Friday, September 9, 2016

Dry Creek Valley - you must visit !

To me Dry Creek Valley is worth Napa , or even better, is much better than Napa considering it's much less busy and the wine is of comparable quality while being more accessible.

1. La Crema

While driving , as usual randomly, I landed in Healdburg. And across from the parking lot was the tasting room for La Crema. Quite a famous and commercial winery, I was still tempted to give it a chance.

And lucky me : they had an amazing selection of wines from different regions, sold only at the tasting room.

To me La Crema is a must visit . Why ? Because they have a very smart selection and a great region overview : for each grape type they make a wine from Carneros, Russian River, Alexander Valley and sometimes even other regions.

What does this mean ? It means you can try next to each other Pinot Noirs ( and Chardonnays) from Carneros, Russian River, Alexander Valley and sometimes even single vineyards. Same grape which is expressed extremely differently, and the wine maker knows how to express the exact differences and strenghts of each region.

I personally preferred Alexander Valley terroir and wine making style. But this was probably the best way to learn about wine. Stop by and have fun.

2. Simi

I continued with a visit of Simi winery. If  La Crema was so good and commercial perhaps Simi will be similar.
The tasting team was certainly fun. The atmosphere was great. They had snacks you could buy, and good ones too. But honestly I couldn't tell the difference between the $35 ones ( nothing cheaper ?) and the $100 ones.

I then decided to focus on Zins and I followd the recommendation of the tasting room team at La Crema and went to :

3. Limerick

Limerick Lane Vineyard, on Limerick Lane of course.
A wonderful little winery. Their wine maker being from Hungary they imported the grapes to make Tokaj but they make a dry wine out of them. Really interesting.

Tiny winery, family owned. The family lives in the house next door , with 3 ( or 4 ?) kids , and apparently a dozen pets of all species.
I particularly appreciated the tasting room manager who was both fun and knowledgeable. I am embarrassed to say that I appreciated it so much I forgot to take notes and I forgot what I tried.
I will have to go back :)

As I was set to find the famous Zins Dry Creek Valley is supposedly known for I googled : best Zins in Dry Creek Valley. And guess what came up ?

4. Papapietro's Winery

I walked into Papapietro's winery ready to try their apparently famous Zin. And guess what ? They make 10 Pinot Noirs and only 1 Zin. And the Zin is kind of a side wine for them. I am not the first customer to walk in to try their Zin and love their Pinot Noirs.
Prices vary, of course, from about $35 to a very reasonable top range of around $75. If you look at their wine ratings on Vivino they get as close to perfect as I ever found.
And rightfully so. I think they are an underrated winery, comparable to the $300 wines from Napa. A great kept secret. A fun staff, a great wine tasting room ...
One has to go and try their Pinots.
On the way out of Papapietro's I drove, yet again, by a sign saying "Old Vine Zin and Cab" .
I drove past. I stopped and turn around to finally, at the 3rd time I drove by, drive into:

5. Nalle Winery

On the way in I took this wonderful picture inspiring and calm thinking how much I wish I had a place like this to calm down sometimes for a little while.
I than walked in the it was the best visit of the day.
The wine maker, Andrew, and his wife , were doing the tasting.
They have a 5 months old daughter, named Lina. Mine is 6 months and called Mina.
And I talked to them about my Amarone project and... they brought out their own Amarone experiment Andrew had made especially for his wife for their wedding.

The winery has been in the same family for 4 or 5 generations. And they express their grapes in a  traditional way. Wines with a lot of aromas, perhaps nost the most elegant, the way I like them. Brut
 aromas of fruits and loaded with fun.

Left with a case, I think. If not I should have. I hope to stay in touch.

Russian River Valley

While I am staying in San Francisco for a few months I decided to explore off the usual path of Napa and Sonoma.
I spent 1 weekend around Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley.
Saturday was around Russian River Valley and it was a short day with only 3 wineries.

As usual I got there before the wineries were even open. And I randomly drove around and drove into a random winery. This has never failed me and it always led to fun places made even fun by the surprise and the adventure.

1. Battaglini

I started with Battaglini. The winery was bought by a couple of Italian origin more than 20 years ago. They were looking for a small 1/2 acre winery. But they found this 30 acres winery with really old vines who's grapes were being sold and they fell in love.
The owner has been making the wine ever since.
They have very interesting wines, made in the traditional style ( read: to be aged before you drink it , and with wild yeast off the grapes).

They have received quite a few prizes for their Zins. The most concentrated ones come off the slopy part of the vineyard where water is scarcer because it accumulates on the flat part. They therefore make 3 qualities of Zin : no slope (cheapest), medium slope  ( medium price) and steepest slope and most expensive. The prices are around $40. The slope combined with the extremely old vineyard ( grown in the old round shape vs the modern straight lines cuts) makes the Zins certainly unique and worth a detour.

