Robert Craig, one of Napa Valley’s most dynamic and hard working winemakers, recently took a small break from his busy schedule to visit the Phoenix area. I was lucky enough to be invited as a guest at a wine maker dinner he was hosting at the outstanding, newly designed restaurant, Bistro Laurent Tourondel (BLT).
BLT has built a reputation for their fabulous cellar, stocked full of top tier Napa Valley and Bordeaux, valued at a cool $100,000. As quickly as I was let in to their cellar, I was let out… I think the manager was concerned with my wandering, awestruck eyes. You have to be careful of those blogger types, eh?
Dining room and wine cellar
Returning to the dining room, Robert Craig entered to a warm round of applause. Craig took us on a journey of his winery’s history and experiences before delving into an important piece of his wine making philosophy. He critically referred to the American culture of always looking out for what’s next, always trying to get bigger and bigger and bigger, especially in business. At this point in his life, which he jokingly refers to as “getting on in years”, he is not concerned with producing more wine as many of his neighbors are. Instead, his focus is on quality. It became obvious that his philosophy is taken from many smaller, boutique European producers, as he continually referenced the ideals of these overseas cohorts.
Guests enjoying champagne before dinner
The first course was a country style duck pate with brandied cherries, pistachio and arugula paired with the 2008 Robert Craig “Durrell Vineyard” Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. This Chardonnay is the only wine he makes outside of Napa, and the only white wine in his entire portfolio. Aged in a mix of 10% new French oak, 65% neutral French oak and 25% Stainless steel, it is a wine that is light on oak, focused on fruit purity and a distinct sense of the Durrell Vineyard terroir. Less than 500 total cases were produced.
This was followed by roasted pork belly, ricotta gnudi, root vegetable fricassee and crispy pork skins paired with the 2007 Robert Craig “Affinity”, a Bordeaux styled blend created specifically with “the restaurant experience in mind”, as Craig explained. The wine should not require additional aging or decanting to be enjoyed. Each year just under 6,000 cases of Affinity are produce and every year it sells out. With a 96 point score from Robert Parker, it’s no wonder they have no trouble selling it. I found the wine to be smooth and supple in the way it just seemed to glide across the palate. It screams quintessential Napa Valley, with cassis, perfume, violet and a hint of tar. At $48 retail, this might be the steal of the century.
I just had to take this picture!
The third course was a Grouper stew featuring lobster mushrooms, chirozo and northern beans, a great but non-traditional pairing for the 2006 Robert Craig Mt. Veeder Cabernet. A big and chewy wine with rich tannins, this is a bigger style than the Affinity, requiring a slight decant for maximum enjoyment.
The main course, a pepper-crusted NY strip with huckleberry braised beef cheek, roasted carrots and fava beans was paired with the 2006 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. With a miniscule production of 1,240 cases, this wine is simply stunning. It is riper than the Mt. Veeder with an even longer finish. This is a serious Napa Cab with a long future ahead of it, meaning that decanting is recommended in the near future.
The fifth and final course was caramelized French butter pears with cambozola ice cream inside of a walnut crisp pastry paired with the 2007 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Zinfandel. This is where the pairings really pushed the envelope. Cambozola ice cream tastes like ice cream made with brie and blue cheese. However, it really worked with the sweet pears and the earthy zinfandel. The fruit comes from the famous Black Sears vineyard on Howell Mountain, the highest vineyard on Howell Mountain. The wine is peppery with a pronounced minerality that I found to be quite interesting. Again, at only 800 cases produced, Craig’s mantra for quality and not quantity becomes evident.
Sitting next to Robert Craig throughout dinner and having deep conversation with him, you get a real feel for the winemaker. Humble, soft spoken and gentle, but also exceptional. More producers should take a cue from Craig and focus on their wine, not the numbers.