Experience the “Insider’s” Napa

Would life be better if you owned a winery?  Would you rock the wine world?  Be the envy of everyone you meet?  Well here’s the next best thing.

Smack dab in the midst of Napa’s 2013 grape harvest, here’s a long weekend you’ll remember for the rest of your life.  Channel your inner Lucy and go knee-deep at the grape stomping competition.  Take home wine you bottled*.  Welcome Napa Winemakers to your table.  Dine by candle light surrounded by century-old barrels.  In short, see Napa like an industry insider.

To make this all possible, the folks at Chicago Magazine and I have developed this “Insider’s Tour” of Napa. If you can join us, here’s what you’re in for… 

"Insider's Napa" Tour - Itinerary Logo

Weekend Itinerary: (Items subject to change)

Friday, Sept. 20th
Arrival, Reception and Dinner

Napa signArrive SFO before 3:00PM Pacific Time.  Hop aboard one of the hourly shuttles to the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa – your home base for this “insider’s” weekend.

6:00 PM — Welcome Reception. Get to know your fellow wine enthusiasts and meet boutique producers you won’t find in wine shops back home. Who knows?  One or two winemakers might even show up, if we can tear them away from their 20-hour days during harvest.

7:00 PM — Garden-to-Table Dinner.  You want Fresh?  You want seasonal??  Join Chef Brian Whitmer in the hotel garden to pick ingredients for your al fresco dinner.  He may fly below your radar, but Chef Whitmer has chops.  His resume includes stints managing culinary operations for the Masters of Food and Wine, working with New York’s Daniel Boulud at Polo Club and Bradley Ogden at San Francisco’s Campton Place before earning Esquire’s “Best Restaurant” nod for his work at Montrio in Monterey.  Brian and I will work together to perfectly pair Napa wines with each of your three courses.

Saturday, Sept 21st
Napa’s Emerging Winemakers

9:00 AM — Enjoy breakfast in the hotel at your convenience.  Or arrange for an early spa treatment.  Or take a lap in the pool.  Just don’t be late, because the bus leaves at 10:50 sharp for your next immersion experience…

11:00 AM — Bottle Your Own Barrel at the Ried Family Vineyards
A wine bottling party - Reid Family VyrdsOwner Kirk Reid leads us through his family’s vineyard, then through the production facility and on to the bottling room where you’ll bottle the barrel of wine purchased for your group – all 24 cases.  As reward for your hard work, you’ll gather around the farmer’s table for lunch overlooking the vineyard.  When you get home and open a wine you bottled, the story pours out with the wine.

Ried Family Vineyards are a boutique winery, crafting a miserly 400 cases each year.  Yes, that’s hundred.  The family ‘s Napa roots date back to the mid 1800’s, though their vines date back to 1992.  Their vineyard provides homes for vines producing choice Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, and Viognier.

3:00 PM — Private Tasting at Kenzo Estate
Kenzo Estate ownerWhat would you do with an extra $100,000,000?  If you’re video game tycoon Kenzo Tsujimoto, you buy 3,800 acres in Napa and build a custom winery to produce world-class wines.  Kenzo Estate produces just 11,000 cases of such wine, most of which is exported to Japan.  But you’ll get to taste Kenzo’s rare wines ($80 – $250 a bottle) in the luxury of their hospitality facility and have the opportunity to purchase them directly from the winery.  (3-minute video – Kenzo Estate in the news)

6:45 PM — Stomp Grapes!  
Entrance to Castello di AmorosaYou’ll eat dinner on Saturday at the “Harvest and Grape Stomp Party” at the beautiful Castello di Amorosa.  Winery owner Darius Sattui built this Italianate castle, complete with dungeon and various hidden chambers, over the course of a decade.  He was inspired to build it during trips to Italy, where he was struck by the celebratory Italian spirit of food and wine, friends and family.  Grape stomping competitionThat was something he wanted to bring home to Napa.  But while you and I might bring home Italian spirit with a painted dish or an airport tchotchke, Darius built a castle.  And it’s here he hosts the annual harvest party you’ll be joining.

What do you wear to a stomp party?  Leave the coat and khakis at the hotel and break out whatever goes with grape juice stains.  (Note, grape stomping is not required.  You’ll still be fed if grape-colored calves aren’t your thing.)  Click the image to view video from last year’s event.

