Wines over $20

Affordable California Cult Wines | Shulz Cellars

California cult wineThis is the third installment in a five part series featuring some Affordable California Cult wines. Their track record, quality, and small production make these collector’s items, but their price tags are what really differentiate them in a sea of overpriced California wines.

Along the west side border of Napa, just off of the Mayacamas mountain region, is the Mt. Veeder region. Responsible for a small fraction of the Valley’s wines, Mt. Veeder doesn’t receive the love and attention that some better known counterpart regions, like Oakville and St. Helena, but it is quietly turning out world class wines from its high elevations. It should come as no surprise, since people have been growing grapes on Mt. Veeder since the 1860’s. Despite the rich history, it wasn’t until 1993 that Mt. Veeder became a formally recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Located north of Carneros and west of Oak Knoll, Yountville and Oakville, the mountain is rugged, steep, and faces the cool Pacific currents. The berries of Mt. Veeder are relatively small due to the cool fog and high elevations, which results in wines of intense fruit flavor and smoother tannins. Of the 15,000 acres that make up the Mt. Veeder, only 1,000 acres are planted to vineyards.  Some of the vineyards are on slopes as steep as 30 Degrees – you could ski down these bad boys!
Though few people know much about Mt. Veeder, it has quietly produced many well known wines, including Hess and Mayacamas Vineyards. Add to that list Schulz Cellars, which was formed in 2005 by John and Michelle Schluz.  Their path to owning a wine company includes significant sales background rather than just a pure wine making background.  John spent 10 years in sales with Franciscan and Michelle spent 5 years in sales with up-and-coming Cliff Lede.  Currently John does sales consulting for a number of ultra premium Napa wineries and Michelle is the Direct to Consumer marketing manager for Arrowood winery and Matanzas Creek Winery.
This winning combination of sales and wine making experience was a recipe for success. The Schulz’s were lucky enough to befriend John and Ashely Derr who own Lampyridae Vineyard, located at about 2,500 feet, near the summit of Mt Veeder. The highest vineyard in the entire Mayacamas range, Lampyridae is Latin for firefly, which is what the lights of San Fransisco look like at night from the vineyard.  This vineyard doesn’t have a shabby background, as it is also a contributing component for Beringer’s (legendary) Private Reserve Cabernet.  The high elevation vineyard produces smaller even more intense fruit with bolder tannins.
So with those two backgrounds in mind, I present to you:
2007 Shulz Cellars Mt. Veeder Zinfandel
This is 100% Zinfandel, aged in 50% French and 50% American Oak (50% of which was new oak) for a total of 18 months.  The alcohol rings in at a tolerable 14.7%, not nearly as high as many neighboring zinfandels out there.  In my last post I talked about the Venge Scout’s Honor.  This wine is almost the polar opposite.  If you don’t like the ripe Lodi style of Zinfandel then you will probably love this wine.  It has a formidable nose of clove and spices, and an intense palate full of cherry, blackberry, and big, chewy tannins. Available for under $30, this wine tastes that much sweeter. And with only 175 cases produced, it’s justified its title as an affordable California Cult selection.

Women in Wine | Kristin Belair | Honig Winery

Honig winery winemaker

Kristin Belair, winemaker

Every once in a while you come across a couple that are the perfect match. They seem ideally suited for each other, the whole greater than the sum of their parts. As Jerry McGuire would say, they “complete” one another. Female winemaker Kristin Belair and Honig Winery have one of those special symbiotic relationships.

