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On "Unexpected Napa Valley Wines"

In 1968, the value of Napa County’s beef production was virtually identical to that of its grapes[1]. There were 1,336 productive acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, but 1,492 acres of Petite Sirah. Chardonnay grew on 364 acres while French Colombard and Chenin Blanc each covered twice as much land. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay combined accounted for just 14% of Napa’s wine grape plantings.

Today the picture is far different. Total vine acreage is four times greater. In 2013, Chardonnay represented 58% of Napa Valley’s white grape crush and Cabernet Sauvignon 55% of the red[2]. Petite Sirah was a mere 2%. Not a single ton of French Colombard was harvested.

Now, one might naturally assume Napa Valley wines made from obscure varieties, such as Grignolino and Tocai Friuliano, are a new fad. But, while their winemakers may enjoy offering non-standard wines, no Cabernet or Chardonnay vines were grubbed up to do so. Despite the valley’s massive transition, some “heritage” vines still exist in Napa Valley. Jon Bonné and Eric Asimov took wine writers on a largely historical tour with new wines made from old grapes in a seminar called Unexpected Napa Valley Wines at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers late last month.

Their Unexpected Napa Valley Wines and my thoughts on them

2012 AbrenteAbrente 2012 Albariño, Napa Valley
Some comments on the Mark Squires message board take the position that, since there’s good Albariño in Spain, making it in Napa Valley is stupid. I agree. And since there’s good Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, we should rip out all the Cabernet in Napa too. But, in the meantime, Michael Havens and Morgan Twain-Peterson are making this full-bodied, Carneros Albariño with long-lasting flavors of tropical fruit, tangy peach and white flowers. The palate weight is balanced by prominent acidity and grippy texture. It’s very nice. Try it with Chicken Koorma. Highly Recommended. About $23.

I should point out here that Albariño is not a blast from Napa's past. It was introduced to Napa Valley by Michael Havens himself in the late 1990's[3]. He also led the effort to get it offically approved by the TTB as a legal varietal in the U.S. His 2000 release was this country's first commercial Albariño wine. Now the grape grows in a variety of California AVAs.

Chappellet Vineyards & Winery 2012 Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley
There are just 22 acres of Chenin Blanc left in Napa Valley, a mere 2% of 1982’s sum. Good riddance, say some, since Chenin in California has mostly been associated with high-volume, nondescript whites from the Central Valley. But that’s got nothing to do with varietal releases from serious wineries in Napa Valley.

There was Chenin in the vineyard when the Chappellets purchased their property back in the 1960’s. The vineyard was replanted a decade ago, but a combination of French oak, stainless barrels and concrete egg add complexity to the wine. It’s off-dry, mouth-filling and minerally with a core of juicy, yet under-ripe stone fruit.It won't make you forget top-quality Vouvray but it’s a good wine. Served chilled with hot, crispy arancini. Recommended. $32

Massican 2012 White Blend, Annia, Napa Valley
If you want to start throwing “hipster” around, I guess this would be the time. Massican’s Dan Petroski went to Columbia, has lived in Brooklyn and worked in publishing before chucking it all to to study winemaking in Italy. Now in Napa Valley, he’s making wines to suit his Friuli-loving palate. On the other hand, “hipster” doesn’t describe wine (or anything) very well. So let’s scrap that and talk about the wine.

The blend is 46% Ribolla Gialla from Oak Knoll and Russian River Valley, 36% Tocai Friuliano from Chiles Valley and 18% Chardonnay from Carneros. The nose and palate are mineral-laden and delicately fruity with taut apple and stone fruit. Medium-bodied with juicy acid and just 12.7%, I’d enjoy this wine with linguine alle vongole, a white pizza or all by itself on a warm day. Highly Recommended. About $28.

Matthiasson 2011 White Wine Blend, Napa Valley Steve Matthiasson’s NapItal white also features Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friuliano but pairs them with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon instead of Chardonnay. The nose offers subtle jasmine perfume along with mineral notes and a mix of slightly tart tropical fruits that carry through in the mouth. The palate is fresh, medium+ in body and smooth, yet grippy. This wine would be perfect with the grilled octopus burrito from La Taquiza (next to the Starbucks on Redwood Rd. in Napa). Highly Recommended+. $40.

