Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Schweiger Vineyards and Winery

Schweiger Vineyards and Winery is another small premium Spring Mountain winery that offers some excellent wines.  The first 53 acres were purchased by the Schweiger family in 1960 with an additional 8 acres added in 1961. The vineyards were planted in 1981 and the first harvest was 1984.  A public tasting room was completed in 2011.  The property is located at an elevation of 2,000 feet and has volcanic soils and unique microclimates.  A total of 35 acres are now in production, with about 5,000 cases being produced annually.

Outside Schweiger Tasting Room

Tastings are available by appointment which can be made easily by email or telephone.  A regular tasting is $20 and a tasting plus tour is $35.  Wine club members receive a 20% discount with opportunities to purchase very limited release wines that are not available to the general public (such as a Petite Sirah).  They are in the Napa Neighbor Program. In addition to a gorgeous view of the valley, Schweiger has a very charming winery with a lovely modern tasting room and exceptionally friendly service.  You will certainly enjoy visiting them.

Schweiger Tasting Room

Our tasting began with the Schweiger 2009 Chardonnay at $30.  It is aged sur lie with no malolactic conversion and 20% new French Oak.  This wine has a nice nose with apple and lemon on the palate.  I liked it very much.  We then had the Schweiger 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for $65.  It had a good nose, good fruit, mostly boysenberry and a lovely finish.  Even better to my taste was the Schweiger 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with nice fruit, mostly ripe cherry, integrated smooth tannins, a full round mouth feel and a good finish.  This was $58.  The Schweiger 2007 Dedication (Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec) was $85 and slightly better with some blackberry and chocolate on the palate.  For the money, though, we both liked the $58 Cab and bought several bottles along with some of the Chardonnay.

Addendum 9/19/2012: We shared a bottle of the Schweiger 2009 Chardonnay.  It is a good wine, but I prefer the two Cabs.  I did try a bottle of the Schweiger 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and it was just as I remember it at the winery.  I rather regret not purchasing a bottle of the Dedication.  Both Cabs are highly recommended.

Stained Glass Window

All of four of the wines we tasted at Schweiger were quite interesting and very good.  Although I have always associated Spring Mountain wineries with Cabs, I have recently been amazed at how good some of their white wines are, including Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings and Gew├╝rztraminers.  In addition to the very nice Chardonnay, Schweiger makes a Sauvignon Blanc which I really wanted to try, but they were sold out. From our discussion with the wine educator, it sounds like a Sauvignon Blanc I’d really like. Schweiger is one of those wineries we plan to return to so perhaps they will have some next time.

View & Patio 

4015 Spring Mountain Rd
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-4882
Date of visit: February 29, 2012

Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards

Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards is a family owned winery that has been producing fine wines for about thirty years.  They are very well known for their wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon blend, called Trilogy, and if you love Cabs you will surely want to visit. They have a tasting room on Highway 29 just South of St. Helena called “The Room” where you can arrange a tasting and tour.  You may visit The Room without an appointment if you have less than six people in your party. If you have six or more, please call for an appointment. The winery itself is in a different location and is called “The Estate” At “The Estate” they have estate tours, single vineyard tastings, reserve tastings, Trilogy library tastings and a blending seminar.  We have always visited "The Room" and have not been to "The Estate." Flora Springs offers anything from box lunches to red carpet dinners and hosting for corporate events.  Please check their web page out to see the many tasting and tour options they offer.

Entry to tasting building

Flora Springs "The Room" is certainly well worth a visit.  They are well known for their Trilogy wine, a cabernet blend which is consistently good from year to year.  They also have a unique, modern style building and tasting room that is located right on highway 29 next to Dean and Deluca. We were told that they are the third largest family owned winery in Napa Valley, with 650 planted acres.  These vineyards are in Rutherford, St. Helena, Oakville and Carneros and all are farmed using sustainable practices and most are certified organic. They use only 20% of their grapes themselves, however, and sell the other 80%.  You may have five tastings for $20 or five of their Italian varietals for the same price.  The reserve tasting is $35. Flora Springs also offers Italian varietals as an alternative tasting and cheese platters for $10 or $15. These prices were in effect at the time of our visit and might have changed so please contact them if you need current prices.

