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Super Bowl Memories
A Napa Travelogue
By, Jim Bandy
We joined some dear friends for Super Bowl weekend in Napa where we decided to be patriotic and taste some giant red wines.
We left San Francisco Friday afternoon and drove to Bel Abri which bills itself as a French Country Inn, but I would describe it as a cross between a small hotel and a Bed & Breakfast. Located immediately off Highway 29 at First Street in the town of Napa, Bel Abri was terrifically convenient and a considerable value. But if you like a grand lobby, spa, and chotz-filled gift shops then you don’t stay here. If, though, like our group, you are focused on convenience to wine tasting and dining out then I recommend visiting them at www.belabri.net.
After checking in, we met our friends at Pine Ridge, a winery that has been around for quite some time and makes really good wines. One of our perennial favorites is their Chenin Blanc / Viognier blend which is a terrific deck wine; currently available at Grapevine Cottage for $14.
Our Pine Ridge tasting facilitator graciously kept the winery open so we could get full enjoyment from their selections. Of all the red wines I tasted, their Howell Mountain Cabernet was my favorite. Admittedly, I’m a drooling fan of mountain fruit so probably this choice was no big surprise to the rest of my group.
Downtown Napa retains a quaintness that sharply contrasts to many of the highly developed winery properties. We chose Ristorante Allegria for dinner, located on First Street just west of Main. A medium-sized place, Ristorante Allegria is housed in an old bank building, and they’ve successfully retained a lot of character; like converting the vault area into a private dining room. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead far enough to book it, so we enjoyed dinner in the main dining room.
Their wine list was just extensive enough to have good options without being overwhelming, and reasonably priced. We settled on Conn Creek’s Anthology – a classic Bordeaux blend with a wonderful flavor. The chef unexpectedly sent out an appetizer of their signature skirt steak since we had a longer than usual wait. Mmmm…this was going to be a good evening. Our dinner choices ran the gamut from penne with chicken and corn in a chipotle cream sauce, to saltimbocca, to linguine di mare and everyone was happily satisfied.
Saturday morning was cool and rainy, perfect Cabernet weather. And, the big event for the day... Silver Oak’s Napa Valley 2003 release party. I’ve heard about these before but never attended. How should I describe it? Start out by picturing the Indianapolis Symphony Gala Opening Reception x 100. We arrived at 9:45am and there were already lines of cars being valet parked. Two hints if you go: first and foremost, get there early – you can’t drink all day unless you start early in the morning, and second, try to drive an SUV – they park those in an unpaved lot much closer to the winery.
The 2003 Napa Valley from Silver Oak was quite good: a dark fruit, full bodied wine that was immediately likable. In addition, they were also pouring their 1998 Napa Valley from their library. The dark fruits had been replaced by raspberries and currants wrapped in sweet tannins. All together now…mmmmm! This event was a heck of a deal: a Schott Zwiesel glass to keep, Silver Oak cabernet limited only by the hours of operation, hot doughnuts in the morning, nice boxed lunch at noon, and fruit - $20. But, after several hours with a crowd who won’t let you hog all the wine, we decided to move along to our next stop.
We rejoined Highway 29 and in a minutes we were at the picturesque facility of Nickel and Nickel. Now, if you aren’t familiar with these folks, they are a sister winery to Far Niente and produce single-vineyard wines. That day they were tasting a Pinot Noir, Syrah, and five Cabernets. The Pinot was way too young, in my opinion, which limited my appreciation. The Cabernets, though, were all marvelous. My favorite was from Vogt Vineyard located on, no surprise, Howell Mountain.
Our next stop was Groth. If you haven’t enjoyed Groth wines yet, you should. We spent a few minutes talking with Gary Weis, their winemaker of numerous years, and an avid bocce player. Their Chardonnay is less buttery with emphasis on tropical fruits, and was really nice even after all those Cab’s. Their Sauvignon Blanc has a bit of Semillon blended in for softness and complexity. Their Cabernet was classic Napa in a bottle. And, in addition to good wines, they’re a darned nice group of folks.
With the afternoon slipping away, we slipped away to Plumpjack, a very short distance down the road. Outside in the garage, they were pouring their Chardonnay. An even leaner style than Groth’s, this Chardonnay was meant for food. Needing to warm up we migrated inside the tasting room where they were pouring their Cabernet Sauvignon. I like that they use screwcaps on 50% of their Cab production. Their 2005 Oakville Cabernet was as delicious as I expected.
Ready for a break? Not this crowd. One more stop before dinner...the beautiful Rubicon Chateau estate. Once the Inglenook winery, Francis Coppola purchased it as a summer home in the mid-1970’s. It took more than 20-years to reunite all of the original vineyards and restore winemaking to the Chateau. Now their ultra- premium wines are highly sought after. Their ultra-premium attitude was something I could have done without. After my friends Judy and Jill emphasized their club status, we were ushered into an elegant tasting room where we tasted several Cabernets and their Edizione Pennino Zinfandel...all wonderfully balanced and complex. A couple of our friends purchased a 1991 Rubicon Cabernet magnum for dinner. I love my friends! At Grapevine Cottage, you’ll find their 2004 Cask at $66.99 Yes – it’s really is that good.
Teeth-stained, tired, but very happy, we returned to downtown Napa for an early dinner at Cuvee Napa. Located on the western edge of downtown Cuvee Napa is a delightful place that you simply must enjoy, www.cuveenapa.com. Fireplaces in full burn welcomed us in and banished any thoughts of the wet darkness outside. Even though we had our Rubicon, I noticed their wine list offered many nice selections at reasonable prices. We savored that 1991 Rubicon Cabernet with dinners that ranged from a spice-rubbed skirt steak, to Chianti braised short ribs, to potato-wrapped salmon, and beyond. Even with our large party, the service was attentive and we felt like pampered guests. We polished off the evening by sharing a bottle of Nickel and Nickel Darien Syrah that another couple of friends brought. Like I said, I love my friends!
Nothing goes better with Sunday morning than sparking wine. We took our coffee and headed north on the Silverado Trail to Mumm. The sun shone but it remained cool so we enjoyed their glass-enclosed tasting room overlooking the vineyard. Tasting 3-6 sparkling wines I found my tastes leaning more toward their normal bottlings rather than their DVX special ones. I especially liked their Brut Prestige Extended Tirage, left one year longer on the yeast for added complexity.
Driving back south a bit to the Stags Leap District, we decided to visit the Regusci winery. There we tasted a Chardonnay, Merlot, three Cabernet bottlings, and an Old Vine Zinfandel and all were pretty tasty. I’d watch for this little winery to gain.
Due to our late start that morning, and quite a bit of time at Mumm, we all wanted lunch by now Given the spectacular day, we headed back north along the trail to Auberge du Soleil. A Relaix and Chateau property, this was pure luxury. We joined an informal gathering in their bar and enjoyed magnificence, both in food and view of the valley. If I remember correctly, there was some sort of game being televised. Darned if I could tell you what it was; I was too busy enjoying being pampered and relaxed. It was the perfect way to end a wonderful weekend.