Feb 25, 2010

A Memorable Premiere Napa Valley 2010

Entering Napa Country...   (Photo: Copyright 2008 Jason Tinacci)

Premiere Napa Valley, organized by Napa Valley Vintners, has become a favorite winter tradition among local vintners. With the mad days of harvest long over and new wines at rest in the cellar, wine folks have time to put on a show for "the trade"--wine retail/wholesale buyers, cellar buyers for restaurants, and a few members of the media. Attendees have a chance to barrel-taste and bid on 200 unique small wine lots made just for the event. Lot bottles are specially labeled and each lot--ranging in size from 5 to 20 cases--can be sold to only one buyer. This guarantees exclusivity to the purchaser.

A two-day event, this year Premier Napa Valley ran February 19-20, accompanied by plenty of large and small celebrations around the valley. The auction was held on Saturday, the 20th, and it surpassed expectations, bringing in $1.9 million--a 30% increase over last year. The auction’s top lot: five cases of Shafer Vineyards’ Sunspot Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for $37,000.

I hit three pre-auction events on Friday, accompanied by a photographer friend. Wow: what a great time we had! Here's a rundown of our three events:

Appellation St. Helena 6th Annual Trade Tasting

Charles Krug Winery's Carriage House

First up, early Friday afternoon, was the 6th Annual Trade Tasting of Appellation St. Helena, held at Charles Krug Winery in an 1881 carriage house that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Behind the long tables ringing the large upper room stood representatives from about 40 of the appellation's wineries. Some had opened a range of their wines; others confined themselves to a single
varietal (usually Cabernet Sauvignon); and half a dozen poured tastings from Premier Barrel Lots.

My companion went straight to the premier barrel samplings, while I browsed around hoping to find varietals rare (or at least uncommon) in Napa Valley. I actually had a bit of luck with this:
  • Benessere Vineyards, which specializes in Italian varietals, poured their 2006 Sangiovese Estate. The main component of Chianti and a few other blended Italian wines, Sangiovese at its best is a lively, fruit-forward wine that deserves to be appreciated for itself. Benessere's Sangiovese definitely hits the mark.
  • Another varietal worth noting is the dry 2008 Malvasia Bianca from Ballentine Vineyards. This grape is almost always used to make dessert or fortified wines (and in blends). Ballentine's dry version is unusual: I was hit with layer upon layer of citrus fruit and a bit of berry...but no sweetness. This wine is startling enough to wake you up and refreshing enough to keep you cool; quite the sipping sensation on a hot summer day, I'll bet. Only 125 cases were produced, and, not surprisingly, it quickly sold out.
Other wines I enjoyed include the 2006 red blend from Jaffe Estates, Transformation, consisting of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon/45% Merlot; and the 2007 Rennie Reserve Cabernet St. Helena from Flora Springs. I was also intrigued by the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Premier Blend (Lot #95 in the auction) from Anomaly Vineyards, taken from the cellar's standout barrels. The man who poured my taste told me it took six separate sessions to perfect the blend--they'd finished the night before.

Signorello Estates: Kobe & Cabernet

View from the Terrace at Signorello   (Credit: Signorello Winery)

About mid-afternoon we headed over to Signorello Winery on the Silverado Trail. For years the Signorello family grew grapes on their 100 acres of prime land for renowned wineries such as Caymus and Cakebread. But then came the extra-bountiful 1985 harvest. Left with unsold grapes, the Signorellos decided to try making their own wine. The result was so good that the family entered the wine-making business. Today the company produces half a dozen varietals; it's particularly known for the excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and the full-bodied Padrone, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend (e.g., the 2007 Padrone is composed of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 8% Cabernet Franc).

This winery is pretty wonderful. Architecturally I would say that it pays a kind of post-modernistic homage to Old California style; it's small, beautiful, and offers great views from all directions. The tasting room interior is a high-end minimalistic design, with the sharp modern edge softened a bit by sculpture from earlier eras. Out back on the terrace visitors can taste wine while gazing over the edge of an infinity pool to the hills beyond. On our visit, a big open-sided tent had been set up outside the tasting room, and beneath it was a chef in full regalia surrounded by American Kobe Wagyu Beef and Kurobuta Pork (provided by Idaho-based Snake River Farms), along with platters of salads and all the fixing you could ever want for topping a burger or sausage grilled to your exact specifications.

If you visit Signorello, consider signing up for Enoteca Signorello ($65/person). A private tasting experience that pairs Signorello wines and Italian-inspired foods. For example, a recent menu paired the 2006 Syrah with Confit of Local Rabbit with Pistachios and Vanilla Golden Raisin Syrup; the 2006 Padrone with Snake River Farms Kobe Beef Filet atop Roasted Mushrooms, Bacon and Carmelized Onions in a Cabernet Sauvignon Reduction; and the 2008 Seta (a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend) with Hamachi Tuna, Yukon Gold Potatoes, and American Caviar (the menu included additional pairings). Learn more about the pairings and other visitor possibilities.

Stags Leap District Bar & Lounge
The Cave's Chihuly Sculpture   (Credit: See below) 

Late in the afternoon we drove north along the Silverado Trail to Pine Ridge Winery, where twelve superb local wineries would be pouring in the caves: Pine Ridge, Chimney Rock, Baldacci, Silverado, Cliff Lede, Steltzner, Stags Leap, Terlato, Clos du Val, Shafer (biggest money-earner at the auction next day), and Hartwell.

Pine Ridge makes good use of its extensive cave system year-round with events such as the well-known Cabernet Cave Dinners. The cave is 130 feet below ground and extends 300 feet into the hillside. Beautiful glass wall sconces light the way through narrow passages until you reach the main room, where your attention is immediately drawn to a stunning yellow glass sculpture, at least 5 feet long, by artist Dale Chihuly.

Last Friday night, wine barrels had been moved out of the way, and the cave system had been magically transformed into a night club. After we checked in at the desk a "bouncer"--a really big guy wearing a suit and sunglasses--lifted the cord and allowed us to enter the dimly-lit corridor. At first all was silence, but as we walked along a slight murmur developed. It grew louder and louder until we turned a corner and entered what I now think of as "the Chihuly Room."

The lighting, from candles and sconces, was low. High-end, modern, comfortable settees were arranged around a low table directly before the ledge holding the glass sculpture. Sleek aluminum bistro tables dotted the room. In an alcove, a DJ kept things lively with Buddha Bar-type tunes. Waitresses dressed in black and wearing Lady Gaga shoes offered can't-say-no edibles (faves: the Mini-BLT, about the size of a quarter, on puff pastry; Ahi Tuna on goat cheese, arranged on a rye cracker, glazed with pumpkin seed oil). Here and there the cave walls were marked, just barely, with primitive symbols. On tables and inside wall alcoves, straight-sided clear-glass containers held flowers and candles in imaginative combinations. It was a gorgeous room, with the best nightclub ambience I'd encountered since my last trip to Las Vegas. For a while we sat within arm's reach of the Chihuly, just soaking it all in.

And the topper: half a dozen mini-bars were located on the room's edges, with two wineries pouring at each. All afternoon my photographer friend and I had opposing thoughts on the wines we'd tasted, but when we sampled Cliff Lede's 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, we were in complete agreement: complex, full-bodied, rich with currant, structurally perfect and supple as hell, it was without a doubt the best wine of the day!

 Thanks for the Chihuly photo to / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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