Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

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This week Mike and I took a mini-vacation to the northern California wine country. We spent three days wine tasting, in Napa, the Russian River Valley and Mendocino. Of necessity, we visited only a few wineries, but you can read my notes from them. Alas, I’m in no way a wine connoisseur and I’m completely unable to taste any of the dozens of flavors experts can discern in wine. Berries? mango? licorish? I can’t find them. So don’t take my reviews too seriously. In reality all I can say is what I liked and what I didn’t like, which may be very different from what you like. I tend to like full-bodied wines, neither light or heavy in tanins and with a well defined oakiness (which I didn’t find at all in this trip).
Anyway here is my report from Napa. Reports from the Russian River Valley and Mendocino will follow.


carneros.jpgOur first stop was Domaine Carneros, we hadn’t been there before. The winery is set in an enormous and impressive manor, built only in 1988. It looks like it should be older. From the winery there are beautiful views of the Carneros area, unfortunately the winery is set too close to Highway 12, and you can’t avoid seeing or hearing the passing cars. You can ignore them, however.
Domain Carneros has a different approach than other wineries to wine tasting. You sit at a table (there are several outside ones, some under umbrellas, as well as a much less nice inside lounge) and an attendant comes and takes your order. You can chose from 2 3-wine flights, one featuring sparkling wines and the other pinot noirs. They both cost $15 and feature 2-oz servings of each wine. That’s enough for 2 people to share. You can also order food, a plate of different cheeses is $14 (we skipped it). If you chose, you can order wine by the glass ($5.40 to $9.60) or buy a whole bottle to enjoy.
champagne.jpgThe first sparkling wine we tasted was the Brut ($25 a bottle). It’s made from pinot noir and chardonnay and spends 3 years in the bottle before it’s ready. It’s supposed to last another 5 years. We liked it. It was medium bodied and had an edge. It didn’t have much of a finish, however. We’d drink it.
Mike was more enthusiastic than I at the Le Reve (The Dream) sparkling wine. It’s a blanc de blancs. He found it subtle and refreshing. And indeed, it’s supposedly been voted “best in the country”. At $75 a bottle it should get some accolades. I wasn’t so crazy about it. I found it similar to the brut, but lighter, too light for my taste.
The final wine was the brut rose, a mix of pinot noir and chardonay as well. It’s under 2 years of age, and would last another 2 years in your cellar. I thought it was light, fruity and easy to please. It wasn’t too complex but I liked it. Call me unsophisticated, but that’s what I’d serve my friends. At $36 a bottle, however, it’s probably beyond my budget.
We paid and left as soon as we were done tasting our wines, but I heard the server giving a very hard sale to the women in the table next to us (that’s why we rushed out). Be prepared.
sattui.jpgOur second stop was V. Sattui, our favorite wineries (in part because they have picnic grounds). We were planning to eat our lunch at its picnic grounds, but alas, that was not to be. V. Sattui has a new and very stern policy prohibiting any outside food or drink. You can only eat in their grounds what you purchase there. And they mean it, not only are their signs everywhere saying that, but they hand you a flyer to that effect when you enter the parking lot. We hurried to eat our sandwiches in the car.
I have always liked V. Sattui because it’s a very unpretentious winery. It sells you a plebeian tourist version of the wine country experience. They have some very nice buildings – stone with ivy growing on it, a large tasting room/store with all the wine gadgets you could imagine, and a deli area with fine cheeses, bread and desserts. That Sunday they were also having an outside BBQ with sandwiches at very reasonable prices (I think the tri-tip was $8 or $9). You can also take a tour of the property, and sample some of their other goodies (fudge sauces, mustards, salad dressings, etc.).
Their wines are not half bad either, if no longer my favorites. They no longer offer free tastings, but you can taste 8 of their regular wines for $5 and 8 of their prime wines for $10 (look for 2-for-1 coupons online). This all meant that we had lots of wines to taste.
