Wine Country III

December 9, 2011

Yesterday was my annual “research group” wine trip, in conjunction with the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

An aside from the title of this post, the meeting has grown from about 400 when I first attended in 1975 to 21,000 this year.  Out of control, unmanageable, and by any reasonable estimate at least $30M charged to federal research budgets.  Any taxpayer reading this:  be certain and fully understand I pay my own way!

My last graduate student before retirement has moved away and is finishing revisions to his thesis.  And so I have adopted a research group, that of my colleague William Wilcock.  And one of his graduate students is very connected to his undergraduate mentor–who I know less well–but I fully subscribe to any friend of yours is a friend of mine.  So this trip was two grad students of Will, their wives, and mentor Rick and his wife Karen.

First stop:  Domaine Carneros, the Napa Valley instance of Tattinger.  (The timing wasn’t right for our day, but I think the best tour is at Mumm Napa on Silverado Trail; Domaine Chandon just off of CA 29 is top notch as well…can’t go wrong with any of the three, I prefer to do the sparkling first thing).  Lots of people, myself included, have trouble tasting difference in wine quality compared to price.  Sparkling wines make this so easy.  Our group had some basic tastings and I chose a single glass of their best.  What worked very well is that since I remembered our host (Travis, you are a marvelous asset to your company) he comped small pours of it for everybody.  Le Reve is astoundingly good, 6 years in bottle.  The difference between a $30 and a $90 red can be difficult to gauge.  The difference between a $30 and a $90 sparkling is so easy.  It didn’t hurt that it was a beautiful day!

But our anchor stop is my absolute favorite, Vintners Collective in downtown Napa.  I’ve sung their praises before.  And I will again here.  Some tasting notes and comments:

First and foremost:   *Any* visit to Napa Valley needs to include Vintners Collective.  A friend of mine suggested after his visit several years ago:  “Do a tasting at 11 when they open, go have a long lunch, and then go back for another…the perfect and complete day!).  That is a bit extreme, for it is downtown Napa and one should absorb the natural beauty of the valley, but he is right that you will likely not taste better wines.

I had made arrangements to taste upstairs, hosted by Andy.  Slow paced, with bread, cheeses, prosciutto, grapes.  My group had four “newbies” and so we scanned varietals.  Some of my comments and thoughts:

We started with Buoncristiani Sauvignon Blanc.  I mainly drink red wine, but this was very enjoyable.  I’ll go further, since I need only one white wine, this should be it.  I can imagine a broad range of food pairings…

I’m very sorry I don’t enjoy Chardonnay, struggling even when it hasn’t seen oak at all.  But next Andy served Parallels Chardonnay, a wine made by one of the world’s best winemakers Phillipe Melka.  Just not my taste, but others liked it.

Then we were into the reds, more my territory and of  Rick and Karen.  Wow!

Course 1:  Ancien Pinot Noir sourced from Fiddlestix Vineyard.   Both wife Tobae and our son Daniel’s years in Oregon have opened me to Pinots, and this was great.  With Pinot climate moving north, I was very surprised this was from the central coast.   (Where was the salmon, Andy? )

Course 2:  D^3 aka D-cubed.  Masterful zins.  A wine I had before, but none of the others with me: Zindandel from Howell Mountain.  Bring it on.  I don’t often go to this level of detail, but white pepper!  Yum…

Course 3: Mi Suena Syrah.  Terrific.  I had a lamb chop at Boulevard in SF the night before and this wine would have been the perfect complement.  (And as a fan of old musicals, that some of the fruit is sourced from “Que Syrah” vineyard all the better.)

Course 4:  Los Bonitas Cabernet Sauvignon.  Perhaps time to mention that Rick and Karen were getting blown away by these reds.  I believe Karen said “this is the best red wine I’ve ever had”.  Standby for the next course, but this is a very, very good cab at a remarkable price point in Napa Valley.  (And Andy, where’s the beef?)

Course 5: Andy is a feisty Italian guy!  I think he said “This isn’t the best cab in the house.”  He went to find one.  Thanks for the Parallels Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, another  Phillipe Melka wine (see Chardonnay above).  I’ve been honored to have access to Quilceda Creek (my home town wine!), but at present prices this is of the same caliber.  I’d  love to taste them side by side.  Certainly stands with any of the best cabs in the world.

