Napa Valley Wine Train Birthday Excursion

The family, before we head out from the Napa DepotIn honor of my beautiful mom’s birthday, Beth and I traveled up to Napa to join my sister Shauna and my parents Donna and Ed, for a day spent on the Napa Valley Wine Train (NVWT).

The Wine Train has had a long and sometimes contentious history in the Valley. The movement to start the NVWT was headed by Vincent DeDomenico of Rice-A-Roni fame, among many other food brands. The long legal battle was bitterly fought throughout the valley with many residents against the idea, including my own grandfather Bud Schroeder. Local protesters argued that the Valley was already fraught with enough tourists, a rather reasonable view, actually. Eventually the legal battle ended up in the California Supreme Court, where DeDomenico et al prevailed. The original dissension has dried up over the last 18 years of operation and, for the most part, the Wine Train is now an accepted part of Valley life.

We started the day off at 11:30 in the Napa Wine Depot, trying a complimentary house wine Chardonnay and the red poured by the staff as we waited for the train. I found it pretty impressive that the red was a Pinot Meunier, a rarely grown grape that is usually found as a blending varietal in Champagne and other sparklers. I initially heard that it was a Pinot Noir, however, and I was befuddled as to lack of varietal character until Shauna set me right. Once the train arrived, we headed out to the boarding area to begin our journey.

Vista Dome CarThere are multiple types of lunch and dinner trips that you can take on the Wine Train. We ended up going all out and choosing to book the premiere lunch package in the Champagne Vista Dome car. Unlike all of the other packages, you can spend your entire journey in this car, although you are not required to do so. The trip started with a complimentary glass of Mumm Blanc de Noirs (one of my favorite Napa sparkling houses). After traveling through some of the workday parts of the city, we headed up towards Yountville and some of my favorite views of the Valley.

One of things that I loved about the Wine Train and didn’t initially expect, was just how much more you notice during a leisurely ride Upvalley. I have driven Upvalley hundreds of times in my life and an equal number of times as a passenger. Yet, traveling at roughly the same speed as a brisk bicycle ride reveals many new treasures along the way. Beth and I commented on this effect throughout our journey to and from St. Helena, the end of the line.

Our guide and waiter for the day, Scott, was a rather learned resident of the Valley. A continually humorous aspect of the day was provided by my father, however. He is a massive history buff, particularly within California and my hometown of Napa. That day he had an incredible knack of telling a story about some part of the scenery about 5 minutes before Scott launched into the same spiel, unbeknownst to either. This must have happened at least six or seven times. We then proceeded to nominate him as our favorite tour guide for the Train from there on out!

A large array of glasses were used!My father brightened the mood of our two tables even further when he offered to buy two bottles of wine of my choice from the standard wine menu. We ventured forth with a Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay (quite tasty and new a favorite for my mom and Shauna) and the Franciscan Napa Valley Merlot.
Lunch was a beautifully presented and very well executed 4 course affair. I started off with the flour-less squash ravioli (better than I thought it would be) and the seafood bisque soup du jour. My entrée choice was the Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Roasted Garlic in a Cabernet Veal Demi. Yummy. Beth’s Blue Nose Sea Bass was not quite as tasty, but still enjoyable.

During the hour or so interlude between lunch and dessert, we headed down the train towards the tasting car where we used our free tasting coupons from VIA magazine to make sure that we tasted more than enough wine on our trip. The bartender was a very knowledgeable local who whole-heartedly agreed to open a couple new bottles of red when my father and I discovered that our first two choices had been open for too long and had oxidized. I learned some more tidbits of local winery info during my time chatting with her about each wine, with my favorite of the 6 that I tried being the Shypoke Charbono.

We finished with a large array of deserts, including the crème brûlée that we saw in other cars that wasn’t offered in our car. I tried to pay for the extra dessert but Scott roundly refused, a very nice gesture that complemented the surprise birthday song and candle that they gave my mother for her dessert. I decided to finish the day with a glass of the Praeger Petite Sirah Port, a winery that resides along the tracks across from Louis M. Martini.

After a bit more relaxation and chatting with some Flemish tourists that were traveling through California, we arrived back at the Napa Depot and had our taxi whisk us back to Shauna’s condo and the end of a wonderful day.

Please check out the links below for reviews of the wines that we had or tried on the trip. All are tagged with “W2007NVWT”.Enjoy!

2003 Napa Valley Wine Train Napa Valley Chardonnay

2006 River Road Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Meunier

2004 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Valley Merlot

2005 Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay

2005 Far Niente Napa Valley Estate Chardonnay

2005 Shypoke Napa Valley Charbono

2005 Napa Creek Stag’s Leap District Petite Sirah

2003 Madrigal Vineyards Napa Valley Petite Sirah

2005 Educated Guess Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

NV Prager Winery Lodi Petite Sirah Port

Wonderful Wine-Induced Thanksgiving & 30th Birthday

I got quite the (early) 30th birthday weekend over Thanksgiving weekend, whew! My family and Beth, especially, truly went out of their way to make my 3rd decade start off with a wonderful wine-soaked bang.