Sunday, Sept 22nd
Napa’s Classic Winemakers

9:00 AM — Breakfast and Bubbles
Breakfast with Bubbles on Mumm's patioAfter a hard night of stomping grapes, you’ll need a breakfast with bubbles to get going.  And there’s no more scenic spot for sipping on bubbly than on Mumm’s patio (weather permitting) or glassed-in dining area.  

One can never tell what September mornings will bring.  But if it’s a clear Sunday you’ll watch hot air balloons as you enjoy breakfast.  Or maybe you’ll just want a cuppa java to get going – take it to go and stroll through Mumm’s famed photo gallery to start your day.  Your continental breakfast will provide just enough to get you off the launch pad – which is perfect, given that your three-course lunch is just a short time away…

11:30 AM — Mondavi Immersion
Our private tasting in Mondavi's barrel roomHow can an “insider’s tour” include wines carried in every wine shop around the world?  Because you’ll see it as no regular tourist does.  And because you’ll want to take home a deeper knowledge of this icon of the wine world to share with as many friends as possible.  Appreciating this winery’s impact on Napa, and the whole Mondo Vino, is your foundation for appreciating today’s entrepreneurs.  

You’ll begin with a vineyard tour hosted by a Mondavi’s historian, who will then guide us through the production facility and a private tasting of their Reserve wines in the breath-taking barrel room (above right). You’ll end your visit with a leisurely three-course lunch (with wine pairing) served in their hospitality facility.

2:30 PM — Restoring Inglenook!
Our private tasting and tour at the re-christened InglenookYou’ll enjoy a private tour and tasting at this facility, until recently known as Niebaum-Coppola/Rubicon Estates. This magnificent estate is home to one of the valley’s finest Bordeaux blends — Rubicon.  Is there a better way to learn how to detect the distinctive “Rutherford Dust” found in Cabernets from this exclusive part of Napa?  The short answer is no.

And the winery’s history is just as intriguing – it was Inglenook’s early history from the mid 1800’s that inspired owner Francis Ford Coppola to abandon plans for a simple “weekend get-away” in favor of re-building Inglenook.  After two decades and countless millions spent acquiring the property’s original vineyards, he’s now completed this Herculean task, and restored the property to its original name – Inglenook.  You’ll be among the early visitors to this re-named property, which never disappoints.

4:30 PM — Return to the hotel and spruce up for your intimate dinner.

6:00 PM – Merryvale by Candlelight
Your final dinner in the Merryvale Barrel RoomYou’ll have just enough time to freshen up and change for your final event in the valley –  your candlelight dinner amid century-old barrels at Merryvale.  You’ll find this the culinary and experiential highlight of your weekend, with a menu designed specifically for Merryvale’s library wines. This is an experience like no other so don’t forget your camera.

Monday, Sept. 23rd 9:00 AM — Swap phone numbers and email addresses with all your new friends of your final breakfast at the Marriott.  10:00 AM — First shuttle departs hotel San Francisco International Airport.

About Your Guide
Your tour guide will be Dave Chambers (www.DaveTheWineMerchant.com) who spent time as a marketing consultant for wineries before launching the “Sideways Wine Club” for Fox Searchlight Pictures. He now curates an ever-evolving portfolio of artisanal wines for his adventurous wine club members and is a regular guest lecturer on California’s wine history for the SFSU Hospitality Management program.  Dave will co-host your weekend with Rich Gamble, the Publisher of Chicago Magazine.

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Cheers!
Dave the Wine Merchant

*Possible only if fully subscribed.

Is A Single Point From R. Parker Jr. worth $1,329/case?

Is the influence of the wine critic waning?
Is the influence of the wine critic waning?

Perhaps the rumors of his decline have been greatly exaggerated.  Though he’s showing signs of yearning for retirement (ex. he’s relinquished reviews of all CA wines to Antonio Galloni), he’s still reviewing the wines of Bordeaux – his first love, and the wines that pushed him to prominence.  

But is one point from Parker really worth over a grand a case?  This article sites one such example.  For example, it cites the difference between a 100-point wine and a 99-point wine – same producer, same wine, different vintage.  I have no doubt that the relationship would not hold up when comparing a 90 point wine and a 91 point wine.  Though hardly scientific or truly reliable, it’s worth a glance.  

WineIndustryInsight – NewsFetch.

DUI’s Begone!

DUI Begone!Consider this.  The NTSB has recommended lowering the allowable Blood Alochol Content (BAC) for drivers.  Meaning, anyone driving after consuming even a modest amount of alcohol will be subject to ticketing, fines, and higher insurance rates.  Even the august attendees at my monthly tastings will likely be over the proposed legal limit.  Perhaps that’s not true for the spitters, but the swallowers won’t stand a chance.  Wring your hands with me as we say in unison “Something must be done!”

