2008 Spark & Napa Valley Vintners "Nightlife Napa Valley"

On Thursday night 03/13/08, international womens charity organization Spark and the Napa Valley Vintners lit up the Rotunda and accompanying floors of San Francisco City Hall and provided quite a night of charity, wine and beats. “Nightlife Napa Valley,” hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners to benefit Spark was a huge and sold-out success.
Spark 2008
Click for a larger view.SparkSpark was started in 2004 by Founder and Founding President, Maya Garcia. Along with fellow co-founders Nealan Afsari, Rohini Gupta, Karen Hennessey, Fiona Hsu, Mona Motwani and my long-time friend Kathleen Kelly, Garcia set out to start empowering and celebrating young women around the world who are trying to change their local communities for the better. Their work covers four areas of support: Community Building, Education, Advocacy and Grant-Making. In just a few short years, Spark has had a tremendous number of global successes, starting with providing desperately needed support to a burgeoning support group by and for Rwandan genocide widows, to most recently beginning grant support for the local OASIS for Girls that holistically supports young immigrant and low income girls with no-cost resources and programs that span the arts to job and leadership training in the SOMA district of San Francisco.

Napa Valley VintnersNapa Valley Vintners is the non-profit trade association that has taken on the important task of protecting and promoting the wine, land and wineries of the Napa Valley Appellation. Their mission is multi-fold: protect the terroir and integrity of Napa Valley wines and wineries, promote the wine region around the world and educate the wine drinking populace about the incredible wines that list the Napa Valley and its sub-appellations as their place of origin.

I arrived at City Hall a little early that night, perhaps a bit anxious to get the promise of such a wonderful evening started as early as possible. I walked over from Civic Center BART and hopped up the front steps and quickly made my way through the metal detectors at the entrance.

RotundaOnce inside and finished checking in, I was immediately taken in by the substantial beauty of the building. I found this rather surprising, seeing as how I had already briefed myself on the many outstanding wines that I was about to enjoy and I rarely turn down the chance to get started tasting good wine. Regardless, my initial attention for the first few minutes was spent merely walking around the main hall and viewing the architecture. City Hall recently finished a full renovation in 1999 for both safety and historical restoration and preservation and the Hall looks incredible.

After getting my self-tour completed, while also getting a good mental image of where all of the wineries were located on the two floors, I began looking around for a good start to my evening of tasting. Generally, when I go to an event or I’m at a party that has a wide variety of wine open and available, I like to start drinking the same way that Beth and I like to start a meal…with bubbly! I was in luck, one of my favorite producers of domestic sparkling wine was in attendance and not messing around with their choices of wines to pour that night. Schramsberg was pouring four different versions of their sparklers and all were from their reserve labels. I started a little backwards, depending on your perspective, with the 2004 Brut Rosé and then tried their flagship 2000 J. Schram. Both were outstanding and very different from each other, with more crisp fruity aromas and flavors in the Rosé and creamier more mature flavors in the J. Schram, yet the higher quality was seen in its ability to retain a nice crisp finish alongside those bolder flavors.

SF City HallIt was around this time that I ran into some more old friends from my High School days at Vintage in Napa. Jen and Emily and sister Megan were out to support Spark and Kathleen and it was rather comforting to get a chance to catch up with such great people and friends. We walked around while getting caught up and commented on the wide range of patrons at the Hall that night. They were old and young and dressed nicely, with many women in evening dresses, but it still looked like an upscale West Coast affair, with that ability to be semi-formal yet still retain a casual edge. We did think that Spark had managed to tap into a large portion of the more beautiful residents of San Francisco, however!

After a bit I split off to taste some more, but before doing so I made a direct line to the DJ booth where DJ Label had been dropping some solid tunes so far during the evening. He was playing one of my favorite tracks that I like to still spin now and then, Blueboy’s “Remember Me“. After a bit of conversation about the acoustics and assurances that he had enough free wine, I headed out to taste from some other wineries that were pouring upstairs.

