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The DdV team hits the valley for some serious tasting

First, some eats..

Before setting out on a day of tasting, it’s always a very good idea to hydrate (water not bloody marys!!!) and grab a hearty breakfast.  No place in the valley serves a hearty breakfast quite like the Boon Fly Cafe.  Located on Hwy 121 at The Carneros Inn complex, this quaint establishment serves breakfast to die for.  Although it looks like a touristy, trendy spot, it is nothing of the sort.  Very popular with the locals, the Boon Fly serves fresh down home comfort food to get your day of tasting off to a great start.  I had their famous hand-made doughnuts and their Boon Fly Benedict with an amazing jalapeno infused hollandaise sauce.  Simply amazing.  If you’re looking for breakfast in the valley, start here!

Boon Fly Cafe
Price: A
Service: A
Food: A+
Wine List Variety/Quality: C+
Wine Pricing: a bit under 2X retail

For more info go to their website:

First Stop, Howell Mountain

Why not start our day of tasting at the top?  Well that’s exactly what we did braving the twisty roads, darting deer, and lousy GPS signals to very near the top of Howell Mountain to Outpost Winery.

Outpost Winery
Outpost was one the standouts at the recent Taste of Howell Mountain event so we were excited to take a bit more time with their wines and enjoy the spectacular views.

Outpost winery sits at 2,200 feet on a small plateau that quickly turns steep as do most of the vineyards on this magnificent mountain.  Outpost was founded in 1998 by Terry and Juli Pringle who purchased the 42 acre vineyard from Howell Mountain legend Bob Lamborn.  The first vintages under winemaker Ehran Jordan showed promise but it was under the direction of his assistant, Thomas Rivers Brown (who took over the head winemaking duties when Jordan left for Turley), that the full potential of these vineyards were realized.  For the past decade, Brown has demonstrated a unique vision and passion for the mountain wines he has produced to high acclaim from critics and wine lovers alike.  His passion as with that of new owners  Frank and Kathy Dotzler are what make the winery a true Napa gem.

We were greeted upon arrival by KC who was not only a delightful host but extremely knowledgeable about their wines, vineyards, and wine making process.  She even knew what toast they preferred on their French oak barrels (now that’s good knowledge!)  We first tasted the Grenache (it went down quick) and then right into the Zinfandel.  It was with our Zin in hand that we took a tour of the vineyards.

We started off in the Zin vineyards and quickly found the major difference between the Howell and Napa Valley AVAs.  While on our way up (especially through Oakville Cabernet country) we could see the véraison (French term for the onset of ripening) in full effect as the grapes were already showing a ruby-red color.  Not so in the vineyard at Outpost.  The grapes were still as green as can be due to the mountains weather which starts off as much as 10 degrees cooler during the start of the growing season.  That will quickly change in a few weeks as the mountains weather will be 10 degrees warmer than that of the valley until harvest.  It’s this difference that makes these wines so unique and so amazing.  See the picture below for the difference in véraison.

The green grapes are zin from Howell Mountain, the red Cabernet from Plumpjack in Oakville.

As we moved to the end of the Zin, we then hit one of the Cabernet vineyards.  The remarkable thing to note is how very tiny the Cab grapes are here.  KC let us grab one and squeeze and taste it.  The skins are tight and thick and when I put it in my mouth it practically exploded with juice and intense flavor.  This is the secret of mountain Cab greatness.  The rocky soils plus the cool starting, hot finishing growing season produces these tiny highly concentrated grapes that produce rich, big, nuanced wines that are by far our favorite in the world.

After our vineyard tour we repaired back to the beautiful tasting room with amazing views of the entire valley.  Nothing short of stunning.  We finished our tasting with their signature Cabernet which was just as exceptional as we had remembered from the Howell Mountain Tasting event.

So here’s the breakdown on the wines we tried (and bought!!)

Outpost 2010 Howell Mountain Grenache
DdV: 95
Price: $48.00
Blend: 100% Grenache
Source: Howell Mountain

I don’t throw out 95 ratings easily especially for a non Cab but this is such a stunning display of craftsmanship that it is well earned.  There is no other Grenache produced in California that can touch this.  Lush but mid-bodied red with white pepper and some spice on the nose leading to full rich strawberry and dark mountain cherry.  Finishes with some spicey tannins and black pepper.  The more I drank this (I cracked a bottle when I got home!) the more flavors seemed to pop out.  This wine is a perfect companion for grilled fare.  Decanting will take down the tannins and pepper notes for milder grill or leave it in the bottle if you want to get your heat on.  Highly recommended!

