Sunday, June 17, 2012

"The Vineyardist"

"The Vineyardist"
Diamond Mountain
Napa Valley
May 28, 2012

     While researching our trip to Napa, I came across a new wine made by Mark Herold, who made wines in the late 90's and early 00's that garnered a lot of high scores from critics and thus attention from consumers, Merus, Buccella and Kobalt are just a few.  All fruit for this wine is from the estate vineyards high on Diamond Mountain in the northwestern part of the Napa Valley.  Immediately below are the tasting notes from two points in the day as we had a whole bottle over a day.  Notes and photos on the visit follow further below.

Wine opened 11:30am, tasted 1:15pm:

Color: A dark red core, with vibrant red edges.
Nose & palate: Violets, black cherries, red licorice,and black plum. Herbal notes, but in a seasoned sage, dried basil and rosemary way (read: not vegetal). Velvety medium grained tannins amass a nice structure, lending this wine a long finish that is fresh, fresh, fresh from the good acidity this wine has retained!

Tasted at dinner 7pm:
The structure is even bigger as the wine has put on more weight. Many of the flavors are there with more complexity and depth. The black cherry has melded with more cassis notes but the refined herbal notes still add a nice accent, almost seasoning the delicious fruit the wine puts forward.  With food, this would pair superbly with any beef, especially a top prime steak or cabernet braised short ribs.

Lisa and I enjoying the view of Mt. St. Helena

     This past May, my wife and I visited the Napa Valley and toured a lot of old and new wineries.  They had a lot of differences, but one similarity the best wines had was that they did not subscribe to any school per se except the one school that makes great, not just good wine, in the Napa Valley.

     The Vineyardist was actually our last appointment of the vacation and one of our best. It was my first time visiting a winery on Diamond Mountain as there are few places open to the public in this AVA.  I am typically in Oakville or on Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Pritchard Hill just to give some perspective.

The historic Victorian House from 1879. This is where the tastings was held.

The "Dream Kitchen" at The Vineyardist
     "The Vineyardist" property is a jewel in the rough.  Tucked way up in the north in western Calistoga, the property is just off Petrified Forest Road.  As we drove through the winding road to the house, you could tell where the focus was at the property:  the vines, the gardens and the house.  The house faced east, overlooking one parcel of the vineyard, with gardens laid out in front welcoming the visitor.


     We were running 30 minutes late and our host Roy Piper stuck around to graciously meet us at the front gate.  Were so glad that Roy waited for us as the grounds, the vineyards and the wine were spectacular and well worth the visit.  The kitchen of the historic reconditioned house was incredible and gave me ideas of how I would like my kitchen to look given this type of incredible opportunity.  The vineyard plots are in 4 or so different sections of the property with different exposures, lending some good diversity in altitude, soil and sun exposure. From the top of the ridge above the house, you can see Sonoma to the west and a perfect view of Mt. Saint Helena to the east.  Then looking southeast you could see Howell Mountain with Viader resting on the eastern slopes of Howell Mountain.  If you turned North, you could make out Peter Michael in Knights Valley off in the distance.  There were various vineyards within view on Spring Mountain to the southwest and in closer proximity on the same Diamond Mountain the cabernet vines of Schramsberg were in view.  Below on the valley floor vines were stretched out in every direction.

     "The Vineyardist" was one of the better cabernet based wines on our trip.  We tasted fabulous wine, talked shop about the wine biz, took home some amazing photos from the beautiful terroir, and met with one of the better hosts we had all week. 

Thanks again Roy!

A bientot!

Peter Michael off in the distance in Knights Valley

Viader on the eastern slopes of Howell Mountain
Schramsberg Cabernet vines on Diamond Mountain AVA

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Crocker & Starr

Crocker & Starr
“2 Years in the Making”

St. Helena, Napa Valley
May 25, 2012

     A few years ago I had visited Napa on a whim and in a flurry booked the few appointments that I could muster. Crocker & Starr was one of the appointments I wanted to nail down but just couldn’t get an appointment time with Pam to stop by and taste her wines. Ever since that trip I had made it a point to seek out Pam on the next visit to Napa.