Heitz Wine Cellars 2012 Grignolino, Napa Valley
This unassuming wine has been a focal point for the scorn of Wine Advocate writers and their supporters this week. Lisa Perotti-Brown complained that the wine looked more like a rosé than a red, but then that’s the varietally correct appearance for Grignolino. One person dismissed the wine with an irrelevance, quoting Oz Clarke’s views on the variety in Italy. Others have totally missed the point that this is not a new grape to Napa.

Grignolino was already resident in “The One and Only Vineyard” when Joe Heitz bought it in 1961. It won’t be confused with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and that’s just fine in my book. It’s a $19, medium-bodied red wine with light, yet grippy, tannins, generous acidity and just 12.5% alcohol. The nose is fresh and lively, reminiscent of rose petals, purple flowers and huckleberry pie. Tart berry flavors and juiciness are long-lasting in the mouth. Lisa Perotti-Brown likened it to an average Gamay. If “average” equates to 88 points or so, I agree. It’s a versatile lunch wine, right for everything from steak tartare, or a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce, to a bowl of cioppino. Recommended.

Lagier-Meredith 2011 Syrah, Mount Veeder
Syrah might be considered unexpected in Napa not because it’s still left from the old days but because someone was crazy enough to plant some recently. There was none at all in 1968’s Napa Valley. The other unexpected thing about this wine is that, owing to the Mount Veeder growing location, it’s got a disciplined, cool-climate personality.

I found aromas and flavors of thick-skinned black plums, mountain blackberries, licorice, earth and white pepper. Body is medium+ with firm, lightly chalky tannins and acidity that peeks through. This is a very enjoyable wine now—decant it or braise a lamb shank—but will soften and gain delicious complexity for at least a decade in the cellar. Very Highly Recommended. $48

Turley Wine Cellars 2011 Petite Sirah Library Vineyard, Napa Valley
Despite it’s drop to 2% of red crush, Petite Sirah isn’t exactly unexpected in Napa Valley. Several of the other grapes in this complicated, mixed black (and white) blend are though. They include Mission, Peloursin, Grand Noir (huh?), Cinsault, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscadelle, Burger and Green Hungarian. That’s seriously old school.

I found this wine’s nose almost as opaque as its color during the tasting, but dense purple fruit and a hint of spice showed through. The body is medium+ with fine, very grippy tannins and plenty of acidity offsetting zesty dark berries and spice. This is your grandfather’s Petite Sirah and will reward cellaring. Highly Recommended+. $70

Corison 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Okay. There’s nothing unexpected about a Corison Cabernet Sauvignon at tasting presented by Jon Bonné. (Welcome, yes. Unexpected, no.) It would, however, have surprised any writers who expect all wines of that variety from Napa Valley to be voluptuous studies in ripe cherry, black currant and mocha. Visitors from Bordeaux might also wonder when Napa started bottling St. Julien juice.

The nose is complex but dignified. Dry black currant is surrounded by an elegant range of spice, mineral and wood aromas which are indivdually distinct but also combine to smell something like the center drawer of an antique wooden desk. The palate is nearly full-bodied with firm tannins of light chalk but balancing acidity. Flavors include chewy blackberry, violets, pencil lead and crushed gravel. Very Highly Recommended. $80

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

  1. Annual Crop Report Gross Values 1969, Napa County  ↩

  2. Preliminary Grape Crush 2013, NASS-USDA  ↩

  3. Napa Valley Wine Library Report, Summer 2005  ↩

Get ready for the Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting in SF on Aug 23

While much of the sheer volume of California wine is produced by very large corporate wineries, the vast majority of wineries in the state are family owned. It is those small, unique wineries that produce most of the best wines this country has to offer.

It isn’t always easy to find many of the wines for tasting though. Production quantities tend to be low and distribution limited. Some of the best small wineries don’t even have tasting rooms. So, while family wineries thrive on selling wine direct to consumer it’s often hard for consumers to get that essential first introduction to a wine.

The Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco is perhaps the best chance to taste a multitude of these special wines. This year, on Sunday, August 23, there will be about 360 small wineries offering tastes. With most of the wineries providing samples of multiple wines, the variety will be staggering. As will some of the tasters.

