Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blogging Wine Country, The Rest Of The Trip

So I hit Napa on Wednesday and a new hotel. They have free wifi. It didn't work. They were apologetic, but man is that frustrating. I wrote the posts in Word and saved them. Now that I'm back, having last posted Tuesday, here goes:

Got some anonymous hate mail Tuesday. Someone says I should pay more attention to my wife on this trip than typing away here. Apparently wine country and he do not mix. Sir, I write these at 5 a.m. in California. My wife is happy to have me typing away while she sleeps. Thank you, have a nice day.

Tuesday was “moving day.” We checked out of the wonderful Honor Mansion in Healdsburg and headed to Napa. Our last stop in Sonoma was our best.

Through a relative, we were able to travel up a mountain to the vineyards of Kamen. Robert Kamen is a screenwriter. He wrote Karate Kid, A Walk In The Clouds (a wine movie), Taken, and others. He bought almost 300 acres in Southern Sonoma and produces his 95-point (Parker) Cab, and a Syrah.

His business manager Larry met us at Sonoma Plaza and drove us up the mountain. First thing I noticed when we got to the top – complete silence. Not much of that in the world. Larry told us the story of the vineyard and let us pull a couple Cab grapes to taste. If you’ve never had wine grapes, they are extremely sweet.

On the mountain also sits Kamen’s home away from home, where we visited and took pictures. (below) We then traveled to the “winery” which is a sparkling clean warehouse where the entire process takes place. They also have a tasting room which is accessible by appointment only. We tried their 93 rated ’06 Cab, which was spectacular. These small wineries make great wine. Prior to the trip, we drank the 95-rated ’05, which was also great.

Sitting in the barrels is the ’08, which we tasted (picture below). This was our first barrel tasting of the trip. Wine in the barrel is not ready to be released, and tastes unique.

These visits are what make a trip to wine country worth it. You can go to all the “Disney World” type wineries with massive gift shops and grocery store type wines, but seeing a small winery in a private setting is something not to be missed.

Then it was on to Napa.

My first thought: Napa is not Sonoma. Napa is busier, there’s more traffic, and I actually had my first “bad” wine. I don’t want to make this personal, but some of you Napa Cabernet makers might as well put some oak in a glass and serve that.

After a stop at Zuzu, a great tapas place in Downtown Napa (which by the way, is a dead, dead, area), we ran up 29 (the main road) stopped for some oak in a glass, and by request, I stopped at Beringer.

I know, White Zinfandel, grocery store fare, “why’d you go there?” First, don’t forget they make a Private Reserve that is outstanding. But yes, after tasting 6 wines, other than their Savignon Blanc being “decent,” it was not so good.

The tour of Beringer was though, interesting. We saw old barrels, learned that White Zinfandel is the top selling wine in the world, and that Beringer sells 4 million cases a year of that $7 wine. You do the math. The Beringer property was purchased in the late 1800’s for $14,500. The winery, making 80 different wines, is now owned by Foster’s (yes, the beer).

Dinner was at Mustard’s, a Napa staple, and well worth a visit. I’d been wanting to try Pursuit Syrah, a wine from Napa’s Bounty Hunter, which has one of the best and most entertaining wine catalogues. Good stuff, and not expensive.

Wednesday began with a trip to Shafer, where we were lucky enough to be there on a day they were crushing Merlot grapes (below). Shafer makes 5 wines, all well respected in the industry. The winery is family owned, and run. This is a big issue in wine country as more and more wineries are bought out by corporations.

Not only did we see the crushing and processing of the grapes, we saw Doug Shafer, the son and President, watching over the process.

Doug is a friendly guy, who was happy to answer questions. The tasting was more like a family dinner. We sat with 5 couples from as far as Hong Kong, and sampled the 5 wines. (One-Point Five and Relentless being my favorites). They also make a Chardonnay (which I generally hate) that was great. Their premier wine, Hillside Select ($215 release price), was just released 18 days ago, and we were able to taste that as well.

