Notes from Napa

Friday, February 29, 2008


Some Wines and Vineyards You May not Know About

Lush vintage shows promise at trade auction
Register Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

If it offered but one important truth, last weekend’s winter auction for the wine trade clearly demonstrated that Napa Valley wines are getting better and better.

Some 200 members of Napa Valley Vintners brought very special wines and cuvées to CIA Greystone to be auctioned off to retailers, restaurateurs and wholesalers who attend the annual clambake.

Including media, more than 600 wine enthusiasts turned out for this year’s Premiere Napa Valley, spending four hours tasting the one-of-a-kind wine lots that were auctioned last Saturday afternoon.

The successful bidders spent a record $2.2 million on the 200 lots. Before the gavel came down on the first lot, I got to taste about two dozen of the wines specially made for this auction.

The prize for the most elegant, balanced cabernet sauvignon would have to go to Bond, Bill Harlan and Bob Levy’s cellar for a half-dozen cabernet-based wines. Fruit for this wine — a beautiful expression of both varietal and vintage — was sourced from a single vineyard in the western hills within the Rutherford AVA. Someone else must have liked this wine as well as it brought in a top bid of $40,000.

While one vintner feels the wines from the ’06 harvest are a bit prickly, I maintain a large majority can best be described as lush.

And the lushest of the lot came from Hourglass, the wine venture of Carolyn and Jeff Smith based on four acres of choice hillside and valley floor vines along Lodi Lane. Poured was an incredible 2006 from a hillside tract — black fruit and a hint of licorice on the nose, with blackberries, cassis and bittersweet chocolate combining for a gorgeous blend on the entry, continuing on mid-palate and providing a long, lush finish.

In vintner Jeff Smith’s lingo, “if the ’05 blend was Grace Kelly, the ’06 is Sophia Loren — dark, voluptuous and oh so seductive...100 percent brooding cabernet.” And he’s not just whistlin’ Dixie.

There’s good news about this wine. There was only one bid for the five Hourglass cases — $30,000. High bidder was Mark Pope, owner of Napa’s Bounty Hunter. When the wine is ready for release in about three years, the Bounty Hunter will offer it to those willing to pony up more than $500 a bottle. After all, that’s what it cost him. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to start saving my spare change. I think I can save up enough for a couple of bottles by 2011.

Dawnine and Bill Dyer were pouring 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from Meteor Vineyard, which for all intents and purposes amounted to a preview of a new brand slated to debut later this year. This wine was offered by their own Dyer Vineyard, but was hand selected from the Coombsville/Tulocay tract owned by former AOL chairman/CEO Barry Schuler. Dawnine said they began buying fruit from the Meteor site in 2003 and that harvest and next it went into the Dyer blend. But she felt the fruit was so exceptional that she talked with Schuler about partnering up in a new venture. And that’s what happened. The high bidder at Premiere Napa Valley got a real winner from the 2006 crush — an elegant wine proferring a mouthful of ripe blackberries that ends in a lingering finish. You and I will get to see how the 2005 Meteor Vineyard cab is tasting when the new brand reaches retailers later this year.

More favorites

Two of the wines offered last Saturday were made by Mike Hirby, assistant to Les Behrens at Behrens & Hitchcock for several years. From a rocky ledge on the eastern slopes of the valley south of St. Helena comes choice cabernet sauvignon for Linda and Peter Snowden’s Rockledge Vineyards. Hirby brought the ’06 cabernet from a single barrel made by Tonnellerie Vincent Darnajou, which, says Linda, brings spice to the wine and brings out a distinctive sweetness in the fruit. Beautifully ruby red, the wine offers both raspberry and blackberry flavors and a touch of chocolate on a long finish.

Hirby also makes the wine for Juan Mercado and Wendell Laidley’s Realm Cellars. Also aged in new Darnajou barrels, this wine was a blend of three choice sections of the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville. It’s a big juicy cab — a lush wine from Hirby that features nicely balanced tannins, fruit and acid. I particularly liked the comforting black fruit finish. Both wines were picked up by the auction’s top bidder, Gary Fisch, owner of Gary’s Wine and Marketplace in New Jersey.

Hand-selected by Delia and Alan Viader, the 100 percent 2006 cabernet sauvignon selection for Premiere is an exceptional expression of Viader Vineyards’ Howell Mountain fruit. Bordering on chewy, this was a mouthful of black fruit, with a long, lush cassis finish.

