A new restaurant recently opened in Napa Valley’s Saint Helena that we hope is around as long as its previous occupant. The Charter Oak opened a few weeks ago in the space that was occupied for nearly 30 years by Napa Valley restaurant icon Tra Vigne. In late 2015 Tra Vigne closed up and left behind decades of memories and a beautiful empty building. Fortunately, a rock star team saw the empty space and realized it was the perfect place to open The Charter Oak. The owners of this new restaurant are Christopher Kostow, the head chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant just a few miles away; and Nathaniel Dorn, who is in charge of the front-of-house operations at The Restaurant at Meadowood. To round out the team, the owners have brought Meadowood’s chef-de-cuisine, Katianna Hong.
With this top team at the helm we knew that we were in store for a special experience but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We wondered if The Charter Oak was going to deliver a Meadowood-light experience or something different entirely. When we sat down with our friends Chris and Monica and perused the menu, we realized that the experience would be more casual with most dishes offered family style to encourage sharing. Over the course of brunch, though, we also realized that there were many similarities with Meadowood as well: commitment to fresh, seasonal and local ingredients; attentive but not intrusive service; and artfully creative dishes.
When we arrived at The Charter Oak the weather was still pleasantly cool so we opted to sit out on the patio, a wonderful setting with its ample space and cool decor. We sat under one of the many trees and strategized what to pick from the menu. Each of us picked a separate item and we added several side dishes as well to make sure we sampled as much of the menu as possible. Of all the places breakfast or brunch places in Napa Valley, this was by far the best. Each of the dishes was creatively designed and executed beautifully with just the right texture and unique flavors.
One of our favorite dishes was the Pork Posole which was served with handmade wheat tortillas.
All four of us shared the posole as it was a generous portion and all of us enjoyed it immensely and would order it again.
One person in our party ordered the bread pudding French toast, an item we passed over thinking it wouldn’t be our thing.
Boy were we wrong about this dish! Although we are not fans of bread pudding, the flavor and consistency of this dish were perfect and there was nothing left but an empty dish after it made its way around the table.
Another breakfast item that was ordered was the Danish rye bread served with a soft-boiled egg and topped with avocado and furikake (a Japanese seasoning). This, too, was incredibly tasty and was so good two were ordered and finished in their entirety.
When we first ordered we did not focus on the fact that the dishes were going to be large, family style portions and we loaded up on side dishes as well. Who could pass up the piloncillo bacon? Not us, for sure.
Nor could we pass up the sausages.
To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.
If this looks excessive …it was. Four main items and four sides for four people was too much food. When we say “too much,” by the way, we do not intend to suggest any of it remained uneaten. Rest assured that we ate all of it. But we could easily have ordered two mains and the sides and been satisfied.
We have not been to dinner (yet) at The Charter Oak but a fellow Napa blogger recently penned this post after her dinner there and the food and experience looks equally exquisite. The Wine Ho – Charter Oak Dinner Review
If you’re looking for a special place to brunch in Napa Valley, The Charter Oak has to be a top choice. Click here for reservations: Charter Oak Reservations
Last week we posted an article entitled “Top 10 ways to show off at wine tasting” (Top 10.) Today, we are focused on 10 ways to stand out from the crowd – but in a bad way. Hopefully everyone will consider this a list of things not to do rather than a list of suggested activities.
Show up at the winery with no appointment or advance notice and expect to be accommodated. This is especially aggravating when a huge group shows up unannounced – a family reunion or the noisy bachelorette party – and piles out of a van or bus and descends on the tasting room. All or most wineries have specific visit restrictions (per day and per week) in their permits and cannot take all comers. Also, with the exception of the mega-wineries, most wineries have limited staff and simply cannot comfortably handle large (unexpected) crowds. So hey, why don’t you check online before you show up and see if reservations are required, or recommended. Even if they are not, maybe show some courtesy and call ahead and see how busy they are and if they can accommodate you.