Honig Winery traces its history back to 1964 when Louis Honig bought a 68 acre ranch in Napa Valley, planting it with Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.  In its early days, Honig focused only on selling grapes to nearby wineries but had dreams of retiring and making his own wine. He sadly passed away before his dream could ever be realized, however his family would ultimately go on to start making wines; a sort of tribute to his legacy.
bottleIn 1981 the family produced a few hundred cases of Honig Sauvignon Blanc which they entered in the annual Orange County Fair wine contest. To everyone’s amazement, they took home the gold medal and later that same year, Honig’s future winemaker, Kristin Belair, graduated from U.C. Davis. She began her career at another Napa Valley staple, Trefethen Vineyards.
Belair, like most young winemakers, would start working from the ground up. Below ground, in fact… working in the cellar, as what’s commonly known as a “cellar rat”. In her understated humorous way she explains that during this internship she perfected forklift driving and cleaning tanks. Not exactly the most romantic ideal that winemaking has come to be known for.
In 1985, Belair moved over to Turnbull to begin an “official” winemaking position, producing both Chardonnay and Bordeaux-styled reds.
Finally, in 1998 Belair landed at Honig, starting what remains today a deep connection between winemaker and winery.  Kristin Belair’s healthy sense of humor and easy going attitude fits right in with the folks at Honig.  Take for example their tradition of yearly themed Christmas cards, which have included “Rock stars”, “Charlies Angels” and “Mermaids by the pool” themes. Belair not only cooperates, but loves the custom.
But don’t let their penchant for humor fool you, these wines are serious.
The 2007 Honig Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which I was fortunate enough to enjoy at a recent female-focused winemaker dinner, is a complex and elegant wine. It features rich black fruit, a hint of sage and creamy vanilla. It’s still young but has silky tannins with a nice, long finish, and can be enjoyed now with a little decanting.  The blend of 95% Cabernet, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and .5% Petit Verdot, aged for 18 months in one-third new French Oak.  I asked Belair about the reasoning behind adding a miniscule .5% Petit Verdot, to which she explained that yields were extraordinarily low from their vineyard that year. In addition, the flavor profile was such that such a small amount had a greater than expected impact. With about 15,000 cases made, consumers will readily be able to find this wine.
In a word, this wine is “complete”.
Edited by Jon Troutman

Women in Wine | Cathy Corison | Corison Winery

wine bottle wine glassesTwo of my three favorite things in the world, women and wine, came together one recent fateful evening at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona. Their “Women & Wine” dinner featured three of America’s top wines, all of which are produced by, you guessed it… women. Like my recent five part series focus on affordable California Cult Wines, I’ve opted to give each of these fabulous females their time in the spotlight.

The first winemaker needs little introduction for many. Cathy Corison is widely considered a pioneering presence for women in the Napa Valley. And boy, can she make wine. Corison has been a winemaker for more than 3 decades, putting her hand behind legendary names like Chapellet and Staglin during the early and mid 80s. She’s quick to point out that a strong support system has been essential to her success, attributing her husband’s work on equipment maintenance and bookkeeping as the backbone behind her accomplishments.
Corison Winery’s inaugural vintage was in 1987, with a focus on elegant, finesse-driven Cabernet  from benchland vineyards located between St. Helena and Rutherford. A great winemaker requires great vineyards to make great wines, and Corison is the first to acknowledge this. Her vineyards are composed largely of stony, alluvial soils. She explains that while these vineyards produce “some of the most concentrated and superbly ripened fruit anywhere”, her wine making philosophy is “traditional, using only small oak barrels”. It is her job to let the vineyards speak. They don’t just speak, they roar.
The 2000 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley is a great example of Corison’s lofty reputation, currently showing at its peak with soft, elegant tannins and ripe, complex fruit. Hands down one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year, James Laube of Wine Spectator rated it a conservative 90 pts back in 2003. Like he suggested, the 2000 vintage was a tough one that would require 10 years to show its merits. If this wine is any indication, Laube is spot on. Luck for us, this and many other older vintages are still available from Corison’s Library Collection.
Cathy Corison has raised the bar high for fellow females in the California wine scene. Stay tuned to see if the other two ladies featured that evening could live up to Corison’s legendary status.

A modest 3,200 cases were made of this wine. Also still available in magnum format for $240, this is the perfect bottle to buy for anyone looking for a long term cellaring, “cultish” California Cabernet.

Edited by Jon Troutman

How one Napa Valley producer has found success by focusing on Quality not Quantity

wine bottleRobert 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

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.

scottsdale BLT

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.
Edited by Jon Troutman

Wine Smackdown #2 | BC Wine

WINE REVIEW | WINES OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

In December 2010 I took a trip to British Columbia, Canada to visit friends and family.

desolate highway

1,700 miles in a day and a half

While I was there my friend suggested we pay a visit to a special wine shop located in White Rock called Mud Bay Wines.  This wine shop carries only VQA certified British Columbia wines.  The shop is fairly small, but it is well laid out and has a huge selection of BC wines.  The staff was friendly and helpful as well.  I found the purchasing process unusual in that I knew nothing of the wineries or  viticultural areas.  And very few of the wines had shelf talkers.  It was like being transported back in time to my first wine purchase.  So after much deliberation, we made our choices and headed home to critique. The wines are in the order that we consumed them.  I thought I would be able to find the technical information about each wine online, so I did not include them in my notes.  However, upon sitting down to write this post I have discovered that this information is hard to find! Note to less well known wine producers:  Consumers like to know as much as possible about your wines, the process and the technical information.

