Monday, February 27, 2012
It’s true, gang. The days of driving through the Napa Valley from Yountville up to Calistoga, whether on the main drag of Highway 29, the parallel Silverado Trail farther east, or any of the cross streets connecting the two (these also studded with wineries) promiscuously turning in to any tasting room displaying a “Yes, We’re Open!” sandwich board are officially over.
Especially if you have an allergy to a tasting fee crowbar working on your wallet, or the hard-sell to join a wine club. Whether working on you with club or crowbar, the Napa Valley can often raise a lump, with scars to prove it.
Kathy and I were up in Napa relatively recently, after, virtually, years of nursing our wound$ from a previou$ ta$ting jaunt. We were up last time because Kath had armed herself with a plethora of Internet coupons and special site offers from the likes of Groupon and livingsocial. It really did make all the difference, but one could still not be an indiscriminate tasting ho just because one recognized a label name gracing signage by the side of the road. ‘Cause those are the ones that’ll gob smack ya with a nonrefundable tasting fee that will make your head spin.
The fee thing also seems to be random: Staff has to have some discretion as to waiving them; we’ve seen it in motion. Sometimes for us, sometimes for others that I’ve spied through my eyes colored in envy-green. We’ve seen selections poured from the “reserve” card, when the “complimentary” tasting was the one ordered. It’s a gamble sometimes, and whether your pourer sizes you up as a tourist, an industry pro, or just someone who holds the glass by the stem and swirls like a mofo, schnoz in glass, before taking a sip, it’s Riedel roulette: sometimes red, sometimes the black.
And occasionally it’s those friggin’ zeroes on green. (I’ll elaborate in a sec.)
We posted a while back about our Napa return, and visiting The Hess Collection facility again after over a decade. This is the sprawling joint up Mt. Veeder, housing an outrageously eclectic art collection, and making some very tasty juice. Kathy and I did not desperately need to join another wine club, but when we were offered on that trip a couple of varietal Rhône bottlings from grapes sourced from Frank Evangelho’s property in our ‘hood, we had to join. I also had to walk the gallery again in search of the burning typewriter.
So, yeah, a wine club pick-up is a great impetus to head to any “wine country.” But, based on my previous paragraphs, I’m sure you can glean my fear that Napa can suck you dry, with no actual wine in the gig bag to show for it. That’s where cyber-Kath comes in, searching for and printing online tasting coupons. A lot of it in Napa is 2-for-1 stuff (still scary: What does “1” cost?), but we had just enough “complimentary” paper to make it worth the toll bridge and petrol.
Another justification for this trek was a livingsocial deal that was, to our minds, unique. In St. Helena lies, on 29, a groovy tasting co-op named “Savour” featuring super-small producers of ever-changing limited production wines. Savour (BTW: Spell-Check is freaking out at this Canuck spelling of “Savor,” but that’s the name of the place.) hooked up with livingsocial to offer this progressive offer: free tastings for everything from every vintner on the list (and the list seems to change monthly), repeatedly; 15% off purchases, repeatedly; then, when you’ve tasted everything, you get dinner on them! The joint is elegant, laid-back, artisanal and a joy. Not sure when we will ever get that dinner based on an ever-shifting tasting card, but when those self-same tasting card pourings keep coming gratis, even months later, you suspect that you are in expert hands.
So, we had two destinations that would hook us up, on either end of the Valley. Kath researched and pressed “Print,” and we were reluctantly ready to explore. With a freebie for two, we decided to start the day up north, in order to work our way down toward home; the Napa Valley outpost of Cuvaison turned out to be the perfect entreé to our wending southward along the Silverado Trail. Our host, Travis, was the coolest cat. There was an entire Zen + viticulture vibe to our convo: everything from clone selection to Walla Walla, from hiking to plantings. We were the first visitors of the day, all the better for Travis to top up our glasses with Cuvaison’s 2009 Carneros Syrah, and walk us up the trail toward the barrel room terrace, overlooking a slice of Diamond Mountain framed by olive trees.
Travis pointed out this crazy old tree on the property (see Kathy’s photo) hollowed out by fire, but still thriving. But the funky deal is the pitchfork that someone, decades ago, imbedded in its environs. The fork is now a part of the tree. Check it out. Nuts!
Promised that I’d at least allude to the roulette elaboration tasting room loss. We had a great experience at a well-known winery’s shop on the 29 main drag. Dude was fun, we talked winery history, he poured us top shelf (we think he dug us). But, even when we bought their 2009 Alexander Valley Sonoma Cabernet at $35, we were still charged the “one” of the 2-for-1 tasting: $18.