The Dui Solution!Enter an unlikely savior – the “driverless” car.   Though the NTSB standards are likely to be approved before such cars are readily available to the average 99%er, a recent NYT article (and blog post) highlighted the disruptive influence of driverless cars on city planners, insurance companies, and highway engineers.  If the nation’s roads were left entirely to these vehicular robots, traffic lights, parking meters and downtown garages would become as quaintly outdated as the buggy whip.

No more DUI's!Accidents would decrease dramatically, impacting insurance rates and saving up to 42,000 U.S. lives each year.  Seem unlikely?  Consider that driverless cars are immune to fatigue and human distractions like texting, attending to kids (“don’t make me come back there!”), changing radio stations, spilling hot coffee on their lap, or applying makeup/shaving/flossing while driving (come on, you know you’ve seen all that, and more!)  And because robots have lightning-quick reflexes they can drive at higher speeds AND with less distance between vehicles, thus reducing the need for expensive highway expansion.  The whole concept boggles the mind as much as a weekend TED conference.  See more about driverless cars on Google’s YouTube video here or on the (Vaynerchuck-stylized?) Tech Feed here.

OK, so you see where I’m going.  Not only could a driverless vehicle make you safer and more productive during your rush-hour commute, you could enjoy a drink with friends or family and arrive home safe and sound and DUI-free.  

And all the other potential benefits aside, I find this the greatest of them all.  ;-)

Cheers!

Dave the Wine Merchant

Point : Counterpoint. Wine tasting – Junk Science or High Art?

Is the influence of the wine critic waning?
Is the influence of the wine critic waning?

Two interesting, and contrasting, news items are buzzing about the wino-sphere this week.  

The first article bore the inflammatory title of “Wine Tasting : It’s Junk Science“.  The author reports on findings that wine judges (and those setting the scores that, for three decades, have famously determined what wine is good, which wine is not) are embarrassingly inconsistent in their evaluations.  It concludes that there is so much variation in an individual’s judging ability as to make nonsense of such silly notions as scores, medals, and awards.  Take this notion to the extreme and it becomes silly to even evaluate a wine’s components, or to describe it, or attempt to pair it with food.

Next thing you know, they’ll tell us to drink Cabernet with Oysters.  Cats and dogs sleeping together, Armageddon.  OK, so you know where I stand on this bit of journalistic sensationalism – a good point, lost in hyperbole.

Movie Poster for "Somm"The second “article” to stir up excitement in the wine business this week was the flurry of reviews for the movie “Somm”, which comes out this Friday in four lucky cities and on iTunes wherever you are.  The 90 minute documentary has won critical awards, but blase response from the general public.  Which is surprising to me, though less so considering doesn’t feature a single offspring of a former Olympic gold medalist.  Not even one.

But it DOES feature great music, beautiful photography, and that one element so often missing from most scripts – a moving story of human trial and triumph, of perseverance and dedication.  It’s a movie to see if you love wine, if you don’t love wine, and if you can’t even spell wine.  If you’re human, you’ll relate.

And viewed next to each other – debunkers of human taste on the one hand and exhalters of it on the other – the two make sense. Given the 3% pass rate at the court of Master Sommeliers, it seems fairly clear that few people posses the natural ability – the palate talent – to consistently judge the magical combination of flavors and aromas that we know as wine.  Does this invalidate every other attempt to do so?  Yours?  Mine?  Ours?  

I vote no.  But it DOES suggest that wine should be sold by means other than scores, points and medals.

Cheers

Guest Post – Review of “Small Vines, 2011 Pinot Noir, RRV” ($55)

Small Vines Pinot at Dave the Wine MerchantA heady wine with savory aromatics of lavender, wild mushroom, cola and damp earth. Initially, this is a tightly wound Pinot that suggests it is still young, but with time, this is opening up to reveal what this wine maker was trying to produce.

For me, it opens up with dense black cherries on the tongue, but are balanced out nicely by a subtle acidity on the aftertaste. This is a Burgundian styled wine that was not overly earthified (my word). I am very pleased with the crispiness of this small lot production too. When I take a deep whiff, there is a pleasing detection of Asian spices.

The complexity of this wine is also really interesting knowing it comes from the RRV. Based on what I generally know of wines from this low lying region of Sonoma County, I would have expected more opulence with bright raspberry and cranberry notes, but I am finding exotic silky layers of warm fennel and sage.

