Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Nurse the Hate: Napa Valley

I just returned from Napa Valley after a long weekend of extensive "wine tasting". Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but Napa has really moved from a place showcasing artisan wines to a bit of an upscale tourist trap. To those of you that have never traveled there, Napa Valley is a stretch of land between four small towns that houses a couple hundred wineries. These can vary in size from Robert Mondavi (a few million cases produced) to El Molino (a couple thousand cases produced). The idea used to be for wineries to create a simple tasting room to enable would be consumers to try their wines, and hopefully purchase some on the way to becoming long time brand loyalists. Tastings were free, or may be $5.00 for five wines (that would be redeemable upon a purchase at the winery). Things have changed....

Napa has now become a real pissing contest between the mighty rulers of American business owners. You truly have not made it in society until you have your own extravagant winery and high scoring/high priced wine. What could be more immortal (and egotistical) than to have consumers pay $100 a bottle to drink your name (and symbolically consume your blood or self)? What better way to stick it up the ass of your buddies at the country club than to serve a pompous sounding wine with your name on it? Here's a few red wine cabernet blend names currently available (and I'm not making these up). Dominus...Etude...Quintessa...Rubicon...Apadana...HaLo...

Dude, it's fermented grape juice. And you've been making wine for 15 minutes.

Many of these wineries are now engaged in creating an economy not based on quality, but rather of conspicuous consumption. "Hey, if it's $135 a bottle and $15 to even try the wine, it's gotta be good! Sure, they only have two vintages under their belt, but that high profile wine consultant knows what he's doing, right? He must have even spent a couple days at the vineyard!" In the world of fine wine, everyone wants to be at the top. No one wants to be known as the good value bottling. Like everything else, the key is to know where to go to avoid the rubes.

Take a drive up the twisting dangerous Spring Mountain Rd. If you know where to look (and have an appointment), you can pay a visit to the cranky Smith Brothers at Smith Madrone. In 1971, these two iconoclasts reclaimed part of the mountainside that had been a vineyard in the late 1800s. They make a chewy mountain Cabernet, a fabulous chardonnay, and a Riesling just because they feel like it. Cantankerous, gruff, smart, and doing what they damn well please since 1971. These are my kind of guys. They don't care about the current fashion, the wine press, the hip restaurant wine lists of the moment, or the denizens of the trendy shops in the valley below. They're making wine the way they like it, because that's what they do. They don't make a lot of it. They don't charge too much for it (though they could, and probably get away with it).

We stopped up there (with an appointment I might add) and Charles was nice enough to pour us their Cabernet and Riesling while he continued to press the freshly harvested chardonnay grapes from the morning's pass through the vineyard. There's no better way to spend an hour than to talk to a couple crotchety guys with a dry sense of humor about their wine, the sudden incomprehensible appeal of gruner veltliner, tourists, and shooting guns. I don't know how much longer they'll be able to keep at it up there, but as long as they do, I'm on board. If you get the chance, pay them a visit and buy some wine. But for God's sake, call first. They might be busy.

Here's a quick list of other highly recommended wines from this trip off the top of my head....

Kuleto Estates Zin and Syrah: Confident wines with pure expressions of fruit. I think they managed to capture the spirit of the place they were from, or as the French say, the terroir. If these wines were a band, they would be The Tailgators.

Arrowood Estates: Every one of the wines in this portfolio was excellent. They have an elegance and restraint that should not be first misunderstood for lack of gumption. I especially liked the Viognier, both Syrahs (though the Saralee's Vineyard was a bit more exotic), and a remarkable cabernet value. If these wines were a band, they'd be the Kinks circa 1966-68 .

Brown Family: I only had the zinfandel at dinner at Christine's Backstreet Kitchen, but it was really great. There was a real enthusiam in the bottle that I would compare to The Dictators "Go Girl Crazy".

Rudd Estates: Top to bottom these are terrific wines that you can tell no expense was spared in the production. The chardonnay may be a bit oaky for some, but the fruit gives you a strong enough backbone for it. The two estate Cabernet are big, complex, and worth the money. I'd recommend going with the $60 bottling over the $100 one as the differences in quality is certainly not worth the $40. The wines are kind of snooty, but in a Paris Hilton bang-you-in-the-limo kind of way. Is that like a Roxy Music record? I dunno, I was never a fan. But it's what I think Roxy Music is like.

Chateau St Jean: I want to hate this winery since it was sold to beverage conglomerate Fosters, but I'll be damned if the wines aren't top notch. If you have to buy a bottle of white wine to take to someones house for dinner, pick up their Fume Blanc (a fancy way of saying Sauvignon Blanc aged in wood barrels). It's $12 and it's great. You literally can't go wrong with any of their wines. We picked up a mix case on the cheap and shipped it home. Even if you can't remember anything about wine, remember this producer and you'll be fine. It'll save you from looking like a jackass at some point. These wines are mass appeal and still really good like the Stones "Some Girls" record.

Plumpjack: This is another winery I want to hate because they're just so goddamn cute and faux artsy. The problem is that the wines are fabulous. If I had to drink one chardonnay from Napa, it would be their Reserve. (Please note, this claim does not include Sonoma, France, etc...) The Cabernet is gigantic, complex, fruity, and very adult. The Syrah is a friggin pistol. These wines are like Camper Van Beethoven. Just when you want to get pissed because they are being sophomore art students, they drop a monster song on you.

Gambling Note: I am very pleased at myself for getting on Toronto at Boston vs Schilling. At +145, I made up for a huge lapse in judgement when I bet on the Braves this weekend. I am loving Penn State over Notre Dame this weekend. I do not believe we have yet to grasp how bad Notre Dame is this year. This is a revenge game for Penn State after they got spanked by the Irish last year at South Bend. Also, I love the over on the Middle Tenn State/Louisville game on TH night. If Midd Tenn State gave up 27 to Florida International, how are they going to stop Louisville? I also like the under in the NO/Indy game. This time of year the offenses aren't clicking at 100% yet. Plus, everyone I talk to think it's going way over. Conclusion? The public is wrong again, and you can make some scratch on the under.


At September 10, 2007 at 9:08:00 AM EDT , Blogger Aaron said...

Boy o'boy...Have we gone upscale on this blog or what. I feel closer to the country club than ever. Can I sniff the cork

At September 10, 2007 at 11:28:00 PM EDT , Blogger Dave L. said...

Great timimg for a Napa post. I have some good friends going there this weekend. I think they will appreciate your unique tourist tips.

At September 11, 2007 at 10:58:00 PM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...

I'll give you something to sniff wiseass!


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