Thursday, April 2, 2009

Touring Napa Valley: The best of the best

Friends from Virginia are heading to Napa Valley to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and they've asked me for a list of wineries to visit. So I am sharing this with you. For those unacquainted with Napa Valley geography, the first thing you need to know is there are two highways in the Valley: Highway 29 on the Westside, and the Silverado Trail on the Eastside. There are connector roads along the way. So my list of wineries is grouped by highways and connectors.

Now, as for how I picked these: It is about the wine. Not the cutsy tasting rooms or the zillionaire's art collections. It's the wine. Nor do I have any prejudice on grapes; all of the best types of wine Napa Valley offers are represented here. And this is my list - no one else's - based on many a trip to Napa Valley; this is subject to change based on the next trip. No one is paying me for these plugs, and there are no Robert Parker style ratings here. And you are free to post your own picks on the comments section, and let me know what you think of any of these wineries.

Enjoy your journey and the wine! And remember to drive safely, and taste the wine, not guzzle it; eat food, and take your time to enjoy everything along the way. And be forewarned, the California Highway Patrol is everywhere in the Valley. 

Here is my list of the best-of-the-best:

Highway 29 (St. Helena Highway)

Cakebread (Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, everything)
Hours: By Appointment Only
8300 St. Helena Highway Rutherford, CA 94558
(800) 588-0298

Grgich Hills (Savignon Blancs and Cabernets)
By appointment at 11am and 2pm Picnic Area: no
Hours: Daily 9:30am to 4:30pm
1829 St. Helena Hwy. Rutherford, CA 94573
(800) 532-3057

Heitz Wine Cellars (Cabernets especially)
Daily 11am to 4:30pm
436 St. Helena Highway St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-3542

Whitehall Lane (Cabernets and the meritages are superb)
Daily 11am to 5:45pm
1563 South St. Helena Highway St. Helena, CA 94574
(800) 963-9454 x19

Silverado Trail:

Chimney Rock (Cabernets, Zins)
Hours: Daily 10am to 5pm
5350 Silverado Trail Napa, CA 94558
(800) 257-2641

Clos du Val (Great Cabernets in the French style)
Hours: 10 am to 5pm
5330 Silverado Trail

Rombauer (incredible Chardonneys)
Hours: Daily 10am to 5pm
3522 Silverado Trail N St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-5170

Stags Leap Wine Cellars (Cabernets and, really, everything)
(not to be confused with the other Stags Leap to be avoided)
NOTE: This is the best of the best, no doubt in my mind. Go for the $30 wine tasting – be sure to sample Cask 23.
Address: 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa CA 94558_Phone: 866.422.7523 (toll free) OR 707.261.6441
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7 days a week._Call for operating hours on/around major holidays.


Silver Oak
(Cabernets, and the new tasting room is open)
915 Oakville Crossroad
Oakville, CA 94562
Tasting Room: 707.942.7022

(Cabernets, Merlots)
$35 Daily at 11am and 2pm Picnic Area: no
Hours: Appointments are recommended but may accept walk ins.
1000 Lodi Lane St. Helena, CA 94574
(888) 354-8885

Far Niente
(great Chardonneys only)
Hours: By Appointment Only
1350 Acacia Drive Oakville, CA 94562
(707) 944-2861

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Holy Grail: Look no further than Nevada City

This week we head more to the spirit end of things. I want to feature my chalice and paten, the receptacles that I use for serving Holy Communion. My chalice and paten are made from Montana soapstone, shaped on the lathe of Jack Richardson who is an amazing artist who lives in Nevada City, California. You can see Jack's work on his website Turned Stone.

Jack says we are relatives, so I believe him. We aren't sure how, though. I found his work in a gallery Half Moon Bay before I was ordained, and used some ordination gift money to commission him to craft a chalice and paten for me.

Last year, as would happen, the paten (the plate) fell on the floor during a church service and cracked. We brought the damaged paten up to Jack's workshop. He reshaped it as a gift for the young acolyte who accidentally dropped the paten. Then he made two new patens for me. 

