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Napa's Hidden Gems (March 25, 2004)

A California winemaker told me about a woman who tasted a Sonoma Valley wine and asked him where Sonoma was in Napa. Napa Valley has done such a good job of promoting its wines that it's now more a brand than a region. We think immediately of Napa when we think California although this narrow valley – 3 miles wide and about 30 miles long – is responsible for only 4 per cent of the state's wine production.

Then there is the concept of bigness and economies of scale with such wineries as Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Sutter Home – but the majority of Napa's 300-odd wineries are relatively small. Another misconception is that one vintage is like the next since California enjoys such warm weather during the growing season. Just compare 1998 with 1999 and then taste 2000 beside 2001 and you'll see marked differences in concentration.

On my last visit to Napa in February, when the mustard flowers were in bloom, I went in search of wines off the beaten track, wines you find only on local restaurant lists, wines you might only find in the local stores.

A good place to start prospecting for Napa's hidden gems is the Napa Wine Company – a winery that does custom crushing and small-lot management for over 60 brands, including such stellar names as Pahlmeyer, Lamborn Family and Joel Gott, as well as Nova Wine's Marilyn Merlot and Norma Jean. The facility is located on the St. Helena Highway (right next door to the must-see Oakville Grocery). Here you can taste wines from 23 different producers. The following are wines I tasted there and at proprietary wineries - wines I scored ***** and worth searching out. (Prices quotes are all in US$.)

Lamborn Family Vineyard Zinfandel 2000 (Napa Valley Wine Co. $35)
A Heidi Barrett wine from a 5-acre vineyard. Medium ruby colour with a spicy, raspberry and cherry nose; sweet fruit, intense with a lovely mouth feel. Very elegant with a peppery, coriander kick.

Crocker Starr Stone Place Cuvee 2000 (Napa Valley Wine Co. $50)
Pam Starr's 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is terroir-driven. Ruby-coloured with a rich bouquet of sweet red berry fruit and spice, it opens on the palate with chocolate and mint tones.

Showket Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Napa Valley Wine Co. $75)
Another Heidi Barrett winner. Ruby colour with a feral, medicinal nose lifted with creamy oak; full-bodied, cassis and vanilla flavour with great length.

Cosentino CE 2V Sauvignon Blanc 2001 (At the winery $25)
Mitch Cosentino makes 43 different wines – this is his best white. Medium straw colour with a nose of toasty oak, tangerine and cut grass; full-bodied, spicy, clove and citrus flavours with fine acidity.

Plumpjack Merlot 2001 (At the winery $46)
Plumpjack's Cab is under screwcap; this Merlot is under cork. Dense purple colour with a concentrated nose of blueberries and spice; richly extracted fruit, creamy, vanilla and crushed blueberry flavour with a cocoa and clove finish.

Parry Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (At the winery $40)
Napa's smallest vineyard (half an acre). Only 190 cases made of this vintage. Dense purple colour; smoky plum and cedar nose; swell structured, sinewy with sweet currant flavour and dusty tannins; very elegant with great poise.

Franciscan Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (At the winery $27)
By contrast with Parry Cellars, just under 100,000 cases of this bargain wine were made. Ruby colour with blackcurrant and cedar nose; lovely rich mouth feel, sweet, full and fleshy on the palate; well structured with impressive fruit extracted.

Franciscan Cellars Magnificat 2000 (At the winery $45)
All five Bordeaux varieties with Merlot dominating in this vintage. Dense purple-ruby colour; spicy, red berry and cedar nose; medium-bodied, very elegant and claret-like with a coffee bean flavour on the finish.

Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (At the winery $40)
Real mountain fruit here expressing the terroir. Deep ruby colour; vanilla, cedar with an animal note; smoky blackcurrant and sweet caramel flavours melded together; well extracted fruit, firm structure and very elegant.

Quintessa 2000 (At the winery $100)
A new Bordeaux-inspired Napa star with a spectacular modern facility on the Silverado Trail. Dense ruby-purple colour; violets, chocolate and oak on the nose; forward fruit, ripe plum and currant flavours; elegant with a firm finish and lovely balance. (Sarah Gott took over winemaking in 2002. Her as-yet-unreleased wines are even better!)

Bond Melbury 2000 (At the winery $150 pre-release price)
Harlan's winemaker Bob Levy is producing six single vineyard wines under the Bond label. The Melbury is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dense purple-black colour with a concentrated, complex bouquet of tobacco leaf, chocolate, pencil lead, vanilla and sweet malt; full-bodied with rich, ripe, sweet, chunky plum and black fruits, firmly structured with an earthy note and a tannic finish.

Robert Levy, winemaker at Bond Winery

Bond Vecina 2000 (At the winery $150 pre-release price)
Dense purple colour; pencil lead, spice and sweet oak on the nose; intense, full-bodied, firmly structured with a spicy black fruit flavour tempered by a medicinal note. Long tannic finish.

Hall Merlot 2001 (At the winery $28)
(10% Cabernet Franc) A second label of the more expensive Kathryn Hall wines, produced in the former Napa Valley Co-Op. Ruby-black plum skin colour; sweet blackberry and plum with a vanilla oak note; full-bodied, and full flavoured, velvety palate with a floral tone and a licorice finish.

Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (At the winery $50)
The winery, dug into the hillside, is currently under construction and should be ready for this year's crush. Dense ruby; lavender, vanilla and cedar nose; discreet style, more St. Emilion than Napa; medium-bodied and fine boned with a mineral note behind the chocolate flavour. A classic wine.

Bob Long, proprietor/winemaker of Long Vineyards

Long Vineyards Old Vines Chardonnay 2001 (At the winery $70)
Bob Long's winemaker Sandi Belcher makes only 150 cases from these 41-year-old vines. Bright straw colour; nutty, spicy, vanilla with pineapple and melon notes; full-bodied, toasty, bracing, sweet melon flavours. Comes on like a Montrachet.

Long Vineyards Chardonnay 2001 (At the winery $30)
A barrel-fermented blend of all the Chardonnay blocks on the property. Bright straw colour; spicy, minerally nose of pineapple, vanilla, toast and citrus fruits; layered and rich with full pineapple and citrus flavours. Clean with a long finish.

Arns Cabernet sauvignon 2001 (At the winery $65)
Sandi Belcher and her partner, vineyard specialist John Arns, make this terrific Howell Mountain Cab. Dense purple colour; cedar, spicy blackberry, currants and vanilla on the nose; elegant, velvety mouth feel with a herbal note, great structure and balance.

Regusci Angelo's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Art the winery $85)
Charles Henricks made only 1770 bottles of this Stags Leap District wine aged in American oak. Dense purple-black; sappy vanilla oak.; intensely sweet and port-like with cassis and dark chocolate flavours; great balance and structure.

If you're heading to Napa, the best website to help you plan your visit to the Valley and discover some hidden gems for yourself is www.ilovenapa.com.

 

 

 

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