Tasting bar

Our tasting began with the Flora Springs 2010 “Soliloquy” Sauvignon Blanc at $20.  It is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and 2800 cases were produced. It has mostly lemon on the very good nose, with mostly grapefruit and melon on the palate with a long finish.  It is quite good for the price and pleasant to drink.  The Flora Springs 2010 Chardonnay at $30. has had 21% malolactic conversion, just enough to give it a little butter and smoothness but not too much to overwhelm it.  It was aged for nine months in French oak with 50% of it on new oak. 1428 cases were produced. It had a nice nose with some pear, peach and buttered toast on the palate with good acid. We both liked it. The Flora Springs 2009 Napa Valley Merlot at $24 was next.  It saw 15 months in oak and 5,200 cases were produced.  It was a lighter style Merlot that is rather fruit forward with mostly red cherry. It was smooth and soft with a nice finish.  We found it to be pleasant but the least interesting of the red wines we tasted. The Flora Springs 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $40 followed. It saw 22 months in oak, with 40% of this being new oak. 4,200 cases were produced. It was a nice Cab with a good nose and lots of juicy ripe black cherry, toast and vanilla on the palate with a very long finish.  Very enjoyable and quite drinkable now although it should improve over the next few years. We also enjoyed the Flora Springs 2009 Cabernet Franc at $48. Only 540 cases were produced. I got a light but pleasant nose, smooth tannins and mostly cherry and blueberry on the palate.  We both liked it. The favorite, for both of us however, was the Flora Springs 2009 Trilogy at $65 which is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot and 5% Malbec.  It saw 21 months on 100% new French oak. 7,500 cases were produced. I got some black currant and a hint of cedar on the nose with bright red cherry, red currant and just enough toasty oak on the palate.  It was nicely balanced with well integrated tannins and had a very smooth finish.  This is still a young wine and is fresh and fruit forward now but should become more interesting and complex with age. It was our favorite of the wines we tasted.  Very nice.  Flora Springs had three other reserves, two at $85 and one at $100 but we did not try these. Given how good the Trilogy was, I suspect they are all excellent and would love to have tried them.

677 Saint Helena Highway South
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 967-8032
Date of visit: February 29, 2012 

V. Sattui Winery

V. Sattui Winery is a large winery that has an expansive picnic area, a deli and cheese shop, picturesque buildings reminiscent of Europe in the 1800s (built in 1985), a wine cellar and cave and a large tasting room with gift shop.  It is a great place to walk around, with many photo opportunities and a great place for a picnic. We have often driven by there and seen many people at their picnic grounds having lunch or snacks. During the summer or on weekends it often looks especially busy. We visited them on a rainy Wednesday morning in February, about as off-season as it gets.  There were still quite a few people there but no lines.

Barrel building

We walked around taking photos of the buildings and scenes and then went down to their cellar area where they had a small museum, large wine barrels and people who were at tables eating lunch.  (It had been raining intermittently.) The tasting room is in a different one-story building where there is a gift shop and a deli where you can order sandwiches or purchase one of the many gourmet cheeses they have.  The tasting room itself is the largest we have seen in Napa Valley.

Old wine press

There were fifty wines available for tasting on the list and we only tasted six of them, so it is difficult to generalize about the wines. The ones we tried included the Sattui 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, the Sattui 2010 Pinot Noir , the Sattui 2008 Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, the Sattui 2007 Morisoll Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, the Sattui 2009 Syrah and the Sattui 2008 Gilsson Russian River Zinfandel at $37.  Our favorite was a very nice Zinfandel, the Sattui 2008 Gilsson Zinfandel.  If you very good Zins, you should try this one.  It is a fruit forward, jammy zin that is well balanced.

Barrel room

If you are looking for a winery with a deli, picnic area, cellar and museum, that offers some great photo opportunities, then you will want to visit V. Sattui, especially if it is off-season or during a time when it is not crowded. Something visitors will certainly appreciate is that most of their wines are less expensive than at many other Napa Valley wineries.  We did not try any deli items but they looked tasty.

Museum in barrel room

V. Sattui Winery
1111 White Lane
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-7774
Date of visit: February 29, 2012

Tasting building

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Juslyn Vineyards

Juslyn Vineyards is a small winery located on Spring Mountain up above St. Helena in Napa Valley that was founded in 1997 by Perry and Carolyn Butler  Their first production was in 2001 when the made 80 cases of Cab.  They do not offer tastings at the winery but you can sample a Juslyn Vineyards flight for $25 by going to Ma (i)sonry in Yountville where they have “artisan wines, exquisite art and furnishings.”  They are on the main street in Yountville at 6711 Washington St. 707-944-0889 and offer wine tasting flights from about eighteen other small wineries.