What I retained even more in fact was the $18 2003 Chardonnay. Yes, you read well, 2003 Chardonnay that has the color of honey and a surprisingly low price. The price is low because most likely nobody buys aged Chardonnay. And personally I loved it. Everybody has difference taste in wine, and lucky me, I strongly prefer to be in the minority.  I left with a few bottles.

2. Hook and Ladder

We than randomly , of course, drove into Hook and Ladder. Not too far in fact from the quite famous DeLoach , of which I used to be a club member until I couldn't drink their wine fast enough.

What attracted us to drive in ? The red fire truck parked by the road in front of the vineyard.

Walking in I could tell they didn't have a lot of pretention.
And lucky I was.

They had a very impressive selection of grapes, among the most diverse I've seen in the region: Sangiovese, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Pinot Noirs,  Cab Franc etc. And in most of them multiple qualities of course. Quite a menu. And my favorite part ? The prices were in the $15 to $30 range.

I really think that keeping the wine below $30 makes it much more accessible and fun.
So many wines everybody had a different favorite. I left with the Sangiovese mostly, but also had a few other ones.

This business (or wine ?) strategy reminded me DeLoach's reasonable prices and great quality, at least for their entry level wines. ( I personally think the best quality to price for wineries like DeLoach and La Crema are their entry level wines which are typically $15 or so and I think have 80% of their $40 wines).

And guess what ? The owners of Hook and Ladder used to own DeLoach until they sold it to the French family. And they are at it again. I would certainly like to keep Hook and Ladder in sight.

And bonus points :  As great price to quality think alike on wine , they recommended Al's Place restaurant for a Michelin star restaurant at reasonable prices  in San Francisco. We went a few weeks later and Al's Place is probably among the top 3 most innovatives restaurants I've been at an unbeatable $75 per person ( very reasonable I think !). A must visit !

3. Russian River Vineyard

Do not be confused : there is a vineyard called Russian River Vineyard, in the region called Russian River. Somehow the name was not taken and they took it.
The best part : they have a great restaurant on the property. You MUST try the burger.
The wines ? Great , very good. But a little sad that they didn't have much under $65 except a "Beaujaulais style" Pinot Noir. And you know what ? I personally don't care much for the French Beaujolais , but I loved this one. But for $35.... I still feel it was a little steep.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Larkmead, Leap Frog and Caymus

I returned to Napa for day-trip on August 7th 2016. And as planned I started with Larkmead winery.

1. Larkmead

I have to say that Larkmead's reputation is fully entitled. The wines are of course expensive, but nowhere close other winery's crazy prices. They tend to be in the $100-$150. The price is however entire worth it as they are , at least in my opinion and for the ones I tried, really outstanding.

I tried Firebelle and their white wine and I was very impressed.

And I also have to mention that while the winery itself is very pleasant the staff, and especially Jessica, have been extremely welcoming. She is born and raised in Napa Valley and one can tell.

The wine tasting was a real pleasure, it was non commercial, the wine quality was among the best I ever had , both flavorful but also elegant. And the site is also extremely pleasant. I become wine club member as well.

2. Frog's Leap

Jessica from Larkmead recommended we visit Frog's Leap as a small-ish and more reasonably priced commercial winery.
The wine prices are indeed very reasonable with the most expensive wine being the Napa Cab at $55.
The wine tasting price is also reasonable.
We were visiting on Sunday which did mean that there was a huge crowd at the winery.
So overall I would just say just another winery if it wasn't for their garden. They had ripe raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and many more things you could just taste on the vine. I am not certain if you are welcome to try them or it is frowned upon, but they tasted amazing.

Worth a visit even if it's just for the garden.

3. Caymus

A staple in our visits to Napa. Caymus made the choice to raise the tasting price to a hot $50 per person, ouch ! The good news is that it's still completely full and everybody, given the price, gets to try their Reserve Cabernet (at $160 per bottle otherwise) which is entirely worth the try.
We also had their Mer Soleil Chardonnay which I liked a lot. And of course one of my favorites : their Emmolo Merlot. I am still well stocked on their wines since my last visit in January otherwise I would have left with more.

Next visit : Dry Creek Valley and Russian River.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Plans for next visits ( Larkmead, DryCreek and Russian River )

Returning back to Manhattan after spending a few days in Napa is mildly depressing. Noisy, craziness, dirty, stinky, gray and cold.
Compare this to Napa early in the morning in February :
Caymus Winery at 9am on Saturday

Driving back to Napa from St. Helena on Silverado Trail at 9:45am on Sunday morning

But I am already making plans for my next trip to the region. Maybe in April.

