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Tasting Real Wine in the Napa Valley

I’d be the first person at K&L to admit that I don’t know much about the producers in the Napa Valley. Despite the fact that I can attest to the flavors present within many of the Napa wines in our store, I don't know anything beyond that.  Part of this is due to the fact that my spirits buying duties have drastically cut back on the amount of wine I am drinking at home these days.  Most of the reason behind this gap in my knowledge, however, lies in the fact that I just don’t enjoy this type of wine anymore, causing me to focus my attention elsewhere.  As someone who only drinks wine with a meal I’m interested in low alcohol, unoaked wines that pair well with food.  Most of the cabernets and chardonnays being made in Napa right now, however, are the exact opposite – high alcohol with tons of toasty new oak.  They are wines made for people who like to drink, rather than eat.  Despite my predjudice, I signed on to join the K&L tasting weekend because I thought I’d give Napa another chance.  There had to be someone still making real wine up there and I thought it would be nice to know a bit more for when I’m helping a customer. 

The producers we visited in Napa were all mountain properties, which made the trip much more special.  There's something about mountain vineyards, with their rocky soils and microclimates, that allows them to make wines of distinction - wines that taste different from the run of the mill sites on the valley floor.  The morning began at Von Strasser, a cabernet focused producer located in Napa’s Diamond Mountain district in Calistoga.  We were all hurting a bit from the night before, but as wine professionals made sure we were ready to taste and open to learning.  Rudy Von Strasser joined us and told us about his history as a winemaker, beginning with a stint back at Chateau Lafite in 1985.  He was the first in California to grow Grüner Veltliner and the wines he makes from the native Austrian varietal are legit - full of white pepper and clean acidity.  As a producer who specializes in cabernet sauvignon, however, he wanted his Diamond Mountain property to stand out and helped establish it as an official appellation, distinguishing it from the other Napa producers whose fruit isn't quite as special.

Tasting the cabernets of Rudy Von Strasser was a true pleasure.  Since we have yet to carry many of his wines, it was the first time through for most of us.  His 2008 Cabernet shows beautiful red fruit aromatics with concentrated berry flavor, plenty of earth and fine, integrated tannins.  They drink almost like Washington reds with the black fruits and coffee bean flavors, but with more structure.  His 2008 Estate cab is just a bigger version of the regular cab with more old school grit.  The Reserve Red, while the most expensive of the bunch, is not quite as impressive because it seeks to bridge the gap between his old world style and the public's new world palate.  However, it's still a far cry from the jammy fruit bombs many producers are currently releasing.  The wines are balanced, interesting, and restrained.  They represent Rudy's philosophy well - keep the alcohol low and the flavors in check.  An impressive and unobtrusive way to begin a long day of cabernet tasting.

Von Strasser Winery - 1510 Diamond Mountain Rd. in Calistoga (707) 942-0930

Tastings are available by reservation.

As we drove through the gate into Storybook Mountain Vineyards, I really had the feeling of entering a fairy-tale-like world of greenery.  Rolling hills with sweeping vineyards trellised up and down each of them, disappearing behind wooded groves and growing right to the top of steep mountain slopes.  Storybook was established on the site of the old Grimm Brothers winery, which had been growing zinfandel since the 1880s, but was gutted by a terrible fire in 1970s.  When Jerry Seps bought the abandoned property in 1976, Storybook seemed like the proper homage to the old name of the site.  The term terroir doesn't really mean much unless you can visit a vineyard site in person.  When standing in the 96 degree heat of one vineyard site and then immediately moving into the 72 degree shade of another, it becomes clear why Storybook's amazing zinfandel wines have names like "Eastern Exposures" or "Mayacamas Range."  The grapes coming from different vineyard sites are subjected not only to different soils, but also various degrees of temperature and sunlight.  Because the EE vineyard faces east, it stays cooler in the afternoons as the sun sets behind the mountains in the west. 

While having seen the Storybook bottle on our shelves for years, I had had little experience with the wines.  I never really thought Napa zinfandel was something I would want to be drinking, expecting it to be overripe and sweeter than Santa Cruz mountain favorites Ridge or Sonoma's Joseph Swan.  One sip of their wine was all I needed however to realize that I had made a terrible misjudgment.  The 2008 Mayacamas Range Zinfandel is simply spellbinding - gorgeous aromatics, red fruits, black pepper, subtle spices, and a refinement that has to be tasted to be believed.  There's nothing excessive about this wine, despite the fact that it's made from a grape known for going over the top.  Zinfandel has become a wine consistantly high in alcohol, sweetness, and oak.  With Storybook, however, the fruit is elegant, the textures soft and balanced, the flavors gentle and careful.  When we got around to sampling the 2008 Eastern Exposures I was spinning (and not from my grueling hangover).  The EE is so concentrated with red berry and sangria flavors that it's amazing how graceful it actually is.  The pepper is there again and the 8% of viognier that's added gives it a slightly perfumy note.  These are absolutely stuning wines and I was absolutely embarrassed that I didn't already know this. 

