We usually don’t think of wine and gravity going together. When I knock over a glass of wine, gravity causes the precious juice to fall to the floor. Or worse yet, when the 2014 Napa earthquake struck, gravity maliciously conspired with shaking of the Earth to cause many bottles of wine to plummet to their sad demise.
Perhaps you can see why we generally think of wine and gravity as mortal enemies. But there is a method – more common in Europe –where gravity plays a key (and useful) role in the winemaking process. In most winery operations grapes and juice are moved around mechanically via conveyors, pumps and other machinery. This movement can change the way in which the juice is extracted, oxidized, tannins are released, etc. In gravity-flow winemaking, after the crush process the wine moves to fermentation, cellar and bottling all via gravity with no pumps or other mechanical assistance.
In 1989, Rick Moshin had a dream to step away from his day job – teaching mathematics at San Jose State University – and run his own winery. He knew that he wanted to make wine using the gravity-flow method and that he would have to find a property that could accommodate that approach. Optimally, gravity-flow operations are found on properties that are sloped. Rick Moshin found the perfect property along Westside Road in Sonoma’s Russian River. He purchased 10 acres and started the arduous process of building out the winery. Gravity-flow winemaking is not for everyone: it can be more time-consuming and expensive to produce wine. But this method is particularly appropriate for the delicate and thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape. Below is Moshin’s diagram of their gravity-flow process (courtesy of their website). Visitors can take a tour with a prior appointment, something we recommend simply because it is so different from tours at other wineries.
We stopped by Moshin Vineyards during a recent 3-day vacation in Sonoma (yes, we live in Napa and “traveled” the 40 miles to the Russian River to overnight for 3 days). We absolutely loved our visit to Moshin; it punched every item on our list: beautiful location, high-quality wines, and fantastic people. The tasting experience was quite enjoyable and, we must add, quite the bargain compared to some of our Napa Valley tastings.
During our tasting we had the opportunity to taste quite a few wines – as usual, more than are typically offered . When the tasting room staff knows you enjoy the wine and are interested in learning more and possibly buying, they will almost always pour more. We tasted several white wines including the Moshin Sauvignon Blanc and two different Russian River Chardonnay offerings, each from a different vineyard location.
As you would expect from a Russian River winery, Moshin produces Pinot Noir, in fact quite a few different versions from multiple locations across Sonoma as well as different vineyards within Russian River. We really enjoyed their Russian River Pinot Noir which we found to be a classic representation of the varietal from that region: full-bodied, earthy, with notes of mushroom and, dare we say, forest floor.
At Moshin, though, the red wines are not just limited to Pinot Noir. We also tasted a Syrah and a Merlot, both of which were special wines. We actually purchased a bottle of Merlot – a wine more often found in Napa Valley. Moshin’s Merlot – produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley – had strong dark fruit aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate.
How do you top off a great wine tasting? If you’re lucky, with a sweet dessert wine. At Moshin we had the treat of experiencing their luscious Moshin Potion, a late harvest blend of Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
We couldn’t resist taking a bottle of this home with us along with the Merlot and several of the Pinot Noir offerings. We’ve added Moshin to our list of Sonoma “must return” wineries and we’ll be back soon.
When you live in Napa Valley it is common for other locals to ask “have you been to [fill in the name of a winery].” Sometimes we answer in the affirmative but often we have to admit we are unfamiliar with the winery in question. Over the past month we got “the question” twice about the same winery: “Have you been to Davis Estates?” Both times we answered no, but by the second time the question was asked we started to wonder, “why haven’t we?” Both questions came from people who are very knowledgeable about wines and winery experiences and they had many positive things to say about Davis Estates. We made an appointment for our first available day and made the beautiful drive to Davis Estates, located on Silverado Trail between Saint Helena and Calistoga. It was a trip well worth taking; so good, in fact, that our second visit was the same weekend. While it is not uncommon for us to visit a winery multiple times over the course of months or years, it is certainly uncommon for our second visit to be two days after the first. We could not resist, however, drawn back by the quality of the wine, the people, and the setting. So yes, we did see, sniff, swirl, sip, spit …and REPEAT all in the same weekend.
After parking the car we headed over to the tasting room building, a beautiful barn-like structure that was somehow both rustic and modern.
We were greeted at the door by the incomparable Holly who was going to be our wine guide not just that day but also for our second trip to Davis Estates with our good friends Tracy and Marty. Holly quickly got us settled and let us know that we were going to be in for a paired tasting with Davis Estate wines and dishes not only selected by their chef but cooked to order during the tasting!
Our tasting began with a glass of the 2014 Davis Estates Viognier, a lovely representation of this wine made the way we prefer it: crisp and dry, with floral and fruit elements balanced nicely by firm acidity.
To accompany the Viognier the chef selected a spicy carrot soup that was the perfect complement to the wine. We then turned to Davis Estates’ red wines – Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zephyr (a Cab blend) – which were paired with vegetable tempura, pork belly and steak. Because we visited twice in the span of a couple of days we had a chance to revisit each of the Davis Estates wines as well as taste them with and without pairing (we opted for a non-food tasting on our second visit). On both visits we enjoyed the red wines immensely, although our preferences shifted between tastings and our friends had their own favorite among the reds on visit #2. On our first tasting (paired with food) one of us favored the Merlot, which we understand is the favorite wine of Davis Estates wine maker Cary Gott, while the other of us favored the Cabernet Franc. The 2013 Davis Estates Merlot was structured, its fruit flavors balanced by medium to strong tannins, with a nice long, lush finish. We were equally impressed by the Cabernet Franc which had lovely fruit aromas (and none of the “green” or peppery aroma sometimes associated with this varietal) and a smooth, oak-influenced flavor on the palate. This wine also had a nice long finish with a texture that was almost silky.
