Napa Time!

Napa Time! 150 150 David Rosengarten

My Surprising Week in America’s Most Famous Wine Region

About a week ago, I attended the annual Wine Writers’ Symposium, based at the splendid Meadowood Resort on Silverado Trail. Increasingly, the Symposium has also shared facilities with the CIA, just across the valley floor in St. Helena.

The symposium attendees, outside the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena

The symposium attendees, outside the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena

Now, as you may already know…Napa Valley wine, at its most scale-tipping typical…is not exactly my cup of tea. So I didn’t go into this thing expecting any wine revelations. I also thought I knew what to expect Symposium-wise, having spoken there four years ago.

But lots of things rocked my world during this most enjoyable visit.

Here are the five most interesting and relatable things I took away from my week in Napa Valley:


Of course 60 wine writers at a conference are going to talk wine, wine, wine. But this year I also noted the number of panels, and the amount of buzz among the wine geeks, devoted to the business of our business.

On one central day, the morning began with a panel called “Where Is the Money?” which included a kind of poll, conducted by electronic means, assessing the real financial life of wine writers. The results were shocking…with most wine writers confessing that wine writing doesn’t bring in more than $10,000 a year in income. So the focus shifted, in the next panel, to “The Wine Writer as Entrepreneur: How to Leverage Your Story and Your Brand.”

I was on the latter panel—my favorite panel of the week—along with Karen MacNeil (of Wine Bible fame), Linda Murphy (of, and moderator Alder Yarrow (of, Alder’s highly visible blog).

At the heart of our discussion was a question of ethics: essentially, should a wine writer remain relatively passive, weakly surfing the ebbing tide of economic possibility…or, should a wine writer build his or her own brand, even crossing the line into…gasp…entrepreneurship!

You probably know how I feel. As long as a writer retains his or her integrity, anything is possible. I’m importing wines now! But I would never use the journalism part of what I do to give those wines an advantage by damning competitors. It’s unthinkable! Yes, I’m importing Michel Gonet Champagne…but every story I write for the rest of my life about Krug, or Charles Heidsieck, or Pierre Peters, or whatever…will include exactly what I think about those wines!

The controversy echoed throughout the conference. It was cool.

NOTE: for a short video look at the Symposium, click here:


A Chardonnay lover I ain’t. All that butter, vanilla, tropical fruit, alcohol…the stuff that gets some wine drinkers excited…gets me completely turned off, leaves me longing for a really tingly dry German Riesling at 11.5% alcohol and a citrus grove of acid.

And so…one of my most surprising wine reactions of the week…was discovering that I’m digging the Napa Valley Chardonnays of 2011!


Now, I don’t want to take this too far. These are still not among my favorite white wines in the world. But in a blind tasting of Chardonnays in which a dozen different Napa wineries presented three Chardonnays each—the 2009, the 2010, the 2011—in every trio I found the 2011 to be the most appealing by far. And that’s from me, a lover of wines with age.

The set-up for the Chardonnay tasting

The set-up for the Chardonnay tasting

The Chardonnay tasting

The Chardonnay tasting

Here’s a summary of the vintage from California’s Wine Institute:

2011 California Harvest Report

SAN FRANCISCO — The 2011 California wine grape harvest was lighter and later than normal with flavors developing at lower sugar levels, giving winemakers the opportunity to make flavorful, elegant wines. A wet winter and spring delayed bloom and hindered fruit set, resulting in shatter in some regions, which decreased the overall crop load. A generally cool summer prolonged the growing season and harvest started very late in most areas. Early autumn rains prompted growers and wineries to pick many varieties at lower Brix. “We walked blocks carefully early on and started picking when fruit reached an early ripeness, which we felt was the correct expression of this vintage,” said Michael Silacci, Winemaker at Opus One in Napa Valley. “We are really excited about this year’s vintage.”

