Getting ‘Stuck’ In Napa, Then A Visit To Rombauer Vineyards.

Last night I threw my glasses on the nightstand and then had the strangest feeling that someone was watching me.

Last night I threw my glasses on the nightstand and then had the strangest feeling that someone was watching me.

Sometimes fermentations get stuck. The winemaker has all of the ingredients in place, the yeast organisms are happily gorging themselves on grape sugars and (cue the heavenly trumpets) wine is being born.

Then it stops.

Finicky yeast organisms can become dormant for any number of reasons. The temperature may get too high or the grapes might be too ripe. Whatever the reason, the results are the same and the winemaker starts pounding down Rolaids faster than Kathy Lee Gifford pounds down Chardonnay.

Well maybe not that fast.

My fermentation is stuck. All of my ingredients are in place. I’ve had a hopper full of great experiences since arriving in Napa two weeks ago and they’re backing up on my cerebral sorting table. All I have to do is add language for structure, humor for flavor, filter out the adjectives, bottle it in a clever package and voila – I’ve got a blog.

But my fermentation is stuck. It’s not writer’s block in the traditional sense. I’ve got plenty to say, I just can’t find the time to say it. There are so many great restaurants to experience, wineries to visit and winemakers to pester that I’ve had to stop writing because it cramps my drinking.

I mean tasting.

I’ve got to get unstuck, so today I decided to put in some overtime and get out of bed before noon. I’m going to get to work right after lunch at Bouchon. Unless I run into a winemaker who insists I taste his new wine. But right after that I’ll start writing about my first day in the valley.

Before racking, winemaker Victoria Coleman takes samples from barrels of 2013 Van Dyk Family Cabernet Sauvignon while I ask a lot of nettlesome questions.

Before racking, winemaker Victoria Coleman takes samples from barrels of 2013 Van Dyk Family Cabernet Sauvignon while I ask a lot of nettlesome questions.

That’s the day I helped my friend rack eight barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon. By “helped” I mean I tasted the wine from each of the barrels and asked lots of annoying questions of the people trying to get their work done. If I keep “helping” he may have to push his release date back a couple of months. I’ve been racking my brain over this piece but I’ll get it posted once I filter out the suspended participles.

Of course I’ll have to postpone my writing chores at dinnertime. After all, if I don’t support the world-class restaurants in Napa Valley, Maserati sales might plummet.

On my second night in Napa I dined with Margrit Mondavi and Miljenko (Mike) Grgich. Margrit is Robert Mondavi’s widow and is a vibrant and thoroughly enchanting lady. My wife sat next to Margrit and I’ve been asking her for any conversational tidbits that I might share on WineSnark. It turns out my wife is much too classy to share personal conversations with a blogger. I’m not sure what she sees in me, and neither does her family.

Or her friends.

Or the clerk at QuickChek.

WineSnark enjoys a laugh with nonagenarian Miljenko "Mike" Grgich and Mrs. Snark toasts our good fortune with the remarkable Margrit Mondavi.

WineSnark enjoys a laugh with nonagenarian Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Mrs. Snark toasts our good fortune with the remarkable Margrit Mondavi.

In 1966 Robert Mondavi started the movement towards world-class winemaking in California and in the early days he had two young winemakers with him named Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. Ten years later Mike’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Warren’s Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon sent shock waves through the wine world when they beat out some of the best French wines in a blind tasting held in France and judged by French wine experts. I bet that took the wind out of their sales.

I can’t possibly rush into a blog about two of Napa Valley’s most notable icons so I’m letting that experience ferment awhile longer before I try to bottle it.

Maybe I should blog about the intimate wine tasting I attended a few nights ago. It was hosted by Congressman Mike Thompson and featured emerging winemakers, some with just 150 cases of total production. At this outdoor event in Yountville I realized there’s something intoxicating about the air in Napa Valley. Judging from the way I felt in the morning I’m thinking maybe it’s not the air that’s intoxicating, it’s the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Caroline Guthrie of Stewart Cellars and William Nemerever of Nemerever Vineyards pour wine for WineSnark at Congressman Mike Thompson's "Emerging Winemakers" tasting.

Caroline Guthrie of Stewart Cellars and William Nemerever of Nemerever Vineyards pour wine for WineSnark at Congressman Mike Thompson’s “Emerging Winemakers” tasting.

While I was busy not blogging I visited an old friend at Rombauer Vineyards. John Egan showed me Rombauer’s massive infrared optical grape sorters that examine each individual berry before they head to the fermentation tank. Inferior berries are assaulted by 120 air jets and forced into the compost heap. This rigorous selection process saved the day for Rombauer when the difficult 2011 vintage was harvested. The Cabernet Sauvignon yield was reduced by a whopping 48% when unacceptable berries were eliminated.

