Big Names in California Wine, Part 3: Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

First off, Happy National Wine Day to all my readers in the USA! This is definitely something I can and will celebrate on this dreary rainy day.

In part three of this series, I enjoyed Beringer’s 2010 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Beringer is one of the renowned Napa, California wineries, established in Victorian times by German winemaker Jacob Beringer. He and his brother purchased the first property in 1875 after a short time in New York where the climate was not what they were looking for. The warm climate and rocky, well-draining soil in Napa County was more like their homeland in the Rhine Valley and hence they settled and started their American dream here. Workers who had just helped build the trans-continental railroad, dug the tunnels where they still store and age their wine. They then built a mansion house that was a reconstruction of their home in Germany, called the “Rhine house.”  Today, they have vineyards up and down the valley from Howell Mountain to Carneros. They are the longest continually-running vineyard in the valley, surviving the dark days of prohibition. Currently under the helm of Winemaker Laurie Hook and Winemaker Emeritus Ed Sbragia, they are doing delicious things.

This particular wine comes from their Knights Valley vineyard which is located 17 miles north of the winery just over the border in Sonoma County. They grow and vinify several Bordeaux varieties here and have named a few wines after the alluvial soils the vines grow in. This vineyard has been active for three decades and makes excellent Bordeaux-style wines.

This is a very nice example of Napa Cabernet. It is deep ruby in color and on the nose are blackberry, anise, cinnamon and pepper as well as subtle toasty oak aromas. The fruit is very ripe, and with the nicely balanced tannins and acidity, this is a fine wine indeed that I suspect would age well long after the roughly 3 years this one lasted!  It has a medium plus body and finish, and is very elegant. Definitely in the class of equally-priced Bordeaux. I am so glad I have given some of these larger California wineries another chance to impress me. There is some really fine wine being made here, even if they’re not cult/boutique (read: very expensive) wines. Plus, I’ve learned a lot about their history which has brought me new-found respect for them. At $33 it is a premium wine, but not unreasonable for a quality wine from this region. Perhaps I should have shared this one with my friends, but at least I shared it with you, my readers…

Next week, I will conclude this series with a Chalone!


Big Names in California Wine, Part 2: Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Black Label Claret 2011

Francis Coppola Diamond Collection 2011 Black Label Claret

Francis Coppola Diamond Collection 2011 Black Label Claret

Today’s follow-up to last week is about a nice Claret tribute from Francis Coppola’s winery, which is next door to Mondavi’s. After visiting with Mondavi at his winery, the author of “The Accidental Connoisseur” next paid a visit to this gothic-inspired winery in his quest to discover taste and sense of place. Read part one below this entry if you’re tuning in now…

While some might be skeptical when seeing a wine brand from somebody who clearly didn’t make his name in the wine business, I reiterate that many of the successful winemakers I’ve met or read about in my own quest started out being great at something else first.  And if not making it themselves, they have a vision and a good winemaker, which is okay too! Perhaps they always had the passion, but not the means for such a venture until they succeeded in another line of business. I myself, though not a winemaker, consider myself like the author, an “accidental connoisseur.” Wine is a pretty amazing thing.  Everything from the growing, to the vinification, to bottling has its own risks and rewards and many find themselves quickly consumed by wine and wine culture. And one thing I know is Francis Coppola takes his film work very seriously, to stellar results. So why wouldn’t he strive for the same results in any venture? I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of this wine and have really been enjoying it. At $17.99 its not a cheap wine, but its quality warrants the price.

The wine’s name pays tribute to the original Clarets imported from France by the British back in the day. The gold netting is a tribute to their original presentation, and the inspiration for this wine comes from a Bordeaux blend that they discovered in the cellar when they purchased the Gustave Niebaum “Inglenook” property in 1975. Niebaum was a Norwegian sea captain who founded the original winery in 1886 and had significant success in the 1940’s with winemaker John Daniel. The original Daniel wines are now very collectable. This wine is also the first and flagship wine of the Diamond Collection they started in 1997. Here’s a neat video on their site showing you how to open it and preserve the netting at the same time. It is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon like the original Medoc reds from the region, with the expected Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot in the mix. Coppola calls this their signature, prize offering, which I think explains the pricing. And actually, $18 is not at all unreasonable for a good Napa Cab. It is aged 15 months in French oak, to complete the authenticity. At 13.5% abv, its just right. Winemaker Corey Beck has done a nice job with this one.

It is deep ruby in color and on the nose is blackberry, cherry, cassis, tobacco and clove. On the palate there is more black and red fruit, clove and baking spice from the oak. The tannins are firm and it has a nice acidity to balance it out. It should age well in my opinion. But I just finished it so fast I feel a bit like a thirsty vampire!  Now if only I had had Dracula on DVD to watch while I drank — a favorite film of mine. Gary Oldman is one great vampire, and so I tolerate Keanu Reeves. But it’s not all Dracula here. There is also memorabilia from Apocolypse Now and The Godfather films amongst the winery decor.

