There are many reasons to love wine beyond its luscious taste. A big one is that every wine has a story. From growers to producers the people behind the wine, who are producing the fastest growing beverage in the country, each has interesting, fascinating and meaningful stories. A study came out last week putting America ahead of the French in wine consumption, interesting as many French enjoy wine like water and include it in almost every meal. Though we may not be a society that pours a glass over lunch every day, we are a society that enjoys the beauty of a glass and celebrates the flavors and foundations of how a wine is made.
Over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, often referred to as birthplace of wine in the United States, participated in the Auction Napa Valley last weekend, each one with a story. You don’t meet a lot of wine makers or vintners that are doing what they are doing to earn a paycheck, often they are involved for no other reason than passion. Though the need to make a dollar is obviously important, the joy found in working in a vineyard, walking the vines, creating a stunning bottle of wine and introducing it to people often overshadows the basic financial aspects of the industry. Impressive since it is an industry, especially in areas like Napa, that has had a big change in the past few years due to the financial issues in the country. Wine that may have gone for $200+ now brings in around $100-$150 a bottle, or something that may have sold for $100 may now sell for $40 or $50. But as I have heard many times, to make a small fortune in wine you start with a large fortune, however many started simply with a passion and hopefully people who believed in them.
Over the 4 days of the Auction Napa Valley I had a chance to visit with several of these winemakers and vintners. My table mate at the actual auction, Richard Ward owner/winemaker of Saintsbury started the winery 31 years ago after leaving his position as a teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. His life as a science and math teacher wasn’t as fulfilling as he had hoped so almost on a whim he moved from the comfort of Charleston to get his masters degree at UC Davis, then starting Saintsbury in Carneros. He followed his passion and today produced notable Pinot Noir in the valley. We tried a magnum of his 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir. Now 11 years old it was still vibrant and lively with good acidity. Pinot is a tough grape to grow, but Carneros is Pinot Noir country with this one showing appropriate balance of earthiness mixed with raspberry and cherry and hint of baking spice like cloves and cinnamon.
The Texas roots of K.R. Rombauer run deep as he was born and lived just outside of Dallas for a number of years. His father, the patriarch of the stunning Rombauer winery, Koerner Rombauer, had a successful career as a pilot, and was transferred to Dallas in that profession. In 1974 they moved to Napa to dabble in wine with Koerner flying back and forth from the valley continuing in his profession. With a love of wine and desire to get into the business in 1978 they joined Conn Creek to get it established, which was such a success that in the early 1980’s sold their stake in Conn Creek and started Rombauer. KR is the son of working parents who were visionaries in the valley creating a wine that truly has their signature, especially their ever popular Chardonnay. Consistency, dedication and patience creating wine that goes as well with good food as it does with good company has made Rombauer the world class label it is today.
Dave Miner and his Miner Family Wine has been a favorite of mine since he started his winery in 1998 with his wife and parents. Housed on what is now a completely solar powered property the winery, with a definite Tuscan influence, inspires guests to lounge on their veranda overlooking the beautiful Oakville region of Napa. Dave, like many, had a desire for a change and when the opportunity came to work in the wine industry leaving a previous career in the software industry he moved his family to Napa and eventually started his family winery with a hope of creating elegant Napa valley Cabernet, along with a few of his favorite Italian varietals. The first Miner wine I ever had, his Sangiovese, a cherry and plum filled wine with great balance of acidity with fruit and a hint of spice on the finish. Always looking for growth and innovation he has expanded to bottling varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Franc on their own, not as common in the valley.
Delia Viader started Viader Vineyardsin 1986 as a single mom with a vision to make great Napa Valley wine while raising a family . She is a proud mom now as her kids are a part of the winery and as she said, she literally grew the winery as she planted her first vines in 1986 and her son, now 30, is the winemaker, taking over the job in 2005. Her daughter, the precious Janet Viader, thought she was on a path for law school after graduating from Berkeley, but after a short time traveling for Viader as their marketing head decided her mom’s business was the right one for her. And the wine is amazing. Delia has always had an affinity for French wines so an Old World style has always been an influence, and she was one of the first to really use Cabernet Franc as more than a blending grape. Like the rest of her vision she knew people would eventually come around. It is not uncommon to see single varietal Cab Franc by many in the valley now.
