American playwright Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) once wrote: “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance.” That is, more or less, how we found our way to Etude Wines, a winery located in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley. On a recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region we visited Soter Vineyards. When we told the Soter team that we were from Napa, they told us their founder (Tony Soter) was the founding winemaker at Etude in Napa Valley. That’s how we learned about Etude – which is about 3 miles from our house – as a result of a 500 mile trip to Oregon.
As soon as we drove down the long driveway onto the Etude property, we knew we had waited too long to visit. The grounds are simply gorgeous, surrounded by vineyards of course but also landscaped beautifully with trees, flowers and other plants. We entered the tasting room and right away were poured a glass of Etude’s Pinot Gris, their “welcome” wine. It was chilled, crisp, refreshing, and a definite guilty pleasure at 11:00 in the morning. We took a look around the tasting room and immediately fell in love with the decor.
Momentarily, we considered having our tasting inside at the bar. In the end, though, we opted to sit outside as the weather was in the high 70’s with a nice breeze coming off of San Pablo Bay. In addition to the lure of the weather, the view was pretty hard to beat as well.
We had the good fortune to be served by Jim, a veteran of the wine industry who gave us the scoop on the winery, its philosophy, location of the various vineyards, etc. To maximize our exposure to Etude, we each did a separate tasing – one of us the Premium and the other the Reserve ($20 and $30, respectively). As a result, we were able to try quite a few Pinot Noir offerings (Etude makes 9-10 different Pinots) and an extra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Both tasting menus started with Chardonnay, but they were not the same. One of the Chards was aged in neutral oak and not subject to secondary, or malolactic, fermentation. Meanwhile,the second Chard was partially aged in new French oak and underwent the malolactic fermentation. Both were strong wines – nice fruit flavor balanced with minerality. Even the oak-aged wine that underwent malolactic fermentation was balanced and, a far cry from the “buttery” Chards that common in Napa and the rest of California.
After the Chardonnay and a delightful Rose (of Pinot Noir, naturally), we moved on to the red wines. Between the two tastings menus, we were able to try four unique Etude Pinot Noir offerings. In addition to the four on the menu, Jim was nice enough to give us a splash of a couple more Etude Pinot Noir wines, including their Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot from northern Sonoma Coast. It was so good we had to buy some and take it home with us (we bought bottles of several different Pinot Noir’s). Our tasting finished with several Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, including at least one not on the menu. Thanks Jim!
Jon Priest, the winemaker at Etude, has said “winemaking begins in the vineyard long before the harvest … superior grape growing diminishes the need for intervention by the winemaker, resulting in authentic varietal expression.” At many wineries, this supposed philosophy dies some time after grape harvesting and before bottling as wine makers engage in excessive wine making. At Etude, however, you can taste a unifying….attitude. It may seem strange to say that you can taste restraint, but we think you can. While all of Etude’s wines have lovely aromas and flavor, with plenty of fruit on both the nose and palate, there is also a strong connection to the earth in all of their wines. Both the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon offerings that we tasted had earthy, mineral notes that were not overwhelmed in the wine making process. For that reason, we have been telling people that we love the ‘tude of Etude. Clearly, the approach that Tony Soter started when he founded the winery continues today.
John & Irene Ingersoll
August 16, 2016