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.
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.
According to a famous 1990’s advertising campaign,”milk does a body good.” We subscribe to the philosophy that wine – good wine – also does a body good. We recently met Sylvie Laly, the wonderful Sales and Wine Director for Napa Valley winery Melka Wines, who was gracious enough to share some of their wines with us. After tasting one of their white wines and four reds, we can say that “Melka does a body good” as well.
We first heard about Melka wines through a recommendation from a sommelier at one of our favorite Napa Valley restaurants (Torc in downtown Napa) and enjoyed a bottle or two there. We also were pleased to learn that some of their wines can be purchased at select Total Wine & More stores (with one conveniently located just 100 yards from work).
In total, Sylvie shared five wines with us, starting with the 2014 CJ Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Philippe and Cherie Melka’s children, Chloe and Jeremy.
The CJ Cabernet is the most mass-produced of the Melka wines – if 1,800 cases counts as “mass production.” This wine is 76% Cab with Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Merlot blended in as well. This wine is way too good to be anyone’s “Tuesday night wine” – it was luscious and bold, with a fine balance of fruit, acidity, minerality and tannins. But at a $75.00 price point the wine is quite a value as it priced far less than Napa Cabs of similar quality that cost 50-100% more.
After finishing the CJ Cabernet, we moved on to the 2014 Melka Majestique – a 100% Syrah from the Paderewski vineyard in Paso Robles.
Only the fourth vintage from this vineyard, the Majestique Syrah was one of the better California Syrahs that we have consumed: complex with many layers, both in terms of aroma and flavor. The Majestique had strong blackberry and blueberry notes but also was bursting with pepper and spice to deliver a balanced finish with surprisingly restrained tannins. This is not a wine to sip while sitting by the pool or even reading a book on a rainy day – it will be better paired with food that can stand up to its bold flavor.
Sylvie followed the Syrah with the 2013 Proprietary Red from La Mekerra Vineyard in Knights Valley.
Each year, winemaker Phillipe Melka strives to achieve as close to a 50/50 combination of Cabernet Franc and Merlot as he can. For the 2013 vintage, the wine was 53% Cab Franc and 47% Merlot. Like most of the Melka wines, the production quantities are small – only 400 total cases produced. In our opinion, the Melka Proprietary Blend was their best wine – luscious, velvety, powerful, spicy with a strong tannic finish. A more common blend in both Bordeaux and Napa would be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, rather than Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Nevertheless, we think this wine holds its own against some of the most famous Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-anchored red blends at any price.
Our next wine was the 2013 Metisse from Napa Valley’s Jumping Goat Vineyard – a Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot.
This is Philippe Melka’s “Big Napa Cab” – 15.8% alcohol, aged 23 months in 80% new French oak barrels. However, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that this wine was a typical Napa Cab “fruit bomb.” For sure, the aroma and flavor of the wine are driven by dark fruit – blackberry and plum; but the wine is also complex, layered, sophisticated and nuanced and we imagine that over the course of an entire bottle the flavors would continue to unravel.
Too quickly we arrived at our last wine to taste – the 2014 Mekerra Proprietary White, Knights Valley, which is 97% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Muscadelle.
When Sylvie told us that the wine had undergone 100% secondary (malolactic) fermentation and had been in French oak barrels for nearly two years, we were not sure what to expect. What we found in the glass, however, was a splendidly balanced white wine with none of the over-oaked aroma or flavor that you often find in California white wines. There was plenty of fruit on the palate – citrus and melon – but the wine was also crisp and had enough acidity to provide a long finish. We learned that the grapes for the Melka Sauvignon Blanc are sourced from Knights Valley, a vineyard location in Sonoma County with an elevation of over 2,300 feet.
If you pick up some Melka wine, make sure to take a close look at the label, each of which contains a close-up photo of the eyes of co-owner Philippe. For each series of wine (Mekerra, Majestique, Metisse), his eyes change color. For instance, on the label for the wines from Mekerra Vineyard, his eyes are blue (because Mekerra is the name of a river).
We look forward to tasting wines with Sylvie again when Melka’s winery opens. Be sure to check out Melka wines at their website: Melka Wines.
The Oakland Raiders are one of America’s most successful franchises: owners of three National Football league championships and a team that has placed twelve players, one coach and their owner into the NFL Hall of Fame. Over the course of their history, the Raiders have developed the reputation as one of the fiercest teams in the country. So what comes to mind when we think of the Raiders?
For many of us, the Raiders’ logo is the first thing that comes to mind: the pirate or “raider” with the eye patch wearing a football helmet dressed in the team’s sliver and black colors. For others, what comes to mind is an image of the players themselves, either as a unit …
…or perhaps a favorite individual player.
