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Spring "release"--chapter 3

by Jon Rusciano

I was awakened in the pre-dawn twilight of early morning by “spiss, spiss, spiss, spiss” of the yard’s sprinkler system.  My body immediately responded to the noise, as nature would command.  As close as it was to our scheduled time for awakening, I knew I was up for the day.  Entering the house from the garage bedroom, my first destination was to the kitchen counter.   Theresa’s wonderful dark-roast coffee was just a flip of the pre-loaded percolator’s switch away.  If the others had not started to stir yet, the aroma of the fresh brew would make it a certainty.   Not surprised, I noticed that both of them began rumbling about right after the button was pushed.

This beautiful morning, Dave decided he had to come along to Café Sarafornia for breakfast, after having heard Calvin’s glowing report (the morning before) about the breakfast “hash” that they served.   Today, we were much closer to our first winery stop, so he had until 9:30 am. to handle the investment stuff.  Dave agreed with Calvin about this deli-style concoction.   I stayed with my egg-white omelet and its wonderful spinach and sundried-tomato infill.   What a great place.  Besides the fabulous food, it just had a homey, comfortable feeling to it.   There were “regulars” who were in their seats each morning, before the lights had all been turned-on.   If I lived in Calistoga, one of those “steady-Freddys” would certainly be me.

Dave concluded his daily business obligations back at the house, and we were ready to start on the morning’s Napa adventure.   Our first stop was Keenan Winery.   The curvy drive up Spring Mountain Rd. is always a pleasure, with picturesque vineyard sightings around every bend.   Keenan’s place was at least two thirds of the way up, and my GPS “girlfriend” had decided to forgive me after our previous day’s “spat.”   Their facility was a large natural stone structure with a Spanish terracotta clay-tile roof.   Tasting of the wine was set up on a table right amidst the winery equipment and other miscellaneous objects stored in the building.  Everyone was dressed comfortably as if ready to perform a day’s work of maintenance on the equipment.  The Cabernets that we tasted, fell in line with how they had been Robert Parker (RP) rated, around 90.  This wine (at their price) was not one which would become a “preferred buy.”  I was hoping to taste their 94+ rated 2007 Reserve, but they had not released it yet…too bad.   None of the rest of us was super-thrilled with Keenan’s other offerings, so we packed up and headed for the next stop, farther “up the hill.”

I had contacted Vineyard Seven and Eight for an appointment, only after the more highly awarded Vineyard 29 had indicated they would be away from their facility, offering “home-town” tastings in various cities in the U.S. during the week of our visit.  (BTW, V-29 recently came to Houston and all of us ranked the tasting experience as “less than memorable.”)   Seven and Eight gave us an appointment, but they were not in the network of Magid’s distributors, so we had to pay their rather steep tasting fees for the visit.  This recently completed facility was a monument to the Owner’s wealth and lack of profitable winery business-sense.   OMG, what a modernistic sight it was.  Usually I can find appropriate descriptive words, but suffice it to say that probably 30 to 40 million dollars were spent on constructing the cast concrete/plaster/stone facility and cave labyrinth, for their two vineyards which yield between 2 and 3 thousand cases of wine annually (do the math).   The imbalance makes me wince, but what a lovely hobby…   The lavish tour was worth the charge, similar to beholding the spectacle of Daryl Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa.  Never had I seen such immaculate caves, with spotless floors and wine troughs.  Beige colored Gunite walls with decorative wall-sconce lighting were featured, all as if maintained for antiseptic hospital surgeries.   I was looking around for the “shoe-sock” dispenser upon entering.  Incredible!!  

They offered two wines, an Estate Cabernet and Chardonnay.   Parker rated their 2007 Cabernet at 94+.   However, only the 2006 was available for tasting that day.  The 2007 will be released in October. In my opinion, the ‘06 was very good with dominating fruit, but not worthy of the hefty price tag placed on it.   Dave and Calvin enjoyed their “crisp and fruity” Chardonnay, so each purchased a bottle, which was allowed to offset the tour and tasting fees.  Our host admitted something amusing, as we were parting company.   She touted that the Owner, the Owner’s children nor their children’s children would ever see a dime of profit off of this winery.   Now that was truly believable.

The trip down the mountain was as scenic as our journey up.   Somehow it seems a bit more fun on the descent than the climb for some reason.  Granted the SUV was doing all the work, so it must be mental.  Back in St. Helena, it was time for lunch, and there is no better place for getting this accomplished quickly than the trusty La Prima Pizza (on the other side of the tracks, off Adams St.).   After a salad and sandwich, we were walking distance from our next stop, scheduled at 1 pm.   The tasting room and offices of Orin Swift Cellars are located on Main Street of St. Helena, right in the midst of all the lunchtime eating and shopping bedlam.  There was an open doorway in the continuous storefront on the east side of the street serving as an entrance to several offices which are located atop the retail space facing the street.  This place is quite old, as evidenced by a chair-lift for the disabled which follows the curvature of the stairway’s railing system.  (I live in a 1920’s house with bedrooms upstairs and this gave me inspiration for how I will attain access to them when my age overtakes my ability to climb stairs…I just hate those tiny elevators.)

