Napa – March 2016

Back to wine country…Yet again.  Fortunately (at least for Alyce), she was not pregnant this time.  Also, we were finally able to work it out so that some friends could join us.  Patrick, who grew up with Alyce and I, along with his wife Stephanie met us late the first night from Houston.

This trip was a Wednesday through Sunday.  That timing worked out for a couple reasons.  First, I used award miles and that was when flights were available within Alyce’s possible vacation time.  Second, I booked the hotel using the 4th night free benefit of the Citi Prestige card.  With that, they give you a credit for the 4th night’s room rate + taxes.  And it is the actual 4th night – not an average of the 4.  So having that be a Saturday got us a much bigger credit.

This was our first trip to wine country in Winter (even though it was a week or two from Spring).  The temperatures weren’t bad, but we had rain every day.  And not misty light rain…We had legitimate hard rain.  We must have heard the following line 10 times over the trip – “Sorry y’all had rain the whole trip…well actually, not really because we can use it.”

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That is the downside of traveling December through March to wine country – rain.  It’s not that it’s a guarantee you’ll get rain (the weekend before and after ours were beautiful), but you are far more likely to get rained on than the other times of the year.  The plus side is that room rates are less and things are generally less crowded.

We flew United in both directions…in business class.  We owe this entirely to Lufthansa miles.  Lufthansa allows domestic first class award flights on United for 17,000 miles in each direction.  Compared to 12,500 miles for using United miles in economy class, it is a fantastic deal – especially considering I generally value United miles more than Lufthansa miles (except in this one circumstance).

Anyway, the flight over left at 5:15 a.m. and flew through Houston.  We connected onto an internationally configured 787 for the IAH-SFO flight.  This is what made the extra miles for business class worth it because I was actually able to catch some sleep.

We took the only non-stop flight from the Bay Area back to New Orleans on the way home.  It left at 11:00 a.m., so we didn’t get to go anywhere on Sunday – which was a bit of a bummer.  But the bright side was that we were supposed to be back in New Orleans slightly before 5:00.  We ended up having a 1.5 hour delay because the incoming plane was late, but we still got back as early as possible – which ended up being a much bigger deal than I realized it would be when planning the trip….  Also, we hung out in the Centurion Lounge while waiting to take off, so the delay wasn’t unpleasant.

For our rental car, we gave Silvercar a shot.  They are a company that only has silver Audis, and their other big thing is that they remove all the hassle from renting cars (e.g., lines, extra fees for tolls, gas prices, etc.).  I found it to be a pleasant experience.  The car was very nice, and being able to use the toll tag without ridiculous fees was a major plus.

The one downside was that they are located offsite at SFO, so you have to catch the train to the rental car area, then they pick you up there and bring you to their location.  Same thing for the ride back to the airport.  Though, they actually called us a free Uber to take us to the airport since we had wine boxes.  I would have done that myself had I thought of it, but we both really appreciated the nice touch.  Honestly though, if you sign up for a car rental agency’s program, it is probably easier to get/return your car to someplace like Avis at SFO – but you miss out on the other Silvercar benefits.

For the hotel, we stayed at the Harvest Inn in St. Helena.  We really enjoyed being more right in the middle of the action – as opposed to staying in downtown Napa like we have on every other trip.  Cutting off a 20 minute drive at the beginning and end of the day helps things out a lot.  Plus, just being right in the middle of St. Helena gives you more options.  That said, we paid off season special rates with the 4th night free.  I don’t know that I could stomach paying full rates – even in low season.

The hotel itself was fine.  Our room was plenty nice enough, and seemed to have been redone recently.  But, we really barely spend any time in the room on these trips.  The breakfast was good and had a solid selection of both hot and cold items (bacon, potatoes, eggs, cereals, toast, fruits, etc.).

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Overall, we really enjoyed the stay, but – again – I’d have to get a similar deal to go back.

Wineries

As with the past couple trips, wineries were the main focus.  I tried to book places that either I currently buy from or am interested in buying from.  We enjoyed all of them, though some places are more for wine geeks than others.

