Visits in This Issue:
(Journal notes on Napa/Sonoma. Regarding tasting notes, each wine was scored using the requisite sight, smell, and taste impressions. Scores reflect two of the tasters opinions, and use two alternative methods of scoring, MP using alpha and EA using numeric. "n/n" indicates no notes by one of the tasters. Although more extensive note-taking took place, specific descriptions are not included here.)
Saturday, April 16, 1994
Departed Irvine about 6:00AM for a followup visit to Napa and Sonoma. Plan is to start at the South end of Sonoma County (map1, map2) andwork our way North. Then, head over to Alexander Valley and down into Napa Valley (map1, map2).
First on our list was Sonoma Creek Winery. Driving by Roche, Viansa, and Cline, we arrived at a rustic-looking Sonoma Creek Winery only to find a "Sorry Closed" sign out front. Kind of surprising, considering it was a Saturday, and their visiting hours were supposed to be "daily." Improvising quickly, we doubled back to Cline Cellars, a pretty fair Zin producer, and one of the Rhone Rangers. Arrived 1:15PM to a busy room. Friendly staff were very attentive despite the busy room. Poured 6 wines N/C, plus, paid $1 more for a tasting of any 2 add'l wines from their list. Tailgated with a little cheese and bread, and left about 2:30.
Tasted at Cline Cellars: 1992 Barrel Fermented Semillon, B, 87; 1992 Cotes D'Oakley, B+, 88; 1990 Oakley Cuvee, A-, 90; 1989 Mourvedre, B, 87; 1992 Zinfandel, B, 89; Angel Rose (?). From the list: 1991 Carignane, B+; 1991 Zinfandel Resv, A-, 89; 1989 Mourvedre Resv, n/n, 89; 1991 Syrah, n/n, 89.
Arrived 3:05 at Matanzas Creek after a long scenic trek. Beautiful tasting room on hillside with gorgeous view of the valley. Very nice presentation in tasting room, with separate glasses brought out for each varietal. Served 3 varietals N/C. The Merlot was wonderful, if a bit pricey at 28.50. Left at 3:28 for next stop.
Tasted at Matanzas Creek: 1992 Sauvignon Blanc, B+, 87; 1991 Chardonnay, B, 87; 1991 Merlot, B, 89.
Arrived Deloach at 4:00 to another busy room. Normally pouring 4 tastes from their list N/C - they offered us 5 ... often a late afternoon bonus, given the probability of many opened bottles still around. (Being serious about wine doesn't hurt either.) We came for the Zin, but left captivated by the Cab. Tactfully reminded about closing time, we made some purchases and departed at 4:30.
With daylight waning, we decided to make our last stop of the day at Delinger winery. Arrived at 4:40 to yet another busy room. (A touring party of 8 had just preceded us into the tasting room.) Winery was pouring 5 wines N/C. And as a bonus, a member of the "group" purchased a '91 Merlot for all of us to taste. Real nice people, although the Merlot left something to be desired. Left at 5:15.
Tasted at Delinger: 1992 Chardonnay, B-, 87; 1992 Pinot Noir, Lot 2, B+, 87; 1991 Cabernet Franc, C+, 84; 1992 Cabernet Franc (futures), B+, 87; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, B, 87; 1991 Merlot, C+, 84
Good totals for the 1/2 day: 4 wineries, 22 wines.
Sunday, April 17
Set out for our first full day at 10:05.
After very scenic drive around Russian River Valley area, arrived at Davis Bynum Winery at 10:40. This winery has little distribution in Southern California, but has garnered a good reputation for its Pinots, primarily due to its winemaker Gary Farrell (who also has his own label). Very engaging gentleman doing the pouring and selling (both wine and philosophy). Pouring 9 wines gratis. Wow! Two of these were "barrel" samples, with the '93 Zin being drawn from a waiting oak barrel behind the tasting bar. Nice place. Made some purchases and out at 11:25.
