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 3 – Monday, Aug 1
We spent our first two days in Napa at wineries that were a little off the beaten path. I assumed the weekend crowds (which turned out not to be so large after all) would thin out on Monday and that we could safely venture into the heart of the valley, where wineries seem to dot every inch of the roads.
Frog’s Leap: Laid Back & Beautiful
Frog’s Leap in Rutherford sits between Hwy 29 – the main route through Napa Valley – and the nearby Silverado Trail. It’s close to the middle of everything, but somehow, it feels like a secluded farmhouse nestled in the middle of a garden in a quiet valley.
The tasting experience is one of the more relaxing ones in Napa. It’s not even called a tasting, in fact, but rather a flight. The implication is that you’re there to enjoy the wines, not to analyze them – though I couldn’t help doing a little of both.
Individual parties are seated at rustic wooden tables on the back porch of the elegant Vineyard House, overlooking an extensive vegetable garden and the mountains beyond.
Servers bring small plates of cheese and crackers and delicious preserves made from fruit grown onsite.
The wines are poured at a leisurely pace. The official flight includes four, but the staff were happy to pour several others from the collection as well.
I was surprised that one of my favorites was the 2014 chardonnay. I feel the same about California chardonnay as Frog’s Leap owner and winemaker John Williams does. He’s quoted on the winery’s website as saying:
“I don’t like most California Chardonnays. It seems the more highly rated they are, the less interest I have in them.”
Frog’s Leap’s chard is different, though. All the grapes are fermented in oak, but only 3% are aged in it. That means you actually get to taste the fruit, not just the oak – a refreshing change from those California oak-and-butter bombs that John and I aren’t so fond of.
I also enjoyed the 2015 rose. It’s made in the Provencal style and entirely from valdiguie grapes, which used to be widely planted in Napa but are rare nowadays.
Finally, the big 2014 Heritage red blend is a fascinating melange of lesser-known varietals – charbono (known in other parts of the world as bonarda), petite sirah, carignan, mataro, mondeuse, valdeguie, and a dash of riesling. Savory and very tasty.
Heitz: Free Tasting, Serious Wines
Heitz Wine Cellars sits right on Hwy 29 in St. Helena – talk about being in the middle of things! Its small tasting bar offers what I’m told is the last complimentary tasting in Napa. Despite those factors, there were only a handful of people there when I visited, adding to the mystery of the missing tourist hordes I wrote about in Part 1.
Heitz is most famous for cabernet – more on that in a minute – but it’s also known for an obscure Italian varietal called gringiolino. The vines came with the property when the Heitz family bought it in 1961. I tried the 2014 version. It’s very light and reminiscent of a Beaujolais nouveau, with notes of strawberry candy. It’s a little on the fruity side for me, but it would be a great pool wine, especially with a bit of a chill.
Then it was on to the cabs. I was thrilled to be able to try and compare two different single-vineyard library selections: the 2002 Trailside and the 1998 Martha’s Vineyard.
The Trailside Vineyard in Rutherford is warm and sunny; the famous Martha’s Vineyard gets more shade – it’s in the shadow of the Mayacamas foothills – and is surrounded by eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus comes through big time in the minty, herbaceous Martha’s Vineyard cab; the heat is evident in the dark cassis, black fruits, and high alcohol of the Trailside. It was a great lesson in terroir.
Mumm’s the Word (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
When we finished at Heitz, we had a little time before all the wineries and tasting rooms started closing up shop. I didn’t feel like any more big reds, and I noticed Mumm Napa was nearby. Really, who can say no to bubbles on a sunny day?
I know Mumm’s wines and drink them often, so I didn’t expect many surprises. I was wrong!
Our server on the tasting terrace brought us an array of six sparkling wines that aren’t widely distributed, as well as a few still ones.
On the sparkling side (pictured here from left to right), we first tried the Brut Prestige, the Brut Reserve Rose, and a demi-sec that gets some of its sweetness from Hawaiian sugar. Then came the more unusual wines: Mumm’s flagship DVX spends 6 years in the bottle before release (delicious); “Santana” is made for the Latin pop-rock singer of the same name; and the ruby colored Cuvee M Red is made of 100% pinot noir and sweetened with syrah syrup.
I loved many of these wines, others weren’t to my taste, but the overall experience was fascinating. It proved that this sparkling house has a much wider range and portfolio than I realized.
Plus, sipping bubbles on a pleasant terrace in the late afternoon sun is not a bad way to end a day of wine tasting!
Napa Stereotype: The Hard Sell
I didn’t go to Wine Country with the intention of buying a lot of wine or of joining a lot of wine clubs. My goal was simply to taste and experience and learn, and to get a good overview of the region.
I expected to have to repeat those sentences over and over again to tasting room employees and servers trying to sell me stuff. I wouldn’t have blamed them – I know they make commissions, and I don’t imagine their base pay is terribly high – but I was dreading that part of the experience.
With a couple of exceptions, the hard sell I anticipated did not materialize. That may have been partly because winery staff knew I might be writing about them … but I hope not. I hope it’s because they realize the hard sell diminishes the experience and might actually deter someone from purchasing their wines in the future.
Whatever the reason, I count it as yet another of the trip’s pleasant surprises.