Tasting Notes, 2010: Chappellet Winery, Pritchard Hill, Napa Valley

Chappellet Winery sits atop 640 acres on Pritchard Hill, nestled among the Napa Valley's rugged Vaca Mountain Range. Red volcanic boulders, excavated from the vineyard over 40 years ago, remain piled under the great oaks in the distance.

Living in the Napa Valley, I’ve discovered over the years that I’m still perfectly capable of rampant tourism. Case in point: I recently hosted some friends from out of town and accompanied them to seven Napa wineries in just two days. That’s quite a bit of wine tasting, although hardly a personal record; when I first moved to the valley, I once covered 10 wineries in one day with an old college buddy. Over the years, four wineries has gradually become my per-day limit, which is not only more relaxing, but infinitely more constructive. With that caveat in mind, the theme this weekend was “All killer, no filler” — with [… read more …]

Wine Tasting Notes, 2008: Chappellet and Titus

Having visited Chappellet a handful of times over the last few years, I have long considered the winery to be one of the greatest destinations in the Napa Valley. Perched atop 640 acres on Pritchard Hill, Chappellet offers stunning views of the surrounding Vaca Mountains, while offering its guests an amazingly consistent portfolio of Bordeuax-style reds. In addition to these sensory delights, Chappellet also holds a unique position within Napa’s history, being just the second winery built after Prohibition, in 1967.

I visited Chappellet again last week, and tasted a flight of the winery’s current releases. Despite having tasted many prior vintages of these wines (and having always been an ardent supporter of them), I somehow left Chappellet even more impressed than ever. Perhaps the the 2005 vintage was just especially good to this place. The 2005 Merlot ($32) and the 2005 Signature Cabernet ($46) [… read more …]

Napa Wine Label Quiz: How Many Snippets Can You Identify?

The idea for this wine quiz struck me as I was rummaging through my wine locker today. I have a modest amount of wine in storage, but when as many boxes are crammed into one space as possible, there’s limited room to maneuver, especially towards the back of the locker. In many cases, I could only see the very bottom portion of many of my wine labels (being that the bottles themselves are stored upside down). And so, in that same spirit, I’ve compiled 25 label snippets below, each one representing a Napa Valley winery. For many of the people who work here in the wine industry — as I once did — this quiz will probably be a breeze. I’d expect many of my Napa friends to score 20 or better, and a good local sommelier would likely miss only one or two at the most.

If you [… read more …]

The 10 Best Napa Cabernets for Under $50

The 10 Best Napa Valley Cabernets for Under $50

Having lived in the Napa Valley since 2005, and having worked in kitchens and wineries during that time, I’ve developed a pretty good palate for the local product. As I’ve spent the last decade combing the Napa Valley for great wines, over the past few years I decided to pay special attention to the Cabernets that were priced at $50 or less, hoping to one day compile a list of favorites. I submit the following 10 wines, listed in my order of general preference. Of course, prices are subject to change over time, but hopefully not by too much.

1. Martin Estate Bacchanal Cabernet ($48) : One of the great unsung wines in the Napa Valley, I have already placed Bacchanal into a blind tasting of Oakville and Rutherford Cabs, pitting it against the 2006 Groth [… read more …]

Wine Tasting Notes: Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Napa Valley

I’ve covered so much about food lately that I haven’t been keeping up with my wine tasting notes. The best wines that I’ve tasted recently were some older vintages of Chappellet Cab, but I’ll try to address those in the future. For the sake of staying a little more relevant to the here and the now, I do have a few notes from my recent tasting at Joseph Phelps Vineyards. I’ll cut to the chase and discuss the 2006 Insignia ($200) the winery’s flagship bottling, and a wine that has developed a loyal following over the years. Recent buzz is that Robert Parker has already anointed the 2007 Insignia with a score of 97-100 (based upon a barrel sample). We’ll see. The 2007 Insignia goes retail later this summer. As for the 2006 Insignia, I found it as underwhelming as I found the 2005 before it. Perhaps it’s just [… read more …]

Cab Tasting Notes: My Favorite Napa Valley Cabernets for $50 or Less

Having lived in the Napa Valley since 2005, and having worked in kitchens and wineries during that time, I’ve developed a pretty good palate for the local juice. As I’ve spent the years combing the Napa Valley for great wines, over the past few years, I decided to pay special attention to the Cabernets that were priced at $50 or less, hoping to one day compile a list of favorites. I submit the following 10 wines, listed in my order of general preference. Of course, prices are subject to change over time, but hopefully not by much.