Our tasting included the Juslyn 2006 Perry’s Blend at $75, a blend that has more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon and the Juslyn 2007 Perry's Blend which has more Cabernet Sauvignon and sells for $80. The 2006 is 47% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot, with only 665 cases produced. The 2007 is 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, with 672 cases produced. The 2007 was described by the winery as possessing a “tremendous aromas of flowers, blue, red and black fruits, graphite and forest floor” but both of us got an even better nose from the 2006.  The 2006 was softer with cherry and chocolate on the palate and good but soft tannins.  The 2007 was bigger with more tannin, but also very well balanced.  Both wines were very drinkable now but should cellar well.  I later shared a bottle of the 2006 with friends, and it was even better at home after being given some time to open up.  Now I wish I had a bottle of the 2007 Spring Mountain Cab.

The best, though, was the Juslyn 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at $110.  683 cases of this were produced.  It had a delightful aroma, some raspberry on the palate, with layers of complexity and a long finish.  It is 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.  This is a very good Cabernet, indeed.  We plan to return to Ma(i)sonry to try flights from other small wineries.

Juslyn Vineyards
Tastings at 6711 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599 707-944-0889
Vineyard located at 2900 Spring Mountain Rd., St.Helena, CA 94574
(707) 265-1804
Date of visit: February 22, 2012

Napa Cellars

We were delightfully surprised at how much we enjoyed the wines were at Napa Cellars.  We had been there previously but only tasted the Folie a Deux line by the same family.  We found the Napa Cellars wines to be very different and more appealing to our tastes than the Folie a Deux wines.  The hospitality during both visits was very good.  Much thanks this time to Chira for being so helpful and pleasant.

Outside Tasting Room of Napa Cellars

Our tasting began with the Napa Cellars 2010 Sauvignon Blanc at $18.  It had a pale gold color that was very appealing.  But it was not in a style I like, not being dry enough or having that crisp acidity that I look for in a SB.  Some people might like it because it is softer than the usual Sauvignon Blanc.  Much more to my liking was the Napa Cellars 2009 Merlot at only $26.  This had a great cherry nose, nice balance, pleasant tannins, good fruit (mostly cherry) and a decent finish.  I think it is one of the better Merlots in this price range.  We also liked the Napa Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for only $26.  It was a nice cab for the price.  Our favorite, though, was the Napa Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard at $48 which was a full bodied, fruit forward, well balanced Cab with fresh cherry, blackberry, vanilla and firm tannins on the palate. Finish was medium to long length. It is very appealing for this price.

The wines at Napa Cellars are good for the price.  If you are only a casual wine drinker, you might prefer the Folie a Deux wines.  Otherwise opt for the Napa Cellars flight. Situated right on highway 29, this is a winery that is easily reached.  We recommend you visit them.  They are also in the Napa Neighbor Program. I’d like to return sometime to try their Chardonnays, Zinfandel, Syrah and possibly some of their reserves.

Napa Cellars
7481 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
(707) 944-2565
Date of visit: February 22, 2012

Robert Mondavi Winery

Please see our updated 2013 report of Robert Mondavi Winery Revisited

Robert Mondavi Winery needs no introduction, being one of the best-known wineries in California, if not the world.  And, of course, almost everybody has heard of Robert Mondavi whose name is almost synonymous with Napa Valley wine. The winery is large and very popular, but in the many years we have visited it they has always been very people friendly.  I’ve been there dozens of times.  It is one winery we always visit when we have company from out of the area. If you have not been to Robert Mondavi Winery before and you care about wine or the history of Napa Valley, you need to visit them.  Be sure to take their guided tour which is one of the best in the Valley.  Mondavi should be applauded for also having some, really good, very reasonably priced wines. On their regular tasting menu, their wines started as low as $20 ($16 if you are a wine club member) and went only to $45.  Of course they also have reserve wines and many library wines that compete with the finest in the world.

Our tasting began with the famous Robert Mondavi 2009 Napa Valley Fume Blanc, which, of course, is Modavi’s version of a Sauvignon Blanc and has an old story to accompany it.  The 2009 is $20.  This wine is always a consistent winner in its price range.  (It goes on sale for $12.98 at Safeway.)  It has a very nice aroma of melon, is quite dry and beautifully balanced with some herbaceousness, good fruit and acid and a good finish.  We also tried the Robert Mondavi 2010 Stag’s Leap District Sauvignon Blanc at $32.  This is a more complex wine with some minerality and makes an interesting comparison with the Fume Blanc.  We highly recommend both of them.

Our red wines started with the Robert Mondavi 2009 Pinot Noir, PNX at $45.  It was a lighter style Pinot Noir with soft tannins, red cherry and a nice finish.  We found it pleasant but not memorable. Our favorite of the red wines we tasted was the Robert Mondavi 2008 Momentum, a Cab blend, at $40. (39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc, 5% Syrah and 3% Petite Verdot.) This is a wine with plenty of fruit and nicely integrated tannins.  It has good grip and mouth feel with some complexity.  Both of us liked it very much.  It is quite drinkable now but should cellar well.