Tasted at Davis Bynum: 1993 Fume Blanc, A-, 87; 1993 Chardonnay, B+, 86; 1993 Chardonnay Ltd Release (barrel), B+, 87; 1992 Chardonnay Ltd Release, B, 85; 1990 Pinot Noir Ltd Release, B-, 88; 1991 Merlot Ltd Release, A-, 87; 1993 Zinfandel (barrel), A, 88; 1991 Zinfandel, A, 87; 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, B+, 85
Just down the street to the next stop. Arrived at 11:30 at Rochioli, home of some renown Pinot vineyards, in addition to a solid reputation for the varietal themselves. 3 varietals available for tasting N/C. Small tasting room with windows overlooking the estate vineyards. Just a few people in attendance, but more arrived just after us. One of the arrivals was particularly interesting. As we were finishing our last taste, a woman approached the tasting bar from behind us. Placing her business card on the counter, she asked the pourer if Rochioli offered a courtesy [discount] to other wineries. "Yes, we do," the pourer said. I spied the card as he picked it up. It read Dominus Estate, and the name on the card was Robin Lail, one of the principals in the Dominus venture. "Is this the name of the winery," he asked. "Yes, it is," she replied. (How could he not know, I wondered.) "Hmph," he mused. It seemed to be a new one on him. "What can I get for you," he asked. "We'll take a case of the '92 Pinot, please." Nice choice. Of course I couldn't let the opportunity slip by without saying something complimentary to her about Dominus. She seemed very appreciative, and as she was leaving, said thanks once again for the kind words. Very gracious lady. Yep, for a wine buff, it was a great chance meeting. Shoot, cooler than running into a Mondavi! The tasting was fine, too. Made some purchases and left at 11:55.
Tasted at Rochioli: 1993 Sauvignon Blanc, B-, 86; 1992 Chardonnay, B, 87; 1992 Pinot Noir, B+, 88
Headed right next door to Hop Kiln. Arrived at 11:56 to an empty room... a first! Huge rustic tasting room built inside an old 2-story hop kiln. Very friendly staffer poured our choice of 5 wines N/C from their list. We decided to concentrate on Reds, especially given the reputation of this winery for some fabulous Zins and blends. Made a few purchases and left about 12:20.
Tasted at Hop Kiln: 1991 Valdiguie, B+, 86; 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon, B+, 87; NV Marty Griffin's Big Red, B, 88; 1991 Zinfandel, B+, 89; 1991 Zinfandel Primativo, A-, 89
Headed up through Healdsburg, and took 101 a few miles back down to Windsor to try out Rodney Strong. Arrived 12:35 at impressive modernesque wood-beamed winery, with a circular tasting bar in the center of their large second floor room. Staff was efficiently, if matter-of-factly, handling the 6 or 7 visitors. N/C tasting of 4 wines, plus we were treated to a bonus of 2 extra wines not on the list (the '90 Cab Resv was listed @ $2/taste; and the '85 Cab came from under the bar). Nice visit. Spotted some of our "group" from Delinger among the other tasters. We exchanged some distant hello's with them, made some purchases, and left about 1:15. Tailgated with a little bread and cheese until 1:40.
Tasted at Rodney Strong: 1992 Pinot Noir, B+, 88; 1991 Zinfandel Old Vines, B+, 88; 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, A, 89; 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon Alex.Crown, B+, 88; 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon Alex.Crown, B+, 85; 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon Resv, A, 89
Back up 101 to Healdsburg for a visit to Clos du Bois. Arrived 1:45 to a small number of people in their tasting room. This is a tasting room inside the winery affair, and the interior layout is very similar to Grgich-Hills. N/C tasting of 3 wines. Our pourer, a young lady named "Rennie E," started heckling us like a stand-up working over the front row. "Where're you from?... I see two of you are married; which ones are you?... What's your relationship to the other one?" It must have unnerved us, because one of us actually managed to break a tasting glass. Made no purchases, but apologized profusely for the broken stemware. Out at 2:05.
Tasted at Clos du Bois: 1991 Pinot Noir, B+, 85; 1990 Briarcrest, A-, 86; 1991 Zinfandel, B+, 87
Drove a little further up 101, and arrived at Chateau Souverain at 2:20. Whoa, what a cha-TEAU! Huge gorgeous building, with lovely mountain lodge-like tasting room. Merchandised to the hilt, too. Actually, they've done a beautiful job here: colorful ties, stemware, and other wine-related items, and all reasonably priced - for a change. But, that's not all, they've been doing a great job with the wines, too! Recent accolades for the Cab, Merlot, and Pinot have startled most people, especially given the massive production (aka "commercial") aspect of this winery. Pouring 5 wines N/C. Beautiful place, very nice visit, and very nice wines. Out about 3:00.