He was an art teacher many years ago, retiring (if you can call it that) to Nevada City. I can only envy his students. What an extraordinary gift he brings, not just with his art but with his wisdom and teaching and gentle wit. It was a treat for us last year to spend a few hours with him, listening. His speciality is turning stone, and his backlot is full of boulders and stones that he has an eye upon for future projects.

I hope you get to see some of his work in galleries, and share in the wine and bread of communion out of one of his chalice and patens. The Spirit is truly at work through Jack's hands.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wine to gladden the human heart

Any discussion of wine and the spirit must, in this day, account for the impact of winemaking on our global environment. How we care for this earth is a spiritual issue, and how we cultivate the earth says much about our faith: 

"You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and the plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart." (Psalm 104:15).

A few California winemakers are taking that responsibility to heart by pioneering new techniques that are environmentally friendly. They are even making some pretty good wine.

Let me highlight two such wineries in Mendocino County. For many years I have been much impressed by Bonterra Vineyards, both the reds and the whites.  Bonterra has practiced organic farming without pesticides or chemical-based fertilizers and won accolades for making not just great wine but showing others how to create environmentally sustainable vineyards

Bonterra's cabernet sauvignon is particularly lush with berry and cherry flavors and enough tanin, or acid, to allow the bottles to age quite nicely, and we have laid down a few bottles over the years. Winemaker Robert Blue has proven he can make good wine and practice good environmentally sensitive agriculture. The photo at the top is from one of Bonterra's vineyards, showing the grasses and flowers planted between the rows that helps replenish the soil.

Parducci is a legendary winery in California; for years Parducci supplied Trader Joe's with good inexpensive second-label wines. Parducci, now under the name Mendocino Wine Co., was acquired by Paul Dolan and Tom, Tim and Tommy Thornhill, and they are taking enviro-friendly winemaking to new levels. They put vegetable fuel in their tractors and use wind and solar power for electricity. You can read about their sustainable agricultural practices HERE.

The other night I shared with friends a bottle of Parducci's 2005 Sustainable Red and it was terrific. I have no idea what grapes were in it, but it had overtones of a Rhone wine with the smoothness of good merlot (and, yes, there are good merlots out there). I enjoyed it immensely, and the pleasure was enhanced by the price ($10) and the knowledge that this winery is sensitive to the earth.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What would Obama drink?

Here's a dividend for you before Sunday, from Enjoy:

Change We Can Taste
Bush's White House served terrible wine. Obama should do better
By Mike Steinberger
Posted Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009, at 11:17 AM ET

With an economy in crisis and two wars to prosecute, Barack Obama will have lots on his plate when he becomes president on Jan. 20. But it would be a great service to the nation, to say nothing of his own palate, if he and Michelle Obama could also give some consideration to what will be in his glass. The White House needs a new wine policy. Sure, having a commander in chief who actually drinks wine will be a big improvement. However, it won't be enough. During the Bush era, wine service at the executive mansion has been hostage to a profoundly misguided strategy that has turned this most civilized of beverages into an unnecessarily crude instrument of statecraft. Candidate Obama promised change we can believe in; here's an opportunity to deliver change we can taste.

As with so much else, the Bush administration has given Obama the opening he needs to act swiftly and boldly on the wine front. During November's emergency economic summit in Washington, the White House poured the 2003 Shafer Hillside Select at a dinner for the world leaders in attendance. The Hillside Select is one of the so-called Napa cult cabernets; it is made in small quantities (1,800-2,400 cases per year), receives gushing scores from Robert Parker and other critics, and commands hefty sums as a result. The 2003 goes for around $250 a bottle. Although the White House said that it paid wholesale, the fact that it opened such an extravagant wine at a gathering intended to avert a global economic meltdown caused widespread indignation.

With the bitter taste of Shafer-gate lingering in the mouths of many Americans, Obama has a chance to take the White House wine program in a new direction. The need for a change of course was made shockingly clear in a recent interview that Daniel Shanks, who handles wine duties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., gave to Bloomberg's Elin McCoy. According to Shanks, the White House currently stocks around 500-600 bottles. That is pathetic and another example of how America's infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. During his eight years in office, Thomas Jefferson amassed a 20,000-bottle collection, which he kept in a cellar that he had built under what is now the West Wing. Two centuries later, that space is being used for other purposes, and the president of the United States has less wine in his basement than I have in mine.