16 North Coast Rhones to Try and a Toothsome #WineChat

rhone rangers logo

Join Randall Grahm, David White, Meg Houston Maker, Melanie Ofenloch, Tina Spina Morey, Jameson Fink, Elaine Brown, William Allen and me for a live #WineChat at 6pm Pacific on Wednesday, April 2. We’ll be tasting wines from Bonny Doon, Cornerstone Cellars, Kieran Robinson, Tablas Creek and Two Shepherds.

Sign up to tune in here. It’ll be a fun, informative warm up for the upcoming Weekend Celebration of American Rhones.

Last Sunday, March 23, I headed up to Yountville for the North Coast Chapter Rhone Rangers tasting. The quality of the wines made the lengthy drive more than worthwhile. There were some wineries who’d also been at the Oakland tasting. I didn’t re-taste wines from that event. Here are the wines that made the top of my list Sunday in the order I tasted them:

2012 Miner “Iliad” White Blend
It’s soft on the nose with pear, apple blossom and a hint of banana. The palate is full-bodied and silky. Flavors include white flowers, vanilla, peach and pear. Highly Recommended

2013 Cornerstone “Corallina” Rosé
A pale-salmon rosé of Oak Knoll Syrah picked specifically to make this wine. The nose engages with fresh cut strawberries, flowers, vanilla and cantaloupe. Medium+ body and creamy, then lightly silky in the mouth, it offers peach blossom and mineral flavors. Highly Recommended.

2013 Two Shepherds Grenache Gris Gibson Ranch, Mendocino
Pretty in pink with light aromas of blood orange, rose petal and mineral. Flavors of cherry water, mineral and peach appear in the juicy palate. Highly Recommended.

2012 Donelan Roussanne/Viognier
Native yeast fermented and aged 10 months in neutral barriques and puncheons, this creamy wine shows white flowers, chervil, and waxy peach. It’s gently tangy on the palate with a mineral finish. Highly Recommended.

2013 Petrichor Rosé
A small production, 50–50 blend of Syrah and Grenache that’s pastel pink in the glass and smells of just strawberry cake crumb, spice and cream. It’s medium-bodied with very fine grip and lingering juiciness. Highly Recommended.

2013 Kale Rosé
68% whole-cluster pressed Grenache and 32% saignée Syrah. A fresh, spicy nose of passionfruit and grapefruit lead to a creamy palate with medium+ body and intriguing flavors that remind me of Pimms Cup with cucumber. Refreshing and Highly Recommended.

2010 Prospect 772 “The Brawler” Syrah
Dense, meaty aromatics of earth, spiced game and black cherry. The palate is just barely medium+ in weight but is packed with the flavors above, plus black pepper. Tannins are moderate and fine-grained, the finish long. Highly Recommended.

2010 Kieran Robinson Vivio Vineyard Syrah, Bennett Valley
Complex on the nose with five spice, resin, and dark berries of mixed ripeness. These follow through on the tangy palate. Medium to medium+ body with fine tannins. Just 12.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2010 Maclaren Judge Family Vineyards Syrah, Bennett Valley
Earthy blackberry, spice and espresso flavors and a medium+ bodied palate with chalk. Only 12.7% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Maclaren Stagecoach Vineyards Syrah, Napa Valley
Black pepper, five spice and briary blackberry on the nose and palate. Medium+ body with fine, grippy chalk. Highly Recommended.

2006 Barrett Vineyards Syrah
Medium+ body and fresh. Flavors of forest floor, plum and spice. Lightly chalky tannins. Highly Recommended.

2010 La Sirena Le Barrettage Blend Calistoga AVA
This nod to the Northern Rhone’s Hermitage region is opaque in the glass with intense aromas of dark spice, earth, black fruit, licorice and cherry. Approaching full body. Fine tannins, lovely balance. Highly Recommended+.

2011 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine Sonoma County
Lithe but full-flavored with spice and a blend of red and black fruit. Fine, powdery tannins provide a very nice mouthfeel. Highly Recommended.

2011 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill
Dark fruit, spice and a grind of black pepper. Medium to medium+ body with tannins of fine powder and chalk. Highly Recommended.

2011 Petrichor Les Trois
Opaque, masculine and funk forward. Rich aromas and flavors of earth, iron filings and animal. Medium+ body, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Very Highly Recommended.