Visit five or six or seven wineries in one day. Unless you are an accomplished professional expert at wine tasting instead of wine swallowing, this is simply too many places to visit. After the second or third winery you’ll have blown out your palate and you’re just wasting your time. And thus everyone else’s. Moreover, that many winery visits doesn’t even allow you sit down and soak in the atmosphere or absorb any information. We call these “running tastings” because the groups that do this seem to literally run through the tasting room, hardly stopping to taste or engage.
Complain about the cost of the tasting. Yes, we know, you visited Napa way back when you had hair and wine tastings were free; and the wineries back where you come from have free tastings. Apologies for discussing business but, well, wineries are businesses. If your tasting is $30, or $40, or $100, it’s because that’s how much wineries have to charge to cover all of the saps who visit and don’t buy any wine. Also keep in mind that in places like Napa Valley, an acre of undeveloped land costs upwards of $500,000 an acre. In other words, it’s super expensive and not a fair comparison to your favorite winery in your neck of the woods.
Complain about the cost of the wine. See the discussion in #3. If you want cheap wine, go to a cheap winery. Even in Napa you can visit wineries that sell cheaper wine. If you go to Opus One and complain about the several hundred dollar bottle of Cabernet, that just makes you look bad.
Complain about the size of your pour. Wine tasting rooms are not restaurants or bars. You are not purchasing a glass of wine, you are purchasing a series of small tastes. The objective is to put enough wine in the glass – 1-2 ounce pours are common – to enable you to evaluate the color, aroma and flavor.
Gulp your wine. Wine gulpers – the visitors who don’t even bother to swirl or sniff – can make it through an entire tasting in 5 minutes or less. Slow down. Maybe even sit down.
Get sloppy, stupid drunk. Violations of #6 often lead to this embarrassing outcome. Tasting room managers all have war stories about the person, or groups, that confused wine tasting with getting hammered. The results are many, and we have seen broken glasses, people falling down, yelling and screaming, and even crying (melancholy drunks).
Complain that the white wine is “too sour” or “not sweet enough.” That’s probably what the wine maker was shooting for!
Say that the wine is “not good.” Unless you are a sommelier or other qualified wine industry expert, stick to simpler evaluations: “I like” or “I no like.”
Leave without showing your appreciation. If you had a great time at the winery, consider buying some wine. It might even reduce or eliminate the cost of your tasting. If you don’t want to buy wine, buy something else, like a winery souvenir. We often buy hats or sweatshirts from wineries where we didn’t love the wine but really enjoyed our time (and our wine tasting guide). If you don’t feel like buying anything, leave a generous tip for the tasting room staff.
See you around at a winery some time soon and we hope we don’t cringe when we see you.
Wine tasting trips can be fun and exciting, especially if the destination is a superior winery located in a renowned wine region such as Napa Valley, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja or any of the New World regions (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina). These trips can also be intimidating given the massive amount of science that gets shared at a wine tasting – chemistry, botany, enology, viticulture, meteorology, soil science, and so much more. Like all disciplines, grape growing and winemaking have their own lexicons and the jargon of the business can be overwhelming to say the least. Next time you go wine tasting with your friends, we want you to stand out from the rest, but in a good way. Go forth armed with these 10 suggestions and leave your friends stunned with your knowledge, sophistication and charm …
Follow the Five S’s. Yes we know that when you and your friends were in college you gulped the $5 chardonnay down like it was water. You must leave that in the past and from now on you must learn to savor the wine and faithfully follow the Five S’s of wine tasting: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. Yes, you’re eager to taste the wine, that’s natural. But wine tasting requires a bit of foreplay and you’re just going to have to wait before you get the wine in your mouth.