Jerry Seps owns and runs Storybook Mountain Vineyards located at 3835 Highway 128 in Calistoga.  Tastings are available Monday through Saturday by reservation at (707) 942-5310. 

Stony Hill is located in the Spring Mountain district of Napa, an area known for fantastic cabernet.  So why is this producer making almost exclusively white wines from chardonnay, riesling, and gewurztraminer?  Because when the McCreas planted the vines a half-century ago there was no one around to tell them exactly what to grow!  Yet their location on the mountain proved to be the perfect climate for making white wines of purity. elegance, and typicity.  The McCreas had a fondness for white Burgundy so they planted the grapes they personally loved.  To this day they still use Montrachet from Burgundy yeast to ferment their chardonnay. 

Part of the reason why the Stony Hill wines taste so good is the quality of the fruit and the location of the vineyards.  The other reason is the winemaking.  Mike McCrea doesn't use any new oak if he can help it - most of his wines are aged in 30 year old puncheons!  He also prevents the wines from undergoing malolactic fermentation - a natural process where the tart malic acid is converted into the softer lactic acid resulting in a softer and more supple wine.  Most Napa winemakers allow malo (for short) to happen because they want that buttery flavor that people love so much, but not Mike. With the higher acid content preserved, his wines taste fresh, vibrant, exhilarating, and real.  When we got back to the house for some tasting, we were treated with a sampling of white wines, but also a few new reds that are only now beginning to leave the winery.

We began with the 2010 Gewurztraminer which sang of grapefruit, lychee nuts, and aromatic spices like ginger.  Low in alcohol, streaking with minerals, and refreshing as hell.  I immediately bought one when I came into work today.  The 2010 White Riesling was also impressive with beautiful balance and a light, lean, almost saline quality.  We were treated to a 1996 riesling as well and it's amazing how well these wines hold up.  The whites from Stony Hill are serious wines - they will last decades in a well-kept cellar.  The 2009 Chardonnay had great acidity and that focused acidity that makes one's mouth water instantly.  I was surprised to see that we currently had a selection of older vintages, so I picked up the 2001 Chardonnay to see how ten years in the bottle changes this beautiful wine.

One thing you can't yet buy from K&L, however, is the new cabernet from Stony Hill that sells for ridiculously low $25 at the winery.  This wine drinks like something between a properly mineral Graves and a fleshy St. Emilion - it stunned every one of us.  However, being a Spring Mountain property, it makes sense that they would eventually add some cabernet vines to their arsenal.  It's worth the long drive up the hillside just to get one of these bottles - believe me. 

Stony Hill Winery is located off of Highway 29 in St. Helena.  They are at the top of a very long, steep, one-lane road so drive safely.  Tasting reservations can be made by calling (707) 963-2636.  Do not miss the chance to taste here.

Around Spring Mountain from Stony Hill lies Robert Keenan Winery, high up in the Mayacamas range at about 1700 feet above the Napa Valley floor.  Famous for their old-school merlot and wonderfully-balanced cabernets, they're also industry leaders in responsible farming and technology - solar panels sit at the far end of the vineyard, soaking up the energy from the sun and sending it back underneath the vines to power the winery.  Some of the sites at Keenan get more sun than any other vineyard in the Napa Valley, so it makes sense that they would harness this energy both for their fruit and for their fuel.  Despite this fact, Mike told us that they've witnessed a bit of climate change since 2005 with more rain and cooler temperatures than previously experienced.

The wines at Keenan are perhaps the most-approachable of all the wineries we visited.  They are powerful, concentrated, but never lacking that juicy fruit that the average wine drinker is expecting.  Like Storybook showed me with their zinfandel, Keenan also has taken the much-maligned merlot grape and made it into the Right Bank of California.  The 2007 Merlot was perhaps my favorite wine of the Keenan flight - not at all plumy or overripe, but full fo structure, earthy notes, and plenty of acidity.  They also make a single vineyard merlot from their Mailbox site and it's a true, old school California red wine - great fruit, but not quite ready to be consumed.  It's a wine that will pay dividends for those who can wait a few years for it to truly open up - absolutely fantastic.  The cabernets are also divine - again full and amazingly balanced fruit with ample acidity.  The tannic structure is there, but it's not massive, so again the wines are very approachable despite their excellent ability to age.

