No one likes a complainer...but people do like a little dirt every now and then. And if you're reading this blog, you're expecting some honesty. Most people don't like a sugar-coated world (if you do, stop reading now please).
Which is good, because as I get through my recap of my Napa/Sonoma trip of a few weeks back, there are sour notes in all the sweetness...and I'm not talkin' about the fact that it rained cats and dogs. Rain I can deal with. Crazy Napa-ness, not so much.
After hitting Napa gold at Honig and Chateau Montelena -- two unpretentious places with great wine and great people -- I patted myself on the back. I was thinking, "After all these years of saying Napa was full of snotty pretentiousness, it turns out I was wrong. People have really changed. It's almost like Sonoma!"
I'm an idiot.
Those two and the one that follow the debacle I'm about to chronicle were the result of good recommendations and good choices. To quote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (I know, one of the weaker of the series, but bear with me):
"...choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you."Similarly, a good winery will make you feel happy and good about wine, a bad one will suck the life from you and make you want to go drink hard liquor.
I should have known that a winery located on Napa 29, the main drag of all the big commercial Napa wineries, may have been imbued with the spirit of adult Disneyland syndrome. But I had a very generous friend set up the appointment and he insisted that Nickel & Nickel had unrivaled hospitality -- the best he'd seen in Napa (and he's been in this business three times as long as I have, so I was a believer).
I think the difference in his experience and mine is that I don't distribute their wine, so to them I was a walking dollar sign who needed to be put through the paces so I could fall in love with the property and then spend $1000 a year on their wine club. Maybe they should have read the blog before they confirmed the appointment.
So with that preface, the story goes as follows:
We head south from Chateau Montelena in a hustle to make our 2:00 appointment. MC Ice and I arrive at 2:05 (we called to say we were running late). We turn into the property. There is a lovely white gate surrounding the house in which the tasting area lies, which I'd seen many a time from the road. It's locked. We call for admittance since there are huge signs everywhere that say entrance without an appointment is strictly forbidden. No answer. We call again...and again...and again. Finally, I get out of the car and hop the fence to walk up to house, worrying all the while that I may be shot by a tranquilizer gun because of the strict "no admittance to the plebians" policy.
Much to my relief, I arrive with nary a scratch and check in with the receptionist and the tour guide, who seems angered that we are late. I explain who I am and that my husband is locked out of the property and waiting in the car to park. The receptionist, who was nice but not exactly fueled with a sense of urgency, tries for another 5 minutes to open the proverbial Fort Knox that I seem to have entered. MC Ice finally parks and comes into the beautiful old Victorian.
We were then given a glass of oak, I mean Chardonnay, and were put into a room with other tour goers to wait for the ride to begin, and so commenced the Disney tour of Nickel & Nickel.
If you've been following the series on Napa, it will come as no shock that the founder was....drumroll...a rich guy (this time from Tulsa, Oklahoma) who dreamed of starting a winery and bought this property in Napa to pursue that dream.
I'll give the guy some credit. The 42 acre property, across from Robert Mondavi's spread and right next to Opus One is a beautiful place. He restored the Victorian farmhouse, and Nickel used his cash to build winemaking facilities that are housed in beautiful white barns fashioned in a similar style. The facilities are new and state of the art, as we learned on the painstaking tour that lasted an hour.
My favorite part of the Tour de "you're going to wind up in a room and feel pressured to buy our wines" was the colonial red barn that was dissembled in New Hampshire slat by slat and saved from destruction. I'm all for historic preservation, but our tour guide needs a lesson in environmental sustainability. Pop quiz: What takes less energy, destroying a barn on site and using the firewood locally or transporting the wood over 3000 miles and then using electricity, water, and fuel to rebuild it? I bet you passed this one.
Did I mention that cost $8 million? I think I left that out.