Damn, I wish I had the cay-jonze to ask the total charges before we walked away. Our policy is that we will always buy at a place; if we hate the stuff, we’ll bail with a cheap white. But when dude at “Louis. Z. Martini” (not their real name) charges us the full-meal deal that is more than half of the bottle price we paid, I have to think of this shi-ite as a cover charge, enabling you to leave, as many bridal parties do, sans purchase. Homes, we did not pour ourselves out of a limousine; we did enter your establishment, wearing tiaras, and fresh from a short tour bus. Man.
So we’re winding south down 29, figuring that Hess, up the hill, will be the last stop of the day. Dare I use a Dorothy Lamour gag one mo’ time? Sa-Wrong! Kath knew that we had a 2-for-1 printout for Grgich Hills. Last time we pulled in years ago, the joint was swamped; we bailed. This time, the second we walked in the door, pourer Miles flashed a smile that served as a veritable beacon. For starters, all three of us bonded over the movie “Bottleshock,” but goofily. Now, we’ve probably noted in the past that, although we knew the characterizations (hell, a lot of the characters), the winemaking, and familial relationships were bogus. That’s why Miles, Kathy and I kinda bonded, I think.
Now, you have to remember that when Kathy and I first visited Napa, and specifically Grgich Hills (did I mention that there are no Grgich Hills in Napa? The “Hills” was an heir to the Hills Bros coffee gig, Okay, this post is going on way too long, but when we lived in San Francisco during the Punic Wars, we rented a car to drive up to Napa. Mr. Mike, wearing his trademark beret poured for us and signed our myriad bottles. In “Bottleshock,” one sees Bill Pullman’s Barrett winery-owner character talk to “Mike” about the wine’s condition. For a couple of seconds, you can see a beret-clad performer cross the screen. Mr. Mike wanted nothing to do with the flick due to its inaccuracies. I think that we mentioned that Gustavo wasn’t really in the mix.
But, there’s always Snape.
Oh, and drama. Let us never forget drama.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
With apologies to actor Paul Muni, I must say that the relatively new California AVA of Rockpile (established in 2002) is a pretty tough row to hoe, worthy of a chain gang.
It’s a pretty desolate, cool acreage, with only about 165 planted to grapes, abutting Lake Sonoma. The lake draws Pacific Ocean fog downward, allowing the clay “soil” to dry out for maximum concentration in grape bunches.
Kath and I headed up to the Dry Creek Valley of Healdsburg, for the first time in several months, just to see how valid our VISA Signature-your-tasting-fee-money-is-no-good-here promo was.
We did not have to worry. Oh, sure, there were a couple of “Tastings are not free, but we give you a discount on purchase,” and more than a couple of cheesy 5% discounts (what’s that when it doesn’t pay even half of the sales tax?). But generally, it was a nice return. Picked up our Geyser Peak wine shipment, did a Tasty-Taste (another guilty-pleasure movie, in this case, Rusty Cundieff’s “Fear of a Black Hat”) upstairs overlooking the barrel room at GP, and was heartened to hear that the former winemaker was back in the fold.
In addition to our catholic club selections, Kath decided to purchase a half-case of a Geyser Peak 2008 varietal Petit Verdot offered on deep-disco. Like a lot of Cali, Alexander Valley wine country wines, this experienced many wildfires (love that term: they’re “wild”; nobody set them.) The slight smokiness, only on the back nine, makes this Foothill bottling different from the 2007. It’ll, I want to say “a dunk,” but that would imply that to drown the smoke. Wrong; this stuff is great. Just take a second to savor the aftertaste.
At Mauritson, chez Dry Creek, you are greeted by a sweet Lab (or two), and led to a tasting spot. Rockpile, as an AVA, is a given. Never had a sweet pup lead me to old-vine Carignane around here.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
“Gotta get off, gonna get, have to get … “
We hadn’t hit the Sonoma Valley in a while; that’s the wine region north of the actual city of Sonoma, and south of Santa Rosa, the gateway to Dry Creek and Healdsburg.
Kathy had a couple of things going on: It was the wine club release party at Cline, farther south of the Valley; but it was also the perfect opportunity to use our livingsocial coupon for a seven-course food and wine pairing up at the Mayo Family Winery Reserve Tasting Room in Kenwood, CA. We passed Cline on our way up Sonoma Highway 12, on our way to an elegant luncheon of small bites and complementary wines.
We actually arrived in town, courtesy the Lisa Marie, about 35 minutes before our reservation at Mayo, so we thought we’d stop in at Kenwood Vineyards’ tasting room a mere block (a “block” being relative in wine country). We hadn’t been here since we’d lived in San Francisco 14 years ago. Kenwood has big distribution, but I was not prepared for the efficiency at the tasting room, nice pricing and downright tastiness of the juice. I’m sure that you’ve seen the label on Safeway shelves worldwide, even the austere “Jack London” stenciled bottlings of the Kenwood portfolio. Turns out that a good part of the Kenwood vineyard holdings include a nice parcel of author London’s original ranch (the rest is a Cali state park), where the man behind “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” chilled to raise pigs (!), grow wine grapes, drink and maybe even scribble a few words.