I'd love to return and do a reserve or library tasting.  Much thanks to our wine educator, Dave, who really is a wine educator and not simply a wine host.  We loved talking with him about wines.

Addendum:  I bought a bottle of the Robert Mondavi 2009 Napa Valley Fume Blanc and had some with my wife.  My wife likes mostly white wines and is about an average Californian wine drinker; she likes wine but does not dream about it. With her first sip of the Fume Blanc she exclaimed, "Hmm, nice wine."  I think the Mondavi Fume Blanc is a very affordable and good wine that almost anybody would like.  It is one of the white wine bargains of Napa Valley and is the least expensive Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley that I can recommend.  Mondavi has an affordable winner with this wine.

Robert Mondavi Winery
7801 St Helena Hwy
Oakville, CA 94562
(888) 766-6328
Date of visit: February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Kelly Fleming Wines

Kelly Fleming Wines produces only two wines but both are wonderful, world-class wines-a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Sauvignon Blanc is now my favorite Napa Valley SB and the Cab is one of the best in Napa Valley, which is to say among the finest in the world.  Situated in a lovely new winery with wine caves, Kelly Fleming Wines also offers an ideal setting in which to enjoy your tastings.  As with other small, family wineries, reservations are needed but easily obtained by phone or over the Internet.  A tour and tasting with Kelly or her daughter, Colleen,  costs $30 and is well worth it.

Kelly Fleming Building

The winery is located in Calistoga on 300 acres in Simmons Canyon, once called the Kane Ranch.  They have twelve acres planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and certified as organically grown.  Current releases include 800 cases of their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from their own estate and 230 cases of their 2010 Sauvignon Blanc which is made from sourced grapes.  The winery is 5,000 square feet with a stone fa├žade designed by Taylor Lombardo Architects that opened to the public in 2010.  7,000 square feet of limestone caves reach 220 feet into the hillside.  The inside walls of the cave are left without any paint or coating, giving it a very natural appearance.

Kelly Fleming Wine Caves

The first wine we sampled was their Kelly Fleming 2010 Sauvignon Blanc that retails for $30.  Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs seem to vary widely in style.  Frequently I have found them unappealing because they did not hold together.  It is not so much a matter of balance as integration.  The fruit (usually grapefruit like) goes off in one direction, the acid in another, and any herbaceousness, minerality etc. is off in yet another direction.  Some Napa SBs are too buttery, others are not dry enough, yet others are overly oaked, too thin, or lacking body.  I should really love a dry, crisp white wine with good acid, but I only rarely find a Napa Valley SB I really like and end up looking to either France or New Zealand, where there are two very differently styled Sauvignon Blancs.  Good, dry, well-balanced French white Bordeaux, Sancerre or Pouilly Fume wines can be expensive.  New Zealand SBs are often great values but can be one dimensional or overbearing with fruit.  The SB here is more in the French style but it has a some of the tropical fruit that one tends to associate with New Zealand SBs.  It is definitely atypical for a Napa Valley SB.

What one notices immediately about this SB is that all of the components come together beautifully to make a wine that is simply delicious.  It has good acid balanced with fruit and is dry without being austere.  It has a touch of vanilla but that is subtle.  The fruit is not the usual grapefruit bomb or lemon of many Napa Valley SBs but more tropical.  It has a pleasant mouth feel that is complex, layered, even graceful.  I get some melon and guava on the nose, that is not overly done, with an incredibly integrated and well-balanced mid palate that has layers of citrus, pineapple and tropical fruits perfectly intertwined with the briskness and acids of a really good SB.  Very little grassiness.  Some minerality. But it all comes together.  You might think it is rounder or softer than other SBs, but it is simply better coordinated, more integrated, a miraculous interweaving of components. If that is not enough, it also has a long lovely finish with a little vanilla (oak) and a hint of papaya and banana.  I can recall no other SB having this nice a finish. The winemaker, Celia Welch, must be some sort of magician to make a Napa Valley SB that tastes this good. Most definitely not a “poor man’s chardonnay,” as Sauvignon Blancs are sometimes described as being. I’d visit Kelly Fleming Wines just to taste this one varietal.  This is the best U.S. Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever tasted.