And this is exactly what I found in this group of Chardonnays. I would never consider ordering a 2009 Napa Chardonnay in a restaurant—just the opposite kind of vintage, a hot and ripe one—but I’ve now got my eyes out for 2011.

Some of my favorites in the blind tasting came from Hudson Vineyards (fruit from Carneros), Merryvale Vineyards (also Carneros fruit), and Pine Ridge Vineyards (Carneros again!)

Come to think of it, the advice is: look for Carneros 2011!


The odds against finding a new-to-me winery in Napa that totally knocks me out? 1000 to one, perhaps?

It happened last week anyway, big-time.

At the Symposium, we did another blind tasting of wines in vintage trios—this time, the Cabernet Sauvignons of 2008, 2009, 2010.

The Cabernet tasting

The Cabernet tasting

What can I say? It was a typical Napa Cab tasting for me—hot, dark wines, some quite bitter, most very tannic—the organizers even supplied toothbrushes and toothpaste upon exit, I kid you not!

However, winery #5 was different. I tasted the 2008, 2009, and 2010, and my heart leapt. I tasted other wines, then came back again. Still leaping. Tasteful wine writer buddies with purple teeth at the event were buzzing: “did you taste #5?”

When I saw the ID key after the tasting, I realized that for me, a new star had swum into my wine cosmos.

Reynolds Family Winery.

IMG_3721, Reynolds Family Winery Cab

Never even heard of it before. But, beyond doubt, they make my favorite Cabernet in the Napa Valley today (at least among the ones I know about)!

Steve Reynolds was a dentist with a serious love for wine (a love that had been stimulated by some teen-age years in Europe, going to vineyards with his Dad). In 1994, after years of dreaming about it, Reynolds and family took the plunge: they purchased a 100-year-old chicken ranch on the Silverado Trail, and Dr. Reynolds traded teeth for nails…building everything on this property from fences to the tasting room. Oh yeah…they also planted ten acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1996, and produced their first wine in 1999.

Here’s the thing about Reynolds Family reds: they are much, much more elegant than most of the competition—but still retaining the best of Napa Valley lusciousness. I always think that California winemakers could make more balanced, harmonious wines, if they wanted to (I think of the lovely Victor Hugo winery in Paso Robles)…but winemakers usually don’t want to, preferring to bank on the high Parker points of wines that “hurt” (I swear a winemaker in California once said to me “Dave, I know a wine is good when it hurts!!!”).

The wine that hurt so little—and was absolutely world-class wonderful, at the same time!—was the 2008 Reynolds Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Stags Leap District.

IMG_3722, Reynolds Family wine

Now, Reynolds makes other wines as well, not all of them designated “Stags Leap District.” So back in New York, I called them up—discovering, happily, “the Cabernet  you liked was Steven Spurrier’s favorite winery of the tasting, too”—and asked for a broad sampling of the Reynolds wines. Tasting ensued…along with quality confirmation!

So here are my sober, sit-down, focused notes on the best wine of my week in Napa:

2008 Reynolds Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Stags Leap District.

Medium-deep garnet ruby, full to edge. Gorgeous plummy, berry-like nose, deep fruit, touch of rhubarb, celery seed, and Bordeaux earthy exotica, something like cheese rind. It makes me fantasize about some mid-Atlantic metaphoric island, looking both east and west. The kind of plush fruit that Napa Valley is known for—but in this case it’s dry-tasting fruit, not sweet-tasting fruit. Simultaneously, the wine has the type of exquisite balance that seems like great Bordeaux, maybe Right Bank. Gorgeous, subtle, haunting echoes of rose and incense gather in the finish, which is surprisingly soft and bouncy. This is what I’d want Napa Valley Cabernet to be, but so rarely find!

This baby costs just under a hundred dollars…seriously worth it, to me, and seriously more lovely than famous Napa wines that cost five times as much.

