About this series: After years of loving (and semi-seriously studying) wine, I finally took my first trip to Napa and Sonoma this summer. It was a wonderful week of sunny days, cool nights, beautiful views, and beautiful wines. These are the impressions, discoveries, favorites, and surprises from my journey.
Day 1 – Saturday, Aug 30
Chateau Montelena: First of Many Surprises
Chateau Montelena was a fitting start to my Napa experience, this being the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris. That’s when this historic winery helped put California wines on the map by beating out a host of French competitors with its 1973 chardonnay. The event was made famous by the 2008 film Bottle Shock.
Despite that iconic status in Napa, I was pleased to discover that Ch. Montelena’s wines are much more restrained than the big jammy fruit bombs that have come to typify the region.
My tasting experience was especially enjoyable because I was with my cousin Katherine, who used to work in Montelena’s tasting room. Her former colleagues were kind enough to pull out a couple of library wines for us to try – a 2007 cabernet and a 1999 riesling.
The cab was great and still showed plenty of fruit, particularly blueberry; but it was the riesling that blew me away.
Seventeen years of aging have given it a beautiful golden color. It has a nose of yellow flowers and honey, with flavors to match, plus great acidity.
I’m a sucker for a good riesling, but I didn’t expect to find one in Napa, especially at a winery known for cabs and chards.
It turned out to be only the first of many surprises Napa had in store for me.
CADE: Big Wines & Big Views
After a picnic in a Calistoga park, accompanied by acoustic guitar music from a young busker, we headed up Howell Mountain to CADE.
My cousin now works for PlumpJack, the group that includes this spectacular hillside winery. She chose it for our second stop, not just for the wines, but also for the view. And what a view it is!
It was a warm day, so we sat inside the sleek, modern tasting room on mid-mod furniture facing floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the spectacular mountain vista.
The wines Katherine poured for us there were much more typical of what I expect from Napa – especially the big, bold cabernets with colors that stain the glass and aromas that jump out right out of it.
It’s not my favorite style, but these wines are obviously well made.
Even I enjoyed the 2013 cab, which includes 14% petit verdot and 9% malbec. The nose has some leather and smoky notes (probably from the malbec), and wow, what a palate! Cherry and chocolate coat your tongue; tannins are big, but acid is moderate, so the wine has a creamy mouthfeel.
This isn’t a wine to pair with food – this wine is food!
Even my husband, who doesn’t like red wine (and when he does he likes pinot noir!) thought it was pretty great.
Day 2 – Sunday, Aug 31
I’d heard it could be busy in Napa this time of year, especially on the weekends, so I decided we should spend Sunday hiding out on Spring Mountain. We spent most of our time at Pride Mountain Vineyard, on the recommendation of many people in my tasting group back home. The experience did not disappoint.
Pride Barrel Samples
Pride offers what it calls a “progressive tasting”- instead of a tour followed by a tasting, the two are combined. There’s a new wine around every corner as you walk with a small group around the property and through the caves.
The most interesting part of the tour for me was the opportunity to compare two barrel samples of the same wine – 2015 single vineyard cab from the Rim Rock vineyard – that had been prepared slightly differently.
One had been left to sit on the grape skins, seeds, and stems (aka, mascerated) for more than double the amount of time as the other. Those solids are what give tannin to the wine, but surprisingly, the longer masceration sample had less tannin.
Our tour guide Paul, who was great fun and very well-informed, explained that was because the skins actually soften the wine after they’ve had time to decompose. Who knew! (I know, I know, many of you knew.)
The Wines at Pride
The finished wines we tried included a refreshingly lightly oaked 2013 chardonnay and several deeply colored reds – a 2014 syrah, a 2013 cab, and a 2013 merlot.
The merlot was my favorite, and it’s something of a flagship for Pride.
The first thing I smelled on that wine was not fruit – another surprise for Napa – but mushroom and even soy sauce. The fruit showed up in a big way when I tasted the wine, but the fact that the two sensations were so different made this a fascinating bottle for me.
A Perfect Picnic
When I imagined Napa, I envisioned sunny picnics of cheese and wine overlooking sweeping vineyard vistas. Add mountains in the background, and that was exactly our experience at Pride’s stunning picnic area, a short drive up the hill from the tasting room.
This picture says it all. It was the definition of idyllic.
Napa Discovery: Higher & Farther North = Warmer!
Napa’s climate is counterintuitive, at least to me.
It’s one of the few places I’ve been where it gets warmer as you go north and as you go up in elevation. That’s because the southern part of the county is closer to the San Pablo Bay, which keeps things cooler, and because the mountaintops rise above the fog that blankets much of the valley in the mornings.
The north-south divide explains a lot about the difference between wine made with grapes grown in northern and southern parts of the valley. Cool temperatures mean more acid; warm temperatures mean more fruity wines with higher alcohol.
The mountain effects are more complex. What I learned from Paul at Pride is that mountain grapes have thicker skins and smaller berries, but they also have the potential to get more sun. The sun ensures they ripen well, despite the cool nights that give the wine good acidity; the thick skins provide more tannin and color to the wine.
Napa Stereotype: Hordes of Tourists?
Perhaps my perceptions of “touristy” and “crowded” are a little skewed since I live in Orlando – you haven’t seen crowds until you’ve been to Disney World around Christmastime – but I saw very little evidence of either quality in Napa.
Admittedly, we didn’t go to many of the big open tasting rooms on Hwy 29, but apart from the front room at Montelena, and a few traffic delays in Calistoga and St. Helena, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of touristy hordes we’d been told to expect.