Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Dominus the North Star for Pomerol and St. Emilion?

Last night, as I worked my way through a 13-vintage tasting of Dominus wines, I could not help but remark on how Bordeaux-like these wines were.  And then it hit me.  Christian Mouiex was making a Bordeauxesque wine in the heart of Napa.  Could there be any lessons here for the Bordelais as they face the prospect of region-wide impacts associated with global warming?

Allan Hall, of the Daily Telegraph, is one of many writers to have sounded the alarm regarding the impact of global warming on the Bordeaux region.  In an article dated 3/1/11, Hall stated that the region may be unsuitable for grape growing by 2050, given the warming trends.  Harbingers of this future include the fact that harvest in Bordeaux today begins two weeks earlier than it did 10 years ago and alcohol levels continue a steady rise upwards.  In an earlier post, I reported that Jean-Philippe Delmas (Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Estate Manager) has been increasing the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Estate blend since 2006 in order to combat the effects of the warming temperature on the wine.

Bordeaux wines have generally been characterized by their aroma, scent, flavor, and affinity for food and rising alcohol levels puts these characteristics at risk.  Cabernet Sauvignon tolerates heat a little better than Merlot which has a tendency to over-ripen in hot conditions.

Christian Mouiex, owner of Dominus, cut his teeth in Pomerol, home of Merlot, but chose Cabernet Sauvignon as the backbone varietal of his Napa wine because it is more suited to the environment.  In the decade of the 1980s, the Dominus blend averaged 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 3.7% Cabernet Franc, and less than 1% Petit Verdot.  In the 1990s, the ratio was 76.11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.6% Merlot, 12.88% Cabernet Franc, and 3.33% Petit Verdot.  In the 2000s, the blend averaged 85.75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 4.5% Petit Verdot.

A number of trends are obvious as this Bordeaux winemaker experimented with how to make a Bordeaux-style wine in the hot Napa environment.  First, the high Cabernet Sauvignon levels were reduced in the 90s but was even higher in the 2000s than they were in the '80s.  The lesson here? Cabernet Sauvignon is desirable in elevated-temperature conditions.  Second, Merlot went from 14% of the blend in the '80s to 2% in the 2000s.  Indication: Merlot may be problematic for Bordeaux-style wines in elevated-temperature environments.  The Merlot falloff has been taken up by Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, all later-ripening fruit.

As the estates of Bordeaux -- especially the Pomerol and St. Emilion estates -- consider strategies for dealing with the warming trend, they may do well to look at the accomplishments of a native son and use Dominus as their North Star.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: Passion on the Vine

Sergio Esposito's Passion on the Vine (Broadway Books 2008) is a funny, intriguing, thought-provoking, multi-layered discourse weaved around and through the central themes of the book: memories, food, wine, and family.  Esposito, the Founder and CEO of Italian Wine Merchants, sought to provide readers with an "intimate and evocative" memoir of his experiences living in Italy and the U.S.A. and his travels back to the old country as a part of his wine business.  The book more than delivers.

When I initially saw the book, I thought Ha! An Italian book by a guy who sells Italian wines.  A great paid-for marketing opportunity.  But even though the book introduces wines and regions to the reader, it is not done in an obtrusive manner.  Rather, it is woven into the fabric of the story and the reader is grateful for these nuggets of knowledge (I had developed a pretty good wish list and list of observations by the time I had completed my read.).

The book has pronounced longitudinal and circular facets.  Longitudinal in that the early sections focus on Serge's development over time, both in terms of life in Italy and America and as an employee within the restaurant/wine business.  Circular in that he uses a trip to Italy with his family as a platform from which to jump back in time to key interactions with Italian wine stalwarts, always returning to the family at the end of the reverie.  Circular in that he neatly closes the loop at the end of the book on his brother's early question as to the origin of the wines they were tasting at the St. Regis in Rome and in the way he visited his Naples extended family for Sunday lunch, bringing along his Alaskan wife and his two kids.

The author's writing style makes this an easy book to read but it is far from substance-free.  It contains one of the most elevated discussions on traditional versus modern winemaking that I have encountered to date and follows this up with scintillating discussions on biodynamics, artificial versus natural yeasts, and the elements of vitiviniculture.  In terms of traditional versus modern winemaking, Sergio reaches back to the philosophies of the earliest winemakers -- priests and alchemists, according to him -- and relates that their philosophies guided those who followed.  Technology, he says, has come to be the bane of this traditional approach.  "New wines are produced by technologies that allowed modernists to exaggerate everything in the wine while de-emphasizing vineyard care."