Tasted at Ch. Souverain: 1991 Pinot Noir Resv, B-, 87; 1991 Zinfandel, A-, 88; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, A-, 87; 1991 Merlot, B+, 90; 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon Resv, A-, 87
Up 101 to Geyserville for a visit to Geyser Peak, yet another winery from Sonoma County that's on a hot streak. Arrived at 3:05 to a moderately filled room. Large and slightly rustic exterior, this winery has been making a big name for itself lately. Thanks to winemaker Daryl Groom, the quality is way up and there's been lots of exciting experimentation with a wide number of varietals. Pouring 5 wines N/C from their list. Chatted with knowledgeable young pourer, and scored several additional N/C tastes. Great visit. Out at 3:55.
Tasted at Geyser Peak: 1992 Gamay, B+, 85; 1989 Cabernet Franc, B, 86; 1991 Merlot, B, 87; 1992 Merlot, B-, 88; 1990 Petite Syrah, B+, 90; 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon, A, 90; 1991 Reserve Alexandre, A, 91; 1993 LH Riesling, A-, 89; NV Opulence (dessert), n/n, 88; 1992 Syrah Port, A, 88
Drove over to Ferrari-Carano to check out the progress on their new chateau tasting room. We'd been here last October when the Villa was under construction, and planned to stop and help break it in, if they had it completed. No such luck. So, we passed on a visit and headed to next planned stop.
Headed over into Alexander Valley for a visit to Alexander Valley Vnyds. Arrived at 4:25. Uh-oh. Spotted some of our friends from Delinger ... again! One of them was the aforementioned "idea person," and THIS time she wasn't taking "No" for an answer. "The Terminator" started right in on poor MP, scolding him about the obvious opportunity he was missing, and how she would be happy to help him. And, speaking of help, your erstwhile scribe supplied plenty! I encouraged MP to give her one of his business cards...even gave him the car keys to get same, when he claimed that his cards were in the car. (Well, that's what friends are for!) Just to keep goading MP, I even hinted that he'd probably see her again someday ... in court ... over something having to do with, oh... patent rights! Yep, like they say, "...with friends like this...." Finally departed at 5:05.
Tasted at Alexander Valley Vnyds: 1991 Chardonnay, B-, 85; 1991 Merlot, B+, 86; 1990 Pinot Noir, B+, 87; 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, B, 85; 1991 Zinfandel ("Sin Zin"), B-, 87
Totals for the day: 8 wineries, 46 wines.
Monday, April 18
Embracing that old axiom, "Cab at Nine, mighty fine," we arrived at Silver Oak at 9:10 to a "Sorry, Closed" sign. Oh no, not again! But, upon checking inside, we found they had merely forgotten to pull in the sign from the night before. Whew! The first customers of the day. Ordinarily charging $5 for a keep-the-glass tasting, our pourer offered to comp the tasting for our "inconvenience," If we left the glasses. I don't think so! These large tasting glasses are the biggest around, and are something of a collectors item with Silver Oak fans. So, instead of the complementary tasting, she offered us a visit to the bottling area. We watched the 3L-6L big-bottle bottling of the '91 Alex Valley, and tried samples of same from the drawing tank. Woof! Out at 9:50.
Arrived Villa Mt.Eden at 9:55. This winery seems to have been on a sort of hiatus for the past several years from making any wines of note. Now owned by the Ch. St.Michele group, Villa Mt.Eden is starting to get some recognition again with their Grand Reserve series, although they appear to be playing down their image. The tasting room is located in a quaint farmhouse backroom, vaguely reminiscent of the old Caymus tasting room; it certainly provided a contrast to the visit to our last winery. We stood in a tiny kitchen-type setting, while our pourer moved to and fro with our pours. It was as though we were just a few friends gathering in the someone's kitchen during a party. Certainly a folksy place, but any kind of crowd would be really tight. Pouring 4 wines N/C, plus whatever else they may have open. Out at 10:45.
