Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Foggy Day at Black Stallion Winery, Rubicon Estate and Twomey Cellars

Last week I finished final exams for the Spring semester in Las Positas College’s enology program so I decided to celebrate by heading up to the Napa Valley to explore a few wineries.

As I traveled across the bay early Saturday morning I began to wonder if I would ever see the sun. It is not uncommon to have in the morning what is often referred to have “June Gloom.” Typically the day starts with fog and heavy overcast but by noon it burns off and the sun begins to shine. But as I ventured into the south end of the Napa Valley in Carneros I concluded that if I wanted to see the sun I needed to drive as north as possible. So, I took the less traveled route up the Silverado Trail and then when I got to Calistoga I cut across to Highway 29.

Twomey Cellars

My first stop was in Calistoga and my first winery was Twomey. This winery is owned by Silver Oak Cellars and it is named after the founder’s wife. I had visited this winery years ago but at the time they only produced Merlot and a very small production of Pinot Noir, which at the time was sold out. On this return visit (with the fog still rolling in) I tasted their Sauvignon Blanc, three of their four Pinot Noirs, their limited production and soon to end Syrah, and their flagship Merlot.

The 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25) is not your typical California representative. This is no Chardonnay wannabe. This wine is straw yellow, has great acidity, a stony minerality, its bone dry and yet maintains plenty of fruit - lime, guava, grapefruit and lemon grass.

I tasted the 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($50), the 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50), and the 2007 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($50). The Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast are more of the raspberry jam style with a little spice thrown in while the Russian has more cola and root beer in the background that I prefer in California Pinots.

My next wine was the 2007 Napa Valley Syrah ($25) which I was informed will no longer be produced because the vines have been uprooted and Cabernet Sauvignon has been planted in its place. This is unfortunate because I preferred this Syrah to the Pinot Noirs. It is a deep plum-red with plenty of fruit and spice on the nose with a hint of violets and apricots undoubtedly from the 5% Viognier. This was followed by a mouth full of rich red fruits and a smoky leathery finish. I brought a bottle of this one home!

My final wine was the 2005 Napa Valley Merlot ($50). This is a BIG Merlot (almost Cabernet-like) with an intensely concentrated nose of black cherries, blackberries, bing cherries and a hint of ground black pepper. It is a full-bodied and velvety wine with pronounced but supple tannins with a prolonged finish.

Rubicon Estate

After my stop at Twomey it was around 11 a.m. and as I headed down Highway 29 the sun suddenly came out and the beauty and glory of the Napa Valley began to shine. Traffic was surprising light and so I decided to visit what is normally a busy tourist stop - Rubicon Estate.

The winery is owned by movie director Francis Ford Coppala. The Rubicon Estate Winery (formerly Niebaum-Coppola Winery and Inglenook Winery) sits on a portion of the historic Napa Valley property first acquired in 1879 by a Finnish Sea Captain Gustave Niebaum, founder of the Inglenook Winery. In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor, purchased Niebaum’s Victorian home, along with 120 acres of surrounding vineyards. In 1995, Coppola reunited the two original Inglenook parcels by purchasing the grand Inglenook chateau and surrounding vineyards (neighboring vineyards include Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard and Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour). The winery underwent a name change in early 2006, and is now known as Rubicon Estate. Coppola's winemaker is Scott McLeod, a UC Davis alumnus with winemaking background in Tuscany.

I had tried a couple Coppolla red wines from the grocery store (Rosso and Bianco, two wines in the $10 range) and wasn’t overly impressed. However, in one of my wine classes last Fall we tasted an Estate Cask Cabernet Sauvignon which really caught my attention.

Unfortunately I didn’t arrive in time for the first tour and missed it by just a few minutes. But I did wander around the estate to take a few pictures and take a peek at the Hollywood museum.

Rubicon has two “flights” so you can either taste five estate white wines or five red wines for a $30 tasting fee (ouch!) To be honest the two flights don’t make much sense. Why not allow visitors to choose from either list? They have a Marsanne and a Viognier blend on the White Wine Flight that I would have liked to have tried. But, given the choice between the two I chose the Red Wine Flight.

I tasted the 2006 Captain’s Reserve Pinot Noir ($38), the 2005 Captain’s Reserve Zinfandel ($30), the 2005 Captain’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($52), the 2006 Cabernet Franc ($56), and the 2005 Estate Cask Cabernet Sauvignon ($75).

All of these wines were outstanding, though perhaps a bit overly priced. There are plenty of wines of equal quality but a lot more affordable elsewhere in the valley.

The Pinot Noir is more Burgundian in style, more earthly and full-bodied than a typical California Pinot. The Zinfandel has great vanilla notes on the nose with accents of blackberries, strawberry jam followed by plenty of pepper and spice. The Cabernet Sauvignon has plenty of fruit, a hint of eucalyptus and mint, has supple tannins and is well balanced with a nice finish. The Cab Franc is “different” with a mouth full of clove, tobacco, with plenty of red and black fruit. The finish stops a little short but then there is a surprising time-delayed return. The Cask Cabernet Sauvignon is awesome and this is big brother to the Captain’s reserve is definitely an age-worthy wine with great cellaring potential of 5 to 15 years.

Black Stallion Winery

I then drove further down Highway 29 but by this time the typical tourist traffic began to build up so I drove back across the valley on side road and headed south again on the Silverado Trail. Over the past few years I have been able to visit to all of the wineries on the trail with the exception of two: Chafer with isn’t open on weekends and requires advanced appointments on either a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. But, I do plan to visit this winery sometime soon!

The other winery is one which I have for years have watched be built during my frequent trips up and down the trail - Black Stallion Winery. This winery opened about two years ago and most of the surrounding vines are newly planted and won’t be producing fruit for the winery for a few more years to come. So, currently all their grapes come from outside sources from around the valley.

I tasted the 2007 Pinot Grigio ($22), the 2006 Chardonnay - Carneros, Napa Valley ($38), the 2005 Merlot - Oakville District ($42), the 2005 Syrah - Oak Knoll ($25), and the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa Valley ($65).

All of these wines are respectable though perhaps a bit steep in terms of the price/quality ratio. Of all of them I thought the Syrah was the best value and I brought a bottle home to share with friends.