Monday, May 30, 2011

Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known today as the Judgment of Paris, was a wine competition to celebrate the American Bicentennial that was organized on May 24, 1976 by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman running a wine shop and wine school in Paris. In this competition six top California cabernets and chardonnays were blind tasted against four Bordeaux wines and four white Burgundies to act as markers against which to evaluate the Californians. The judges were among the best tasters in France, and, to everyone's surprise, they chose a California wine over the French for both the red and white flights. The highest scoring white in the competition was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the highest scoring red wine was the 1973 Stags’ Leap Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then there have been several repetitions of the competition and each time California has continued to prove itself to be at the top of the class.

In celebration of this historic event (as well as my brother’s 48th birthday), my brother Adam and I ventured out on Saturday May 28, 2011 to the Napa Valley to pay a visit to these two historical wineries. I had been to both of these wineries before, the first time was in the Spring of 2000, but had not written about them for California Wine Tasting Adventures (CWTA).

Chateau Montelena

Being a holiday weekend in the USA (Memorial Day), we headed out early and made our first stop at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena was built in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs who purchased 254 acres of rugged land just two miles north of Calistoga at the base of Mount Saint Helena. Tubbs had made a fortune from the rope business during the Gold Rush, and knew the area from visits to the White Sulphur Springs Resort nearby. He planted vines, and by 1896 Chateau Montelena was the seventh largest winery in the Napa Valley.

Sadly, the winery and land then ceased to produce wine due to the Prohibition. During this time Tubbs sold grapes but did not make wine and in 1958 the Tubbs family sold the Chateau to Yort Wing Frank, a Chinese electrical engineer, and his wife Jeanie, who were looking for a retirement home. The Franks created a garden in the style of their homeland, and excavated Jade Lake. Today the Chinese garden is an absolutely gorgeous place for picnics with “islands” reserved for members of the Chateau wine club. On the far side of the lake are the vineyards sprawled out at the foot of Mount St. Helena.

Chateau Montelena’s renaissance began in 1969 when the winery and vineyard land were purchased by attorney Jim Barrett who put together a bunch of investors to purchase the property. Barrett restored the chateau, replanted the vineyards, installed new winemaking equipment, hired wine maker Mike Grgich (founder of Grgich Hills Winery in Oakville) and brought in a cellar crew to make the first wines in 1972.

It has been reported on the internet that in 2008 the owners of Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena Winery sold their respected 40,000-case operation to a revered second-growth Bordeaux wine estate, Chateau Cos d’Estournel. However, I have been informed from the winery that "Clos d'Estournel did not purchase the property; the Barret family continues to own and operate the winery." (for more information see: )

While the move Bottle Shock is entertaining and displays the beauty of the Napa and Sonoma wine countries,  it is loosely “based on a  true story.” For a more accurate depiction of the people involved and the how the event took place I high recommend reading George Tabor’s book The Judgment of Paris.

Today, Chateau Montelena is producing some of the world’s finest wines and without a doubt they are charging a hefty price for them. While in the movie the winery owners laughed at Steven Spurrier’s wanting to pay for tasting, today Chateau Montelena offers one tasting flight for a fee of $20 (which is waved with a purchase of $100 or more) and the wines are extremely expensive.

Our first wine was the 2010 Potter Valley Riesling ($25) from Potter Valley, an unincorporated community in Mendocino County located 18 miles northeast of Ukiah, California. This wine displays a classic Riesling profile, extremely aromatic on the nose with tropical fruit, canned peras, dried apricots, melon, kiwi fruit, a slight “nuttiness” and a slight “band-aid” note. On the palate the wine is luscious, rich, with ripe fruit yet it remains dry and crisp with great acidity with an extremely a long finish that last for over a minute. This was probably one of the best Rieslings  have ever had from California.

Our second wine was the 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50). Aged sur lee (in contact with spent yeast cells) with no malolactic fermentation this wine displays the characteristics of a Burgundian style Chardonnay. A dry wine with an austere mineral and steely character followed by complex layers of crisp golden delicious apples, fresh pears, herbs, dried spices and flowers.