Have something interesting to say about the wine. The whole point of the Five S’s is to make observations about the wine. So when you’re in the “See” mode, tell your group what you see, and try to be more descriptive than “it’s white” or “it’s red.” At most wineries you’ll taste both white and red wines and you should pay attention to the different levels of clarity, viscosity, brightness and color. If you’re tasting a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you’ll be sure to impress if you use “pale straw” as a descriptor. For extra points, you might identify the appearance of green as a secondary color. When you have moved on to the red wines use words like “garnet” and, if you are tasting a very dark wine, “inky.” Okay, once you’ve seen and swirled, it’s time to sniff, the step considered by many sommeliers and wine experts to be the most important part of the wine tasting experience. So stick your nose in that glass and come up with something better than “it smells like alcohol” or “it smells like grape juice.” Yes, there is fruit juice in your glass, but come on, you can do better than that. When tasting white wines, there are some basic flavor profiles that you can build your comments around: citrus, tree fruit, stone fruit, and tropical. Try these phrases on for size: “I’m definitely getting citrus on the nose.” If you want to push it a bit more, get more specific: maybe you’re picking up hints of lemon. The truly ambitious show-off might be so bold as to identify grapefruit …or even pink grapefruit! At a wine tasting for Chardonnay (especially one made in the “French” style) or a Pinot Grigio, identifying citrus is a safe bet. For other whites, the predominant aroma might be apple, pear or one of the stone fruits (peach, apricot, nectarine). Some white wines, including those that have been aged in 100% new oak, will present tropical fruit aromas (pineapple, mango, papaya, banana). In truth, it is not uncommon for a white wine to have aromas of several flavor profiles. You might throw out to the group something like “I’m definitely getting citrus but is anyone getting stone fruit as well?” You can then debate whether it’s more like peach or nectarine, and whether it’s ripe or unripe.
When you move to the red wine part of the tasting you’ll have two basic profiles to choose between: dark fruits (blackberry, plum, blueberry, dark cherry, black raisins, fig) and red fruits (red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, currant, cranberry, pomegranate). When tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec or Tempranillo, stick with the dark fruits: “Lots of blackberry and blueberry on the nose.” Red fruit aromas should be expected with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo: “I’m picking up a strong cherry aroma.” Of course, fruit is just one of the aroma profiles that a dedicated show-off will need to be able to share with his friends. Red wines have so many secondary aromas that need to be identified; it’s simply not good enough to focus on the fruit. When tasting a wine from the old world, “earth” is always a good bet, or more specific descriptors such as “mushroom” or “forest floor” or “dirt.” There are too many secondary aromas to list here but a brilliant professor from U.C. Davis invented a wine aroma wheel that the dedicated tasting show-off will want to buy or at least study online before going out with friends. Here’s the wheel:
One of the keys to showing off is to not appear to be showing off. This is tricky, we know. Most people fail at this because they act and sound like they are giving a lecture on wine. That’s an amateur move. The professional show-off has a more nonchalant style: all comments and observations will be offered as if talking to himself or herself. “Hmmm, I think I’m getting vanilla and tobacco on the nose.”
3. Oak. When your wine tasting guide tells you that the wine was aged in oak, you must ask “was it new oak or neutral oak?”
4. Fermentation. For white wines, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel or oak. When this question has been answered, ask whether the wine went through malolactic fermentation. If the wine guide beat you to it and already told the group that the wine did in fact go through malolactic fermentation, ask “do you know that percent?” Many wines go through the entire malolactic fermentation process (100% malo) but wine makers can and often do mix wine that went through malo with wine that did not to yield a 50% malolactic fermented wine (or higher or lower percentages).
5. Rosè. When tasting this wine, ask your server how long the grapes were “on the skins.”
6. Harvest conditions. Sound very interested in the conditions that existed for the vintage you tasted. Was it a cold or warm year? Lots of rain vs. drought. Did they pick early or late?
7. Terroir. If you get to ask about terroir you’re sure to impress – after all, it’s a French word, and who isn’t impressed with a bit of French? Terroir refers to the place the grapes are grown – the weather, soil, microclimate, elevation, sun exposure, etc. A beginner show-off could start off with a question about soil. Intermediate and advanced show-offs will delve deeper and ask questions about, for example, which way the vineyard faces or what impact the local topography or geography (e.g., mountains, rivers, valleys) has on the vineyards.
8. Farming practices. The discriminating show-off will definitely want to know more about how the grapes are grown and how the vineyards are tended. Does the winery irrigate or are the vineyards dry-farmed? Are the vineyards organic or managed biodynamically? What kind of canopy management system is employed in the vineyard (yes, “canopy management” really is a thing).
