Wine & Travel

Snooth User: Eric Guido

Napa tastings (Larkmead & Joseph Phelps)

Posted by Eric Guido, Jul 12, 2009.

Just back from Napa and not only am I satisfied after a great vacation but I have truly gained a new respect for Napa. Being a lover of Italian wine, you read and hear things that are less than complimentary of Napa valley and I’m sure there are producers that fall into the stereotype but I certainly didn’t meet any on this trip.

So this is my official report back to all my fellow forum members that were gracious enough to give me their opinions on what were the “must visit” Napa Valley wineries. I left out a few visits out of lack of material or “strange circumstances” but I will say that I didn’t have a single bad experience or tasting that turned out to show poor quality wines.

Joseph Phelps
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At Phelps I choose to participate in “Tasting Terroir”, which is a tasting based around the different locations that Phelps pulls its grapes from to make Insignia. We also tasted four wines from their new “Freestone” winery. This was hosted by one of their wine educators named, Michael Cawelti who was extremely knowledgeable and very friendly. I remember a member of our forum who mentioned that it was difficult to taste at Phelps due to how young the wines are that they present you. But honestly, at $30 per person, we tasted 9 - 10 wines that ranged from Sonoma Syrah, Chardonnay, to the blending constitutes of Insignia. This was all topped off at the end with the latest Insignia release. Even at their young states these wines were all worth tasting and some just plain gorgeous in their youth.

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The new Freestone wines were fantastic. We tasted the 2007 Ovation, Chardonnay and the Estate bottling - The estate bottle was easily a step above the Ovation. Both gave great pleasure, balance and pure fruit but the estate bottle provided a greater amount of focus, a more noticeable amount of oak yet kept a clean refreshing finish.

Next up was the 2007 Fog Dog, Pinot Noir followed by the Estate bottle. Fogdog was a fun Pinot with just the right amount of earthy funk and dark red fruit to please a pinot drinker. The estate bottle was more elegant and managed to walk a tight rope between the rich, ripe pinots of Sonoma and the lighter, earthy pinots I’ve loved from Oregon. I just don’t know if the quality justifies the cost with all the great Pinot out there.

The two Cabernet blending wines we tasted were from St. Helena and Stags leap. Both beautiful wines that could have easily been released on their own and you can certainly see how these two lend their personalities to the finished Insignia. The Stag’s leap was softer, sweeter and with a full voluptuous body while the St. Helena was a menagerie of aromas that could keep you sniffing for 15 minutes before you even take a sip. This alone made it a great tasting for the Insignia lover.

The last thing we tasted was the 2005 Insignia, which was in beautiful form this day. It was obviously young but still showing so many layers of rich red fruit, spice and dusty velvety dark notes on the palate. What a way to end the tasting.

I would highly recommend visiting Joseph Phelps to anyone visiting Napa.


Larkmead Vineyards
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Larkmead came highly recommended by the members of this and other forums and now I can see why. Driving up to this unassuming winery and tasting room, you’d never know just how amazing your visit would be. The staff in the tasting room was great but on top of that we were lucky enough to have Assistant Wine Maker, Dan Petroski to guide us through the winery and a tasting of two vintages of LMV Salon. One of those tastings were right from tank as the winery was bottling the 2007 vintage on that day.

In a word… Wow. I don’t know how I spent so many years as a wine lover without ever coming across these magnificent wines and it’s not just the Cabernet that rang my bell.

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We started with a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, which was a fresh as a spring day in a field of wild flowers. Mouth filling with honeydew and lime on the palate yet with refreshing acidity. Staying finish full of mineral and pineapple. It was a beautiful expression of this varietal.

Next we were served a 2008 Tocai Friulano. It was hard to keep myself from asking for a refill. Talk about a delicate balance. The nose was rich with almond and lemon cookies. On the palate it was mouth coating with a medium body and showed pear, honeydew and white flowers. All of this was showcased with a level of acidity that kept all of its rich, full flavored components in check. It was a great example of what a skilled wine maker can do with this grape in Napa valley. From memory, I believe this came from very old vines. It was simply a great glass of wine.

Following this was the 2006 Firebelle Blend, a blend that’s primarily Merlot 55%, Cabernet 35% along with smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. My first mistake was thinking of this as a Californian Merlot blend because it’s so much more than that. The nose was intense with red licorice, forest floor and cedar box. It had a gorgeous structure that will carry it for years to come. Filled to the brim with intense cherry fruit and spice. I wish I had more time with this wine but Napa’s appointment only system caused me to feel rushed. In the end, this is something I want in my cellar.

This brought us to the Cabs, which were among the best that we tasted on our visit. Unfortunately my notes are spares on these bottles because we had really got to talking about the wine and as we did that the pen was put down. Here’s what I can say, the 2006 Napa Cabernet was classic in every way. One of the best I tasted in and over it’s price point. It was satisfying and full yet structured. If you are looking for the next $50 - $60 Cabernet that tastes like it costs much more, look no further. I couldn’t believe this was their entry level Cab that is until Dan pulled out the LMV Salon.

The 2006 LMV Salon takes all the greatness of their regular Cabernet but then adds layers of fine details in both the nose and the palate. The nose was full of black currant, coca dust, spice and potpourri. The palate was sensuous and full with a fine structure of tannin. Vibrant black cherry fruit that turns sweet on the mid-palate and a gorgeous long finish.

