Driving through the curtain of fog from San Fran to Napa, I was determined to swallow my car sickness and enjoy the view. But miles of industry and slum made it difficult. So I focused instead on breathing and staring at the rubber panels on the floor of the bus, until someone yelled, ‘Napa!’ No sooner did I look up when I saw before me one vineyard after the next of producers I have only seen on the top shelf of stores I’ve worked in–Nickel and Nickel, BV, Sattui, Heinz…
This was my first meeting of ‘Napa’, with a capital ‘N’ (and quotes no less). ‘N’apa is almost more than a place to me… it’s a concept, a model of excellence, a symbol of our nation’s ‘best.’ Even my customers who buy Pabst by the 24 ounces ask me if I’ve been. To which I’ve said no, and made change on a $1.50. And quite honestly, I’ve never understood it. Well, at least, not totally…until tonight.
I was of the fortunate 28 who were given an opportunity to participate in this year’s Touch the Terroir put on by the Spring Mountain District. This is a little teeny area–only about 8,000 acres–where just over 30 producers call home. It is off the beaten path, just past St. Helena, and up a windy road lined with dense forest and old redwoods. Magical doesn’t begin to describe it. As my nauseous self peered out the window into the thick, mystical fog bathed trees, I was smitten.
I was taken to Paloma Vineyard for shelter–an incredible 3 person operation (no joke–actually often just two: Sheldon and his ma Barbera) that resides on one of the highest plots–roughly 2,500 ft in elevation. They are known to produce Cab and Syrah… but they are famous for their Merlot. A Merlot that has been put up against Petrus… and won.
After unloading our sacks, we washed our faces and headed over to Terra Valentine for a reception dinner. Dozens of bottles were spread on a table for community sipping and comparison, while a local chef slowly braised steer and threw together a lovely garden fresh pasta salad. Spring Mountain winemakers, vineyard managers, sales people and the rest of us (an assortment from all over the states who ran restaurants, shops and wine lists) raised a glass to a few great days ahead.
Already I sensed that there was something very unique about this mountain community. It was evidence in their wines, their fleeces and their unmanicured hands. These were true farmers. Actual people who farmed the land they owned. And I learned quickly that rather than share a thumbprint of the region’s universal ‘terroir’, we were about to learn instead about each individual’s expression of terroir.
So often it is my complaint of California wine, not just Napa, that they all kinda taste, well… similar. Unlike so many wines of Europe that I have built a passion on, my experience of California wine has been fairly lukewarm overall. Sure there are producers I have raved about over the years–Jonata, Bonny Doon and Sinskey to name a few. But really, so many wind up tasting like big, luscious red wine or whites that represent a varietal well, but not a place, style or producer. Under massive oak treatment and/or knee jerk reactions to trends and fads, so many winemakers are quick to abandon the search for their own voice–their vine’s own voice–and opt instead for the formulaic style that sells.
Unfortunately, that makes a region’s wine homogeneous, and therefore…uninteresting.
But I digress.
What I found last night in that breathtaking cellar room at Terra Valentine was that every producer sang in a slightly different timbre. Cain had a way of fusing all five Bordeaux varietals whilst giving each representative identity on the palate. Andesite shocked me with their herbaceous, upright demonstration of power and elegance. Keenan just tastes handcrafted to me. I mean, it is–most of these wines are. But Keenan tastes it. It comes to epitomize what I have always imagined as a good, solid mountain Cabernet. I can come to depend on it no matter the vintage. Pride, as always, makes a statement and gets everyone a little excited ’round the room (last night no exception). Juslyn Vineyards had a most intriguing Perry Blend that smelled of musty, Bordeaux earthiness–everyone knows I am a sucker for a hint of funk in my juice. Fantesca blew everyone away with their massive reds. But last night, in all honesty, what tasted most wonderful at the moment (for taste is subject to change with the passing of a day, meal or ambience) was the lesser heard of Guilliams. They make a mere 1,200 cases of 100% estate bottled Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab Reserve. There is a stately backbone to these wines that break out of the oak with ease and show integration that causes me to want to describe these wines as somehow stoic and humble.
It was the perfect start to an incredibly exciting 3 day ‘bootcamp’, and I shall blog on in the next couple entries…