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12.02.2006

2005 Casa Nuestra Estate Rosado, St. Helena, CA

casanueatra_2005Rosado.gifDeep in the heart of the Napa Valley there lies a winery like no other. The last bastion of fun in a valley that has more than its share of stuffiness, Casa Nuestra Winery simply refuses to take itself seriously, and refuses to let its visitors and clients forget for a moment that wine, first and foremost, should be a lighthearted experience. And, they've got a peace sign on every bottle!

Currently situated in a small yellow farmhouse on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena, the Casa Nuestra winemaking story began a bit farther south in Oakville in 1956, when Gene Kirkham, known to locals as "The Happy Farmer" bought one of the earliest planted hillside vineyards in the Napa Valley. Originally planted in the 1940's with a befuddling mix of varietals, this vineyard, originally called Tinto definitely contains Cabernet Pfeffer, Zinfandel, Alicante, Mourvedre, Mondouse, Carignane, Pinot Noir, Petit Sirah, and Gamay, along with several other vines that still leave experts scratching their heads. This mix of grapes reflects an older style of winegrowing and winemaking known as field blending, where various types of grapes were all crushed together to make a single wine.

Planted at a time when the neighboring plots of land (which would eventually become Far Niente, Harlan Estate, and Heitz' Martha's Vineyard) were mere cow pastures, the Tinto vineyard was cultivated for 19 years by the Kirkham family before they decided to establish their own estate, and purchased the small plot in St. Helena where Tom Blackburn made his home and his own wine. Casa Nuestra was Tom's pet name for his little farm, and it was kept when Kirkham bought the property and its vineyards in 1975 and started making wine there.

Now in its 26th year of operation, Casa Nuestra still makes wine from the original Tinto vineyard (labeled "Tinto Classico") and has taken cuttings from most of the vines in that vineyard and grafted them to new rootstock in its St. Helena vineyards as well, giving the estate another Tinto field blend (labeled just "Tinto").

Rolling down the short dirt road to the tasting room is like stepping out of the Napa scene into another dimension. From the little pen of weed-eating (and everything-under-the-sun-eating for that matter) goats that keep you company as you picnic under the trees in the backyard, to the cozy little tasting room plastered from floor to ceiling with Rock & Roll and Movie memorabilia with great tunes blaring in the background, the experience is unlike any other tasting experience in Napa.

You're likely to be greeted by a loud "how the heck are ya!?" courtesy of Stephanie Trotter-Zacharia, who will happily taste you through the rather extensive portfolio of Casa Nuestra wines, all of which are made in incredibly small amounts (the winery produces only about 1800 cases in total every year). She'll happily explain every piece of memorabilia on the wall, from the signed Elvis poster from a movie he shot on the farm, to the concert poster of Peter Yarrow (one of the few people I know who shares my last name). She'll even show you the secret handshake (yes, there really is one) if you happen to join their wine club. I've never seen anyone fail to walk out of the tasting room without a grin on their face, and that seems to be precisely what the folks at Casa Nuestra intend.

Winemaking is done by Gene Kirkham's longtime friend, Allen Price, who got his start as a winemaker at Charles Krug in the early Sixties, and whose family has been living in St. Helena for several generations. His winemaking style, in my opinion, can be characterized as evenhanded and expressive without bowing to ostentation or overpowering elements. Most varietals, and especially the delicate field blends, are treated with a deft hand and a care that is only possible with the small quantities that are produced.

This Rosado is a perfect example of one of the other characteristics I find in their wines -- food friendliness. Too many pink wines from Napa are flabby and oily, marked by low acidity and with aromas which fight and often overpower the freshness that you want from a rosé. Not this wine, however, which delivers exactly what it should, fresh juicy fruit without cloying sweetness and racy acidity to make sure it washes down whatever you're drinking it with.

Yes, it's the middle of winter, but I'm still drinking rose. Call me crazy.

This wine is made from grapes grown on the St. Helena estate. A blend of saignée (juice poured off of the freshly crushed grapes) from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, it is fermented dry in stainless steel before bottling. Since the grapes that make it are destined for other things, there's not much of this wine made each year, but as there are a lot of people who still turn their noses up at pink wine (c'mon folks, lighten up) the 312 cases don't usually sell out immediately.

Which means good things for this long winter ahead.

Tasting Notes:
It can't be called anything other than pink. Light pink. With a nose of light and fresh strawberry and floral aromas. In the mouth it delivers on the promise of the nose with raspberry and alpine strawberry flavors zinging with acidity and minerality so they are crisp and juicy with no trace of sweetness or syrup. The best rosés can only be described as refreshing, and that is certainly an adjective that this one cannot escape. A distracted drinker could easily go through a bottle without noticing.

Food Pairing:
One of my favorite things to eat with my rosé (you see, I have my priorities straight) is thin crust pizza, or flatbread, or anything that goes into the oven soft and comes out crispy with a bit of cheese, vegetable, and fresh herbs.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $23

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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