Madonna EstateMadonna Estate is one of the few public wineries left in Napa that I had previously missed all other prior opportunities to visit. It’s a bit ironic, seeing as how they’re only a couple miles from where I grew up, residing at the corner of 122 and Old Sonoma Road in the Carneros appellation (Napa County). They are one of the few remaining long time family-owned and operated wineries still left in Napa, with many large and small family producers having already been sold to larger corporations over the last decade. I had a great conversation with Susan and Brette Bartolucci about the history of the family and their wines. They poured a number of wines that night and I really enjoyed their 2006 Pinot Grigio. It was the best Pinot Grig that I’ve had in years, in fact. It’s quite difficult to make a wine from that varietal and get so much flavor and yet keep it nicely balanced and tasting straight from the vineyard.

O'Brien EstateTwo other big highlights were the great extended conversations that I had with Bart O’Brien of O’Brien Estate and Debi Cali of Baldacci Family Vineyards. I’ve recently “discovered” these two established producers over the last year and it was wonderful to be able to talk with people from their wineries. I first had O’Brien’s 2004 Seduction at Artisan Wine Lounge and Café in Walnut Creek, and was blown away by its depth and balance. Lena really know how to pick them at Artisan!

BaldacciBaldacci is a winery that I first encountered at the wonderful Napa Valley Wine Library 2007 annual tasting last summer. Despite never having stumbled upon their wines in the past, they ended up being the favorite Stags Leap District wine that Jeffro and I tasted that evening. I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to Debi about the winery, their wines and her views on the wine industry and the Valley. She’s got a great perspective on fine wine and a well of experience that belies her youthful exterior. We really agreed on many things about wine that night, including how their 2004 IV Sons and Stags Leap Vineyard Cabs are currently completely underpriced and taste phenomenal. They’ve quickly become one of my new favorite wineries. I can’t wait to visit them when I soon make it back up to visit the family in Napa.

La JotaBy the end of the night I still had no interest in leaving…the beats were still bumpin’ and the wine was still flowing, but security told us that it was time to go! I managed to say hi to Bayard of Bottlenotes and was still relishing the taste of the three stunning Cabs that Andre of La Jota brought as a horizontal that night. I’d heard of that winery for many years but that was first opportunity to find out just how great they were channeling their Howell Mountain fruit. Unfortunately, a truly inspirational night had ended and I could only thank Kathleen, Spark, DJ Label, the Napa Valley Vintners and Jason and Kim from WineLog.net for humanizing, wine-soaked evening.

Please peruse the reviews of all of the wines I tasted that night that are listed below. I’ve tagged the wines with “Spark2008TasteSF” if you would like to list all of these wines in your own WineLog. Enjoy!

Baldacci Family Vineyards Stags Leap District IV Sons Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Baldacci Family Vineyards Stags Leap Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Dominari Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Emilio’s Terrace Oakville Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Emilio’s Terrace Oakville Estate Sophie’s Rows 2004

Emilio’s Terrace Oakville Moonschlein Estate Red Wine 2004

Howell Mountain Vineyards Napa Valley Bear & Lion Old Vine Zinfandel 2005

La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain 21st Anniversary Release Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

La Jota Vineyard Co. Yountville Porcini Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Madonna Estate Carneros Estate Dolcetto 2004

Madonna Estate Carneros Estate Pinot Grigio 2006

Miner Napa Valley The Oracle 2004

Miner Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006

O’Brien Estate Oak Knoll District Estate Merlot 2005

O’Brien Estate Oak Knoll District Estate Seduction 2005

Schramsberg Vineyards North Coast Brut Rosé 2004

Schramsberg Vineyards North Coast J. Schram 2000

Book Review: "Red, White, and Drunk All Over"

Red White and Drunk All OverNatalie MacLean deserves all of the buzz that her first collection has garnered since its release in 2006. Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass (978-1582346489) is a phenomenal work of wine writing that manages to touch on all aspects of wine from producer to consumer, with a freshness and vivacity that more than lives up to its reputation.

You might be familiar with Natalie MacLean through her highly rated and visited website, Nat Decants. You might have even read her article about Valentine’s Day ideas here on WineLog.net. Ms. MacLean has built up a very strong following of wine enthusiasts in her native Canada, as well as around the rest of the world. Her writing has garnered her prestigious awards from numerous food and wine organizations including the James Beard Foundation, the Association of Food Journalists and the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Her website has a tremendous food and wine pairing tool and her free newsletter is read by tens of thousands of readers every month.