Tasting wine at Keenan is a real treat because the wines are not inexpensive.  The reserve cabernet gets up into the $90 range, but at least you're getting a real wine for that price.  A wine that is made from hands-off farming procedures and speaks to an actual place.  The terroir at Keenan is important and getting the chance to walk through the vineyards is key to understanding how the wines themselves taste. 

Keenan Winery is located at 3660 Spring Mountain Rd. in St. Helena.  Tasting reservations can be made online or by calling (707) 963-9177.

So why did I feel the need to write an article about the "real" wines of the Napa Valley on the Spirits Journal blog?  It's not because I'm forced to watch the "Real" Housewives of New Jersey, New York, Beverly Hills, and Atlanta on a regular basis.  It's because most of you reading this live in the Bay Area and these are producers who provide an ample opportunity for a better understanding of quality booze.  Ultimately this site is about alcohol and how it can make our lives happier, so I felt it to be appropriate considering that anyone even remotely interested in wine would have an absolute blast tasting these wines and visiting these properties.  The views are incredible, the scenery romantic, and the wines delicious.  These wines are made by people who take their craft seriously - you won't find drunken tourists in Hawaiian shirts getting housed at these tasting bars.  These are wineries that understand their topography and their relationship to it.  They make wines that pair well with a meal because ultimately that's what wine is for. 

Plan a weekend and get yourself up to Napa.  You'll be amazed at what an authentic California experience the "real" Napa can provide.

-David Driscoll


The "Real" Napa

Imagine it - you drive up to Napa for the weekend with a bunch of co-workers.  You're staying at a magnificant Italian-style villa taken care of by the company, overlooking the Palisade mountains and a smattering of cabernet vineyards.

The house itself is gigantic and the table is all set for what will be a decadent meal.

On site are a pair of private chefs whose first task is to make one after another of fresh-tossed, wood-burning-oven baked pizzas, before moving on to the dry-rub-aged beef.

For dinner, you've got magnum bottles of some of the world's best wines.

For after dinner, your spirits guy brings a selection of world-class single malts (in this case that's me, so I have to imagine it a bit differently). 

You swim and play bocce ball until long after midnight as co-workers bond and spend time with one another, until, one of them suddenly goes missing.  Hours go by and more people start disappearing, just like out of a slasher movie.  You try to call the police but the house has no landline and no one can get any reception on their cell phone.  In the end, only one of you survives the night and lives to tell the tail.  This is exactly the type of weekend I just had, well, up until the swimming and bocce ball part.  K&L staff from all three stores met in Napa this weekend to visit some outstanding winemakers, learn more about our craft, and come together in solidarity.  I learned much about the "real" Napa and drank some amazing wines that had the acidity and balance I never thought possible from local producers. As soon as I have some time I will write up the experience and share information about how anyone else interested can visit and organize their own trip.

-David Driscoll


Return of the Tasty, Affordable Malt

William Wemyss walked into the RWC store on Friday all ready to tell me about his new house blends.  We met in the tasting bar and began to discuss his first selection, The Spice King.  "This one is made with primarily..." "Talisker," I interupted, finishing his sentence for him.  "Have you had these before?" he asked and I smiled.  We had the Wemyss selections about two years ago when they were with another distributor, but eventually stopped selling them once that relationship was terminated.  Now that they're back with new representation and even better pricing than before, we're more than happy to put them back on the shelf.

All three Wemyss expressions are tasty examples of their particular styles, and all are made with 100% single malt of at least 8 years of age.  The Spice King, made with a high amount of Talisker, is lightly smoked with lovely flavors of vanilla and rich fruit.  The Smooth Gentleman, made with a good dose of Aultmore, is the Speyside nod, rich sherry, raisined fruits, smooth textures just like the name states.  The Peat Chimney is the Caol Ila-dominated whisky and is exactly what you would expect - lots of smoke, but also enough richness to balance it out.  It's not the lean and mean Laphroaig style, but more like sherry-aged Caol Ila. 

All three will retail for $39.99 which makes them very competitive.  These are far more interesting than anything else we offer in the $40-ish and under range, besides maybe Ardbeg 10, but that's a very specific flavor.  These are easy drinking and very enjoyable.  I'm delighted to have them back.  They also have a lovely gin made with Elderflower called Darnley's View, by the way, that should reappear at the same time.

Also in stock for the moment is the new release from Compass Box - the Great King Street blend! Another fantastic whisky for $39.99 but the initial release was small and we've already sold over half of what we got.  In time, however, there should be no problem keeping this in stock.  I think it will slowly win people over and become a staple of every serious whisky drinker's home bar, namely because it's the ultimate rocks and soda bottle. 

