Thursday, July 27, 2006

Winery Tours Then and Now

Stacked Bottles at Schramsberg, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

On Tuesday we went to Napa for a wine tour with my counterpart from New York and his wife and Quinlan. It was a fun day. We went first to the Rutherford Grill - which is a Napa Valley landmark - the food is excellent. I had a sandwich which was good but they also did a cornbread that was a lot like traditional southern spoon bread - that was excellent. And they did a Pea Soup with mint. The combination was wonderful. Our friends had the ribs - which looked excellent.

We then went to Schramsberg Cellars - which, according to our guide, is the oldest producing winery in Napa (Buena Vista is actually older but that is in Sonoma). They make sparkling wines. Wine tours today are a bit of hype and a bit of substance - the hype talks about the herculean struggles that the original winery had and how it was dormant for more than 50 years. (Many of the wineries in the valley figured out a way to stay open during prohibition). Or the complete lack of history about the antecedents to Schramsberg - obviously any wine person worth his salt would remember Hans Kornell who made excellent champagnes until his winery failed as a result of a disastrous bank loan. The tour there was also expensive - they pour their best (which are $90 per bottle) but the tour is $25.

We then went to Freemark Abbey - which is $10 and you get to keep the glass. Freemark has a killer Viognier - which is a light white with a fruity taste - would be excellent with a tart fruit desert. And a couple of bodacious reds (their Pinot Noir and Zinfandels are wonderful as is their Merlot). No tour just tasting in a very homey room.

Then we went back to our hotel for a short nap and then to dinner at a place recommended by a friend in Napa. The place is called Celadon and has a wonderful mix of food and spirits. I had a lamb sirloin with swiss chard and mushrooms. It was done with a burgandy reduction sauce that was wonderful. The combination was excellent. Quinlan had a grilled polenta with a lot of great flavors.

So what are my conclusions. Napa 30 years ago was a great place to go an meet vintners. Today it is Disneyland for gourmands. 30 years ago we met people like Louis Martini and Joe Heitz and Hans Kornell. Heitz, as I remember him, was fairly soft spoken but had a passion for blending wines. At one point his place was right next to Martini's and we had an afternoon where Heitz and Martini regailed us with stories about how good wine is made - not in the snobby sense but in the very practical sense of good quality. Kornell had a Japanese tour guide (who was also the guy who riddled the bottles -turning to get the yeast down to the top of the bottle during aging) who was great in explaining how their champagne (they did not fall into the trap that the French want us to about using the name) was made. At the end of one tour we met Mr. Kornell who was a very formal German but he also spoke lovingly about his wine.

But I am not critical of the change. I loved being there when it was a bit more personal but it is still a great day to spend going between good food and wine. It is fun to listen to the wine snobs (who often do not know their ass from a hole in the ground) spout off. But it is even more fun to find something that is new in taste. And on Tuesday that happened a couple of times.

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