NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA. If you're coming from out of state, usually, you get out of American Canyon, driving north, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You leave behind a place much like the place you just flew in from, and enter a distinctive terrain coated with farms and vineyards and odd, kitschy sculpture and architecture.
The weirdness of California is legendary, but the combination of strong personalities and unusual microclimates--the latter, I suppose, being the landscape equivalent of weirdness--gives Napa a unique feel. This is the second story I've done on California wine country, and this time I'm focusing on Napa to make a few observations about wineries and tasting and trends.
Larkmead, and V. Sattui. The Frank Family winery used to be gratis, but no more. Anderson's Conn Valley was well worth the drive--through stunning mountainous landscape, filled with interesting birds and tucked-away homesteads--and their wines are delightful. Larkmead is an old favorite of mine, but they don't really have any entry-level wines; the tasting experience there is quiet and unhurried, and the 2007 Solari is phenomenal. V. Sattui is a carnival--even a little crazy down in the cellar--but it's a crowd pleaser, with what seemed like six thousand different wines. The Zinfandels and the Cabernets are great.
If you have to pay real money for a tasting, I'd say do it at a place like Duckhorn, where you try a great number of wines, you sit down, they give you water and crackers and nuts to snack on, and you can enjoy a beautiful garden-and-vines view. I paid almost as much for a tasting at Cliff Lede, which makes one of my favorite Cabernets, and got a tiny number of tiny tastes and no choice about what to taste. Also fun for the money is Rombauer: for ten bucks, you get some tasty wines, a stunning view, and a glass to take home with you.
Disappointments, for me, included Silver Oak and the Castello di Amorosa, Sattui's second project. The wines just weren't that great. But two things definitely emerged, across the different tastings: the 2007 reds are stunning; and for the most part, in the reds category, the regular tastings are pouring wines that are too young. I was poured Syrahs, Merlots, and Cabs that were not really ready to drink yet all up and down the valley, at places where I had paid $15 or more to taste. The '07s are exuberant young--and may at some point not long from now start hibernating--but the '06s aren't all ready to go. What's more, I experienced this with Syrahs, Merlots, and even Zins. At Sattui, they poured a 2003 Zin that was phenomenal; the '07s they poured were big, but disorganized and tight.
Of course there is a principle of thrift involved here--and it was Memorial Day weekend, so the tasting rooms were prepping for crowds of not-too-picky wine drinkers. My bad. But there must be another way!
Trends: Pinot is still hugely popular, and still often meh. They're pouring lots of Cab Franc for the oenorati, and it's good. Express an affection for Merlot, and you will get an extra pour (the 2005 Silverado is delightful, and, I learned, will be the last vintage with that minty edge, because they cut down the Eucalyptus trees next to the vineyard--boo!) in many cases. There were far more tour buses and limos this time than I remember before, which is a vast improvement: if there are more than three in your party, do it. A number of places were staying open later, though none beats Girard's 8 p.m. closing time. Finally, there are many ultra-premium, three-digit projects that are just not really worth it, so don't be impressed until you taste them, and trust the scrutiny of your palate. I didn't try a single $100+ Cabernet that I thought was tastier or more interesting than Larkmead's Solari.
Not trendy, but wonderful to see, was that the service everywhere in Napa is still excellent. From the collective A Dozen Vintners even to estate wineries I mock for their pretentiousness (Darioush), the pourers are engaging, passionate people who want to find out what you like. Next time I report on Napa, I'll include some of their voices, which I suspect will put a different spin on all of the above.