Espositio gives Parker his due as the individual who provided the light when Americans needed direction in exploring the hitherto murky waters of wine drinking.  He points out, however, that Parker has favored a wine style that is the complete opposite of traditional Italian wines.  Further, the rating system has introduced an insidious new dynamic, the sense among consumers of "right" (Parker high-rated) and "wrong"(not so much) wines.  Sergio raises the question as to what is actually accomplished when wine is tasted and then described in Parkeresque language.  How do we get from the aromatic description to a sense of "excellence?"  Carlo Maggi, one of Sergio's friends, exhorts us to "use your nose, mouth, and eyes and you will know if you like a wine."  You get the sense that Sergio also subscribes to this philosophy.

The author utilizes flashbacks of meetings with key players in the Italian wine industry to illustrate the wine and food cultures in Italy and, in so doing, opens up a sometimes funny window into the Italian psyche.  I was on a plane coming back from Tuscany when I read Sergio's account of Steve Clifton's (of Brewer-Clifton) wedding reception in Friuli and I could not restrain the laughter that came pouring out.

I enjoyed this book immensely.  It can be read and enjoyed by both novice and expert and its travelogue-style identification of restaurants and hotels in Italy can only redound to the benefit of those organizations.  My question is: Where can I get a bottle of the 1985 Malvasia di Candia?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Vertical Tasting

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, the highly regarded Pessac-Leognan property oft-referred to as the sixth First Growth, held, in conjunction with the Institute of Masters of Wine, a vertical tasting of selected vintages of its wines on February 3rd at London's Trinity House.  The tasting was hosted by HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg, President of Domaine Clarence Dillon S.A. (owners of La Mission Haut-Brion as well as its more famous sibling Chateau Haut-Brion), and Jean-Philippe Delmas, Estate Manager. 

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is located in the Pessac-Leognan commune of the Graves sub-region of Bordeaux.  The estate produces three wines: Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion (the estate wine); La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion (the second wine); and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc. Vines for the red wines are grown on 26 hectares of gravelly soil layered on a sandy clay subsoil. The vineyard is planted to 43% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Cabernet Franc.  The grapes are hand-picked at harvesting and sorted in the fields.  The grapes for the estate wine are sourced from vines that average 27 years of age and the fermented juice is aged betwen 18 and 22 months in 80% new oak.  The second wine is made from grapes picked from vines up to 7 years old as well as lower-quality wine from older vines.

La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc was called Chateau Laville Haut-Brion prior to the 2009 vintage.  The grapes (87% Semillon and 13% Sauvignon Blanc) for this wine are grown on a 2.5 hectare plot where the vines average 63 years of age.

The wines on offer at the tasting were: La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion 2006; La Mission Haut-Brion (2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1990 and 1985); and Chateau Laville Haut-Brion 2006.  The tasting panel was comprised of Prince Robert of Luxembourg, Jean-Philippe Delmas, Richard Bampfield MW (moderator) and John Salvi MW.  Panelist introductions were conducted by John Salvi and, in his opening remarks, he noted that the Delmas family have been caretakers of Dillon properties for 84 years, beginning with George Delmas in 1923 and continuing through to Jean-Philippe who took over from his father in 2004.  In his remarks Prince Robert emphasized the "eminent history" of La Mission beginning with its founding in the early part of the 16th century.  According to Prince Robert, when Domaine Clarence Dillon bought La Mission in 1983, the vines were not in good shape but an extensive replanting program addressed that issue.  A new vat room was built in 1987 and a rebuilding of the remaining physical aspects of the estate launched soon thereafter.  The most significant accomplishment, from his perspective, has been the attainment of a greater regularity in the quality of the wine.

The first wine tasted was the 2006 La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion.  Beginning with the 2006 vintage, the grapes from the 5 hectares of the discontinued Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion, previously a distinct cru under the Dillon umbrella, was blended into La Chapelle.  The 2006 vintage, following the 2005, was widely anticipated but was a disappointment in Pomerol and Graves due to late rain and a hot July.  According to UK retailer BBR, this was, however, a very good vintage for Pessac-Leognan.  It was primarily a Cabernet vintage but Merlot was also picked in good condition. BBR thought that the Cabernets from some properties (La Mission, for example) were stunning and produced "fine, well-balanced wines." The final blend for this wine is assembled after in-cask malolactic fermentation.  In the case of the 2006 vintage, the blend was 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc.  The wine was aged in 80% new French oak  and had 13.5% abv.

