By: Ryan Woodhouse | K&L Staff Member
For all that is good and bad about visiting and tasting in Napa these days, there are still many producers worth checking out. My family was recently visiting from England and I thought I would take the opportunity to show them around the valley during harvest--when all the action happens--and visit a few of my perennial favorites. Here are a couple of highlights and shots from the trip.
I kind of blew it right from the beginning in terms of saving the best for last...the first place we visited was the old property at Heitz Cellars. Kaj was kind enough to give us a great look around and popped a bottle of 2005 Martha’s Vineyard, it turned out (unsurprisingly) to be my favorite wine of the trip!
We started with the 2010 Heitz Cellar Sauvignon Blanc, which is really a delicate, restrained style with great drive and freshness with to much fat fruit. This is a wonderfully mineral laden wine with great persistence on the palate. Excellent drinking with oysters.
Then, as I said, we went right to the top with the 2005 Martha's. Wow - what a wine! So attractive and expressive now but you can just tell it's got another decade(+) in the tank. The quality that struck me most about this wine is that it's 100% Napa Cab, and a wonderful expression of exactly that; it’s not pretending to be Bordeaux. There's the power of the fruit and ripeness of tannin at the forefront. Then the wonderful warm dusty notes, and some minty, herbal edges. Fantastic wine, and very thoughtfully made, as evidenced by such an elongated drinking window. The 2007 Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cab has been given the extra special honor of the colored label reserved for only the very best vintages of this stunning wine.
Next after grabing some picnic supplies we headed up Howell Mountain to Ladera Vineyards. This was my first visit to the property after years of enjoying their wines. The winery is one of the oldest bonded wineries in Napa. The original structure is now just a shell within which the modern winery exists. This beautiful restored stone building set into the rugged terrain of the mountain is spectacular. Again we started with their rare 2010 Ladera Howell Mountain Sauvignon Blanc. Perhaps just a touch more generous than the Heitz, but with a firm bright acidity and tons of rocky minerality under the citrus fruit. A "go-to" domestic SB for sure.
Next we rolled through their excellent range of estate cabs. Most of the fruit is grown on Howell Mountain but they also have property on the cooler Mount Veeder which interlaces the big burly dark fruit and concentration of Howell Mountain with some touches of tobacco leaf and cedar from the cooler Veeder fruit. These are wines of balance, power, and integrity that make me happy. They prove that not all Napa Cab has gone over to the big, jammy, soft, manipulated style.
Back now to the valley floor and the Silverado Trail side of St. Helena to Duckhorn Vineyards. I was excited about this visit after a nice stop at Goldeneye in Anderson Valley the previous week. In my opinion, Duckhorn wines are the real deal when it comes to Napa. They make quintessential Napa wines. The world is now so Cab centric and yet their offerings of Merlot are some of the best examples of Bordeaux varietal reds you’ll find anywhere. We toured the facility and saw everything in full swing. The fruit looked great and plentiful!
Winemakers and cellar crews in California have now been working around the clock for months bringing in what many think will be one of the best vintages in years, if not decades. Having left that game myself, I would like to applaud those people surviving the ravages of harvest and 14-16-18 hour days to bring us great wines year after year! Cheers to you all!
Anyway, the barrel rooms at Duckhorn are stacked neatly away, holding their precious treasures. It was great to have a good look around at this top-notch facility. We were treated to a very comprehensive seated tasting of many reserve and single vineyard wines. There was not one bad wine on the table. We started with another beautiful Napa SB,(2011 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc), this one with some notable barrel character and a dash of Semillion giving it a very Bordeaux Blanc like sensibility. My other favorites included the Cab Franc and the Carneros Merlot. Sadly these do not get into distribution.
Upon tasting the 2009 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot, I was once again wowed by how good and consistent this Merlot really is. Duckhorn's "workhorse" Merlot, it combines fruit from their many great sites sources and is consistently one of my top Napa wines every vintage. Sure, the 2008 Duckhorn “Discussion” is the premier Bordeaux-style blend and a great wine, and the 2009 Duckhorn “Three Palms Vineyard” Merlot is the flashy, prestigious, sought after release (its concentration, richness, power and purity are also very impressive). However, I can’t help feeling enamored with the regular old Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot. It's an everyman's wine with the pedigree and class to cellar for decades, and delivers on every level at a very reasonable price point. For me, it is benchmark for the varietal and region.
The next day after some perusing of the shops in Calistoga and St. Helena, we headed up to Schramsberg on Spring Mountain. I had been told that the Cave tour was not to be missed so I thought this would be a good way to finish off the trip. The history surrounding this property is enthralling as is the atmosphere. You begin by entering the two miles of underground caves, much of which were hand-dug with pick and shovel by Chinese workers in the 1870s, after completing Transcontinental Rail Road. Inside the caves, the walls are lined with millions of hand-stacked bottles ageing on their lees. Schramsberg still riddles their wines by hand. Riddling is an incredibly laborious process of rotating and tilting the bottles over many weeks to move the yeast into the neck of the bottle for disgorgement.
In the underground caves, everything is covered by a thick dust and mossy webs, a perfect pre-Halloween treat! The tasting deep in the caves was excellent and the wines showed fantastically. The 2009 Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Blanc first was very fresh and zippy with bright acid and vivacious energy on the palate. The Brut Rose, good as always, was showing nice purity and weight in the mouth. If you like domestic sparklers this is the one for Thanksgiving, a very food friendly and versatile wine. The J.Schram (Blanc de Blanc) and Reserve (Pinot Noir) bottlings were a real treat. Both are very big rich wines with a minimum five years on the lees, sleeping deep beneath the Spring Mountain hillside. I sometimes find wines with this amount of lees contact bit much, preferring two to three years on lees over the late-disgorged versions. However, I must say that both of these wines showed excellent balance and brightness of character and I’m sure would be excellent cellaring candidates should you be lucky enough to get your hands on some. We normally get small allocations of both around the holidays so keep a look out or wait-list them if you are interested.
If you haven’t tried any of the wines we tasted on this trip, I highly recommend you do! This is not the glitzy, glam, “Disney Napa” that some people talk about. These are all wines of history and true substance. Every one of these properties deserves a few spots in the cellar or an outing to the dinner table. Enjoy!