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A Typical Napa Day
Preisers’ Reserve: It has become an accepted fact that those who own wineries are held in high esteem by the public and live a life style different from most. In an era when the price of wine grapes and vineyard land is extraordinarily high, is it any wonder, then, that it is the wealthy, including celebrities, who are choosing to invest in the wine industry on an ever increasing basis? The better question might be, however, whether or not those entering the fray in the last decade have been successful in producing quality products. While a full analysis of this matter is food for another column, at least one well known individual, renowned restaurateur Pat Kuleto, is making excellent juice. About ten years ago, in what has proved to be a superlative move, Pat planted vines on the steep hillsides overlooking Lake Hennessey and the town of Rutherford, California. Today we spotlight one of his creations, the 2001 Kuleto Estate Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($49), a wine that rivals most any in the under $50 category. Showcasing the mountain fruit that has become so reliable in Napa, this Cab is big, bold, and yummy – perfect for dishes from brown sauced veal to elegant filets. Find some while it is available.
A TYPICAL NAPA DAY (for a wine geek)
We have said it before, and we say it again. Why do people who will spend hours mapping out travel to London, New York, or the Grand Canyon, assume that they can just pop into the Napa Valley without plans and experience the best of what wine country has to offer?
If there is an answer, it must be that the average travelers/wine lovers do not realize what a “little inside information” and research can do for them. Truly, one does not have to be a writer, retail owner, or mega collector to be treated well in Napa. A little interest expressed in advance can go a long way. Most people have a favorite wine store, for example, and the owner of the store works closely with certain wine distributors. These distributors all have great contacts in wine country. A good customer’s request to set up an appointment at a favorite winery will hardly be refused. But even that is not always necessary. A simple call with fair notice to a winery telling them that the caller enjoys their wines and would like to visit for a tasting and tour is rarely turned down.
Our typical day in the Valley is really not much different than what it could be for anyone who is legitimately interested in learning. It just takes some planning. We spent some time last week mapping out and following a plan for a day, so let’s walk through it and, in the process, discuss some wonderful wines as well.
One of the busiest tasting rooms in Napa belongs to the FRANK FAMILY, and so we usually call to be sure our contact is there. We then arrive early to beat the crowd. This column has covered these wines before, but winemaker Todd Graff has presented owners Richard Frank and Koerner Rombauer with two new presents. The new 2004 Reserve Chardonnay ($55) is nothing short of spectacular. A fresh citrus Burgundian nose gives way to the smooth mid palate that is a Frank staple, and then literally bursts over the tongue to provide a gargantuan finish. Not inexpensive, but with only 200 cases made, it will sell out quickly, and, we think, it can command that price. Todd has also created a 2004 Reserve Pinot Noir ($55) from Carneros that is quite characteristic of the region in most respects, yet offers, to our memory, a nose as huge as any California Pinot. We have not decided if we like the price, and will have to drink more of it to come to a conclusion. We know . . . tough job. Call 800-574-9463 if you want a treat or two.
We had set an appointment at a winery as of then unfamiliar to us, and so headed there next. It was not far from Frank Family – part of our planning. BENNETT LANE WINERY, though relatively new, is already producing award winning red wines. Located in the far northern part of the Valley, just above Calistoga, owner Randy Lynch has not been content to solely offer the simple and traditional wine tasting. One can, and should, of course sample the wines being offered. That is, after all, the main event. But don’t overlook the winery’s custom blend experience, where for a fair charge you can taste and experiment with barrel lots of Cab, Syrah, and Merlot, and then create your own blend. Bennett Lane also offers picnic tables just waiting for you to relax with fresh Napa foods, and a Saturday wine pairing with some devilish chocolate creations. Do not miss the bon-bons filled with Maximus wine, which are available at all times.
Which reminds us - what about the wines themselves? Well, we cannot say we are the first to rave about the 2002 vintage of either the Estate or Reserve (Primus) Cabernet Sauvignon, or even the 2003 vintage of the self proclaimed “feasting wine” - the Maximus. Each of these wines had already garnered excellent scores from both magazines and competitions. We are, however, among the first to taste the 2003 version of the Primus, and not only did we come away liking it even more than we did the highly regarded previous vintage, we may have the first review on this wine in print.
Though lesser known (at least for the moment) than the Bennett Lane reds, the 2003 Chardonnay ($28) nevertheless showed bright fruit with layers of both ripe and tart apples which somehow combined for a crisp taste lasting long enough for us to savor. In the red category, our nominee of the month for quality to value has to go to the 2003 Maximus ($28), comprised of 63% Cab, 24% Syrah, 11% Merlot, and 2% Petite Verdot. Each component is distinctive, from the huge black fruit nose to the cassis and chocolate middle, to the finish of plums. A wine truly in harmony. The 2002 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) is another excellent buy. Again, in what is obviously a Bennett Lane trait to be coveted, the wine shows bright, fresh fruit, only this time finishes with some minty overtones. And, finally, the brilliantly made 2003 Primus ($85) may not be for everyone due to the price, but this wine that gives off flavors of blueberries early and black cherries galore throughout is one that should be sought out by those who love to taste some of the best St. Helena and Spring Mountain vineyards have to offer.
Still following a game plan, we reluctantly departed Bennett Lane for lunch at BUSTER’S. You may don’t know about Buster’s, but unless you do some research you could drive right by and miss the planet’s best BBQ tri tip (beef) or chicken. Buster is just off Highway 29 at the Northwest corner of Lincoln and Highway 29 in Calistoga. It’s really a perfect stop after a morning of wines. Hint: don’t be brave and order the hot sauce on your food. Put it on the side. We have seen lots of people confident in their ability to withstand heat not only ruin their food, but kill their palate for an afternoon, a situation which does little for wine tasting. We blend a bit of the hot with the milder version.
We were staying in the southern part of the Valley, and so had decided to drop in on a few places on the way south. When you do this, sometimes you find good wine, and sometimes you don’t. But if you have already planned and completed the visits you could count on as being top notch, this kind of touring and its chance components can be fun. Our first stop was the venerable MERRYVALE VINEYARDS, where the staff happened to be pouring an incredible array of wines for a very fair fee. Available were five wines over $90/bottle, plus a vertical of the showcase proprietary red blend – Profile.
Merryvale produces three levels of wines – the Classic, the Reserve, and, its most expensive, the Prestige. One wonderful aspect of visiting here is the excellent tasting room, with sales people who are uniformly fun and knowledgeable about wines in general, and not just their product. Unfortunately, except for the complex and luscious 2002 Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon ($26), which blends Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petite Verdot, we were not impressed with the first two levels of wines. It seemed that the reds were a bit green and the whites just average. However, those problems did not exist with the 2002 Silhouette Chardonnay ($45), with any of the Profiles ($80 - $125), or in the 2002 offerings of a few Merlots and Cabs ($39 - $95) from the famous and almost error proof Beckstoffer Vineyards. All in all, this was a fun tasting, with the 2000 Profile ($80) winning the day for us.
The last hour of so of our day was spent in smaller wineries on Rt. 29, where we were searching for the ever elusive “gem” that is, if one is fortunate, discovered by luck and with time. On this day, we didn’t find one. Nevertheless, we had made the most of our time, and taken advantage of what the wineries permitted. You can have a day similar to ours if you plan where to go and don’t hesitate to ask.
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.