Wine Tasting Notes, 2013: Chateau Montelena and Summers Estate, Calistoga

Although the Napa Valley has now become synonymous with wine, history shows that this area can sustain a wide array of crops. In the previous century, the Napa Valley was once home to vast orchards of walnuts, prunes, and pears. These crops became especially dominant during the 1920s and 1930s, with Prohibition mitigating the grape-growing industry (because home wine-making remained legal under the Volstead Act, plenty of wine grapes still existed in Napa during Prohibition — the only difference was that the emphasis shifted to lesser-quality grapes that could survive a cross-country trip by rail car).

If we turn back the clock 150 years and revisit the Napa Valley on the heels of the California Gold Rush, the original crop here was actually wheat, planted heavily throughout the mid-1800s, before the first wave of wine production began at the end of the century (the Bale Grist Mill in Calistoga, [… read more …]

Tasting Notes: Vincent Arroyo and Summers Estate

During the heights of harvest and crush, I’ll often promote Calistoga as a potential refuge from the Napa Valley’s tourist congestion (of course, it requires a trip up to Mendocino wine country to truly leave everything behind). But even in the winter, when things around the entire valley go calm, Calistoga still has its merits. For one thing, I could argue that it’s the most scenic area in the valley this time of year. When the vines themselves don’t present much in terms of foliage, the gnarled and burly vineyards of Calistoga offer much more personality than the slight, naked Cabernet saplings down valley. Not that I don’t love a great Napa Cab.

But it’s also important to remember that although Cabernet may be king, it’s not the entire kingdom. Case in point: two of my favorite Calisotga wineries, Vincent Arroyo and Summers Estate. Aside from their remote northerly [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2008: Charbono @ Summers Estate, Calistoga

These days, most of the folks who are familiar with Charbono tend to be the old timers. These are the people who remember when Inglenook was one of the Napa Valley’s most reputable wine producers, long before corporate ownership ran the brand completely into the ground (as corporations tend to do). Inglenook, for a good number of years, actually used to bottle quite a bit of Charbono. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the varietal was one of the winery’s more popular offerings, with a devoted customer base.

During its heyday, Inglenook was responsible for much the Charbono plantings that still exist in the Napa Valley today. But now Inglenook only exists as a name — a name to avoid — if you ever happen to troll the lower shelves of your supermarket’s wine section. Charbono’s existence is a bit tenuous as well, although for [… read more …]

Napa Wine Label Quiz: How Many Snippets Can You Identify?

The idea for this wine quiz struck me as I was rummaging through my wine locker today. I have a modest amount of wine in storage, but when as many boxes are crammed into one space as possible, there’s limited room to maneuver, especially towards the back of the locker. In many cases, I could only see the very bottom portion of many of my wine labels (being that the bottles themselves are stored upside down). And so, in that same spirit, I’ve compiled 25 label snippets below, each one representing a Napa Valley winery. For many of the people who work here in the wine industry — as I once did — this quiz will probably be a breeze. I’d expect many of my Napa friends to score 20 or better, and a good local sommelier would likely miss only one or two at the most.

If you [… read more …]

The 10 Best Napa Cabernets for Under $50

The 10 Best Napa Valley Cabernets for Under $50

Having lived in the Napa Valley since 2005, and having worked in kitchens and wineries during that time, I’ve developed a pretty good palate for the local product. As I’ve spent the last decade combing the Napa Valley for great wines, over the past few years I decided to pay special attention to the Cabernets that were priced at $50 or less, hoping to one day compile a list of favorites. I submit the following 10 wines, listed in my order of general preference. Of course, prices are subject to change over time, but hopefully not by too much.

