors.

But on that weekend Viader is different. The family allows scores (maybe hundreds) of people to drive up the mountain and partake of not only a few current releases, but also wines from the last 10 years or so. What an amazing treat to be able to evaluate how each vintage was handled by this A-List winery, and to experience how the wines are aging. It adds great confidence to a wine buyer when s/he knows that a winery produces quality even in challenged years, and that all the wines exhibit excellent ageability.

This piece is not designed to rate each of the Viader wines, as they are all well worth trying (and we think buying – as evidenced by many of them in our cellar). We write this to thank the family and to recommend that whenever you might visit the Valley, you plan a visit to this lovely property on Howell Mountain. Or better yet, if you are far away from Napa, find some Viader and try it. The family produces:

-Viader, a blend of Cab and Cab Franc from their best Howell Mt. estate vineyards.

-V, comprised mostly of Petit Verdot with varying degrees of Cabernet Sauvignon.

-Viader Syrah, a clonal blend of Australian Barossa Shiraz and Rhone Hermitage, both grown on the Viader estate.

-Dare Cabernet Sauvignon, designed to be consumed young, as evidenced by its $40 price tag. But the pedigree is great – the vineyards are the estate on Howell Mt. and Llewelling in St. Helena.

-Dare Cabernet Franc, made from grapes on Howell Mt. and the superb Stagecoach vineyards in Oakville.

-Dare Tempranillo, which more than does justice to the wonderful wines of the Rioja region of Spain. This one comes from the northeast part of Napa Valley.

Prices range from about $40 to $100 here, so there is excellent wine for all serious buyers. Delia herself is often at the tasting room or in the area, so if you see her, say hello. She is quiet as a rule, but she is happy to talk to those who are serious about wine. Few know their craft better.

www.viader.com 707-963-3816

Less Expensive Merlots Prove a Surprise

The reality is that many (we think “most” but don’t have stats to prove it) wine critics will not taste blindly with others due to their fear that they may not be able to identify certain varietals, or that they might award a high score to an inexpensive wine and vice versa. Granted, we frequently know what wines we are tasting, but we also regularly organize panels that taste wines blindly with us. The real fun and value of these blind tastings almost always becomes apparent when the results are revealed.

Recently we hosted a tasting for the following Merlots:

2005 Beaulieu Vineyard--Napa Valley--$ 22.00
2004 Beringer--Bancroft Ranch--$ 75.00
2003 Bremer--Napa Valley--$ 55.00
2003 Bremer--Howell Mountain--$ 75.00
2005 Frazier--Napa Valley--$ 40.00
2005 Grgich Hills--Napa Valley--$ 42.00
2006 Hall--Napa Valley--$ 28.00
2005 Hall--Napa River Ranch--$ 50.00
2005 Luna--Napa Valley--$ 40.00
2005 Markham--Napa--$ 23.00
2002 Markham--Reserve--$ 42.00
2005 Matthiasson--Red Hen Vyd--$ 75.00
2005 Miner--Stagecoach Vyd--$ 40.00
2001 Paloma--Napa Valley--$ 55.00
2005 Provenance--Napa Valley--$ 40.00
2005 Rocca--Yountville--$ 45.00
2005 Swanson--Oakville--$ 36.00
2006 Titus--Napa Valley--$ 32.00
2005 Titus--Napa Valley--$ 32.00
2005 Trahan--Napa Valley--$ 35.00
2006 Turnbull--Fortuna Vineyard--$ 50.00

Unfortunately, we had an abnormal number of “off” bottles (3 out of 21 is very unusual), and so we did not consider the 2003 Bremer Howell Mt., the 2006 Titus, or the 2006 Turnbull. As for the other 18 Merlots, just as happens so often when one does not know what wine s/he is tasting, there were a couple of “upsets” for those who think that price alone dictates quality.

The wine preferred by our tasting panel was the 2006 Hall Napa Valley ($28), with the 2005 Markham Napa Valley ($23) just barely trailing in points. Mary Rocca was closely behind with her 2005 ($45), followed by the 2005 Beaulieu Vineyard at $22.00. But for one negative comment about the BV and two about the Rocca, these two were highly rated for their perceptible layers and excellent fruit. There were no negatives at all as regards the Hall and Markham above, with unanimous praise for their balance. Note, then, that three of the top four Merlots in this tasting sell for $28.00 or less.

Interestingly, while the Hall mentioned above received the most first place rankings, it was tied in that regard by the other Markham entry, the 2002 Markham Reserve ($42). This Reserve obviously had its advocates who mostly praised its finish and smooth tannins, but had its detractors as well, who felt the wine was a bit too green and unbalanced.

Three other wines showed exceedingly well with this panel. The 2001 Paloma ($55 when purchased) was the Wine Spectator’s wine of the year. It was obviously older than all the other entries, and that could have affected its character. Nevertheless, comments like “smooth,” “good fruit,” “well balanced,” and “shows terroir” were common. It was, however, saddled with some lower scores, and if those had been from novices one might read a lot into it, but all three lower scores were from industry people with proven palates. Conclusion about the Paloma? Still great for some, yet not everyone’s cup of juice.

Also bringing smiles to the faces on the panel were the 2005 Trahan ($35) and 2005 Titus ($32).

As for the wines not yet mentioned, they are all quality products, make no mistake about it. And as all wine people know, the same blind tasting the next day with the same people could well bring different results. That’s one of the beauties of dealing with living entities (wine and people) - they change.

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.

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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