At home, I also tasted these winning wines from Reynolds:

2009 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros

Medium garnet, not light, not dark. Closed nose. Nice berry fruit, only moderately ripe. Hints of cranberry, but little oak or spice happening right now (though a few minutes breathing brings out a little tootsie roll). Sweet attack, then even throughout most of the palate, though it finishes a little hot. Lots of promise, I think, because the structure is fine for New World Pinot…just kinda dumb at the moment.

2008 Merlot, Stags Leap District

Silky-looking slightly lightened garnet. Lovely fruit on nose, well-behaved, slightly Bordeaux-like berries. Crushed velvet feel on palate, tremendously bright fruit, refreshing through to finish (which is a little short). My second favorite, after the Stags Leap Cabernet.


My second favorite wine from Reynolds Family Winery

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Select

Quite dark garnet with hints of black. A little more in the ripe, hot, licorice-y direction…but only by comparison. A little hot and chunky on entry, with extremely subtle hints of Port-like ripeness. Glides across the finish-line like all Reynolds reds, with good acid and non-abrasive tannin…though this one has more tannin than the other wines.

2008 Persistence, Napa Valley

Lovely mid-garnet, ruby at rim, maybe a touch of onion skin lying ahead. Quieter than the others, but vague hints of spice and chocolate on nose. About as elegant as a big Bordeaux blend (that, creatively, includes Syrah!) can get. It’s for those who prize richness and power…but even such a wimp as I can enjoy the balance-of-power crafting in this wine.



The tasting room at Cain Vineyard and Winery

Well, sure…a wine writer visiting Napa Valley has to make a few winery visits, no? I chose to go way the hell up on Spring Mountain, on the west side of the valley high above St. Helena, to visit a winery whose wines I’ve always liked. AND I heard the place is drop-dead gorgeous!

It is.

If you’re planning a Napa Valley visit, I would advise you to contact Cain, make an appointment (no drop-ins allowed), get a map sent to you, turn your GPS off as you ascend (because the winding curves on the way up confuse the hell out of your little device), and anticipate one of the prettiest hours you can spend in Napa.

The heart and soul of this winery is a gorgeous hillside on Spring Mountain, 550 acres of it, first purchased by Cain’s founders in 1980. They started planting vines in 1981, calling it the Cain Mountain Vineyard—a dramatic “bundt pan,” surrounding the ultra-dramatic rock called “La Piedra”—and, today, produce just a few different labels (the winery’s capacity is 25,000 cases per vintage), some from Cain Mountain Vineyard fruit, some from grapes purchased elsewhere.

Looking out at the vineyard from the winery….with La Piedra visible on the upper left

Looking out at the vineyard from the winery…with La Piedra visible on the upper left

In the vineyard…..standing behind La Piedra

In the vineyard…standing behind La Piedra

The most prestigious wine from this winery is called Cain Five, named for the five “Bordeaux” varieties that are blended to make it. All of the fruit comes from the famous hillside vineyard. I like it—because I find it a little more elegant than most Napa Valley top-of-the-pay-scale biggies.

But I reserve my special love for the inexpensive wine labeled “Cain Cuvée”—made from a little mountain fruit, but mostly from grapes grown elsewhere. Intriguingly, they make this wine every TWO vintages—so it is a carefully controlled blend (like Brut Champagne), not a single-vintage wine. To me, they continually hit the mark: lush but elegant Napa Valley red wine, bright and perky, terrific with a wide variety of foods. For every bottling, they include the same rows of wine, from the same growers.

The current release, specified “NV9” on the bottle, was just released in February, and is 57% 2009 fruit, 43% 2008 fruit, with a majority of Merlot in it (53%).

So…I’m recommending the wine, for sure…but super-recommending a trip up Spring Mountain!


One of the great dinner events of the Napa week was an event at Press, the upscale steakhouse owned by Lesley Rudd—who also owns the great gourmet-shop chain Dean & DeLuca, which happens to have a branch right next door to Press, just a bit south of St. Helena on Route 29. I’d been to Press before, and liked it greatly…but it was even better with all the thrill of a winemaker’s dinner in the middle of the winemakers’ region.