2011 Kale Kick Ranch Cuvée
A co-fermented blend of 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache. Slightly earth red and black cherries on the nose with milk chocolate. Medium+ body and tannins (fine grain and chalk). Highly Recommended+.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Delicious Bites and Sips from the ZAP Epicuria Food and Wine Pairing Evening

When sommeliers talk about wines that pair well with food, Zinfandel doesn’t usually make the top ten list. Nonetheless, there are many foods for which it’s a great match.

Each year at the ZAP! festival, there is an evening devoted to showcasing how Zinfandel goes with food. Scores of wineries pour one wine each. Each winery is teamed up with a restaurant whose chef prepares a dish to go with that wine. Attendees wander from table to table, trying the combinations.

This year’s pairing event, dubbed Epicuria, was the best I’ve attended. The quality of the wines was very high. The food was consistently good. There were also some truly excellent dishes — not an easy feat to pull off for hundreds of people in an exhibition hall. And there were a few revelatory pairings.

Fried foods are often served with sauce that adds a counterpoint of tangy sweetness: ketchup with french fries, remoulade with crab cakes or honey-mustard with chicken fingers. Paul’s Paella of Alameda served up deep fried balls of paella, sans sauce. Very similar to arancini, they were crisp on the outside but soft and almost creamy on the inside. With R & B Cellars 2009 Zydeco Napa Valley Zinfandel to sip on, the sauce wasn’t missed.


When matching wine with food, people usually dwell on the main protein. Often the sauce is more important though. Swan Oyster Depot [no relation] used that principle to make a dish which was simple, yet a brilliant pairing. It is also something you might easily make at home: shrimp cocktail. Small, pink bay shrimp were served in a cup with a generous dollop of cocktail sauce dosed with plenty of horseradish. The sauce was an excellent foil for the briny shrimp. The slightly jammy 2010 Peach Canyon Especial Estate Zinfandel from Paso Robles soothed my mouth after the horseradish and readied me for another bite. [For something in a similar vein, consider Zinfandel with cioppino.]

My favorite plate of the evening was from Rose Pistola. It won a James Beard award for best new restaurant upon opening in 1996. The cuisine is inspired by the food of Liguria, a region on the northwestern coast of Italy. [Trivia: Rose Pistola is located on Columbus Avenue. The street is named for Christopher Columbus who was born in Genoa, which is within Liguria.]

Rose Pistola’s dish was black truffle and ricotta ravioli with golden raisins, orange zest and delicately-browned butter. Never before have I been tempted to lick a paper plate. It was paired with the 2009 Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure Estate Zinfandel from Napa Valley.


This Storybook Mountain wine tells an interesting tale, but doesn’t shout. Complex and textured, it offers delectable berry fruit adorned by a range of spice, mineral and oak derived notes. A splash of Viognier, unusual for Zinfandel blends, contributes white floral notes and expands the spice box. In the pairing, black truffle and warm butter played off the earth in the wine, the orange zest danced on the berries and picked up the Viognier spice and flowers. Meanwhile, the fruit were a natural pairing for the ricotta cheese and provided a clean finish.

One of the best pairings for Zinfandel is braised meat. Tender, slow cooked beef or pork have a softness of texture that matches up well with the softness of some Zins. So do the deep flavors instilled by braising liquid which often includes a red wine reduction.

One of my favorite bites was from Componere Fine Catering. They braised and finely shredded pork cheek, made it into small patties and then pan-fried them until crispy. Resting on a pillow of smoked mashed potatoes, they were garnished with spicy pickled fennel. Mauritson’s 2009 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel added a punch of ripe dark fruit, making a complete dish: savory, sour, salty and fruity.


Pican, an Oakland restaurant offering cuisine with a Southern accent, took braised pork in a different direction. They smoked a Berkshire pig before braising it in an intricately-flavored molé sauce of peanuts, chiles, Coca-Cola and chocolate. It was served hot in cup on creamy grits elevated with black pepper. The dish echoed the attributes of Carol Shelton’s Old Vine Zinfandels, rich in texture and flavor with both sweetness and a spicy kick.


