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Napa: The Magnificent Seven

by John W N Holmes, 2008

Having lived in the States for nearly seven years now, I realised it was time to update my 2003 article, to give a better picture of the quality of wines over here. Fortuitously, we had just spent a week in the Napa Valley, so what better kick start could I ask for? As for 'The Magnificent Seven,' read on...

The Napa Valley has to be one of the more beautiful parts of California with its rolling hills, glorious weather and of course its vast selection of vineyards. We divided the week into regions, and the forward planning really paid off. We managed to visit between four and six vineyards per day, and that was probably an optimal amount to have enough time without rushing. We frequently came across people who had already visited six vineyards by the time we had reached midday. In summary for anyone wanting to visit Napa, my advice would be:

At the end of this article I summarise the wines and given my view on the best reds, whites and best value wines. The points don't represent any "Parkeresque" system but are mainly my relative markings. There was not a single wine which was undrinkable: some were just a lot better than others. The vineyards

Day One

On the way to the hotel we passed Sebastiani, and dropped in to taste some of their wines. I liked their style and especially the Cherryblock Reserve which at $75 was a great blockbuster of a Cabernet that should cellar well. I even liked their Merlot (!) which was exceptional value at only $24.

Day Two

First out of the trap next day was Spottswoode, a delightful family owned vineyard about half a mile from the main road. The tasting room was well prepared, however we did all of our tasting outside which seemed strange. The first wine was their new 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and this got us off to a bad start. The wine was unbalanced and too acidic, leaving a curling of the tongue in its wake. It is strange they elected to produce this wine, when their forte is Cabernet Sauvignon, but apparently the winemaker likes Sauvignon Blanc. The tour took us around the gardens of the house, which although very beautiful didn't really allow time for serious tasting.
  

Without doubt their strength was the Cabernet, and the 2004 Estate Cabernet was very good, if a little overpriced at $130. Dark black fruit and relatively soft tannins produced a balanced wine.


   We then moved on to Joseph Phelps which I had been looking forward to as their Insignia is one of the flagships of Napa. The setting was really fantastic, with great views and a well organised tasting. We elected to do the Terrace Tasting as time was limited and we didn't want to attend the optional seminars. The Fogdog chardonnay (from the coastal vineyards owned by Phelps) was particularly pleasing and, at $40, won't break the bank.

I noted a mineral undertone and a much lighter style than that normally offered in Napa. The Pinot however was less impressive with a lack of length and somewhat 'abbreviated' taste. It was noticeably strawberry as a base but not as complex as others in Napa. One notable wine was the Le Mistral Rhone blend, which was excellent value at $40. It equalled the Insignia in many respects but at 1/5th of the cost. The 2004 Insignia, although still young, was full bodied and well structured. It did however lack the complexity I would look to in a $200 wine. A better value is the little known Innesfree Cabernet from Phelps which is the equivalent of the second wine at $25.

Quintessa's caves are impressive, having been hewn out of solid rock to store over 3000 barrels in perfect conditions. They only produce one wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenere. It really is a great wine, with primary red fruit on the nose, blueberries, cassis, ripe tannins and dark fruits, oak & chocolate. This was the complexity I sought at Phelps, and at $130 it presents better value than Insignia. They also let us taste a '93 version of the wine - it's a pity it's not available as it had mellowed into a true US Cabernet with deep dark fruit.

The final vineyard of the day was a 'drop-in' at Heitz Cellars. We were actually very disappointed. None of the wines really impressed and the host was not really interested in discussing the wines or seeing what our tastes were.

  

I suppose it was the end of a long day, but it left us with a bad impression. The best wine was the Trailside Cabernet, but at $85 it was overpriced for what was only an average wine.

Day Three

The next day started early with what was promised to be the highlight, Cakebread. I'd always liked their Cabernet wine and was looking forward to trying their other offerings. We were not to be disappointed. After a short tour we were led to a comfortable tasting room with our guide who talked us professionally through the wines. Best of the bunch was the 04 Cabernet and the Sauvignon Blanc. The 04 Cabernet is classic, deep USA Cabernet with great black fruits (blackberries, ripe cherries and a hint of leather).
  

The beautiful Sauvignon was classic gooseberries and s traw with a hint of old world mineral aftertaste. The only black mark was the poor retail area, which I hope was a temporary setup as it reminded me of a garage sale!


   Nickel and Nickel was an appointment-only stop and we were ushered into a drawing room and given a nice glass of the 05 Chardonnay. There was a short introduction then we set off into the courtyard where a long time was spent extolling the virtues of barn building and how many millions they have spend restoring their barn (left). Mmmmm wonder where the millions came from - we soon found out! The tasting room was excellent and the array of wines excellent. What came across was the almost fanatical attention to producing eclectic wines all with different flavours, but none which were truly complex. I found the wines overall to be somewhat shallow and one dimensional.

I guess this comes from the single grape single vineyard style. Ironically their best wine, in my opinion, was what they called Lightning Strike, a wine that was blended accidentally. My pencil written note for this was "great error should do it more often"!