9. Brix. As you progress to PhD-level of showing off, you will want to start asking some very technical questions about the wine-making process. You might consider asking your tasting guide: “At what Brix level were the grapes picked?” He or she likely won’t know but you’ll look like quite the stud with this question.
10. Food pairing. Now you’re ready to mix your knowledge of wine with your knowledge of food. “This Sauvignon Blanc would go beautifully with Italian Sea Bass.” “This Cabernet needs a thick, juicy steak to stand up to it.” The more you taste the more specific you’ll be comfortable getting: “This Moscato would go great with cheese – blue cheese that is.”
Okay you’re ready now to go out and impress your friends. To avoid being overly annoying or coming across as a complete and utter snob, do not ask all 10 questions at every winery you go to. Spread them around over a few days of wine tasting. Pick your spots and use as much subtlety as you possess. Good luck!
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.
We enjoyed a wine recently at a local Napa Valley tasting room from a producer with which we were previously unfamiliar: Lamborn Family Vineyards. The quality of the wine compelled us to visit the producer’s website and try to set up a tasting appointment. We could not find an option for scheduling a tasting but were not deterred: we visited the site’s “contact us” page and sent a message expressing our enthusiastic wish to visit and taste their wines. Very soon thereafter we received a reply thanking us for our interest but letting us know that the winery was not open to the public.
Although there are over 525 wineries in Napa Valley, many of them – and perhaps even the majority – are not open for business for a variety of reasons. Some wine producers lack the production levels to justify building a winery or tasting room or hiring hospitality staff. Others do not have sufficient acreage to receive approval to operate a winery (generally new applicants for a winery must own at least 10 contiguous acres). Yet another category are those producers and wineries that do meet the minimum property size and have sufficient wine production to fund a tasting room and staff but do not have a permit to accept visitors.
Even though I could not visit Lamborn and taste their wines, I asked their founder, Mike Lamborn, if he would be open to my coming up to meet him and learn more about their wines and the story of their family wine business. Mike graciously agreed and we picked a time for me to come up. A few days later I made the trek from our house in Napa to the Lamborn’s property in Angwin – about thirty miles north. Lamborn Family Vineyards is located in the Howell Mountain region, one of Napa Valley’s highest-elevation grape-growing areas and home to unique microclimates and soil types. We have been to wineries in Howell Mountain before and had a vague sense of how long the trip might take and how complicated the route would be. This vague sense was clarified when Mike Lamborn emailed us an old-school map with written directions and a warning that most navigation systems cannot accurately deliver visitors to the right location.
It turns out that the Lamborn property was at least another 15 to 20 minutes driving time beyond any place we had been in Howell Mountain, but well worth the drive. As I drove down the long driveway past the vineyards I saw a woman tending to some vines next to the road. I would soon learn that this was Mike’s wife Terry and the image of her in the vineyard reinforced a key takeaway from my conversation with the Lamborn’s – they are hands-on farmers.
After driving down the Lamborn’s long driveway and parking the car near the house I could see unobstructed views into the valley below for dozens of miles. It felt as if I was standing at the very top of Napa Valley. Mike came out to greet me and we settled down on their outdoor patio and Mike told me the story of Lamborn Family Vineyards. It all started in 1969 when Mike’s father bought land up in Howell Mountain – first one acre, and then a 20 acre parcel that is now home to Outpost Wines. A couple of years later Mike and Terry purchased their own parcel of Howell Mountain land at one of the highest elevations (2200 feet). Because the land required significant work – clearing, grading, building – they did not plant until 1979; the first Zinfandel grapes were harvested in 1982. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted later with the first harvest in 2003. Annually, Lamborn produces about 1,000 cases of Zinfandel and 550 of Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, they make about 100 cases of Rosè of Zinfandel.
People that really know Napa Valley wines will tell you that Howell Mountain fruit is not just different, but special. Because of its extreme elevation compared to the Valley floor, Howell Mountain has cooler days but also warmer nights resulting in a long and steady growing season. In addition, the unique soil in Howell Mountain – volcanic ash and red clay – creates the perfect environment for grapes to grow. Vineyards on Howell Mountain sit on ground that is very rocky which provides excellent drainage. However, the soils are nutrient-poor, causing the grape vines to struggle; it is from this struggle that the most intense wine is produced. The Lamborn vineyards sit on Red Aiken Loam atop a water table that is 500 feet below the property.
