Napa Valley trip, November 2010

DAY ONE-November 1st.

Just about perfect flight—on time departure—arrival 1/2hour early—no major bumps—luggage made it—should I play the lottery?

First tasting was at Elizabeth-Spencer. I was greeted by the newest addition to the tasting room…..a lovely woman who was experiencing her first day on the job. In Napa Valley, that takes some knowledge and guts. She did a nice job walking through the wines and was very helpful. Also spent time talking with a young man named John…he knew his stuff and talked extensively about the library wines. Purchased a 2007 Syrah….one of my favorites.

Stopped for a late in the day tasting at Peju….having never been there it was well worth the visit. Business was slow for this time of the day, especially on a Monday. The gentleman at the bar gave a simple and lightly detailed ‘presentation’ for the tasting which worked well. He was pouring Sauvignon Blanc, a blend of reds and whites called Provence, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and finally Syrah. The Syrah won.

I had dinner at another one of my favorites many readers are likely familiar with, the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford.

I had the good fortune of sitting at the bar next to a French woman who happened to be in the Spirits business working for a large company. We enjoyed our dinners talking about the wine industry while watching what would turn out to be the final game of the Giants/Rangers World Series. Excellent conversation and a nice way to end the day.

I did make a quick stop at JV Wine & Spirits…. .after sitting in the car listening to the San Francisco Giants CRUSH the Texas Rangers.

This one had some meaning to me…as a life long Cleveland Indians fan it’s worth noting that the last time the Giants won the series was in 1954 against the Indians. Been a long dry stretch. This is a great team and they deserve the win.

DAY TWO-November 2nd (Election Day)

First interview of the day was with Elizabeth Marston of Marston Family Vineyard on Spring Mountain.

The drive up the mountain was not anything like the trek up Spring Mountain Road but instead a private road crossing a Spa as well as patches of private residences. Being a private road it was one lane (barely that at times) and being a mountain road (the winery was at almost 2000 feet) it wound and snaked with blind corners, hair pin turns and climbs that gets your attention.

As I arrived at the winery, I parked in a small area surrounded by vines and indescribable hills. At this altitude there was simply no sound, no noise…maybe a bird but no cars, planes or people. The silence was humbling.

As I stood in the parking area there was no ‘winery’ visible. Just around the corner was a small bridge leading to the Marston residence.

Elizabeth greeted me with her white Labrador at her side then we headed to the winery. The structure was old but the Marston’s had remodeled it with all the charm of a country winery. Old family photos lined the walls and the room was nicely decorated with antique furniture. A full chef’s kitchen was nearby for more extensive tastings.

We tasted the Marston Estate Sauvignon Bland and Cabernet Sauvignon while munching on some fantastic cheeses. Elizabeth’s hospitality like many in Napa Valley, made me completely at ease and welcome.

The trip down the mountain was no less stressful keeping eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Afterward I had lunch at Gott’s Roadside, a local favorite.

St. Helena is, in essence, a very small community and most everyone seems to know everybody which was evident while waiting for my food order when a Cherokee drove by and Amy Aiken yelled out the window “Hi Ray!” in passing. Imagine that.

The second interview of the day was with Suzanne Phifer Pavitt owner of Phifer Pavitt Date Night Wine. I had met Suzanne last June at Auction Napa Valley and was taken by her southern accent and great humor. The grand opening party for her new tasting room had taken place just the weekend before my visit. Located just south of Calistoga on Silverado Trail, it’s one of those you need to keep an eye out for while driving.

The structure was made from an old redwood barn Suzanne purchased, dissembled and had re-milled. The interior theme is a western concept based on the cowgirl drawing featured on her wines. Light shades were designed from refashioned rusted wire fenceing which exemplified Suzanne’s concern with re using many materials to create farm theme.

The Date Night Cabernet was excellent and you can get to hear the pour on the podcast. Soo,n her two sons arrived home from school giving me a look into the busy life of a winemaker, owner, businesswoman and mom.

After the interview I made a side tasting stop at the Peju Winery on highway 29 as I has never visited there before.

I had dinner in Napa with my friends Charly (Enologist at Alpha Omega) and Natile.
Great food and friends….we laughed about our crazy pet cats and ended the evening with a nice glass of Cabernet from the famous To Kalon vineyard.

