Secret Wines of the Napa Valley

The second of the two seminars I gave at the recent Aspen Food & Wine Classic festival was entitled “Secrets of the Napa Valley.” The folks at Food & Wine magazine sort of have me slotted as the California guy, so every year I tend to do at least one Napa or Sonoma focused seminar.

This year I wanted to highlight some of the least known wines or producers of Napa in an attempt to get people to broaden their horizons, and showcase some of the diversity that flies a bit under the surface of the sea of Cabernet.

The seminar was also an excuse for me to share some real gems — a few of which are some of my absolute favorite wines made in the valley, to the point that I actually buy them with some regularity.

I tried to make a video of this seminar as well, but the conditions were less favorable than the South African seminar. It was popular and because they squeezed so many folks into the tent, there wasn’t table space for my tripod and flip camera. As a result I had to fudge it a little and I ended up with a video with lousy sound and my head cut off a lot of the time. So no video of this one to share, sadly.

Instead I’ll offer my tasting notes on the wines below, and some brief thoughts on why they qualify as some of Napa’s secrets.

2008 Smith Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain District
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of rainwater, lychee, and wet stones. In the mouth it offers delicate flavors of unripe pear, lychee, and wet stones with a lovely wet chalkboard quality on the finish. Balanced and comely, a small bit of residual sugar adds a lip smacking quality to the wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Click to buy.

Smith-Madrone is a lesser known producer that has a great “lost in time” quality to it. Founders Stu Smith and Charles Smith revived an ancient vineyard site that Stu found while hiking on Spring Mountain. The first thing they planted? Riesling. Some of those vines are now 30+ years old and are yielding a tiny amount of fruit that goes into this bottling, which is one of California’s very best. Very few people have had a Napa Riesling, and few get to try this one, which is sold almost entirely to those in the know.

2007 Heitz Cellars Grignolino, Napa Valley
Light ruby in color with a hint of purple, this wine has a nose of bright huckleberry and blackberry fruit aromas. In the mouth it has a bright strawberry jam, cassis, and spicy cherry flavor that makes it difficult to take life seriously. Excellent acidity and a bouncy juicy personality make this wine a real pleasure to drink. Not complicated or complex, just damn fun. Serve slightly chilled for best effect. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. Click to buy.

One of the best values of any wine in Napa, this is also perhaps the least known bottling by a famous producer. In 1961 by Joe and Alice Heitz bought a little 8-acre property from a Swiss-Italian farmer looking to get out of the wine business. The entire property was planted with his favorite grape, and one he was sure would be the future of Napa valley: grignolino. Originally from the Piemonte region of Italy, the grape is grown almost nowhere else, but the Heitz family in its wisdom has preserved the original acreage. If you don’t get your annual allotment of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet, you might pick up a case or two of this wine (or the rosé they also make from the grape).

2007 Lang & Reed “214” Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, and as it gets more air, some wonderfully floral aromas. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful polish and presence, with flavors of cherry, cedar, cocoa powder, fantastic acidity, and wonderful velvety tannins. Incredibly lush and juicy, the wine has a rich timbre to it that makes it super delicious. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40. The wine will be released on Bastille Day (July 14th) 2010. Call the winery and get some if you want it.

This wine is a secret for two reasons. One, because Lang & Reed wine company, dedicated to making Cabernet Franc in a valley obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon, flies very much under the radar for most people. Two because this wine (until my seminar three weeks ago) has never been tasted by the public. A brand new bottling made from the only plantings (to anyone’s knowledge) of the Etay 214 clone of Cabernet Franc direct from the Loire, it is the latest in a series of stellar wines made by John and Tracy Skupny, the high school sweethearts who fell in love and then fell in love again with Chinon as they traveled around the world together.