Course 6:  Sadly, the Showket slot in the collective is going away with their sale of the winery.  (a little Sangiovese left, some large format Asante Sana; I got some of the last Sangiovese).  So I asked to explore a new winery in the collective, Krupp.  We enjoyed the Black Bart Syrah.  I think we were all amazed (Andy included) how well it stood up after the world class cab.  Bring on the lamb!

Summing up for us.  I’ve ruined some newbies by exposing them to some of the best wines on the planet.  So be it.  And the older red folk had some eye-opening tastes.  I stake my reputation as a host on this house.  Very low risk!

For random readers.  Plan ahead.  Call, commit to a serious tasting (not that the basic downstairs tasting isn’t serious).  Take no Yelp criticism seriously, because I have read them all.  This is a place for serious tasting, not goofy comments about it is too expensive.  The whole valley is expensive.  And know that a serious fraction of the profits in the valley now come from tastings, not sales.  A relief of this business model is no need to buy wines out of any sense of guilt.  Buy them for their value remembering the wines that you like best and what you paid for them.

(Note added January 2012.  A Texan endorsement of VC.)


We next went to Paraduxx.   Clear to me now is that tasting at Paraduxx before VC works.  But the paradox is that you want your palate at VC.  So this time I reversed; mistake!  As to the wines and to understand my following comments, read this older blog entry.   (And in that context know that the 2006 still isn’t out of the house and they want more money for it!)  But it reinforces my advice that you pay for the tasting:  it is a restaurant.  If the wines don’t move you, don’t buy them.   I was also disappointed that there was now only a basic tasting, which is good, but used to be very well complemented by the old, parallel enhanced tasting, another mistake in my view.   Yet the sunshine and ambience is excellent and everybody needed a nap.  Another caution:  my opinion is that the best of the  wines in the tasting circa Dec 2011 (Reflection) is only available in magnums: something is not working in their entire business plan.  I would argue that the 2006 Paraduxx is a serious problem and I bid $30 per bottle to move them forward (that is 50% off of retail).  My bad that I took people that had tasted D^3 Howell at VC, for reference at $37 is a much, much better wine.

Summary?:  The tasting experience has gone downhill from just 10 months ago, but remains interesting compared to many other wineries simply by having all the wines in front of you at once.  I need to rethink my “basics” tour.


We finished the day at Clos du Val in the south end of Stags Leap District.   Stag Leaps Wine Cellars is excellent (I am a SLV fan) as is Pine Ridge (their four cab tasting is excellent), but they both close at 4 p.m.   We hit 10 a.m. at Domaine Carneros, 11:30 a.m. at VC, got a quick sandwich at Soda Canyon Store (n.b., sandwiches are excellent, the Christmas music tape was horrible…dogs barking Jingle Bells we were told was the low point, but many other low points followed), were late for a 2:30 p.m. at Paraduxx.  The die is cast.

Not that Clos du Val doesn’t deserve attention.  Recall the movie Bottle Shock.  If you are reading this and haven’t seen it, fix that right now.  The movie moves slowly but is quite scenic with some strong characters anchored in real life.  The winning red in the Judgement of Paris was fron Stags Leap Wine Cellars, just to the north, and the winning chardonnay was from Chateau Montelena up valley on the west side.  (If you click the link to the Wikipedia article about Judgement of Paris, the high variability of scores is remarkable.)  But to the point, less known are the other wines  from California for the competition, including among the six California reds the first vintage of cab from Clos du Val.  With this heritage, what I like is that they actually keep a library and pull it out, at least in my experience, on weekdays.  So in my reserve red tasting I had cab sauvs from 2006, 2007, 2000, and 1997.  I easily preferred the 2000, but at $100, no to buying.  (If you are reading this far, go back and order Los Bonitas cab from VC at $55 (or one of their others) and let it rest).

Clos du Val deserves great credit for another unique feature…their trellising garden:  20 rows of merlot just in front of the tasting room demonstrating many, many ways of  trellising grapes.  I studied it, but wish I had planned more carefully to learn more from it as I contemplate my new hobby vineyard of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.  Climate change is moving the action my way…