The final wine in our tasting was the 2013 Davis Estates Zephyr, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (92%), Cabernet Franc (5%), and Petit Verdot (3%). This wine spent two full years in barrel but did not emerge over-oaked or unbalanced. The Zephyr had plenty of structure, strong tannins, and a nice balance between the fruit flavors and acidity.
Although the four wines above rounded out our official tasting, we were having such a good time that Holly offered to let us try another Davis Estates wine as well as a couple of wines from proprietor Mike Davis’ other wine label, Phase V, whose winemaker is Philippe Melka, another wine maker in Napa who is a legend in the making. (Read about our visit to Melka Winery). From the Davis Estates label we tasted the Petit Verdot, a deep, ink-colored wine with a delicate set of aromas, dark fruits mixed with violets, and on the palate exotic spices with an earthy backbone and strong tannins.
We then moved on to the Phase V wines and tasted the Petite Sirah and the Cabernet Sauvignon. We are always drawn to Petite Sirah when we can find it in Napa as it is only available from a small number of wineries. (Read our review of a winery that considers itself a “Petite Sirah house” – Que Sirah Sirah).
The Petit Sirah was our friend Tracy’s favorite wine of all the ones we tasted. We also were wowed by the Phase V Cabernet which was incredibly complex with aromas and flavors that demand attention but can in no way be lumped in to the category of “big Napa Cabs.” We intend no disrespect to the ripe and bold Napa Cabs – we eagerly consume many of them – but the Phase V Cabernet is more than just a mouthful of fruit and high alcohol content. Each sip displayed more subtle aromas and flavors – chocolate, coffee, spices, and leather. Made only in small quantities and made available to Phase V wine club only, the Cabernet is a wine that will stand up to a couple of decades of aging.
With the exception of the Phase V Cabernet, which fetches upwards of $200 per bottle, we were pleasantly surprised by the cost of many of the Davis Estate wines. Our expectation was for much higher prices, driven by the quality of the wine but also the beauty of the Davis Estates property. When Mike and Sandy Davis purchased the 155 acre parcel that their winery sits on today, the main building on the property was an old barn close to Silverado Trail. Soon after selling the technology company that he founded, the Davis’s came to Napa Valley with a vision to build a world-class winery and deliver a superior tasting experience. To help them build the desired physical environment to pay off their vision, the Davis’s hired Howard Backen as the architectural partner on their project. Clearly, Mike Davis has learned from his many years in business that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. This is evident in his choice of star wine makers (Gott and Melka) as well as his choice of Backen to design the main visitor center and complete a stunning overhaul of the dilapidated barn. Over the past couple of decades, Bracken has put his imprint on Napa Valley and Sonoma wine country by designing some of the best-known Napa wineries including Harlan Estate, Ram’s Gate, Kenzo, Larkmead, and many more. In addition, Bracken and his wife are the founders and owners of Archetype restaurant in Saint Helena (formerly French Blue).
Visitors to the Davis Estates visitor center/tasting room will likely be stunned by the scale of the building – high ceilings, wide room – all set up to give guests views out of floor-to-ceiling windows to the vineyards below. On sunny days, guests will want to taste on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and enjoy the views. We also encourage visitors to take a tour of the barn (with glass in hand of course), which has been restored beautifully to create an intimate and family-friendly tasting space.
There are several separate areas for groups to sit and taste wines including this spot by the fire.
On our way out (on the first of our two visits) we ran into Mike Davis and Holly was gracious enough to introduce us to him. He struck us as a genuinely nice guy and from everything we saw at Davis Estates, we embrace his vision for the wine and the winery.
For every one of our blog posts we have an important introductory step that takes place before we write a single word: brainstorm a headline. For reasons even we do not fully understand, we cannot get started before the headline has been cast in stone. Usually, the headline is a play on words or a pun; for example, when we visited Duckhorn Vineyards last year our headline was “Wine that fits the bill.” Get it? Bill? Ducks have bills. If you want to check out that review, here it is: Wine that fits the bill. Last week we visited one of Duckhorn’s sister wineries and guess what? They made a pun out of their own name in such a way that we simply couldn’t top it: Paraduxx Vineyards. What do you find on every bottle? Two ducks. A pair of ducks. Paraduxx. Get it? For this post, then, we gave up on finding a clever title and decided to just get to the wine.
For those unfamiliar with the Duck family of wineries, the “grandfather” of them all is the previously mentioned Duckhorn Vineyards. Today, there are several different brands under the Duckhorn umbrella, each with a different varietal or geographic focus: Goldeneye – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; Migration – excellent Pinot Noir offerings from Sonoma’s Russian River region; Decoy – producing Napa and Sonoma wines at prices that are surprisingly affordable ($25 for their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon); and finally, Canvasback – producing wine from vineyards in Washington state. Each of the brands has some sort of duck reference in the name, although some of them we had to Google to understand (we did not know that Goldeneye and Canvasback are species of ducks).
