You may have been following me as I did my Tour de Wine Country last week/the week before. I had an awesome time, met some fabulous peeps, and best of all learned a ton of new stuff.
Today I'm going to recap my visit to Honig, somewhat of an institution in Napa and best known for a kind of un-Napa variety -- Sauvignon Blanc. No one does it better than Honig in that Valley and no one can beat the value (it's $16, probably the most competitive of all established Napa wineries for any wine!).
We arrived a little early for our 10 AM appointment (Honig sees guests by appointment only but they are completely normal about it and if you just call ahead they'll hook you up). It was a nice day and the vineyards surrounding the very naturalistic-looking tasting room still had some grapes hanging around. I tasted a few and think they were Merlot or Cabernet Franc -- they seemed lighter in flavor and didn't have the snappy bite that Cabernet Sauvignon has even right off the vine.
After tasting and approving the raw materials, MC Ice and I headed into the tasting room and Mark, a very nice dude from the Midwest, took us through a tasting of four wines (I was so happy that they didn't offer 8. Some folks got REALLY excited in showing their stuff and over did it on the tastings -- I was trying to find ways to politely refuse after a while...story for a future post). Mark also gave us a little background on the winery.
Honig is located across the street from the famous Cabernet Sauvignon producer, Caymus. Caymus sold the property in 1964 because they were looking to divest their vineyards in favor of buying grapes from growers (a good business strategy for lowering your risk. If you don't own the vineyards you don't get stuck with bad crops and then you can pick from the best of the best of the growers with whom you have contracts).
Around the same time, Louis Honig was a rich San Francisco professional (ad exec) looking to realize his dream of starting a winery (this is a typical Napa story, BTW -- "Rich Person Buys Winery." Have you ever heard the joke -- "how do you make a small fortune in wine?... You start out with a big fortune..." It's true and this is why all the folks who start wineries are independently wealthy). He bought the property but I guess remained too busy playing out his "Mad Men" life to make the whole wine thing a priority. He sold grapes to farmers rather than producing the good stuff.
Fortunately, the dude had some ambitious kids and after he died, in 1980, they hired a contract winemaker to whip up a small vintage of Sauvignon Blanc in his honor. They knew they had something good on their hands, so they entered the wine into the Orange County Fair and the wine won a Gold Medal. Demand shot up and the Sauvignon Blanc became Honig's flagship. They followed it up with a Cabernet Sauvignon and the winery was on its way to greatness.
Today Honig, which means honey (hence the bee on the label), has an amazing winemaker, Kristin Belair, and is run by Louis's grandson, Michael Honig. Both came to hang out during our visit and were nothing but hospitable and super open to questions, comments, hearing about Atlanta, the blog, you (the readers!) etc. You can tell that they believe in what they do, have a ton of pride, and really enjoy their lives. Who could ask for more?
I picked Honig to visit because they make affordable wines that you can actually find in a store. Also, although super-different from my much loved New Zealand and French Sauvignon Blancs, they do make a really unique style in this variety and it is delicious in its own rite. I don't know if I had even ever had their Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was pleasantly surprised by that too (although the ones we had were pricey, they're good to know about for a little splurge).
So here was the lineup:
Wine 1: 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
The grapes for this wine are sourced from all over Napa Valley, which I think in this case is a good thing. The winemaking team then gets to choose the best of the best grapes and since I don't think all parts of Napa are great for growing Sauvignon Blanc (if it's too hot the vine gets overgrown and the grapes are flavorless and bland), having a choice of grapes is a positive thing. It only works to do a vineyard or site specific wine if the grape historically grows really well in a place and makes wines that are distinctive because of that. That's not the case here.
Color: The wine was super light -- a pale straw or platinum color. I'd had these wines before, but in Napa there is always a danger that someone might put a Sauvignon Blanc in a new oak barrel and give it smokey, 2 by 4 (wood) qualities that I hate. The lighter color told me right away that oak was not a factor (oak darkens white wines). Sure enough, Kristin told me that the wine was fermented in stainless steel and then put in neutral oak (meaning it gives no flavor to the wine) for 3 months.
Smell: Very cool. Unlike the bowl of grapefruit that I usually get with Sauv Blanc, this smelled like a bridal bouquet! There was some peach and lemon, but mostly the overwhelming scent of white gardenia, jasmine, and other white flowers were prevalent. Delicious.
Taste: The wine had a lemon-lime/limeade flavor to it and was just a dash sweet. It tasted more like grapefruit than it smelled, with some lychee fruit too (go try one if you have no idea what I'm talking about. Their texture reminds me of brains, but don't let that stop you!). It had bold acid, which I want in a Sauvignon Blanc, but was smooth and creamy. The creaminess was from the Semillon added to the wine and the fact that Kristin left the wine to age sur lie for 3 months in an oak barrel.
[Sur WHAT? I'm trying to figure out how to explain this without it sounding gross, but I can't so here goes. After the yeast kill themselves by greedily eating sugar and changing it into alcohol during fermentation, they settle to the bottom of the vat in which it was fermented. If you leave the wine on the dead yeast, they break down a little and create a creamy flavor. Lots of white wines are aged this way to give them more depth and dimension (if you think this is nasty, you can't drink Champagne any more so just get over it!!!)]