The next wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.  According to Jean-Philippe, 2005 was a dry year from winter through the end of harvest leading to what Chris Kissack called "... one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of recent decades."  The final composition of the blend was 69% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1% Cabernet Franc with alcohol levels of 14.5%.  This wine was ripe, rich, and powerful, exhibiting notes of black fruits, coffee, licorice and vanilla and a mild green florality.  Very long finish.

The third wine tasted was the 2003 La Mission Haut-Brion.  This was Europe's heatwave year, with an extremely hot August.  For this vintage, the chateau began harvesting fruit on August 13th, the earliest start date ever.  The Merlot harvest began on the 18th of August (the Merlot suffered, according to Jean-Philippe) and the Cabernet Sauvignon on September 10th.  The final composition of the blend was 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, and 9% Cabernet Franc.  This wine was not as soft as the 2005 but had good structure and a finish of intermediate length.

The next wine tasted was the 2001 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.  The 2001 vintage in Bordeaux was characterized by warm weather in ealy February followed by cooling in late February and through most of the growing season.  This cool weather was punctuated by rainfall in August.  Jancis Robinson views this vintage as "very nicely balanced" but geographically patchy.  BBR saw the best communes for reds as being St. Julien, Pauillac, Margaux, and Pessac Leognan.  The final La Mission blend for this vintage was 63% Merlot, 35 % Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2% Cabernet Franc.  This wine was reticent on the nose but had good weight on the palate, good balance, and a medium finish.

The 2000 vintage in Bordeaux was much anticipated and it delivered on its promise.  According to BBR, the weather leading up to harvest was excellent and rain was almost non-existent.  These conditions resulted in "ripe, succulent fruit" with "fine, firm tannins" and structure and depth reserved for only the finest Bordeauxs.  The composition of the 2000 La Mission Haut-Brion was 58% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11% Cabernet Franc.  On the nose this wine presented black fruit, cassis and vanilla.  It delivered on the palate along with a richness and lengthy finish.

The next wine in the series was the 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion.  The vintage was characterized by variable weather during the growing season and dry conditions during the Merlot harvest in early September.  Even though rain affected the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest in late September, the Pessac Leognan wines fared much better than their left-bank counterparts, probably because of their higher Merlot content.  This was a 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot blend for La Mission.  On the nose, notes of leather, dried black fruit, spices and olives.  On the palate, soft tannins integrated into the fruit, excellent balance, richness, and a long finish.

A hot, dry summer yielded rich, age-worthy wines all across Bordeaux in 1990.  The 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion blend in that year was 48% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Cabernet Franc.  This wine is developing beautifully with bell pepper, cedar box, leather, graphite and an earthy minerality on the nose.  The tannins are less integrated and this provides a slight drying-out on the palate but overall this wine has great balance.

The last red in the series was the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion 1985.  That year was described by BBR as an "extremely successful year in Bordeaux which produced some of the most immediately seductive and appealing clarets in living memory."  On the nose this wine had great minerality, black fruit, leather, cedarbox, graphite and mild green beans.  It exhibited richness and great length on the palate.

In commenting on the 2006 dry white wines from Bordeaux, Chris Kissack found then to be "... vibrant, packed with flavor, bright and lively," the result of cool weather during August and a resultant gradual ripening with retention of aroma and freshness.  The 2006 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion was not the exception to this rule.  For this wine the blend was 86% Semillon and 14% Sauvignon Blanc with the former adding structure and the latter acidity.  On the nose tropical fruits, lime, grapefruit, honeydew melon, peaches, spice, and bland red pepper.  Fresh, with some heat, on the palate.

Jean-Philippe Delmas
Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Author
This was a wonderfully balanced tasting with two whites -- one rated 89-90 and the other 98 by Robert Parker -- and seven reds which, if the 2000 and 2005 vintages are excluded, average 92.8 points on Parker's scale; a good place to be, in my opinion, for balanced, food-friendly wines.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sampling of Napalaise sentiments on Parker withdrawal from Napa Reviews

