A Legendary Day in Napa Valley

24 09 2010

September 11, 2010 was the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, an event I work annually that focuses on finding solutions to combat mental health issues as well as to address the stigma often associated with mental illness.  The event was fantastic.  Highlights were a tasting of “cult” wines, a concert by Dwight Yoakam (he and his band were amazing!) and a dinner prepared by Jon Bonnell from Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine.  The event was also attended by Glenn Close, her sister Jessie and her nephew Calen Pick, Rusty Staub, comedian Bob Sarlatte and other celebs who you may not have heard of but should know, for example author of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine.  (Her latest, The Male Brain has also just come out.)  To learn more about the benefit and mental illness go to http://www.imhro.org/ and to see the amazing public service announcement filmed at Grand Central Station go to http://www.BringChange2Mind.org/

Me and Dwight's band, Mitch Marine (drums), Josh Grange (pedal steel) and Jonathan Clark (bass)

Dwight Yoakam

It’s always fun to volunteer to work the event, partly because it’s for a great cause but also the Staglin’s really host us to an amazing weekend.

Alicia Towns Franken, Me, Rusty Staub and April Gargiulo

This year was truly legendary.  Shannon Staglin created a day that was really memorable.  I have to admit I did not know all the producers on the itinerary but I was excited to see some spots in the valley I was less familiar with.  Although I teach for the Napa Valley Vintners and the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena and spend a good deal of time in Napa it still amazes me when I see there are still so many unexplored corners and folds, despite being a very small area there is so much diversity.

My friends and I arrived the night before the event and enjoyed a glass of wine at the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa at Oxbow Wine Merchant before heading over to Zuzu, my absolute favorite restaurant in Napa Valley.  Owner Mick Salyer was on hand to be sure we had enough Vina Tondonia Rioja Rose, we knew there were lots of big reds in our future, but we did also enjoy a nice half bottle of Revana courtesy of Natalie Vache.  It was delicious!

Beau Wine Tours donated a very comfortable bus for the group of sommeliers so no one had to drive, this is KEY to having a good time in Napa, always be sure you have a designated driver.  The bus picked us up at Saintsbury’s gorgeous Brown Ranch where some of us were staying, a really comfortable country house in the middle of the vineyards of Carneros with gorgeous gardens.  With a quick stop for coffee at Bouchon which was a bit of a madhouse we collected the rest of the team. Alicia Towns Franken from Boston formerly of Grill 23, Peter Hiers from the Monterey Peninsula, formerly of the Highlands but now Rising Star Wine Group, Patrick Mullane from Forbes Mill in Los Gatos, Mark Buzan from Pebble Beach, The DC crew Cesar Varela, David (Charlie Palmer Steak) and Maria Denton (Ruth’s Chris), and the NY crew Brian and Crystl Friedman (DelFrisco’s) and our host Shannon.

NOTE: Some of these locations are sadly not open to the public, Shannon traded in some big favors to create this experience for us!   It’s always ok to ask though so you can check the websites listed and see if they do tastings or try to add yourself to the mailing list (or mailing list wait list!)

First stop was Dana Estates.  On the western side of the valley in the Rutherford appellation this property is located at the former Livingston Moffett property and upon driving up you can see it is absolutely stunning.  We were greeted in a beautiful courtyard with some Schramsberg sparkling (the perfect breakfast wine!) and learned a bit about the property from Daniel Ha.  Dana is Sanskrit meaning “Spirit of Generosity” and the fact that they were willing to share this special experience with us was just a bit of evidence of that!  Perfect for the theme of the weekend really.  The first winery was built on the site in 1883 by H.W. Helms and the courtyard and parts of the winery are built around these original ghost winery walls.  Dana Estates purchased the property in 2005 and since then has built the most amazing facility.  Clearly high end yet it has an air of comfort and the use of the old and new design elements really melds together, seems like it’s been there forever.  They make wine from three sites, Helms, Hershey and Lotus vineyards.  Philippe Melka consults on the project and the wines are stunning as can be expected.  And what would a cult wine be without an amazing package, the label features a dozen lotuses cut into the label for the twelve months of the year, life, rebirth, it’s really GORGEOUS.  Unfortunately quantities are extremely limited and in 2009 they decided not to use the fruit from the Helms vineyard so production will be even less, but they want to be sure the wines are always amazing.  We tasted Helms and Lotus 2007 (about 300 cases of each made!).  They only made 42 cases of Hershey so there was none to taste!  I preferred the Lotus, really rich and powerful, more reticent than the Helms but had an incredible chocolate mocha coffee thing going on.  Lots of power and really an infant, it’s going to be amazing.

