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 …]

Cabernet Tasting Notes, 2008: Ehlers, Phelps, Heitz, Von Strasser, Larkmead

The vineyard view from Ehlers Estate, St. Helena.

I went on a bit of a Cabernet bender today, my first in a while. Typically, I get a pretty decent dose of Cabernet Sauvignon just by working at a Napa Valley winery. Cabernet is the currency here, and the juice is ubiquitous. Since this varietal dominates my nine-to-five schedule, I’m usually motivated to seek out other types of wine on my days off. I go to the Dry Creek Valley on Zinfandel missions, hit up the Russian River for Pinot Noir, or simply head up-valley to Calistoga for Petite Sirahs. But today, Cabernet was the focus, and I found a couple of good ones.

By far, the best wine I tasted today was at Ehlers Estate, with their “1886” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 leading the pack. The consistency of the Ehlers portfolio instantly made it [… 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 …]

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 …]

Winemaker Q&A: Matt Taylor of Araujo Estate and Taylor Cellars

Matt Taylor is not only Araujo's vineyard manager and winemaker, but he's also the estate beekeeper. For some reason, I'd always assumed that bee hives needed to be white by default, but Araujo's hives feature a terrific shade of pistachio. They reminded me of little droids lurking among the olive trees, standing guard over the nearby chicken coop.

With the harvest of 2009 quickly winding down, I’ve made this winter my time to catch up with a few winemakers. Among the folks I most wanted to meet, Matt Taylor certainly topped my list, not only as the winemaker for the cult-favorite Araujo Estate, but also as a BioDynamic vineyard manager and the proprietor of a brand new Pinot Noir label. This week, I ventured up to Calistoga to meet with Matt, to barrel sample some Aurajo wines, and to tour the legendary Eisele Vineyard. Needless to say, my [… 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 …]

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 …]

Napa's Top 25 Wine Tours

Outside Quixote (left) and outside Schramsberg (right).

These types of lists are always debatable — if not questionable — because you have to wonder about the author’s credentials. Who really comes up with these lists, and much do they know about anything? It’s a fair question. Lots of travel writers have come to the Napa Valley and covered the wine scene, and there are plenty of opinions about all kinds of wineries.

My own perspective is uniquely local. I’ve lived in Napa for over 10 years and have spent most of that time as a professional chef (at the moment, I work as a chef-instructor at a local cooking school). Over the years, I have taken breaks from restaurant life to work as a wine educator. I spent a year at Grgich Hills pouring wine, and I spent three years at Nickel & Nickel hosting tours and tastings.

[… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2008: Vincent Arroyo Winery

For most folks, visiting the Napa Valley simply means cruising the main drag, Highway 29, between Yountville and St. Helena. It’s what tourists have been doing here for the last 30 years. But, given the high concentration of wineries along this particular stretch, you can’t really blame people for taking the road most traveled: for the uninitiated, staying within the boundaries of this eight-mile segment has the dual benefit of being (a) easy to navigate with (b) most of the wineries offering decent enough wines. For tourists in the know, this stretch also provides an address for many of Napa’s longtime favorites, such as Grgich Hills, Cakebread or Heitz.

Basically, this little piece of Highway 29 is the wine-tasting epicenter of Napa Valley, and the traffic on this road can be significant, especially since Highway 29 has just one single lane running in either direction. [… read more …]