As I can attest from seeing Terry in the vines as I drove up, the Lamborn’s do their own vineyard management for their ten planted acres. Since the end of 2015, they have been fully organic, a choice they made not for marketing purposes but for reasons much more personal. As Mike Lamborn put it, “We did it for the health of the land and the health of our grandchildren who come here.” Many wineries stick the word “family” in their name but many of them no longer have anyone from the family involved. At Lamborn, in addition to Mike and Terry their sons are both involved in the winery business and there is a fourth generation of Lamborn’s coming of age.
If there were any surprises during my conversation with Mike and Terry it was their perspective on the wine making part of the business. “We’re Farmers,” they said repeatedly, “we don’t get too involved in the making of the wine.” This is a refreshing approach – stick to what you’re good at. Of course, this is easier to do when your winemaker is Heidi Barrett, one of the stars of Napa Valley known for her stint at cult winery Screaming Eagle and as the winemaker for over a dozen wineries in the Valley. As Mike described it, their goal was to make balanced wines that can age, with no particular characteristic standing out above any other. This approach meshes nicely with Heidi’s style which is to make balanced wines that are expressions of where the grapes were grown. If you taste Lamborn wine and say “This is a Howell Mountain wine,” then the Lamborn’s and Heidi would be pleased.
Because Lamborn Family Vineyards does not have a permit to taste wines I did not enjoy either the Zin or the Cab while I was there (although I had several glasses of delicious well water!). When I left, though, Mike and Terry were nice enough to gift me a bottle each of Zin and Cab. They did not provide any instructions as to how long to age the wine or when to consume it, so both wines have been enjoyed with friends already. Both wines had strong dark fruit characteristics balanced by spice notes and strong tannins and finished nice and long. The Zinfandel had strong pepper notes while the Cab had a wonderfully dusty aroma and strong minerality. The 2013 Cab is sold out but the 2014 vintage will be released in November. The 2013 Zin is still available and wonderfully priced at $45 per bottle. Although we have not tasted it yet we just ordered two bottles of the Zinfandel Rosè for a very exciting price of $34 per bottle. The best and easiest place to find Lamborn Family Wines is their website: Buy Lamborn Wines. For those that are in Napa Valley and want to pick up a bottle, Lamborn sells its wine at Maisonry Napa Valley, a wine tasting room in Yountville: Maisonry. Finally, for those that are in Napa Valley Father’s Day weekend, many of the Howell Mountain wineries are participating in a fantastic event, Taste of Howell Mountain: Taste of Howell Mountain.
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.
One year ago we decided that we wanted to start a blog about life in Napa Valley wine country and our experiences visiting the restaurants and wineries here. Almost immediately we felt that Napa Valley was too narrow a focus as our travels took us to other California wine region and wineries in other states. Before the blog was 6 months old, we found ourselves in Europe writing about our adventures with food and wine across four countries. A year later, we can say that our blog is still focused on sharing our food and wine experiences, but we no longer feel compelled to limit ourselves to any particular region.
When we started we had no plan for, well, anything – frequency of posts, mix of content (food vs. wine vs. travel), length of blog. To the question “how do I become a writer” there is an old joke response: “You write.” That’s how we started this blog: we wrote. Our first post was about a visit to a wine pick-up party where they served a whole roasted pig to accompany the wines being poured. That first blog can be accessed here: A Bovine and Wine Saturday at HdV. As soon as we published the article as better title came to mind “A Wine and Swine Saturday,” but we were too lazy to change it. Faithful readers will know that as often as possible we title our blog posts with some sort of play on words that we hope qualifies as “clever.” More often that not, though, the titles are more corny than clever.