Okay, enough about ducks. Let’s talk about Paraduxx wines. If Duckhorn is well-known for being a “Merlot house,” Paraduxx is a “blend” house: most of their wines are blends of red varietals. However, the blends were not the typical Bordeaux or Napa blend (Cab + Merlot) but more creative and inventive blends we have not seen in our other winery visits. Many wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have multiple labels and often there is a clear quality distinction between the wines sold under each label. The winery’s main wine is considered the “A” brand and the others are “B,” “C,” etc. It is important to stress that Paraduxx is not a “B” brand to Duckhorn, rather it is a sister winery with a different wine making approach.
When we arrived at the winery they placed a glass of the 2015 Paraduxx Proprietary Napa Valley White. While it is not uncommon in Napa to find a proprietary red wine, proprietary white wines are not something we recall coming across. We were told that the concept of a proprietary white was established in order to create a sense of quality and gravity to the white wine. Often, white wines are the “throwaway” wine in Napa – something to ease visitors into the wine tasting before the serious (meaning: red) wines are poured. We enjoyed the Paraduxx proprietary white which is composed of white varietals with Viognier making up about 2/3 of the blend. Although it was aged in oak it was nicely tart and crisp – the perfect wine for the hot Spring day.
Once we were seated out in the gorgeous Paraduxx back patio, our host Miguel Hurtado came out and gave us a quick overview of the winery and helped us understand the connection with (and differences from) Duckhorn. Despite his youth Miguel turned out to be really knowledgeable about the wines and a fantastic ambassador for the wines and the brand. He was also very generous in offering us tastes of wines that were not part of a regular tasting. After we finished the Proprietary White, Miguel brought out the entire red wine tasting at once, which is the way Paraduxx prefers to introduce its wines to guests. Rather than tasting one wine at a time, four reds are poured simultaneously, allowing tasters to jump back and forth between the wines and make comparisons and also revisit wines after they have had a chance to open up. In addition, each wine is in its own glass, thereby avoiding the inevitable mixing of wines (and aromas and flavors) that occurs when you use a single glass to taste. We prefer this type of tasting and wonder why more wineries do not follow this practice.
From the picture above it may look as if 8 different wines were delivered; please do not get overly excited, these are two sets of the same four wines, one for each of us. Our first Paraduxx red wine was the 2013 Cork Tree Red Wine, a blend of Malbec (43%), Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), and Merlot (19%). The four of us tried the Malbec and I believe we all were expecting the wine to be very spicy and bold, similar to the Malbec wines we have tasted from Argentina. This blend, however, was mellower than South American Malbec, perhaps because of the other varietals in the blend and the 18 months in French oak. We found this wine to be smooth, lightly tannic, silky and soft compared to some of the wines that followed.
Our second red wine was another unique blend – at least unique to us – 50% Cabernet Franc with 47% Zinfandel and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Compared to the Cork Tree blend, the 2013 Rector Creek – Block 5 Red wine had stronger aromas and on the palate boasted much higher tannins and more acidity. We all agreed that this wine would pair well with a thick juicy steak.
Our third red blend was the 2013 Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (51%), Zinfandel (31%), and Sangiovese (18%). This was the favorite wine of our grouping, although not everyone picked it as their favorite the first time through the four wines. One of the benefits of having the wines served at the same time and in their own glass is the ability to come back and taste each again.
The final wine in our red blend tasting (but far from the final wine of the afternoon) was the 2014 Paraduxx Pintail Napa Valley Red Wine, a blend of Zinfandel (63%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (37%). The youngest of the four wines, the Pintail blend had bold fruit, strong tannins and a nice long finish. We look forward to trying this wine again when it has aged a bit and see how the flavors progress.
Miguel let us work our way through the four red blends at our own pace and when he saw that most of us had empty glasses he asked if we would like to try any more wines. We enthusiastically accepted and Miguel proceeded to bring out a taste of 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from their sister winery Goldeneye, followed by a 2010 Paraduxx Rector Creek Red Wine (to compare to the 2013 we had tried during the tasting). We were already familiar with the Goldeneye Pinot Noir, having visited the winery last summer; we enjoyed it as much as we had the previous bottles consumed at home. The 2010 Rector Creek was luscious, smooth, fruity with a nice long and balanced finish.
But wait, there’s more. We asked if there was any Duckhorn Merlot open and, thankfully, Miguel answered in the affirmative. Several of the tasters in our party are big fans of the Duckhorn Merlot, truly one of the best in the country. As we were preparing to go, Miguel twisted our arm and asked if we wanted to try another Duckhorn wine. Because we are pleasers, we said “yes, if you like” and accepted one finally taste: 2013 Duckhorn “The Discussion.” Unusual for Duckhorn, The Discussion is a blend – 64% Cab, 31% Merlot, and small percentages of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. This was Duckhorn’s version of a Bordeaux blend, a good old-fashioned cuvee. Aged for two years in 60 gallon Chateau-style barrels made of 100% French oak, The Discussion is a complex, sophisticated and elegant wine. Definitely the right wine with which to end our day.
Before leaving the table I looked down and thought “I must document the immensity of today’s efforts by taking a picture of the battlefield.” This is the carnage that we left behind.
We should mention that in addition to the strong wines Paraduxx offers visitors a beautiful and comfortable setting for tastings.
With a summer of family and friends visiting we expect we’ll make it back to Paraduxx (and hopefully Duckhorn as well) soon enough.
