I'll bet your fantasies concerning orgies never included a time limit. However, that's just what happened when the Napa Valley Vintners Association tour recently came to town. This orgy of 79 prestigious wineries, all pouring their best stuff, took place in the cavernous ballroom of the Washington Duke Hotel in Durham. With an average of four wines at each display, here were 350 selections to be sampled, enjoyed(?), and assessed in the space of 150 minutes. The bounty, the temptation, not unlike that of Tantalus, was alluring and vexing at the same time.
The association's motto is: "Napa Valley. To a Wine Grape, it's Eden." However, this tasting room was more reminiscent of Babylon, crowded with flatterers, lenders, vendors and buyers. General hubbub reigned as friends and colleagues converged to taste and compare notes. A lot of schmoozing occurred as some wineries looked for local representatives to carry their products and vice versa. In most cases, the pourers were either the estates' owners or its winemakers. This wonderful opportunity to share enlightened conversation about their properties was frustratingly hard to achieve. In the hectic, slam-bang atmosphere, there was barely enough time to spit!
There was only one area with some food, and it was located at a far corner of the room. When I finally made my way over, it was practically stripped bare. I strategically placed a few slices of bread in my pocket and dove back in. The only hors d'oeuvres I saw being circulated were egg rolls. Gastronomically speaking, they're a strange match with young cabernets and merlots.
In the middle of a long tour, this assortment of proud wine folk managed to remain affable and genuinely interested in imparting information. It's no small feat to keep up one's spirit and energy level while repeating, for the five-hundredth time, a well-rehearsed spiel on the wine's makeup, its manner of aging and the mantra of the winery's mission. The tour and its participants are to be congratulated.
Some "hosts" chose to ad lib more, being inclined to wait for a taster's comment before chiming in a response. Finally, a charming few preferred to talk about their travels in North Carolina, local friends, world peace--anything except wine. This stream of consciousness conversation was much to my liking. After all, I can read a fact sheet; I can taste the wine and form an opinion. Frankly, after the first 30 minutes, how many technical comments can one process without having them enter one ear canal and leave the other, unprocessed and unheard?
One stop was with Bob Burrows of Liparita Cellars. He was humorous, friendly, engaging and let the wine speak for itself. I enjoyed his low key, human approach and was subsequently pleased that I also liked his wines.
2001 Liparita Sauvignon Blanc, $16.50
Inviting aromas of ripe apricots, mouth-watering citrus and a clean, crisp flavor. A nice grip on the finish. This would enhance all manner of seafood.
1999 Liparita Cabernet Sauvignon, $50
Really good, solid fruit, with layers of flavor in true Napa Valley "clothing." Silky plum, deep red cherry and a touch of anise make up the palate. A special, joyful red needing three-plus years of bottle age.
Another charmer was April Gargiulo of Gargiulo Vineyards. This very pretty woman served as a magnet, drawing one toward her father's production. Her low key, unaffected approach seemed to mimic the wines.
2000 Gargiulo Aprile, $25
Delightful fruit and sweet roses on the nose. A delectable red in an airy, valpolicella -like frame. However, it's sangiovese in a lovable style and weight. Some tannin to lose.
2000 Gargiulo Merlot, Money Road Ranch, $31
Another rather gentle style; thoroughly attractive spicy blackberry nose and flavors. Beautifully integrated and stylish. More like a Pomerol than Napa.
Here are some remaining highlights of an intense afternoon:
1999 Volker Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, $46
Overt smell of roses, handsome, pure fruit, and impressive concentration. Plums, vanilla and a nice oak underpinning that makes it dry and bit stark right now. A textbook cab in a structured style. Will improve over the next five years. Superb quality.
2000 Duckhorn Paradux, $48
This zinfandel (66 percent) cabernet (34 percent) blend is enormously fragrant, spicy and enjoyable. Bursting with berries, pepper and herbs, this is a lively, "drink me now" effort. Steep price.