Friend of mine strongly recommended Larkmead winery. . As they are also wine knowledgeable and have a certain passion for wine I took this very seriously. While checking their website I read the following about Larkmead:

"This  splendid estate situated in the heart of Napa Valley has enjoyed a reputation for high quality for well over a century. Tasting with Larkmead's proprietor Cam Baker demonstrated once again just what brilliant wines these can be."
~ Robert Parker, Wine Advocate, October 31, 2013

And after further research I read that they "sell" their wine based on allocation , which I assume is random. I was scared that it was another $1000 per bottle wine again. However I was very pleasantly surprised that it is priced around $80-100 per bottle.  My hopes are really up and I will certainly go visit it during my next trip. I really hope I will not be disappointed. Also I've been to Napa many times but I think it's time for me to go visit beyond Napa and Sonoma. I hope next trip I can take 2-3 days in Russian River Valley and Dry Creek. If only I knew when my next trip is...

Saturday, February 6, 2016

WORST experience in Napa : Back Room wine store downtown Napa

Bad experiences happen but I think we reached a new level.

On the way back from Calistoga I stopped downtown Napa at the Back Room wine store at 1000 Main Street.

I was beyond disappointed by the experience there. They were serving at $5 a taste from a $60 bottle of wine with a Coravin. Is a $60 bottle of wine now so high end that it needs to be Coravined ? But the real shock was that the $60 wine was clearly corked. Wet cardboard nose, wet cardboard body and ... they kept serving it. I asked if they felt it was corked. They guy serving it clearly had no idea, he hadn't even tasted it !! Really ?? And what did he do ? Did he taste it then ? Nope. He declared it was fine.

Oh, I thought maybe as a wine store at least they will have supplies. I asked if they sold airplane packaging. Same guy then spent at least 5 minutes telling me  that checking wine on a plane is a no-no and it ALWAYS breaks. Did he ever fly on the plane ever ? Probably not. Somehow, miraculously, I've been flying with wines for more then 15 years and guess what ? NOT A SINGLE bottle ever broke. At least if their wines they had selected were any good or the people were interesting or knowledgeable.

Expensive tasting at $20 (tax was not included too !) . They probably need to change the team there.

Napa Valley 3rd trip day 2

Day 2

Day 2 of the 3rd trip to Napa was going to be very busy by design. I started at 9am and it’s still going as I write these lines.

1. Caymus winery

Started with my usual stop at Caymu’s winery. Made it there before it even opened. They renovated the front of the tasting room and it feels extremely calm and welcoming before the crowds arrived. Tried their Zin, Cab an more. They sold the Meiomi brand 3 months ago for $350m so unfortunately they do not make it anymore. Did try their $55 Belle Glos Pinot Noir which is the next level up from Meiomi. But one has to make a point that the $20 range Meiomi was so popular because it was good but certainly because it was priced right too. This should make people think that maybe instead of focusing on $110 bottles of wine most wineries should focus on $20 bottles of wine.
What really stood out for me was the $60 Merlot from their sister brand and Wagner family daughter Emmolo. I was so happy to find an amazing Merlot that stands out and in my eyes was my favorite wine in what I tasted there. Sideways did a disservice to the wine world by killing the Merlot. I really hope for more wine makers to make more Merlots so that we can get back the beautiful silky and velvety Merlots I had 10 years ago.

2. Honig winery

After Caymus , very close, continued with Honig. I had had it in the past at the winery and it was certainly good but having a Cab bottle only a few months ago in New York made me want to go back and revisit. Happy I did so. Their Sauvignon Blank stands out. But what really attracted my attention was their single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rafael Vineyard from 2002. They apparently had 18 bottles when I got there. 16 after I left. This really points out that wine aging is really very important and I think people do not put enough emphasis on drinking 10+ year old wines. They really are much different. A little patience please 

3. Rombauer winery

The team at Honig advised me to visit Rombauer which I quickly did. And I am so happy I did so. Overall I think it is the winery where the prices are the most reasonable and the best ratio of price to value with outstanding quality. They had 4 Zins which are different and similar and wonderful and an experience and all prices in the $30-$43 per bottle. What a treat! And of course they are known for their Chardonnay, worth a visit. They do have some $90 wines but I really did not see the point when their Zins are so interesting, priced right, wonderful and exhibit such a variety in aromas and tannic structure. I will be back 

4. Frank Family winery

And based on Honig’s team advice I also went to Frank’s family vineyards, advertised as similar to Rombauer. It was certainly interesting. Their Chardonnays are a nice middle ground between French and buttery. Their Pinot Noir stood out, their $50 Cab Sauv and most important what really was unique for me was their 100% Petit Sirah which I could taste …and buy. The Petit Sirah is a 2012 and I hope that by aging it another 10 years I will be able to hopefully match the 2002 100% Petit Sirah from Crocker Starr I bought the last time I was in Napa. These are however $60 vs the $120 (from memory) I got at Crocker. I’ll let you know how this turns out, if I am patient enough to wait 10 years for it.