The first wine we popped open was Volcanic Hills, 2009 Gamay Noir from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

BC Wine

Volcanic Hills Gamay Noir

After a quick decant we were restless and ready for a drink.  On the nose this wine came across  light with aromas of red fruit.  The palate was predominantly raspberry and cranberry. The finish was crisp and clean.  While this is not a complex wine,  it is a decent effort.  It’s a light and fruity, easy sipper and for only $15 it’s well worth it. 84 points

Next up was Domaine de Chaberton 2008 Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley.

BC wine

Domaine de Chaberton Pinot Gris

This wine was nice enough, but I had a tough time discerning the aromas on the nose and the flavors on the palate.  It is a very light wine, although the alcohol clocks in at 13%.  I detected a little citrus on the nose. The palate displayed a very slight lemon profile with a hint of nutty butterscotch on the finish.  Once again, at $15, a decent wine, decent value but nothing to get too excited about. 82 points

Wine number three was Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s 2006 Riesling, Okanagan Valley.

BC Wine

Summerhill Pyramid Riesling

The nose was not as aromatic as I had hoped, I could detect minerals, but little in the way of fruit.  The palate consisted of  Grapefruit and Granny Smith Apple surrounded by a rather searing tartaric acidity.  Alcohol weighs in at 9% and the wine retails for  $22. A decent effort, however this wine is an acquired taste. I would only recommend this wine to wine drinkers who are looking for a Riesling which is not sweet. 83 points

Wine number four:  Church & State Wines, 2006 Quintessential red blend.

Quintessential

Church and State Quintessential

This wine is a blend of all 5 Bordeaux varietals, however I cannot find any information on the % breakdown.  The nose was pleasant enough, and displayed aromas of Cherries and leather. However, the palate is where this wine fell far short.   Immediately I was hit with an overwhelming unpleasant sweetness.  I was expecting something vaguely Bordeaux like but this wine did not deliver.  I thought maybe it was me and did not say anything, instead I had the other guests give it a whirl and they came to the same conclusion without my influence. At $50 a bottle I expected a lot more.  And even more confusing to me is how this wine could have won “Best Red Wine” at the All Canadian Wine Championships in 2009.  75 points

A couple of nights later my friends and I visited Salt Tasting Room in downtown Vancouver.  Upon being seated I asked our server, who also happened to be the inventory manager, for the best Bordeaux blend he had.

Wine number five:  Clos du Soleil Red 2007 Similkameen, British Columbia.

Clos du Soleil Red

This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet, 22% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Franc aged for 18 months in 80% French Oak, 20% American Oak. The alcohol comes in at 13.3%. Production for the Clos du Soleil Red 2007 was only 450 cases.

This wine was by far the best wine of my trip.  It displayed a pleasantly aromatic nose of cassis and vanilla with floral notes.  The palate featured chewy plummy tannins, great structure and a nice long finish.  A well balanced wine with all of its components in check.  This wine retails for around $40 a bottle which may be a little pricey but considering the comparative quality, it is worth it.  88 points.

I hope to get back to British Columbia again in 2011 and to sample more of what British Columbia has to offer in terms of wine.  I will have to be a little more discerning in my selections in the future, maybe to a little more research ahead of time.  The Canadian dollar is currently at par with the U.S. dollar which can put a lot of pressure on the budget when buying multiple bottles of wine purely for review.  Have you tried any wines from British Columbia, have you tried any of the wines reviewed here?

