When people ask us about our move from Los Angeles to Northern California, we often say “the best part of living in Napa is …” After multiple times starting this same sentence but finishing with a different “best part,” our friends called us on it and challenged us to name the single best part about living in wine country. Alas, we cannot, so we have amended our sentence to say “One of the best parts of living in Napa is …”
And take it from us, one of the best parts of living in Napa is …having friends that produce wine. We’re not referring to people who make wine in their garage (although some of those wines are really good). We are referring to honest-to-goodness wine makers who have dedicated themselves to wine making as a business. One friend in particular are the Grassi family, long-time Napa residents now in their second generation running Grassi Wine company. Grassi is a true family owned winery in Napa Valley; their founder, Mark Grassi, lives on the vineyard property with his wife Jami as they have for 17 years. Because Napa is a small town, we tend to bump into people in multiple places. Thankfully, we “bumped into” Jami Grassi in yoga (well, Irene did) and then we had the pleasure of sitting next to Jami for nearly 15 weeks during our class at Napa Valley College, Wines of the World. After our last class, Jami invited us to come up to their vineyard property to take a look and (we hoped) share some of their wine.
When we arrived at the Grassi estate, we were met by Cassandra, the second-generation of the family to work for Grassi Wine Company. While Jami was busy taking care of her granddaughter (Cassandra’s adorable 5-month old), Cassandra sat with us and told us a little bit about the history of Grassi Wine Company and their philosophy of growing and making wine: sustainable farming (with an organic approach to farming on their estate), limited production, and a “restrained” approach in the cellar. Their philosophy is that the wine is mostly made in the vineyard and each vintage should be a reflection of that year’s weather, soil conditions, and overall harvest. After hearing Cassandra describe their family’s approach to wine, we were excited to taste them as we also favor wines that are less “mass production” and more a reflection of the terroir where the grapes are grown.
Which brings us to the wine. Finally. Cassandra was gracious enough to share three of their wines with us – one white and two red. We did not see the label before she poured the white wine. Looking at the wine in the glass, our immediate conclusion was that we were going to be tasting a Chardonnay. And not just a Chardonnay, but a really oaky Chardonnay. The color was medium gold as you would expect from a “big” Napa Chardonnay aged in 100% new oak. As soon as we put our noses in the glass, we knew it was not a Chardonnay. As it turns out, we were going to taste at a wine made from a varietal that we tasted in our wine class: the somewhat obscure (at least in the U.S.) ribolla gialla grape. Wine from this grape is common in the Fruili-Venezia region of Northern Italy, but in the U.S. there are somewhere around 7 producers of this white grape. How did this relatively obscure grape make it to from Italy to this family wine company in Napa? The Grassi’s close family friend brought some ribolla gialla vines from Northern Italy and planted them in Napa. That friend made a small production of wine from these plantings until he retired. Today, the Grassi Wine Company sources grapes from these vines for their white wine. I should also mention that the Grassis have planted their own ribolla gialla vines on their estate and ultimately will be making their Grassi Ribolla Gialla from estate-grown grapes.
So how did it taste? In our Wines of the World class, we were required to provide detailed tasting notes, but we will spare you those (you can look them up online). What we will say, though, is that the wine was delicious and different from the white wines we are used to drinking: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Albarino. The wine was medium-bodied (okay, we are treading into the area of tasting notes, but we can’t help it) with nice acidity but also plenty of fruit flavor on the finish. White wines are often too simple (read: oaked Chardonnay or overly-sweet Sauvignon Blanc from the U.S.) or complex but highly acidic and overly-tart (apologies to France’s Sauvignon Blanc). Grassi’s Ribolla Gialla was complex but balanced, which we really appreciated. We were surprised to hear that the wine sells for $34 a bottle, which we consider to be quite a bargain for such a complex yet drinkable offering.
When we finished gushing over the Ribolla, Cassandra poured us a taste of the 2013 Grassi Mezzo Mezzo. In Italian, “mezzo” means “half”; translated, then, “mezzo mezzo” means “half and half.” Unlike the stuff you pour into coffee, though, this “half and half” is 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot. Sangiovese is the classic grape of the Tuscany wine region, including the well-known Chianti wines. Like the Ribolla, the Mezzo Mezzo was balanced; the red blend had plenty of dark fruit flavors but some acidity as well. Another very drinkable wine at, again, a surprisingly reasonable price – $40 per bottle.
The last wine we tasted was the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, another winner as far as we were concerned. Cab has become our “go to” wine since moving to Napa and we have tasted literally dozens of different local Cabs. We would definitely not describe this as a “typical” Napa Cab; those seeking a massively fruit-forward, high-alcohol wine should look elsewhere. Consistent with their other wines, Grassi makes a Cab that has a delightful aroma, strong flavor but – again – balanced. Although Cassandra didn’t say so specifically, we feel as if their wine making style has a decided European approach (with the benefit of the more consistent California weather!).
Although we evaluate a fair amount of wines, we have not yet devised a 100-point wine rating system; fortunately though, many other people have. And the most well-known of the 100-point reviewers, including Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, and Wine Spectator, have rated the recent and older Grassi vintages with scores ranging from 90 to the mid-90’s. Deservedly so, we believe. Also, one of Napa’s premier restaurants, the French Laundry, has the Grassi Ribolla Gialla on its menu, more proof of the wine’s quality and sophistication.
If you want to get your hands on some of the great wines at Grassi, follow the link to their website below. You can also read all of the expert wine reviews on the Grassi website. Let us know how you like Grassi’s wine when you try some! Oh, and we should mention, because Grassi does not have a tasting room yet – they are applying for one, stay tuned for details and progress on that – the website is your best option.
John and Irene
Get wine here: http://grassiwines.com/shop/