The answer is yes. Napa does in fact need another tasting room. This might be a surprising conclusion in a Valley with nearly 500 wineries and a downtown that already has many wine bars and tasting rooms. However, many of Napa Valley’s wineries are not open to the public, in many cases because the artisanal, low-production nature of the business makes it virtually impossible to sustain a winery tasting room and staff. Outland Wines, the newest spot to taste wines, is an important addition to the local scene because it provides a place where three separate wine makers and wine labels can showcase themselves to the public.
This past weekend was Outland’s grand opening which we learned about through the best local source we have. No, not Facebook or Twitter or even the local paper. Our source is the uber-connected Darcy who seems to know everyone and everything in town, including that Outland was opening. We met Darcy and her beau at the new tasting room to taste wines from the three producers whose wines are presented at Outland Wines: Poe Wines, Farella Vineyards, and Forlorn Hope.
When we arrived the place was already hopping – wall-to-wall people, every table and chair occupied, and more than a few people chilling in front of the wine bar.
We love the idea of wine cooperatives, which harken back to the early days of Napa Valley when wineries and wine makers worked together to achieve success for themselves individually with the understanding that it would enable success for all (See our post on another Napa wine cooperative: Holman Cellars). Once we got our bearings we realized we were facing a daunting problem (yes, definitely a First World problem, or more precisely, a Napa Valley problem): which wines to taste. Because there are three wineries at Outland, and each makes wine from multiple varietals, trying one of everything would have been fun …until it wasn’t.
We debated between two approaches: stick with a single winery and taste all or most of their offering; or, pick a few wines from each label to taste. Because we had no prior experience with any of the wines, we opted to try different wines from each of the wine makers. One of us tried the 2015 Forlorn Hope Chenin Blanc and the other the 2013 Forlorn Hope Gewürztraminer.
The Gewürztraminer (on the left) fermented on its skins for a period of time which accounts for that lovely orange complexion. While its typical aromas of honey and lychee seemed to promise a sweet finish, the wine was in fact dry with zero residual sugar – a lovely, crisp and balanced finish. The Chenin Blanc was also balanced and a nice wine but did not have the character and uniqueness of the Gewürztraminer.
As part of our agreed-upon plan to try each of the wineries’ offerings, we moved to Farella where we tasted their Merlot and Malbec, both of which were solid wines, structured and balanced. The price for these wines is far below the Napa Valley average, making them a bargain based on their quality. We also had the opportunity to taste Farella’s 2002 proprietary red blend, Alta, poured out of a magnum; this was a fantastic wine with the type of depth, sophistication and character you would hope for from a 15-year-old red blend.
Before leaving we tried two of the Poe Winery Pinot Noir offerings – the 2013 Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma) and the 2013 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino). We enjoyed the aroma on both wines; on the palate, we found the finish to be delicate and muted, certainly not the strong, heavy finish generally found with Sonoma Pinot. The two Poe Pinot Noir offerings were more reminiscent of traditional Burgundain-style Pinot and the subtle finish could result from the fact that the wine is unfined and unfiltered.
While the three wineries produce a wide range of different wines, there is an overall philosophy that binds them together: minimal intervention in the making of the wines and letting the varietals show their true aroma, flavor and character. Our recent visit to Outland leaves us wanting to try more wines from each of the three producers and, of course, return to the wine bar soon.
To find out more about Outland or to schedule a time to taste, visit their website: Outland Wine Bar.
Over the past decade or more, numerous reports have suggested that red wine is good for the heart. At one of our favorite wineries in Napa, the heart has been very good for the wine as well. As the picture above shows, inside the “E” in the Ehlers logo there is a heart, an homage to the legacy of the founders and the cause that is a big part of the winery’s purpose today. Many wineries in Napa Valley are owned by large beverage conglomerates or international wine enterprises. Ehlers Estate is unique in that it is owned by a charitable foundation, the Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. This foundation was formed in 1996 by the founders of Ehlers Estate and today proceeds from tasting fees and wine sales help fund the Leducq Foundation’s activities. This is one winery where members and visitors can be confident that their money not only delivers high-quality wines but truly has a charitable purpose and impact.
We have been members of Ehlers since just after our move to Napa Valley and we visit as often as we can. This past weekend, we took relatives visiting from Miami to Ehlers, their first ever visit to a winery.
There are many things that we like about Ehlers, beyond the direct link between their wine business and their charitable operations. One of our favorite aspects of Ehlers Estate is its location and story. Although the Leducq family started producing wine in this century, the property was originally planted with vines and olives in the late 1800’s by Bernard Ehlers. In 1886 Bernard finished construction of a stone barn on the property, a building that (with a bit of modern renovation) is still standing and serves today as Ehlers’ winery building and tasting room.
Original beams of wood and stone walls are still visible from the original construction but the interior has been refreshed with colorful furniture and many paintings hanging on the walls.
Despite the ravages of phylloxera, the long period of prohibition and ownership changes along the way, the property Ehlers sits on has been continuously producing wine for over 120 years. While there are no vines remaining from 1886, the original olive groves are still on the estate.
Another thing that we love about Ehlers is their commitment to sustainable farming. Since 2008, they have been certified organic; no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers are used in their vineyards.