During my recent trip to Napa for Premiere Napa Valley, I took the opportunity to query a number of industry insiders as to the impact of Antonio Galloni replacing Robert Parker as the Wine Advocate’s reviewer of Napa Valley wines.  There was a lack of unanimity as to the impact but it became very clear that Galloni was not well known among this group.
At one end of the spectrum was Petra Martin of Martin Estates.  In her view, wine drinkers are no longer dependent on the views of one or two individuals to help them with their buying decisions.  Rather, she sees the buyers as becoming more sophisticated, and their sources of information much more varied, and these trends are signaling the death knell of Parker and his ilk.  Parker, in her view, knew “that the game was up” and got out before it all came crashing down around his ears.  I should note that Parker does not review the Martin Estate wines.
At the other end of the spectrum we find Claude Blankiet, proprietor of Blankiet Estate.  Claude describes himself as an advocate for Robert Parker and as being extremely disappointed when he got the letter from Parker stating that he was withdrawing from reviewing Napa wines.  Claude has tasted wines with Parker for over 12 years and has grown to admire him.  He sees Parker as “a great human being” who is “humble” and kind and maintains a low profile.  In his view, Parker stepped back for health reasons; he had been having a hard time with his knee after his surgery.  In fact, he struggled up the stairs to the Blankiet residence for the last tasting and they spent most of the session talking about his health.  Blankiet hopes that the fact that Parker retained his responsibilities for Bordeaux and the Rhone is not perceived by others as a statement by Parker that Napa is less important than those regions.  Claude is sure that Galloni will do a great job.
Jack Bittner, VP and General Manager at Cliff Lede, feels that it is unsustainable to keep up with tasting the volumes that Parker did on a regular basis.  He was, however, surprised that Parker had given up Napa.  Jack sees independent voices as important but, as does Martin Estate, he feels that today’s buyers are looking at many more sources of information including wine shops.  With the widespread use of the internet, we now have a culture that is accustomed to incorporating more data into the decisionmaking process.  As for most of his peers, Galloni is an unknown quantity to Jack.
There are three potential layers of impact associated with the Parker withdrawal: winery impact; retailer impact; and consumer impact.  At the winery level, the impact can be further divided into (i) the impact of Parker leaving and (ii) the impact of Galloni arriving.  In terms of Parker leaving, those wineries that have built up long working relationships with him will see a slight devaluing of that investment.  For those wineries who felt that Parker had given them short shrift, Galloni’s arrival may open a new window.  The retailer will be driven by the consumer and the sense in the valley is (i) consumers are coming into their own in decisionmaking and (ii) for those who still require handholding, it will be eight years before they figure out that Napa Wine Advocate scores are from someone other than Robert Parker; and they won’t care.

Everyone says that Galloni has his work cut out for him, especially given his new workload, but they all wish him the best of luck.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction

So it is Saturday. Auction day.  The culmination of a weekend of partying, reconnecting, and making new connections.  Time to get down to the business of business.

We only had two tickets to the auction (tickets to this event are more tightly rationed than an invitation to the royal wedding) so @wineontheway and I were going to attend while the wives went off shopping.  We had neither of us been to this event before so Jack Bittner of Cliff Lede had agreed to meet us when we arrived at the Culinary Institute -- the site of the Barrel Tasting and auction -- to give us some pointers on maximizing the experience.  By the way, Jack is one of the nicest, and well-known, guys in Napa and, in addition, is one of the coolest dressers west of the Mississippi.  His style is "elegant nonchalance" and, invariably, consists of a perfectly fitted sports jacket over a nice shirt, a patterned hanky in the outside breast pocket of the jacket, blue jeans, fashionable shoes, and a hint of stubble on the face.  You go guy. 

The wives dropped us off at the Culinary Institute and drove off quickly for fear that we would change our minds and seek to accompany them on their shopping trip.  No chance.  The area around Greystone was a beehive of activity with people walking towards the facility from both directions; limos debouching bleary-eyed, ex-revelers into the cold morning air; the parking shuttle unloading its cargo of remote parkers in front of the building; and the valet parking attendants rushing back and forth to park the cars of those brave enough to actually drive to the locale.  We checked our coats and signed in on the lower level of the building upon which we were given a program and a bidders paddle with three large numbers emblazoned on the surface.

After signing in, we texted Jack to let him know that we were in the building and then made our way across the hall to the breakfast room.  Jack met us at the entrance to the breakfast area once we had completed our meal and then walked us up the stairs to the Barrel Tasting Hall on the second floor, all the while explaining how the tasting and auction processes worked.  As we were going up I saw Gary tight-lipped and with a pinched look on his face.  "Who is Gary?" you ask.  That was my question also when at every party that I attended people would point to a Ben-Stiller lookalike and say, in hushed tones. "There is Gary." I was mystified but, as the week wore on, I learned that he was a wine retailer from NJ (Gary's Wine and Marketplace) who had been the leading bidder at the auction for a number of years.  Well, he either had his game face on or his sphincter muscle was experiencing a severe case of over-contraction.

