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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Napa is Far Away

We ended up spending two days in Napa. Even though we were staying relatively far south in Sonoma, getting to Napa was a bit of a hassle; getting up in time to have breakfast and make it deep into Napa for a 10 in the morning appointment met getting up stupid early (by which I mean something relatively mundane like 6AM). The major connecting roads are just constant traffic jams, even on the weekdays when there isn’t too much traffic by comparison.

When we next do Napa, I think we’ll stay somewhere in Napa for those days, rather than commuting in from Sonoma each day. Especially with some of the interesting restaurants, it would be nice to not have to drive all the way back to Sonoma and instead be able to walk to/from dinner.

Viader

Our second (and last) day in Napa started at Viader.

sign for viader 1 Viader produces elegant wines. They are not perhaps typical big in-your-face Napa Cabernets, and I have a hard time saying they’re typical of the wines made from nearby hill fruit. Part of this I credit on their vineyards, which are tucked into a valley with a body of water at the foot – this keeps the vineyards somewhat cooler via convection (while also discouraging harmful frost to form during budbreak and towards the end of the harvest), but also curiously reflects a lot of sunlight onto the vines when the sky is clear. Sort of neat.

So, these wines aren’t stupid big, which is nice. While there’s a healthy dose of oak, it’s not at all out of balance. From my vantage point, Michel Rolland’s influence has not over-exerted itself just to please the likes of, say, Parker. This probably explains why Viader’s wines never score particularly well in The Wine Advocate, and why I’m not surprised to see substantially higher points from Tanzer. The proprietary blend (generally a healthy majority of Cabernet Sauvignon plus a smaller dose of Cabernet Franc) are floral, lush, and rich. The “V” blend features about half Petit Verdot and half Cabernet Franc. Both reward time in the cellar and patience though “V” is far less accessible in its youth.

view from the back of viader

The view from the winery is rather nice, and it highlights the unique geography of the vineyards. We tasted through numerous wines, starting with a brief splash of the DARE Tempranillo, but quickly moving to several vintages of the proprietary blend (including 2003 from magnum) and concluding with the “V.” All were pretty fantastic, though the recent vintages are quite stunning. It was great fun tasting through so many bottles.

Lunch Was Meh

We dined at the Rutherford Grill, ostensibly an institution, but it wasn’t that good. Famous for its ribs and its chicken, I got both:

ribs & chicken

There’s no reason to bother. Get sandwiches from the cheese shop in Oxbow instead.

Corison

The good news is that we went to Corison after lunch, and it was a fantastic good time. Their tasting room is the winery itself. We were greeted with a quick glass of gewurz and then they popped some legs on a folding table next to the barrels, plopped down a dozen glasses and a spittoon, and showed up with a vertical of Cathy’s Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Initial talk was sparse, letting the wines speak for themselves. I want to say the vintages were ‘04, ‘05, and ‘09, but I may be wrong on that point. Of the trio, the ‘04 was definitely drinking the best, while still having rather vicious tannins and really fresh fruit flavors. It’s always a great opportunity to try verticals of the same wine from the same vineyards from the same winemaker like this, and that this is par for the course at Corison is fantastic.

Her wines are even less typical of Napa Valley than one might expect, being very elegant, floral, and light. Her belief is that acidity and lower alcohols lead to wines that age better, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue with her. After about 10 years in the cellar, her wines are stellar and are remarkable at the price point. Of course, being a much more restrained style of wine (in addition to higher acid and lower alcohol, I want to say half of the aging is in neutral oak), I’m not suprised it required Galloni’s installation to see scores above 90.

Corison Winery

Somewhat fortuitously, we then met Hardy Wallace, who took over our tasting. He introduced us to two bottles of Kronos about ten years apart, and then we got to talking about what we’d been tasting, the three-tier system and distribution channels (in specific, Corison’s relationship with Skurnik), Cathy’s approach to winemaking, etc. Had a really fantastic conversation, and this ended up forming a list of places we ended up tasting or eating at in Sonoma in the days that followed. While our Napa leg was largely planned before we even left Connecticut, we more or less winged the Sonoma portion. Hardy’s advice proved fantastic and incredibly helpful and we were lucky to run into him at Corison.

remnants of a corison tasting

If you’re willing to try a Napa Cabernet that’s nothing like most Napa Cabernets, this is a tasting not to be missed. Tucked conveniently in the valley floor, it’s also just down the road from Hall (though Corison does taste by appointment only), which would have been convenient if I’d planned better. Tasting fees are refunded with a single bottle of Cabernet (either bottling) each, one of the most generous policies I saw for a winemaker of this caliber.

Caymus

sign

Wagner Wines is the biggest winemaker by case volume we visited. This was pretty obvious looking from the merch room into the barrel warehouse space:

Barrel Cage

I intentionally wanted to visit a winery like Caymus. Silver Oak would have been a similar venture. I wasn’t seeking to find the best wine, but rather to find a big-name big-production highly-related wine and all of the associated trappings. This was my Napa Disneyland experience.

Our tasting table

Our guests for the tasting (a “private hosted sit-down tasting,” which was to say that it was in another room and the seats at the table were limited slightly in quantity) were from Louisiana and they both told us that and apologized that they were loud.

And drunk. They insulted us for this being only our third tasting of the day, as this was their fifth. They hadn’t spit a drop. Luckily they weren’t driving themselves either, so it was okay. But, they were annoying as shit. In two days, this was the first time people who’d had too much to drink became an irritation, rather than just something we saw a lot of.