We had another surprise moment when family patriarch John Shafer (below) walked in, and wouldn’t leave until he knew where everyone was from and why they came to Shafer. Even with all of Shafer’s success, including being on the menu at state dinners in the White House, John Shafer said “we take nothing for granted.”

We then headed to St. Supery. I never had their wine, but had heard great things. This place is a lot of fun. The tasting room staff, surrounded by great music, really enjoy themselves, and there are way too many wines from which to choose. Their high end Cab is great, as well as their Moscato. They have several wine club options, all of which provide discounts on all of their wines.

After a famous burger at famous Taylor’s Refresher, we headed to Pine Ridge. If you go, take the $25 tour. The caves are huge, and part of the tasting is a sit down with cheese at the end of one of the caves, as well as a barrel tasting. They do a great job explaining the entire wine making process.

We then headed for our last stop of the day, Cult Wine Central. This is where the very good, and very small production wines are made and tasted. Unfortunately, we walked in at 4:31 p.m. to “hi, how are you, we close at 4:30,” and since this is not Sonoma, we were not invited to stay.

Thursday started at Viader, where I had the best wine of the trip, hands down. Their winery and tasting room (below) had the most spectacular view of any place we visited. They are also one of 4 Napa wineries growing Tempranillo. They make a good one.

We then headed to Frias, the best visit of the trip. We were there 3 hours talking and eating our picnic lunch with brothers Fernando and Manny Frias. Their winery has no sign, their tasting room (below) is nothing to speak of, but their story, hospitality and genuine passion for the family business is unmatched. I tried Frias a couple years ago, have only found 2 bottles since, and am not surprised that one of their clients in Florida is Bern's Steak House. They don't make a lot of wine, and their Cabs, nicely priced, are very good. This year they made 120 cases of a Reserve that was off the charts. Keep your eye on this place.

Friday began with a visit to Araujo. They accept few visitors, and unless you "know someone," you can't even visit as a mailing list customer until you've been on for 5 years. We barrel sampled their '08 Cabernet, which is a year away from being bottled, where it will sit another year. This was another very personal visit, with a tour of the caves and family library. This is a special vineyard with a great story.

After heading to a couple unmentionable wineries (call me, I'll tell you where not to go), we ended our winery visits with a library tasting at Chateau Montelena. The picture below is the Chateau that adorns every label.

This winery is famous for putting Napa on the world map."Judgment of Paris" ring a bell? The movie Bottle Shock?

The short version: Their 1973 Chardonnay came in first at a Paris tasting and put Napa on the map.

Dinner before the red eye back to Miami was at Bounty Hunter. Highly recommended. They make some of their own wines, have a fun catalog, and their Ridge Runner "Longrider" wine is a steal for $14.95. They also make a Petite Sirah for $27.95 that is great.

Some final thoughts:

I liked Sonoma more than Napa. Napa is very corporate, a little stuffy at times, and traffic is annoying. They also deal with more rif raf looking to pay $5 for a tasting and buy no wine. These are the same people who ask about a "consultation fee" when they call my office. Forget them.

All wineries tend to notice those that are serious about wine and will often breakout a wine off the tasting list. Some can't tell the difference and are only happy to open a great wine if you pony up, otherwise they yank it out of the hand of the guy about to pour you some. (Freemark-Abbey).

The difference in the experience is whether you are a "main-street" visitor who goes on the various tours, or a wine lover who carefully plans the trip out and spends most of the time at wineries no one has ever heard of, where you arrive to no one or maybe a few people.

Other Places to eat: Bistro Jeanty (Tomato Soup is a must), Redd.

Now I just have to brace for the knock on the door: "Your wine sir."

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit


1 comment:

Anonymous said...


While you missed a great wine tasting at my house, your trip sounded amazing. Going to the small but awesome wineries was definitely the way to go and I wish I knew more/did more research before my trip 2 years back. As all but 2 of the wine tastings I did(buehler/Zichichi) felt more like that Disneyland meets Las Vegas type tasting. See you soon.