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Carneros Wineries Celebrate Passport Weekend: Part I

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Part I : Adastra, Ceja, Cuvaison, and Donum

There are a couple of places in the United States where one appellation traverses across county lines, but none more famous than Los Carneros (these days almost universally referred to simply as “Carneros”), which runs through the southern portions of both Napa and Sonoma counties. Quite cool as a result of its proximity to the San Pablo Bay (an extension of the San Francisco Bay), Carneros has rightfully gained notoriety as a world class region for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, which are traditionally best grown in this type climate.

Once a year many of the Carneros wineries join together to present a “Passport” weekend, where for one price the consumer can visit all participating wineries and sample whatever wares are being poured. This year, everyone seemed to be pouring 6-8 bottles of some of their best juice, which gave us a great opportunity to evaluate not only some of the wines, but the wineries and staff of the places we visited (even with 6 hours it was impossible for us to get everywhere, given our penchant for serious evaluation and less serious schmoozing).

Only open to the public a few times a year, we love tasting the wines of consultant winemaker Pam Starr in the old barn on the Adastra property with co-owners Chris Thorpe and Edwin Richards. As we mentioned to Chris and Ed, we have never known Pam to have a miss on any wine she has created, whether it be for Adastra, her own Crocker & Starr label, or any other house. Our visit this day did not change our opinion.

-2006 Proximus Pinot Noir ($56): One of the best wines we tasted during the day, it is full of elegant, dark fruit and offers a long finish. Quite complex for a Pinot, the wine spent 15 months in 80% new French oak, and the grapes were all certified organic.
-2006 Estate Pinot Noir ($40): Shows the characteristic Carneros smoke and earth, along with the winemaker’s signature long finish this time bolstered by some spices.
-2006 Proximus Chardonnay ($56): Lost our notes on this one, but have a big star beside the name of the wine on the Passport flyer. That means we liked it more than just a little.
-2007 Regulus Pinot Noir ($40): The Regulus shows what a good winemaker can do with a light to medium bodied wine. The fruit is surprisingly bright, and there is a wisp of clove that dances on the strawberries.
-2007 Ed’s Red ($15): An amazing $15 wine comprised of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot. Concentrated flavors abound, with anise and pepper. It is fun to find something at this price that is really worth drinking.

It is always a pleasant trip to the Ceja property, where the Ceja family does all it can to make you welcome and to learn about their wines. On this day, we found Amelia greeting guests, Pedro supervising the construction of a second Bocce ball court for the winery’s guests, and Ariel overseeing the wines. Winemaker Armando had done his job earlier in the day, and during the previous week, as the Valley was in the midst of harvest.
We have long enjoyed the nice line of wines here, but were a bit disappointed that only 3 were being shown this day.

-2007 Vino de Casa Red ($20): An interesting blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Syrah, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this super priced wine shows cherries and plums before mocha takes over and finishes the journey.

Long a standard (by time, if not necessarily by wine quality) in upper valley Napa, this winery has opened a modern tasting room and winery in Carneros. For some reason, the administration and management seem to have the winery running on the wrong hospitality gear. Recently, we learned of the winery’s refusal to carry guide books or magazines for their guests. On this day there were other actions by those in the tasting room that were questionable for those on a winery’s front line. Cuvaison is not really showing the face a winery (any winery) wants to show to the public.

-2007 Pinot Noir Robert Nicol Vineyard Wild Horse Valley ($32): A nice wine with good fruit, a long finish, and a gentle price point.

We say it simply – when you add together staff, hospitality, and wines, Donum emerges at the top of the class in Carneros (maybe tied with one or two others), and as one of California’s great Pinot Noir houses. With the support of owner Ann Moller-Racke, winemaker Ken Juhasz is turning out fabulous wine after fabulous wine. While the estate used to make only one bottle under the Donum label (superb even at $65-$80), and several more under the Robert Stemmler label ($35-$45), you can now choose from four different Donums (though you might say more since some are available in various vintages).
On Passport day, national sales manager Frieda Guercio joined Ann in making certain that everyone was not only well versed on the Donum line, which was open on the table for sampling, but that Stemmler was remembered, too. One of our favorite Donum people, Lynda Handley, was unfortunately absent, but you will “meet” her when you call to order your wines after reading this.

-2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($50): We get so caught up in the fabulous Pinot Noirs here that we sometimes forget they make a Chardonnay of great complexity. Meyer lemon and apple pie co-exist perfectly with a hint of oak and smoothness throughout. The price of all the Donum line is not inexpensive, but the quality allows the winery to command what is competitive for such wines.
-2007 West Slope Pinot Noir ($70): A candidate for the best Pinot Noir we tasted this year. Wild berries and spices are all over this one, with smoke and earth showing up at just the right time. Complex and serious, it lingers on your mind as well as your palate.
-2007 Carneros and 2007 Russian River Pinot Noirs ($65): No, they don’t have the same flavor profile just because they are listed together. But the prices are the same, and one is as good as the other. The Carneros perhaps exhibits more secondary descriptors (earth, smoke, and wood) than does the Russian River, which invites you to experience black cherries, red plums, and strawberries before enjoying a little forest floor.
-2008 Carneros Pinot Noir: Out of the barrel and spectacular.

Next Week: Part II

Etude, Highway 12, Merryvale, Patz & Hall, Saintsbury, and Schug

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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