We had a very special start to the weekend with Thanksgiving night at my sister’s condo in Napa, where she provided a cozy and well-appreciated dinner aided by my mom and Beth.

The next day my family and I went tasting around the Napa Valley, starting at Cartlidge & Browne, one of the best value producers in the world of wine. My family first learned about C&B when they owned Ehlers Estate in St. Helena. I grew up going to many a tasty picnic at that winery. They’ve since sold off that label and winery and are now are based in their large warehouse in American Canyon. We tasted a few wines there, where I liked their Sauv Blanc and Stratford label Cab’s. Please use the links below to read my reviews log notes for the wines I mention in this post!

We then headed across the Southern part of the Valley into the Carneros region where we tasted at Folio (Michael Mondavi’s new negociant-style venture & winery) in the old Carneros Creek winery location and Artesa. The real fun and excitement of the weekend took place after this lovely day.

Beth instructed me to be ready as soon as she got back up to my sister’s, where she then whisked me off to a surpise birthday weekend alone with her at the Kenwood Inn and Spa! I was practically speechless when she suddenly turned left off Sonoma Highway towards the gorgeous lobby of the Inn. The grounds are just beautiful, done in a Tuscan style and all grown up and in around the beautiful architecture. We got settled in our suite overlooking the main pool and the spa and then headed over to the little wine bar and restaurant that are in the square of the main building and private to the guests. They had a compact but very well thought out wine list, which we proceeded to plunder during the rest of the trip.

The next day, however, the fun surprises continued with a town car ready to take us anywhere we wanted for the rest of the day! We did our best, hitting numerous wineries including Twomey Cellars (in the old Roshambo Winery building), Hop Kiln Winery, Armida Winery, Longboard Vineyards, Christopher Creek Winery and finishing with Pellegrini Family Vineyards.

Twomey had made few changes to the Roshambo building and it was there that I was reminded that they are the Merlot house for Silver Oak, something that I had forgotten. They also have the main tasting room and winery in Calistoga. Hop Kiln was very busy and we really enjoyed their Thousand Flowers white blend. Armida, a Zinfandel specialist, was a bastion of young hipsters and while they make a lot of great wine, including the well-recognized Poizin, we were turned off by the overwhelming marketing push in the winery for that wine.

Longboard was a winery that I was anxiously anticipating and it did not disappoint, being tied with our favorite for the weekend. Founded by surfer and former J Winery winemaker, Oded Shakked, it is found in a converted warehouse on the outskirts of Healdsburg. The tasting room is filled with surf memorabelia from the longboard heyday and even has a plasma television showing surf documentaries to the side of the tasting bar. All of Oded’s wines were fantastic, with my favorites being the two Syrah’s (his speciality) and the Dakine Vineyard Merlot.

Next we headed to one of my favorites (I’ve been a wine club member), Christopher Creek. They make a wide array of wines, while specializing in one of my favorite varietals, Petite Sirah. They are a no-nonsense, here’s some great wine in a former barn-kinda place. I love it. I bought a bottle of their 1999 Russian River Valley back vintage Petite Sirah. Yum (I’m pretty sure…we haven’t had it yet!).

Our great driver, Turk, finished the day for us by taking us to Pellegrini on the way home to Kenwood. I enjoyed their wines, but honestly, we were so wiped that we didn’t stay long. Tasting is hard work! We settled down to (even more) wine at the wine bar and then another beautiful meal at the restaurant.

What a fantastic weekend. I have to send such a heart-felt thank you to my thoughtful and beautiful wife. It was a birthday I will never forget, even if I had to turn 30 to experience it! You can search for all of the wines below by using the tag “30thW”. Enjoy!

2006 Cartlidge & Browne Dancing Crow Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

2004 Twomey Cellars Napa Valley Merlot

2006 Hop Kiln Thousand Flowers California White Wine

2004 Longboard Vineyards Russian River Valley Syrah

2004 Longboard Vineyards Dakine Vineyard Syrah

2005 Longboard Vineyards Dakine Vineyard Merlot

1999 Christopher Creek Russian River Valley Estate Petite Sirah

2005 Pellegini Family Vineyards Cloverdale Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine.com 100 Top Wines (By Sales)

So there’s another annual “100 Top Wines” list on the block these days. It seems like this aspect of the wine industry gets blown out of proportion more and more every year (see the marketing ploy for the 100 from Wine Spectator this year??), but this new one is more interesting than any other, at least for me.

Wine.com, in case anyone buying wine online these days that hasn’t run into this juggernaut (or who can), is a great online wine store that has really exploded in popularity over the last five years. Virtual Vineyard’s consolidation of many major online wine websites over the last 5 years (wine.com, eVineyard, WineShopper, etc), as well as a key partnership deal with Amazon a couple years back shoehorned wine.com into the wine public’s minds.

On the consumer front, their prices are usually quite good and they regularly have great deals on many of the products that they offer on their site. They also have a *ton* of great info on every wine they carry, which is a huge plus for me when I’m looking at possible wines that I’d like to buy.