The first day, we actually went to the Sonoma side of wine country and hit the two biggest producers in my cellar.  We were on the Napa side for the rest of the trip.  Here are the places we visited (in order):

Carlisle – We started the day off at Carlisle’s winery after a 1.5ish hour drive from the airport.  Carlisle makes wine from grapes sourced from locations throughout Northern California, but the focus is squarely on heritage blends and zinfandels from historic old vines.  And I mean old vines…

In Napa, you will rarely see vines over 30 years old.  Carlisle makes wines from vines over 100 years old.  The wines are all very well done and are made to age – or drink equally well in the near term.  The field blends are generally dominated by Zinfandel, but can contain many different varietals (20+).

We toured around the winery, which they have only been in for a couple years, and sampled some white wines out of the stainless steel barrels.  Our tour guide (I use the term loosely…she was one of 3 employees and seemed to wear many hats) then poured us a sampling of reds from bottles, and we liked them all.  We gave the winery puppy some final pets and then headed out.

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Bedrock – I own more wine from Bedrock than I do from any other producer, and I am perfectly happy with that.  Like Carlisle, Bedrock makes wine from a variety of vineyard sites and focuses on old vines/heritage blends.  The wines have always been highly critically regarded (even more so lately), but they have also remained very reasonably priced.

Bedrock’s goal is to make wines that are unique to each site and let the place shine through.  They focus on natural farming techniques and minimal intervention during the wine making process.

We met Morgan (the owner and winemaker) at Bedrock Vineyard.  We hopped in his truck and he drove us out to see some of the 100+ year old vines.

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After walking around and talking with Morgan for a while, we went back to a picnic table in the vineyard, where he opened up 5 wines for us to try…and all of them were excellent.  We talked for a little while longer then he offered us a bottle of our choice to take with us for dinner.  Overall, it was an excellent experience.

Palmaz (Thursday) – Palmaz was a place I had been interested in going to for a while and is a favorite of our parents.  But, I have avoided it because they do not waive tasting fees no matter how much wine you purchase – or even if you join the club.  With so many potential places to go, that is always my first limiting factor.

Luckily, my parents had two free tasting passes we could use.  So we decided to try it out (and did not have to pay the $80 a head fee).  This was also the first time Patrick and Stephanie would be joining us.  They were not so lucky with the tour fees.  Though, I’ll add that I had already booked everything before they decided to join us.

Our tour guide was Diana, and she was definitely ready to tell the story of the family and vineyard.  A family member used to do the tours, but now there is a hospitality group that does it.

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The place is over the top unbelievable.  They essentially dug a giant 3 story cave system out of a granite mountain.  I can’t imagine how much it costs (or if it is really necessary), but I guess that is what you can do when you have more money than you know what to do with…The owner invented the balloon heart stint and sold the patent to Johnson and Johnson, plus his wife came from a South American mining family – so they were doing alright either way.

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The theory behind the wine making is that it is all entirely gravity fed, which avoids breaking the tannin polymers.  The wine is never pumped during the entire wine making process.  The few times it is moved by forces other than gravity, they move the wine by displacing it by pumping Argon gas into whatever container it’s in.  By not breaking the tannin polymers, the wine is supposed to be less harsh and easier drinking in its youth.

I really have no idea how true that is.  The wine was good and easy drinking, but subsequent research hasn’t shown too much to back up the claims.  On the other hand, it may just be so ridiculously expensive to do that no one else really even pays much attention to it.  I tend to think there is some sort of benefit, but probably not worth the cost/effort.  Here is some more reading on wine tannins if anyone is interested – http://www.wineanorak.com/tannins.htm

In the end, it was definitely a neat experience and worth seeing.  It is far and away the most impressive cave system I’ve seen (Jarvis would be next).  They make heavy use of technology and data monitoring (e.g. rain days, temps., etc.).  The wines were very good and you got to taste them paired with food bites.  Would it be worth the $160 for a couple?  I guess that is a personal call.  The good thing about tasting fees is that you don’t have to feel the slightest bit obligated to buy wine.  The bad thing is that you could have nice tour/tasting experiences for free elsewhere if you buy wine.

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Frog’s Leap – Frog’s leap is about the polar opposite of Palmaz.  They are old school.  They dry farm (i.e. zero irrigation/added water).  They are biodynamic (no pesticides, fertilizer, etc.).  They use minimal intervention wine making techniques when making wine.  The wines are more of an old world/ageworthy style and are a pretty good bargain – at least when talking quality Napa Cabs.  We actually planned on going here our very first Napa trip, but they were closed for a private event when we showed up (reservations were not required at the time).