You know you're getting close to the Rombauer tasting room when you pass this patriotic cow.

You know you’re getting close to the Rombauer tasting room when you pass this patriotic cow.

Those are the berries that are small, off-color or moldy, kind of like Keith Richards.

For years I felt the Rombauer reds had an unusual oxidized trait and I told that to John on his annual New Jersey sojourns. This changed several years ago and now I find all Rombauer wines are well made and many are outstanding.

Rombauer Vineyards, 2010 Merlot, Carneros, CA
The Merlot displays a Pomerol-like earthiness that may have come from the hardpan clay that exists in both Carneros and Pomerol. This is not to be confused with dense layers of bedrock which I refer to as bedpan. The nose is vibrant and loaded with aromas of cranberry, ultra-ripe strawberry and plummy pomegranate complemented by sweet spice notes. This is a medium-bodied red that initially reminded me of Cabernet Franc (there’s that Pomerol thing again). Black cherry flavors are followed by subtle earth and leather notes. $35.
Rating: 3 Stars (3 / 5)

Rombauer Vineyards, 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA
In this difficult vintage Rombauer benefitted from the rigid fruit selection that eliminated nearly half the production. The nose reveals subtle berry fruit aromas, a touch of earthy minerality, and some tobacco nuances that John said came from the barrel tannins. It’s a medium to full-bodied Cab with silky tannins surrounding black raspberry flavors and a stony mineral quality in the finish. While many reviewers are singling out 2011 Napa Cabernets for debasement, the 2011 Rombauer is a good, ready to drink wine; but it’s not meant for de basement. $45.
Rating: 3 Stars (3 / 5)

Rombauer Vineyards, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Selection, Napa Valley, CA
This single vineyard offering from St. Helena displays very ripe black cherry scents complemented by spicy clove and cinnamon aromas. This cab is elegant and smooth with a core of black cherry and blackberry fruit intertwined with very faint leather nuances and some sweet spice notes that play out on the long finish. $65.
Rating: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Rombauer Vineyards, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley, CA
Unfortunately my favorite wine in the lineup is only available at the winery. The good news is that if you mention WineSnark when you purchase a bottle at the winery they won’t charge you a penny more than the full-blown retail price. Aromas of subtle sweet vanilla mix with forest berry scents reminding me of Christmas cookies – I guess that would be cookies baked in a forest. This elegant red features sweet, ripe cherry flavors surrounded by silky tannins. Echoes of faint cedar and oak spice linger on the finish. $80.
Rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

Rombauer Vineyards, 2012 Chardonnay, Carneros, CA
I found this wine impossible to keep on the retail shelves because it’s like crack to a certain unnamed demographic. This barrel-fermented white undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts tart lactic acid into creamy malic acids) which results in subtle aromas and flavors of butter and butterscotch. I also picked up aromas of ripe apricot, lemon meringue and pineapple. This is a rich, creamy style of Chardonnay yet it maintains good balancing acidity. In the palate the fruit characteristics found in the nose are joined by hints of banana. It’s not for everyone but then neither is crack. $35.
Rating: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Rombauer Vineyards, 2012 Chardonnay, Proprietors Selection Reserve, Carneros, CA
Once again Rombauer is keeping the best wine to sell exclusively at the winery. Their reserve Chardonnay is only produced in exceptional vintages and in the 33-year history of the winery they have only made it 6 times. It shares many traits with the Carneros Chardonnay but it’s as refined and sophisticated as a John Coltrane sax solo. The ripe fruits and butterscotch aromatics are laid back and accompanied by subtle smoky, yeast-like characteristics. Full-bodied and very silky on the palate with terrific balance between the tropical fruits, vanilla and butterscotch notes. This is an elegant white and not nearly as showy as the Carneros bottling.  $65.
Rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

Rombauer, 2012 Zinfandel, Napa Valley, CA
I hate to tell you this but once again the best wines are only available at the winery. The Napa Zinfandel is not the California appellation Zin found around the country, but comes from vineyards in St. Helena and Calistoga. This medium-bodied Zin conceals its 15.9% alcohol better than a drunk on a job interview. The nose jumps with spicy cranberry and purple plum fruit flavors rolled in layers of cinnamon and allspice. The palate isn’t weighty but it’s impressively concentrated with a medley of bright and jammy fruit flavors followed by faint nuances of vanilla cookie dough. $34.
Rating: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)