Our third wine and first red was the Estate 2008 Montelena Estate Zinfanel ($30). This is NOT your typical California high alcohol jammy fruit bomb Zinfandel. It is a medium bodied wine, ruby red in color, almost a dark rosé, which you can clearly see through  in the glass. The aroma is predominately of cranberries, fresh watermelon, strawberry with a hint of rhubarb.

Our fourth wine was the 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($49). This is a classic Napa valley Cab (though it includes 8% Merlot)! Deep garnet in color, black currant, blackberry and anise on the nose followed by cassis, black cherries, roasted herbs, bay leaf, silky tannins with a very long finish.

Our final wine was the Napa Valley’s Cab’s big brother – the 2007 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($135; K&L Wines sells it for only $104.99). This wine is deep ruby-red. Deep aromas of of blackberry, blueberry, violet and and attractive earthiness. Velvety on entry, followed by a whalloping gallup of power. It is extremely youthful with layers of black currants, black berry berry and anise. Finishes with refined tannins and and lingering finish.

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

After a break for lunch at Buster’s Southern Barbeque in Calistoga (AWESOME Tri-Tp sandwiches at a GREAT PRICE) we headed down the Silverado Trail to Stag’s Leap Cellars.

The winery was founded by Warren Winiarski who had worked for, and learned from, various wineries including Robert Mondavi. In 1970 he bought a 50-acre orchard which he transformed into the Stag’s Leap (SLV) Vineyard. Later in 1986 he acquired Nathan Fay’s vineyard, maintaining the name FAY in his honor.

In what is now referred to as the historic “Paris Tasting,” the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors among the reds, triumphing over two first-growth and other renowned wines of Bordeaux. The surprise win along, with Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay, was covered by TIME magazine and picked up by media around the world.

In 2007 Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state and Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy bought Stags Leap including the SLV and FAY Vineyards.  But Warren Winiarski and his family retained the Arcadia Vineyard and continues to provide grapes to the Antinori-Ste Michelle partnership.

Stag’s Leap Cellars offer’s two tasting flights. The first is The Napa Valley Tasting ($15) which consists of the 2008 Savignon Blanc, the 2008 KARIA Chardonnay, the 2006 Merlot and the 2007 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon. When given the choice, I always for the better of the flights so I chose the second, The Estate Collection Tasting ($30), which consists of the following:

Our first wine was the 2008 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay ($50). A classic well balanced Chardonay without the faux paus of your typical overly oaked buttery California Chards, this is a full-bodied wine that gracefully interweaves fruit, spice and minerality with layers of ripe pear, honey dew melon, ginger and just a touch of nuttiness. 

Our second wine and first red was the 2007 Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($95; K and L Wines sells it for only $65.99). This full-bodied wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from their 67-acre estate vineyard. It is deep garnet in color and is followed by very alluring aromas of rose petals, sweet red plums, anise. On the palate there are seductive layers of cassis, black cherries and cola, medium-bodied and elegant with a silky  texture, soft tannins and a long finish.

Our third wine and second red was the 2007 Stag’s Leap Vineyard (SLV) Cabernet Sauvignon ($125; K&L Wines sells it for only $79.99!). This is a radically different wine than the FAY Vineyard. Where the FAY is a floral seductive wine, the SLV is a more earthy, dense and manly wine. On the nose and palate there are interwoven layers of blackberry, black plum, cassis, bramble, , caramel, vanilla and spice. The tannins are silky and the wine has a very memorable lingering finish. 

The 2007 CASK 23 Cabernet Sauvignon was sold out, so we then tatsed the 2005 CASK 23 Cabernet Sauvignon which sells for the same price ($195; K&L Wines sells it for only $109.99!). The 2007 CASK 23 Cab is their flagship wine as it combines the best of the FAY and SLV to provide a wine that has both elegance and full of character, with both floral and earthy aromas and a perfect balance between fruit, tannin, minerality and acidity. On the nose offers I picked up notes notes of dark chocolate, blackberry, coffee and sage. On the palate also picked up notes of fig, plum and anise. It is is full-bodied wine with round and supple, yet bold tannins, excellent backbone and structure.

