Napa/ Sonoma Tasting Report

I recently returned from my long-awaited and slightly postponed trip out to my favorite place in the country, Napa Valley. My normal July trip had to wait due to the birth of my son, which was certainly a fair trade, and my wife and I took the little guy along and made up for some lost time by spending six days in wine country, splitting our time between Napa and Sonoma. During this time, I tasted over 120 new wines and learned a lot about the recent vintages of the region. I also discovered some excellent new tasting experiences. I’ve highlighted less than a quarter of the wines I tasted that really stood out based on their respective varietals. First a few thoughts:

  • After all of the acclaim that the 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon received, I am pleased to report that the 2008 and 2009 vintages appear to have made equally stellar wines by top producers. You will see below that my top two scoring wines of the entire trip were Cabernets from those two vintages, but by and large, the quality of wines made in those years exceeded my expectations. This is good news, as the hopes for the 2010 wines aren’t quite as high, and most of the vintners I talked to were very discouraged about the difficult 2011 harvest. I fear that the quality could be spotty over these years, so it would be wise to take advantage of 2008s and 2009s while they last.
  • Once we got to Sonoma, we concentrated mostly on the 2009 vintages of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, and were impressed by the efforts we saw from Papapietro Perry, Sojourn, Seghesio and Hartford Family. There’s lots to like about these Sonoma 2009s.
  • Briefly, I wanted to point out that we enjoyed some spectacular tasting experiences during the course of this trip. Robert Biale (below, top) is likely a staple now on my tasting itinerary. Positioned near downtown Napa, it makes for a perfect stop before rolling into Yountville, as the wines were stellar across the board, and were brought to us at a leisurely pace as we sat on the porch on the rocking chairs and enjoyed the views of the vineyards behind us. At Round Pond (middle), I enjoyed a tasting of three wines that were each paired with a specifically paired appetizer while I sat outside by a giant fireplace and soaked up the elevated view of the valley below. Finally, we were quite pleased with our decision to begin our Russian River Valley day at Hartford Family (bottom) in secluded Forestville, where we sat outside by a relaxing fountain while we received excellent service and tasted several wines.

  • Joseph Phelps continues to be one of the very prettiest places in the valley to taste wine, and we took our time here and enjoyed a wonderful sunset (below). Still, I have to question how they operate their tastings. Indeed, it was very busy while we were there, but to charge me $25 to taste six wines, it would be nice if they would have someone come to pour my wine on the terrace rather than having to go in and out so many times to get tastes. It takes a lot away from the relaxation aspect.

  • Sojourn Cellars has opened a brand new tasting room on the Sonoma Square in a cute little white country house, and pound for pound, this may have been the very strongest tasting we enjoyed. I tasted seven wines, and all of them scored 90 Points or higher.
  • The clear highlight of the trip for me, as you will see below, was getting to meet Barbara Richards, the owner of Paloma. We spent an hour talking and tasting wine after she invited us right into her home. She discussed her meticulous practices in regards to her winemaking as we stood on her patio overlooking her gorgeous view, and it really shows in the quality of her wines. I tasted the best Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve had all year and also tasted the best Merlot of my entire life. It was a very special experience aside from that, but the quality of the wines made it that much more amazing. To talk to a winemaker who has earned Wine Spectator’s coveted #1 Wine of the Year award and to hear her describe the events surrounding that reality may very well have been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

1. Paloma Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District 2009, 96 Points, $54- Lovely cedar, perfumey violet and chocolate on the nose. Silky and elegant, with a wet mineral nuance that boasts cool climate influences leading into complex, pure and focused blackberry fruit and deep, toasty oak and mocha notes. Amazing mouthfeel and layered with perfection, finishing with cedary spice and lasting forever on the full-bodied finish.

2. Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Napa Valley 2008, 95 Points, $90- There’s black olive, black currant and cocoa on the nose. Incredible mouthfeel, with softly woven, perfumed and floral blackberry, black cherry and dark chocolate that are very rich but polished, leading into exotic spices and finishing on an decisive chocolate spice note. Long, long finish with a silky tannic structure and spice notes lingering. Unique for its spicy chocolate character, only complaint is a bit of chewiness towards the back of the palate that will certainly subside with time.

3. Round Pond Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 94 Points, $50- Huge nose of elegant black plum and blackberry fruit with earthy black olive undertones and notes of powdery chocolate. Firm, intensely concentrated mouthfeel with blackberry and cedar spice that is chewy but rich and long through the finish, lingering with spice and mocha bean, impressive depth.