Caymus was also a little odd, in that it required us to pay our tasting fee up front before the tasting. This is the only time I’ve ever encountered this. I don’t have strong feelings on the matter, but it felt a little bit like being granted admission to an amusement park.

Our host was full on personality at least. He extolled the virtues of young wines, high yields, vine stress via root severing, and got confused while trying to explain the difference between Syrah and Durif. He also made it clear that two things mattered in making wine: The Winemaker and Oak. He was quite proud of both the winemaker and their commitment to expensive 100% new French oak. On the upside, our friends from the South were still trying to understand the difference between the Zinfandel they were tasting and the White Zinfandel they enjoyed at home (I can’t make this up), so I guess he came out ahead.

I’ll be honest, they $20-and-change Sauvignon Blanc made by Wagner’s daughter was the only exceptional wine of the bunch. The Zinfandel wasn’t bad, but clearly is just filling a hole in their portfolio for people that want a red wine from Caymus but can’t afford either of the flagship wines.

The 2010 Caymus Cabernet, which comes in around something like 40k cases was mediocre. It was big, cloying, and lacked structure (namely, any real acidic or tannic balance). Clearly just not my style of winemaking, given its popularity. Our friends at the table loved it, but could not wait for the Special Selection. I can’t help but find some resonance in Tanzer’s review of the 2008 vintage (“… an almonst port-like quality … showed a rather cloying cough medicine quality … finishes with building dusty tannins and a note of toffee”).

Special Selection is about 25% of the production of the normal Caymus, and is harvested differently, fermented separately, and made into wine differently; these selections are made block by block at harvest time, and apparently feature transitions from machine to hand-picking, for example. It was a better wine, but not again a vastly better wine. With something like a four-ounce tasting pour of each (and our friends demanded refills), I certainly didn’t taste very much. I thought the woman next to us was going to grab my glass and drain it for me. Notably absent from the tasting room was any means to spit or dump. To their credit, the Caymus staff encouraged people not to drive themselves home. To their discredit, it was not because it was unsafe, but because the cops liked to pull people over. And I guess that sums it up for me. Just not my speed, at all.

Back to Sonoma

And that ended our trip to Napa. We returned to Sonoma for dinner at the girl and the fig, which was pretty great. Awesome service, lots of Rhone varietals on the wine list, and great food. I started with a ‘Fig Fashioned’ cocktail and M had the garden margarita special, both were rather clever and well-prepared. We hit a charcuterie & fruit platter, and they took our menus away so we could enjoy it, rather than dealing with continuing to order and so forth. It was a nice touch.

the fig fashioned

garden margarita

charcuterie

I had a radish plate to start, which was lovely. Some of the radishes were seriously spicy and rather remarkable. They were served with an anchovy butter, which worked rather well.

radish plate

Sea bass and duck confit rounded things out; I think the duck confit was perhaps the second best I’ve had (mine is the best on earth, to be fair). I forget what wine I had, but it paired well with the duck and was a lighter Rhone wine of some sort. It’s nice sometimes just having somebody figure it out for you and not thinking about it.

blurry sea bass

wonderful duck confit

An institution and everybody recommends it, but it’s yet to lose its charm. We did go here again later in the trip (EVERYTHINg is closed on Monday in wine country, it’s what we could find open) and had a far less impressive experience, largely attributable to a lackluster waiter. So, it might be hit-or-miss, but I’m going to remember our experience here by the first visit.

Parting Thoughts on Napa

And those were our two days in Napa, plus a little bit on the periphery. I’m glad I went. I would definitely, as mentioned, stay in Napa if I visit again and intend to taste in Napa.

Most of the interesting wineries in Napa (to me) are appointment-only. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re extraordinarily expensive or exotic, but it’s important to keep in mind. The more mainstream and drive-up the tasting rooms got, the less interesting the experience was for me. I greatly appreciated tastings where we got to spend an hour or two with somebody talking about the wines, the property, the winemakers, etc, and really didn’t appreciate the more orchestrated and programmed experiences. If the place you’re thinking of visiting has clear bus parking areas, just keep driving. Your experience is going to suck, and the wine probably will too.

Napa’s stupid expensive. I think the Hall Cabernet is a steal at $50, and I think the general entry point to interesting wines in Napa are around $75 and up. Anybody pouring anything cheaper than that was either pouring mediocre wine, or they were pouring bottles with fruit sourced from outside Napa. Keep an eye on this, even some really good winemakers in Napa are selling the majority of their wine made on fruit from Sonoma and beyond.

Like we would find in Sonoma, but to a lesser degree, Napa’s still suffering from Sideways; we saw a lot of great Cabernet makers offering a Pinot of all things, in Napa, because people expected it. People tried to avoid mentioning Merlot if it was one of the things we were tasting. Silly.

Generally our experiences at visits improved dramatically when it became clear we knew even the slightest bit about the industry. Talking about Continuum and Tim Mondavi (who has connections with Viader) at Viader unlocked a few more bottles, talking about the distribution channels at Corison got us into interesting conversation there. It was something different everywhere: questions about new vs. neutral oak, where fruit was sourced from, talking about everything coming off the vines at the same time in 2012, etc. I’m not trying to suggest that one should game the system to get a good experience, as these were all genuine questions/discussions that more or less just happened. But, when somebody who is into wine gets a chance to geek out, the tasting got dramatically better, every time. It’s clear they talk to so many people that are just interested in plowing through tastings and getting blitzed, even at the more exclusive and private destinations.