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Our first deep-strike infiltration of Napa Valley in the guise of this particular wry cadre of degenerates happened just last September. Ryan’s a good chap as is, but his occupation as a cunning wine monger and the connections that position conveys really made this trip a special one. I’m new to this here travel-for-decadence thing, and though my tastebuds are ever-opinionated and self-righteous, I got a good schooling on a beautiful day in the midst of this particular California fall.
Five of us piled into the van far earlier in the morning than I had hoped, taking Highway 37 northward to Oakville and St. Helena and then onto the golden strip of Highway 29 and its environs. It was Labor Day Weekend, and we thought it would be pretty packed along the Silverado Trail, but Ryan managed to finagle some really good audiences at a handful of exquisite wineries there and up on Howell Mountain.
If you can believe it, we hadn’t even started drinking yet. This is how we always look in the morning.
We wanted to start off a bit light, and after a brimming feast of delectable foodstuffs from Oakville Grocery, we meandered back-and-forth past Boswell more than a few times to finally find the snugly-nestled Benessere villa between the great, grape gauntlet of the Trail and 29. It was a lazy, warm Saturday at the lovely plot of succulent vineyards, and it was a pleasure to take in the surroundings and stroll the rows of lovely grape varietals before popping inside for our medicine.
I must say that I wasn’t too impressed with Benessere, being as there was just a simple, overly-branded foyer in which to stand, all of us clustered formally around a wooden counter, while a uniformed employee gave us a pretty hollow spiel about a trio of pleasant vintages. Tacky art hung on the walls, and the faux-Italian painted terra-cotta wall decor made the whole experience feel a bit manufactured. It was clear that the pourer was just a hire, and there was no inspiration or passion in his eyes about the product. Nevertheless, we tried a couple of fine Cabernets and a Zinfandel, and waved a quick goodbye to a gaggle of inebriated elderly ladies sitting in Benessere’s lovely entrance garden, sipping their sangre with small dogs lounging at their feet.
We then wound our way up Howell Mountain past Twomey and Aetna to the gorgeous spread of land owned by Ladera. Though it was a holiday weekend, not many folk ventured up the mountain to spelunk the fine vines there, and we were pleased to have proprietor Anne Stotesbery all to ourselves. Anne was extremely kind and patient with us, giving us a personal tour of the entire facility, a splendid converted and rebuilt 19th-century ranch-style villa.
When we were done playing with the equipment upstairs and sniffing the massive vats on the production floor below, Anne took us into the tunneled caves beneath the winery. The smell of wine caves is simply marvelous, and there were many occasions when I found myself weighing the option to dart off and hide away for weeks amidst the ripening barrels. Anne wouldn’t miss one cask, surely?
At long last, we came upon our quarry – the lovely and atmospheric tasting room right there in the bowels of the Ladera vaults. The anticipation in our group was brimming before we sampled four very excellent and disparate wines from their tasting selection. All were lovely, most especially the Lone Canyon Cabernet (nicknamed “The Cowboy”) and another from the Howell Mountain acreage, dubbed “The Gentleman”. Anne even thieved some of next year’s vintage right from a barrel so that we might be able to understand the patience and subtle attention to flavor that goes into the maturation process there.
Weaving back down the mountainside (because of the road, not the wine), we made a rush for Duckhorn’s new Paraduxx facility on the Silverado Trail. The place still smelled of paint and new furnishings, and the view of the vineyards from the huge windows in both tasting rooms really is a great experience. This facility had a very posh, corporate edge to it – a bit too formal, a bit too yuppie, but worth a look, regardless. Think weddings, bar mitzvahs, and public executions, all of them with style.
On nice wooden chairs, we sat at a long, boardroom-style table in a well-lit antechamber lined with Ikea shelving. The hip, young employee brought us some colorful literature and three wines in stemless Riedel glasses. The Paraduxx facility only sells blends (cuvées) of Zinfandel/Cabernet with various other grapes added in small percentages, and we had their 2000, 2001, and 2002 vintages in quick succession. Oldest is not necessarily the best, however, and I found the 2001 good enough to purchase a slightly-overpriced bottle, replete with postage-stamp-styled label (of a pair of duxx, get it?) I got the distinct feeling that we were rushed in and rushed out, the precocious employees cracking toothy smiles at the next gaggle of self-styled connoisseurs walking through the doors as we left. My thoughts? While Duckhorn continually puts out fine product, this particular facility is a bit too show, not enough go for my likings – a sharp contrast to the warmth and attention of Ladera. But the experience was still fun, and getting there so soon after its grand opening was a nice touch. No one was jaded yet!
Our final tasting of the day was a delightful excursion to Girard, winding up Sage Canyon and overlooking Lake Hennessey. This is a more remote part of the Napa viticultural areas that many people never get the change to explore, and I must say that’s a crying shame. The views from the top of Pritchard Hill are spectacular, and forty acres of Girard vines (some older than eighty years) lay in rows in every direction.
Though we arrived there fairly late in the day, we were greeted by a very friendly dog who barked madly to let the estate manager know we were thirsty. Steve Ross is a really interesting character, a self-made entrepreneur who spent years in France building other businesses. Now he’s enjoying his time high above Napa Valley, overseeing the production of some very nice wine, and making it a habit of bringing grins to the faces of the winery’s visitors. Girard also boasts some nice caves, and Steve took us down to once again fall in love with the smell of fermentation and the still air within the earth.
The estate’s tasting room also doubles as Steve’s office, and most certainly was my favorite space of the trip. We sat at a gorgeous carved wood table in a stone-built, cozy building with a wood-burning stove. We were treated to some local jazz from Steve’s personal collection and a long discussion about the winery and the tastes at hand. All in all, we sampled eight varietals, and this is where I found my true love – their 2004 Late Harvest Zinfandel. Only sold in the smaller 350ml bottles, this stuff is the nectar of the gods. Pulled out of the casks before the sugars have a chance to burn off, this Zin is as sweet as punch without the off-putting cloy of a regular dessert wine. Steve saved it for last, of course, and this was the one that got all the gasps and muffled squeals of pleasure. But the 2003 Old Vine Zin is also a treat, and I also brought a full-sized bottle of that home with me.
Girard can be a bit exclusive and they don’t do a lot of audiences in a given week, so make sure you mail them well in advance for a tasting – it’s absolutely worth the extra few miles. The views are spectacular and I found the wines there to have the greatest resonance from the terroir that the vineyard oozes. And we left staggering a bit, too, which is always good.
This great day finally ended with a quick, guerrilla operation at Dean & Deluca, where we nabbed some favorable cheeses (and I found a rare bottle of 2003 Miner Chardonnay), and then a lovely meal at Jeanty in St. Helena, where we sucked down snails and were accosted by a disgruntled waiter that anyone other than Ryan would have popped on the jaw. The man actually poured himself a glass of *our* wine, without even asking!
By the end of the journey, we had enjoyed no less than eighteen different varietals and vintages, and with bellies full and pleasure abound, the five of us headed back to Marin and San Francisco to sleep the whole thing off. Special thanks to Ryan, as always, who not only arranged all the excellent appointments and functioned as our personal tour guide, but also managed to waive all the tasting fees with his industry influence. Next stop, Turley Tuesday!