Blue cheese is a tough food to pair. It’s intense, tangy flavors and saltiness overwhelm most wines, be they red or white. A boldly fruity wine with noticeable sweetness and only moderate oak is called for. Many people surrender and grab a bottle of Port. Zinfandel can work though and allows you to move from a meat course into cheeses without changing wines and swapping glasses.

Cuvee Napa prepared tasty truffles with a core of Shaft Creamery’s Elies Vintage Blue Cheese rolled in crushed black walnuts from Mendocino. It was a powerful bite: mouth-coating and strongly flavorful. The 2008 Saddelback Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel harmonized and cleansed the palate.


Good Zinfandel is an excellent match for food. It can provide a fruity contrast or spicy accent. It will cut through oily and creamy dishes or act in place of a zesty sauce. The right Zinfandel can take you all the way through a meal, from fried hors d’oeuvres on to a seafood course, a meaty main and then the cheese. Just save some for dessert.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

New White Wines and Rosés from Rutherford's Day in the Dust

Last Wednesday afternoon, the Rutherford Dust Society held their annual tasting for trade and media at Inglenook. Roughly 40 wineries were represented. I tasted 54+ wines (in addition to those from the morning session which I describe here). That article also includes a summary of the 2011 vintage overall.

Most of the wines offered at the tasting were red. However, there were some very compelling white and rosés too. I’ve dedicated this article to those wines, so they don’t get lost in the Cabernet shuffle.

Rutherford White and Rosé New Releases

Alpha Omega Sauvignon Blanc “1155” Napa Valley 2013, ~$38
Sauvignon Blanc and 4% Semillon, all estate-grown in Rutherford, were fermented in French oak barrels. Fresh, summery flavors of tart peach and dry grass are coupled with enjoyably grippy texture and freshness. Recommended

El Molino Chardonnay Rutherford 2012, $60 - 856 cases
White peach and beautiful floral notes of honeysuckle and pikake with some oak in the background. Very pretty. Highly Recommended

Elizabeth Spencer Chardonnay Rutherford 2012, $45 - 300 cases
Aromas and flavors of green apple skin, fresh herb and under ripe peach with a fresh palate. Recommended

Fleury Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2012, $50
Fermentation and aging was 50% stainless steel, 50% new French oak. This is a boldly tropical wine with passionfruit, pineapple and white flower aromatics. Medium-plus body and the flavor of piña colada on the palate. Recommended

Honig Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2012, $28
Salty lemon-lime aromas with grapefruit, peppery spice and herb on the palate. Medium-plus body and very fresh. Aged in French oak, 40% new. 10% Semillon, 2% Muscat. Highly Recommended

Long Meadow Ranch Winery Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, $20
Salty lime pith, passionfruit, melon rind and herb aromas join with loads of grapefruit on the palate. Fresh, long and intense. Highly Recommended

Conspire Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, $28 - 267 cases
Welcome to Sancerre! Intensely aromatic with passionfruit, grapefruit, salty minerality and pipi du chat. Body is a light medium-plus and the finish very long. 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Sauvignon Musque. Conspire is a sub-brand of Amy Aiken's Meander wines. Highly Recommended

Provenance Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, ~$23
Fresh, tasty and softened ever so slightly by 5% oak (new French). Peach blossom, guava and spice. Recommended

Provenance Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford Estate 2013, ~$29
30% usage of new French oak lends added richness to the palate of this estate wine. White peach, sweet citrus and spice. Best to let this wine breathe a good while or splash it into a decanter. Highly Recommended

Staglin Chardonnay Rutherford Estate 2012, $75
A gorgeous Chardonnay with green and yellow apples and pretty floral spice on the nose and creamy palate. Very Highly Recommended

Talahalusi Vineyards Roussanne Rutherford 2012
First things first: Talahalusi is the name the local Wappo tribe had for what we know as Napa Valley. There’s 5% Picpoul Blanc blended into this full-bodied Roussanne. It’s juicy and long with flavors of kiwi and dry grass. Recommended

Tres Sabores Rosé Rutherford “Ingrid and Julia” 2013, $24
Forget that this an unlikely dry rosé, made from Zinfandel (85%) and Petite Sirah (15%). Just enjoy the pale pink color, delicious flavors of nectarine and fresh berries in sweet cream and the refreshing, long-lasting palate. Highly Recommended


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.