1. Martin Estate Bacchanal Cabernet ($48) : One of the great unsung wines in the Napa Valley, I have already placed Bacchanal into a blind tasting of Oakville and Rutherford Cabs, pitting it against the 2006 Groth [… read more …]

For Wine Geeks Only: Exploring Napa Valley by the Numbers

It’s usually surprising for most people to learn that, by volume, the Napa Valley accounts for just 4% of California’s total wine production (in total wine revenue, Napa would earn a much larger percentage, though I don’t have the specific figure for this category). Still, as one of California’s most important wine regions, it’s interesting to learn some of numbers that shape the Napa Valley. At my last board meeting with Slow Food Napa Valley, one of our members distributed copies of Napa County’s 2010 Agricultural Crop Report, which is published by the Department of Agriculture and Weights and Measures. The pamphlet features about a dozen charts and graphs that spell out the details of Napa’s winegrape production, as well as its production of secondary crops. Here are a few key stats about Napa wine country, keeping in mind that these numbers pertain to Napa’s winegrapes more so [… read more …]

Torta Cubana @ That’s It Market, Mission District, San Francisco

The Torta Cubana @ That’s It Market: Chorizo and Egg, Breaded Beef, Hot Dogs, Bacon, Ham, Queso Fresco, Lettuce, Tomato, Pickled Jalapeño, Guacamole, and enough Mayo to bring it all together.

A couple summers ago, Anthony Bourdain profiled That’s It Market on “No Reservations,” a culinary endorsement that must have provided an amazing windfall to the tiny corner store (no doubt, the “No Reservations” logo still appears on the market’s menus). Two years later, That’s It continues to earn high marks for its well-known torta cubana, a catch-all sandwich of profound proportions. Being in the mood for this delicious hodge-podge of salt and fat, I drove down to the Mission District on Tuesday afternoon before the Giants-Dodgers game at AT&T Park. The torta cubana pictured above proved to be a fitting pre-game meal, although it did stifle my appetite at the ball park — I could only manage [… read more …]

Cab Tasting Notes: My Favorite Napa Valley Cabernets for $50 or Less

Having lived in the Napa Valley since 2005, and having worked in kitchens and wineries during that time, I’ve developed a pretty good palate for the local juice. As I’ve spent the years combing the Napa Valley for great wines, over the past few years, I decided to pay special attention to the Cabernets that were priced at $50 or less, hoping to one day compile a list of favorites. I submit the following 10 wines, listed in my order of general preference. Of course, prices are subject to change over time, but hopefully not by much.

• Martin Estate Bacchanal Cabernet ($48) : One of the great unsung wines in the Napa Valley, I have already placed Bacchanal into a blind tasting of Oakville and Rutherford Cabs, pitting it against the 2006 Groth ($58), 2005 Rubicon ($175), 2006 Pedemonte ($39), 2006 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger ($90), [… read more …]

Slow Food: The 3rd Annual Harvest Dinner @ Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park

I spent Saturday evening at the Third Annual Harvest Dinner at the Bale Grist Mill, hosted in conjunction with Slow Food Napa Valley and the Silverado Brewing Company. The event was held to raise money for the mill, which was originally constructed in 1846, and is the only operating mill of its kind west of the Rocky Mountains. The majority of the feast was provided by Number Fourteen, a delicious American mulefoot hog raised locally by chef Michael Fradelizio of the Silverado BrewCo.

Number Fourteen enjoyed an amazing diet of local fallen fruits, spent grains from the SBC, and all sorts of other organically-sourced tidbits (including a “California” brownie to put him at ease on his last day). Through patience and diligence, Number Fourteen grew to become a prodigiously large swine, yielding enough tasty marbled flesh to feed 165 guests at the Bale Grist Mill Dinner. Of course, Number [… read more …]

Napa's Top 25 Wine Tours

Outside Quixote (left) and outside Schramsberg (right).

These types of lists are always debatable — if not questionable — because you have to wonder about the author’s credentials. Who really comes up with these lists, and much do they know about anything? It’s a fair question. Lots of travel writers have come to the Napa Valley and covered the wine scene, and there are plenty of opinions about all kinds of wineries.

My own perspective is uniquely local. I’ve lived in Napa for over 10 years and have spent most of that time as a professional chef (at the moment, I work as a chef-instructor at a local cooking school). Over the years, I have taken breaks from restaurant life to work as a wine educator. I spent a year at Grgich Hills pouring wine, and I spent three years at Nickel & Nickel hosting tours and tastings.

[… read more …]