The Ehlers wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon – are produced in a style that is as much Bordeaux as it is Napa. The wine making team at Ehlers Estate firmly believes in making wines that reflect the unique terroir – the diverse soil types and the microclimate. An important difference between Ehlers and most other Napa Valley wineries is that they do not employ seasonal vineyard labor or outsource to outside companies for their vineyard management. They have a full-time team that handles all of the work in the vineyard: planting, weed and pest control, pruning, canopy management, and harvesting. Maintaining a full-time staff throughout the year ensures a consistency in the way the grapes are grown.
During our visit this past weekend we enjoyed four different Ehlers wines; as always, we started with the Sauvignon Blanc.
Like all of the Ehlers wines, the Sauvignon Blanc – the only white wine they produce – is crisp, rich, and bone dry, with zero residual sugar. There has been no malolactic fermentation and no new oak was used in the aging of the wine. A perfect wine with food or to sip with friends or alone with a good book.
The remainder of our tasting consisted of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Ehlers’ luscious “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon.
We enjoyed all three wines and have always been big fans of the Ehlers portfolio of red wines. Certainly, the most impressive wine is the 1886 Cab, but the Cab Franc is also very structured with strong tannins and spicy aroma and flavor. This visit, the Merlot really stood out for us and we all ordered an extra pour (or two) of the Merlot as part of our tasting.
So a winery with a great story, a beautiful location, and great wines. What more could you ask? How about great events? One of the reasons we have held onto our Ehlers membership while jettisoning most of our others are the fantastic events that occur throughout the year. When we visited this past weekend, there happened to be an open house with great food and an array of local artists and craft sellers in the tasting room.
There was quite a spread which we sampled along with our wine. Our family from Miami had a great time and we didn’t have the heart to tell them that every tasting doesn’t have such a bountiful spread. It’ll be difficult to take them to another tasting if there’s not an event going on – they may feel let down.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
What’s the difference between Grgic and Grgich? Looked at one way, there is almost no difference – they are just an “h” apart. Looked at differently, they are about 6,271 miles apart. In the tiny town of Trstenik, Croatia, a literal stone’s throw from the Dalmatian Sea, sits the Grgic Vina winery.
This winery, founded by Miljenko Grgic, a Croatian-born winemaker, can be found on the famous Peljesac Peninsula where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown. This winery produces both a red wine (Plavac Mali) as well as a white wine (Posip). Both grapes are indigenous to Croatia and have unique, structured aroma and flavor profiles.
Miljenko Grgic moved to the United States decades ago to pursue the American dream. Along the way, “Miljenko” became “Mike” and Grigic gained an “h” to help Americans pronounce it more easily. Today, Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley is one of the most respected operations in the world.
In the past month, we had the privilege to visit both Grgic and Grgich, 6,271 miles apart in distance but much closer together in vision, philosophy, style and quality. We were at Grgic Vina in Croatia on Halloween and at Grgich Hills in Napa the Saturday after Thanksgiving. At the Croatian winery, the tasting was two wines; our Napa tasting was a little bit more elaborate and came with a winery tour led by a genuinely nice and knowledgeable guide, Marty.
We have visited Grgich Napa before for tasting but had not taken the tour. We really enjoyed visiting the barrel rooms (always a fun show!) and hearing about the production methods for the white and red wines.
During the tour, one of us fell in love …
Not to be greedy, but wouldn’t a 1,500 gallon container of wine be the best gift? There are lots of giving occasions coming up in December; just saying.
After the tour Marty led us to our table in the wine library where we sat down to a great wine and cheese pairing.
We started with Chardonnay as expected given that Miljenko is widely regarded as the “King of Chardonnay.” This informal title has been bestowed as a result of two major milestones in the history of American wine: Mike making the chardonnay that beat the best makers of French Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris in 1976; and Mike’s chardonnay beating 221 other wines at an international tasting competition in Chicago in 1980.
We knew we would like the Grgich wines as we have tasted at the winery before and are members of the Wine Club. What we were more interested in was seeing how similar the wine would taste to those that we sampled at Grgic Vina in Croatia. Interestingly, the Zinfandel we tasted was very similar to the Plavac Mali that we had in Croatia. Genetic testing has determined that the Plavac Mali is a relative of Zinfandel and this relationship was clearly evident in both the aroma and flavor of both wines.
We will be back to Grgich Napa soon for some club event or other, no doubt. It is a strong hope, though, that we can get back to Grgic Vina soon as well – perhaps when the new winery building has its grand opening. We also hope that, if we make it, that Miljenko will be able to make it as well.
As we rolled up to our final winery of our Oregon visit, we might be forgiven for expecting to enjoy one more glass of Pinot Noir before returning to California. Certainly, the Willamette Valley, where we spent the beginning of our Oregon wine sojourn, is best known for Pinot Noir: over 70% of vines are planted to Pinot Noir. Our final winery, however, is a trend setter of sorts and is carving out an approach and style all its own. Troon Vineyards is located in the Rogue Valley AVA about a 15 minute drive from the I-5 freeway that connects Canada to Mexico.
When we left the Willamette Valley that same morning, the temperature was in the 60’s and it was raining. By the time we arrived at Troon, the sky was a perfect blue and the dashboard temperature monitor showed an outside temperature approaching 100°. Nestled between the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, the Rogue Valley benefits from what is referred to as a “rain shadow effect”: the mountains create a barrier against moisture that results in a very dry climate. Situated near Medford and Grant’s Pass, Troon has a climate that more closely resembles California’s Central Valley that it does Willamette Valley or Coastal Oregon.