Outpost 2010 Howell Mountain Zinfandel
DdV: 95
Price: $48.00
Blend: 100% Zinfandel
Source: Howell Mountain

As you may recall, we foamed at the mouth for the 2009 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Zin and this offering from Outpost is dead even.  Superb example of mountain Zinfandel! Lush dark berry and spice greet you on the nose with blasts of plum, dark strawberry and dark mountain berry on the midpalate.  Until the finish you may be fooled into thinking it’s a Cab but the muscular tannins and peppercorn on the finish remind you it’s a Zin.  This wine has enough jam in it to pair well with the typical Zin fare but has such a nice complexity and rich mouth feel that it could do just fine in Cab country.  As with the Grenache, decant to bring it down a notch or leave it in the bottle to bring the heat.

Outpost 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
DdV: 97-98
Price: $65.00
Blend: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Source: Howell Mountain

A brilliant mountain masterpiece!  If you’re looking for a perfect example of Howell Mountain terroir then this is it.  This is a big, bold, fruit forward wine but is wonderfully complex and nuanced.  Lush flavors explode out of the glass with plenty of dark huckleberry, plum, currant, and a host of other dark mountain berries (pick one or all here).  Plenty of berry, plum, and a slight hint of floral vanilla on the nose and a long finish with hints of bright stone and subtle spice make this a truly classic Cabernet. The price point is a testament to their dedication and appreciation of their customers. This is arguably among the best values in premium Cabernet for this vintage.  Very highly recommended. This will do wonderfully in the cellar but is very good now. Decant.

to understand the meaning of our scores for wineries go to our About page here..

Summary – Outpost Winery
Facilities: A+
Hospitality: A+
Wine Quality: A+
Education: A+
Overall Tasting Experience: A+

Notes:  Outpost truly presents as good a tasting experience as I’ve ever had.  We learned a great deal about their wines and gained some more knowledge about viticulture in general which is a real treat. The beautiful setting, great wines, and terrific hospitality make this a must see winery.

They have quite frankly gained a customer for life from the wonderful experience and exceptional wines (unless Parker gives them a bag of 100’s and they start charging Screaming Eagle prices).

Reservations Required
For more info:  http://www.outpostwines.com/

and now on to our next stop on Howell Mountain

Ladera Vineyards

Just a bit down the mountain from Outpost, you’ll find Ladera Vineyards. This is one of our favorite Howell producers that make several flavors of outstanding Cabs, a terrific Sauv. Blanc and a truly unique mountain Merlot.  Click here for a review of one of their recent offerings.

Ladera (spanish for hill side) was started in 2000 by Montana ranchers Pat and Anne Stotesbery.  The winery was originally founded in 1886 by Frenchmen Jean Brun and Jean V. Chaix who used a technique known as gravity flow winemaking to make gold medal winning red wines.  Winemaker Karen Culler (formerly of Vichon winery, and her own label Culler Wines) still uses the same technique to build big bold wines that embody the power and finesse of the Howell Mountain terrior.

Dan and Natalie are terrific hosts and really know their wines backward and forward. The tasting room which is simply a corner of the wine production facility is in a quaint looking rustic building that was thankfully cool as the temps were starting to inch to 100 degrees as we arrived.  The outside patio was also an option but it was just too hot so in we went.

While sampling their array of wines, we learned some very bad news.  The Lone Canyon Vineyard, source of our favorite Ladera Cab was sold to Harlan Estates thus the 2008 vintage was the last Ladera Lone Canyon produced. This is very sad news indeed. If you’re not familiar, Harlan is a cult winery that charges $300 or $400 a bottle for their wines and thus will no longer be in our cellar.

Michaela is obviously not impressed with the Harlan Acquisition

So long Lone Canyon, it was a distinct pleasure..

Now let us get to the wines..