Next stop was to see Scarecrow also in Rutherford.  This is the JJ Cohn property on what I believe to be possibly the most prime piece of Rutherford.  Right next to Rubicon Estate firmly on the Rutherford Bench this is land that cannot be duplicated.  It creates wines that just scream of the Rutherford Dust quality that Andre Tchelistcheff talked about.  We were greeted by proprietors Mimi DeBlasio and Bret Antonio Lopez, Nancy Andrus of The Duck Blind who markets the wines, and consulting winemaker Celia Masyczek who also has her own wine, Corra and two cheerful white Bichon Frisees.  The group quickly derailed the planned agenda by asking about the ancient vines on the property and we traipsed into a vineyard of giants.  Head trained in the old style they were like stalwart little trees.  While walking back to the house Mimi and I exchanged tequila tips and she promptly ran off to get me a mini bottle of Corzo Reposado which I will add was VERY useful at a recent Willie Nelson concert at Wente Vineyards where I traded a shot of said tequila with Karl Wente for three bottles of wine!  Although I think we could have convinced him to give us the wine anyway finding the tequila in the middle of the show when we had sucked down the first few bottles was very welcome.  But I digress… Celia led us through a tasting of her wine, Corra and Scarecrow both 2007.  Amazing wines.  I won’t say who said it but after tasting the Corra one of our group whispered to his neighbor, “This wine keeps pumping and pumping and pumping.”  And it did.  It was dense and concentrated yet elegant and full of flavor and passion.  Celia makes wines that are really unique in Napa.  Then we tasted the Scarecrow, just amazing.  Dusty and earthy yet rich and flavorful.  And enjoying these wines in the home of Mimi and Bret, such a beautiful and historic place was truly amazing.  Bret told stories of “Aunt Bessie” and how she selected every piece of furniture.  He even took us on a tour of the home which has really interesting twists and turns, the original wallpaper, beautiful and pristine despite its stains.  It was such a cool amalgamation of these old elements that were carefully selected with the new treasures that Mimi and Bret have added, amazingly they meld seamlessly.  It’s a gorgeous and very special place and imbued with the spirit of their ancestors.  Before we left we got a tour of the old barn replete with an inchworm ride toy that actually brought a tear to my eyes, as did the barn itself.  Memories of childhood flooded back, summers at my great grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania.  Knowing that Bret spent summers here and was now living here completed the moment.  Truly a unique visit.  Bret took a shot of us in the barn, he is primarily a photographer, and we headed back to the bus (kicking and screaming because we didn’t want to go) but luckily our lunch from La Luna, a Mexican market in Rutherford, was waiting for us and Mimi sent us off with chocolates too.

Just as we were digging into our food Nancy warned us that there would be snacks at the next two stops, but we could not resist the juicy burritos and the amazing chips.  The next stop, Checkerboard, does not even have any wine to taste yet, but they wanted us to see the site which was way up valley in the Diamond Mountain appellation near Calistoga.  Although we did not get to taste it was a refreshing and needed break after the big wines of the morning and we took ATVs through forests all the way to the top of their property where we got an amazing view of the northern part of the valley.  When we arrived there was an amazing spread for us, Calistoga waters (of course), gazpacho, shrimp skewers, cheeses, we enjoyed the picnic and the fact that we were their first tour EVER!

Alicia, Shannon and I at Checkerboard, Diamond Mountain

We headed back down the mountain and zipped all the way over to Ovid Vineyards where we were greeted by Janet Pagano and Assistant Winemaker Austin Peterson.  Winemaker Andy Erickson was busy at his home making us dinner and actually building a table for our meal from reclaimed wood.