We stepped into the Barrel Tasting room and 200 opportunities to whet our palates -- with mostly Napa Cabs (74.5% of the Lots) -- stretched before us along three north-to-south corridirs as well as along the north and south walls.  Each of the wineries contributing lots had two or three of their top personnel pouring wines for the attendees.  The noise level was very high, with some stations packed three or four deep while other stations had staff patiently waiting for some attention to be paid to their offerings.  The tasting was scheduled to run from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm so we decided to ignore the lots that we had tasted at prior events (see preceding posts) in favor of "new" lots.  Even with this curtailed program, and being selective within that plan, we did not make it to the end of the line by the time the tasting was officially terminated.  New contacts, and reconnecting with old friends, were strong accompaniments to the actual tasting.  Plus, these wineries wanted to provide as much information as possible about their lots.  And each lot had a story to tell.  For example, Shafer Vineyards' offering was a 5-case Lot from its Sunspot Vineyard.  According to the PNV program, "Sunspot forms the backbone of Shafer's Hillside Select.  Here it stars solo in a quarter barrel (sic) lot from the 2000 vintage."

Tim Mondavi discussing Continuum Lot
 By the time we exited the tasting area, lunch was almost over.  Lunch was prepared by the students of the Institute and was served buffet-style between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.  The selection on offer was wide and tasty and was accompanied by some phenomenal wines.  Kudos to the Culinary Institute and its students for a great job.

The Auction was well underway by the time we had completed lunch.  All of the available seating had been taken and latecomers were standing against the walls and at the rear of the room.  According to Napa Valley Vintners, 1000 people participated in the event, 500 vintner staffers and the remainder from the trades, media, and restaurants.  Lot sizes on offer were 5- (73%), 10- (15%), or 20-case (12%) lots deliverable in late 2011 or early 2012.  We took up positions at the rear of the room and watched as the two auctioneers tag-teamed the lots in rapid-fire succession.  As I surveyed the room, I saw a now-smiling Gary seated at the center of the room weilding a bidder's paddle with a large 1 on the surface.  The number 1 paddle signified that Gary had been the number one bidder in the preceding year.

According to Napa Valley Vintners, this was a recordbreaking auction.  Gross revenues of $2.366 million was was 23% higher than 2010 revenues and 5% higher than the previous record set in 2008.  Total cases auctioned in 2011 was 1530, 35 cases more than in 2010, leading to an average case price of $1546.  There were a total of 68 successful bidders, beating the record of 67 in 2006.  It should be pointed that the latter statistic shows only a 13% participation rate among potential bidders.  Gary was again the highest bidder, snagging 300 cases at a cost of about $500,000.  The highlight of the auction was the purchase of the Scarecrow 5-case lot for $125,000 by a Japanese businessman.  This price far surpassed the previous single-lot record of $80,000 set in 2007.  See @wineontheway's video of the bidding for the Scarecrow lot here.

This week was a memorable experience and I would like to thank @wineontheway for putting together a tight, meaningful program and Mrs@wineontheway for being such fun.  I would also like to thank Robin Lail (Lail Vineyards), Claude Blankiet (Blankiet Estate), Holly Anderson (Vineyard 29), Dana Johnson (Ovid), and Craig Camp (Cornerstone Cellars) for the personal experiences provided.  I would especially like to thank Jack Bittner (Cliff Lede) for his easy friendliness and Frank and Julie Husic (Husic Vineyards) for (once again) allowing us the run of their guest house during our stay in Napa.  And, finally, my wife for enabling me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Premiere Napa Valley: Friday Events

According to Napa Valley Vintners, the 15th edition of its annual barrel auction, Premiere Napa Valley 2011 (PNV11), broke all previous purchase records.  There is no scientific data to support this, but I contend that the fantastic events preceding the auction served to put bidders in the requiste frame of mind to drive the bidding up to heretofore unattained levels on auction day.  In two previos posts I reported on our Wednesday and Thursday #PNV11 activities.  In this post I report on our activities on Friday, the day preceding the auction.

Our first event of the day was the Spotswoode PNV event held at the historic Victorian-era farm that houses the offices of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery.  Just as for some of the Pessac-Leognan vineyards in Bordeaux, the Spottswoode vineyards are tightly bound to residential portions of the town of St. Helena.  Walking through the vine-covered metal arch that serves as the entry into the property, and onto the walkway leading up to the farmhouse, one gets a sense more of Southern charm than Napa powerhouse.  Credentials were established on the farmhouse porch, after which a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (that varietal again) was proffered and we were ushered into the farmhouse and the reception.