Chateau Montelena Vs. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

All of the wines we tasted Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Cellars were world class deserving of high praise as they made the day a truly memorable experience. But, as noted the tasting room price can often be WAY above the market at fine retailers. So if you have a smart phone I suggest checking to see if the wines are available at fine wine dealers and compare prices before purchasing from the tasting room. But, some of the wines we tasted are small production and are not available outside the tasting room.

It would be interesting to do a blind taste comparison between these two great wineries, to see which Chardonnay I preferred and which Cabernet I thought was best. But, as I went through Stag’s Leap Cellars’ wines I was making mental notes, comparing the two and (no surprise here) I found that I marginally preferred the comparably priced Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Chardonnay but I preferred Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars’ FAY and SLV Cabernets over Montelena’s Cabs.

For more information and to visit Chateau Montelena check out their web site at:

For more information and to visit Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars check out their web site at:

 Brothers.... Adam and Erik Wait

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Twisted Bud Break in the Sierra Foothills – Twisted Oak Winery

While the canopy vines and leaves are in full boom in the California Central Valley and fully on their way in Napa and Sonoma, in the colder regions of the Sierra Foothills during this time of year they’re still budding.

If you’re traveling up to Yosemite (where there is still snow on the ridges) as I was two weeks ago, after your visit you’ll want to continue on your journey up to the Sierra Foothills, to a host of wineries and take the twisted (and bumpy) road to Twisted Oak Winery. If you are driving a sports car, however, you might want to drive up the delivery truck entrance as the windy road through the vineyards is full of potholes (complimentary!) and crevices. But, if you do you’ll miss the comical road signs and the beautiful scenery.

Specializing in Spanish and Rhône varietals, TOW’s wines can be characterized as big, intense, concentrated, and fruit forward.
The tasting room is simple and rustic and the service was okay, but the server who is new to the wine biz would benefit from a little studying of wines. Frequently back roads winery tasting rooms are hosted by the wine maker or someone in the family and your get a lot of inside scoop on the wines. Unfortunately, this was not the case…
My first wine was the 2010 Calaveras County Verdelho. If you have never had a Verdelho, it is a Portuguese white grape varietal widely planted in Maderia since the 1400’s. Verdelho grapes are small, yellow-gold, thick-skinned, hard berries that are high in acidity. Although not widely known in North America, I have come across a number of California wineries in Lodi and the Sierra foothills that produce it. Fermented in 100% stainless steel with absolutely no time spent in oak, this wine has fresh lemon, pears, apricot, and granny smith apples on the nose and on the palate it is crisp and refreshing, with a relatively good body. It sells for $19 – a fair price.

My second white wine was the 2010 Calaveras County Viognier. Having spent time in 30% neutral oak, 70% stainless steel this wine is incredibly floral on the nose – almost sweet with what seemed like honey mixed with overripe apricots, orange blossoms, acacia and violets. The bouquet was so powerful in fact, it reminded me of a Muscat. Yet on the palate it is completely dry and well balanced in fruit and acidity. So while the nose may overwhelm you, the mouth feel and finish is quite pleasing. It sells for $19 and only 480 cases produced so I brought two bottles home.

My third tasting of the day was the 2008 Sierra Foothills “Ruben’s Blend” - a Rhône white wine varietal blend of 41% Marsanne, 45% Roussanne and 14% Grenache Blanc. Marsanne, Roussanne are well known Rhône varietals frequently blended with Viognier. Grenache Blanc is found in both Spanish and Rhône blends and it is a major component in the white wines of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône (slopes of the Rhône) AOCs. I don’t come across it very often in California so this is a rare find!

On the nose, I picked up lemon, fresh pear, white gardenia and some earthiness. Fermented started in stainless steel and then transferred to 50% new French Oak and 50% neutral oak while still on the lees, on the palate I detected subtle notes of honey and lemon zest with a creamy mouth-feel on the mid-palate and finish. This wine is well balanced from start to finish and it sells for $24.
My third wine, and first red, was the 2008 Calaveras County Torcido, an estate blend of 87% Grenache and 13% Petite Sirah. The Grenache was first fermented as uncrushed whole berries and then was pressed for the secondary fermentation. It spent 16 months in barrel (20% New French, 30% 1 year-old French and 50% neutral oak) and bottled 28 months after harvest. On the nose and palate I picked up raspberries, blackberries, clove and nutmeg. A bit steep at $32 a bottle.