Inside tasting room/

But, would you believe, the Cabs are just as wonderful if not more so? I should mention first, that I am not a big fan of some of the overly ripe, fruit forward type Napa Cabs that have become popular in recent years.  I do not dislike them.  But I grew up in the old school where the 1970 BV Reserve Cab was pretty close to ideal.  (I still remember and love that wine and never grew tired of it although I had many bottles of it.)  Back then it was more about subtlety, complexity, balance, refinement and less about being overwhelming, huge or having super ripe forward fruit.  Oak was important but needed to be balanced.  In some ways, the Kelly Fleming Cab has some of this old style in that it has subtlety and complexity rather than  mere power or just ripe fruit.  It is certainly not lacking in great fruit, however. It will age, but I don’t think you would want to cellar it for twenty years. The word “elegant” is over used with reference to wines, especially great Cabs.  So I won’t call these Cabs elegant.  How about perfectly balanced, layered, complex, and interesting with voluptuous fruit?  It has the rich fruit that many people love but also has enough complexity to appeal to more traditionalists. 

We tasted the Kelly Fleming 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Kelly Fleming 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Both will cellar well, but how could you resist drinking them now?  What was remarkable about these Cabs is how complex, well balanced and interesting both of them are while still being so young.

The 2008 is dark ruby in color with a great aroma of ripe cherries.  It is more fruit forward than the 2005. Although it is soft and balanced, it does have enough structure and substance, with a nice mouth feel.  This is certainly not a thin wine nor really a fruit forward wine, despite its having great fruit and being very easy to drink.  I would characterize is as being subtle, extremely well balanced, with great fruit, fairly soft tannins but plenty of complexity.  It also has a very nice finish.  This wine is wonderful to drink right now and should cellar well, but is not one of those wines you want to avoid now and only try again ten or twenty years later.  This wine seems to incorporate some of the elegance and complexity of older style Napa cabs with the luscious fruit of newer style ones, while balancing the two extremely well.

The 2005 was had bigger tannins and more structure than the 2008.  The 2005 had good body and a very pleasing mouth feel. It will cellar better but is highly drinkable now.  With a decent cherry nose, this wine has well integrated tannins that make it especially appealing to my taste.  I wouldn’t call it a big Cab because it is not overdone in any one dimension, but it is substantial and full-bodied.  As with all the wines at this winery, it is extremely well balanced and multidimensional.  The difference between great wines and others is that you get balance without the wine being one-dimensional and complexity without discordance.  It ends up being a complex, layered, interesting wine that fascinates you while delighting the senses.  The 2005 is like that.

I rarely visit a winery and return home to immediately look up the winemaker on the Internet.  But that is exactly what I did with Celia Welch, the winemaker at Kelly Fleming Wines.  The wines were so well balanced, layered, subtle, complex, interesting, and immediately appealing, that I simply had to learn more about the winemaker:  Celia Welch

If you love great Cabs, want to try a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc, or would like to visit a gorgeous winery with wine caves and wonderful hospitality, then you will certainly want to visit Kelly Fleming Wines. The  SB sells for only $30.  Current release Cabs are $90 and library or older releases are $120.  Kelly Fleming Wines is a great example of a small, family winery that is making some of the best wines in the world.  It is a wonderful place to visit, and we definitely plan to return there.
Mustard field near Kelly Fleming

Addendum 2/24/12: Tasting wines at a winery or wine event has its limitations.  We all know that every one’s palate is different and some people have a far better senses of smell or taste than others do.  Many years of wine tasting experience can also make a tremendous difference in how a person perceives a particular wine. Then there are the factors of how the bottle was handled, the chemistry inside that one particular bottle, the temperature of the wine when served, what the taster ate previously, how the taster feels, whether the wine was aerated or opened prior to drinking (and for how long), how many other wines the taster has had to drink or spit that day, the type of wine glass it is served in…the list goes on.  Even the most famous wine tasters in the world have about a five-point variation span on a 100-point scale with wines that they taste again under blind conditions. (And the 100-point scale is really more of a 70-100 point scale with a range of 30 points.  So think of a 5 point spread in a 30-point scale and you can see how an expert’s taste might vary.)  Even in double blind tastings, it is a unique experience, subject to many variables.  At a winery you are influenced by the atmosphere and setting, the service, the price of the wine, knowing what the wine is, having only a small portion to taste, etc.