After the first post we managed to write another 57 over the following year – almost 5 a month. This might sound disciplined but the truth is our blog posts have had peaks and valleys rather than coming out in a steady stream. Each of our first three months we managed 3 posts. In August, we were very active visiting restaurants and wineries and we managed to publish 6 posts. Then came October, our most prolific month, where we published 12 separate posts about our California, Oregon and Europe trips. The past few months the “day job” and other personal projects have brought our monthly volumes back down a bit. Our goal as we head into Year 2 of our blogging adventure is to be a little bit more consistent – at least a blog post a week.
Looking back on the past year there are some facts and figures that blew us away:
We went from 0 followers to just over 8,000 at current count. Writing a blog should be a labor of love because there is no guarantee, when you push “publish,” that anyone will see it, read it, or care about it. The first follower was a delightful surprise as have been the ones that came after.
Our blog has been read in 95 countries according to our analytics reporting. Our first follow, in fact, came from Australia from some fellow wine bloggers that we consider to be among the best in the world. As a thanks we will provide a link to their blog: The Wine Wankers. Of course we could not have expected or even dreamed of such a wide reach. We have friends, family and colleagues in probably 20% of these countries; the others we have been able to reach using social media, in our case primarily Twitter. We would like to give a shout-out to all of our international followers and a special recognition for the one visitor in each of the following countries that has read our blog: Tanzania, Mauritius, Fiji, Djibouti and Antigua & Barbuda. Hey, tell a friend about us, maybe we can get multiple readers in your country.
A large majority of our views come from the United States, not surprisingly given where we live, the language in which we we write, and how we distribute our blog. Our second-largest viewership comes from the United Kingdom, followed by Croatia, Canada, Spain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and India. As we look down the list we realize how popular wine has become across the globe; even in countries where it may violate local laws and/or customs to purchase or consume wine we have followers.
Wine is being produced almost everywhere. As we have pushed our blog across our WordPress platform, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels, we have met wine makers in so many places. It was a definite learning for us, for example, that all 50 of the United States produce wine. In addition, our eyes have been opened to the excellent wines being made in parts of the world where grape growing is not a traditional form of agriculture.
As we buckle down to Year 2 we promise to sacrifice ourselves for our readers by visiting as many fine restaurants and wineries as we can and tasting wines from all over the glob. Keep sending us your comments and questions and hitting that “like” button when you appreciate what we have done. We hope to avoid a sophomore slump and will do our best to come up with witty/silly/clever/corny headlines and interesting content.
Who would come to Napa Valley for honey tastings? No one! We did not really taste honey, but we did taste wine at a winery whose name means “honey” in German. What is “honey” in German, you ask? Honig. And that’s where we found ourselves a few days ago, at Honig Vineyard & Winery in the town of Rutherford. It was not our first visit (or even second) to Honig, but friends from out of town had never been and we knew they would enjoy the beautiful outdoor patio, the friendly staff and the wine.
One of the things that we really enjoy about Honig is that there is in fact a real-life Honig at the winery. Owner Michael, the third-generation Honig at the helm, can often be seen at the winery talking to guests and, as was the case when we visited, trying to herd a couple of his smaller children as they ran around the winery property. In a valley where more and more wineries are being established or acquired by giant global beverage mega-firms, it is most definitely quaint and encouraging when we encounter family owned wineries.
When we sat down for our tasting, we had a pretty good sense of what we would be tasting from our prior visits. Our friends, though, were making their first visit to Honig and were expecting to start with Chardonnay, the typical starter for many of the Valley’s tasting menus. At Honig, though, you will not find any Chardonnay; it’s actually a point of pride for them and perhaps even a motto.
Soon after moving to Napa Valley, we became members at Honig and started receiving shipments of their wine. Perhaps our favorite part of becoming a member was getting the hat in the picture above. It was definitely a conversation starter everywhere we went, ranging from supportive agreement to bitter and vehement opposition. Personally, we do not have any thing against Chardonnay and drink it often and at home, restaurants, and other wineries. Buy we also understand the thought behind the slogan:,there is enough Chardonnay in Napa Valley already, let’s focus on some other white varietals. In Honig’s case, this would be Sauvignon Blanc. Owner Michael Honig is a tireless advocate for his wines and travels far and wide to get the word out about them and support sales and distribution. Their Sauvignon Blanc can be found in many restaurants, wine stores and supermarkets across the United States, a quality wine at a very affordable price.
