Napa Gestalt

So we just spent about a week in Napa Valley wine country. It’s a long story – it was completely unintentional, but we spent one night camping at Napa Bothe, and then it turned into 5 nights. My wife and I have never spent significant time in Napa, and in fact have blown it off regularly. So it was actually an interesting exploration for us that – if you know me and my Old World wine tastes and Rhone preferences – was ultimately disappointing (the wine tasting, that is; the experience was great. There is nothing like enjoying a decent bottle of sauvignon blanc and looking out across the fall colors of the vineyards, and the mountains across the valley). A couple of basics impressions:

  • Wow – Napa is beautiful in the fall. I mean – beautiful. Gorgeous.
  • If you don’t know, Napa is (in)formally split between “Napa” (down the valley), where all the large wineries are located, and “Up Valley”, past St Helena where things gets really beautiful and the wineries get a (little) smaller. As one Up Valley vintner told us “Down there it’s getting pretty gentrified, but up here you’ve still got a lot of old Italian families still making wines.”

Here’s my caveat – I never did a reserve tasting, nor tried very hard to find out of the way places that advertised unique wines. Given that, I had a very basic – but I believe typical – gestalt of Napa. The experience confirmed my prejudices of “New World” wines – but hey I’m already prejudiced, so I’ll admit it didn’t take much to “confirm” things for me:

Taste: The focus of the entire valley is almost exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc filling the gaps. Even then, that wouldn’t be so bad if all the wines didn’t taste the same. And I’m not being snarky, nor ignoring the fact that the range of varietals is small. The wines had no personality. There is all this talk about bringing out the essence of the grape, which apparently means divesting it of anything that would differentiate it from it’s neighbor. Granted, I’m not the wold’s most discerning taster, but I’ve spent time drinking wine, lots of wine, and I recognize when a wine is giving me more than the basics, even if the basics are include a big body boosted by high alcohol content. The best description I’ve ever heard for a good glass of wine is one which keeps you coming back sip after sip, because you discover something new every time – like a good piece of music, even like Belgian beer (which differentiates it from other types of beer). For the record, that did not happen in Napa.

Alcohol: Every single red wine we had was over 14% alcohol; every chardonnay we had was above 13.5%. I know these numbers can vary a degree or two, which actually means some of these wines can push the actual limit of how strong a wine can get before needing an artificial boost. Is it any wonder that we saw several episodes of people vomiting either outside the wineries or on the side of the road? (OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh here. Some of the responsibility is with the patrons, who apparently saw this less as “wine tasting” and more “winery hopping”…)

Merlot: Strangely, given all of this, I have a new appreciation for merlot. Maybe I’m unconsciously determined to swim against the tide, but I used to hate merlot (yes, pre-Sideways, which for the record is ultimately not an anti-merlot movie). Then we spent some time in St Emilion, and now all of a sudden the merlot’s are tasting better. Maybe I should spend some time in Graves next, then come back to Napa? Notice I’m not saying I had a merlot that I thought was unique; just that now, merlot ranks above zinfandel for me.
Finally, the Napa Branding Issue: This one is the biggest problems for me, because I come from a point of view that the terroir will give you the best results and personality, and the winemaker’s best efforts are to get out of the way and let the land do the talking. I know I’m not making any points with high-end vintners here, but rarely will I afford a $70 bottle of wine (much less higher) so they really shouldn’t take umbrage – I’m not their market. What I’m talking about is this insistence that where the wine is made is the most important, not where the grapes come from. At one winery, the person behind the counter admitted to me that the grapes came from Lodi, but the wine was “made in Napa – the grapes were trucked in, crushed, vinified, right here in Napa.” So what? To me, that means that a) the vintners understand that the best place to source certain grapes is not in Napa, but b) they want to _make_ the wine in Napa, in order to double the price. I used to be a snob about Estate wines, until I realized that Estate still means you can truck your grapes in from Fresno, as long as you owned the vineyard. Now I’m much more keen to discover grape origin.

Ultimately, despite the downer of what I’ve described above, we had a great time camping and wine tasting. As for the wines, however, call me a populist, but I’m still a Rhone fan. I drink wine just about every day. I need to find good, solid, drinkable wines that will fit my budget that I can drink every day. And that’s not going to happen with Napa wines….

A quick overview of what we tasted to come…


1 Response to “Napa Gestalt”

  1. 1 You’re a good man, Charlie Rominger « Goat at Large Trackback on October 29, 2006 at 5:47 am
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