So when I taste a wine at a winery I know I am only getting a glimpse of that wine.  I don't really get to know it until I purchase a bottle or more, take the wine home, pair it with food, relax, concentrate and allow the experience to open up.  Sharing with friends helps because they can point out things I might have missed.  It is not a double blind or even single blind test so it is still very subjective.  But this is as close as I feel I can get to understanding and appreciating a particular wine.  Of course, this can improve by drinking more bottles of the same wine under different conditions, varying the food with which it is pared, the temperature of the wine, the age of the wine, the size of the wine bottle, the amount of aeration, etc.  Some expert tasters can sample small amounts of a wine, spit it out and continue through hundreds of other wines while compiling a long list of wine descriptions with ratings of every wine tasted.  I don't feel I have had an adequate experience of a wine until I have shared a bottle of it.  So this is what we did with two of the Kelly Fleming Cabs.

We bought a bottle of the 2005 and 2007 Kelly Fleming Cabs.  Although the 2008 we tasted at the winery was excellent, we had a slight preference for the 2005 so that is why we purchased the 2005.  We wanted to compare it to the 2007 (which we were unable to taste at the winery) because  2007 was such a Cab friendly year in Napa Valley.  Four of us sat down to a steak dinner at a friend’s house and shared both bottles of wine.  Yes, we had a glimpse of the 2005 at the winery.  It was more than just a taste and spit.  We knew it was a fabulous wine and it gave us a baseline with which to compare the 2007.  We tried the 2005 and the 2007 wines before, during and after the meal.  As much as we loved the 2005, we thought the 2007 was even better.  It did not have the lush tannins of the 2005 that pair so well with steak, so some tasters might prefer the 2005 because it goes so well with the food.  But the Kelly Fleming 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon had an elegance and layered complexity that put it in a rare class.  It is one of the best Cabs I've ever tasted.

Kelly Fleming Cabs have the sumptuous fruit of newer style Napa Cabs with the complexity of older style Napa Cabs.  We just love them!!!  You will have to try them yourself to see if, as Dylan Thomas said, they make your “toenails tingle.”

Kelly Fleming Wines
2339 Pickett Rd.
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-6849
Date of visit: February 15, 2012

B Cellars Winery

B Cellars Winery offers something different from the usual Napa Valley winery fare, with some unusual Italian varietals and interesting blends, utilizing a "multi-vineyard, multi varietal strategy." During our visit, the wines were consistently very appealing, and the service was exceptional. Special thanks to Monica, our wine host, for being so friendly and helpful and for providing us with some cheese, olives and breadsticks to accompany our tasting.

Winery building

B Cellars was founded in 2003 by Jim Borsack and Duffy Keys who shared a passion for food and wine. Their goal was "first, to produce exceptional artisan wines, season after season, by employing a multi-vineyard strategy, and second, to develop distinct flavors by blending wines from mutually complementary varietals." They utilized grapes from over twenty different vineyards in Napa Valley and blend complimentary varietals together in unusual combinations. The "B" in B Cellars stands for Brix. Their winemaker is Kirk Venge who was named "One of the Top 20 New Winemakers in the World" by Food and Wine Magazine 2005. They are open to the public for tastings without appointment 10 to 5 Thursday through Sunday.  To visit Monday through Wednesday, you may call the winery to inquire.  The tasting fee at the time of our visit was $15. B Cellars is also in the Napa Neighbor Program.  Please see Tasting Options.

Old truck

Our tasting began with the B Cellars 2010 Blend 23 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Viognier at $35. This was a very nice, refreshing, well-balanced wine that would make great summer drinking.  Even better was the B Cellars 2009 Sangiovese at $41. From there, we moved on to the red wines. These included the B Cellars 2008 Blend 24 Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese/Petite Sirah/Syrah ($47), the B Cellars 2007 Blend 25 Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah ($55), and the B Cellars 2007 Caldwell’s Kreuzer Canyon Syrah ($45).  Our favorite of these three was the Blend 24, which was a Super Tuscan style wine that was very drinkable, with blackberry on the palate and a long finish.  We also tried the B Cellars 2008 Synergy Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) which we really liked. This had a great nose and was a rather fruit forward Cab with cherry and blackberry on the palate and good tannins.  All of the wines we tasted at B Cellars, though, were quite good.  We enjoyed our visit to B Cellars and think you would also.  B Cellars offers some very good wines, including varietals and blends that are different from what one usually finds in Napa Valley.

B Cellars Winery
400 Silverado Trail
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 709-8787
Date of visit: February 14, 2012

Hagafen Cellars

Hagafen Cellars is about one mile south of the Stags Leap District and alongside the Oak Knoll District.  It is owned and operated by Irit and Ernie Weir who founded the winery in 1979.  "Hagafen" means "the vine" in Hebrew and this is a Kosher winery.  Their wines have been served at the White House, dating back to President Reagan.  The tasting room is very informal, relaxed and unpretentious.