4. St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard Napa Valley 2007, 94 Points, $80- Robust aromas of cedary forest floor spice, burnt cocoa, earthy mushroom and tobacco leaf along with perfumey currant fruit undertones. Ripe and seamless with its black cherry and wild berry fruit notes leading into undertones of black tea, powdery toffee and coffee notes with clove spice that lingers long with silky tannins. Texture is incredibly soft and elegant, the best yet from this improving single vineyard effort.

5. Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $130- Elegant, deep aromas of black currant and cedar. Full-bodied and rich, with blackberry fruit, plum flavors, powdery mocha and cedary spice that are intense on the palate, but are polished and complex. Firm tannins add grip through the long, spicy, deep finish.

6. O’Brien Seduction Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $52- Loamy, rubbery earth aromas above subtle cassis notes. Rich, luscious body of blackberry and black licorice that is elegant and deep, nuanced with some wet mineral. Velvety and refined with a full finish, firm tannins add grip and structure while the fruit lingers and some spicy mocha creeps in late. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

7. John Anthony Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $55- Classic Cabernet profile, with cedar and black olive aromas above perfumey black currants. Elegant body, with cocoa powder and oak notes leading into creamy blackberry and black cherry fruit, finishing with a delicious chocolate note and a leathery earth nuance. Love the texture and the length. Benchmark Cabernet for this price range.

8. Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $225- Gorgeous aromas of dark chocolate, cedar and perfumey black currants. Blackberry and wild berry fruit carry over a dry, chewy texture, with cedar spice, mineral and cocoa bean undertones. Long finish, but needs time in the cellar.

9. Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 92 Points, $60- Lovely aromas of cocoa, mint and black currant fruit. Silky and balanced, with lots of vanilla and cocoa from the oak that lead into big, rich, ripe blackberry, cherry and dark plum fruit, finishing on a minty forest floor note, soft tannins.

10. Hawkes Cabernet Sauvignon Pyramid Alexander Valley 2007, 92 Points, $65- Rich dark currant fruit and olive on the nose. Perfumed and nuanced on the palate with black plum, powdery cooca, briary herb and cracked pepper. Complex and deep, but maintains elegance through the long finish. Still needs time, but this is a big Cab.

ZINFANDEL

1. Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2009. 94 Points, $38- Complex and exotic on the nose, with floral violet notes above perfumed wild berry fruit and deep aromas of espresso. Amazingly polished and refined for such a young wine, with a silky texture that boasts intense, concentrated and rich flavors of black cherry, licorice and wild raspberry that are backed by layers of espresso, smoke and black pepper spice that dials it up through the incredibly long finish. A healthy blast of mineral keeps things honest as the fruit and spice linger. The most complex Zin I’ve ever tasted.

2. Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $35- Deep, ripe, gorgeous aromas of blackberry, black plum and violet lead into an amazing texture of intense blackberry cobbler, plum paste and subtle undertones of leathery mineral. There is white pepper spice here as well, and this finishes with supreme thickness with dark fruits and spices pumping through the impressive length.

3. Seghesio Zinfandel Old Vine Sonoma County 2009, 92 Points, $38- Rich and fruity on the nose, with black licorice, dark plum and black pepper aromas. Silky, polished and focused, with intense blackberry jam, anise and black plum fruit leading into layers of complex mocha bean and wet mineral. Finishes with a spicy pepper note and silky tannins that add to the impressive texture. Long spicy length.

4. Hartford Family Zinfandel Fannuchi-Wood Russian River Valley 2009, 92 Points, $55- Cracked pepper and exotic cooking spice aromas above notes of cocoa, black cherry and blueberry. Silky and delicate mouthfeel, with great balance between its violety floral notes, cherry and cassis, evolving into white pepper and cinnamon notes, finishing with a cracked pepper edge and lingering long.

5. Robert Biale Zinfandel Aldo’s Vineyard Oak Knoll District Napa Valley 2009, 92 Points, $75- Toasty aromas of caramel, black cherry and floral black plum. Rich and balanced, with complex blackberry fruit, licorice, tobacco spice, mocha bean and cracked pepper elements that linger long, with silky tannins adding structure.

PINOT NOIR

1. Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2009, 94 Points, $46- Complex aromas of smoke, red cherry and tobacco. Supple and seamless, with lots of ripe red berry fruit and red currant flavors. Great complexity, with smoked meat and spice mingling with red cherry and licorice as chocolate creeps in late. Polished, elegant and full-bodied, with a long finish that shows both red fruit and spice pumping.

2. Sojourn Pinot Noir Wohler Vineyard Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $48- Deep plum and floral violet aromas with elements of cedar. Intense plum and black currant fruits throughout a stunning texture, layered with a mocha and powdery cocoa notes. Lush and rich, with a long dark fruit finish.