The Great King St. actually tastes better in a cocktail than it does as an everyday sipper and I think that's an important thing for people to know.  I've heard from a few customers who were excited over the fact that the Malt Advocate rated a $40 whisky 91 points, thinking that it was just as good as the $90 whiskies they give 91 points to.  However, I'm thinking this needs to be put into perspective.  When a $10 wine from Spain gets 91 points in the Wine Spectator, they're not telling us it's just as good as the 91 point $200 Bordeaux wine - they're saying that it's good compared to its other peers.  In the case of the Great King St, I can't think of another blended whisky that's nearly as delicious. Just remember how it's supposed to be drunk because I have the feeling someone's going to read that review, take a bottle home, pour a wee dram, and say, "Oh....that's it?" However, that isn't it - you just need to add a few ice cubes!  I'm happy it's so inexpensive because when I'm adding rocks and soda, I tend to pour big!

The Laphroaig Triple Wood also quietly debuted yesterday and again, as with the Cairdeas, I was very impressed with the effort from this distillery.  This is the same formula as the Quarter Cask, but with an additional maturation in European Oak.  Ex-bourbon + QC + Euro Oak = Triple Wood.  Nice oaky, woody flavors mingle with subtle sweetness and a healthy dose of peaty punch.  I could drink this all day (and all night, too).  Again, Laphroaig has been great about keeping their prices down - especially when their limited-edition, collectible malts could be demanding far more. 

Kudos to all of these malts. Thank you for keeping us in good spirits without breaking our banks.


Your bargain hunting whisky fans.

-David Driscoll


Only The Best - Part II

It seems I'm not the only person in the liquor industry who's worried about the current trend of drinking "only the best."  A customer recently passed along an article from the most recent Malt Advocate and I was quite startled to find Lew Bryson had written about something quite similar.  Unlike me, however, Lew had the guts to just come right out and say exactly what he felt:

"We - you and me - are the people new whiskey drinkers learn from.  When we're excited about the Antique Collection, Birthday Bourbon, Parker's Heritage, or the Knob Creek Single Barrel, the aspiring whiskey drinker short-cuts to them, fixates on them, and never realizes that there are bourbons for all times.  They have bypassed learning their own bourbon tastes to get right to "the best" - what someone else has told them is the best. We've failed them. They don't know what a table bourbon is."

Quite a compelling statement, eh? 

Speaking solely from retail experience, I have repeatedly worked with customers who conveyed to me their interest in taking wine more seriously and were therefore ready to invest in a gigantic, $10,000 wine storage unit, plus an additional $5,000 to fill it up with whatever I thought was good.  That's a lot of dough and a lot of trust for someone just starting out, but who am I to argue?  What I have usually said, however, is that a wine storage unit is really only necessary for someone looking to meticulously age their wines over a 15-20 year period. "Do you like to drink mature wines mostly?" I would ask.  "I'm not sure, I haven't had that many," was the usual response. I would then attempt to convince the customer to start with a selection of older Bordeaux and California cabernets, taste them over the course of a few weeks, and then decide if this was what they were interested in.  Otherwise, why not just keep your wine in the closet and spend ten grand on something more worthwhile?

I'm not sure if other generations were the same, but many people today under the age of 45 have a desire to dive head first into everything.  I am one of them, but I have worked very hard to scale back this enthusiasm and focus it into acquiring actual wisdom.  I've listened to cycling enthusiasts in the Bay Area mock the newcomer who shows up on the first day with a $10,000 bike and $500 worth of new clothing, despite never having ridden a day.  I've heard amateur golfer friends ridicule the guy with the $5000 bag of clubs, but zero ability to actually use them.  There's an idea out there that beginning with the very best therefore makes you the very best, but it isn't true.  Being able to afford something is very different than actually appreciating it.  It's far better to start slowly and listen to those around you before making any serious declarations.

Going back to Lew's statement, the part that caught my eye was the addition of "what someone else has told them is the best."  Every purchase or experience in life that I value was probably at some point recommended to me by someone I trust.  Whether it was a restaurant recommendation or what type of car to buy.  I don't see anything wrong with listening to other people's opinions.  We just have to make sure that we don't derive our own pleasure through them.  If I were to go out to dinner and someone told me that the wine we were drinking got 92 points, I would probably sigh because there's no actual passion behind a statement like that.  If that same person were to just tell me that he or she thought the wine was really good, I would be much more excited. 

-David Driscoll



The day is finally here.  If you ordered one of our Ladyburn bottles for pre-arrival, they should be ready to pick up today for Northern California.  Hollywood orders will be there this weekend.  If you need to have yours shipped then give us a call as we won't automatically do it until we've heard from you.  So far I've tasted about 20 different customers, friends, and colleagues on the sample I have open and the reactions have been fun to watch.  Superlatives, cursing, and complete bliss.  No one has been underwelmed yet which makes me very happy.  This is as good as it gets!  Happy drinking to all of you who got one.  We really appreciate your support!

-David Driscoll