A beautiful wine that after two hours of oxygen is completely stunning. I would love to try this in another 7-10 years to see how this vintage evolves with bottle age because this is a wine worthy of collecting.

Guest Post by Seth Pariser, New York  (a Pinot Selections club member since 2007)

It’s called MERITAGE. It rhymes with HERITAGE. o

Meritage - it rhymes with Heritage!A pet peeve of many a wine aficionado is the frequent mispronunciation of the word “Meritage”.  This word appears on some of the best red blends you can find.  But it is a made-up word.

The Meritage Association was formed in 1988 by a handful of progressive Napa vintners.  They’d grown frustrated with our domestic requirement that a wine contain at least 75% of a specific grape in order to list that varietal on the label (Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc). And because the U.S. wine drinker had been used to seeing this for 60 years, even the best blended wines were seen as inferior if they didn’t have a grape variety listed on the label.

So the Association undertook something never tried before – creating ultra-premium wines using the blending practices of Bordeaux and a unique brand that fit the high quality of the wine.

The Alliance held a naming contest for the new brand, generated 300+ entries, and ended up adopting the word “Meritage” (but don’t Frenchify its pronunciation!  The word rhymes with “Heritage” – a combination of Merit and Heritage). Given the alliance’s Bordelaise inspiration, all red Meritage wines must be a blend of the classic Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Now in its 24th year, the alliance has grown to over 250 wineries, each supporting the alliance with a percentage of sales on every bottle of Meritage wine.

Here’s an excellent example of a Meritage wine – the 2008 Meritage from Trinitas.  This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Merlot (19%), Cabernet Franc (17%), and Malbec (10%).  Soft tannins combine with intense fruit flavors of black currant, blackberries, plums, and cocoa. The winemaker describes this wine as “full, supple, and rich with a lengthy finish that will leave you lingering for more.”

The wine begins with fruit from the heart of Napa Valley – the Oak Knoll AVA, known for its variety of soil types, each lending a slightly different profile to Oak Knoll wines, which are identifiable by their full-flavored, intense fruit profiles. The Trinitas winemaker amplified this fruit-forward profile by cold-soaking the grapes prior to fermentation and by using a slow, cool fermentation. This technique not only aids in color extraction, it emphasizes fruit flavors and aromas. And following the tradition of great Bordeaux, the wine is aged for 22 months in 100% New French Oak.

Buy it here.

Cheers!

Dave the Wine Merchant

Wine Corks, Re-Purposed by Gardeners

 

Wine Corks Re-Purposed

5 Easy DIY Garden Markers – The Frugal Female.  Wine lovers tend to be food lovers.  And food lovers tend to appreciate fresh, seasonal foods.  And when we can, we grow it ourselves.  

But those little plastic garden markers that come with your seeds make your garden pretty ugly.  The Frugal Female (https://www.facebook.com/thefrugalfemale1) offers some good ideas for alternatives, including this one for your used wine corks… and old silverware.  Not sure the best way to spear the cork, as the things are tougher than you’d think, so if anyone has any experience with successful forking of the corks (without spearing your fingers), please comment here…

50 Shades of Gris (Grey)

Black or White was so easy before 50 shades of Gris!It used to be so clear.  Things fell into simple categories.  Black or white.  Good or bad.  With us or against us.  Easy.

Then some braniac introduced the grey area – neither white nor black, neither good nor bad.  Areas open to interpretation.  Conditional morality.  Circumstantial justifications.  Flawed heroes.  

50 shades of gris?And then, just recently, a pudgy middle-aged British mom-cum-best-selling-sex-author (the most unlikely sex guru since Dr. Ruth!)  introduced the idea of FIFTY shades of grey, and forever more we’ll have to consider not just one or two shades of nuance, but FIFTY of them.

And the notion is spreading to other fields, areas one would never think of as being the subject of hued doubt.  Even the world of wine, it turns out, finds winegrapes caught in this nether world of grey – not quite white and yet not quite red, either.  These lightly-hued orbs look like a white grape that really wants to turn red. 

What used to be a simple red or white is now a complicated situation I’m calling “50 shades of Gris, Grigio and Grey“.  

OK, so I’m still working on the catchy title.  But trust me, the wines are just plain yum.