The wines being poured that day were set up on a table to the right of the entry door and a buffet lunch was set up in the room beyond. 

The wines poured were, in order, 1997, 2001, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignons and the Premier Lot.  I was disappointed with the 1997 and tweeted thusly.  A short while after the tweet was sent, someone came over and asked "Are you wineORL?"  My wife and friends walked off hurriedly at this because they thought I had been "busted" for pooh poohing the wine and was going to be thrown out on my ear.  But not to worry.  It was only @TexasWineGuy.  He had also tasted the 1997 and had made a more positive observation on twitter.  We discussed our differeing opinions and, after he left, I retasted the wine.  I held my position.  We did not stay around too long after that.  My friends were rattled.

After a wonderful lunch at Farmstead Restaurant, we set off for our next event, Atelier Melka 2011 Premiere Napa Valley Lot Portfolio Tasting.  This event was being held at 750 Wines, a new boutique wine shop on Adams Street (St. Helena) that is owned by David and Monica Stevens.  The shop is set back from the street in a little courtyard and, as such, proved a little difficult to find.  The idea behind the event was to feature, in a single locale, all of the PNV lots of the wineries where Phillipe Melka was the consulting winemaker.  It was a perfect match: an avante-garde wineshop and the wines of a French-born Napa wine consultant.

Spouse and Phillipe Melka
The wines were distributed around the room in a haphazard circle.  There were steps leading from the ground floor (where the event was being held) to the upper level and these provided an excellent vantage point from which to gain an overarching view of the proceedings.

The wineries represented were Cliff Lede, Gemstone, Kristine Ashe, Lail, Moon-Tsai, ROY, Seavey, and Vineyard 29.  By the time we got there, the event was well underway.  We went first to greet old friends (Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards and Jack Bittner of Cliff Lede) after which we began to make the rounds.  I had extensive conversations with Chuck McMinn of Vineyard 29 (he had not been around on our visit to the estate) and Jeremy Weintraub, winemaker at one of my favorite Napa Cabs, Seavey.  We tasted through the wines lot by lot and I was impresseed with the Lail, Seavey, and Vineyard 29 offerings.  The atmosphere at the event was electric with a lot of people jammed into a tight space, all talking at the same time about variations on a single theme.  Attendees were close-up-and-personal with the top echelons of these wineries and their consulting winemaker.  Good stuff.

Robin Lail
Jack Bittner, VP and GM, Cliff Lede

Jeremy Weintraub, Seavey Winemaker
Our next stop was the Oakville Wine Growers Association event held in the caves at Far Niente.  This was a spectacularly executed event with wine and food stations distributed along the two north-south corridors, and the connecting arms, of the quarter-mile of caves that serve the winery.  With wines poured from leading lights such as Bond, Harlan, and Mondavi, and food from establishments such as Mustard's Grill and Brix, all in a delicately lit, underground environment, it was a wonderful night.

@wineontheway and Paul Roberts, Bond Estate Manager

Earlier in the day, I had received a tweet from @CornerstoneCellars asking me to come around to their tasting room in Yountville, as they would be there until 8:00 pm.  I indicated that we had a full day but would visit after we left the Oakville Growers event.  So after we left the Oakville event, we headed into Yountville in search of the Cornerstone tasting room.  When we got there, they were just wrapping up their #PNV11 event but when I mentioned that we had been invited over, staff let us in.  Soon after we arrived, @CraigCamp, General Manager and Managing Partner of the winery, and the person who had initially issued the invite, came out of the back office to welcome us.  This was a very pleasant visit.  Craig brought the winemaker over and, as the premises emptied of PNV revelers, we settled down into a warm, pleasant conversation about the winery, winemaking, and PNV, all the time tasting through the Cornerstone and SteppingStone (a moderately priced label within the Cornerstone firmament) offerings.  I had not had Cornerstone wines before and was very impressed with their Steppingstone Cabernet Franc and the Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon; so impressed, as a matter of fact, that I bought bottles of both wines and had them shipped home

In tomorrow's post I will report on the actual barrel tasting and auction.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#PNV11: Cliff Lede Vineyards "Bring your Own Bottle" Night

Napa Valley Vintners (NPA) annually invite vintners, wholesalers, retailers, and members of the press to a Barrel Tasting and Auction the main purpose of which is to raise funds for the association's activities but which also serves as a vehicle for facilitating meetings and social interaction between industry players in a locale that is valued by all concerned.  This year's edition of the event, Premiere Napa Valley 11, was held on February 24 -26 and included the Auction and Barrel Tasting, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon retrospective tastings, and vintner events distributed throughout the valley.  In yesterday's post I detailed our "private-tour" activities while in Napa for PNV11.  In this post I will discuss one of the vintner PNV events that we attended.

