Thursday, October 19, 2006

Napa - Day 1

We started out from San Francisco early in the morning so that we could hit the tasting rooms by the 10am opening time. However, our early morning quest for a hit of Starbucks led to delays, and we decided to take the slower Golden Gate route for the view. Thus, we arrived in the area just south of Sonoma, well, parched! The weather was glorious, with beautiful fall colours, and as we zipped past winery after winery we felt a need to stop.

Gloria Ferrer
This was a slight deviation from 'the plan', but bubbly was probably the best place to start, and Ferrer is owned by Spanish Cava house Freixenet. We started with the Sonoma Brut (NV), a wine apparently rated 90 (and Top 100) by Wine Spectator. I liked the nice, toasty, brioche aromas, and soft bubbles and good finish - an excellent Brut and a terrific value (US$20). I also tasted the 2002 "Gravel Knob" Pinot Noir. A subtle nose of fresh cherries and oak, this was a lighter bodies uncomplex Pinot with lively acidity (very Burgundy-like). Pricey at US$40.

Domaine Carneros
This winery easily wins for beauty. Founded by the famous French Champagne house Taitinger, this stunning red brick French-styled Chateau sits nestled amongst the rolling hills of Carneros, with beautiful terraced gardens flanking the steps up to the Chateau and no other wineries in obvious sight - just fields of vines. I ran up the steps in anticipation of tasting their Pinot Noir (their "Famous Gate" won our last Pinot Noir tasting). While the 'tourists' all went straight for the bubbly tasting, we tasted a flight of three Pinots - the low end "Avant Garde", the Estate, and the "Famous Gate". The 2004 Avant Garde (US$22) had nice aromas of chocolate and cherries, tea, smoke, almonds, it was light bodied and elegant, but slightly unbalanced. While the cheapest, the best value (US$30) was the 2004 Estate Pinot - scents of truffle, oak, strawberries, oak, mint. This was a full-bodied, tannic wine, with a decent finish - getting elegant but could use some more time in the bottle. If you can afford it (US$55), the 2004 Famous Gate is a winner - very pleasant scents of black cherries, smoke, hazelnut, coffee, toasty, buttery, earthy, a beautiful ever-changing nose. It was very elegant and very well balanced, with medium length - nicely done, and maybe even more approachable today than the Estate. Sitting on the patio, sipping Pinot, was a "Life is Good" moment (to quote Rob). My recommendation - don't go to Napa without visiting fine winery. I bought the Famous Gate and the Estate.

I wanted to stop here to see the funky modern architecture, and I have had their low end Pinot before (2001), which I thought was terrific. The winery was crowded, with no chance to chat with the employees at the bar - must be a major stop on the bus tour. The 2004 Pinot was nothing like the 2001. While it had a nice nose of cherries and chocolate, it was a bit tart and unbalanced, not very complex - it was good, but a let down after Domaine Carneros - go here first if you want to do two Pinots in a row. It was US$40 - yikes! The 2003 Tempranillo (US$25) was a nice surprise - peppery, with subtle floral aromas - lovely, with a pastry kind of smell. On the tongue it was very classic tempranillo with a loooong finish, very oaky. Needs some bottle time, but interesting and fun. I have notes for the 2002 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon but not really relevant - musty, appeared corked, I asked them to open a new bottle, but it had the same musty smell.

Luna Vineyards
This was a target due to their focus on Italian varietals. The winery was very close to the town of Napa, with Tuscan-inspired architecture and a tower to climb and look out over the vineyard in its fall glory. Our first taste was the 2004 Pinot Grigio - oaky/buttery on the nose, with scents of lemon and green melon. Very fresh, very drinkable, but sported a hefty US$40 price tag. The 2003 Terrestrial was a blend of Teroldego (never heard of it) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple in colour, with strawberries and bready, gamey/meaty scents. Fruity with nice tannins, would pair well lasagna. A bit pricey at US$37, but very drinkable (and original). I was looking forward to the 2002 Canto (US$60), a blend of Sangiovese/Merlot/Cab Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah, and Luna's signiature wine. Beautiful earthy scents of leather, truffle, chocolate - plummy, oaky, and minerally (wet stones?). Very nice fruit and tannic, with good length, well balanced but racy, it will probably benefit from a few years in the bottle. The 2004 Sangiovese Riserva was bright and cheerful on the nose, with lemon and strawberry with hints of truffle and game underneath. Tannic with dark fruit, balanced and exciting - I bought two. The 'coup de grace' was their impromptu serving of a wine called Mille Baci (NV), a Sauternes-style white dessert wine - "stunning". Overall, a nice quiet tasting room with knowledgeable staff.

Sinskey Vineyards
An impromptu stop - something about Rob's local resto serving this. We tried two Pinots (2002 Vandal Vineyard and the 2002 Four Vineyards), a 2002 Merlot and a 2002 Cabernet Franc Vandal Vineyard. I was not terribly excited about the wines, and it seemed a bit of a tourist trap, but the canapes they served were delicious. The Four Vineyards was the best of the lot in my mind.

Clos du Val
Another impromptu stop - famous, on the way to our hotel, and (most importantly) they were still open. The first pour was a 2004 Carneros Chardonnay - classic, buttery toast, oak, minerals and citrus, a very nice Chardonnay. After that we had the 2004 Pinot Noir and the 2003 Merlot, and they were ok. Next was the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon - minty, but not a classic cab on the nose. Big and balanced with a decent finish. However, the finale was the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. A lovely nose, also with a hint of mint, it was richer than the regular Cabernet with big cab tannins, more oak, and a looong finish. Very Bordeaux-like, elegant and powerful, will soften up in the bottle. Excellent wine.

To be fair, After so many wines on our first day in the valley my palate was probably a bit stunned, so the last two wineries deserve a retaste on our next visit.
For dinner we went to Tra Vigne, a relatively famous Italian resto in Napa. The ambiance was wonderful, the service great and the food was spectacular. Highly recommended. Not inexpensive, but hey, if you wanted a deal you would probably avoid Napa altogether. For dinner we had a 2003 Swanson Merlot, as recommended by the staff. A wonderful choice! Deep purple, with a nice big nose - black pepper, cherries, oak, tannins. On the palate is was rich and viscous, very well balanced with good length, it will benefit from some bottle aging. My notes proclaim it to be the best merlot of the day. I even scored it 17/20. Apparently a WS90.


Edward said...


Thanks for the pointer to your Artesa notes and the image of the fountains. The wine I tried was one of those crowd pleasing, ripe (some would say over done) cabernets, which I'm sure some would dislike for it chubby softness.

Joe said...

Making an appearance on ancient posts? I was a mere blog baby back then. The fountains were just one aspect - the whole winery is a pyramid built into a hill, grass walls and roof, rather funky - cool, wish the wine was as interesting as the architecture. Had and AWESOME Aussie Cab yesterday, stay tuned...