Bruce Cakebread, COO and President of Cakebread, joined his parents business as he had a love for the vines and the vision his parents had for the lovely winery in the heart of Rutherford. For years he was the wine maker for Cakebread, ensuring that the highest standards and best product was delivered, and recalls how far the almost 40 year old winery has changed. Grapes used to be harvested in mass, de-stemmed, crushed, fermented and put into barrels. Now each individual wine block has special procedures regarding how the grapes are harvested, de-stemmed or whole cluster crushed, which barrel will be used, etc. This is especially evident in their spectacular Reserve Chardonnay, filled with ripe peaches and apricots, green apple and a layer of vanilla and baking spice from the oak aging.
There is a relatively new winery in the valley, Mi Sueno (My Dream), created by Rolando Herrera, son of Mexican immigrants who moved to the valley in 1975 for a better life, but until after Rolando learned a great deal about farming and agriculture from his Mexican grandparents. Over the last 25 or so years Rolando has moved from dishwasher, to line cook, to wine maker working for some of the most prestigious properties in the valley including Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where he was Cellar Master for 7 years, wine maker at Vine Cliff Winery and Director of Winemaking for Paul Hobbs Consulting all with the dream to one day have his own winery. Today he is producing crisp and elegant Los Carneros Chardonnay for people who don’t like typical Chardonnay, and a big bold Cabernet Sauvignon that will knock your socks off with incredible cherry, licorice and cedar flavors. He also recently added Jamie Orozco to his Sales and Marketing team, which tells me this will be a successful endeavor as Jamie was one of the best ambassadors and promoters I have met when he was with his former employer, Miner Family Wines.
I visited Stephanie Honig of Honig Winery about the vision for the winery and the work she and her husband Michael are doing. In the early 1960’s Louis Honig purchased land in the middle of Napa Valley in Rutherford and began growing grapes and selling them off to other wineries, always with a hope that he would eventually make a wine of his own in his name. He passed before this dream was a reality leading his kids to rally together in 1981 to produce a wine from the Sauvignon Blanc grapes on their estate in his honor. This wine won a gold medal at the Orange County Fair and just like that a winery was born with a very young, only 22 at the time, Michael Honig grandson of Louis taking the reigns. With a true grass roots, knocking on individual doors, effort Michael was successful in getting first local, then regional and now national and international buyers to take notice of Honig. Now, a main focus is their sustainability. Micheal Honig created the Code of Sustainable Practices for The Wine Institute and follows sustainable guidelines in the vineyard and winery including using sniffer dogs. Dr. Bonnie Bergin, founder of Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, has trained golden retrievers with exceptional sniffing ability to essentially sniff out the female vine mealybug, allowing vintners to remove problematic vines before they are destroyed by the bug and without the use of harsh pesticides. Man’s best friend comes through again.
The food scene of Napa isn’t too different from the wine scene. To talk to California cuisine icons like the owner of Mustard’s Grille, Cindy’s Backstreet and Go Fish, Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, you immediately fall in love with her passion for the flavors, colors and traditions of Napa, celebrating everything local and seasonal in her cooking. With excitement she speaks of the spring lamb chops that are just in season that made for a dinner the second night of the auction paired with wine from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Grilled to just medium rare with thyme, spring peas and potatoes the dish celebrated the season with hearty yet delicate flavors and paired incredibly with the S.L.V. Estate Cabernet from both 2007 and 1999. Hearty licorice, earthiness and ripe currants with subtle tannins and great structure pairing with the rich meat. Everything a wine and food lover look for in a pairing.
Celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello call Napa home, but restaurants like the three Michelin star Restaurant at Meadowood, Brix, REDD, Ubuntu and others are becoming as well known as their celebrity chefs down the road. I had the opportunity to have dinner at The Restaurant at Meadowood last year and still dream of the amuse of tomato water ice with baby, baby vegetables and a creamy herb emulsion. Such a delicate bite with huge flavor that will make anyone eat their vegetables.