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What is it about Napa Valley wines that drew luminaries from all forms of the wine trade to descend upon London’s The Palm Restaurant recently?
Ignoring all major wine shows held throughout the tasting calendar, I don’t recall seeing so many noted people; Jancis Robinson OBE MW, Gerard Basset OBE MS MW MBA, Will Lyons, to name a few, occupy a ‘snug’ room to listen intently, and taste the wines from the illustrious panel of Napa winemakers and representatives which included; Maryann Bautovich – Schramsberg Vineyards, André Crisp – Luna Vineyards, Vivien Gay – Twomey Cellars & Silver Oak Cellars, Elizabeth Vianna – Chimney Rock Winery, Chris Hall – Long Meadow Ranch Winery, Michael Beaulac – Pine Ridge Vineyards, Tim Fogarty – Robert Mondavi Winery, Doug Shafer – Shafer Vineyards, Delia Viader – Viader Vineyards, Brent Shortridge – Waterstone and chair for the day, Tim Atkin MW.
OK, it all sounds like a bit of a gush fest on my part. I’ve mentioned the names above to really highlight just what it is about the Napa Valley that brought these guys here in the first place, and to inflate my own ego a wee bit as I was part of it.
Over the last 10 years or so Napa Valley wines seems to have been lost, or hidden from our shelves, primarily down to
costs and the over emergence of cheap mass produced brands littering our supermarkets and convenient stores…you know who they are! Even so, if you are willing to search, they are out there but you’ll probably find a premium price point attached, and here’s why!
As an AVA Napa isn’t a huge region. The valley stretches approximately 30 miles, which makes it slightly smaller than Burgundy’s Côte d ’Or and 1/8th of the size of Bordeaux. The valley itself is flanked by the Mayacama Mountains on the west and Vaca Range on the east, has 16 sub-appellations, including Calistoga, Stags Leap, Los Carneros and is home to more than 400 wineries.
Wine production here is relatively low as the region only produces 4% of California’s total wine output. With more than 75% of the Napa Valley Vintners Members producing 10,000 cases or less per year, and nearly 65% producing 5,000 cases or fewer, these production levels add to the cost of the wines, both here and the US where the average bottle price for a Napa wine is around the $20 mark.
These figures do allow for a certain care and attention in quality to the product, something which drew my eye to these wines when I first started my career 18 years ago. Astonishingly enough 95% of Napa wineries are still family owned, again, adding to the personal feel to the wines, as it was soon to be confirmed during the masterclass.
Up to 3 wines were selected from each of the participating producers, showcasing the difference in styles between the 2002, 2005 and 2008 vintages, with the exception of Luna Vineyards who offered up two Merlots from 2003 and 2010.
The session began with the only whites of the masterclass, three Blanc de Blanc sparklers from Schramsberg Vineyard. All three wines were produced using fruit primarily taken from the Napa and Sonoma regions. Each spent three years on the lees and a further year in bottle. As you would expect, with good quality fizz, these were incredibly smooth and easy on the palate. My preference was from the younger 08 vintage. Richer depth of baked apples on the palate, lovely soft bubbles and finely balanced with good fresh acidity – rrp £264 per 12 from Fine & Rare Wines.
Unlike Miles, the protagonist from the movie Sideways, I actually like fleshy Merlot’s. Luna Vineyards 2003 Merlot expresses those fleshy characters I appreciate. All single estate fruit, both the nose and palate smack of big, opulent dark black fruits. Jammy and succulent on the palate too with good acidity and tannin! The only problem is you’ll probably have to skip to the other side of the pond to find one. With only 1000 cases produced per year, it’s a bit rare!
Brent Shortridge at Waterstone started production back in 2000. He initially began as a Négociant, buying in fruit from around the area. In recent years Brent has started to produce wines using his own crop. As soon as the négociant tag was mentioned my mind began to wander, until I tried his 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose showed signs of cooked black fruit and earthy, herbaceous characters, yet on taste, fresh red fruit flavours, a touch of minerality and spice. Nice!
In fairness I could write all good things about the wines tasted. With Napa you are dealing with an AVA that almost sells itself in class and quality, and this was evident in the events guest who turned up.
Napa holds a unique fascination with me, and with Tim Atkin too, by all accounts! He began reminiscing about his time as an 18 year old exchange student in Chicago, driving across America with a college buddy, fake ID in hand and pulling in to taste what the Napa wineries had to offer.
For me it’s a region that feels separate to the rest of California. There is a familiar homeliness to the area. From the comments made by the panel they are happy to continue producing wines how they see fit and not be influenced by the likes of Parker or the Wine Spectator, which was refreshing to hear. As Doug Shafer would go on to point out “If you don’t like my wines….buy something else!”
Napa Valley in the UK needed a wakeup call; it’s been too long slumbering in the shadows of the rest of California. Napa isn’t about cheap plonk! Napa isn’t about mass marketing for the supermarkets! Napa is all about learning from its mistakes, producing better wines and then let them do the talking.
Story by me!