We arrived at Troon around 1:30 in the afternoon and were met by Craig Camp, one of our virtual friends from Twitter whom we have been following for the past several months. Craig recently moved to Troon from Napa Valley where he was General Manager at Cornerstone Cellars. Our first pour of wine established the uniqueness of the varietals planted at Troon: it was the only Vermentino that we consumed in Oregon. In fact, it was our first Vermentino we have ever consumed anywhere. It turned out to be the perfect companion for walking around the large estate on a scorching day in early Fall. Craig showed us the breadth of the vineyard plantings and the impressive number of varietals currently being farmed – upwards of twenty if we recall correctly. Not a single planted vine was Pinot Noir. Paraphrasing Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”: “Toto, we are not in Willamette Valley anymore.”
Many of Troon’s vines were planted nearly 45 years ago, qualifying them as true “old growth” vines. The winery’s founder, Dick Troon, has a pioneering spirit and a keen sense of curiosity. He wanted to figure out what would thrive in the hotter southern part of Oregon and experimented with a number of different varietals, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon among them. In addition, Troon planted Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Syrah, Carignane, Vermentino, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. We may even be forgetting some varietals!
If you read any of Craig Camp’s articles, blog posts or Tweets, you’ll understand the philosophy that he and the entire team at Troon are attempting to fulfill: follow sustainable farming practices, create a healthy environment for the vines to thrive, and do as little as possible to the grapes before they go into the bottle. Consistent with this approach, Troon hand-picks its grapes, rather than harvest them by machine as some other wineries do. More impressively, they crush their grapes the old-fashioned way, by stepping on the grapes and allowing the juice to come out without the aggressive pressure from machine crush. During fermentation, Troon allows the wine to ferment in the grape’s native yeast rather than adding commercial yeasts into the mix; fermentation is done in mostly neutral oak to minimize the addition of aromas and flavors that result from the use of new oak. Craig also mentioned that rather than blend some of their wines (where two different varietals are fermented separately and then blended together), Troon is doing co-fermentation: the grapes are harvested and then fermented together. Blending is the more common technique as grape varietals often require different practices during fermentation, which makes co-fermentation a bit trickier. But co-fermentation also yields a different result than blending, since the individual varietals have been together since before crush. The difference has been described as similar to making a stew: if you cook all of the ingredients together from the beginning, the flavors come together to form something different than if the potatoes and meat were cooked separately and mixed together at the end.
During our visit to Troon, we tasted every single wine currently in release – all of the reds and the whites. We really enjoyed the Vermentino on the white side, as well as the Rosé; of the reds, our favorites were the Zinfandel (both the blue label and the red label) and the Sangiovese. We purchased several bottles and Craig sent us home with some complimentary bottles as well (which we appreciate but have not influenced this review). Living in Napa Valley, we have grudgingly accepted the rising cost of wine in our area. It is not uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon to exceed $100 or even $150. Chardonnay routinely costs $50-75. Zinfandel and Merlot from Napa and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County regularly cost $60 or more. Thus, when we saw the Troon prices we were very pleasantly surprised: all of the white wines were under $30, with most closer to $20. Their most expensive red wine is $50, but almost all of the rest of the reds are $35 or less. The Troon “red label” Zinfandel, which we think is a very drinkable wine, sells for $20. These price points are extremely competitive and we encourage fans of sustainable, quality wines to give Troon a try.
Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County boasts some of the finest vineyards in the region, if not the entire state. Home to over 9,000 acres of planted vines, Dry Creek Valley is 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, with both valley floor and hillside locations. In this sub-appellation of Sonoma County, there have been grape vines planted going back over 140 years. Zinfandel is a varietal that has been grown in Dry Creek for more than a century, and more recently winemakers have been growing Bordeaux varietals and making classic Left Bank and Right Bank red blends.
Last week we had the opportunity to visit with one of Dry Creek’s great winemakers, Bill Williamson, founder of Williamson Wines. Over 200 years ago, Bill’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Australia; we assume they went not as part of any penal colony, but rather for the promise of a better life. After growing up in Australia and having a successful career there, Bill and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to take part in the technology revolution. After a stint there, the Williamson’s decided to buy a piece of land in Sonoma County and grow some grapes.
“Some grapes” has turned into a thriving winery operation, with 15,000 cases produced each year. Remarkably, none of this wine is distributed to retail locations or restaurants; 100% of Williamson wines are sold direct to consumer. Certainly, this is good for Williamson, as they do not give away their margin unnecessarily to brokers or retail stores. What is really impressive to us, though, is that Williamson Wines has been able to build up such a strong customer base that they are able to distribute 15,000 cases – 180,000 bottles of wine – one customer at a time.
Based on our tasting with Bill Williamson last week, we have a pretty good idea how he has been able to pull this off: a combination of great wines, a great tasting experience, and Bill’s personal story and engaging nature.
All of these were on display in our sit-down paired tasting in their Healdsburg tasting room. One of Williamson’s tenets is that wine should be enjoyed with food. Many wineries share this belief and paired tastings have become fairly commonplace in both Napa and Sonoma. However, Bill Williamson and his team actually explained each pairing and identified the predominant flavors in the foods. They had us take a bite of the food without wine first. Next, they had us take a bite of the food and then take a taste of the wine. If the paired item was salty, the wine brought out that flavor; if it was spicy, the wine reinforced that flavor.
Although we have been to many tastings, no one had actually taken us through the before-and-after this way. Now at home we are doing this whenever we open a bottle of wine for dinner.