Wine Review | Cameron Hughes Lot 200

Cameron Hughes Wine, Lot 200, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Alcohol: 14.5%

Napa Valley Cabernet

It is important to drink the whole bottle when reviewing wine

Production: 4,000 Cases

Price: $28 Retail

Before you rush out and buy this wine you need to ask yourself a few questions:  Am I a wine connoisseur or a casual drinker?  Am I familiar with the Cameron Hughes story and business model.  Why ask these questions?  Because it’s important to understand that this wine, Lot 200 is quite unlike the rest of the wines you might find in the grocery store.  This is a serious, SERIOUS wine.  What does that even mean?  It means it would be a complete waste of this wine to buy it, take it home pop the cork and without decanting pour yourself a glass and pair it with some steak you bought for $4 a pound at your local grocer.  This is the kind of wine that you would buy several cases of, put them in a PROPER wine fridge and hold on to them for the next 10 years.  And when you decide to enjoy it, you would treat it like a FINE wine.  This means serve it at the correct temperature, allow adequate decanting, drinking it out of the proper stemware, preferably your Riedel.  Otherwise what you are doing is the equivalent of buying a Lamborghini and then driving up to the Circle K to buy some scratch and wins.

Moreover, this wine is still in its infancy and will age gracefully for many years to come, so buying just one bottle next week will not give you the pleasure of experiencing it throughout its life cycle. This is something that is just not possible with $10 wine. In fact right now it is barely ready to drink, but if you are a connoisseur you will be able to tell what it is capable of.  If you are a casual drinker it is unlikely you will appreciate this wine.  Does this sound like elitism or wine snobbery? Maybe, but I’m hoping its helpful for you as the reader of this post in determining whether or not you are going to spend the money and buy several dozen bottles of Lot 200.

Now that we’ve asked ourselves a few questions, lets take a look at Lot 200.

This wine is sourced from 3 of Napa Valley’s most well known sub regions: Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville.  In a recent video post on his website Cameron Hughes states that the winery he acquired this wine from does not sell a bottle of wine for under $200 a bottle and has multiple 100 point scores.  So once again, we’re not dealing with the level of wine most casual consumers are used to dealing with.

On the nose hints of plum and Cassis, the palate is currently displaying significant amounts of star anise and dark chocolate as well as plummy tannins.  Right now this wine is just too young, it is not ready to enjoy to its fullest, although I really did enjoy drinking the bottle, this wine is going to get significantly better over the next year, so some patience and proper storage conditions are a must.

Note:  I purchased this wine with my own hard earned cash

Purchase Lot 200 HERE (Cameron Hughes Website)

Chardonnay Smackdown #1 | J Vineyards | Cupcake Vineyards | Catena

In this review: J Vineyards 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, Cupcake Vineyards 2009 Central Coast Chardonnay, Catena 2008 Chardonnay Mendoza Argentina.

I received the J Vineyards and Cupcake vineyards wines as samples and I decided to purchase the Catena and batch taste all three, to get a relative sense of how they compare.  I tasted all three wines over a six day period tasting a half bottle each night, starting with J Vineyards  and finishing with Catena.

J Vineyards 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay

Production: 6,000 cases

wine bottle picture

J Vineyards 2008 Russian River valley Chardonnay

Alcohol: 14.3%

Aging:  100% barrel fermented in 60 gallon Burgundian Oak, 40% new. 6 months of malolactic fermentation. 1 year of rest between bottling and release.

Lemon and honey on the nose, the palate is smooth and creamy almost like Creme Brule.  There is a hint of toasted oak, or almond on the back-end.  I was quite surprised with how well-balanced this wine was.  Not that I was expecting it to be out of balance, but it was just really nice to have a great balance of fruit, oak, acidity, all the aspects that need to come together to make a wine enjoyable.  The retail price of $28 might be a little steep when compared to equally great wines from other regions of the world, but compared within the Russian River Valley and Burgundy it is quite reasonable.  I would purchase this wine for a special occasion.

Cupcake Vineyards 2009 Central Coast Chardonnay

cupcake wine bottle

Cupcake Vineyards 2009 Central Coast Chardonnay

Production: 100,000 cases

Alcohol: 14%

Aging: 9 months in American Oak

I think of myself as generally a nice guy and so I find it difficult to be critical, having met wine makers and knowing how much of their heart and soul they put into their work.  However, this wine fell far short of what I could call enjoyable.  I could barely pick up anything on the nose, maybe citrus and oak?  The palate was weak, one dimensional and thin.  There can be no missing the oak, if you like lots of oak and butter this might be more your style.  I don’t know what’s going on here but I far prefered the Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc.

