We finally made it to the top, and arrived about 5 minutes before our scheduled appointment. After the rest of the folks on the tour arrived, we were served a taste of the 2007 Merlot. Pride is well known for their Merlot, and it was absolutely wonderful - structured and fruity with a depth that is rare for Merlot. We then headed outside where Russell, our guide, explained a little about the property and the winery. The boundary between Napa and Sonoma counties runs right through the property, so parts of the vineyard are in Napa and parts in Sonoma. They even have 2 different winemaking facilities, one in Napa and one in Sonoma, so that they can label their wines with the appropriate appellations. The two facilities are separated by the crush pad which is split down the middle by the county line.
We then headed out to the crush pad. Because they are at a considerably higher elevation than the valley floor, they generally pick a few weeks later than the wineries in the valley, and harvest was still in full swing. We saw Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting in bins and got to punch down the cap. We also saw some stainless fermenting tanks that had been drained of the free run juice and were being emptied in preparation for pressing. A big bladder press was in the process of pressing the skins and we got to taste this wine too. What fun! We then headed into the caves for a little more tasting: a big (really big - 17.1%) but well-balanced Syrah, and a barrel sample of the 2008 Merlot. Both were very nice. As we left the cave, they'd started processing the next batch of grapes. In addition to sorting the clusters before being de-stemmed, they also did some sorting of individual berries afterward.
We then headed out into the vineyard. They seemed to be about halfway done with harvest - some sections of the vineyard had been picked, while others were still heavy with fruit (which we sampled heavily). Pride employs a team of vineyard workers full time - about half live on the property, while the other half live in St. Helena. Having a full-time crew allows them to be very selective about when and how much they pick. Some days, they may only pick a few rows, while on other days they might pick several blocks - it just depends on how much is ripe.
After a long walk through the vineyards, we returned to the tasting room to sample some Cab and the 2006 Merlot. It was all amazing. Yesterday we had decided that maybe we didn't need to go on any more tours, but today's tour was absolutely wonderful. I'm sure much of it was timing, as we got to watch every aspect of the harvest and crush, and it was fun to see how a really high-end winery works.
After Pride Mountain, we headed south on Hwy 29 and stopped at Beaulieu Vineyards, another historic property in Napa. Founded in 1900 by Georges de Latour, BV was one of the early Napa pioneers. It was the first stop in 1938 of the French wine maker André Tchelistcheff who would become another icon of the Napa Valley. It's a big place right on the highway, and as we looked for a parking space in the large parking lot, we had a hard time finding the tasting room. We finally ended up parking right in front of the door. However, after looking at the tasting menu, I didn't see the wines I expected, so I asked about them. The pourer told us that we'd find those wines across the parking lot in the Reserve Room. After wandering around the parking lot a little more, we finally found the right building, complete with a statue of André Tchelistcheff, and went in. The standard tasting room and been huge and crowded, but we were the only people in the much smaller Reserve Room. We tried a couple of single vineyard Cabs, the Tapestry Meritage, and the 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cab. All were quite nice, but not spectacular. I think we'd been spoiled by Alpha Omega on the first day. We also tasted an older Georges de Latour from the early 90's which despite the funky nose, was really nice.
By this time we were getting pretty hungry, so we headed to the original Oakville Grocery (in Oakville) for sandwiches and a tasty Brussels sprout salad. While the food was excellent, they are right on Hwy 29, so there was quite a bit of traffic as we sat on the front porch eating. Oh well, it was fun anyway. After lunch we headed to Goosecross Cellars. I've been listening to their Napa Valley Wine Radio podcast for about a year, so I was eager to taste their wine. They had also been recommended to us by the couple that we met the first day on the Mondavi and Del Dotto tours. The tasting room is a small, homey place in a small building behind the owners' home. Unfortunately the two pourers were engaged with other groups there, and we really didn't feel like we got much attention. As much as I wanted to like their wines, they were just so-so. They did have a nice Cab Franc that we liked.
After Goosecross, we had about 45 minutes before our tour at Robert Sinskey, so we looked at the map for someplace close that we might like. When Rachel suggested Domaine Chandon, I thought she was kidding. They are known for sparkling wines, and she generally can't stand sparkling wines. But she was serious and thought it might be fun, so we headed toward the winery. After a short drive (and having to wait for the Napa Valley Wine Train to pass) we arrived. It's a big operation and we were guided upstairs to the tasting room where there are about 4 different flights you can try, optionally paired with lots of food. I think next time we're in Napa, we'll have lunch there. We decided to each get a different flight of bubbly and share. In an unexpected turn of events, we both liked most of the wines, and even bought a bottle. It was a really fun experience, and we want to take the tour next time also.