Here’s a great quote from the book about the visit to the winery:

“Its long driveway is adorned with voluptuous iron lamps brought from Paris, and as I drove down it a preposterously Gothic mansion swung into view. Edgar Allen Poe amid palms … following the Mondavi example, Coppola thought to revive the old Niebaum place by making it into a tourist attraction, a mixture of enological airport boutique and personal shrine to his own electrifying personality. People love it.”

Even if it’s a bit optimized for tourists, would you expect less from a renowned film director? Its on my visit-when-I’m out there list. Why can’t wine also be fun and not all stuffy all the time…

Big Names in California Wine, Part 1: Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2009

Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2009

Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2009

Before I get to reviewing the wine, I wanted to give you a little background on my choice for this first entry in this series, and the inspiration behind it. Because wine isn’t just about taste, its about the experience and the story.

I’ve been having a great time reading “The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World” by Lawrence Osborne. In the book, the author explores the meaning and experience of taste by visiting many vineyards and winemakers in France, Italy and the United States. We all know taste is that thing that so many people have wasted countless amounts of breath and ink trying to pinpoint, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the individual. Though the book also explores taste as a factor of the market.  It’s a memoir of his own personal quest for answers and that is all it attempts to be. There are many parallels in the book to my own journey of discovery here (including the necessary humor and humility) so it is all the more rewarding.

The book starts with the author in Sassoferrato, Italy where Robert Mondavi’s family was from, to attempt to trace the inspiration and roots of a man that would become American wine royalty by the 1970s.

Back in California, he travels to meet and taste with Mondavi himself, before venturing onto Coppola, Beringer, Opus One (a Mondavi-Rothschild venture of much acclaim), Sterling and the more off-the-beaten-path Chalone in Edna Valley. It doesn’t take long to realize that in Napa these days, clusters of large-scaled and architecturally-themed wineries are just another kind of Disneyland, as much for the experience as the product itself. That being said, it is a beautiful place. I rode the Napa Valley wine train many years ago and visited Markham for a dinner and tasting and I was in heaven. That was the first time I had a wine and said “whoah.” Nowadays with the region thriving, there are many a smaller, traditional winery making boutique wines at higher prices. But even these ‘garagiste’ wineries are larger in scale and distribution than many of their foreign counterparts, with plenty of money backing their ventures.

Currently in the book, and I mention this because I got a good laugh here, the author is in Russian River Valley,  in the company of a French tourist also obsessed with tasting great California wines. Despite the reputation of Rochioli Pinot Noir, both are struggling to taste the ‘Russian Riverness” in the glass.  It is this same experience we all aim for when trying to taste terroir or a sense of place in the glass that is so humorous and validating. And trying to actually taste anything from ‘cigar-box’ to ‘tutti-frutti’ can be fruitless (thank you), all the while winemakers declaring their product ‘hedonistic’ are everywhere, begging the question: “I don’t  necessarily agree. Is it me?”

But this all got me thinking again about how my earliest introductions to wine were large producers from California. So while at the wine shop today, I picked up a few of them to revisit the subject and taste some from the author’s travels. Mondavi – check. Coppola – check. Beringer – check. I don’t have the means very often to pick up an Opus One or a Screaming Eagle. If you’d like, you can send me one and I’d be happy to review it. Anyone? Today I will start by reviewing a Mondavi Fumé Blanc. Now that I feel I have come to a more educated place about wine, and my palate and experience far more mature, I am curious to see if these are wines (and again, this is MY taste, I’m not a critic) I would enjoy more with this new knowledge at my disposal.

While many don’t necessarily value a Mondavi as a top American wine anymore, you have to admire that this man was a big part of putting a fairly obscure wine region at the time onto the world wine map. Of course the judgement of Paris also went a long way to that end, as well as timing. Prohibition was over just a few decades ago and there were few American wineries in the area doing anything to note. And while his family was enjoying success making inexpensive wines at lower cost, Mondavi was ambitious and strove to take it to the next level. He bought out nearby reputable vineyards to set up his own winery. It was there that he began upgrading his techniques and experimenting, producing the types of American Cabernets that made the region start to take off again.

In 1966 he succeeded in mass-marketing a wine made in the same methods of its French counterpart, but with its own unique terroir and fingerprint. With his Fumé Blanc, he brought the barrel-aged style of Sauvignon Blanc from Pouilly-Fumé in France to millions of Americans. This was a style and variety that was almost unknown to the non-connoisseur population in this country. Consumers who hadn’t heard of or couldn’t afford a Pouilly-Fumé could at least feel they just expanded their cultural and taste palates. So he certainly knew what he was doing, and is an American wine icon, whether you love it or hate it.

Lemon-gold in color, the 2009 Napa Valley Fumé Blanc had expected floral and grassy notes on the nose, along with some melon, citrus and vanilla from the obvious time in oak. On the palate the oak was stronger and the body full, but it still had a racy acidity and citrus and mineral notes. This is definitely more oaked than I am used to in a Sauvignon Blanc but it was all quite well balanced.

This was priced at $15.99 for a 750ml bottle, and I feel a good value and a good wine. So, off to a good start.