Drink or Down the Sink? Love it. Top choice in Napa Sauvignon Blanc. This is a great one especially if you are easing into Sauvignon Blanc from Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. It has some of the punch from the acid and grapefruit, but isn't a bowl full of burn like Sauv Blanc from elsewhere. Keep this on your list of great whites!
Wine 2: 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Color: The wine was kind of like a berry punch color -- a light ruby. It seemed from first glance that it would be a lighter style but then when I looked again and twirled the glass around, I noticed that it was staining the sides. Lots of pigment usually equals lots of flavor...
Smell: Yum. This was the perfect combination of blackberries and potpourri. There was an undercurrent of warm cinnamon spice too and I thought it smelled a little like fresh dill (not pickle-y though). The dill aroma was probably because the wine was held in some American oak barrels for 18 months (they used some more subtle French barrels too). American oak can put powerful flavors in the wine -- dill is sometimes one of them.
Taste: This was a subtle wine, in a good way. It tasted like blackberry and black plum, but it wasn't goopy or jammy like some Napa Cabs can be. There was a little flair to the wine -- it tasted like leather, herbs, and like baked biscuits. I just loved that it wasn't overdone.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. We bought a bottle of this, and since it's distributed pretty widely, you may want to pick up some if you catch it on sale or have a few extra Hamiltons/Euro/Sterling laying around. It's rare to find Napa Cabs at this price point (I personally think that's because most of them are overpriced, but story for another post) and especially one that's complex, interesting, and can go with food.
Wine 3: 2006 Bartolucci Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine is sourced from a small vineyard which is at the base of Springer Mountain in Napa. Mountain fruit is generally prized because it doesn't get quite as much heat as fruit growing in valleys -- the cooler temperatures allow the grapes to ripen more slowly so they maintain acid and develop more secondary flavors that make the final product interesting.
I had a little trepidation on this one though. I'm not a big fan of the HUGE Caymus style and Mark told us that this vineyard used to be used for that winery's Special Select...
Price: $75 (only available off their web site and in the tasting room)
Color: The wine was a dark garnet (brownish red) color. On a swirl, the thick legs (I expected high alcohol) were tinted red on the way down the glass. I expected a big wine.
Smell: Like blackberry jam with mint, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There was a lot of aroma jumping out of the glass.
Taste: Even though the wine is four years old, it needs some time to chill out. The tannins were kind of harsh, it just didn't deliver on the jamminess in the nose. That said, I can tell that with a few more years, this will be a blockbuster with blackberry, spice, and green pepper notes that are quintessential Napa Cab qualities. I'd like to try it again in a year or two to see how it's changed.
Drink or Down the Sink? I covered this in taste...sorry. It's a well made wine, but it needs time. If you want something to drink now, get the '07 Cab -- it's ready! This one needs some more time in a dark, vibration-less, medium-humidity room. If you've got patience -- buy it and hold it. I think you'll be happy with the results.
Wine 4: 2008 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
You probably already know this, but 99% of the time you see Late Harvest on a wine, it means it's going to be a sweet wine.
But it doesn't always mean that the wine will have a tangy beeswax quality that this wine had. Why? (Brace yourself, this is another disgusting winemaking technique -- it's not all glamour and glitz...) Wines with that quality are infected by a fungus called Botrytis (bo-TRY-tis) that raisins the grape and, if picked at the right moment, can create complex, fascinating sweet wines. According to Kristin Belair, the Sauvignon Blanc used for this wine is grown near the Napa River and nearly every year the grapes are infected, so Honig has access to great raw materials.
Because I can't help myself, I'll point out something that I found a little odd before I tasted the wine. Arguably the best sweet wines in the world are made in Sauternes and Barsac, areas of Bordeaux where the grapes get "noble rot" (as the fungus was more delicately termed for marketing purposes) very easily because of the climate. They are generally a mix of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with the former taking the lead role (like 75 - 90%). I thought it was interesting that Honig chose to do a sweet wine with Sauv Blanc as the lead. Just sayin.
Color: It was yellow, but usually sweet wines are very dark, rich, and golden. This -- not so much.
Smell: It was a lighter smell than what I expected. Peach, orange, and candied lemon were there. A little beeswax and honey too. Pleasant but not as aromatic as I would have thought.
Taste: I'm going to put out there that I'm not a huge sweet wine connoisseur. I like the stuff. I enjoy a high quality Port, Sauternes, or sweet German Riesling, but I am only half as conversant with these wines as with the rest of the wine family. Why? I don't drink them that much. That said, although this was a good dessert wine, for me it didn't have the multi-layered flavors I like in dessert wine. It had a nice touch of acid, since you can't eliminate that from Sauvignon Blanc, and it tasted like apricots, oranges, vanilla, and honeycomb. I liked the wine but I didn't love it.
Drink or Down the Sink? If you're a sweet wine person, you'll love this. If you are picky about your sweets, you may just think it's ok. Definitely a DRINK, not down the sink though! It's like orange tea with honey -- nothing to dislike here!
I owe a BIG thank you to Honig for hosting me and for their kindness and generosity with their time and their wines. Mark, Mike, and Kristin were phenomenal and I would recommend that you go any time!
It was the opposite of what I'd expect in Napa -- no snottiness, no pretense, no adult Disneyland antics or gimmicks, just a family and winery that strives to make good wine and succeeds.