The wine merchant made a new leap into the fermentation tank of wine culture this year with their first ever Wine.com 100 list. Now, don’t get me wrong, the profusion of wine marketing techniques since the turn of the millennium has bugged me, too (cuddly animal labels, anyone?), but this is a bit different and it really fits into the values that we hold here at WineLog.net. This is a list of wines that is created purely by us, the consumer. There is no other criteria. It is truly the open-source top 100 wines (from wine.com) of 2007. This is a really neat concept and I hope that they continue to do this each year.

Look for these Wine.com 100 wines on WineLog as we get them uploaded by Monday 12/10/07. They’ll be tagged with “2007wine.com100“. Enjoy!

Great Wine 2.0 "New Release Only" Event!

Jason Moore, Modus OperandiI had the rather outstanding opportunity to go to my first Wine 2.0 event last Thursday, their “New Releases Only” wine-tasting at Varnish, a wine bar and art gallery in San Francisco. I’ve been to Varnish a lot over the years since it opened to grab a break from working at the Wednesday happy hour party Qoöl at 111 Minna Gallery around the corner. As a nice aside, it also doubled as a great way to spend the night of my 30th birthday. So, I grabbed my friend Alberto from Minna and we headed over to the party.

Wine 2.0 is, essentially, a wine industry networking group that intends to push wine into the open source and social networking new world that is “Web 2.0.” Really though, that’s kind of a stuffy description for what is a really cool and vibrantly active group of young wine entrepreneurs and aficionados. I kind of think of them as the next generation of “Wine Brats,” but taking a different sort of approach than that organization (though Wine Brats is still going strong!). Despite this younger crowd pushing this movement, I was happy to see a widely diverse group of 200+ patrons that at the event that were all over the age map.

Wine 2.0 and its various and somewhat tightly and loosely associated organizations and companies such as RadCru and Bottlenotes all eschew the philosophy of leveling the playing field between micro-wineries, virtual wineries and small grapegrowers. They want to help the wine public reach these tiny producers for good quaffing benefit for both sides, hence the Web 2.0 analogy. I think that two of the founders of Wine 2.0 and organizers of last Thursday’s event, Cornelius (founder of RadCru) and Alyssa (founder of Bottlenotes), stated it best in their toast that night: they aren’t exactly sure what this Wine 2.0 is all about, but they enjoy the continual discovery of its definition and really like seeing all of the new connections and off shoots that are being spawned from their organization and their meme. All in all, a movement that I fully endorse!

So, down to the real business of the night…the wine! I was rather swamped during the week leading up to this event so I didn’t get to do as much pre-event research as I would have liked. I did know that I wanted to check out two tiny wineries from the list of 30+ that were being represented: Modus Operandi Cellars and Radog. Unfortunately, the Radog owner and winemaker was off enjoying life around the globe now that his wines were in barrel, so Alberto and I started the evening with some fantastic wines from Modus Operandi.

Jason Moore, the winemaker and partner, started us with a startlingly crisp Sauvignon Blanc. It had all of the characteristics of Sauv Blanc that I love…vibrant acidity, big citrus flavors and that great herbaceousness that almost delves into cat pee, reminiscent of many of the New Zealand Sauv’s that I tend to enjoy. We also tasted his new red blend that was one of my favorite reds for the night. On top of his awesome wines and a really cool, laid back persona, the guy has a great story as well. He worked in the food industry for many years in Dallas until he got the wine bug and finally just up and moved to Napa with his wife. He tried this path and that until he found one that got him what he wanted, his own wine label. He makes some fantastic wines, check them out below and be sure to check out his website, as well…tell him Ward sent you!

Medlock AmesWe also had a great time chatting with Medlock Ames winemaker, Ames Morison. While he looks like the younger brother of Crispin Glover and seems like he should be fronting a really great indie band, Ames is a guy that knows his stuff and makes some outstanding wine. Ames and his friend and winery co-founder, Christopher Medlock James, run an organic and sustainable winery about 400 feet up on Mayacamas foothills. Their outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest of their wine ensemble are grown and vinted on their estate Bell Mountain Vineyard. Ames’ 2003 Cab was tied for the best wine that we had that night, alongside the Fantesca 2003 Cabernet. Be sure and check out the website, as well. The design is amazing (I dig the wine/water effects!) and I love the fact that they pack it full of so much useful information about their wines and their organic farming techniques.

I have uploaded the the most interesting wines that Alberto and I tried that night and you can find the links to their notes below. I’ve also tagged them all with 2.0NRO so that you can find them all in one search.

I also want to send Jason a Kim a big thank you for giving me the opportunity to go to this event, I loved it!

2006 Modus Operandi Cellars Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc

2005 Modus Operandi Cellars Napa Valley Vicarious

2003 Medlock Ames Bell Mountain Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2003 Fantesca Estate & Winery Spring Mountain District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2004 Bacio Divino Cellars Bacio Divino

2005 Peter Franus Napa Valley Cabernet Franc

2005 Peter Franus Brandlin Vineyard Mourvèdre