We tasted their Zinfandel at the 2012 Zinfandel Festival, so we decided to visit them during our weekly winery visits. They have about 21 different wines available for tasting and offer three different sets of tasting: five white wines for $5, five red wines for $10, or five tastes of their Prix Vineyards or Library Wines for $15. Please check with the winery for current tasting fees.

At the winery we were offered tastings of the Hagafen 2010 Clarinet Red Rhone Blend at $24, the Hagafen 2009 Crescendo Red Table Wine at $24 and the Hagafen 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley Estate Bottled at $45.  Both of us preferred the Cabernet which was cherry on the palate with good tannins and a decent finish.  We were not offered any other tastings because we used the coupon for a free tasting that we were given at ZAP.  Service was fine. If we return, we would probably ask to try the Prix Vineyards and some of the Library Wines instead of the current releases.

Hagafen Cellars
4160 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 252-0781
Date of visit: February 15, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Benessere Vineyards

This is a winery you simply must visit! Benessere Vineyards is an incredibly friendly winery that offers something delightfully different from the usual Napa Valley wine choices.  It does offer a great Cabernet Sauvignon blend called the Phenomenon, and I will get to that.  But the tasting journey on the way to the Phenomenon is lined with delightful surprises at bargain prices.

Winery building

Benessere is located on Big Tree Road which you will find to the right as you leave St. Helena toward Calistoga.  It is past Berringer and St. Clement wineries.  With a large sign for Big Tree Road, it is difficult to miss the turn.  Turn right and continue down that road and you will find this hidden gem of a winery that offers a delightful Italian twist.

The tasting is only $15 and includes six different wines.  Tastings may be shared, and if you buy a bottle or two they will waive the tasting fee.  After tasting their wines you will certainly want to purchase some. There are outdoor tables at which to sit or you may have the honor of tasting inside at the table once owned by Charles Shaw. We opted to taste inside since it had been raining out.


Our tasting began with the Benessere 2010 Pinot Grigio at $22.  This had a floral and spice nose with some lively crisp citrus on entry balanced with some softer fruit and a hint of sweetness in mid palate.  A perfect summer wine.  This followed with the Benessere 2010 Rosato at $16, a rose type wine made from Sangiovese and Zinfandel.  It was a drier, refreshing style of blush or rose type wine. 

I really loved the Benessere 2008 Sangiovese at $28.  They describe this as the most food friendly wine in the world and it may very well be, but I loved drinking it alone.  This is the best California Sangiovese I can remember tasting.  Although it is extremely smooth and easy to drink it has layers of fruit and complexity.  The aroma is simply delightful and the balance is perfect.  An absolute gem of a wine. 

This was followed by two Zinfandels, the Benessere 2008 Holy Stone Collins Old Vine Zinfandel at $32 and the Benessere Black Glass Zinfandel at $28.  The former was softer with good fruit, being very easy to drink without food.  The later was brighter with more blackberry and tannins.  It would be best paired with food and might age well, although one never knows for sure with a Zin. 

As much as I loved the Sangiovese I was even more taken with the last wine, the Benessere 2006 Phenomenon ($50).  This is a Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Merlot Syrah blend that the winery says is “made in the tradition of the grand Super Tuscan wines of Italy.”  It is 56% Cab and 37% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot and 2% Syrah. It is a rather intense wine, complex, interesting and bold but very drinkable now.  With a blackberry aroma and cherry with blackberry on the palate, good tannins, firm grip and a luscious, layered mid palate, it was great alone but would pair well with food.  Both of us simply loved it and found it to be one of the best wines we have encountered in Napa. I doubt if you will find any other wine in Napa Valley that tastes at all like this wine.  They had a special sale on so if you bought three bottles it was 20% off, making this wine only $33 a bottle.  It is well worth the $50 but at $33 it is a fantastic deal.

Benessere is so taster/visitor friendly that almost every Yelp review mentions this and that was certainly our experience.  It is also very unique in the type of Italian varietal wines it offers.  The decisive factor, though, is that their wines are so good and include what is probably the best Sangiovese in Napa Valley at only $28 plus a most unusual and wonderful Cab and Sangiovese blend which they call the Phenomenon.  Frankly, I think Benessere Vineyards is in itself a phenomenon.  If you want to try some really good Italian style wines in Napa Valley, this is the place to visit.  We hope to return soon.

Benessere Vineyards
1010 Big Tree Rd
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-5853
Date of visit: February 8, 2012 

St Clement Vineyards

St. Clement Vineyards is located in a charming old Victorian house located on the side of a hill overlooking Napa Valley.  The winery is seen easily from Highway 29 as you leave St. Helena heading toward Calistoga. St. Clement is owned by the same company that owns Berringer Winery.  There is a short uphill walk from where you park your car.  You will certainly want to take some photos of the house and the view.