• Martin Estate Bacchanal Cabernet ($48) : One of the great unsung wines in the Napa Valley, I have already placed Bacchanal into a blind tasting of Oakville and Rutherford Cabs, pitting it against the 2006 Groth ($58), 2005 Rubicon ($175), 2006 Pedemonte ($39), 2006 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger ($90), [… read more …]

Wine Tasting Notes: Ehlers Estate, St. Helena

The BioDynamic vineyard at Ehlers Estate comprises 43 acres in total. In order to help amend the soil for the upcoming season, rows of vibrant yellow mustard alternate with verdant rows of grasses, fava beans and vetch. With rain subsiding, these same cover crops will assume a monotone shade of golden brown over the next month or so.

In some ways, it’s almost embarrassing to heap lavish praise onto my favorite Napa wineries. I often feel as though I might be coming across as some sort of Napa Valley rah-rah, gushing with unbridled hyperbole, as if I were posting on Yelp. As far as I’m concerned, Yelp represents the absolute lowest of the low in online content. In fact, I resent Yelp much more than I’ve ever resented the Wine Spectator. At least the Wine Spectator — with its hopeless predictability and its overblown influence — still manages [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2009: Elizabeth Spencer Wines

Elizabeth Spencer has been one of my favorite wineries for quite some time now, although I have never actually mentioned that fact here. Frankly, I’m not sure why I’ve never said anything before. But like I have said, the Thirsty Reader is by no means comprehensive: if I happen to discover something that strikes me as noteworthy, then I’ll usually try to mention it here, if I have the time. Sometimes I get sidetracked, or I get lazy. Sometimes, I’ll postpone an entry if I don’t feel like I ever have the time or the energy to do an adequate job.

During this past year, I had probably placed Elizabeth Spencer on the back-burner for any or all of those reasons. However, with their open-house event freshly on my mind tonight, I figured that I should at least mention Elizabeth Spencer, whether I’ve found my muse or not. Truth [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2009: Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars, Duckhorn Vineyards

I realize that Memorial Day is all about remembering those who served our country, but since I also had the day to go wine tasting, I decided it would be somewhat appropriate to visit a few of the pioneering wineries here in the Napa Valley, in order to sample the current releases from such stalwarts as Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars and Duckhorn Wine Company (I had Chateau Montelena on my itinerary as well, but they were closed for the holiday).

Since I have lived here in the Napa Valley, I have visited each of these three wineries countless times (not counting the year when I actually worked over at Grgich Hills). As far as I’m concerned, all three of these wineries are good, and for anyone who doesn’t have any specific wine-tasting agenda plotted out (like me, on Memorial Day), then these places are some of the best wineries [… read more …]

Time in a Bottle: "The California Wine Book" by Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson (1976)

For a wine geek like me, old and out-dated wine books can sometimes be fascinating time capsules. I was rummaging through a used bookstore in Berkeley the other day, when I uncovered an old copy of “The California Wine Book” by Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson. Published in 1976, this book has now become irrelevant for the most part, especially in terms of its original purpose, which was to provide a contemporary assessment of California wine. Considering how much the California wine industry has evolved over the last 30 years, the introduction to the book is almost mind-bogglingly quaint, as the authors acknowledge that keeping up with California wine has become increasingly difficult. They point out that, compared to the early 60s, “Now is a more engrossing time. Two dozen Cabermet Sauvignons demand consideration.” Two dozen? For all of California?

Although “The California Wine Book” can no longer offer [… read more …]