You can't visit Napa without noticing the impressive Opus One landmark. An amazing structure combining classic architecture with ultra modern form. The tasting room was austere and there were only one wine to taste at $30 a glass. As this was the 03 vintage it seemed folly to taste it so young. We had already tasted this fairly recently and I rated it at a 92 poina. It is a solid cabernet with ripe cherries and blackcurrants. Instead we purchased a case of Overture, their second wine which at $75 remains good.
  

We ended the day at Turnbull, which is a smaller vineyard close to the famous three. The tasting room was compact and the hostess was knowledgeable and friendly. The wines were good solid Napa wines; nothing exceptional, but I'd be happy to serve them at any dinner party. Our favourite was the Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc which had a remarkable peachy overtone mixed with honey. They also let us taste an experimental Cabernet Franc which was very good but as yet unreleased.

The drop in for the day was Peju, a chateau style building in the same areas as Opus, Cakebread and Turnbull. The wine tasting room was impressive, not so the host who was somewhat forceful and condescending to start off with. The tasting room was popular and the wines were OK. The merlot was somewhat flat and uninspiring and the best of the tasting was the 06 Chardonnay.

Day Four

Chimney Rock was the starting place for day three, what better way to start the morning with such sumptuous wines. Although all around the $100 mark, they were pure quality productions. The 01 Cabernet was a delight, full of dark fruit and toasted cherries. It was balanced and will benefit from further cellaring. It got one of highest marks of the week for $80, and compared to others at similar prices it was a head and shoulders winner.

The next stop was one of the cult favourites in Napa due to the idiosyncrasy of the tasting style of Del Dotto. You embark on a tour involving tasting about 16 wines direct from the barrel, no mean feat. Our host was Damien who had tasted with us at Nickel and Nickel. He was a great host and very competent.

The tour however, I felt was designed to sell volumes rather than quality and only one or two of the 16 were worth the relatively high prices. My favourite was the 9 Oaks, a unique Cabernet matured in barrels made from 9 different oak trees. The locals call this vineyard 'Del Blotto', and if we had swallowed all 16 wines I can see why.

  

We next had a drop in right next door at Clos du Val. It was interesting to see how much quality control and winemaking skills can change the quality and taste of wines. These neighbours produced a contrasting style, and come a distinct second to Chimney Rock. The only wine worth mentioning was the 2001 Cabernet Reserve, but at $95 I would recommend going next door.

Day Five

The final day started at Cliff Lede which was recommended to us. It proved to be a good recommendation as we found a delightful Champagne Style (Diva) wine which at $40 was more in keeping with the European Brut style: nutty autolysis and yeasty flavour favoured. This style is hard to find in Napa, as most Sparking Wine is remarkably sweet despite having the Brut label. The host was efficient and the tasting room really good. I also noted the 04 Stagecoach Cabernet.
  

We longed for a quality Pinot, and were not disappointed in Etude. Unfortunately when we arrived they were expecting a bus load of wine Journalists and we got shunted off into reception to do a less formal tasting. It didn't however detract from their great Temblar Pinot Noir. A full bodied Pinot with loads of strawberries and cherries in a classic US Pinot Style. At $60 it was well priced and should cellar well. The cheaper Carneros Pinot at $40 was one of our top 5 value wines. One low point however was their Pinot Rose, one has to ask why, but at $20 it won't break the bank for the BBQ.


   Jessup Cellars has a small retail shop in the old part of Napa and was a real treat. The tasting room was good and the host very knowledgeable and reacted well to our tastes and preferences. The two wines which stood out as excellent were the 02 Cabernet and the 96 Zinfandel.

The Cabernet is a solid, balanced wine with a hint of mint on the nose but full of dark red fruit ($55) and the Zinfandel ($55) was at its peak, with spicy but mellow tannins structured with blackberries. I was told I bought the last case unfortunately!


Acacia was next and this was a bit of a disappointment. The tasting was held in the fermenting room and the smell was almost overpowering which detracted from the tasting. Crude wooden tables and an over enthusiastic host didn't help. The wines were average and rarely reached the peaks we had expected. The best wine was the 05 Beckstoffe Pinot although this was overpriced at $85.

Finally we had saved the best value till last. In the centre of Napa there is the Napa Wine Merchants which hosts Gustavo Thrace. I had tried one of their wines before coming to Napa and was keen to try more of their range as they offer incredible value. The 03 Cabernet was really very good and at only $38 got the 'best value red' award of the trip. Coupled with the discount offered for joining their wine club, the price including shipping came down to just over $30 a bottle.

Summing Up

In summary, Napa has so many varied and beautiful wines. We only scratched the surface although we tasted over 100 wines. My views here are, as ever, based on personal tastes and people may disagree or contest some of the marks. Just bear in mind that this great hobby of ours is all about opinions and the ability to share those opinions without recrimination. Enjoy the wines and soak up the Napa experience, it was a fantastic week and thoroughly recommended for all oenophiles of all levels of experience.

go to part II The Magnificent Seven revealed, plus full notes and scores



  Before leaving for the States, John Holmes had worked in the wine retailing sector for about 10 years with his part-time business, Classic Wines. John and his wife Heather moved to the USA early in the millennium and are currently based in Texas, where John works in the oil industry. He still finds some time to indulge in his passion for wines, and in this special update report for wine-pages, gives his own, personal views on wines tasted on a trip through Napa, naming his 'Magnificent Seven' top wines of the trip.


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