3. Adobe Road Pinot Noir O’Neel Vineyard Russian River Valley 2007, 92 Points, $48- Elegant nose of strawberry, dark raspberry, floral rose and tobacco. Perfumey and smokey, with an amazing texture of dark raspberry fruit and finishing with strong campfire smoke and cigar spices along with a cracked pepper hint. A big, complex and bold example.

4. Sojourn Pinot Noir Rodgers Creek Sonoma Coast 2009, 92 Points, $48- Dark berry and black cherry fruit meets rugged mineral and gunpowdery earth aromas. Rich and complex, with black cherry, smoke and slate mineral notes that are all in balance and finish with a vivid white pepper spice note. Long length with a moderately firm tannic grip, bit this doesn’t dry out, and the spice keeps kicking.

5. Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir Charles Vineyard Anderson Valley 2009, 92 Points, $54- Exotic perfume and potporri spice aromas, with notes of raspberry and tobacco leaf. Just a touch chewy on the palate, with rich black cherry, tobacco, evergreen and minty mineral through a long, spicy finish.

MISC REDS

1. Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District 2008, 94 Points, $54- Rich, ripe blueberry and blackberry jam on the nose. Luscious fruit body with ripe, balanced blueberry and blackberry fruit that gives way to intense undertones of mocha bean and cedar through the long finish. Seamless texture and gorgeous overall, all in balance and not overripe, with a long finish and incredibly soft tannins. Probably the best Merlot I’ve ever had.

2. Robert Biale Petite Sirah Thomann Station Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $51- Intense blueberry cobbler, perfumey plum notes dominate the nose. Rich and expressive but firmly in balance with juicy blue fruit notes, pure blackberry and floral spices giving way to notes of mocha and mineral spice. Big and rich but not chewy, very elegantly structured and textured, a Petite Sirah that has it all. Finishes with tobacco and pepper spice, just terrifically complex and loaded with flavor, firm tannic grip.

3. Orin Swift The Prisoner Napa Valley 2010, 91 Points, $38- Ripe red berry and black cherry fruit and tons of smoke on the nose. Bursting with juicy black cherry and dark raspberry fruit that is laced with smoke, white pepper spice and mocha notes. Spice lingers and picks up a bit of a violety floral hint through the long, tannic finish. 44% Zinfandel, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah.

4. Orin Swift D66 Napa Valley 2009, 91 Points, $38- Inky purple fruit aromas. Raisiny, plummy fruit on the palate that is rich and ripe, with a velvety texture and undertones of anise, mint and exotic cooking spices. A bit of dry mineral and firm tannins add grip, while spice and fruit linger long. 80% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 8% Carignane.

5. Pride Merlot Napa-Sonoma Counties 2008, 91 Points, $54- Smokey aromas with mocha bean and cedar above the red plum and cherry fruit. Very seamless and silky on the palate, with black cherry and dark plum weaving through mocha and cedar undertones, finishing with dry tannins, but expressive mocha lingers long.

WHITES

1. Round Pond Sauvignon Blanc Bouvet Blanc Reserve 2010, 90 Points, $38- Lovely combination of peach citrus and grassy mineral on the nose. Creamy and sporting a hint of residual sugar, there is a sweey honey note above its nectarine, peach and apricot fruit, finishing with understated stone mineral and some white pepper spice notes. Spicy and refreshing, with no tartness. Beautiful.

2. Rochioli Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2010, 90 Points, $38- Citrusy pear and green apple fruit on the nose with soft oaky undertones. Crisp and lively with its intense fruity note of apple and tropical melon that lead into creamy layers of hazelnut and popped corn. Smooth and balanced, with buttery notes and spice lingering long with lively acidity.

3. Hawkes Chardonnay Home Alexander Valley 2009, 89 Points, $20- Lots of sugary lemon, complex blue cheese and brie on the nose. Clean, crisp and balanced, with notes of lemon and floral orange blossom on the palate, adding a wet mineral and earthy cheese note and finishing on a creamy honey, light almond note. Well done.

4. Pride Viognier Napa-Sonoma Counties 2010, 89 Points, $42- Lovely honeysuckle, peach and apricot fruit on the nose. Very floral and delicate, with creamy honey, dried apricot and subtlely intertwined wet mineral character. Floral spice lingers through the medium length.

5. Hartford Family Chardonnay Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2009, 89 Points, $60- Floral citrus aromas with notes of wet mineral. Soft on the palate, with floral flavors of peach and pear that are rich and concentrated, finishing with a flinty minerality and some buttery oak notes. Long finish, leveled acidity.

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