Ladera 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
DdV: 93
Price: $41.00
95% Cabernet Sauvignon
2% Malbec
3% Petite Verdot
Source: Various Napa Valley

This is a fantastic value at $41.  A terrific blend of various Napa Valley sources that produces a smooth, complex food friendly wine.  Lush berry, vanilla, and oak on the nose with rich plum, blueberry and a pinch of currant on the mid palate.  Smooth medium long finish.  Terrific for braised or grilled fare.

2011 Ladera Sauvignon Blanc
DdV: 93
Price: $25.00
Blend: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Source: Howell Mountain

Wonderful lush and luxurious.  Ripe mango, melon, and lime on the nose gives way to more juicy tropical fruit, melon, citrus and taut green apple.  Rich velvety mouth feel and a bright stone finish makes this a huge favorite.  Great for salads, fish, and fruit inspired dishes.

2008 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
DdV: 95
Price: $75.00
Blend: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Source: Howell Mountain

A very big bold mountain Cab here.  Dark cherry and blueberry on the nose moves you to plum, dark huckleberry and light espresso on the mid.  Finishes good and long with big mountain tannins and hints of spice.  Very good now but will gain a great deal in the cellar for a year or two. Decant.

Summary – Ladera Vineyards
Facilities: B
Hospitality: A+
Wine Quality: A
Education: A
Overall Tasting Experience: A

Only knock here is the tasting room which is no more than a corner of the wine making facility. That’s a small point however. Hospitality is excellent and their wines are one of our favorites. Highly recommended.

Reservations Required
For more info: http://www.laderavineyards.com

Down to the Valley, the Valley So Low..

We now found ourselves winding down the mountain and down to the Silverado Trail.  Our next stop was Plumpjack Winery in the heart of Oakville.

Plumpjack Winery – Oakville
Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty established PlumpJack Winery in 1995,  inspired by one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, Sir John  “PlumpJack” Falstaff. The 42 acre estate vineyard was until 1995, the source of the highly rated Villa Mt. Eden Cabernets. As we drove into the parking lot filled with 20-somethings in limo’s we knew the quiet solitude of Howell Mountain was now far behind us.

The entrance to the tasting room was through a nice patio area.  The tasting room itself was a tad eclectic but unfortunately screamed RETAIL!! as we walked in.  The plethora of oils, logo luggage, and other tourist blech was a huge dichotomy from the tasteful tasting rooms on the mountain.

The room was packed, so we slipped into the far corner and began our tasting at $15 a pop which was not refundable with purchase.  I’d like to say here that I think this practice (becoming all too common on “The Trail”) is insulting to the serious wine lover. The guy who poured was rather funny and a decent host but did not know all that much about the wines or how they were made.  Again standard for “The Trail”. Plumpjack also hosts their sister winery Cade’s offerings but as they are a Howell Mountain producer and we had just sampled their terrific wines at the Taste of Howell Mountain Benefit, we decided to stick to the Plumpjack wines.

2011 Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay (screw cap)
DdV: 91
Price: $48.00
Blend: 100% Chardonnay
Source: Blend: Saint Helena/Carneros

This is a very nice crisp Chardonnay.  Lemon and floral notes on the nose lead to more citrus and subtle vanilla.  A nice bright stone and just the right hit of oak on the finish. A very nice balance to this wine.  Great for grilled seafood or grilled chicken.

We next hit into their red wines which were really good but…  After tasting the big bold Howell Mountain wines, these seemed to come up a bit weak.  That said, the reds were very well crafted and would seem to prove quite food friendly.

2009 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
DdV: 92
WE: 93
Price: $90.00
Blend: 98% Cabernet, 2% Petit Verdot
Source: Oakville

This is a fantastic Cab from wine makers Aaron Miller and Anthony Biagi.  Beautiful dark garnet color with ample legs.  On the nose, lush dark cherry and honey butter like oak give way to plum, dark cherry, and casiss on the mid.  The nicely balanced long finish gives this wine a flash of elegance. At $90, I feel this is overpriced but I guess as Oakville wines go it’s on the bottom end of the price spectrum.

