PART I IN A SERIES
My week in California wine country began with raw oysters on the half shell and a bracing glass of a dry, white, French Loire Valley wine called Muscadet in downtown Napa at the Oxbow Market’s Hog Island Oyster Company. The overflow crowds on a mid-August Saturday afternoon made a single diner quest for a seat at a communal table reasonably easy and I shared some time with a Korean lady and her Swiss companion. Napa is an international wine destination without borders. I enjoyed the remainder of the day and relished a wonderful dinner with friends, longtime Napa residents and industry veterans, Ned and Maureen Trippe.
Dinner was at TORC, the current see and be seen restaurant destination where the experience is enhanced by the dedication to fashioning the daily menu with locally-sourced ingredients which often includes foraged herbs, mushrooms and other gifts from the endless sources of Northern California’s gardens, farms and cooperatives. Every dish is inspired by what is the freshest on any given day. The wine list is “curated,” a word which has exploded into the wine speak vocabulary and the list offers depth in both French, as well as, local Napa producers and a range of other California wines. TORC was outstanding.
The Michelin starred husband and wife team that own the restaurant possess enormous kitchen cred and the positive vibes in the bar, restaurant and kitchen gets high marks for creativity, presentation and authentic natural flavors. We enjoyed the multi-course tasting menu, with each course accompanied with a wine selected to enhance the experience. Overnight was enjoyed in the comfort of chez Trippe with their two cats, Max and Muscat.
With apologies to Liza Minelli: “Life is a Cabernet old chum, come to the Cabernet”
Sunday afternoon’s agenda began at Silver Oak Cellars and my newly arrived associates were eager to begin their total immersion program visiting vineyards, wineries and benefiting from their status as wine trade personnel aspiring to achieve the elusive Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) credential. After more than a year of focused study, they would later in the week be tested, after a rigorous review session conducted by Barry Wiss, CWE, President of the Society of Wine Educators.
Founded in 1972, the Oakville winery combined the winemaking talents of Justin Meyer and successful businessman Ray Duncan. Dedicated to the pursuit of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, their mission continues with the 45th vintage of this iconic Napa Valley Winery. Distinguished by the use of American oak barrels rather than French casks, the wines are very aromatic and sufficiently aged to be accessible upon release, generally four years after the vintage. In addition, proper cellaring will assure the wines drinkability long after they have left the winery. Our educator took us behind the scenes to the fermentation area which was in the process of preparing itself for harvest 2017. My youthful associates marveled at the barrel storage inventory in the aging cellar. After tasting the recent releases of both their Alexander Valley and Napa blends we were treated to experience the 2008 vintage.
Our base camp for the week was the 19th-century Sutter Home Inn, lovingly restored by the Trinchero family. Their generosity and hospitality cannot be understated as they pampered us with lodging and the most amazing Napa Valley wine country breakfasts lovingly prepared by Carol and Jeannie. Our innkeeper, Mary Jo Geitser, fondly called MJ, made sure that we were well taken care of during our week in residence. Although wine academics were the primary focus of our time in the valley, we were always surrounded by the bounty that is part of the culture of this vinous nirvana.
Happy Vines Make Happy Wines
The welcome winter rains all but erased the five year drought. The vine plants, the green hillsides and abundant summertime flowers signaled a welcome sign for the heavy fruit load slowly maturing and preparing for this year’s harvest.
Close Encounters of the Winemaker Kind
During the week we benefited from tastings presented by two winemakers. Mario Monticelli of Trinchero Napa Valley and Jon Priest of the Etude Estate in Carneros. Mario, a Cabernet specialist, expressed his mantra clearly stating “in its highest form, a wine should convey what the land gives us. Translating terrior – there’s a bit of magic to that. When we get it right, the vineyard comes alive in the glass.”
Clearly expressed in three wines he shared with us from the family’s extensive vineyard holdings, these limited production Cabernet wines were outstanding in the ability to speak distinctly from the glass to the taster. My favorite called Forte, translated from the Italian as “strong,” combines Cabernet Franc with Petit Verdot and a generous portion of Malbec: Innovation and tradition with a touch of magic.
Jon Priest is responsible for producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the cool wind swept region of Carneros in Southern Napa. With its proximity to the San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the Grace Benoit Ranch, is the estate vineyard of Etude wines. ‘Etude’ in French translates to ‘study’ and the vineyard is home to dozens of clones, each contributing to the complexity of the blends varietal components. The vineyards’ parcels are customized to conform to the variety of soil types and the changing contours of the typography. In addition to the estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, a limited production of Rose of Pinot Noir is produced. Jon shared with us this important message, “take time to learn what has made this valley (Napa) special, the people, the history, and the land.”
His message is clearly expressed in his wines, and the nature of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this unique environment. A 2003 Etude Heirloom Clone Pinot Noir stands, as of this writing, as one of the most memorable I’ve tasted this year.
We were hosted for a very special after hours tour of the Robert Mondavi Winery, by senior wine educator Dana Andrus, a wine friend for more than 20 years. Dana has an extraordinary insight into the legacy and future of this iconic winery. It was an impressive tour. The barrel room is one of extraordinary size, with casks containing wine from last harvest, and we had an opportunity to witness the staging of new French oak barrels recently delivered to store the newly fermented Cabernet juice for its period of aging.
The winery, the first post-Prohibition facility constructed in Napa Valley is also historically significant as a culinary destination. Robert and his wife Margrit felt that it was necessary to combine culture, art and the culinary skills to the overall philosophy of the wines produced to reflect the energy and soul of the people whose passions contributed to this ongoing and evolving masterpiece. They firmly believed that all the art – fine art, gastronomy and wine – should be enjoyed together.
Our dinner was a culinary tour de force executed by winery Sous Chef, Shris Stillwell.
To accompany the seared pork belly with Soy Balsamic Ponzu, Truffles and Slaw, a 2012 Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard, I Block Fume Blanc enhanced the experience. The vineyards block, planted in 1945, still produces some of the most remarkable Sauvignon Blanc in all of California.
Next issue will offer additional experiences on the wine road, as our week in wine country continues.