Ms. MacLean writes from the angle that wine and food are tactile, sensual experiences. As such, descriptions of both should reflect that sensuality, particularly when it those experiences titillate the body like a fine, brooding Brunello or a viscous and dripping demi glace. Descriptions such as “I close my eyes as the aroma envelops me, a silk drapery of scent brushing my cheeks and settling gently around my shoulders,” given while conveying the experience of tasting an elegantly aged Burgundy abound in the book where all of the senses are considered necessary to explain a wine.

Natalie MacLeanThe stories cover all aspects of the wine trade and you follow Ms. MacLean all over the world as she investigates wine-making, drinking and even wine marketing. Her ability to maintain dignity while still displaying an unusual amount of self-deprecation in her writing only adds to the story-telling. Ms. MacLean finishes her book with a great guidebook to food and wine pairings.

Red, White… is one of the most entertaining and riveting wine books I have ever read. The wine facts and knowledge are continuously purveyed in a manner that almost leaves you surprised at your new status as a fount of wine information by the end…you don’t realize how much you’ve learned after all the fun you had following her adventures. I highly recommend this book for wine newbies and seasoned, purple-lipped winos.

Disclosure: I received this book compliments of Natalie MacLean and her publisher.

Nat Decants FREE Wine E-Newsletter Wine picks, articles and humor from Natalie MacLean, named the World’s Best Drink Writer at the World Food Media Awards in Australia. Natalie is also the author of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass. For more details on this book and to sign up for the newsletter, visit www.nataliemaclean.com.

'95-'96 Bordeaux Blind Tasting

BaggedWineGenentech has grown to be quite a large and influential company over it’s 30+ years. One thing that has remained the same is a small group of employees and wine fanatics known as gOenophiles. Much like many things at my company, the penchant for adding a “g” to the beginning of any otherwise normal word is conserved with the naming of this loose-knit group of blind wine tasters. With many disparate backgrounds, temperates and interests gOenophiles do have two things in common, a love for wine and deep conviction in the power of tasting wines blindly.

Tasting wines blindly has a tremendous affect on your palate. The best way to try and quickly build your palate and perhaps more importantly, a *confidence* in your own palate is to put together a blind wine tasting. Tasting wine’s with little to no prior information forces you to really probe the colors, aromas and flavors that you encounter. Is the red wine in front of you bright ruby, a darker garnet or even showing some browner shades on the edges near the rim? Is there a lot of fruit in the nose or is it earthy or smelling like the rich dampness and organic mustiness of a forest floor? What kind of fruit is is, which is dominating the flavors in your mouth? Are they like red fruits such as cherry and raspberry or more darker fruit like blackberry? Or maybe that white wine has a whole lot of white fruit like peach, pear and nectarine?

The unwrapping of the bottles at the end of the tasting adds a very nice sense of anticipation or even trepidation, in the event that you tried to guess the regions or the grape varieties that made up the wines that you evaluated. The power of the blind tasting the lack of bias in your judgments about the wines. There’s no high sticker price to make you think you should enjoy the wine more than the one sitting next to it that might be as little as a tenth of the other’s price. You also tend to find, particularly early on like I did, that certain wines, grapes or regions are not as enjoyable to your palate as you previously thought they were (for me I found out that I was much pickier about Cabernet Francs that I thought I liked, no matter who made the wine).

I’ve attended three gOenophiles’ wine tastings now, all with great enjoyment. The cast of characters is widely varied, but all have one thing in common…no hesitation about voicing their opinions on the wines! Don’t get me wrong, they are not “snobby”in the least, rather they are passionate people and love to debate (or even bicker) about the wines they liked or didn’t like in the current tasting. They might give you a hard time here and there, but they expect you to stand up for yourself and to do the same. And I know first hand, that they are very forgiving to wine newbies!