Even without Kathy’s 20-pound-bond-printed-Inkjet-coupon offering free tastings for two as well as a 20% discount on any purchases, the return to Kenwood with the attentive tasting room service would have been a true highlight of the day. As Fang might have howled, “Arooooooo!”
On to lunch at Mayo, served by Executive Chef Clayton Lewis himself in a casual room with high chairs and elegant victuals on small plates, including a duck scaloppini with mushroom stuffing paired with a Valley Pinot Noir and a funky take on pot roast using beef cheek nestled in a potato “cupcake” served up with a regional Meritage comprising Cabs Sauv and Franc with Merlot.
A swell-egant lunch, replete with informative descriptors from chef, and, in addition, the livingsocial voucher offered us 30% on wine purchases. A Russian River Zin from the Ricci Vineyard? Fang howled an extra 10% yesterday afternoon, I gots to say.
So, Kath and I head back down 12 toward the Cline club release clambake, and, having another freebie printout tasting coupon for Valley of the Moon Winery (another joint we hadn’t visited since their new tasting facility was just under construction over a decade ago), we thought we’d stop in for a quickie.
The Imperfect Storm: three very nice folks behind the tasting bar who couldn’t seem to multitask pouring and retail (15 people along the rail seemed to flummox the trio; our genial original server abdicated to another, then she later ran her outstretched finger along the bar as if to silently ask, “Who needs a pour?” The digit smoothly passed our two empty glasses.) Additionally, two of the three behind the stick had been following different tasting rules; apparently one had been counting pours of the “Valentine’s Special Pricing” wines as part of the five complimentary tastes; the other was pouring them free as bonuses. Then, on our side of the bar, we had tasting room boors on the left and the right. You know what I rail about: These couples had plenty of space on either side of them; we just wanted a slice of the middle. Chick on the right reluctantly took her purse off the bar for Kathy; dude on my left was totally oblivious as I slithered in.
Dude-plus-one on my left finally left to ogle tasting room merch, enabling us to stretch ourselves out an extra elbow-width. Homes was replaced by another couple, the male of which was the most stereotypically obnoxious belly-up-to-the bar mofo I’d seen in a long time.
Now, we were surprised to see a couple of offerings on the shelves: Lake Sonoma Vineyards selections; and a Korbel private label brandy (retailing for $150!). When Homes bellied up proclaiming that he was a Kenwood club member entitled to free Valley of the Moon tastings, this particular vinous universe was unfolding as it, uh, did.
Kenwood, Valley of the Moon, Lake Sonoma Vineyards, hell, even Korbel have formed an unholy tasting room alliance, I guess. Like we’ve always said: The wine is one thing, but the tasting room staff makes it “your” winery.
Always thought that Korbel was cheapee sparkling; Kath and I had previously done a tasting at the winery and found out that Korbel has various bottlings that you will never find anywhere, one of which was served at a state function at the White House. It put Korbel in a new perspective for us, even though one can only seem to find the plonk at retail.
As for Kenwood, I don’t want to know if Jack London was loaded when he was pounding out “The Iron Heel,” but I’m proud to have tasted a bit of stuff from his joint. As noted, juice, staff and price was aces.
Valley of the Moon? Kath and I decided to blast off from that crater. Coupon offered a comp tasting and 20% off any purchase. Now, we always buy (“If things get hairy, you can always bail with a white” ™©) but, this time, we had no compunction to use the freebie coupon and not use the discount. Yep, we Moon walked. And felt bad. For about three seconds. Sometimes, it’s just plain liberating to not have to see that charge on the VISA bill in a few weeks.
Onward, heading toward our Oakley homestead, we stopped in to Cline for the club members’ release party. We love their wine club, especially since the family has such connection to Oakley soil and the superannuated vines growing in same. I had forgotten how jam-packed these events get, since we’d only attended one previously. Cline’s Pendulum Club has a boatload of members, and they all seem to attend. They open up the barrel room, pile in tables and seating for hundreds upon hundreds of their closest friends, and ring the perimeter with multiple tasting-Stations of the Cross. They’re great events, but after a chill tasting experience at Kenwood, an unrushed and civilized lunch chez Mayo Family, followed by an exhilarating lunar prison break, it was definitely time to pick up our club selections and head back CoCo way.
