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A Raymond Cruise, A Cabernet Franc Panel, and A Frank Family Move

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: We love a tasting room with energy, or maybe it’s really the cause of the energy we appreciate. Sharp customers, intelligent staff, a unique look, and, of course wines of distinction. One of the newest and most energetic rooms in Napa is located in the magnificent castle at Castello di Amorosa. And one of the best Cabs around is the 2004 “Il Barone” ($75), with huge black and red fruit that coats the mouth, chewy tannins that provide recognizable structure, and an enjoyable finish with secondary characteristics of leather and wood. Many think it is only the castle that draws you to Dario Sattui’s winery, but trust us, Il Barone is just one of many wines that will keep you tasting there for a while.
707-942-8200 www.castellodiamorosa.com

Cruise With Raymond Vineyards
Cruises are a great opportunity right now, and combining one with a wine experience is doubly fun. Raymond Vineyards, which produces some excellent wines at prices that will allow you to enjoy them throughout the trip, is asking its wine club members to join Margaret and Krisi Raymond on a 10 day round trip tour from San Francisco to Alaska. If you don’t belong to the wine club, never fear, you can remedy that with a quick call to the winery (800-525-2659). And if you have not been on an Alaskan cruise, you have missed a truly wonderful travel experience. Departure is July 23, 2009. For more information on the trip itself, call Colleen Anderson at 800-358-8618. Would you believe you can get a stateroom with balcony for only $2649/person? That is about $260 per day. You can’t even stay in most worthwhile city hotels for that, and this cruise is on the Sea Princess with meals, entertainment, and travel included. What a deal.
707-963-3141 www.raymondvineyards.com

Cabernet Franc Has Come of Age
While almost everyone you talk to will tell you there are five major Bordeaux varietals, in reality there are six. They include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and (the one usually omitted) Carminiere. Other than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, these grapes have traditionally been used for blending. But enterprising U.S. winemakers, followed now by their brethren worldwide, have been working for a little more than a decade on perfecting these blending varietals into quality stand-alone wines. And successful they have been. Some such stand-alones, such as Cabernet Franc, can in fact be exceptional.

Cabernet Franc has jumped immensely in popularity as a stand-alone varietal in recent years. This wine is generally lighter in color, acidity, and tannins than those from its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon (recent DNA studies have concluded that Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact a 17th century cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), and as it happily grows in cooler weather zones, Cab Franc is usually greener and more herbal than a Cab.

That said, a number of vintners (including lots of our favorites) are belying the expected and traditional characteristics mentioned above by creating intense, full bodied, stand-alone Cabernet Francs with lots of raspberry and currants, candied violets, and graphite (pencil shavings). Some even reflect some secondary characteristics such as forest floor or leather. We are often more than pleased to choose a Can Franc over its descendent Cab or cousin Merlot, especially with lighter and leaner meats.

Recently, we hosted a blind tasting of some of the best Cab Francs we tasted this past summer (plus StoneFly, which we had not tasted but was submitted with the Girard we requested). Our panel included a mix of professionals and other wine lovers. The results were interesting, and perhaps can best be reported as “frustrating.” After spending a number of hours analyzing the scores and relative rankings of the wines, there just does not seem to be a pattern or conclusion that would meet provable statistical criteria. Almost every wine was someone’s favorite, and, concomitantly, almost each one was at the bottom of someone’s list. Various panel members, for example, preferred a wine because of its “terroir,” while others felt that same wine should have showcased greater fruit. And as we have already suggested, experience did not seem to be a factor. The person with the most “credentials” often agreed with the youngest and least experienced guest, while the same wine could spark debate among sommeliers and restaurateurs as to whether the wine was characteristically sound.

Wines judged included: 2005 Andrew Lane ($46); 2006 Crocker & Starr ($55); 2003 Ehlers Estate ($45); 2006 Eros ($32); 2005 Girard ($40); 2005 Gridley ($45); 2003 Justin “Justification” ($45); 2006 Monticello ($38); 2006 Peju Napa ($45); 2005 Peju Reserve ($95); 2006 Pride Mountain ($60); 2003 Ruston ($32); 2006 StoneFly ($36); 2004 Thomas Fogarty ($48); 2002 Anderson Conn Valley “Right Bank” ($46).

