Travels in Wine Country: Napa Valley
My love affair with wine began in – and continues with – the Napa Valley. During the past 20 or so years, I’ve visited the area more than a dozen times and tasted at scores of wineries. Though there are many other places in the U.S. and the world that my wine-related travels have taken me (and about which I’ll attempt to wax poetic in this blog in future posts), the vineyards in Napa are those in which I “grew up” in my wine education and the ones to which I always seem to return.
Some people in the wine industry – particularly in areas of California outside of Napa – accuse Napa Valley of being corporate and elitist, producing a glut of wines that are both overrated and overpriced. While there may be an element of truth in these allegations (and I can cite a few incidents where I’ve witnessed some of these accusations prove out), there are many wineries in Napa providing memorable experiences for visitors…oh, and they produce some pretty tasty juice, too.
Any list of suggested wineries in Napa will be woefully incomplete (there are over 400 to choose from!) and terribly biased, so I’ll just call this compilation “my current favorites.” In no particular order…
One of the first wineries I ever visited, Montelena is my (sentimental) favorite winery. While these days, Montelena known primarily for their flagship Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau Montelena is perhaps most famous for Chardonnay. In 1976, Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won a blind tasting in France known as the “Judgment of Paris.” At the time, the wine industry in California was best known for producing low quality “jug wine,” but this tasting proved to many that the fine wine being produced in Napa was comparable to – or better than – fine French wines. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the movie “Bottle Shock,” which is based on the story of the “Judgment of Paris.” (Not to mention the adorable Chris Pine as legendary winemaker Bo Barrett…swoon-worthy…but I digress.) The Chateau itself is a gorgeous structure, with beautiful Jade Lake located on the grounds.
My first visit to Chappellet was on a rainy and gloomy day, but the weather did not dampen my enthusiasm for this lovely winery. Family-owned and -run by the Chappellet family since its founding, Chappellet and many of their vineyards sit on the sunny slopes of Pritchard Hill. Some of their neighbors, including Colgin, David Arthur and Bryant Family, are making some of the most celebrated (and most expensive!) wines in Napa, but the Chappellet family has been growing grapes on this hill and making excellent wines from them since the 1960’s. Chapellet’s flagship wine is their Pritchard Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, but they produce a number of unique (and delicious!) wines, including a Chenin Blanc (one of my favorite white wines for summer) which is available only at the winery and to wine club members.
Each time I travel to Napa, I ask the folks who work in the tasting rooms which wineries they love to visit. Newton is one that is mentioned quite consistently – and for good reason. Located on Spring Mountain, Newton has some of the most spectacular views of Napa Valley. Also, Newton is unique in that they specialize in making unfiltered wines – the most widely-known being Newton’s Unfiltered Merlot. Although filtering is a very common step in the winemaking process (even for high-end wines with triple-digit price tags), it can be a controversial topic in some “super wine geek” (SWG) circles (and please understand that I mean that as a term of endearment for all of my “super wine geek” friends…) who say that filtering removes some of the essential structure and elements of terroir (a SWG term which loosely translates from French as “place” and about which I’ll post more extensively at a later date…) that allow a wine to show as the truest reflection of the grape and age more gracefully. I won’t engage that debate right now, but suffice to say that Newton is one of the most picturesque spots in Napa Valley and they make a lot of fantastic cellar-worthy wines.
After a harrowing trip through the backroads of Spring Mountain, my friend and I arrived at Barnett, where were greeted by the two very friendly Barnett winery dogs. (Many wineries in Napa have “winery dogs” – laid-back and ridiculously adorable pooches who frolic among the vineyards and sleep in the ample California sunshine…when they aren’t greeting tasting guests.) Signs pointed us to the “tasting room” which was a well-appointed corner of the barrel room. After a few samplings of Barnett’s few (but very well-made) offerings, we took our pours of Barnett’s signature Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet Sauvignon… and walked up Rattlesnake Hill itself to take in the views. Although we didn’t see any actual rattlesnakes (and I was fine with this), we were glad we did find this gem of a small family-owned and -run winery.
Located in the mecca of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – the Stags Leap District – Shafer is tucked away on a side road just off the Silverado Trail. I tasted at Shafer on a perfect Napa Valley morning in March, right before the buds on the grape vines come to life. While we did taste (and I purchased the nearly-impossible to find) Shafer’s signature Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, the highlight of my visit to Shafer was when the winemaker stopped by the tasting room. Elias Fernandez, Shafer’s winemaker for the past 27 years (nicknamed “Relentless” because of his perfectionist nature), was so very gracious, offering to take questions (yes – I asked some…OK, probably too many…) and providing such great information about his observations and insights gained through years of producing one of the valley’s most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignons.
There are several producers of sparkling wine in California’s wine country, but many of them are owned by French champagne houses. Schramsberg is owned and run by the Davies family, making them one of only a handful of “all-American” producers of sparkling wine made by the traditional French method, also known as methode champenoise, in which the wine is fermented (and the signature bubbles form) in the bottle. Schramsberg sparkling wines are commonly served at White House state dinners, and in fact, the winery’s first foray into fame happened when President Richard Nixon took cases of Schramsberg sparklers to China on his historic visit. The tour of Schramsberg, located just outside of Calistoga, includes a walk through a portion of the miles of caves, where thousands upon thousands of sparkling wine bottles are in various stages of fermentation and aging. Quite a sight, indeed.