2001 Farella Park “Alta” Red Wine, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet tobacco, cherry, and wet earth. In the mouth this blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot has a lovely, soft tannic structure and velvety texture that caresses flavors of cedar, cherry, tobacco, leather, and wonderful earthiness. Perfect acidity, wonderful clarity and length, with fantastic mineral qualities that linger in the finish, this wine would be very difficult to peg as 10 years old. Aging beautifully, it has another 10 years of improvement ahead of it. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75. Click to buy.

Farella Park Vineyards, run by winemaker/philosopher/botanist Tom Farella is one of my favorite secret wineries in Napa. Located in the often-overlooked Coombsville region of the valley, Farella winery was started in the 70s by Tom’s dad, Frank. Tom started working there as soon as he was able, and now, despite being relatively young, he has nearly 30 vintages under his belt. He took over as winemaker fully in 1990, and it took him 10 years before he felt like he understood the vineyard enough to make a wine that fully expressed its potential. In 2001 it was time, and he created “Alta.” I was truly privileged to offer a taste of this wine to the crowd in Aspen, and they were quite lucky to have a chance to taste it, given the small quantities that were made, and even smaller quantity that remains in the winery’s cellar. It is one of my favorite Napa Cabernets.

2007 Casa Nuestra “Tinto St. Helena” Red Blend, St. Helena, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mocha, dates, prunes, and wonderful blackberry aromas. In the mouth the wine has taut, leathery tannins that make a fist around flavors of blackberry, cocoa powder, dried figs, black cherry and dusty earthiness. The finish has a distinctly dusty quality with lingering flavors of leather and tight earthiness. Unique and distinctive, the wine is quite young and will benefit from three to five years of bottle aging. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Click to buy.

Whenever someone asks me where they ought to go “off the beaten path” in Napa, I send them to Casa Nuestra. With its pen of goats, rock and roll blaring in the tasting room, and gregarious tasting room staff (and their wine club secret handshake), it is one of the least “Napa” wineries in Napa, if you get my drift. This wine is special because it comes from an ancient mixed black vineyard planted with (hold on to your hats): Cabernet Pfeffer, Zinfandel, Alicante, Mourvedre, Mondouse, Carignane, Refosco, Pinot Noir, Petit Sirah, Gamay, and four or five varieties that have yet to be identified. Actually the wine comes from a new vineyard in front of the tasting room that has been painstakingly grafted from this original vineyard onto newer, healthier rootstock. The winery now makes this bottling, a traditional field blend of all the above grapes, and a blend from the original vineyard called Tinto Oakville. Every year I have a different favorite, this year it was Tinto St. Helena. One of the more unique wines in Napa.

2005 Spencer Roloson “La Herradura” Syrah, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of deep, black cassis, white pepper, and briary blackberry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic weight and texture on the palate, with velvet glove tannins that caress flavors of blackberry, espresso, woodsmoke, and cassis that swirl on top of a foundation of deep minerality. The finish has a lovely tart, floral quality. Impeccably balanced, with a raw yet restrained power, the wine is frankly, impressive. Quite possibly the best Syrah made in Napa. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $48. Click to buy.

This wine is a secret for the opposite reason of the 214 Cabernet Franc. This will be the last vintage that the public gets to taste of this wine. The 2006 vintage wasn’t bottled, and in 2007 the vineyard was sold, and the winemaker, Sam Spencer no longer has rights to the fruit. This is a double shame, not just because of what this wine demonstrates is possible from this vineyard, but because Sam planted and farmed this vineyard for the previous owners. A wonderfully unique vineyard that has a bowl-shaped 180 degree exposure, it was planted with “suitcase cuttings” from (if my memory serves) Hermitage in the Northern Rhone. The 2005 is, poignantly, my absolute favorite vintage of this wine, and a demonstration of what a great loss it will be to no longer get to taste it.

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There are very few “true” secrets in Napa. Most of the roads are pretty well traveled. But the wines above will reward anyone looking for something special off the beaten path. A few are really only available by calling the winery, which I highly encourage you to do. Tell them I sent you.