Winery building

We participated in the Discovery Tasting which is $20 and began with the St. Clement 2010 Bale Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc at $21.  This was a pleasant wine with a very good nose, nice grapefruit on the palate with good acid and a crisp finish.  We also had the St. Clement 2010 Abbott's Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros priced at $27, the St. Clement 2008 Napa Valley Merlot at $28 and the St. Clement  2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $36.  These were all quite decent for the money. Our favorites, though, were the St. Clement 2007 and 2008 St. Clement Oroppas, a Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.  Both were $55.  I preferred the 2007 with its cherry nose, good structure and grip, integrated tannins, lovely fruit and nice finish.  I liked this very much.  The 2008 had softer tannins and a more pronounced cherry taste.  It was easy to drink without any pairing and my friend bought a bottle.  I think the 2007, though, would pair better with food, will age better and is one of the better Cabs in Napa Valley.

View from winery

Given how good the Oroppas was, I later regretted that we did not taste some of the St. Clement premium cabs that run around $80.  I have the feeling that St. Clement might have some extraordinarily good Napa Valley Cabs. If these are available in a premium tasting, I would strongly advise opting for this tasting if you are very serious about wine.  Our wine educator was very pleasant and instructive.

St Clement Vineyards
2867 St. Helena Highway North
St. Helena, CA 94574
(866) 877-5939
Date of visit: February 8, 2012

Clif Family Winery at Velo Vino

With a combination of very good, reasonably priced wines and an extraordinarily friendly, unpretentious atmosphere, Clif Family Winery is definitely worth a visit. Clif Family Winery at Velo Vino is a cycling oriented, small Napa Valley winery that is located on Main Street in St. Helena, on the left as you are heading toward St. Helena from Napa.  The sign also reads Velo Vino, which is the name of their tasting room.  In addition to wine, they have their own olive oil, gourmet nuts, Clif bars, (Yes, the same family makes the famous Clif bars.) espresso, a gift shop and an outdoor patio.  They use to purchase their grapes from other vineyards but began growing some of their own in 2011 and have also purchased Howell at the Moon Winery which they renamed Cold Springs Winery.

Clif Family building

From the moment we entered the winery everyone there was extremely down to earth, welcoming and friendly, especially Caroline, our host.  It is always nice to start a tasting off with staff members who are this courteous, helpful and enthusiastic.  Our tasting began with a Clif Family 2010 Sauvignon Blanc at $20 that had some lemon and melon on the nose, with a crisp, dry, well-balanced palate of lemon with a hint of nectarine.  It is blended with 2% Chardonnay and is not oaked. The Clif Family 2008 Gary's Improv Zinfandel at $28 had a raspberry and blackberry aroma with refreshing red fruit and well integrated tannins on the palate. My favorite was the Clif Family 2007 Kit's Killer Cab at $38 that was rated 92 points by Wine Enthusiast.  It has some Cabernet Franc in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon, with a nice cherry nose and cherry with good tannins on the palate.  My friend slightly preferred the Clif Family 2009 Climber Limited Release at only $28 that was rated 89 by Wine & Wine Spirits.  It, too, is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon but has some Merlot and Petit Verdot blended in.  The tannins were softer than the Killer Cab, and it had a really nice finish.  It is very drinkable and would does not need to be paired with food to be fully enjoyed.

Clif Family entry sign

Very bike friendly

All of these wines were quite good for the price and become even more affordable (20% off) if you join their wine club, which is free and can consist of as little as two bottles of wine three times a year. Unlike some wine clubs, there is no required time limit; you may quit without penalty after even only one pick up or shipment. Tastings, which were  $15, come with a plate of flavored almonds.  They even offer coffee and espresso.

Clif Family tasting bar

Clif Family also offers a Climber White and a Climber Red wine at only $14 and large pouches of Chardonnay and Cab at only $17.  These pouches are the equivalent of two bottles of wine so are the same as $8.50 a bottle and can last up to a month after being opened, making them ideal for hikers or those who like a glass of wine only now and then.  According to their website, "Clif Family Winery at Velo Vino is a unique place where the passions of cycling and wine are celebrated and blended."  It is an upbeat and fun winery to visit.

Clif Family patio

Clif Family Winery
709 Main St
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 968-0625
Date of visit: February 8, 2012 

Clif Family outdoor tables

Clif Family indoor tables

Clif family outdoor fireplace

Clif Family outdoor tables