DAY THREE-November 3rd

When one spends time in Napa Valley to specifically taste wine, it’s common to start early. After all, the Europeans say ‘wine is food’ and and since wine IS an agricultural product, why not anytime of the day?

My first meeting was not an interview but was to get caught up with friends that I call family.

I arrived at Alpha Omega at 9:30 to meet up with owners Robin Baggett & Michelle Fields, enologist Charly de’Pottere, hospitality manager Erik Ackerman and wine god winemaker, Jean Hoefliger. Chat about baseball dominated the morning which is no surprise considering just two days ago the SF Giants won their very first World Series as a California team. I sipped on the excellent 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon while we all caught up, laughed and told stories.

The very best way to enjoy a glass of wine is among friends.

On to my first interview.

I had met Bruce Cakebread, President and CEO of Cakebread Cellars at the Barrel Auction in June. I can honestly say that Bruce is one of the nicest people I have ever met. When I had made the appointment for the interview he asked me to stay for a ‘lite’ lunch and I agreed. The interview was perfect…Bruce was concise and to the point with great humor and warmth. The ‘lite’ lunch took place in his private dining room around the corner from the tasting room. It was not ‘lite’, but it was exceptional. Bibb lettuce with salmon and quail eggs to start, perfectly cooked pancetta wrapped pork tenderloin, spicy red chile broth with marble potatoes and chanterelles, finishing with a selection of artisan cheeses and fresh fruit.

The wine we sampled was 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay, 2007 Chardonnay Reserve, 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir, 2006 Napa Valley Merlot, 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 Dancing Bear Ranch & 2006 Benchland Selet. All Cakebread Cellars, of course!

Bruce was great company as we laughed and told wine stories.

The day was only half over and it was already perfect.

Then, it got more perfect.

Karen Cakebread and I met in 2009 at the NVV tasting held at Fleming’s in Chicago. She was just starting her wine project and poured a Sauvignon Blanc that I remembered as being very tasty. We met for the second time at Auction Napa Valley in June of 2010 with the promise of setting up a full interview.

Karen invited me out to her home in Calistoga to do the interview as, like many folks in Napa, does not operate a tasting room. She poured her 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir while we talked. Karen stands as an independent soul working with her passion for wine and perfection

The Ziata label reflects her taste in clean lines and simplicity. The Sauvignon Blanc may be the very best I’ve ever tasted. The finish stayed with me like an old friend. The Pinot was also very good. We chatted a bit and I was sadly on my way leaving a warm and impressive woman to continue her work.

Dinner this evening was again in downtown Napa at Ristorante Allegria but this time with Linda Neal of Tierra Roja. Great conversation made for a great evening. The kindness and friendship of wine country folk is beyond compare.

DAY FOUR-November 4th, 2020.

Today I headed back up Spring Mountain to visit David Tate-winemaker at Barnett Vineyard.

Like everywhere else in the valley, crush was in full swing and David was up to his elbows in it, yet he still took the time to do our interview.

We were greeted by two German Shephards giving us the once over, then heading back to the vineyards to play. They were part one. The real hello came from Rose the cat. Rose took her time walking over to give us a sniff, then along with David, led us to the cave to start the interview. It’s worth mentioning that the cave overlooked a 2000 foot view of Napa Valley…simply breathtaking. Once the gear was placed on the tasting table, Rose hopped up and took a long nap while David and I chatted.

His friendly personality and obvious passion for winemaking made this an easy and interesting interview. David poured Barnett’s Charonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which were all very tasty….with the Merlot getting my attention.

We sat just outside Barnett’s cave, which over looked the Napa Valley. From our vantage point we could see Silverado Trail to the west and and Larkmead Cellars in the center of the valley.

After the interview it was back down the mountain to grab a quick lunch at one of downtown St Helena’s finest restaurants, Cook.

From one mountain to another I headed up Howell Mountain to White Cottage road to pay another visit to one of Napa’s favorite citizens, Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards.

The recording took place on her front porch, which again gave me a breathtaking view of Napa Valley only this time facing west. My purpose for another interview was to fill in the blanks regarding the history of her great, great Grand Uncle Gustave Niebaum and her father Napa legend, John Daniel Jr. Again Robin’s greeting made me feel like one of the family. Her knowledge of the business, love of family and excellent manner of framing the past gave me one more excellent interview with a very special woman.