Last Friday’s tasting (02/29/08) was a set of 9 high-scoring (Wine Spectator) Bordeaux wines, all 9 coming from the great cellar that John and Lynn have put together over the years. The wines were mainly from the 1995 vintage, with two coming from the 1996 vintage. Both vintages were highly rated, with 1995 being considered the finer vintage. I for one, was absolutely ecstatic when I first received the email invitation for this tasting…when am I going to get another chance to taste some nicely aged, high-rated Bordeaux…blind, no less?? We also had one further wine that was poured unblinded at the end, as a nice finish to the evening.

The ways of performing a blind tasting are numerous, but the key ingredient is that all of the participants are blinded to the individual bottles of wine that they are about to taste (sometimes the host needs to know their provenance, however). We do our tastings double-blinded, so that no one knows what they are tasting, including the current host. We do know the general theme of the tasting however, to help us along. The three tastings in which I’ve participated were California Cabernet Franc, 1990’s Gabrielli and Lytton Springs Zinfandel (Sam Gabrielli himself, was there and tasted and critiqued his own handiwork alongside us…ended up being one of the most critical, too!) and the latest, the ’95-’96 Bordeaux.

Everyone trundles down to the tasting room and pulls their glassware out from each of their highly-stained wine case boxes. Being mainly scientists, we use tiny pre-marked graduated beakers to pour an exact amount into each glass. Kevin (our (g)clan’s fearless leader) or the host provides a preprinted sheet for notes and we begin, munching on mild bread and cheeses as we drink. At the end of the fest, following random chatter, outbursts, accusations of infidelity and large amounts of innovative slander and profanity, we score the wines on a scale from 0-3, stepping by .25 points.

The loose explanation of this system that I was given by Lisa and her husband Joe is that 0 is a wine that you would only use to clean your least-favorite toilet, 1 is a wine that you probably would drink if it was free and you didn’t want to insult the person who gave it to you. A 2 is a pretty good wine, you’d probably go out and buy it at a later date and 3 is a wine that you will flat-out kill for and giving that score is sure sign that everyone else in the room better be on their toes and well-armed.

Complicating the tasting last Friday was my ability to be an idiot while in the presence of others. I was making a lot of people somewhat nervous, particularly Bonnee sitting next to me. I had a few 3’s in my early scores, of wines that I thought were pretty good…forgetting that the scoring system only went to 3 and not 4! Once people finally showered me with good-natured insults I realized my mistake and humbly apologized to the rest of the group, not realizing that I was implying I might have to rampage across the room to get the remaining wines I’d accidentally scored as worth a killing! The scores now properly re-tallied, we took the final group scores and unblinded the wines.

My favorite wines were #5 and #7, the Château d’Armailhac and the Château Pontet-Canet. The group’s top two were the Pontet-Canet, followed by the Château Dauzac. None of the group scores drifted close to the hallowed 3, but my two favs tied at 2.75. I liked the wines as a whole, actually. I found them to be medium to medium-full bodied, but with a big tannic structure that still didn’t seem integrated, even if a lot had lost a fair amount of their fruit at this middle-aged time in their lives. A lot of red and blue fruit could be found, however, with some showing a lot of nice black fruit and that mushroom or forest-floor characteristics from their fine (if big) tannins. Good stuff and big thanks to John and Kevin for sharing their wines.

Please check out my notes for the 9+1 wines that we tasted on Friday, with their scores adjusted to the WineLog 5 star scale. I’ve tagged all of the current lineup with “gOeno95-96B“, the Gabrielli tastings’ with “gOenoGabLytt” and the Cali Cab Francs with “gOenoCaCF“. All of the gOenophiles’ wines previously tasted and in the future are also and will be tagged with “gOenophiles” if you would like to list them all in your own WineLogs. Enjoy!

Blinded:

1995 Château Clerc Milon Pauillac

1995 Château d’Armailhac Pauillac

1995 Château Dauzac Margaux

1995 Château Haut-Marbuzet Saint-Estèphe

1995 Château Lafon-Rochet Saint-Estèphe

1995 Château Monbousquet Saint-Émilion

1995 Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac

1996 Château Poujeaux Moulis-en-Médoc

1996 Château Cantemerle Haut-Médoc

Unblinded:

1995 Château Prieuré-Lichine Margaux