As much as the players are celebrities, the Raider fans have also become notorious for their intense love for their team, their elaborate costumes, and the inhospitable nature of the Raiders’ home stadium, the Oakland Coliseum.
These are the images and ideas that we conjure up when we hear the words “Oakland Raiders.” What we do not conjure up are …Cabernet Sauvignon, fine wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Nevertheless, American football and the Oakland Raiders do in fact have a strong connection to Napa Valley, wine and great Cabernet Sauvignon. This past week at a local Italian restaurant (thanks, Pasta Prego!) we ordered wine from a label that was new to us: Twenty Four Wines. Our waitress explained that “Twenty Four” was a reference to the uniform number worn by previous NFL football player Charles Woodson, a member of the Oakland Raiders (retired in 2016).
The wine had a lovely aroma of dark fruits (blackberry, blueberry) as well as some spice and a hint of oak. Based on the bold aroma, we were expecting a very fruit-forward, high-alcohol wine that jumped out of the glass. Instead, our first couple of sips revealed a very restrained wine; it almost seemed like it was holding itself back. Initially, the fruit was muted by the acidity and dryness of the wine and there was not much to the finish. We decided to let it open up more and a few minutes later the fruit flavors become more prominent as did the tannins, leading to a much longer finish and more satisfying balance of fruit and acidity.
You might wonder how Charles Woodson went from this …
Charles Woodson was drafted by the Raiders in 1998 and attended his first training camp that year in the city of Napa, where we live. Through his annual visits to training camp and exposure to the Napa Valley, Woodson became more and more interested in wine and became friends with some knowledgeable wine people along the way. After leasing a property in Calistoga in 2001, he planted vines and made his first wine in 2005, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, he bottles Cab as well as Sauvignon Blanc, which we also had a chance to taste at Pasta Prego. We were impressed with the aroma and flavor of the Sav Blanc as well – a nice balance of fruit and acidity.
Like many of our favorite wineries in Napa Valley, Twenty Four Wines is still a small production operation compared to the “big fish” in the Valley. But with the quality of the wines, the energy of its owner, and the interesting story behind the brand, we anticipate that growth is in their future. Next time you’re going to a Raider game, forget about that flask of whiskey, case of beer, or bottles of tequila. Get yourself a bottle (or six) of Twenty Four Wines and tailgate like a Hall of Famer. And don’t forget your wine glasses, good Cab does not taste good in a plastic cup.
You can find Charles Woodson’s wines here: http://www.charleswoodsonwines.com/
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.
A couple of months ago we “met” an Oregon winemaker named Jerry Sass on Twitter. At this point we can’t remember if he followed us first or the other way around. But either way, after checking out his website we liked what we saw in terms of the winery’s story and the approach to winemaking. We sent Jerry a note telling him that we would be in Oregon in late September and would love to stop by and meet him in person and check out his wines. We agreed on the Friday after move-in day at the University of Oregon, which was our reason for being in Oregon. We set the GPS for the address that Jerry gave and set off from our bed & breakfast; when the GPS said we had about 1 1/2 miles to go, we turned onto a dirt road and proceeded slowly up a rough gravel road. At least, it was rough for our Prius. On either side of the road for nearly the entire drive were Christmas trees – thousands and thousands of them, some just planted and others towering over the new plantings. “Are we in the right place?” we wondered. It was difficult to imagine that a vineyard and a winery were going to magically appear among the giant Christmas tree farm.
Finally, we came upon a mailbox by the road whose address matched the one that we had entered into the GPS. We pulled into the driveway and drove towards some buildings, hoping to find some sign of Jerry. We felt a bit more confident that we were in the right place as there were many acres of grapevines surrounding us. We arrived at the first building and peered in at two people working inside. They both looked a bit surprised to see someone driving into their operation; we waited for a wave, but they just stared at us. We turned the car around, puzzled, wondering if we screwed up somehow. Luckily, the two guys in the building came out and asked us, politely, if we needed help. “Is one of you Jerry?” we asked. The younger of the two men answered: “I’m one of the Jerry’s.” “How many Jerry’s are there?” we inquired. “Three,” he told us.
One of the Jerry’s then said, “hey, are you the wine bloggers from California?” “Yes, yes, that’s us!” we replied excitedly, happy to know that we were expected. Apparently there was some confusion as to which Friday we were coming. We parked the car and introduced ourselves formally to Jerry Sass III, the son of the Jerry that I had been communicating with, and Kevin, a local neighbor that has been helping out at the winery. We found out that the “other Jerry” would be back soon; in the meantime, “young” Jerry invited us into the winery building and asked if we wanted to taste some wines. And when we say “some” wines, we really mean every single wine that they had on hand in storage.
It is important to mention that we arrived at Sass smack in the middle of harvest and crush. Several days before, they had harvested multiple blocks of grapes, which were now sitting in tanks going through the initial stages of fermentation. The following morning, they were due to harvest additional blocks of grapes.