Catena 2008 Chardonnay, Mendoza Argentina

Catena Chardonnay wine bottle

Catena 2008 Chardonnay

Production: N/A

Alcohol: 14.2%

Aging: 9 months sur la lies in 100% French Oak, 35% new

On the nose this wine is very aromatic.  Almost explosively floral with spicy green apple citrus aroma that you can actually feel attacking your nostrils (in a good way) and even on the second day.  On the palate this wine is deliciously juicy, rich and complex.  Weighty in texture like cream, with a nice long smooth finish.  Definitely the clear winner out of the three and at $13.99 it is an insane value.  Interesting to note that the fruit for this wine comes from 3 vineyards ranging in elevation from 3,000 to 5,000 feet. I would like to try more high elevation Chardonnay and see if it is all this impressive!

Conclusion:  Catena was the clear winner because of its richness and complexity and great value.  Not far behind was J Vineyards.  If you like your Chards a little less over the top, lighter on the oak and butter then you might even place this wine above the Catena.  Cupcake Vineyards has a bit of work to do for the 2010 vintage in order to compete.

Wine review | J Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

J Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, Sonoma Countyrussian river pinot noir

Judy Jordan, of Jordan Winery fame, decided to branch out on her own more than 20 years ago to make site specific cool climate wines.  Since then J Vineyards has grown into one of the largest estate vineyards in the Russian River Valley with 274 acres planted to vines.

The 2007 offering of J vineyards Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley starts out with a beautiful floral nose of violets and roses.  The palate is quintessential Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, with bright cherry and strawberry fruit with cinnamon and clove notes backed up by solid oak tannins.

The alcohol comes in at 14.3% which is fairly high for a Pinot Noir, but there is little in the way of alcoholic heat.  This wine is a Cab drinkers Pinot, it has solid enough tannins from 15 months in 30% new French Oak.  The suggested retail on this wine is $35 which is right in line with high quality wines from this region.  14,500 cases were produced so it shouldn’t be too hard to find at your local specialty shop, or you can order direct from the winery HERE

Verdict: 4 out of 5

*disclaimer this wine was received as a sample

Review: Fleming’s Women and Wine Dinner

Steakhouse dining room

Fleming's on North Scottsdale Road

Last week Fleming’s Steakhouses across the country hosted their “Women & Wine” dinners.  At the events guests were treated to some amazing wines made by some legendary women in the wine world including Cathy Corison, Kristin Belair and Janet Myers.

Cathy Corison wine

Corison 2000 Cabernet

We started out the evening with swiss cheese puffs and house cured salmon, citrus creme fraiche and crispy wonton.  These were paired with Cathy Corison’s 2000 vintage  Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa valley.  Cathy Corison is a legendary wine maker having made wines for over 30 years for brands like Chappellet, Staglin Family, York Creek and Long Meadow Ranch.  It was very nice to taste a wine that has had significant time to age in the bottle.  This  wine was very refined with beautiful and mature tannins.  It paired very well with the food as it was soft and gentle enough as to not overpower  the food.

Next we enjoyed Butternut squash bisque with Danish blue cheese fondue and bacon herb bruschetta.  This was paired with Honig, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa.  Kristin Belair is the wine maker at Honig and has been since 1998.  This wine is much bigger and bolder, younger than the Corison.  It displays notes of sage and currant as well as a pronounced creamy vanilla which only really came out after the Lamb chops served next.  The wine manager for this Fleming’s location, Tony Novak suggested we save a little of the Honig to try later after the main course, to see how it changes with the main course.  And it did.  I thought it was delicious to begin with, but actually found it tasted better with the rosemary Lamb chops which is what we enjoyed next.

05 Magnificat

Rosemary-scented lamb chops on parmesan risotto with maple roasted parsnips and a red wine demi glace.  This was paired with Franciscan, Magnificat 2005 from Napa.  This wine is made by Janet Myers who joined Franciscan Estate in 2003 and began winemaker in 2005.  Janet is also the winemaker at Mount Veeder winery. The ’05 Magnificat is a blend of 73% Cabernet, 23% Merlot, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc.  This wine is loaded with dark fruit, powerful and a made for red meat!