“Gotta get off, gonna get off of this merry-go-round … ”
To paraphrase Kanye, “Ammo let you finish, Dionne, but … ” there was a nice piece by Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday February 5, profiling vineyard manager and winemaker Tegan Passalacqua (who, we found at our Mayo lunch, is a friend of Chef Clayton). What was of special interest to Kathy and me was, despite Tegan’s managerial overview of almost three dozen vineyards, a few on his radar include CoCo sites that we have written about and tasted wines from: Evangelho, Del Barba and Salvador (the last of which we could never pinpoint, despite Larry Turley designating a Zin with this vineyard on his label; Jon’s article suggested to me that this was a site I’d actually visited: the abandoned business park with the dumped trash, and the couch that appears on Randall Grahm’s “Contra” label).
“Gotta get off, gonna get, need to get on where I’m bound … ”
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Going Back to the (Murrieta’s) Well; There was a Crooked Vine; Rob Petrie Didn’t Live in La Rochelle
Hey guys, Kathy and I had a nicely civilized mini-jaunt down to Livermore the other day. She had to work Saturday, so took Friday off: the perfect workday getaway to get the dust off of a couple of Internet tasting-deal coupons, as well as a great Web special purchased a while back.
We started off at Crooked Vine, utilizing a cool livingsocial Internet offer including a grand tasting and two bottles of their wine. And these bottles were not the stereotypical plonk sometimes offered on coupon deal. No “private label” white blends here: This offering hooked us up with two 2007s, featuring their estate Cabernet Sauvignon and estate Petite Sirah. They may have wanted to blow these babies out of inventory to make way for the 2008s currently on offer, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen any Groupon-like clearinghouse participant dip into the trunk to fill the gig bag with almost $70 worth of juice, on an Internet deal costing a fraction of that.
At Crooked Vine, John, a gent we thought we’d recognized from an earlier visit, was our guide. This particular Friday afternoon chez tasting room was pretty chill; it seemed to embolden John to turn on the flourishes and treat us to some swag “under the counter.” Sweet. He had this cool gesture of pouring the wine selection into the glass and tilting it toward your nose for a couple of seconds for you to evaluate, before placing it on to the tasting bar in front of you.
This was one afternoon when the final word on the sign Kath snapped at Crooked Vine, (pic above) resonated for us. I don’t mean to get all Car Talk on y’all, but sometimes, when the timing is right, as it was for us, you’ll encounter a CV joint.
OK, time to redeem some discount Web printouts at a couple of our haunts down the street.
Murrieta’s Well, an old-skool offshoot of the venerable Wente Family wine empire in the Livermore Valley, showcases a side of blending here not seen since Joaquin Murrieta himself noticed an Artesian well bubbling onsite circa 1850.
Germany, meet France. (The nonvintage “Whip,” where Gewurtz meets Chard)
Spain, do you know Italy? (The 2010 Tempranillo blend, featuring Barbera)
Bordeaux, have you ever been to the ghetto? (Cabernet and Petite Sirah)
As the poet said, “No offense; I think you’re all going to get along famously!” (Enter tanks. No, wait; I meant “stainless,” and wooden barrels from the finest forests of … oh, forget it.)
Our final stop this fine afternoon was the Steven Kent/La Rochelle duo-plex: One turn off Tesla Road (no kidding; the Lawrence Livermore Lab is mere blocks away from this region), and one can park the Lisa Marie within a cork’s throw of both tasting rooms owned by Steven Mirassou.
The “Steven Kent” (reminds me of Washington state’s “Mark Ryan” winery: “Ryan” is his middle, not last, name), thing always makes one scramble when one names something after the fam. I always think of a restaurant named after yourself that goes into bankruptcy with your name on the front page of the menu. But, sometimes it’s an eponymous winery that you decide to sell, and the buyers want to keep your name and the goodwill that that name engendered. Suddenly, the check is cashed and you can’t use your own surname on any of your new biz ventures anymore. Halston, please pick up the courtesy phone.
The “Barrel Room” at Steven Kent is a classic, oh-so-civilized facility, pouring selections from SK’s Bordeaux-based varietals and blends, mainly kicking it Livermore-style. This awesome tasting room features also juice from across the way, at, same-proprietor-owned La Rochelle, another sleeve of the SK-monogrammed shirt specializing in Pinot (Noir, plus others) sourced up and down Cali.
Steven Kent and La Rochelle selections are poured at the Barrel Room, a semi-fussy (in a good way) tasting room at which you wait for two seconds to be escorted to a stand-up table (actually, a wine barrel topped with large surface) and are treated to elegant personal tasting service. And none more elegantly provided by Thom.
Dude knew his shi-ite. OK, didn’t hurt that he thought we might like some stuff off the card. Pouring us a varietally bottled Pinot Meunier from the Sonoma Coast? Did not hurt that this 2010 varietal from Four Sisters Vineyard was outrageously smooth, paradoxically kicking in the teeth of other blending grapes fronting as varietals.
Thom is a big part of the reason that we joined yet another wine club, the Pinot-centric La Rochelle, after divesting ourselves of almost all of said clubs.
A very nice tasting trio today. Livermore Labs, indeed.