5. Lava winery

After lunch continued with Lava winery in Saratoga. The atmosphere was really fun and really laid back. It was really busy as well. Some interesting grapes and for me the Petite Sirah really stood out. However the prices , at $58 per bottle without offering any possible discounts seemed really steep for the location and winery type. I was expecting more $30-40.

6. Tulocay winery : best small winery and value around.

What a gem ! I found it by randomly calling wineries on Google maps. After making an appointment with Bill, it turned out when I showed up that he was also the wine maker. He has been making Tulocay wines since 1975. Fearless he had started back then, at age of 30, without knowing anything and not knowing he knew nothing. And 50 years of experience in making wine shows. For very reasonable prices ($30-$35 for most of their wines) you can taste some of the best wines I've have in Napa. Different people and different taste. I really like wines with character and aromas and they are spot on ! They are probably coming close to the best I've had and hardly any wines I ever tried around Napa beat them. Bill opened some 2002 Syrah and the body was really extraordinary. They only have about 15 cases left and at about $35 a bottle I think it's an amazing deal.

I also had the pleasure to meet Brie, Bill's daughter who is slowly taking over and transitioning the wine making. She is right now 1/2 time assistant wine maker at a different winery and 1/2 time at Tulocay.

Tulocay makes right now about 1000 cases per year in about 5 flavors, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir ( which is like a Carneros Pinot Noir), Zinfandel, Carbet Sauvignon and Syrah. So there isn't much to start with . Apparently their Zin is their most popular wine. But their 2010 Zin was sold out and they didn't make any in 2011 to 2013. The 2014 is still in the bottle. So I didn't even get to try any.

I signed up the for wine club to make sure I get their wines as they ship them. At $200 per year I definitively think their wine club is the best deal around.

p.s. After getting home I checked their website and guess what ? Their Zin got the Platinum medal at the World Wide Championship with 98 points. And you know what ? They didn't mention it even once while I was there for a few hours. Best kept secrete in town. 

Napa Valley 3rd trip day 1

Exciting to be in Napa for a 3rd visit. It’s been quite busy and a really active visit. And it’s not even over yet

1.      1. Luna Winery

I first stopped at Luna Winery just at the entrance of Oak Knoll. Italian inspiration. They stood out for growing Sangiovese grapes imported from Itality in Napa. Left with some Classico Sangiovese.
      2. Reynolds Winery

After driving a little further ended up on the right at Reynold’s winery. The team there was especially nice and you can taste outside and indoors. They really stood out for their darker and boldier Pinot Noir. But what was really special was their Quote blend made without sulfites but with an Ozone ( O3) process. Very fruity and flavorful. Also really liked their 100% Petit Verdot which tasted surprisingly like a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon.

3.      3. Grgich Hills Winery

After a nice lunch at Rutherford Grill, as usual, moved on to Grgich Hills winery not far from the restaurant on the left. It is on the main road and very popular. The owner is of Croatian origin and they have a nice board showing Napa’s wine history. Nice wines but a little pricey. Left with a 100% Petit Verdot from here too, mostly as an educational wine showing the tannins power in a Petit Verdot while keeping the wine still very pleasant.
     4. Heitz Winery

Continued with the Heitz Winery. I had a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon in Capital Grill at a very reasonable price and really wanted to try their collection. Was not disappointed. They had some 1998 Cab single vineyard which had a unique minty nose and body. The mint aroma I had never had before especially in a red wine could potentially come from a lot of eucalyptus trees around the vineyard. And what stood out for me was also their port made with the original port grapes , a whole mix of 5 or so grapes, from Portugal. Not cheap, but they do make ½ bottles and their 750ml bottles are still reasonable. Maybe a trip to Port in Portugal is worth it.

5.      C5. Corasin Winery

Finished with a unique visit at Corasin winery. It is on reservation only but I was exceptionally welcomed in by Nolan who also opened up their wine collection for a taste. They have a TINY, and by that I mean TINY offering and the entire vineyard is in the back of the winery. They are known for pickcing their grapes early in the season. And you couldn’t tell from the wine color. Unique wines worth the experience but certainly on the expensive side.