Napa Road Trip November 2007 – the MONSTER REVIEW!

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With a double bar/t mitzvah in Palo Alto (Papa Ricolini vogues Tevya at reception) we saw the opportunity to extend a few days and hit Napa as long as we were so near. A trip to Napa is always mixed for me…at least at the outset. Visiting with good friends is a plus. But given the pure wine-country choice I would prefer to visit almost anywhere else like Paso Robles or even better Walla Walla.
hy1.jpgNapa is silly. Take the tasting rooms…please. [apologetic link to Henny Youngman insult machine] In Napa they have tasting galleries. U20 wines? Not in Napa no way no how. It costs at least $20 just to taste wines in the galleries. The Del Dotto Gallery demands $40 and they keep the glass. And they are hardly the exception. If you plan on tasting at Del Dotto, Stags Leap and Opus in the same day bring a couple hundies…for the privilege of sipping and spitting in a bucket. The way I get around the over-the-top silliness of Napa is to make sure I visit Carneros first. Which means a visit with McKenzie-Mueller.
mueller-winery.jpgFall paints brilliant colors which are wonderful to look at in the wine country light. I did not get a single picture but I do keep the memories of blazing orange, scarlet and brown vineyards.
Karen McKenzie greeted us and we got right to tasting. All prices reflect M-M Wine Club 25% discount. She poured wine on their tasting table…in the same warehouse (OK, very large garage) where they make and store the wine. Bought every wine reviewed.
2006 McKenzie-Mueller Sauvignon Blanc ~$18: She said this wine came from vines that they had tried to convert (“t-budded”) to red varietals. Some the vines produced SB anyway! So they bottled a very small amount of very fresh, minerally and not at all grassy SB. Like a Sancerre.
2005 McKenzie-Mueller Clan Rose ~$14: 63% cab franc makes for a brawny pinky.
2004 McKenzie-Mueller Pinot Noir $~$26: Deep almost caramel nose. Deep red robe. Fruit forward, elegant. The thing about Bob’s pinot is that you would not mistake it for Sonoma, Napa or Santa Rita. He gets the Carneros smoke and slightly briny fruit far better than other Carneros producers. Outstanding. Biggest purchase.
2002 McKenzie-Mueller Merlot ~$26: Bob makes the best and the best value merlot. Five years in bottle and completely fresh. Another deep wine with seductive aromas of blackest cherry. Spectacular.
2003 McKenzie-Mueller Cabernet Franc ~$26: Of the three reds we bought this was the least spectacular. lanaturner.jpgWhich is like saying Lana Turner was not quite Marilyn Monroe. coburn240001.jpgOr James Coburn was not quite Clint Eastwood. More narrow flavor profile and still kicking it good. We purchased.
The McKenzie-Mueller presentation never disappoints. I need more of these wines!
On the way to Napa we spent an overnight in The City. I will not bore you with my appraisal of all the ways SF is so much cooler than LA. The restaurants with their intelligent wine lists is one reason. Here is what we tasted at SPQR, the new A16 installment in Pacific Heights on Fillmore. You can order a 3 ounce taste, a 6 ounce glass or a 375 ml carafe of any of the 32 wines on the list. Is there one LA restaurant that has even considered this policy? Lou (Dottore’ suggestion) may be the closest LA has to this enlightened of a wine policy. I am showing the price on the wine list which you have to figure is a 100% markup from what you might pay retail.
First the white wines…
2004 Emmanuele Scammarca ‘Murgo’ Nerello Mascalese Brut, Sicilia $49: Toasty nose. Tiny bead. Dry flavor, pinot fruit, good acid and citric flavors in balance. Terrific.
2006 Ferrando ‘La Torrazza’ Erbaluce di Caluso, Piemonte $32: Neal Rosenthal selection. Creamy, oak on nose and in flavors. Vanilla and mineral going on. Find it, buy it. Has to be excellent value.
2006 Scagliola ‘Casot dan Vian ‘ Chardonnay, Piemonte $37: Pale color. Sweet and salty flavors. Stick to Arneis.

2005 Di Giovanna ‘G&K” Grillo, Sicilia $40:
Resembles sauvignon blanc con grass.
And two reds…

2006 Castello di Luzzano ‘Carlino Bonardo, Oltrepo’ Pavese, Lombardia $36:
Perfumed fruity nose. Flavor is cooked fruit like in a pie. A bit green. OK, not great.