During the day we were there, Jerry and Kevin were also “punching down” some of the fermenting wine, which is hard, time-consuming work. Despite the chaos, Jerry Jr. and Jerry III took us through their entire array of white and red wines and spent nearly three hours telling us about their winery, their grape growing methods, and how they approach the art of making wine.
Frequent readers of this blog know that we prefer wines that are farmed organically and dry-farmed when possible (ie, they do not use any irrigation other than rainfall). Moreover, we have a strong preference for wine makers that follow a minimalist approach in the cellar – less new oak in the aging process and judicious use of secondary (malolactic) fermentation for the white wines. Without question, Jerry’s approach to vines and wine fits in with ours. For one thing, Sass Winery is a member of the Dry Roots Coalition, a group of grape growers committed to dry farming; in light of climate change and lower rainfall in the West, this is an increasingly important commitment. A further commitment to the environment is Sass Winery’s certification as a Live Certified Sustainable wine operation. This certification applies to both vineyards and wine operations and signifies that qualifying wineries meet strict standards of sustainability. Today, being organic and sustainable makes good business and marketing sense, but that is not why Jerry does it. He is a purist, someone who believes in the “right” way of doing things, the “natural” way.
This purism, which is combined with a decidedly stubborn streak, is evident in Jerry’s selection of vines on the winery property. The vast majority of vineyards in Oregon, the rest of the United States, and across the world, are planted on “root-stock.” This means that a vine was grafted above ground onto an existing vine that is rooted in the ground. Why do almost all grape growers use rootstock? Because there is a pest called phylloxera that has, on several occasions, wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of vines across the world. To combat the pest, which lives underground, grape growers use a phylloxera-resistent rooted vine and graft onto that vine the wine they want to make (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc.). There are those, Jerry among them, that believe using rootstock and grafting vines onto the rooted plant changes the nature of the plant itself and, therefore, the grape that is produced. As a result, on the 6 or so acres surrounding Sass Winery, 100% of the grapes are “own rooted,” which means the vine was planted in its own roots. Despite the potential risk of phylloxera, Jerry continues to farm his own-rooted vines because he believes it impacts the integrity of the grapes grown and the wine made from those grapes.
Okay, enough about the grape growing and philosophy; how was the wine, you might ask? We truly loved all of the wines, both the whites and the reds. With several of the wines, Jerry allowed us to taste multiple vintages so that we could taste the differences caused by unique growing conditions facing them in different years. Over the course of our visit, we tasted the following white wines from Sass: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. In our home wine region of Napa Valley, we get our fair share of Sav Blanc and Chardonnay, but we enjoyed tasting Jerry’s take on both of these varietals. Our favorites among the whites, though, were the Pinot Blanc and the Pinot Gris, two varietals that are not so common in Napa and Sonoma. Both of these wines are fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, giving them a crisp finish with little to no residual sugar, but nicely balanced acidity and fruit. We are not sure if Rosé is a white or a red wine, but we’ll cluster it with the whites for purposes of this narration. Like the other whites, the rosé is fermented in stainless steel; it does not undergo any malolactic fermentation in order to keep its flavor crisp.
Listing the Sass red wines is easier: Pinot Noir, lots of Pinot Noir. Lest you think there was only one red wine to try, though, Sass makes several different Pinot Noir wines from the winery estate property as well as the Walnut Ridge estate. We tasted the Sass Willamette Valley Pinot, the Walnut Ridge Pinot, the Emma Block Pinot, and the Vieux Amis Pinot Noir. They were all very strong examples of Oregon-style Pinot Noir: strong cherry aroma and flavor with earthy/mineral tones and some floral notes as well. Our favorites among the four, though, were the Emma Block and the Vieux Amis; they stood out as having the most depth, balance and finish.
You might think that after tasting 9 different types of wine (and multiple vintages of several) that we would be too toasted to drive. Thankfully, we learned how to spit at our Napa Valley College class last year, so we were both feeling fine after the tasting. We left Sass Winery with a case of wine (and a 13th bottle just for good luck), our purchase a clear sign of our appreciation for the quality of Sass wines. Actually, we left with 13.75 bottles – Jerry told us he did not want all of the wine we opened to go to waste, so he popped a cork into the open Sauvignon Blanc and told us to enjoy it at our next stop, lunch in Salem. We are believers that good people can win in life, and the Jerry’s are evidence of that. Hospitable and friendly, stewards of the land, and makers of first-class wine. We feel like we met someone in Jerry Sass that we will want to stay connected to for a long time. Certainly, we’ll be back soon to visit.
Just two days later, we had the chance to stop by the Walnut Ridge vineyards, which are owned by Jerry’s partner in Sass Winery, Jim McGavin.