My fourth tasting and second red wine knocked my socks off! The 2007 Calaveras County “The Spaniard” is absolutely fantabulous! Undoubtedly the flagship wine of Twisted Oak Winery, it is a blend of 64% Tempranillo (a well known low acid Spanish grape) and 20% Graciano [pronounced grah-see-YAH-noh], a low-yielding red wine grape that is grown primarily in Rioja and rarely found in California, and 16% Garnacha – the Spanish name for Grenache. This wine spent time in 60% new French oak, 15% new American oak, 25% 2 year old French oak.

On the nose and palate I picked up intense and jammy raspberries, blackberries, cherries, black pepper, new leather with a hint of cedar and earthy forest floor notes. The price is a bit steep at $49, but I brought a bottle home anyway.

My fifth tasting and third red wine was the 2007 Calaveras County Parcel 17. A Spanish varietal blend of 46% Monastrell (Mourvedre) from 36% Mazuelo (Carignane) and 18% Graciano, a truly rare and unique wine in California that is a “must taste” to expand your palate and break out of the Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel… rut. The wine spent time in 10% New French oak, 30%, New Eastern European oak, 60% Neutral oak. On the nose is it earthy, nutty and spicy intermixed with red and dark berries with just a hint of sweet oak and vanilla. On the palate it has firm tannins with a dry mouth feel with a lingering berry finish. A bit steep at $32 a bottle but it is worth taking one home to have something this unique to share with friends.

The sixth tasting and fourth red wine in the lineup was 2007 Calaveras County Petite Sirah. Aged in 40% new American oak 60% neutral oak, this is a very intense and concentrated wine with fine tannins, with an immediate attack on the palate of milk chocolate, ripe blackberries and lots of crushed black pepper, licorice and coffee. The wine sells for $24, a fair price but there many comparable wines under $20 on the market.

The seventh tasting and fifth red wine was the 2006 Calaveras County Grenache. This Grenache (also known as alicante, carignane rousse) is a blend of 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah and spent time in 20% new American oak and 80% neutral oak. A light to medium bodied wine with loads of finesse and subtle tannins, it has layers of strawberries, raspberries, red currant, cherry with black pepper, menthol, and licorice. On the palate the nose is confirmed with additional notes of minerality. It sells for a very fair price of $18 a bottle. 

My eighth tasting and sixth red wine was the 2006 Calaveras County Murgatroyd. This is a unique blend of 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Mourvedre, 24% Tempranillo and 14% Grenache. It spent time in 15% new American oak 85% neutral oak.

Note: It may seem like I’ve been drinking a lot of wine, but I am only “tasting” very small portions over an hour’s time. The major challenge at this point isn’t intoxication but palate fatigue. With so many huge, intense and concentrated reds after a while it can be difficult to distinguish one from another as the previous wine still lingers in one’s nose and mouth.

On the nose and palate I picked up fresh plum and blueberry jam, raspberries, black and red cur­rants and a little vanilla extract. It sells for $24 and out of the big reds I thought it was the best priced so I brought two bottles home.

My final wine of the day was the 2006 Calaveras County Tempranillo. A blend of 86% Tempranillo and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 30% new American oak and 70% neutral oak. This wine is earthy on the nose with layers of blackberry, herbs, cloves, and cinnamon stick. On the palate the nose is confirmed with a fine balance of fruit, earth and natural acidity. I’d chalk this one up to being Twisted Oak’s second best red wine. It sells for $24 a bottle.

If you’re headed up to the foothills I highly recommend visiting Twisted Oak Winery (and Irish Vineyards near by) and if you do, tell them you read about them at California Wine Tasting Adventures and that Erik Wait sent you!

For more information:

Twisted Oak Winery
4280 Red Hill Road
Vallecito, CA 95251
(209) 736-9080