The tasting itself was a nice experience.  They sit your group at a table outside on the porch and pour you several wines along with some bites.  The winery employee will hen explain the wines and be around to answer questions, but they let you enjoy the wines at your own pace and just enjoy the scenery.  We also got some additional pours of the other wines not on the tasting list.

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We had another good experience here and didn’t even mind the rain, as it was nice to sit out on their porch and watch the rain fall.

Behrens – This was our third time at Behrens, but the first time at their valley floor tasting room.  Apparently a neighbor complained that they did not have all the required permits to do tastings at the winery, so this is where they are set up in the meantime.

As always, Robin pours plenty wines and tells lots of stories.  The wines are definitely more of a new-world style, but they are still very well made and overall balanced.  We always enjoy a stop at Behrens.

DiCostanzo – I read about DiCostanzo late in preparation for our trip.  Massimo DiCostanzo (the owner and winemaker) is about our age and started his own label with the goal of making Cabs that he would want to drink in the model of the classically styled wines of Dunn, Forman, Togni, etc.   – aka several of our favorites.  He has also received some pretty high critical praise and has worked at big names all around the world (including a couple years at Screaming Eagle in Napa).

I got in touch with Massimo, and we worked out a meeting at his St. Helena office.  He hung out with us and enjoyed a glass of his wine and had some meats/breads.  It was a lot of fun talking to him about his winemaking, travel experiences, and just living life with a young child (like us and Patrick/Stephanie).  And the wine was fantastic.  Hopefully, we can meet up again in the future.

Schweiger (Friday) – Alyce and I started off the day at Schweiger; Patrick and Stephanie were taking it easy for the morning.  Schweiger has a new tasting room up on Spring Mountain.  We were the only ones there starting off the day at 10:00 a.m. and got to taste a wide selection of wines.  The pourer was very friendly and talked with us about plenty – including telling us about Joe the UPS guy, who we’d end up seeing at our next two stops.  The wine was good and this was a nice quick tasting stop.

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Smith Madrone – We next made our way to the nearby Smith Madrone.  We had a little trouble figuring out exactly where to go, but we eventually ended up making it to the correct spot.

We met with Charles Smith in the barrel cellar – he is the winemaker and co-owner (with his brother).  He poured us through their wines and told us all about their vineyards/winery on the cold and rainy day.

Smith Madrone’s goal is to make wines that highlight the vineyards and are unique to the site.  They are more old world style in general.  The Riesling was also regarded by just about every other winery we went to as “the best in California.”  On top of that, the wines are great value.  We bought a decent bit to get shipped home.  And we saw Joe the UPS guy picking up a package…

Keenan – Keenan has new tasting room up on Spring Mountain.  When we arrived, a large group of women were finishing up.  It was different after the previous two stops where we were the only people.  While waiting for the tasting bar to clear out, we noticed Joe the UPS guy eating his lunch at the table in the tasting room.  The Spring Mountain UPS route is the one to be on.

The wines at Keenan are also made in a more classical style and are a decent value.  We tasted through the lineup and picked out our favorites.  Both Keenan and Schweiger were easy and good tasting stops.  I’d recommend them for any level of wine drinker.

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Pride Mountain – Patrick and Stephanie met up with us ate Pride Mountain.  We had done the basic tour on our second trip to Napa several years ago, and today we were going to try out the Summit Experience.  My parents had done it on their last trip and raved about it, so we decided to give it a shot.

On the Summit experience, you get a private tour through the winery and do some comparative barrel samples along the way.  You eventually make your way to a very nice tasting room where you taste through several of the reserve wines.

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We had a great experience and a wonderful tour guide (Jason).  I’d recommend the Pride Summit Experience to anyone looking to splurge on a tasting.

Outpost (Saturday) – Outpost is another repeat experience.  Unfortunately on this day, it was still raining and we completely missed out on the awesome view.  No matter, Outpost still makes excellent wines that taste good even in the rain.  The only negative is that Outpost now sells out of their top wines in a matter of hours, so they do not pour them at the winery.  Another great stop, and we got to see some Outpost employees we had met previously.

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Forman – Forman probably makes my favorite Napa Cab – it definitely is when you consider “value.”  Admittedly, I have a hard time calling a $90 bottle of wine a value, but it absolutely is within this level of wine.