We got done at Domaine Chandon at about 2:40 and headed to our 3:00 appointment at Robert Sinskey Winery. I took a look at my spreadsheet to double check, and found to my horror that our tour was not at 3:00, but had been at 1:00. Oops, I'd blown it. We had to be in San Jose that evening, and briefly considered just heading out early. Instead, we drove back north on Hwy 29 and stopped at Rubicon Estate. We'd meant to stop here on our first day, but the timing didn't quite work. After driving past it (poor signage) we finally found it. By now it was about 3:10, and there was a tour going at 3:30, so we decided to go for it. We're both very glad we did. The tour was not so much a winery tour as an historical tour.
The story of Rubicon Estate is both sad and joyful. It starts in the late 1800s with Gustav Niebaum, who, having made a fortune in the Alaskan fur trade, decided to settle down and make wine. He wanted to make wine that rivaled the best in Europe, and eventually started the Inglenook Winery. Many of us may remember Inglenook as cheap jug wine, but it didn't start off that way. Niebaum's wines won awards around the world. After Gustav's death, his wife continued to make high quality wine, and eventually passed the winery to her great grand-nephew John Daniel Jr. Daniel had the same commitment to quality and led the winery through prohibition. In fact refused to bottle any wines that didn't meet his high standards. However, financial pressures eventually led him to sell the winery to the corporate giant Heubleine, who transitioned the winery from top quality wines to cheap jug wine. John Daniel felt that everything his family had worked so hard for was now lost, and he died a broken man.
In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola was looking for a quiet place to raise his family and bought the mansion and some of the vineyards that had been part of the Niebaum estate. He originally had no intention of making wine, but a meeting with Robert Mondavi changed all of that. As Mondavi related the story of Inglenook winery - the history and passion that went into it, and the current sad state of affairs, they shared a 100 year old bottle of Inglenook Cab from the mansion's cellar. Coppola was hooked. When the winery itself eventually came up for sale, Coppola bought it, reuniting all of the original properties. He has since worked to re-establish the winery's original tradition of no compromise, world class wines.
After this moving story, we went into the tasting room to try the wines. One of the great things here is that all of the levels of tastings include their cask fermented Cab and the flagship Rubicon wine. In addition, we tasted a wonderful Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Syrah. All were great, but the Rubicon just blew us away. It was smooth, rich and deep - every bit as good as the Alpha Omega from the first day, but different. It was a huge high note to finish on. I'm sure the wines at Sinskey would have been great, but we were both very happy that we ended up at Rubicon as the last winery on our trip.
With smiles on our faces, we drove to the wine shipping store in Napa to have our collected purchases shipped home for us before fighting the traffic into San Jose. Even though the traffic was bad, we got to see a nice sunset, and listened to game 2 of the world series.
What a great time we had over the 3 days we were there. As a reminder to ourselves for our next trip, here are a few learnings and observations:
- A lot of pourers were on autopilot and didn't engage with us. They didn't seem interested in the wine or their customers, and there's just no excuse for that. We didn't see much of this in Sonoma last year, and we rarely see it in Oregon. Maybe it's a Napa thing.
- We liked the wine better when we had a better experience with the pourer/tour guide. I'm sure it's the same wine either way, but our perception of the wine was generally better when we were comfortable and engaged with our pourer or tour guide.
- Don't over-book yourselves with tours. We enjoyed most of the tours, but having set times limits you in terms of the other wineries you can visit during the day.
- Skip the standard tastings if they offer a high-end tasting. We know what mid-range wine tastes like, and really don't need any more of it. We want the good stuff.
- Seen one cave, seen 'em all. Enough already! OK, I really like wine caves, but I think we've probably seen enough unless there's really something special about it.
- Shipping costs are often offset by not needing to pay sales tax. They have an almost 9% tax rate, so you may be better off having the wine shipped home to Oregon (no tax), especially if you take it with you from the winery (and pay tax) and then just end up shipping it to yourself (pay shipping). Let the winery ship your purchases to you and save the tax.
- There's a lot of mediocre wine out there! Related to the statement about the high-end tasting, there's only so much really top shelf wine out there. Most is merely good to mediocre. Go for the best stuff if you can do the research and find it. Of course you won't really know until you taste. In our case, we shouldn't buy it unless it's really special.
- Rachel should bring a warm jacket. It gets cold in the evenings in October.