2004 Di Giovanna Nero d’Avola, Sicila $34:
Earthy nose, almost veggie, burnt charcoal-like. Sounds awful huh? Tasted great! Perfect BBQ wine. Even has BBQ tastes, rich and smoky. I would hunt this one down.
clarendonhills99.jpgSPQR was a great stop. Dropped in at the Elite Cafe up the street before heading to Firefly in Noe Valley for a quiet dinner. We’ll dine at Elite next time up.
Sunday night we dined at Uva in Napa. Great local spot. Food was excellent. Service unpretentious. Carlos brought wines.
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1999 Clarendon Hills Shiraz Moritz Vineyard ~$128 online: This is the first Aussie shiraz I have actually enjoyed. Excellent balance, lush fruit. Ready to drink. Like a Carneros merlot crossed with Russian River pinot. Was worth the wait. Hmm. Could there be others this good?
2003 Donatella Cinelli Colombini Cenerentola Orcia ~$50: Tuscan blend of 65% Sangiovese and 35% Foglia Tonda (a once-cast-aside grape she is resurrecting) tastes more like Sicilian style than Tuscan. And no cab so it tastes nothing like a super Tuscan. Or her highly regarded Brunello. Have had this before also from Litos’ cellar. Tannic, like-able, good cherry flavor. But tannic. Keeper. Stylized label represents…Italian woman with 3 names? Cerentola translates to Cinderella. Her press suggests she is kinda cool.
Litos-meet-John.jpgMonday we awakened to a gorgeous Napa day. By this time Carlitos and Alice are in tow. There is no sense getting in the way of the irresistible force that is Carlos. We headed directly to Sterling Winery. I know what you are thinking…Sterling? The winery with the tram ride? I will tell you we spent three hours there being served by Sigrid in the VIP Room tasting the best wines Sterling has to offer. And they were excellent. Among the big Napa/Sonoma producers – Mondavi, Beringer, Simi, Kendall-Jackson, BV – I favor Sterling. Now that Sterling is owned by Diageo they no longer produce a Winery Lake chardonnay. Acacia (another Diageo property) produces the Winery Lake since Acacia is the “single vineyard” property in the minds of Diageo marketers. Having just finished reading the Mondavi book (read review here) I understand the importance of positioning product up and down the price ladder. And Acacia in a word? Unimpressive.
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But Sterling…and Sigrid…what a great afternoon. Retail prices at the winery listed. Enterprising folks (such as Carlitos) can do better.
1998 Sterling Cabernet Reserve $100: Wow. And I am not a cab fan. And 1998 is an “off vintage” for Napa. Extended rains in Spring delayed bud break all over the valley. But this wine was special. Tobacco, cedar in nose and flavors. Velvet smooth, all integrated, black cherry fruit. Not listed for sale.
2001 Sterling Reserve Merlot $75: Not listed. Vanilla flavors. Sweet. Too much for my taste.
threepalms01sterling.jpg2004 Sterling Three Palms Merlot $65: Tannic, chocolate/coca flavors. Doughy nose. Dark red color. Needs time. 14.2%
2001 Sterling Three Palms Merlot $60: Spicy, mint nose. Lusty wine, mocha flavors, beautiful. 13.5%. Winnah. Pay the front line! A great contrast to the McKenzie-Mueller style. Not listed for sale.
2004 Sterling Vineyards Reserve $45: Bordeaux blend sourced throughout Napa Valley (i.e., Diageo properties). Earthy, cab/merlot/petit verdot. Everything I find boring in Napa cabs.
2001 Sterling Red Carpet Reserve $100: Not listed for sale. Bordeaux blend bottled for the Academy’s Oscar party. Nose is integrated. Balanced flavors, shoe polish flavors I associate with Bordeaux blends that are mostly cab and merlot. bethsmith.jpgThe pitch is make your friends who watch the Oscars with you feel special. I would rather watch Dog the Bounty Hunter than the Oscar show. Actually I would rather watch Beth. Now she is in perfect balance.
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2003 Sterling Diamond Mountain Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon $65: No sooner do I open my big mouth about boring cabs then I fall in love with this fabulous wine. Mint nose, intense mountain fruit, lush package all round. This wine would be tempting at full retail. At the price we paid it is a very good buy. 13.5%
Diageo seems to have improved things at Sterling. The marketers have not run roughshod over the winemakers. There are only a few mega-players like Diageo and, together, they own an important proportion of the valley. But don’t ask me. Ask the staff who all seem very happy and were exceptionally helpful and courteous. Sterling Winery – worth the visit.
And then there were three more wines…
Monday night we dined at Redd in Yountville. This is high-ticket fancy-pants joint. Even though it is major frous-frous I must compliment the staff on their top-of-the-line service. We were a difficult party arriving 30 minutes early and asking to be seated if something opened up. It did. They offered but we were not quite ready. When we did get to our table we were unhappy with it so back to the bar we went. They set us up in a better location in a few minutes. Unashamed, we lobbied hard to open a bottle we had brought that was also on their list. A no-no. However, the maitre’d Adam graciously assented.
The Redd decor is elegantly spare with a backlit mirror along the rear wall. Even our waiter Misty was spare. I wish I had her photo. Thin, pale. The wait staff uniform is black shirt, pants and tie. A black and white houndstooth full length apron provides contrast. Misty – who was exceptionally competent – completed the look with jet black hair, pale pale skin, round black earrings and no lipstick. How perfect is that? Prices not posted since they are ridiculously over-the-top.
1999 Roederer Cristal: We actually had this at the hotel before heading out. Golden color. Small bead. Lemon flavors. Not toasty at all. Clean and rich.
2004 Opus One: I think Opus is better since going on its own sans Mondavi. The 04 is round, balanced with lots of merlot. That is a good idea. The website is a total pain.
hearns1.JPG2000 Joseph Phelps Insignia: Insignia has always been an idiosyncratic wine. Mesmerizing; like watching “a snail crawl across a razor’s edge”. I go back to 1985 with it. Minty to a fault. Showing characteristic mint flavor. Narrow band of flavors. angular. Intense and focused. This 7 year old wine is quite muscular. Think Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns. It will knock you out.
Until next time.

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