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I have also been trying to make it to Forman for several years.  In 2013, I couldn’t set a visit up.  In 2015, I had us scheduled, but we had to cancel when we cut the trip short.  This time, it was still a chore to set something up, but it was worth the hassle.

Margaret does all of the tastings, and she is hilarious.  She’ll tell you all kinds of stories, and definitely does not hold her tongue when it comes to her opinions.  We also learned that she is friends with Robin (from Behrens).

We tried the Chardonnay and the 2011 and 2012 vintages of the Cab.  All were excellent.  I was glad to have finally made it to Forman.  Margaret even sent us out with an unopened bottle of wine for our dinner, which was extremely kind.

I’ll also add that we talked with the tour guide/driver of the previous group while we were waiting our turn at Forman and really liked him.  He was funny and very knowledgeable on wine and Napa Valley.  His name is Michael Butler at napaadviser@gmail.com or www.michaelbutlernapavalley.com if anyone is looking for a private host/driver.

Anderson Conn Valley – Our last stop of the trip was a return to Anderson Conn Valley.  This would be an interesting one…

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We arrived a couple minutes early and while waiting for our tour to start, heard the others joining us arrive – and yes, I mean heard.  It was a super obnoxious dude-bro from Silicon Valley and 3 others.  The brains of the company was actually a really nice guy who was probably 5 years or so older than us, and they had two Japanese clients with them.

Anyway, the dude-bro had this incredibly loud and obnoxious laugh and basically took over the whole tasting.  He also tried to break into the barrel of one of the super high end wines, but our tour guide said that was above his pay grade…Well the owner happened to pass by, and he tried to get him to go grab some wine out the barrel.  The owner skillfully side-stepped that.

Fortunately, we don’t take anything too serious, so we laughed it off.  The guy doing our tour hung out and chatted with us for a little bit afterwards.  He handled the situation very well and said some people would have walked out because of the guy.  Whatever…Seeing goofballs like that is part of the fun – as long as it is only one or two times during a trip.

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Dining

Same as the last couple of trips, we didn’t have too much planned in terms of dining.  I had ideas, but we left some wiggle room.

Our first day, we stopped at Wine Country Cafe & Deli between our stops at Carlisle and Bedrock.  The sandwiches and coffee hit the spot.  This was a good place to stop en route, but definitely not a destination.

For dinner, I had read that a place nearby where we were staying (Archetype) had burger night on Wednesdays and happy hour until 7:00 – sounded right up our alley.  I also figured it would be casual with burger night/happy hour, but it was actually a pretty nice/fine dining type place.  I felt a little under-dressed, but it wasn’t a big deal.

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The burgers were good.  Happy hour was only at the bar, which is misleading on their website.  We saw a couple other local groups (they were in scrubs) get up and leave when they told them this.  I’m not a big fan of the “bar only” type deals – especially when they are not clearly identified as such.

Thursday we stopped at the Oxbow Market for lunch.  It was a favorite from previous trips, but it seemed to have gotten more expensive.

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For dinner, we just walked up to Cook Tavern.  I had read good things about it, and several people recommended it during the day.  Cook is the sister restaurant right next door, and is the fine dining side.  Overall, we had a good meal.

Since we were going to be up on Spring Mountain during lunch on Friday, we just picked up some food to take with us from Sunshine Foods in St. Helena.  I’d go back the next time we need take food with us.

We actually had dinner reservations Friday night at Goose and Gander.  I again got the burger there and again really enjoyed it.  This place is definitely on the list of places to return.  The only downside to this dinner was that one of us was “too tired” to make it.  I won’t name names.

We saved the best for last in terms of lunches…Saturday we called in an order to Gotts between tastings and demolished some burgers.  We’ll definitely go to Gotts every time we make it to Napa – and perhaps multiple times.

We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, Harvest Table, the last night and had a very good meal.  It probably was my favorite dinner this trip (well…Goose and Gander was just a little more casual type of dinner).  The hotel is run by a well known chef, so it wasn’t a surprise to enjoy the meal.

Concluding Thoughts

Our 4th wine country trip in the books, and yet another one we thoroughly enjoyed.  I wish we would have had better weather, but it wasn’t too big of a deal.  The wine tastes the same either way…

It was also a lot of fun to have some friends meet up with us.  We’ll have to try to talk someone in to joining us on our next trip – because there will definitely be a next trip back to wine country.

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