      That time had come as we were planning our trip this year and I made a point to make sure Crocker & Starr was in the itinerary. Again, it almost did not happen. We originally had a Wednesday appointment the day we arrived but fighting traffic after a delayed flight we blew the appointment time. Pam was super-accommodating and was flying out to Seattle that Wednesday, but would be back in St. Helena that Friday. We booked a late morning appointment and this time were able to see the tasting appointment fully through.

     Later Friday morning we made our way down Hwy 29, or Main Street as it’s called in St. Helena, to the Crocker & Starr appointment on Dowdell Lane. Crocker & Starr (C&S) is located in the Southern section of St. Helena, in between Hwy 29 and the Silverado Trail. The site of the property has historic significance as it was the site of a prominent winery and distillery before prohibition called Dowdell & Sons.

     When we arrived, we were greeted with freshly chilled Sauvignon Blanc on the porch of the house on site which I believe houses the business side of the winery. Crisp and citrus laden, this was a welcome refresher as the temperatures were starting to climb. My tasting note is as follows:

2011 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc
Medium gold and straw in color. Citrus lemon and lime aromas meet subtle grassy and mineral notes with a hint of pineapple. Being fermented in steel (95%), the wine focuses on the fruit and mineral notes Sauvignon Blanc is typical of. The remaining 5% was fermented in barrel and lends a small dollop of creaminess that rounds out the wine nicely and adds to the length of the finish.

      Pam joined us to taste the red wines and it was great to have her there to taste her wines with her there first hand. We moved over to the Casali, a rustic stone barn like structure. A table was set up on a patio covered with a veranda that overlooked the vineyards to the east. Pam has a hearty laugh and a welcoming smile. She is a straight shooter and a consummate business person, a very refreshing person to speak to. We talked about our careers, the wine business, and other matters of wine and life. We talked about her philosophy on wine and business, something I like to ask most of the winemakers I meet. I could have gone on a while more but we had to make a lunch appointment and meet our friends that were flying in to meet us at that lunch. Here are the notes and some background on the fantastic red wines we tasted.

     The Cabernet Franc was the first red and it blew us away. The structure, depth and persistent elegance of this wine was impeccable. It showed power with restraint. The vines for the Cabernet Franc are some of the oldest vines on the property and planted on some of the prime sectors of the estate. The great site and exposure of these vines has created a unique wine from a varietal that rarely impresses me when it does not originate from France. In France there are two regions where Cabernet Franc hails: the Loire Valley and the right bank of Bordeaux (Pomerol and Saint-Emilion). In the Loire Cabernet Franc wines are typically 100% Cabernet Franc. The wines tend to be elegant, medium bodied red wines that typically show pepper and spice, with tobacco and black tea. In Bordeaux it adds complexity, lift and mid-palate to the blended Claret wines of the Right Bank. This wine presents to the taster both the structure and elegance of the old world, with more depth, fruit and texture coming from the new world. The balance of the wine is superb. A fresh palate experience starts out strong and carries through a full and juicy mid-palate and finishes with ripe tannins. My tasting note is as follows:

2009 Crocket & Starr Cabernet Franc
An inky core with purple/red edges. Notes of pencil lead, wild berries, violets and crushed rocks meet scents of mocha and dusty earth tones. Vivid flavors of blueberry and blackberry mix with the mocha, violet and earthy notes, delivering a persistent and long finish. Tight, youthful tannins frame the flavors and the juicy acidity freshens the palate. The blend is 97% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. This wine saw 70% new French oak for 17 months, neutral oak made up the other 30%. 