After leaving Ovid (the last of our private tours), we headed over to Cliff Lede Vineyards for that winery's "Bring your Bottle" event.  The event name belies reality in that each attendee had to send in his/her bottle to the organizers prior to the event.  In our case, @wineontheway had received an email asking if he was ready for the event and providing a list of the wines that had been submitted to date; they were all 100-pointers.  Not wanting to be party poopers, we fed-exed a bottle of 2007 Saxum Winery James Berry Vineyard Proprietary Red (100 points, Parker) and a bottle of 2000 Chateau Pavie (100 points, Parker).

It was raining (and cold) when we arrived at the valet stand so we grabbed umbrellas (knowingly made available at the stand by event organizers) and trudged up the hill to the reception area.  Once our credentials were validated, we were each given a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (becoming a ubiquitous drink in the Valley), and ushered through doors which led onto a catwalk which, in turn, fed into the stairs leading down to the vat room and the event.  Two things struck me as I stepped onto the catwalk: a large painting of the face of Grace Kelly (I later found out that it was done by the artist Tony Scherman and was part of the winery's 2010/2011 Gallery Collection.) and the space heaters distributed throughout the event area. 

White-robed, rectangular tables were strategically placed along the T-shaped area in the which the event would be held and on each table top stood an array of the finest wines in the world.  Each table was "manned" by one or two pourers.  And there, on the central table, in the company of Mouton, Chateauneuf du Pape, Leoville Las Cases, stood our wines.  We wandered over to the table and encouraged the attendant to open the Pavie.  This was like shouting gold in a panhandling zone as attendees flocked around to partake in the bounty.  The bottle was empty in a flash.  Oh well.  I guess I will just have to settle for Mouton.

The event was very well attended and the wines were fabulous.  Two food trucks had been positioned at one side of the building and wait staff plied between the trucks and the appreciative attendees, delivering bounteous goodness on each trip.  Cliff Lede was ever-present as was Jack Bittner, the Vice President and General Manager of Cliff Lede Vineyards (and an all-around nice guy.  We had dinner with him at Bouchon post the event.).

Cliff Lede and @wineontheway

I enjoyed this event thoroughly.  The food, the interaction, the wines, and the hospitality were all in harmony and was the perfect note as a lead-in to other "public" PNV11 activities.  Late in the evening we again ran into @thewinebarn, an Orlando retailer, and his group appeared to be having a good time.

In tomorrow's post I will cover the Friday events that we attended.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Premiere Napa Valley (#pnv11): The Early Experiences

On the final weekend in February, 2010, I was in Miami enjoying the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.  I spent the last weekend of February 2011 in Napa attending Premiere Napa Valley (PNV11) and I had a truly wonderful experience (The question to be asked is: why do they hold these two great events opposite each other on opposite sides of the country?).  Premier Napa Valley is the Napa Valley Vintners annual, invitation-only barrel auction for wine retailers, wholesalers, restauranteurs, and members of the press.  Auction proceeds go towards the trade association's promotional and other activities on behalf of valley winemakers.

I travelled out to PNV11 as a guest of @wineontheway. We had done a lot of pre-planning in order to ensure a healthy mix of private winery visits and the #PNV11 (the hashtag designation for tweeting about PNV) events that were broadly distributed across the valley.  The official PNV2011 guide listed activities as: Private Vintner Parties at locations throughout the Valley on Thursday and Friday nights; a Multi-Vintage Perspective Tasting of Pinot Noir (2007, 2008, 2009) and Cabernet Sauvignon on Friday morning at The Culinary Institute at Greystone ; and the Barrel Tasting and Auction on Saturday, February 26th, also at The Culinary Institute at Greystone.  According to Frank Husic (Husic Vineyards) it seems as though the vintner events surrounding the core Barrel Tasting and Auction have become even more importat than the Barrel Tasting itself.  The opportunity for one or more vendors to put on an event where they can wine and dine their best customers, as well as showcase past, present and future offerings, is being seized with both hands by the vintner community.

A total of 200 wineries contributed lots to the auction for the 2001 edition of the auction.  These lots were either 5-, 10-, or 20-case lots; were from a yet-to-be-released vintage; and were unique as regards the wineries current offerings.