Markham Vineyards--slightly more realistic prices and excellent quality.
2001 Sauvignon Blanc, $11.50
Very fresh, uplifting nose. Clean, smooth, (aided by 14 percent semillon) and a crowd pleaser. Tropical fruit, a lemony touch and brisk flavors add up to a winner. A warm spell (sometime soon we hope?) will entice you to match it with steamed shrimp.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, $31
Extrovertedly fragrant, gorgeous fruit gushes on the nose. Dark berries, cassis and a tarry element add up to fine quality that drinks beautifully now.
2001 Monticello Vineyards Chardonnay, $22
Nicely wrought with pear, apples and a touch of honeysuckle. Perfect texture with just enough oak to circle the flavors.
1999 Monticello Vineyards Merlot, Corley Vineyard, $40
A "dark" bouquet of ripe blackberry fruit, earth and herbs. A big beauty that's a bit tough now, but four years aging will make it a swan. Beautiful, and unmistakably Napa.
1999 Louis M. Martini Winery Merlot, Ghost Pines, (price not available) Very appealing bouquet of dry, intense fruit. With its wild cherry component, flavors that scream of Napa's Rutherford Bench. Three years will reveal a great deal. It's the best Martini wine I've tasted in years.
1999 Girard Red, $42
This blend of numerous grapes, often called Meritage in California, is expertly turned out. Rich, thick with a fine finish incorporating the famous Napa "dust" on the aftertaste Dry and power packed. A glorious example of the concentration and push all the buttons style that can be achieved in this magical region. Not for the meek.
2001 Girard Winery Zinfandel, price not available
A super zin that speaks volumes about the 2001 vintage for reds. Opulent fruit, ripeness and balance. Luscious raspberry, spice and smoky bouquet and flavor. Just needs to settle down. Will be on retailer's shelves soon.
2001 Cain Cellars "Musque" Sauvignon Blanc, $18.50
My favorite sauvignon of the day. Made from the musque clone, this wine is melony, vibrant and very brisk. Could be too tingly for some, but I love its refreshment quotient. It does need food. Crab legs anyone?
1999 Beaulieu "Tapestry," $54
Round and sensuous fruit with fine depth of flavor. Very drinkable style which is impeccably balanced. A winner, but a shade less good than the 1997, which sold for $40. A 35 percent price increase in two years is not what we need in this economy.
1999 Freemark Abbey Merlot, $29
This "venerable" boutique has made a dark, very rich but not opulent style of merlot. Structured beautifully with a good, positive finish that lingers sweetly without roughness. Should be aged further, but fascinating already.
Napa is a microcosm of all that is good and worrisome in today's wine world. Napa produces wines of grace, complexity, power and verve, just as France's Medoc, Burgundy and Italy's Piedmont do. But are prices getting to the point where everyone will think twice about whether the Napa Valley gets one's dollar for a luxury wine? One comment, made by a presenter, sums up my fears. When we were being poured a blended red from this estate, she said: "Well, this isn't one to take very seriously; it's only 15 bucks." One phrase can sometimes define a mindset. That $15 wine better be good, or that chunk of change will be spent for a somewhere else wine. One that can knock your socks off, even at this "low" price!
Speaking of bargains ...
2001 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese, $7.50
2000 La Vielle Ferme, Cotes de Ventoux, $8
For six months, I have been telling anyone who would listen just how good this sangiovese is. From Molise, on the Italian Adriatic, it has a velvety nose of plummy fruit. The flavors are pure, varietally correct and beautifully balanced. The level of complexity and its delicious finish is remarkable at the price. It will drink well through 2005. For four months I have extolled the virtue of this Cotes de Ventoux. The 2000 vintage, mostly grenache, is very fruity and spicy with a sweet earth component and a nice swift kick on the finish, promising further development. These two extraordinary values, which I've seen discounted even further, need to be tasted and purchased now, because soon they'll be gone.