From Robin’s house I headed back down to St. Helena to meet with the Napa Valley Vintners Association Communications Director, Terry Hall.

Terry is a walking encyclopedia of Napa knowledge. He has also helped support the LBTV project by inviting us to Auction Napa Valley for the last three years.

DAY FIVE-November 5th, 2010

No interviews are scheduled for today so I set up 3 separate tastings for myself and family members visiting wine country.

The first tasting was at Rubicon Estate. The usual excellent service and top notch wines.
We sampled the wine club release of Blancaneaux followed by Merlot, and the Zinfandel in two vintages. The presentation was completed by the flagship Cabernet, Rubicon.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the ever tasty Oakville Grocery, then headed over to Meander Wines headquarters in St. Helena. Amy Aiken greeted us just after her dog Batchi came by for a howdy. Amy poured her Sauvignon Blanc and a surprise Pinot Noir on her Conspire label. Later came the favorite Meander Cabernet.

Amy’s humor and attitude made the tasting out of the ordinary. She spoke frankly about the ins and outs of being in the wine business as well as the day to day side of bookwork and compliance.

Now it was time for another trek up the mountain. It’s been well over 2 years since I’ve last visited Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain, so I figured it was time to come-a-calling.

Charley Smith was dealing with a difficult bladder press, but he was kind enough to take time for a tasting. Smith-Madrone focuses on only 3 varietals, which include Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. For the very first time the winery will create a Reserve, which will sell at a premium price. Charley joined us in a sample while reacting with a smile to his long hours in the cellar paying off.

The day was hectic for Charley and his cellar worker so we made the tasting short and headed back down the mountain.

For whatever reason, I wanted to stop by Mondavi to see what was new at the winery as it was the end of the day and they stayed open until 5pm. The tasting room was much smaller than it used to be and packed three people deep making it difficult to sample. To make things worse there was only one person working the bar. I found this surprising considering this happened on a Friday when large crowds usually frequent the wineries. As I realized that the bartender was ‘in the weeds’, we decided to head out to another old favorite, Van der Heyden on Silverado Trail.

Van der Heyden stays open until 6, which is late in terms of Napa wineries.

Andre Van der Heyden is the owner of what is likely the smallest tasting room in all of Napa. In direct contrast to the large, opulent or even simple rooms in the valley, this one consists of mementos and sports knick-knacks, odds and ends, old wine bottles with award ribbons with a bar that’s likely less than eight feet long. With that in mind it doesn’t take away anything from the experience. Andre seems to be in the tasting room much of the time preaching the word of 60+ month barrel ageing. He makes several wines although today he is pouring only 6 of them including a white table wine, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon (66 months in the barrel!) and a Zinfandel late harvest dessert wine.

He may be quirky but he’s quick to make his guests laugh (to quote Andre, “I have two unwanted business partners, the bank and the government”) but he is very serious about his wines. That being said, his wines are excellent which makes a stop at his tiny tasting room a must do.

We dined in the city of Napa Azzurro Pizzeria featuring great pizza and an exceptional staff.

This was once again a fantastic trip filled with friends, hospitality, new discoveries and best of all, everything that is Napa Valley.

rf 11/12/10

Written by Ray Fister

    1 Comment

  1. Martin Cody November 13, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Bravo! Ray this is an excellent summary of what reads like a terrific trip. As someone who considers himself fortunate to also have experienced the gracious hospitality of Elizabeth Marston, it’s nice to know someone else had difficulty balancing the viewing of extraordinary scenery while navigating a “narrow” road that at times resembled a golf cart path at 40 degree slopes! The dining spots you chose provided some new options and I’m truly appreciative of their mention.

    The drives up the mountain roads always thrill this Midwestern native and you may find Trinity road especially intriguing as a “shortcut” from to Sonoma wineries. The Spring Mountain wineries mentioned we’re appealing as I really enjoy that AVA.

    I just found your site this morning and truly applaud your passion and mission. Congratulations on providing an entertaining and very informative website on a topic that all too often unnecessarily confuses. Keep the great work and have a terrific afternoon. I look forward to introducing others to your site.


    Martin Cody
    Cellar Angels

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