In my tasting lately, there’s been a heavy focus on the old Napa flagship wineries — the ones that got here in the 1960s or 1970s, headed by now-legendary names: Grgich, Cakebread, Duckhorn. What I’ve noticed most about these creaky old names is that my fatigue with them is only building.
The 2006 Grgich-Hills Cabernet, for example, tasted disappointingly hot — not what one would’ve expected from an outfit founded by the winemaker whose Chardonnay beat the French in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris. Cakebread’s 2009 Chardonnay for me was a major drop in the wow factor from the 2008, which, when poured into a glass, migrated — half-way across the table! — with the most delightful rosy-aerosol nose ever. Duckhorn’s Sauvingon Blanc, sold by the glass at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, was so flat that an anesthesiologist could use it to induce slumber. As for the Duckhorn Decoy line? I’m falling asleep mentioning it.
So on Monday, I went to Napa on an impromptu trip to seek out some new blood. I didn’t spend a lot of time planning, so my results warrant further hunting. But they do confirm an idea that’s already in the air: The new blood in Napa is thick. As in, the wines are dense as hell.
Before leaving, I made a few phone calls, so as to not drive into Napa Valley completely clueless about where I intended to go.
I tried raising somebody at Au Sommet, which seemed new-blood enough: Its first vintage was crushed in 2008. But its first vintage also scored 97 points in Wine Enthusiast, which means nobody there has to answer the phone. So they didn’t.
My next target was Alpha Omega. The people there answer the phone, all right. I’d called a few weeks earlier to get snoopy vis-a-vis 2010 Napa Cabernet, which I did my first (speaking of anesthesia) vlog on. The discussion centered on the “massive stress” in the Valley about whether the fruit would ever ripen, and was pure pleasure (the discussion, not the stress). I was even invited to potentially meet the winemaker, Jean Hoefliger. Then I got the tasting-room guy on the phone. After asking one too many questions, I had apparently become quite the bother, and was told, “I tell you what. You come up here and we’ll talk about that.”
That was rude enough, I thought, but I decided to check the place out nonetheless. I arrived and found a tasting room as black as the scenery was white in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A jumbo flat-panel on a wall exhibited video of the winemaking process: ripe wrinkled Cabernet fruit moving along a sorting line. This was the fruit, presumably, that would be hand-crushed using tools like a potato masher, according to Steve — the same fellow who found me unworthy of speaking with on the telephone.
He poured the $84-a-bottle 2008 Alpha Omega Cabernet for me; it was dark, ripe, and powerful. On the nose was brown spice and the phenolic compounds that my brain translates as green pepper when grapes are less ripe and in this case was translating to sour raspberries and wet pine needles — the same compounds, but more evolved and ripened. I don’t think it hurts a Cab to be that ripe, but you’ll suffer higher alcohol for it. On the palate was a gripping offense of fruit that had been submerged in juice long enough to draw everything powerful out of the skins and distribute it into the wine. As in, the stuff was as tough as steel. I have trouble finding a dish to pair with such wines. But why don’t you go ahead and say it? You pair steak with them, moron! Response: Because steak is red meat, not black meat, a red wine is a natural pairing, not a black one. In any case, the wine is probably a 94-point addition to the portfolio of Napa’s dense and dark Cabernets.
When I asked Steve to stand a few bottles up for me to pan with my video camera, he suggested I get a GIF — a still image — from somebody else. I’m still wondering what part of video didn’t make sense to him — and what part of courtesy didn’t. Density seems to be a theme here. In a minute or two, this guy had squandered the goodwill that two other employees, Kathy and Chelsea, had done a marvelous job of building.
I left, figuring it was time to head home and hope for an uncongested Bay Bridge, but before I got far, the entrance to Peju derailed me as if it had targeted me with a tractor beam. People have told me Peju’s a good producer, and knowing it was a relative late-comer, founded in 1982, I decided to see what the new blood here was cranking out.
The reception was welcoming, which was a relief after tolerating the too-good-to-be-bothered guy at Alpha Omega.
I shot some photos and made my way to the tasting room. Finally: Something different. A blush Syrah! A blend of Cab, Merlot, Zin, Chard and French Columbard, the jug-wine grape (though quality-farmed in Mendocino)! And even a French Columbard bottled by itself — all between $20 and $25.
After Raj Parr told me this month that he’d pair a northern Rhone Syrah with Indian food, I was curious to know how Peju’s blush Syrah would work with Chicken Tikka Masala: It’s not too dense for white meat; it’s dry with hints of red berry fruit and honeydew.
The 2010 French Columbard, with hints of tropical fruit flavors, melon, and pineapple, left you contemplating whether it would pair with salads and spicy foods or whether you’d ever get over the fact that the same grapes — less carefully farmed, of course — may well be in a $3.95 jug of Rossi “Chablis.”
Then to the reds: Peju’s Cabernet, too, was dense and concentrated, packing a lot of cassis and blackberry, and was a solid 92 for the category. Mercifully, a less-dense 2007 Merlot stood out: A juicy, tasty red with hints of black cherry and cranberry. Napa’s 2006 Merlot vintage was the highest-rated in years, but this 2007 was yummy and at $35, nothing like the $7 or $14 bottle you’ll find at the grocery store. That stuff’s garbage. Peju’s Merlot is far from it.
It was nearing 6 p.m., though, so I left, realizing that the most delicious (to me) wine from new blood in Napa was not to be discovered on this trip. The last one to make the list was, instead, Outpost’s Howell Mountain Zinfandel, courtesy of ZinFanGirl and ZinFanHubby. It was super ripe, light, focused, red and not black, and delicious — and from a winery founded in 1998.
The hunt continues, as it always will.