     The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon “Stone Place” showed the complex and layered side of the grape that is found in the best wines of the Napa Valley. Packing a multitude of aromas and flavors, the wine was kicking on all cylinders. The best parcels of the vineyards are old vine heritage-clones and form the core of this wine’s DNA. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2008 Stone Place was aged for 20 months in 80% new French oak barrels. The Crocker & Starr vineyard sections lie in the central section of St. Helena, with the bulk of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines resting in the eastern and southern sections of the vineyard. My tasting not is as follows:

2008 Crocket & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon “Stone Place”
2008 Crocket & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon “Stone Place”
This wine exhibited a dark core with nice vibrant red edges. The nose was full of black cherry, currants, sweet oak, and mocha, with flecks of purple floral notes. The palate delivered the black cherry and mocha in spades, with spice, dusty earth and tobacco notes. The wine passed through the palate with ease from the depth of the wine’s concentration, finishing in a solid structure of youthful, but ripe tannins. A sexier wine than many of the 2008 I have had, this is an impressive effort. 

      We enjoyed our visit and conversation with Pam and look forward to trying these wines and the futures releases. I highly recommend these wines and savvy wine aficionados should check them out if they are in Napa on their next visit or search them out at your local wine shop or on

A bientot!

Charlie Crocker and Pam Starr in their estate vineyards.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Napa Valley & Sonoma 2012

Napa Valley
Sebastopol (Sonoma)
May 23-28, 2012

     During our recent trip to Napa Valley (and one day in Sonoma), we met with some of the best producers of fine wine in Sonoma and the Napa Valley. We met with some old favorites and discovered some new favorites that we can’t wait to tell you all about. Whether new or old, these are relationships we plan to maintain and cultivate. These are fantastic producers, winemakers and proprietors that exhibit the passion and zeal I seek out to create a truly phenomenal wine. We had to cut a few appointments and were late to a few more because our appointment times ran longer than expected. 2 hours of wine and conversation is a good sign of a great gathering of like minded wine folk!

     The vintages we tasted ranged from 2007 to 2009 for the Cabernet and Bordeaux varietals and mostly 2010 for the Burgundy and Rhone varietals. The most common vintage for the Cabernet wines was 2009. I was surprised at how nicely the 2009 Cabernet based wines were showing. I really do like Cabernet wines from 2009 more than 2008. The wines taste fresher with more acidity, and the tannin structures are riper and friendlier. The finishes in the best wines were long, clean and persistent. There were a few busts, but not many as we chose our tasting appointments wisely. Lastly I will mention we tasted a lot of 2011 Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion white wines. The style of this wine has really changed over the last 10 years as the oak has been drastically reduced, or entirely removed from the raising process, to allow the fruit to shine through and the acidity to freshen and energize the finish.

     The bad news is that prices are up as was reported a few weeks ago in a few of the trade reports, but overall the quality is there in many, if not all, of the places we visited with.


     I have to confess I had been falling out of love with the wines of California, mainly collecting Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Barolo wines the last few years. My collection was 75% California only 3 years ago but today only represents 33%. This trip was exactly what I needed to do to open my eyes wider and beyond some of the stale and passé wines from California that I was hanging on to or abandoned for the Francophile that I had become. It was also nice to refresh myself with a few of my old favorites that have kept up with the change in palates that is going on out there. A few of our new favorites have been at this style for decades and are now finally getting their due. Spottswoode and Philip Togni craft more traditionally styled Cabernet Sauvignon wine that has not changed much over the years. Paul Hobbs, Crocker & Star, Morlet, Melka Wines, Cimarossa, Littorai, L’Angevin and the new upstart “The Vineyardist” have kept up with the times and made fresh wines in 2009 (Cabernets) and 2010 (Pinot Noir) with great depth and structure, with a freshness not seen for most of the past decade. 

     Keep your eyes peeled, I will try to write as many of these spotlight stories as fast as I can, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) this is not my day job!

Follow this link to ALL of the pictures from our trip:

A bientot!

 FYI - If you would like a copy of our itinerary to use for your own purposes if you are planning a trip to Napa just let me know as I will email you the excel spreadsheet that is loaded with hyper-links that direct you to the website of the winery or restaurant.

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