Tasted at Villa Mt.Eden: 1992 Pinot Noir Gr.Resv, B, 86; 1991 Zinfandel, B, 86; 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon, B, 86; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon Gr.Resv, B+, 86; 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon , C, 83; 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon , B-, 84; 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon , B, 85 (It seemed evident that these last 3 wines had been left over from Sunday's tasting, which certainly didn't help any of them, and probably contributed to the slightly oxidized quality.)
Arrived at Joseph Phelps at 10:55 for our 11:00 appt. A tour and tasting is N/C to those making an appointment. (A Wine Spectator reporter arrived at the same time for an appt of his own.) Our guide, Molly, cheerfully led our threesome and another pair around the large open-beamed wooden facility for about 15-20 minutes. Since it was another gorgeous day in paradise, Molly suggested we go out onto their large patio. There, overlooking a small lake, meadow, and the vineyards below, she poured very generous tastes of their current releases. Friendly people; nice visit. Out at 12:05. A little picnic at our tailgate, and left the winery at 12:30.
Tasted at Joseph Phelps: 1990 Riesling, B+, 88; 1990 Chardonnay (Sangiacomo Vnyd), B+, 87; 1991 Vin du Mistral "Le Mistral", B+, 90; 1991 Merlot, A, 87; 1989 Insignia, A, 91
Arrived Freemark Abbey at 12:45. The tasting room has a BV, corporate look to it. An old and venerable winery, it's more remarkable for its history than for the current crop of wines they are making. Tasting $5 incl logo glass for the 6 wines they poured. Not too remarkable a place, but a winery we'd always wanted to visit. Chatted with pourer a bit, and out at 1:25.
Tasted at Freemark Abbey: 1991 Chardonnay, B+, 86; 1990 Merlot, B+, 86; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, A, 86; 1988 Cabernet Bosche, B+, 86; 1992 Riesling, A, 85; 1991 LH Riesling (Edelwein Gold), A, 88
Continuing with our "let's visit some more corporate-looking locations" theme, we arrived at Sterling Vineyard's large hilltop villa at 1:35. Overlooking most of the Napa Valley to the South, this winery sends its visitors up to the winery/tasting-room/gallery via a tram. (They have an access road, but heck, that would eliminate all the theme park atmosphere.) It's an attractive Mediterranean-looking complex, but also something of a hike to cover the self-guided tour, not to mention the climb to the tasting room (this must be brutal in August!). Got a look at the barrel room and generally browsed about. The ambiance of the tasting room and patio area was closer to that of a hotel restaurant, with pourers bringing a bottle to our table for each taste. Exiting through the gift shop (theme park atmosphere revisited), we departed back down via the tram. $6 tram ride covers tasting. Nice vistas, but the days of those famous Reserve Cabs are gone, gone, gone! Out at 2:45.
Tasted at Sterling: 1992 Sauvignon Blanc, B+, 85; 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, C+, 85; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, B, 86
Arriving at 2:55 at St.Clement's tasting room, a meticulously maintained Victorian house overlooking Hwy 29, we were looking forward to some killer Cab. We weren't to be disappointed. $2 tasting fee covered the wines poured. Chatting with the knowledgeable pourer produced a marvelous treat from behind the bar - the '91 Merlot. This alone was worth the stop! Left at 3:40
Tasted at St.Clement: 1992 Sauvignon Blanc, A-, 87; 1991 Chardonnay, A-, 87; 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon , A, 90; 1991 Merlot, A, 91
Arrived at Beringer 3:45. It had been a few years since we were last here. Recalling that the tour was both historical and informative, it seemed like MP might find the stop interesting. But, as there was a good-sized crowd already waiting, we had to wait on standby to see if we could still get onto the 4:00 tour, the last of the day. While waiting we browsed around the new gift shop adjacent to the tour start. (Picking up the commercial ambiance where Sterling left off, I was half expecting to see Mickey and Goofy come strolling by.) The regular tasting (complimentary w/tour) is usually done at the end of the tour in the historic Founder's Room. There was a small complementary tasting bar at the gift shop, but as I recall, the wines available for tasting were a Sauvignon Blanc, a Gewertztraminer, and a White Zinfandel. We passed. I guess we're getting a bit jaded. Left at 4:15 for greener pastures.
