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Savoring the tastes of Napa Valley

Posted by by Bill Belkin, wine and spirits category manager
Thursday, March 29, 2012

Many, many years ago when we went on “field trips” we had to ask our parents for permission slips. Well no more. We recently packed up all the wine managers and jetted them out to wine country for an intensive 4 days of tasting, studying and generally saturating them with enthusiasm for all things wine. It was a remarkable trip and I think one that will…ahem…bear fruit for years to come.

We flew into San Francisco and began our journey northward. Our first stop was to our close friends at Whitehall Lane in St. Helena. Tom Leondardini III, family member and longtime friend, made us all feel welcome as we toured and tasted from barrel. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (with just a hint of Semillon) was superb, as was the Cabernet and Merlot from this very, very excellent winery.

Next was a short trip over to Rutherford to the 100% organically farmed, solar powered, ultra-green winery of Michael Honig. Michael is wonderful guy who makes great wines that are really underappreciated – except by Wine Spectator who lauded his last two Cabernet vintages with 90+ point scores! His Sauvignon Blanc is killer too. He gave us a taste of his wonderful dessert wine and it is otherworldly. Great sweetness but bright acidity, too!

The next morning we visited Sauvignon Blanc-meister, Randy Mason, at his Napa tasting room. Randy has long been a practitioner of this grape and only recently has debuted his more value oriented label POMELO, which has become one of our bestselling white wines under $15! He also has a great stable mate for Pomelo, a Pinot Gris (also commonly referred to as Grigio) called 3 Pears. As a direct result of this personal tasting Randy green-lighted the inclusion of both these great wines in copious amounts during our upcoming Spring Wine Sale that runs from March 29 through April 14.

After that visit, we rode up to the top of Howell Mountain (3,000 feet), where our dear friend Elton Sloane, general manager/partner of the Robert Craig Winery, greeted us with some of the best wine in Napa Valley! From our visit we were able to commandeer a few cases of the Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay and even some Howell Mountain Black Sears Zinfandel. These wines, like all of Robert Craig’s wines, represent the finest values available in Napa. The three cuvees of Cabernet – the Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain and Affinity – are all scoring in the mid to high 90s from the critics and the costs are still well under the prevailing averages.

Our next stop was certainly off the beaten path – all the way up to Lake County and Jed Steele’s beautiful winery. Jed has been a long-time supporter of the Minnesota markets and his eponymous wines have never tasted better. The Catfish Zinfandel, at 13% alcohol, is still one of the truest to varietal character Zins out there. That photo above is an ancient Grey Riesling vine that is well over 100 years old and is still producing fruit. Talk about old vines! We barrel tasted all of Jed’s wines and the clear winner was the Pinot Noir from the famed Bien Nacido vineyard, which is incredibly lush and full of red fruit, earthiness and great acid. You’ll find this wine in a few of our stores.

Our last stop was to Carneros and the Schug Winery. Proprietor Axel Schug greeted us warmly and I have to tell you we were all blown away with his wines. The Sonoma Coast wines are phenomenal! Very drinkable now (if you want to age your wines a bit, try the Carneros appellated bottling), but full of great complexity and balance. The Chardonnay is more reminiscent of Burgundy than California and the Pinot Noir will give you reason to fall in love!

Our final evening we returned to the city and had an incredible seafood dinner on the pier. It was replete with wines from the trip and the resolution to spread the gospel of classic, family owned, California winemaking to all our great customers in the Twin Cities and beyond. I implore each one of you who loves food and wine to put Napa, Sonoma and even Lake County on your short list of travel plans!

Tags: napa valleycalifornia wines

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