How about this for a question? After a very impressive and interesting talk about how the winery is 100% solar powered (a feather in their cap, for sure), I ask, "Are your organic or biodynamic in your farming?" The guide says, "I mean, we don't have any certifications. We don't think it's necessary. We just use as few pesticides as possible. No one in this Valley farms with pesticides anymore. That would just be bad for everyone and for your own wines. It just doesn't happen."
I call bullshit on that. There are still many wineries in Napa using pesticides and although you don't need a certification to be doing the right thing, that condescending answer is patently incorrect and silly in my opinion. "No" would have been a sufficient response for me, what about you?
Although most of the tour was a propaganda ride through a rich man's playground, apart from the sheer beauty of the place, the high point of the Disney tour was that we got to see and feel a display of the main soil types from Napa. Because the area has been an historically active volcanic/moving plate area, the soil composition in Napa is varied (hence why style and quality vary so much). The Vacas mountains (left), closer inland, were active volcanoes so they have iron-rich volcanic soils. The Mayacamas, which border and include a part of Sonoma County, were once under the sea and contain more alluvial soils that were once part of the ocean floor. Each soil results in different flavors (even if it's the same grape) so I think it's cool to be able to see, feel, and especially smell (I would have tasted it but it wasn't that kind of place, as you may be able to tell) it. I wish other wineries would do more of this so people could learn more about why soil makes a difference.
So heading down the mountain from that high, we went to the cellar. Here the guide proudly showed their expensive 100% new French oak barrels (this means that their flavors will never be subtle. New oak, even the more mild French oak, imparts very prominent vanilla, cedar, tobacco, leather, cinnamon, etc. flavors. Most fine wineries include a mix of new and old oak barrels for balanced wines). We then headed to a dark, subterranean tasting room downstairs in the Victorian that had a lovely spread of five Cabernet Sauvignons with some cheese and nuts.
What can I say about these wines? First, I think Nickel & Nickel is going a little overboard. Each wine is from a single vineyard. They do no blending. That means it's 100% from one grape and 100% from one vineyard. In some cases, this may be a good thing, but in many it means that the winemaker can't make up for imperfections from year to year by blending with other grapes or vineyards that could have been better. It is what it is. I found each of the selections (at prices starting at $90 per bottle) to be ho-hum.
I'll give you the list of wines we sampled, but I'm not going to give more than a one liner on each. They just don't warrant the review, regardless of how Robert Parker scored them. Here is the list:
2007 Regusci Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It smelled like tart plum, bitter chocolate, and green pepper but tasted like a watered down version of the nose. It was light, weak and only slightly better when paired with food.
2007 Witz End Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. The best of the bunch to me, this wine was from the Rutherford area of Napa, known for the famous dusty, country road flavor that seems to be in all the wines from this little town (people call it Rutherford dust - self explanatory). I liked that smell and taste, and the fact that there was a walnut aroma and flavor that was unique and tasty.
2007 Martin Stelling Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. I have very little to say about this $140 bottle of wine. I like subtlety in wine but besides a little dirt on the nose and a medicinal and mouth-drying, tannic texture this wine had NOTHING going on. My notes say "yawn."
2007 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Although slightly less boring that the previous selection, I still found this wine to smell great and taste blah. The nose was full of promising black raspberry, black plum, and black cherry, with mint and wet soil hanging around on a second whiff but apart from a vague coffee note -- zip on the nuance or fruit.
2007 State Lane Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville. This had a real promising nose. It had what I like to call a "Napa nose" -- big fruit. Blackberry, black plum, lots of floral notes with some light minerals -- all very juicy and ripe aromas. Sadly, like the rest of the wines, the palate was more like green pepper, coffee, and bitter mint tied up in a sea of astringent tannin.
There were many negatives in this winery visit -- from the locked gates to the forced tour (can't we just taste if we want?) to the inaccurate comments on environmentally friendly farming in Napa -- but the worst part -- we were late for our last appointment to Darioush, a wonderful, amazing last place to end our day in Napa and one for which I would have like to be on time given the high quality of the wines, the sweetness of the people, and comfort of the surroundings...stay tuned.