We drove up to Napa from San Francisco on Wednesday morning and our first stop was dropping off our luggage at the Husic Vineyards guest house, our home-away-from-home for our stay in Napa.  The guest house offers spectacular views of the Stags Leap District from its perch on the hills above.

Our first appointment that day was a lunch with Robin Lail (Lail Vineyards) at her home among the vines in Angewin.  Robin's DNA is all wine and all Napa with the family history stretching all the way back to 1879 when her granduncle Gustav Niebaum founded the famed Inglenook Vineyards, through her father John Daniel Jr. whose stewardship of the estate is legendary, and through her many ventures to include co-founding Dominus with her sister and Christian Mouiex, co-founding Merryvale Vineyards with Bill Harlan and others, and, along with her husband Jon, founding Lail Vineyards in 1995.  Robin is one of the class acts in Napa and her unstuffy grace, elegance, and poise rendered this a memorable lunch.  (The food and wine were pretty impressive also; compliments to the chef). 

At Lail Vineyards we tasted the 2009 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc, the 2008 Georgia Sauvignon Blanc (named after Robin's granddaughter and one of only 9 bottles left in the winery library), 2007 Blueprint Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2007 J. Daniel Cuvee.

After a touchy, feely, huggy goodbye from Robin (she had just recently lost one of her dogs and we had an especially touching moment as we talked about it), we made our way to Blankiet Estate where we had a private tasting and tour scheduled with the proprietor Claude Blankiet.  Claude was a fount of information as he walked us through the vineyard and the winemaking practices.  After a tour of the winery, we made our way up to his residence for tastings of the 2007 and 2008 Proprietary Blends.

We had a private tasting at Vineyard 29 on the morning of the 29th.  It was a cold rainy day and as we were drying ourselves off in the lobby of the winery, we encountered @thewinebarn, another Orlando-area retailer, leaving after their private tasting.  We were welcomed into the winery with the well-regarded, and hard-to-obtain, 29 Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc.

Vineyard 29 is located at 2929 Highway 29 in St. Helena, hence the derivation of the name.  Chuck McMinn, after stellar technology careers at Intel and Covad, along with his wife Anne, acquired both the Vineyard 29 and Aida properties in 2000 and have combined these two prime properties with state of the art facilities and the skills of the legendary winemaker Philippe Melka to turn out critically acclaimed wines.

Our tour was conducted by Holly Anderson, National Sales Manager for Vineyard 29.  It was too cold and wet to go into the vineyards so we settled for an extensive tour of the winery facilities and an extended tasting in the beautiful wine library.  Two of the interesting aspects of the Vineyard 29 operation is the use of a utility stainless steel vat which serves to aid both gravity flow and racking and the use of egg-shaped vats for fermentation of the Sauvignon Blanc.  Fermentation tanks are concrete, oak, and stainless steel.

In addition to the mentioned Sauvignon Blanc, we tasted the 2008 Estate Aida, the 2008 Cabernet Franc, the Vineyard 29 Estate, Cru Estate, and the 2011 Premiere Napa Valley Lot.

After Vineyard 29 we had Lunch at Redd in Yountville and then started out on our Journey to Ovid on Pritchard Hill.  The winery had given explicit instructions that a GPS should not be used in trying to find the winery.  Instead we should follow the written directions precisely.  It was raining and we were climbing a steep, winding hill into unlnown territory.  There was not a lot of laughter in the car on the initial climb.  Surprisingly, given our driving skills, we made it up the hill safely and were welcomed by Dana Johnson, the proprietress.  Dana was casually dressed in faded blue jeans and a red jacket over a white shirt and her mode of dress and mannerisms quickly put us at ease. We were guided through a large dining-room-like area, where staff was setting up for a later #pnv11 event, and out to a patio from which we could survey the vineyard, the neighbors, and the valley below.  After this panoramic view, Dana took us outside to explore the multiple points of entry for grapes and then down below to show how those entry points integrated into the oak and concrete fermenters and the gravity-flow system. After our tour we sat in an informal tasting room which was dominated at one end by a massive blackboard with scientific notations and formulas and overhead by a note-paper chandelier.

According to Dana, they had initially bought the property to build a family home but after they saw the success their neighbors were having with wine they consulted David Abreu as to the feasabilty for their property.  He saw merit and 15 acres of Bordeaux varietals were planted in 2000.  The team was rounded out with the addition of Andy Erickson as winemaker and Michel Roland as Consultant. The first vintage, 2005, was well received by customers and critics alike and the comapny has never looked back.

This visit concluded the "personal" aspects of our #pnv11. In tomorrow's post I will cover the public events which we attended.