There are many tastings to choose from at the Williamson tasting room; we chose the Noble and Bordeaux Style Wine Tasting at $75.00 per person. This price tag is certainly higher than the typical tasting, but then again this is no typical tasting. We enjoyed a number of the Williamson Bordeaux blends – a Meritage, a Cuvee, and something Bill calls, simply, Vin Rouge (Federal law requires the words “red wine” on the label). In addition, we tried a number of single Bordeaux-style varietals, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
After nearly an hour and a half of small bites, wine and conversation, we were captivated with the Williamson portfolio of wines. Beyond what was on the tasting menu, Bill also made us aware that he produces traditional Burgundy varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – naturals for a Sonoma winemaker) as well as a number of Rhone wines: Roussane, Semillon, Grenache, and a true Chateauneuf de Pape-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. There are very few winemakers in this part of California making such a broad range of high quality French-style wines inspired by such distinct regions as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone.
As captivated as we were by the wine, the overall experience was enhanced by Bill Williamson himself. Like most Aussie’s, he has a gregarious and open personality and a curious balance of bombast and modesty. He came across as a genuinely nice person, which seems mandatory for a wine business built on 1:1 customer sales. We are rooting for his continued success and looking forward to our next visit to Williamson.
Along Highway 12 between the towns of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, there are multiple wineries nestled in the west-facing slopes of the Maycamas Mountains. Because we are usually on our way to or from another destination, we had not, until last weekend, stopped at any of them. One winery in particular – Kunde Family – had repeatedly caught our eye with its sign promoting a “mountain top tasting.” We decided this past weekend that we would make the trip to Kunde and enjoy their unique tasting experience on top of the mountain overlooking the magnificent Sonoma Valley. Along with two of our close friends, we made a reservation for the mountain top tasting, which, based on the $50 per person price tag, we expected would be a special experience.
The tasting started at sea level – at the main winery tasting room adjacent to the parking lot. Our host, Wade, served us a glass of the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc so that we would have something to enjoy as we started the tour. Glass in hand, we made our way out of the main winery building and into the heart of the production facility behind the winery. Wade gave us a helpful overview of the various Kunde wine offerings, of which there are many. According to our guide, Kunde grows over 20 different grape varietals, some of which are sold to high-quality wine producers in the area, and others retained for Kunde to make wines for its own label.
For over 100 years, the Kunde family has farmed on this property in Eastern Sonoma County, gradually supplementing Louis Kunde’s original purchase with adjacent properties to create a very sizable agricultural estate. Today, the Kunde property is spread out over 1,850 acres, about 700 of which is comprised of vineyards. A wine estate this large is very unusual in Sonoma and Napa – the Kunde property takes up nearly 2 contiguous miles of the historic Sonoma Highway (a.k.a. Highway 12). Most wineries in Sonoma have a single vineyard location – many are on the Valley floor, others are planted on hillsides, others on mountain top plots. Because of its sprawling layout, Kunde has vines planted in all three locations. Passing by on the Sonoma Highway, Kunde’s valley floor vines are visible. On the tour, we were able to work our way from sea level to well over 1,000 feet in elevation to see the hillside as well as the mountain top vineyards. As we learned on the tour, there are 7 distinct micro-climates on the 1,850 acre Kunde estate, which means 7 locations that can cater to the needs of different varietals.
For those that like to visit a winery, taste wine quickly, and then move on to the next one, the Kunde mountain top tour is definitely not designed for you. From start to finish, the tour lasts nearly two hours. After explaining the production tanks to us and how different wines are made, Wade took us into the impressing wine caves, built literally into the hillside, which Kunde uses to age its wines. Several wineries in Napa and Sonoma have caves, but we have not visited any whose caves are as large as those we saw at Kunde. In total, the caves occupy over 32,000 square feet of space and there are nearly half a mile of tunnels.
From the caves, we boarded a mini-bus and Wade started our driving journey from the Valley floor to the top of the mountain. Along the way, he stopped and let us walk among the vines, pouring the appropriate wine for the vineyard we were in at the time. It is always inspiring to be out in the vineyards, but we were especially captivated with the stop in the Zinfandel vineyard, where there are vines over 100 years old. Even non-experts in viticulture like our group could tell the difference between newer vines and the century old vines. While new vines might have as many as 20 or more clusters on them, these old vines had much fewer, some of them looking downright scraggly with just a handful of clusters on them.
Finally we made it to the top of the mountain for our special tasting where a beautiful, shaded seating area had been arranged at the edge of the hill overlooking the entire Sonoma Valley. At over 1,400 feet and vistas spread over 180-degrees, the view was simply spectacular.
To complement the view, there was more wine to be tasted.
Lounging comfortably at the top of the mountain, taking in the breathtaking views up and down the Sonoma Valley, we leisurely enjoyed the Kunde offerings. All of the wines shared a clear winemaking philosophy of restraint and respect for the land, or terroir, that they were grown in. Although there are many soil types on the Kunde estate, the majority of the vines are planted on a band of volcanic “Red Hill” soil that is, indeed, rust red in color. Apparently, the color derives from lava flows millions of years ago. In any case, we enjoyed both of the white wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and had a strong affinity for the Zinfandel and the Drummond Cabernet Sauvignon. None of the Kunde wines feel “overdone” – they have modest alcohol levels and they use oak judiciously in both their white and red wines. Just as important, for wines that are clearly “premium” wines, the price points are very attractive compared to other Napa and Sonoma wines. The Sauvignon Blanc (Estate Series) is only $17.00, the Chardonnay only a dollar more, and the Merlot and Zin both just $22.00. Even their Reserve Series, which boasts the best fruit from the best blocks and vines, includes a $45.00 Chardonnay, a $50.00 Zin and a $60.00 Cab. Several bottles of Kunde left the winery with us and are waiting to be enjoyed.