If we had to arrive at a few conclusions, by an ever so slight margin the wine garnering the most points was the Andrew Lane, though Crocker & Starr, the Peju Reserve, and Pride had as many first place rankings. The most consistently enjoyed wines (meaning to us that they had the least negatives) were Ruston, Monticello, Pride, Andrew Lane, and Gridley. In fact, Rustin had the second highest aggregate score. Remembering that all the wines were enjoyed by those present, Anderson Conn Valley, Ehlers, and Thomas Fogarty were interesting in that panel members either gave them high or low marks in relation to the other wines. There was little middle ground. And though it was not at the top of the list, Girard was described by those who preferred it in the most superlative of language.

The Francs we selected were donated to us for this tasting by the wineries themselves, and we wish we could give them a more helpful report. But maybe we have done that after all. These are favorites of ours and were selected because of what we perceived to be their quality. It is entirely possible that each of them was in fact representative of its varietal, well crafted, and attractive to the palates of experienced and less experienced enophiles. And when you think about it, that’s a pretty good result after all.

Frank Family Opens New Tasting Room – Maintains Excellence
We have said it before, and we think it bears repeating. When you visit Napa wine country, remember it is about 30 miles long. Too often visitors begin on one end of the Valley, and because of traffic and opportunities near their hotel, they don’t travel more than 10-12 miles from that spot. In our opinion, that is a mistake, and denies many people even a richer experience than they enjoyed.

Frank Family Vineyards is perhaps a perfect example of what is missed when people don’t travel to the Calistoga area in the northern part of the county. Frank has long been one of our favorites for both their wines and their tasting room geniality. We know, we know - you have read our columns before and have already visited with Manager Dennis, Tim, Pat, Jeff, and the guys - but one thing has changed.

Earlier this year owners Rich Frank and Connie Frank announced the opening of a new tasting room. The original, loved by many for its no-frills feel, has been demolished, and the new room is now located in the original Craftsman house on property. We are all happy to see the Frank Family has thus far kept its welcoming no-charge policy for tasting.

Designed by renowned local architects and interior designers, the famously friendly tasting room retains much of its warm, convivial charm while expanding and enhancing the tasting facilities. “Our goal was to give new life to this historic property, while maintaining the rustic charm and rich heritage of this landmark winery,” said Rich Frank.

While we think our friend Rich has pretty much succeeded in reaching his goal, we will miss the intimacy of the old tasting room, which always made you feel as if you were attending a wonderful event no one realized was going to take place. It was crowded (adding to the excitement), the customers talked to each other and swapped stories (if only by necessity since a dozen or more might be at a bar designed for six), and the atmosphere was old time Napa (how often we still search for that). Of course, the more space, the less crowded, and that’s what the new arrangement seeks in its attempt to better serve consumers. It doesn’t mean we can’t miss the old.

Certainly the facilities now provide for a quieter, more orderly experience, and there is no doubt that the staff can better serve their visitors and can enjoy a better work environment for themselves. But there is something stark about the new common areas – probably because Rich has apparently decided that pictures, magazines, wine paraphernalia, and the like, detract from the upscale aura he seeks. Well, there is little question that the wines get better all the time, and that the property is beautiful, but we miss the energy that so often erupted spontaneously, as well as the trappings of an older establishment. Thankfully, many of the' “rogues gallery” of photos were admitted to the new décor in Dennis’ new office. Sara's careful perusal of the wall brought a smile and sigh of relief that a couple of pictures with her and our daughter Blair made the cut.

But life and modernization go on, and we understand that. Gotta “keep up with the Joneses,” which means bigger, better, and more up to date in Napa parlance. So in addition to the modernized tasting room, the winery has been remodeled, and it includes a new state-of-the-art small-lot production red wine facility which will allow Frank Family to have its first crush at the winery this harvest.

Construction also exposed a third side of the original winery on the property, which was built in 1884 and refinished in 1906 with native sandstone from the nearby hills. The massive stone edifice is considered one of the finest structures in the Napa Valley. It appears on the National Register of Historical Places, and is listed as a Point of Historical Interest in the state of California.

As a surprise for many that have not yet visited, “Frank Family” was once “Hans Kornell Champagne Cellars,” and originally secured its reputation producing sparkling wines. Five such excellent sparkling wines are handcrafted today: Signature Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rouge, and Reserve. All are made in the traditional French methode champenoise style, and available in the tasting room only. You may be surprised at how good they are.

No appointment is necessary for a tasting, but the winery does ask that if you have a large crowd you call 800-574-9463 in advance. This is one of the places we always recommend. Few wineries can come close to offering so many wines of such distinction.

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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