Shirley and Charles Roy maintain they are “caretakers” of a rocky ledge overlooking Soda Canyon that once was home to Wappo Indians. They took care to have Helen Turley plant the site with 17 acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot. And they invited one of the valley’s topnotch winemakers, Philippe Melka, to put together the blends. Melka’s proprietary Roy Estate blend from the 2005 harvest got plenty of attention when wine critic Robert Parker gave it a 95 rating. The 100 percent 2006 cabernet sauvignon for Premiere Napa Valley is a beautiful wine, full of blackberries with a lush underpinning of black cherries providing the persistent finish.

Lots more excitement

Several brands were new to this taster. One that tickled the taste buds was Stewart Cellars, a brand launched with the release of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir from the 2001 harvest. Owned by Texas native Michael Stewart and managed his son, James, Stewart Cellars offered a blend of wine made from fruit harvested from Stagecoach, Beckstoffer IV and State Lane vineyards. Their winemaker, the skillful, indefatigable Paul Hobbs, has crafted a big, succulent cabernet sauvignon with plenty of stuffing — lots of black fruit with a lush plum finish. This is a brand to watch. The top bidman agreed, for he took this lot back to New Jersey for a high bid of $13,800.

A lush wine in the Pomerol style, Michael Polenske’s Blackbird Vineyards provided a blend of merlot (50 percent), cabernet franc (45 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (5 percent) from winemaker Sarah Gott that got plenty of attention, too. The New Jersey bidder picked up this five case lot for $22,000, a soft, accessible wine that bursts with sweet blackberries, ripe cherries and black plums.

Winemaker Kristof Anderson’s 2006 cabernet sauvignon blend (6 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent petit verdot) for Erba Mountainside Vineyards had a “WOW” factor. An inviting floral and black fruit nose, it burst onto the palate with lots of blackberries and finished with a wash of blueberry pie. Although it had 15.5 percent alcohol, it was in balance so alcohol was not an issue. The winery also produces syrah and merlot, about 600 cases of cabernet sauvignon and sells the majority of the grapes from its 20 acre vineyard located at the 1,600 foot elevation of Napa Mountain, between the Wooden Valley and Atlas Peak AVAs.

A blend of its three vineyard-designated cabernets, Harris Estate Vineyards offered a lush, ripe cabernet that expressed the terroir of Calistoga’s Diamond Mountain, as Treva and Michael Harris’ vineyard is located on Franz Valley School Road. Working with winemaker Mark Herold, the Harrises released their first wine from the ’02 crush and received a 94 rating from Parker. This one’s big in the mouth, a juicy ripe cab with a lush finish.

Cabernet franc accounts for two-thirds of the blend Bravante Vineyards offered for this auction. Winemaker Duane Dappen blended both cabernet sauvignon and merlot from Nancy and George Bravante’s Howell Mountain vineyards for this juicy, inviting wine. There’s a most attractive nose with oodles of blueberry and blackberry on mid-palate that follow through on a lengthy, soft but spicy finish.

And it was all cabernet franc for the entry from Cosentino Winery, a real winner from winemaker Mitch Cosentino who’s worked with more than 40 cabernet franc vineyards over his lengthy career. A blend of valley and mountain fruit, this is a big, ripe franc, with lots of blackberry and blueberry from start to finish.

A little cabernet franc was also in the blend of Soñador Cellars offering, called The Dreamer, made with fruit harvested from the Wurtele vineyard on Spring Mountain. Winemaker since 2002, Bruce Devlin has crafted another attractive, lush wine from the 2006 harvest, bursting with blackberries on the initial sip of this well balanced offering, finishing with sweet blueberries.

One white wine

The sole white wine at Premiere Napa Valley was grüner veltliner from von Strasser Winery. Rudy von Strasser has always enjoyed Austria’s foremost white wine and decided to plant a half acre of the grape in a shaded corner of his Diamond Mountain vineyard four years ago. This was the first wine made from those grapes — great acid, white pepper on the nose, long, fruity finish, low alcohol (12.5 percent). By next vintage, von Strasser hopes to have 200 cases for the public, and plans to plant more of this unique varietal. Someone else must like it as much as von Strasser does as the five case lot went for $7,000.