Even more dismaying, though, was what Shanks revealed about the process of choosing wines for state dinners. He told McCoy that because only 55 minutes are allotted for the actual meal, it is essential that the wines served on these august occasions "have presence." And what did he mean by "presence"? "A perfectly aged cabernet may be great in the glass," he explained, "but it can't stand up to the intense atmosphere of a White House state dinner. You have to have something with youth and vigor." Delicate wines will be overlooked; only strapping, assertive ones have what it takes to be "noticed in the context of the White House experience," as Shanks put it. In other words, the desired effect is shock and awe, achieved not with cruise missiles but fruit bombs.

Curious to see what this has meant in practice, I visited the White House Web site, which posts the menus for visiting foreign dignitaries. In October, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined President and Mrs. Bush for dinner, and among the wines broken out that evening was the 2005 Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon reserve. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was served the 2005 Kistler Carneros chardonnay and a 2004 Caymus cabernet when she supped with the first couple in November 2007. Six months earlier, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were given the 2004 Newton unfiltered chardonnay and the 2003 Peter Michael Les Pavots, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma County.

I think this is a pretty unappetizing group of wines. I recently had the '05 Mondavi, and drinking it was like sucking on tree bark—it was obnoxiously oaky. Cloying and buttery, the Newton unfiltered epitomizes the overwrought, blowsy style of California chardonnay, and Kistler isn't far behind. These wines may have presence, but it's not a presence I want in my mouth. Perusing the menus, I found a few good choices. For instance, when Bush hosted a dinner for French President Nicolas Sarkozy several days before Merkel's visit, he served the 2004 Dominus, an excellent Napa cabernet (sadly wasted on both men: Sarkozy, like Bush, doesn't drink). But note the vintages—these wines were hardly out of the barrel when they were opened. This is a disservice to the U.S. wine industry and is probably not doing our foreign policy much good, either. The knock on our wines has always been that they lack finesse and longevity—that they are all about short-term, in-your-face pleasure.!
In truth, many of them have complexity and elegance, and some can age brilliantly. By limiting his selections to juvenile behemoths, Shanks is perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype about American wines. (American wine drinkers, too—the rap on us is that we only like 'em young and obvious.)

These bruisers could also be sending an unhelpful subliminal message. Diplomacy is a subtle art, and when it is conducted à table, it requires subtle libations. Mellow wines promote conviviality, encourage reflection, and create goodwill—the very things state dinners are presumably meant to foster. A hulking cabernet that assaults the senses and flattens any food that gets in its way hardly lubricates the path to world peace. Indeed, serving such a wine might even be construed as a sign of hostile intent: Tonight we smash your palate; tomorrow your palace. Shanks was hired by the Clintons, but his preference for slam-dunk wines has been in keeping with the tenor of Bush's foreign policy—you might even say he's the vinous George Tenet. For this reason alone, it's time to put something different in the decanter.

So, what must Obama do? He can start by replenishing the White House cellar. He's pledged to create or save 3 million jobs over the next two years; he should set a goal of having 3,000 bottles laid away by the end of his first term. An executive branch buying spree will once again give the presidency a wine stash worthy of the office while also making a small but meaningful contribution to the ailing economy. There is no need to load up on trophies like the Hillside Select; there are lots of sensational wines that can be purchased for less money. Indeed, wine prices are now tumbling in response to the financial maelstrom, and amazing deals can be had at auction and retail.

At the same time, a new approach to wine service ought to be implemented at once. The Bloomberg piece indicated that Shanks will be staying on after Jan. 20; if that's the case, he can now leave the youth and vigor to Obama himself. Henceforth the emphasis should be on maturity and finesse. Instead of the '05 Mondavi, make it a wine like the 1996 Château Montelena Estate, a glorious Napa cabernet that will bend even the most obdurate foreign leader to our will (and which can be found these days for less than $100 a bottle).

