I admit. I went in with my biases at this year’s 21st Annual Wine Festival of Colorado Springs, put on by our sister store Coaltrain with the Fine Arts Center. Every year they knock it right out of the park with incredible speakers, winemakers, demonstrations and pairing seminars. This year’s focus was Napa. I assumed they might cater towards an audience who was seeking to glorify their beloved Cabernet, a varietal that is so inextricably linked to this American viticenter’s image. But I was wrong. And that shouldn’t surprise me. Year after year, whether women winemakers, South African wine, Spanish or whatever the theme might be, never do the organizers for this event shape it around a collective imagination of what a region, grape or style should be. They quite intentionally push the limit of a region’s character and emphasize its diversity, intrigue and potential, exposing evidence of a truly influential and great wine region.
And so, this time it was Napa.
In the two seminars I attended, I was able to taste through an array of grapes and sub-regions within Napa. From the floor to the high points of Spring Mountain, we tasted the difference a stone’s throw makes in the land of milk and honey.
Bright and early, it began with a wine & cheese seminar–without a doubt one of my favorite seminars they put on if you think to go next Spring. Whereas many tasting seminars expose you to tons of components and flavors, making it difficult to discern a direct connect between elements, this tasting is just you, the wine and the cheese. The influence of one on the other compounded by winemakers there discussing their viticultural and vinification techniques on each particular wine while a cheese expert does the same for each selection really allows you to sit and get to know your tastebuds in depth.
We tasted through a Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc with a classic chèvre, a Chardonnay from Keenan with a Triple Creme, a rose from Bouchaine with some salty year old Manchego (an excellent pairing, as the wine really had some Spanish rosado flare), a hearty Bouchaine Syrah, a Keenan Zinfandel and a Cabernet paired with a blue. The most charming red we saw had to be the Flora Springs Sangiovese. Had I been blinded, I may have gone Tuscan, but that ripe forward fruit really is Cali’s thing. The most stunning and surprising red I tasted was Keenan’s Zin. It had the finesse, balance and complexity to force me to throw everything I thought I felt about Zin out the window. I thanked him for that. I come across people daily that get fixated on hating particular wines or grapes (Merlot and Riesling come to mind immediately). There are good versions of just about everything out there! Or, I should say, a version that you are more accustom to liking. That’s what I learned Saturday morning. I was not much different. Even I can get a little judgey. This wine reminded me to just keep an open palate…
The next seminar was a luncheon I had been excited to sit in on for weeks. Chef Soa Davies from New York’s Le Bernardin was there to lead each exquisite course. And so, below is a synopsis of each memorable bite…
#1 ’10 Robert Sinskey Abraxas: sashimi-style salmon, green apple, jalapeño cream sauce, micro green salad
When Sinskey took the floor, he kind of lit up the room. Here he was in a nice flannel shirt, thick black frames, and white hair. He had an air about him. A confident yet humble presence. A calm demeanor. A kind smile. His success has come from hard work, patience and a very calculated intention. I realized this when he spoke.
His Abraxas, named for the Egyptian god whose letters stood for the 365 days in a year. In the same way, each day that went into this wine was weighted and meaningful. He pulls from four Alsatian varietals: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Blanc–an ode to his wife in a way, though both are fond lovers of this French region. His fear was that Napa might be too warm to grow these grapes independently, when it occurred to him, he didn’t have to. Though harvested and fermented separately, they share a bottle and meld together beautifully. Faint orange blossom on the nose, lime zest on the palate. Bone dry. Sensational white. It was good with the salmon, but slightly too dry perhaps for the heat. It kicked up a lot of citrus on the palate.
#2 ’09 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: Caramelized Endive, Caramelized spicy shrimp, bouillabaisse
The winery that helped put Napa on the map in a big way back in 1976 when their Chardonnay took gold at the Judgement of Paris tasting against some of the finest burgundies in the world, Chateau Montelena was an incredible addition to this event. Vineyard manager Dave Vella has been at the winery since the early ‘80s keeping it honest and consistent. Even in the height of buttery oaky blockbusters, they have chosen to remain true to their style. This wine shined with the dish, complimenting its richness and inherent acidity, elevating notes of lemon curd, pineapple and caramel.
#3 ’08 Robert Sinskey 3 Amigos Pinot Noir: Roots Vegetables
This was my favorite course hands down. The flavors Davies teased from these roots had me liking parsnip (and that never happens). Though earthy veggies seem like a logical match for lighter pinot, I didn’t realize just how incredible they could be. The carrot lit up the spices, the parsnip pulled out a creamy texture to the wine, and the beets turned up the volume when it came to that earthy, cherried sandalwood one seeks in a Cali Pinot. It is a grape that mesmerizes but is possibly the hardest to articulate. Sinskey likens it to a marriage… you never quite figure your partner out, but they will always have you happily guessing.
#4 ’09 VGS Chateau Potelle The Illegitimate Red: Chicken deboned and cured, herbs
Jean-Noel is perhaps the most fascinating winemaker I have ever met! He stands today with one kidney and one lung. He recently climbed Annapurna. He is French. Incredibly French. But he absolutely LOVES California wine. Not long after the 1976 Paris Tasting, while he was working as a critic in Bordeaux, sniffing around to be sure quality was up to standards, he was sent on assignment to America as a spy of sorts. He was to report back what they were up to in Napa. As he says, he called them and stated simply, “It’s good. I stay!”
Illegitimate is a throw-back to his French roots, when you couldn’t mix your Bordeaux grapes with your Rhones and slipping in a varietal that wasn’t French might have you arrested! He is exploring the wild west attitude of blending with this red, combining Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Zin. On the nose, Syrah wins with its peppery, floral, wow factor. On the palate the Cab fights to dominate. It is a fun wine, intriguing and bold.
#5 09 VGS Chateau Potelle Zinfandel: Braised short-rib, pickled onions
For too long, Jean-Noel feels Zin has been treated as a second class citizen. I think he said this about five times. Insisting on its relevance, he has dedicated himself to making some incredible, food-worthy wines of the Zinfandel variety. Though Croatian-born, this grape has become, in many ways, the ‘American’ red. Here it gained recognition, much like the French-born Malbec in Mendoza. Just before we were left to enjoy the spot on pairing, his final words were, “If you like it, I was responsible. If you don’t, you have bad taste.” He was such a treat with his thick French accent and smiling eyes.
#6 ’09 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon: Bittersweet chocolate mousse, sea salt, caramel puff, brandied cherries, ice cream
In Soa’s words, to pair a dry acid Cabernet with such a decadent dessert, it was the brandied cherries that for her bridged the two worlds. I was impressed, I admit. No offensive, bitter flavors arose. It was smooth and enticing. More than anything, surprising and bold. Were I to have this heavenly dessert again, I think I would reach for a tawny port, however, to really elevate the caramel undertones, play with the saltiness and magnify the mousse.
Two Cabernets out of twelve wines. That’s it. That’s Napa. With every passing year, innovative folks and adventurous vignerons see the potential beyond Cabernet in this exquisite region. Don’t get me wrong. I just sipped through a vertical of Mondavi Reserve last year form 1991-1996, and they are nothing short of breathtaking right at this very moment. Those age, man. They have guts. But tasting everything from Sangiovese to Alsatian blends, I was convinced there is so much more to wow the world from this corner of the world.
Keep an eye out just after Christmas for next year’s lineup. There are a number of events and seminars that range in price. Whether a wine newbie or a wine nerd, you are certain to learn something new with every sip.