Writing a blog can take up a significant amount of precious free time, especially if you feel compelled, as we do, to post at least once a week. With the pressure of jobs, kids, dogs, and the rest of life, we sometimes ask ourselves “is it worth it?” Just when one of us feels like taking a break, something good motivates us to keep at it. For us, the latest “something good” was making a connection through our blog (and our Twitter account @topochinesvino ) with Carol Reber, the Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Duckhorn Wine Company. One half of this blog duo has worked in Marketing for the past 15 years and has a strong affinity for branding, communications, marketing, sales and distribution. So when we connected with Carol via Twitter and she invited us to come up to Duckhorn Vineyards, we were doubly excited: first, we have been purchasing the wine for years and love it; second, Carol is an awesome marketer working in one of the coolest businesses we can imagine. If you don’t believe us, look her up on LinkedIn.
For those that have read our prior blog entries, you know that our goal since moving to Napa in 2013 is to taste wine at every one of the 450-500 wineries in Napa Valley. We are making our way through the list haphazardly, with no particular order. This past Friday we put Duckhorn to the top of our list and made the trip up the Valley close to the town of St. Helena. The Duckhorn tasting room is surrounded by beautiful vineyards and is worth a walk-around pre- or post-tasting just to soak up the beauty and take some pictures.
After checking in we were given the option to sit inside or outside. Having just come up from a tasting in the Carneros region 15 miles to the south, we hesitated, as the temperature in St. Helena was at least 20-25 degrees warmer. But when we saw the stunning outside covered veranda, we opted for the outside tasting. When we got to our table, I knew we were in for a nice afternoon.
Even before getting to our table, we had been offered a glass of Duckhorn’s Sauvignon Blanc. It was a perfect match for the warm day: crisp, balanced, with nice fruit flavors but also minerality and acidity to round out the finish. When we finished the Sauv Blanc it was time to get to the real tasting. As the picture at the beginning of the article shows, Duckhorn tastings include a card for each wine being served. These cards provide an overview of the wine, tasting notes, and other useful information. We wondered immediately why other wineries do not provide something similar; the cards were so useful we took them home with us.
The first two wines in the tasting were Merlot. If you’ve seen the movie “Sideways,” or even heard about it, you might have a skewed view of the quality of this noble varietal. To refresh everyone’s recollection, there is a scene in Sideways where Paul Giamatti’s character says: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (d)ucking Merlot.” That was it – less than 30 seconds in a 7,380-second movie, but it had a measurable impact on the sale of Merlot wine in the U.S. Pardon the editorial, but this is an idiotic reaction. There, we said it. Across the world, there are hundreds and hundreds of red wine varietals. We really mean it – hundreds. Of these hundreds, only four red varietals are considered to be “noble”: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Merlot. In arguably the world’s best wine region – Bordeaux – nearly two-thirds of the vines are planted to Merlot. Wines from the famous “Right Bank” of Bordeaux are typically blends comprised of a majority of Merlot. One of the best wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is made from mostly Merlot (in some vintages, 100% Merlot).
Are there terrible Merlot wines out there? Yes! If you don’t like terrible wines, don’t drink them. But don’t condemn a noble varietal because of a line in a movie or because you tasted some crappy Merlot that, based on its rock-bottom price, you should have known was going to be bad. Now that we got that out of our system …I can tell you that the Duckhorn Merlot is spectacular. Our intrepid hostess and wine guide, Carol, told us that the winery’s founder, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, were actually inspired to grow Merlot in Napa Valley from their experiences in France – and particularly Bordeaux, the Right Bank, and Chateau Petrus itself. As the price of a bottle of Petrus exceeds our monthly mortgage payment (and we have a pretty big mortgage!), we cannot say with any authority how close Duckhorn’s Merlot comes to Petrus. What we can say, though, is that the two we tried were delicious, and excellent examples of a European, terroir-based approach to making wine. While they had strong fruit aromas and flavors, the Merlot’s also had strong earthy elements, with hints of granite and chalkiness. Both wines were wonderfully balanced with medium tannin and long finish.
We also tasted two Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offerings from Duckhorn as well as a Cabernet from Canvasback, a relatively new wine from Washington state, and some Pinot Noir from Goldeneye, a winery Dan and Margaret founded in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Carol was exceedingly gracious and generous with us, pouring many more wines than a typical tasting.
In addition to sharing wine with us, Carol gave us a lot of insight about the origins of Duckhorn, its founding over 40 years ago, the commitment of its founders, and their approach to wine making. We also learned about the new owners of Duckhorn, who are clearly balancing respect for the founder’s traditions with a vision for growing and enhancing the brand. Expansion into other states, managing and growing multiple labels, planting new vines, and building world-class facilities requires investment. From what we can see, Duckhorn has a strong team dedicated to making great wines from multiple wine regions in the United States. We will be adding Duckhorn to the “must visit” list we share with friends and family when they come to Napa.