During the dinner we watched on a big flat screen some short videos made by Wine Spectator which gave us a little insight into the wine makers and the wines, including interviews and scenery.  I thought that was a nice touch.

My favorite part of the dinner came next: dessert!   Thick and rich caramel pudding with crumbled Heath bar on top with shortbread cookies on the side. The dessert was pretty big and I was unable to finish it all, but I kept going back and nibbling on it, I couldn’t stop myself.

At the end of dinner each table was presented with a special gift.  A set of nice big red wine glasses with the Fleming’s “F” engraved on it and a bottle of the 2005 Magnificat.  That was really an amazing touch because the wine alone retails for about $55 a bottle.  Guests enjoyed an amazing meal, amazing wines, and then were given a whole bottle and two glasses for later…all for $95 a plate.  It’s these  extras that can really make a merely good evening into a great evening.

*Disclaimer*  I attended this event as a guest of Fleming’s and Tin Can Marketing.

An Evening with Robert Craig, part 2

This is part 2, to first read part 1 click here
After the initial interview Mr Craig went back to his hotel room to get ready for

BLT reception area

The Champagne reception area

the dinner.  During this time I was introduced to Trudy Thomas, director of beverage for the Camelback Inn.  Trudy introduced me to the other guests and we chatted and mingled while sipping champagne  in the reception area before being seated in the private dining area.  Trudy gave me a quick tour inside the wine cellar.  While not large in terms of quantity, this cellar is impressive for its big Napa and Bordeaux representation.  There is at least $100,000 worth of wine in a long narrow walk in cellar that resembles a library in a mahogany hallway.   Trudy is one of those people is truly passionate about what she does.  What she does is manage all the beverages for the resort, and among other things she  helps create the winemaker dinner experience.   She has a perfect job, but it’s definitely not just luck.  Trudy has 18 years in the wine business and is the only person to have taken both Society of Wine Educators CSW and CWE exams on the same day and passed.  I met the man who administered the test and he said that Trudy actually knows even more about spirits! She is meticulous with the details of every aspect of each wine maker dinner.  She can spot a spot on a glass a mile away.  In fact while we were talking she casually turned a glass upside down and set it back on the dinner table, it was my glass, I wondered what she was doing and seamlessly from out of nowhere a waiter silently appeared and replaced the glass with another. Trudy said that these dinners are not about making money for the resort, in fact at $85 a plate it barely covers the costs.

BLT at the Camelback Inn wants to be known for being the valley’s go to place for fine dining, an experience without equal.  The wine maker dinners are all about showcasing their talent, their creativity and their  attention to detail.

At 6:30 all the guests were escorted into the

BLT private dining entrance

The private dining room

private dining area adjoining the wine cellar.  Awaiting us, were glasses of Robert Craig’s only white wine.  The 2008 Robert Craig “Durell Vineyard” Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. We took our seats and awaited for Mr Craig’s arrival.  He arrived to warm applause and he humbly smiled and lowered his head and sort of shuffled over to his seat.  He spoke for a few minutes before sitting down.  He spoke a little bit of his history, the history of the vineyards and his wine making philosophy, which is once you reach a certain point it’s not about making more wine it’s about making better wine.

The first course arrived and the guests began enjoying the Chardonnay.  The first course consisted of Country Style Duck Pate, brandied Cherries, a little bit of pistachio and some spicy rocket, also known as arugula.  I found the Chardonnay to be a good representation of the terroir of Sonoma in terms of Chardonnay.  Not oaky, not buttery, just well-balanced almost understated.

As guests were finishing up, the waiters and waitresses began bringing in glasses of red wine for everyone.

wine glasses on a table

Pre pouring the wine saves time

One of the details that Trudy employs to help keep the evening moving forward is to have the wines poured outside of the room and brought in.  It is much quicker than moving about the room pouring the wines while the guests wait.  The second course was roasted pork belly with Ricotta Gnudi, root vegetable fricassee, and crispy pork skins.  This was paired with Robert Craig’s 2007 “Affinity”.  Affinity is Robert Craig Winery’s flagship wine.  each year about 5,000 to 6,000 cases of this Bordeaux blend are made.  This wine is made with the restaurant setting in mind.  Which means it is to be consumed sooner rather than later, and without the need of too much decanting.  Mr Craig said that he wanted to make a wine that restaurants didn’t have to hold on to for 10 or 20 years before they are ready to drink.  And just in case you think drink now means lesser quality, the 2007 Affinity received 96 points from Robert Parker.