Waiters preparing for the crush at Press

Waiters preparing for the crush at Press

You know the scene: local winemakers grab bottles of every this and that, many of them aged, before lugging them over to a big dinner with lots of round tables where lucky guests dive into the bottles at will. Usually there’s a set menu created by the chef, sometimes with a theme: on this night, we had a dozen courses with our Napa Valley wine that included all things porcine.

The top of the piggy menu

The top of the piggy menu

The wines flowed, of course…and, to be frank, though much flowed through me, not much thrilled me. Sorry to be such a Napa Scrooge! But when it’s good, it’s good. One of the sub-plots of the evening for me was an aged magnum of Mayacamas Chardonnay, really at point and yummy. Shouldn’t have been a big surprise…Mayacamas is one of the few wineries I rely on for aged Cabernet.

The lovely 1998 Chardonnay in magnum from Mayacamas

The lovely 1998 Chardonnay in magnum from Mayacamas

Best of all, however, was a bottle of Cab from a winery I thought I’d understood…Smith-Madrone…also on Spring Mountain. The 2007 Cook’s Flat Reserve on my table—next to a sea of bottles from bigger-name wineries—knocked me out with its balance, and, particularly, its Bordeaux-ness. American winemakers are usually allergic to “green”—that herbal-veggie aroma so intrinsic to Cabernet, so common in France, so disgraced in California. Parker finds “green” to be a flaw—so 99% of American winemakers let their grapes get way too ripe, lest a little “green” creep into the wine (in America, it’s not easy being green!). Bleh. I like “green” in Cabernet, as long as it doesn’t dominate. This 2007, for me, had the perfect reminder of Cabernet’s true nature.

So, back in New York, I once again played the phone-call card to the winery…receiving by post, almost instantly, a lovely “library” set of Smith-Madrone wines. They make whites as well at Smith-Madrone, which I will taste in the future…but yesterday I put the Smith-Madrone reds into my Reynolds tasting and…though nothing can measure up to the majesty of the 2008 Reynolds Family Winery Cabernet from Stag’s Leap…these were damned good wines too, atypical Napa Valley wines, right in my style.

The true knock-out was the 2000 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.


It is a silky-looking garnet, medium, with touch of lightening at edge. A little jam on the nose, but a hint of white truffle as well…a Napa Cab developing like a European wine! Even shows a bit of horse sweat (call it Brett, but I call it luscious!) Definite bell pepper character on palate, even Chinon-like…though the funk continues too at a very low level, with a whisper of smokiness. Great, lifting acid, and well-behaved finish. Compact, complex, delish.

Here are my notes on the other reds tasted in New York, all of which I also recommend:

1995 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Medium garnet, faintest touch of onion skin at rim. Very Bordeaux-like herby nose, with a little jammy depth. Extremely Bordeaux-like on palate, with a kind of space between the Napa-esque concentrations of fruit that allows the wine to breathe.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Slightly more advanced in color than the 2000, not quite as purply. Garrigue-like wild herbs on the nose, without as much fruit as the 2000. A little more disjunct than the 2000, with hints of volatile acidity, plus a little extra heat, bitterness and tannin. But perfect with the right foods, like grill meats.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District

Medium purply-garnet, but not super youthful or strong looking. Pure fruit on nose, perfect degree of ripeness. Gorgeous mixture of Cabernet green and plummy fruit on the palate. Touch of licorice. Slightly aggressive tannins, but I think they will melt away…and I think the tertiary flavors will develop beautifully in this wine.

So the big take-away is: if you seek, seek, seek in Napa Valley…ye shall find! But, unless ye are part of the big-bomb crowd…ye must be one careful, specific seeker!


An Exclusive Interview with Christopher Kostow…Executive Chef of the Meadowood Restaurant…the only Three-Star Michelin in Napa Valley Aside from The French Laundry!


Grape photo courtesy of BigStock Photo

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