At Honig we started with the Sauvignon Blanc and proceeded to a couple of reds and ended with one of our all-time favorite dessert wines.
After the Sauvignon Blanc we tasted two Honig Cabernet Sauvignon offerings: their 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet and their 2012 Vyborny Vineyard Cab. If you look closely at the tasting menu above you can see that the first Cab is half the price of the second. This should not, however, lead anyone to conclude that the Honig Napa Valley Cab is not worthy of attention or tasting. On the contrary, the 2014 offering was a nice example of Napa Cabernet with balance and texture. The 2012 Vyborny Vineyard offering also lived up to expectations and a notch or two above the 2014 Napa Cab due to its silky texture and greater richness on the palate.
Like all previous Honig tastings, our most recent ended with the 2015 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. This wine lives up to the meaning of “Honig” – honey.
Many dessert wines end up being overly sweet and simply taste like syrup. Don’t get us wrong, the Honig Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc is certainly sweet – that’s why we think of it as honey. Complementing the sweet, though, are multiple layers of flavor that you will get with each sip. This is a wine that either one of us could easily consume in a single sitting …and regret it quickly, given the high sugar content (over 25%).
Over three years had passed since our first visit to Honig and our understanding of wines and our palates have developed considerably. Nevertheless, we enjoyed Honig as much on this most recent visit as the first time due in large part to the wine but also to the service and culture at the winery: laid-back, friendly, open and genuinely interested in their guests. As he has on previous visits, Michael Honig came by the table for a brief chat and then corralled his two youngest kids and wrangled them towards their house. The Honigs live on the estate right behind the winery, which we imagine contributes to their desire to create a hospitable and harmonious vibe for their guests.
As summer approaches and the flood of friends and family to Napa Valley intensifies, we anticipate more trips to Honig this year.
Visitors to Paradise (aka Napa Valley) expect to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature, the decadence of fine cuisine, and the poetry of the region’s wines. Left behind are the pressures and rules of “real life,” right? Surely something as mundane and constricting as grammar doesn’t matter in this world-famous wine region. Well, this is what we thought until this past weekend when we were arranging to meet an old friend at a winery in the highly regarded Stags Leap District. The night before our visit we decided it would be nice to send her a note with the name and location of the winery. Each of us, though, came up with a different address – they were a couple of miles apart. “You looked up Stags Leap, right,” she asked. “Yes, he replied.” We shared our phones with each other and one of us said: “Your winery is s-apostrophe,” while the other said “Your winery is apostrophe-s.” Huh? There are two wineries in the Stags (no apostrophe) Leap District that have “Stags Leap” in their name. One of them is Stag’s Leap, the other is Stags’ Leap. Seriously. This really happened.
It turns out that the place we were going was apostrophe-s (Stag’s Leap), and once we cleared up this confusion we sent confirming details to our friend. What difference does it make which side of the “s” the apostrophe sits? A lot! Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the wineries that put Napa Valley on the map as a legitimate global region. We have written before about the 1976 Judgement of Paris, a tasting where Napa red and white wines competed against some of the most famous and expensive French wines. (For a refresher on the man who made the Chardonnay that bested the French, read this post: A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.) On that particular day in Paris in 1976, Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was judged the best, beating out not only five other California entrants but also scoring higher than the royalty of Bordeaux: Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, and Leoville Las Cases. This is not to say that the s-apostrophe winery (Stags’ Leap) is bad, as they do make quality wines; but we wanted to take our friend and her discriminating palate to one of Napa’s historical spots.
Thankfully, Stag’s Leap did not disappoint on any measure – location and ambience, service, or the wine. We were fortunate to be seated outside on the patio just a few feet away from the vineyards. The winery is nestled in what is often called a “valley within a valley.”
The Stag’s Leap property is surrounded immediately by vineyards and farther out by mountains and the Napa River. From our table we overlooked Stag’s Leap’s two estate vineyards – Fay Vineyard and SLD Vineyard.