Robert Craig Winery 2007 Affinity

I found this wine to be incredibly smooth and supple.  Perfectly balanced.  One thing that really stands out is the beautiful aromatics.  The wine is a blend of 79% Cabernet, 10% Petit Verdot, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec.  5,700 cases of the wine were but I was informed by wine broker Mattias Stolpe that this wine was virtually already sold out.  It retails for only about $50 so you can see why it’s almost gone.

The third course consisted of hunter style Grouper stew, Lobster mushrooms, Chorizo and Northern beans.  This was paired with the 2006 Mount Veeder Cabernet.  It’s not common to pair fish with red wines, let alone a massively powerful mountain wine like this.  But it worked, fantastically, amazingly.

wine bottle

2006 Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon

The Mt. Veeder Cabernet is actually 81% Cab and 19% Merlot and alcohol clocks in at 14.9% which is amazing to me because the was absolutely no heat present.  This wine is still young, still just a baby.  It has big bold chewy velvety tannins, it makes your mouth pucker up at this point but has a long, long finish.  One of the things that Mr Craig told me about is that he feels that enjoying wine is not so much about enjoying wine at its prime as it is about enjoying wine throughout its life cycle.  Enjoying and experiencing it young and enjoying it right on through to its prime and even past.

Next up was the highlight of the night.  Course number four was a thick, pepper crusted New York Strip, hidden under the steak were huckleberry Braised beef cheeks.  I never would have thought to buy beef cheeks at the grocery store and wouldn’t have known how to prepare them, until now.  I asked the chef how they made them and he said they boiled them and then seared and marinated them in wine and huckleberry.  The result was stunning, delicious.  The two styles of beef were paired with the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet.

wine bottle

2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet

This wine was quite different from the Mt Veeder.  It is much Riper and the tannins are more in check but with a seemingly never-ending finish.  This wine is a blend of 84% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc.  Only 1,240 cases were produced. The wine saw 20 months in French oak, 75% new and 25% 2nd year.

In between wines and courses Mr Craig would visit the guests at their tables, and while sitting at the table he would ask questions of me, as I was trying to ask questions of him!  In his very quiet and humble way he shows an interest in people equal to the interest people have in him.  We talked about his safari to Africa which is a topic close to me, as I was born in Africa and lived there until I was almost 9.  I also asked him about what sorts of things, besides wine, is he interested in and he said Native American heritage and culture. In particular preserving the languages.  He also enjoys sailing and given his Coast Guard background I can see why.

Trudy Thomas and Robert Craig

The fifth and final course consisted of Caramelized French butter pears with Cambozola ice cream inside of a walnut crisp pastry.  This was paired with the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel.  This pairing really pushed the envelope.  The pears were delicious.  The Cambozola ice cream was like ice cream made from Brie and Blue cheese.  Your mind is ready for some vanilla and suddenly you are struck by the aftertaste of blue cheese.  The pears really are the sweet part of the desert, and are a perfect match with the ice cream.  The Zinfandel was really amazing.  If you like jammy zins this is not a wine for you.  This is a seriously big peppery zin but with powerful mountain tannins and a good concentration of black raspberries.  Only 800 cases were produced and it retails for about $50 a bottle.

While the final course was being served Chef Marc Hennessy came out and spoke briefly with the guests.  He explained a little bit of the theory behind the pairings.  He wanted this and the other wine maker dinners to really be a showcase for what can be done, not just for its own sake, but to make something that amazes people.  He jokingly referenced the pastry chef’s insistence that the ice cream be made entirely of blue cheese by saying “There is no way there is going to be blue cheese ice cream”  Instead he struck a compromise, and I would say luckily!

This night turned out to be one of the highlights of the year for me.  It was great to meet one of the people who has been instrumental in getting Napa Valley on the map and especially Mt Veeder, Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain.  I am looking forward to future vintages as the focus on producing higher and higher quality wine continues.

Trudy Thomas on Twitter  @INNtoxic8ting

Robert Craig Winery Website

Camelback Inn Website

Bistro Laurent Trouondel (BLT) website