There is a tasting room at Walnut Ridge that offers only Sass Wines. So for the second time in a span of a couple of days, we had a Sass tasting.
During the tasting, we heard about the adventure Jim and his wife Wendy have been on, coming to Oregon from Southern California to grow grapes. After our tasting, Jim bundled us into his trusty pickup truck and drove us around the 8 acres of vineyards. We stopped a couple of times on the trip, once to taste some grapes and once just to take in the amazing views from the hill on top of the property.
After nearly a week and a half in the heat and humidity of New York and Boston, we were happy to be home and ready to hit the trail and enjoy some Napa Valley wine. And we hit the trail, literally: Silverado Trail. There are two main thoroughfares through Napa Valley – Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Of the two, Silverado Trail is generally less crowded and, for us, a prettier drive. Most importantly, there are several dozen wineries along Silverado Trail to choose from. This past weekend, we decided to try Chimney Rock Winery, which is located on the Trail in the Stags Leap District, one of the official A.V.A.’s (or appellations) in Napa Valley. At just over 1 mile wide and 3 miles long, the Stags Leap AVA is the smallest in the Napa Valley, but perhaps the most well-known, especially for Bordeaux-style red wines – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Of the approximately 1,300 acres of vines in Stags Leap, over 80% are planted to these two varietals. It is the lure of luscious red wine that brought us to Chimney Rock.
Turning into the winery off of Silverado Trail, a long driveway takes you up to the main building where the tasting room is located. In Napa Valley, winery building architecture shows many influences, many of them from Europe – Spanish-style, French manor, Italian villa, etc. At Chimney Rock, the influence is not European, at least not directly, but South African. The building pictured above was designed in what is known as the Cape Dutch style, an Afrikaner style of architecture found in the West Cape of South Africa. As it turns out, the original husband-wife owners of the winery had strong ties to South Africa – Stella was born there and Sheldon had worked there for several decades.
In 1980, Stella and Sheldon (“Hack”) Wilson purchased the Chimney Rock Golf Course which, at the time, was an 18-hole course right off of the Silverado Trail. They decided to cut the course size in half and convert 9 of the holes to vineyards. They began making white and red wines from the grapes planted on the estate. In 2004, Chimney Rock was sold to another family, the Terlato’s, who have planted additional vines and invested in an impressive expansion of the winery operations.
One of the impacts the Terlato’s have had on the winery since taking over more than a decade ago has been focus: producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. While they do make a fresh, balanced Sauvignon Blanc from grapes sourced from Rutherford, they really are a “Cab house,” and we were pleased to hear that all of their Cab and red blends come from grapes grown on the estate property. At many wineries, tastings will include a white wine or two (maybe a bubbly or a rosé), a “softer” red wine such as Pinot, or maybe a Zinfandel, and fnishing with a Cab. At Chimney Rock, it is clear that Cab is king: after a refreshing taste of Sauvignon Blanc (which was greatly appreciated on a hot summer’s afternoon), we tasted four red wines, three of which were cab. Our first red was the 2012 Elevage, Chimney Rock’s proprietary red blend – 57% Merlot, 35% Cab, and 8% Petit Verdot. While we enjoyed all of the wines, the Elevage was our favorite, with a silky texture, strong aromas of blueberry and blackberry as well as some vanilla and coffee bean, and a balanced finish.
After we finished the Elevage, our next wine was a 2012 Terlato Cab, produced from estate grapes but bottled under the Terlato name. When the wine was poured, we were told that the Terlato Cab was more of a European-style wine than the other Chimney Rock wines. In fact, the wine did have more earthy, mineral aroma with the fruit more muted than the typical Napa Cab, although it still had body, strong tannins and a nice finish. To compare the difference in styles, the 2012 Terlato was followed by the Chimney Rock Cab from the same vintage. We could definitely detect a difference in styles as the 2012 Chimney Rock had a stronger fruit presence, but overall the wine was smooth and balanced. Our final pour of the day was the 2013 Chimney Rock Cab, which enabled us to compare the 2012 against the 2013. To our taste, the 2013 was still “young” – definitely drinkable, but would benefit from some more aging in the bottle.
Once we were done with our tasting, we stayed a while longer in the patio area enjoying the shade and the amazing views of the vineyard from our table.
After getting permission from our hosts, we ambled into the vineyards to get a closer look at the grapes and vines. At this time in Napa, most grapes are undergoing what is called “veraison,” which essentially means the early stages of ripening. During this process, red wine grapes are turning from their initial green color to their final deep-purple color. It is truly a beautiful sight to catch the grapes in their in-between stage.
We promise that no grapes were harmed during our sojourn among the vines. In another month, though, we might be tempted to sample a few. Until then, we’ll enjoy our Cab from the 2012 and 2013 vintages at home.