Just one of the 50 shades of Pinot Gris!
Pinot Gris ready for harvest. Staete Landt Vineyards, Marlborough, New Zealand

The grape known as Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio – same grape, different country) produces a wide range of intriguing styles of wine.  It can be light and crisp (Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy typifies this style) to wines that are rich and ripe with a distinctive waxy note (though I always felt that description was less pleasurable than the experience would indicate).   To see what I mean, try one of the more viscous, oilier Pinot Gris from the warmer parts of California or New Zealand’s North Island.  Compare this wine to a Pinot Gris/Grigio from a cooler climate – tighter wines offering more aromatics and rewards for the focused taster who enjoys layers of complexity, such as those from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.

Whatever style you prefer, you’ll have to agree that a well-made Pinot Gris is simply a sexy wine.  In fact, various descriptions I’ve come across sound as if they were ripped from the pages of one of the ‘Fifty shades’ novels – “Mouth-filling, rich and refreshing” are the words one producer chose to describe their Pinot Gris.  Another claims their wine to be “An intense pleasure“.  But this one takes the cake – “Enters with a mouth-filling creaminess that lends a generous texture to its long finish and pleasant memory“.  Wow.  Who’d have thought they were describing a wine?

Here’s a fun idea for an inexpensive night at home – order your favorite Thai food, or whip up a bit of ceviche, or roast your favorite bird.  Then invite the neighbors and separate three or four Pinot Gris/Grigio from their corks.  Dinner for six, under $100.  

Three Pinot Gris In Contrasting Styles:

Morgan, 2010 Pinot Gris, Monterey, $18  –  This wine personifies the warm, round and ripe style of Pinot Gris, with a tinge of color from brief skin contact.  Good acidity keeps it from being cloyingly round and banal, with enjoyable spice notes complimenting the fruit notes.

Mary Elke, 2011 Pinot Gris, Donnelley Creek Vineyard, $16 – Slightly crisper than the Morgan, this wine is from the cool Anderson Valley area, and expresses that fact with more mouth-watering acidity and a leaner body.

Boeckel, 2008 Pinot Gris, Alsace, $19  – Alsace-Loraine is that region in North-Eastern France that abuts Germany.  An even cooler growing region, these beautiful wines are capable of considerable aging, as seen in this particular wine.  

Try All Three and Save 17%!- $44 – One bottle of each wine – the perfect start to your tasting party! 

Cheers!
Dave the Wine Merchant

 

Breathometer – Buy One Now!

I value all of the buyers in my online wine shop and want them to stay alive, out of jail, and free of DUI blemishes.  So if you’re one of my customers you simply have to buy one of these Breathometers – perhaps the best $50 you’ll ever spend.  Click here to buy.  

What’s a Breathometer?
Just blow into the BreathometerThe Breathometer is a small device that is used in tandem with a dedicated smartphone app to provide an instant read of  your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).  

Just plug the portable device into the audio jack of your smartphone, open the app, and blow into the sensor to get an instant, color-coded read of your BAC – green means you’re good to go, red means you’d better book alternate transportation (see photo at right)!  Don't drive if your Breathomete reads RED!

The Breathometer isn’t the cheapest portable breathalizer you can find, but it’s easier to use than other models, and because it uses just a small attachment to your ever-present smart phone, is more likely to be available when and where you need it.  This just-in-time presence is it’s greatest benefit, as we already know from the success of weight-loss programs involving wireless connections between scale and smartphones, allowing dieters to automatically monitor their progress.

There’s a handy Youtube video for this new product, but my TypePad blog software seems unwilling to embed videos, so you’ll have to click here to watch it in a new window

Future Development Plans
The Breathometer is new – in fact it’s still in Beta – and is currently taking orders for future deliveries (the website has conflicting information – one page says the device begins shipping this summer, another says January 2014).  And while experience has taught me it’s never wise to mention features that are not included in the current release, the company says these two enhancements are currently in the works:

  • The app will record and “learn” your metabolic rate and use it to predict how much time you’ll need before your BAC returns to a safe driving level
  • Whenever your BAC enters the red zone, a button will allow you to dial a taxi with a single tap

This intelligent device is the brain child of serial entrepreneur, Charles Yim, who led the mobile division of Plum District and the founder of the neighborhood rewards program “Chatterfly”.  To fund his current venture, he used the the crowd-sourced site Indiegogo, and has already surpassed his initial goal.  His Bay Area roots include graduating from Stanford’s Executive Development Program.  

I wish Charles great success with his life-saving product. Click here to buy the Breathometer ($50).

Cheers!

Dave the Wine Merchant