We stared with the 2005 Carneros Estate Chardonnay ($28 a bottle). I found it light and unfinished, albeit with hints of oak. I didn’t really like it. I also wasn’t too fond of the 2005 Carsi Vineyard Estate Chardonnay ($26 a bottle). I found it oakier but also very light, sort of empty. I wouldn’t buy it.
Mike, meanwhile, was tasting the 2005 Carneros Pinot Noir. Mike thought it was pretty good for a pinot noir (he’s not a fan). I found it smooth with bitter undertones.
It was then time for the Cabs, which had in the past been my favorites at V. Sattui. This time I wasn’t as happy. I found all of them to be weak though somewhat complex, with light oaky flavors. The tanins were generally well balanced, however. At $48 a bottle, I passed.
I liked their 2005 Russian River Syrah better. It was light, not too complex and easy to drink. More affordable at $27. I’d also drink their 2003 Duarte Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, which was light and non-challenging, but at $27 I wouldn’t buy it either.
What I did end up buying was their $19 Muscat. It was light and refreshing, sweet but not too sweet and just yummy. Mike who loves dessert wines was all over it.
Mike also liked their Madeira ($39 a bottle), which was sweet, smokey and smooth with a faintly oakly finish. I wasn’t as pleased with the Angelina, a mix of Muscat and Brandy, but I’m not a brandy fan. It seemed like a perfect drink for the “ladies”.
That was it for our visit to V. Sattui, and we then headed to Milat, a very small family owned winery almost across the way. It has a small plain tasting room, manned by one of the wine makers. The family is Croatian, but I’m not sure how that influences their wines. They are extremely friendly, however, and this is a place where you can just have fun tasting. Tastings are $5 for, I think, 6 wines. Wines are sold only at the winery and I’m told by those who know better than I, that they are quite high quality. I didn’t fall in love with any of them.
I’m discovering that I actually like white wines (after being a snob about them), specially in very hot Napa afternoons. Their 2006 Chenin Blanc ($18 a bottle) was very pleasant, fruity and light. Definitely something I would drink. I liked their 2005 Chardonnay ($23) even better. I found it both fruity and dry with a bit of a smokey finish. It was a bit too sweet for me, but I thought it was edgy. Nice to drink. I wasn’t as fond of their 2004 Pine Station Red Table Wine ($18), a blend of merlot, cab & zinf which changes every year. I found it too watery for my taste, but I guess it’d work as an everyday table wine (but at $18? I’m so cheap!). Their 2004 Merlot was smokey and had no finish. Their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon is light on tanins and very easy to drink. I’d like it with some bbq. Their final offering is their 2004 Zivio Port (Zivio means a toast to life – $25) which they serve with a chocolate sauce (also sold at the winery). The two went well, but we had better ports later in our trip.
Finally, we went to Flora Springs for tasting, where I’d never been before. This is a hobby operation, by their own words. This is the largest family grower operation in Napa. The owners mostly grow grapes to sell them and a few years back they decided to get in the bandwagon and make their own wines as well. They say that they keep the best of the best of the harvest for themselves, though the attendant wasn’t able to explain how they knew what were the best grapes (experience, he said).
The winery presents a large tasting room, with an assortment of items for sale (not food or drinks). It’s pretty quiet – at least on a Sunday afternoon – and a pleasant experience. Tasting here is $5 for 3 wines, $12 for 4 more expensive wines. They have good size pours.
I had their 2006 Soliloquy from Oakville ($22), made from 100% sauvignon blanc. It was very light, simple and fruity and I liked it. I’d drink it with cheese on a lazy afternoon. i also liked their 2005 Sangiovese ($18). It was very nice, with subtle hints of oak and tanins. Finally I had their 2004 Napa Valley Merlot ($24). It had a very light fragrance, light tanins and hints of depth and oakiness. It was fine.
That concluded my day of wine tasting in Napa.

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