We walked up the old wooden stairway to the first open office door at the top.  That was the place.  Our host was expecting us as we entered, and he began to pour into three glasses which had already been set out for us.   I held up my hand and indicated that I was only there for the newly released 2007 Mercury Head Cabernet.   I had previously tasted all the others they were offering.   Dave and Calvin went ahead and sampled the entire array offered (including Salda Zinfandel and Veladora Sauvignon Blanc as well as two red blends, The Prisoner and Papillon).  All are worthy products, but I was focused on the above mentioned wine which had just been released that very week.  It proved even better than the two previous vintages had been.   Magid (my wine connection with Ludwig’s Fine Wines) had several case orders on his hands, upon our return.   Wowzer, what a great piece of work!!

Our next stop was Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards on the north side of Lake Hennessey.  The drive was captivating and the day remained flawless.  Following my Garmin Girlfriend’s instructions, we entered the property through one of their vineyards.  The roadway took us to a barn looking structure which served as the winery.  Several of the hands were standing around when we parked, so we just proceeded toward the group to ask questions.  Unknowingly we briefly met Mac Sawyer, their talented Bordeaux, France trained winemaker.   Our host, Dave Bryant, came walking down the roadway which led up to their caves in the distant hillside.   We were greeted and then asked to join him for a walk back up to the cave entrance.  We entered and were refreshingly confronted with the likes of a “working winery.”   Floors were clean, but not in surgical condition as our exposure to Vineyard Seven and Eight.   We walked their extent and then returned to a picnic table just outside the entrance.   There we would sample several of the current issue wines (including Anderson’s Sauvignon Blanc, which Dave and Calvin went “ga-ga” over).  Like Orin Swift, the Andersons had just released their 2007 Estate Cabernet.   That was my reason for scheduling this visit.

I was thinking that there would not be a way that this wine could compete with what I had tasted less than an hour ago.  “Slap me down,” it was even better.  Our host offered us a barrel-taste of a special Reserve Cabernet named Ghost Horse, for which they only had two barrels.  It would be bottled into special etched glass containers and sold at various charity auctions as an exclusive Anderson’s product.  That was a great piece of work as well, but it is highly unlikely that I will ever taste it again, considering what a high-brow bidding prices it will bring.  T’was memorable indeed.   The 2007 Eloge and Right Bank (Bordeaux styled wines) will not be released until September of this year.  They both promise to be blockbusters, considering the success achieved with their ‘07 Estate Cab.  Cannot wait!!

Our final stop of the day was scheduled at 4:30 pm. up atop Howell Mountain.  The place was O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery.   Dave had recently introduced me to their two 2006 Cabernets (Mt. Veeder and Howell Mountain vintages), having a long personal history with grape growers and wines produced on Howell Mountain.  We had consumed the more highly rated Mt. Veeder Cab at one of our Friday Wine Lunch affairs.  This wine is so darned good, it will make you want to “howl at the moon.”   It is upfront with fruit and brimming with fragrance and flavors that few can rival.  This wonderful day we were able to taste their Howell Mountain Cab as well.  Hardly a distant cousin, it was more like its fraternal twin.   Holy Smokes, what a lovely pair of wines.   And, the higher RP rated, 2007 pair has not yet been released.   Magid knows not to allow this duo to sneak past us, come late August.

The modern winery was newly constructed and perched atop the mountainous peak of their property, with vineyards terraced below.  The lovely Annette Summersett (Hospitality Director, Certified Wine Professional and aspiring singer) hosted our visit and tour of the premises.   A pile of cash had been invested into this puppy as well, however considering the wine quality and case production, there may be a “ROI” before too many more generations of ownership pass.  The beautiful Gunite surfaced wine caves were illuminated much the same way as I had seen earlier in the day at “Vineyard Seven and Eight.”  Where we exited, we walked through the Owner’s personal wine cellar, which contained historic vintages of this winery as well as numerous other noteworthy labels from all over Napa.  Stained wooden built-in cases, racks and displays lined the long passageway that comprised this “stash.” (…and my wife complains that I possess too many bottles…humbug!)

As we exited, Dave called a Zinfandel grape grower friend of his named Mike Beatty.  As luck would have it Mike was at his home, nearby our last winery stop of the day.   He invited us over to his lovely home for (what else?) a glass of wine.  Mike proved to be quite an amusing fellow with his knowledge of and experiences with numerous wineries in the Valley.   As we sat and sipped, he recollected numerous stories about selling his grapes to various wine producers, and some of the “misunderstandings” which resulted during these transactions.  He was a fascinating character, and thus I understood the friendship connection that Dave had made when they met, many years ago.   As we parted company, Dave asked Mike if he would join us for dinner that evening in St. Helena at Martini House.   He agreed, and so we returned to our Calistoga home to “freshen-up” before dinner.  

Having been to Martini House before, I decided to change into something a little less informal than what I had been wearing throughout the day.  Calvin and Dave had started out the day in more suitable attire, so they were good-to-go.  We arrived promptly, but Mike had misunderstood the time we asked him to meet us, so we waited for a half an hour or so for his arrival.   Since I was wearing a sports-coat jacket, Mike began with an apology for being late and then (with a snicker) one for being “under-dressed” as he stared at me.   I lived with that continuing barb for the balance of the evening, and knowing that man’s mind as I now do, I will never live that down, should we have other opportunities to meet again.

The evening’s fare was divine, as I knew it would be, and the conversations pleasantly consuming.   Truthfully, I was doubtful that the winery visits we would have the next day would be comparable to the incredible three which had capped this day.   It did prove to be worthy of another chapter in this tale, and the boyish fun that we had should continue to amuse.


Café Sarafornia

Robert Keenan Winery

Vineyard Seven and Eight

Vineyard 29

Castello di Amorosa

La Prima Pizza

Orin Swift Cellars

Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards

O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery

Martini House

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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