Arrived at our last stop of the day, Franciscan, at 4:25. Attractive large room, and friendly staff, but not much excitement here. Franciscan has had both past and recent successes with its wines, and pouring the Mt.Veeder label (same ownership) makes this stop a nice plus. $2 tasting incl logo glass, for 5 Franciscan wines and 2 Mt.Veeder wines. Ended our day at 5:05.
Tasted: Franciscan: 1992 Chardonnay , A-, 86; 1992 Gewürtztraminer, B+, n/n ; 1991 Merlot, B+, 86; 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, B+, 86; 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon Resv, B, 84
Mt.Veeder: 1992 Chardonnay, B+, 87; 1989 Meritage, B+, 86
Another full day: final count 7 wineries, 35 wines.
Tuesday, April 19
Into the Carneros area, we are in premier Pinot and Chardonnay territory. Arrived at 9:25 for our 9:30 appointment at Saintsbury. The Carneros area is in a vastly different microclimate from the most of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. A cold hard wind was blowing as our threesome and a Canadian couple stood at the edge of the vineyard and chatted with our guide (I've forgotten her name) about Saintsbury wines and winemaking. We were apparently still waiting for a late-arriving American couple. As we waited, our guide explained that the tasting room was being used by proprietor David Graves and others for an evaluation of the '93s. Once the late-arrivals showed up, she led us thru the winery into the cellar/library room just chock full of older stuff stacked in beautiful custom bins and cupboards with sliding doors. As it happens, one of the Canadian visitors was an amateur winemaker...with an affinity for Pinots, no less! Unfortunately, having someone with this type of avocation along on a tour and tasting is not always advantageous. At the very least, the tour/tasting guide's attention can get diverted from speaking to all of us, to merely focusing on one individual's questions or comments.
Ironically, this didn't prove to be a problem, and our guide was more than up to the task. What did end up being a problem, however, was that the late-arriving couple had apparently booked a follow-up appointment for a tour at another winery, and had apparently left insufficient time to get there. They excused themselves with "...well, we hate to cut this tasting short...." at which point, our guide actually did !! And this, with two bottles still unopened! Unfortunately, with two less tasters, she chose to end our tasting, as she put it, to "...get back to work." It was especially disheartening to us was that this couple caused the tasting to end prematurely, just as our hostess was looking to open up the heavyweights. I dunno, in retrospect, we probably should have pleaded with her to continue. Or, maybe we should have just had the Canadians help us let the air out of the troublemaker's tires. We really enjoyed the wines we tasted, but we really felt beat up on the final outcome. Out at 10:25.
Tasted at Saintsbury: 1993 Vincent Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, B, 87; 1992 Chardonnay Resv, A, 91; 1990 Chardonnay, A, 87; 1990 Pinot Noir CVI Vineyard, B+, 89; 1990 Pinot Noir, A-, 90
Arrived at Carneros Creek at 10:30 to an empty parking lot and tasting room. (Stayed that way while we were there, too!) Just the one staffer inside, but he was very friendly, energetic, and knowledgeable. N/C tasting of whatever's open. This winery holds the distinction of being one of the early Pinot specialists in Carneros. And, despite the abundance of Cabs in the tasting room, none was of very recent vintage. We didn't ask, but it looked as though when Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap bought the Fay Vineyard, Carneros Creek's primary source of Cab may have dried up. Shouldn't be any big loss though. Their Pinot's more than make up for it! Very nice visit. Finally left for home at 11:25.
Tasted at Carneros Creek: 1992 Los Carneros Chardonnay, A, 86; 1992 Fleur de Carneros Pinot Noir, B+, 87; 1991 Los Carneros Pinot Noir, B, 88; 1991 Pinot Noir Mahoney Est Las Piedras Vnyd, B+, 89; 1991 Signature Pinot Noir, A, 90; 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon Fay Vineyard, C+, 85; 1989 Los Carneros Chardonnay, B+
Stats on total trip: 3 days, 21 wineries, 114 wines.
Next time, we really gotta' FLY up there!