Ovid is situated at the top of the slopes of the Vaca range in the Oakville appellation high above the valley floor.  It’s almost as far as you can get from where we were at Checkerboard and on the opposite side of the valley.  High above even Oakville Ranch this site faces West so they receive a great deal of afternoon sunlight up there.  The winery perched on this hillside takes advantage of the sun with huge windows that soak in the amazing view.  They have a gravity flow system of tanks and everything is all clean and compartmentalized yet very comfortable.  I immediately gravitated


towards the long cozy benches in the main room where I could have easily laid down to read a book and napped like a cat in the sun, but they had other plans for us.  The tanks of concrete were selected by visits to numerous producers in Bordeaux and all the research resulted in a winery that is really efficient in all aspects.  They also have an orchard and bees so although the place looked very modern and high tech there’s a soft side to it.  The wines were also incredible.  We tasted a comparison of a wine that was fermented in barrel versus one fermented in concrete (I was wrong I will admit it this once).  They were definitely different but it was really hard to discern exactly how.  Guess that’s why I am not a winemaker!  Then we tasted the finished wine from 2006, just amazing.  It was so concentrated that when we swirled the glass the legs just sat there suspended above the wine.  Dense black fruits, blackberry, cassis, really powerful but with very balanced tannin.  Possibly my favorite Cabernet of the day.  And of course they pulled out two huge platters of berries and cheeses (an amazing aged Comte that with the wine was just perfect) and their own olive oil, breadsticks.  The works.  Again Shannon had to pry us away and back into the bus as we were keeping vineyard guru Larry Hyde waiting all the way down in Carneros!

We arrived at Hyde Vineyards a bit late but Larry was very patient with us, and although we had to cut the tour of the vineyard in half we had a chance to walk out to where he has both Chardonnay and Syrah planted.  He puts the Syrah near the riparian areas near the river since the sharpshooters aren’t as attracted to its leaves.  Larry Hyde is legend.  His own wine Hyde de Villaine http://www.hdvwines.com (HdV) is a joint project with the also legendary Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de La Romanee Conti in Burgundy and his own domaine in Bouzeron.  Despite this Larry almost gets more notoriety for wines from the wineries he sells grapes to.  His client list reads like a who’s who of the top wines produced in the valley, some of my favorites being Patz & Hall, Ramey and Kongsgaard. His Chardonnay is tough to beat and as such those that get their hands on his fruit usually vineyard designate it as Hyde.  He is at heart a vineyard guy so we discussed the trellising, row direction, soil types, terroir.  My kind of visit, very intellectual.  Then he invited us into the guest house on the property where his wife Beta presented us with yet more delicious cheese and crackers (it would have been rude to pass it up!).  We tasted pretty much the entire line of wines and sat and enjoyed the company of Larry and his wife and their new German Shepherd whom I (and the cheese) helped train to sit.  As the sun started to set over the hills of Carneros we boarded the bus again to head to Annie Favia and Andrew Erickson’s house for dinner.

To cap off a day that couldn’t seem more perfect we arrived at the home of Annie and Andy to find a scene straight out of Martha Stewart Living.  In the expansive back yard the light was dimming over Annie’s outrageous garden filled with vegetables and flowers and the chickens were safely in their coop.  There spread before us was the most gorgeous table and an entire kitchen island set under the trees.  Electric lamps, flowers, plates of food, a tire swing, a roaring campfire off to the side and even better some Leroy Bourgogne Blanc that Annie’s sister Brigit was kind enough to bring for us.  One of the wines she sells, it really hit the spot as a palate cleanser after a day of heavy Cabernets (although Larry Hyde’s Chardonnays were similarly refreshing).  While we snacked on olives and almonds and a squash soup from the garden Andy pulled out a bag of padron peppers not to be believed.  Those peppers, to which I am addicted, are about $6 for a bag of about ten at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market.  And I pay it gladly!  He sauteed them up and we all dove in (and I again could NOT stop.)  They are fun little things, you can eat ten and just enjoy their nuttiness and then one will just wallop you with intense fiery flavor!  It’s fantastic and very much a pleasure/pain thing.  Dinner accompanied by Favia wines continued with short ribs, a fantastic tomato salad and an amazing nibble: a piece of watermelon with an herb puree and a bit of Serrano all eaten in one bite.  Salt, sweet, herbal, fruity, great combination!  And all you can eat padrons.  The Favia Cerro Sur and Magdalena were both incredible but by that time I was not taking notes…  While we were dining Annie and Andy’s young girls made us cupcakes with ground coffee in the icing (their idea, and really delicious).  We retired to the fire pit and I broke out a guitar and we sang and played as the fire popped and burned. The tequila and the tequila horn also made a cameo.  Annie and Andy sent us home (to our guest house) with fresh eggs from their chickens.  And more padrons!  It was truly a magical ending to a magical day.  Food, friends, great wine and spirit and the most gracious hospitality.

If you’re planning a trip to Napa Valley go to www.napavintners.com/wineries/ to search wineries to visit!