After settling in we took a look at the tasting menu and opted for the Estate Collection Tasting Flight. This tasting is comprised 100% of wines made from grapes grown on Stag’s Leap property and offered both white and red options.
As most tastings do, our Stag’s Leap adventure started with a white wine: the 2014 Arcadia Chardonnay. This wine is sourced from the Arcadia Vineyard, a large property on Napa Valley’s Mount George. This wine was not a “California chardonnay”: creamy, almost buttery texture with hints of oak and low acidity; instead, what we tasted was a wine resembling a more traditional French approach: higher acidity and more balance. We were surprised to find out that the Stag’s Leap Chardonnay had been aged in French oak and had also undergone malolactic (secondary) fermentation, which often result in the more buttery wine. However, the use of only 20% new oak likely accounts for the balanced outcome.
Moving on to the reds, we did not have to make any tough choices – there were three Cabernet Sauvignon offerings to try. We started with the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon and proceeded to try the 2011 S.L.D. Cab and then the 2010 Cask 23 Cabernet. All three wines were excellent representations of Cab from the Stags Leap District but also different as a result of their different soil types and winemaking approaches. In our group of five there were different opinions as to which of the Cabernet offerings was the best but we all agreed that all three are among the best we have tasted in Napa Valley. None of the three would be considered a classic Napa Valley “fruit bomb” Cabernet, even though they each had strong presence of dark fruits in the aroma and on the palate. However, due to the unique soil of the Stags Leap District, each of the red wines had elements of earthiness and minerality that provided structure and depth to the wines. One of the Cabs – the S.L.D. – was the wine that won in Paris in 1976 and it was easy to see why. The 2010 Cask 23 Cab – a blend of the best Cab grapes from each of the vineyards – was by far the most sophisticated, intense and powerful of the Cabs, at least to our taste. We went to another winery later that day and we should have reversed the order and started at the other winery, which also produced a Cabernet Sauvignon. This other winery’s Cab offering was solid, perfectly drinkable, but, alas, not at the level of the Stag’s Leap Cabs (any of them).
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Stag’s Leap and cannot review our experience without mentioning the great service. Our host was attentive, knowledgeable and, in the end, very generous. When he overheard us talking about where we live in Napa, he realized we were neighbors and comped one of our tastings even though it was a weekend. Normally Napa Valley residents can get a complimentary tasting but only during the week; we appreciated the courtesy and have already planned a return visit.
Last night we opened a bottle of 2015 De La Guerra Viognier from Napa Valley’s Carneros region. Translated literally, the words “de la Guerra” in Spanish mean “of the war” or “from the war.” In this case, however, De La Guerra refers not to any battle or war but instead is the name of one of the oldest winemaking families in California. De La Guerra is a second wine label of the esteemed HdV Winery in Napa. In our very first post on this blog, we wrote about HdV, a partnership between the Hyde family in California and the famous de Villaine family in France. Larry Hyde, grower of some of Carneros’ best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, is a De La Guerra descendant .
Like all of the HdV and De La Guerra wines, the Viognier was sophisticated, balanced and luscious. For those that have not experienced this varietal – Viognier is a French grape from the Rhine region of France. Typically, it has strong citrus and floral aromatics and flavor with a full-bodied finish. Many American expressions of Viognier end up very smooth and creamy as a result of ripe fruit, secondary (malolactic) fermentation, and the use of new oak.
Fortunately, the De La Guerra Viognier was made in the more traditional French style and did not suffer from the overdone, heavy-handed style that often results in a sweet, almost syrupy wine. On the nose, the Viognier had strong citrus elements – lemon and tangerine – as well as a strong floral component with hints of rose and honeysuckle. On the palate, the wine was crisp, pleasantly acidic, with clear minerality mingling with the fruit flavors. The Viognier went nicely with dinner but could also be enjoyed by itself (by which we mean with a good book and a patio chair outside).
We have many bottles of the HdV brand at home but this was our only bottle of any variety from the De La Guerra label; there is also a Chardonnay listed on the website that we are planning to order. For more information on HdV or De La Guerra wines, visit the HdV website: HdV Wines.