2010 Plumpjack Merlot
DdV: 92
Price: $52.00
Blend: 94% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot,1% Cabernet
Source: Oak Knoll, Calistoga

A nice gentlemanly Merlot.  Plenty of black cherry and hints of cedar on the nose lead to dark plum and blackberry on the mid.  Finish is nice but just a small touch short with more dark berry and vanilla fudge. This will be a nice wine for beef offerings both on and off the grill.

2010 Plumpjack Syrah
DdV: 94
Price: $48.00
Blend: 100% Syrah
Source: Atlas Peak, Carneros

This is simply the most confounding wine I’ve ever had.  Part viticulture, part alchemy, and part dark magic make this singular syrah.  If you told me Valdemort was a consultant on this wine, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

The nose is perhaps the most engaging I’ve had.  Dark Italian roast coffee, vanilla bean, and here it comes…  bacon! I just sat there snuffing at this wine for a good 5 minutes before I even drank any.  Simply amazing.  On the draw, nice flush raspberry and plum bring you nicely through the mid and onto the finish of espresso and white pepper.  This is a very clever wine and great fun to taste. If you want a wine that can pair with “breakfast for dinner”, this would play.

Summary – Plumpjack Winery
Facilities: C
Hospitality: C (would be a B if tasting were comped on purchase)
Wine Quality: A
Education: D
Overall Tasting Experience: C
I don’t want to be hard on the folks at Plumpjack but this experience was just Ok for me.  Too noisy, too crowded, no comp for purchase puts this as a solid C and a standard Silverado Trail experience.

If you come here, come for the wine.  It is outstanding!

Beaulieu Vineyard (BV)

Our last stop of the day was a private tasting in the Georges De LaTour tasting room at BV.  One of the guys in our group was a member so we took advantage and went downstairs to taste some of their premium wines.

The room was nicely laid out with very comfy chairs and a 3 glass seating for each of us.  The host was rather hands off and did not engage us much.  We sampled 3 of their current releases as well as a library selection. Here’s the two that stood out.

Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Georges de Latour
Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008
DdV: 94
WS: 93
Price:  $125.00
Blend: 93% Cabernet, 7% Petit Verdot
Source: Rutherford

This is a very big but refined and opulent wine.  Luxurious blackberry, cassis, and plum guide you through the mid with subtle hints of chocolate, oak, spice, and a small hit of earth on the finish.  This is a very impressive wine and will cellar nicely for more years to come.  A true gem.  Great with steaks or dark rich chocolate desserts.

Beaulieu Vineyard 2008 Tapestry Reserve Napa Valley
DdV: 92
WS: 91
Price: $60
Blend:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot
Source: Rutherford

A dark but sweeter red blend that I would have expected.  Yet, this is a very nice food friendly red wine.  Dark blackberry and raspberry are on full display with a touch of cedar on the finish.  Jammy but well balanced and has enough full tannins to do just fine in the cellar.

Summary – BV
Facilities: B+
Hospitality: C
Wine Quality: A
Education: F
Overall Tasting Experience: C

Once again, this had a very serious RETAIL feel to it despite the fancy tasting area.  More pomp here than circumstance.  The wines were fantastic but were overpriced in my view.  An Ok experience.

More info: http://www.bvwines.com/

Start With Food, Finish With Food (and margies!)

Rutherford Grill

Our final stop was to grab some lunch at my favorite grill joint on the planet.  Rutherford grill is not a huge local favorite for nothing. The food is amazing as their meats (chicken, steak, prime rib) are all smoked over hard wood.  That is how to cook grill folks.  I had the prime rib french dip sando and it was off the hook.  Since our palates were toast, we hit some margaritas to wash down the great food.  Rutherford Grill makes the best margaritas in the valley.  Not cheap, but very tasty.

Price: A
Service: A
Food: A+
Wine List Variety/Quality: B (no corkage fee!!!!!)
Wine Pricing: a bit under 3X retail (no corkage fee!!!!!)
More info: http://www.hillstone.com/#/restaurants/rutherfordGrill/

Trip Summary

All told, this was a fantastic day of tasting.  I do have to admit that I have not been to a standard valley tasting room in a long time.  I will also need to admit I probably won’t be going to another any time soon.  Truly, if you want some advice on where to taste, start with the smaller wineries that require reservations.  It is a truly fun experience and you learn so much more about their wine and wine in general than the packed retail joints on the Trail.