There is one other change that Obama might consider: lifting the ban on foreign wines at the White House. Under Lyndon Johnson, it was decided that only American wines would be served during official functions, a stricture that remains in place. (Richard Nixon, a Bordeaux man, supposedly got around it by having the waitstaff secretly pour him his beloved Château Margaux; apparently, Tricky Dick was also Tricky Drinker.) Back in the 1960s, the world had no idea that our vineyards were capable of turning out decent wines, so it probably made sense to reserve the stage exclusively for homegrown cabernets and chardonnays. But four decades on, American wines hardly need a presidential seal to certify their worthiness, and it can reasonably be assumed that the politics of the issue has changed, too—a country that just elected a guy named Barack Obama president is unlikely to erupt in nativist anger should a French or Italian wine occasionally grace the White House menu. If a vi!
siting head of state comes from a wine-producing nation, why not uncork something special from his backyard? Treating the Spanish prime minister to a great old Rioja or the Chinese president to an acclaimed boutique merlot from Shanxi province would be the ultimate gesture of respect and might even prove to be a diplomatic masterstroke. Suffice it to say, we could use a few of those. Related in Slate

John Dickerson described Christmas at the White House in 2005. In "Le Divorce," Mike Steinberger explored the falling out of wine and food. Field Maloney asked why wine sales in America are way ahead of beer sales.
Mike Steinberger is Slate's wine columnist. He can be reached at

Copyright 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Did Jesus drink Grenache?

The French of Southern France know absolutely what it means to say that wine and spirit are connected as one. They take it so seriously that in medieval times the monks built in the vineyards a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where it is said that Jesus was buried. 

The Chapelle St-Sepulcre is near the village of Valettes, at the foot of Mont Ventoux (of Tour de France fame), in the Provence region. Here are some photos I took of the chapel and the vineyards nearby.

Most of the grapes grown in the Ventoux area are grenache (pronounced "gren-ash"), and it is a grape popular throughout the Mediterranean wine growing regions of France and Spain (spelled garnacha in Spain). 

The vines bear big round fruit, and the better winegrowers often cut off and discard on the ground the early growth, waiting for the fruity and more sugar-laden grapes that come later. Unfortunately, a lot of the grenache that comes to the United States is not good, and grenache has gotten something of a reputation as a cheap wine. That is truly unfortunate. 

While touring the region, we enjoyed some huge grenache wines that were inky dark in the glass, with aromas of sweet tobacco and a touch of tannin, or fruit acid, that would allow it to age and stand up respectfully next to wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux.  

The best roses in the world are made with grenache, and to my mind there is nothing finer on a hot summer day than a glass of Rose from Southern France with a little cheese from the Cow Girl Creamery of Pt. Reyes and tapenade (chopped olive) from B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma County.

Grenache is versatile, and is used to mix with other wine
grapes in the Rhone region. Most Chateauneuf-du-Pape is made with grenache, and again, unfortunately, most of that wine that comes to the U.S. is not very good.

While Californians sometimes look down their noses at mixing, that is the time honored artform of French winemakers, and is being done with increasing skill by Californians. 

Indeed, Robert Mondavi who brought us the single varietal wine revolution (single variety of grape) in the 1960s overturned it with his Opus winery in the 1990s by mixing single varietals to create better wines. Californians are beginning to plant grenache, and a few are learning to make the roses. That is all to the good! 

There is a group of wine makers in the Napa-Sonoma region who've been experimenting for several years with Rhone-style wines, and they've been nicknamed "the Rhone Rangers." More on them another day.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Best Pinot Noir

What is the best Pinot Noir in California? Possibly the world? It has to be Patz & Hall of Sonoma County. This winery only does two grapes -- Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That's it. 

The winery is devoted to handpicking grapes from single vineyards (the vineyard is on the label). The grapes are hand-picked according to the specifications of the winemakers. The wine is only lightly filtered (the white wine is a bit cloudy but wonderfully fruity). The chardonnay is terrific but the Pinot Noir is in a class by itself, an amazing wine, spirit in the bottle. No one in California comes close with Pinot Noir.