Napa 2013: Land ‘O Cab Discovers… Pinot Noir??

2000 ft above the Napa floor

2000 ft above the Napa floor

The Napa Valley is where the greatest Cabernet wines in the world are grown and produced. Move over Bordeaux. Lafite, Petrus and Mouton do not command any greater prices than Shrying Eagle or Harlan Estate or a host of ever newer Napa grown ultra-exclusive collectors’ labels. Napa is home to The French Laundromat where a meal for $600 is considered fair market among the 1%ers that populate the valley. Napa has all the excess to match the best that Bordeaux and Michelin have. Robert Mondavi, godblesshim, realized his dream with a vengeance.

Imagine our surprise when we learned that a new wave of non-Cabernet wines has swept through quite a few of the valley’s better know and longer established wineries. We realize that the legacy grapes, i.e., Charbono, Petite Sirah, Zinafandel, planted by the original international farmers have always had a warm spot somewhere in the back of the cellars. And Carneros still grows and produces pretty darn good Pinot Noir. But who knew that Viognier, Sangiovese and Chardonnay were back in the Valley. Or even moreso, that Pinot Noir and Alsatian style white wines are being sourced from the cooler Anderson Valley to the north? Oh yeah. And these wines are very good.

FionaHalCROPWEBLet’s begin with Barnett Vineyards. You will not find a nicer couple atop Spring Mountain than Fiona and Hal Barnett. And you will not find a more spectacular view from their “tasting patio.” They selected their vineyard home in the 1980s, cleared rocks the size of small tractors, and planted Cab and Merlot. The first vintage of Rattlesnake Hill [ed. they encountered 33 rattlers clearing the land] was awarded 96 points by Parker and their maillist filled up. Maybe they got bored with Cab blends. Maybe they figured it was a good winery idea to offer Pinot Noir. I think Fiona and Hal like Pinot Noir. Sometime in the 1990s they started sourcing juice from Donnelly Creek and  Savoy Vineyards in the Anderson Valley and Tina Marie Vineyard in Green Valley. They make between 6,000 and 8,000 cases a year. David Tate is the winemaker.

2011 Barnett Vineyards Tina Marie Vineyard Green Valley Pinot Noir $45: Technically this is Russian River Valley although it is at the northernmost end. Lots of cherry fruit, definitely New World style. But fruit is not so ripe. Sweetness like baked yams. Best of all is the alcohol level is 13.2%.

tasting "patio"

tasting “patio”

2011 Barnett Vineyards Anderson Valley Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir $45: More lean, brighter acid, charcoal toughness. Great style for Pinot. 13.5%

Pride Mountain Vineyards is 500 feet further up the road form Barnett. No winding single-lane driveway here as the winery straddles the main drag on the Sonoma/Napa County line. Pride Cabernets are highly collectible. The place is less haimish than Barnett. They also have a strong maillist. Barnett and Pride are highly “collectible” earning mid-90 scores from whoever awards these vintage after vintage [ed. in the trophy wine world today’s 90 is yesterday’s 87]. And on that score they are downright cheap at $60 and up. However, we found a white wine to be the most seductive.

2011 Pride Mountain Vineyard Mistrelle de Viognier $42: Served chilled. Bright yellow color with a slight spritz. Quince flavors from free-run Viognier juice. The wine is sweet and refreshing given the solid acid spine. But it is NOT late harvest. What a delight. This could give any summer Moscato a run except you could buy 4 bottles of Moscato for the price! I think it may only be available at the winery. You need a collectible mentality to seek this out… and pay for it! 14.1%

anne_grapesWEBAnne Moller-Racke [ed. pronounced ahna molar rake] is the winemaker for three labels: Donum Cellars, Stemmler Vineyards and her own Blue Farm label. Driving out to the Donum estate is a bit like driving through that Wyeth painting Christina’s World. Rolling hills of grass and vineyards. We passed a guy outside his car who was watching a very large snake on the roadside. Wish I had  stopped and taken a picture! It was all forgotten as Anne told us about herself and poured tastes from five bottles of Donum Gold Label Pinot Noir [ed. black label less costly and presumably for earlier drinking]. She is a farmer who manages the vineyards for several clients including those mentioned. She grows and cooks her own produce and raises cheep. Vigneron, farmer, gardener, cook. Think Renaissance Woman.

These Donum wines were highly extracted and very intense. They were all light to middle weight and dark red. The last domestic Pinot Noir wines I can recall like these were the East and West Block vineyards from Rochioli. I was a bit embarrassed when she finally asked me after I commented once again “so intense” whether I liked the wines.  I told her if I had these wines I would not touch them for 5 years. They all tasted like Pinot Noir which is not the case for similarly structured Central Coast Pinot Noir wines which almost uniformly taste like Syrah [ed, Jim Clendenen’s Pinot Noir wines being the exception]. Donum Estate produces about 2500 cases a year. Usually sold out by now.
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2010 Donum Estate Carneros Pinot Noir ~$70: Earthy, spicy character. Dark chocolate color and flavors. Blockbuster. 14.5%

2010 Donum Estate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ~$72: Intense flavors, dark color. Needs aging. Reminds me of Bergstrom from Ribbon Ridge in the Willamette Valley. If the Carneros is dark choco with the softer fruit this is milk chocolate. 14.5%

2010 Donum Estate Carneros East Slope ~$80: Extracted. I have never tasted a Pinot Noir this s-e-r-i-o-u-s from Carneros. The antithesis of Sainstbury. If McKenzie-Mueller is rustic this is regal. Both need time to mature. Bob Mueller’s Pinot Noirs always pay off after 8 to 10 years. I am certain these will as well. 14.5%

2010 Donum Estate Carneros West Slope Pinot Noir ~$85: The MOST intense and extracted wine yet. Dark, brooding. Rhubarb and red beet flavors. She says they dropped a lot of fruit for this batch. My fave. 14.5%

2010 Donum Estate 10th Anniversary Pinot Noir ~$90: A blend of the best three barrels from the vintage. Anise on the nose and in the mouth.  Maple syrup and pancakes. Yummy good. The most approachable wine form the top fruit. Two barrels came from West Block parcels. 14.5%

Napa is where you can count on finding great wines and Big Reds. It is also still a wine region where things are still changing. Kirk Venge told us there is a “changing  of the guard” taking place in Napa. We visited Charles Krug and you do not get more old-school-stuck-in-their-ways than that. However, the brothers Mark and Peter Jr. have assumed the reins and have made several big moves including building a new storage facility/tasting center. Most importantly, they hired Stacy Clark away from Pine Ridge Vineyards. She had been there for 30 years.

Napa felt more settled this visit. Do not go to Napa for value. Go for the unexpected. Now there’s a change.

in memoriam: tBoW webmeister Al Stone has moved on to a better place. I came across a cartoon he sent me once with the recommendation to use it at an appropriate time. No time like now.

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2 Comments

  1. Wavatar
    Marianne Ruane says:

    Love the shout-out to Al. Agreed – perfect time to post the cartoon. He is much missed!

  2. Wavatar
    Bacchus says:

    MRu – I had to wait until I felt a bit more settled. Al and I share a simialar sense of humor which he told me always made it a bit easier to work on the same project! xoxo

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