The 2007 LMV Salon was tasted standing next to the tank it was being bottled from. I may not have written any notes but I can tell you that it struck me as vibrant, rich and layered. It had all the detail of the 2006 but with a livelier personality.

All of the Larkmead wines were fantastic. So fantastic that I signed up for the Firebelle club before leaving. Quite simply, this was a great lineup.

In the next few days I'll be posting my experiences from EMH, Pride, Trespass and Alpha Omega.

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Replies

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Reply by John Andrews, Jul 12, 2009.

Eric ... you've hit on two of my Napa favourites. Phelps is a great location and, unlike some of the Napa mainstays, has not sold out. Can't say I love all their wines but I do love how each are expressive in what they are. Oh yeah, on the Fog Dog wines, they show so much better one year after their release ... trust me.

Larkmead is a new favourite of mine. Knowing Dan does help because it helps to know what the winemaker is thinking about the wines as he (or she) creates them.

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Reply by Eric Guido, Jul 12, 2009.

I can't say enough good things about Larkmead, other than I can't wait for my Fall shipment.

Phelps was a great visit and I have lots of their wine in my cellar, I just wish my favorite bottle from them wasn't also the most expensive and rare one they create. I almost cried the next night when I sat next to someone drinking a 2003 Backus (no decant time) with their dinner at "Cook". They had picked it up from the winery that day. Inside, I was weeping.

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Reply by Daniel Petroski, Jul 13, 2009.

Eric,

Many thanks for coming to Larkmead. It was a pleasure to meet you and your wife. I am very happy you had a good visit, even amongst my chaos of bottling. Note, the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc you tasted was bottled that same morning (and won't be released until later this year). Your tasting notes are great. I didn't even see you writing as much. Good palate, good memory. Hope to have the chance to raise a glass with you again very soon.

Looking forward to hearing about the remainder of the trip - don't forget the restaurant reviews.

All best, Dan

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Reply by Eric Guido, Jul 14, 2009.

I was quick with my little black notebook. Of course even I find it hard to read my shorthand sometimes. There are still words I can't make out from some of the notes I took on this trip. They also got harder to keep track of at the end when we started talking.

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Reply by VegasOenophile, Apr 3, 2010.

I am going in a couple weeks and will consider Larkmead, definitely!  Thanks for the write up!

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Reply by Eric Guido, Apr 3, 2010.

I won't be disappointed.  I'm now looking forward to their Spring release and grabbing some of the Tocai Friulano.

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Reply by Eric Guido, Apr 3, 2010.

Sorry, I meant "You won't be disappointed".

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Reply by MarkAse, Apr 8, 2010.

I have been impressed with the Salon wines as well during previous trips.  Quite an interesting history with the winery as well, although it's open to some debate between a few of the neighboring wineries.

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Reply by ChipDWood, Apr 8, 2010.

Fantastic trip report- and an even better sense of perspective in comparison between two seriously heavy hitters in Phelps and Larkmead.

Great job.  Can't wait to get out there to Napa myself- though I'm thinking Washington State & Oregon may beat it to the punch... thoughts?

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 8, 2010.

Napa first, Chip. It's well integrated geographically, and has more history, concentrated knowledge and culture, and great wines than Wilamette. A week there, then a week in Sonoma, then a week in Willamette, then a week in Walla Walla.

Sounds like four trips to me. Or one long trip combining Napa and Sonoma, and two shorter....

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Reply by Daniel Petroski, Apr 8, 2010.

Gents, drop me a line if you are coming out this way.  Would love to sit down with you at Larkmead and raise a glass.  Thanks for keeping us in mind!  Dan

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Reply by cigarman168, Apr 8, 2010.

Good guides info for planning my next trip to Napa. Just wonder those famous winery ie Sceaming eagle, Camyus, OPus One is open for visit or not?

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Reply by MarkAse, Apr 9, 2010.

Well Opus One is definitely open, check out their website for times and tickets as I don't think it is a walk in tour, it used to be only once per day.

Caymus is a great tasting experience, but you'll have to plan ahead to get a reservation (at least a couple of weeks).

Screaming Eagle doesn't do a tasting room. Erickson consults at a number of other places, so you can certainly find one of those to taste at. From our friends at Wine Spectator

As a suggestion, make a reservation at Vineyard 29 as they do a nice private tour and only have a few appointments per day which makes it generally speaking, a more enjoyable experience.

Hope this helps a bit

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 9, 2010.

Good recommendations, Mark.

I've done Opus and Caymus tours in a number of formats over the years, and I always feel they were well worth the time. Haven't done Screaming Eagle, or anything with Erickson, though I'd be interested in accessing what he and others are doing at Jonata. Any suggestions? His statement in the WS article about Ausone being the ultimate is a bit problematical, even if the wine is quite tasty... ;-)

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Reply by cigarman168, Apr 9, 2010.

Thx Mark, especially make me known Vineyard 29, new name to me.

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Reply by cigarman168, Apr 9, 2010.

DM, seems you don't favour Ausone?

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Reply by MarkAse, Apr 9, 2010.

Cig- No problem, V29 is next door to Grace Family Vineyards, so there is certainly an expectation there for the type of fruit they can produce.

Haven't had a chance to taste at Jonata yet, but some of the wines being produced in the Santa Ynez Valley (as a fyi, don't call them Paso Robles unless you want to make them upset) are pretty amazing deals for the price.  Tensley, Stolpman, Blair Fox and the rest of the Fess Parker graduates leading the way.

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Reply by cigarman168, Apr 9, 2010.

Mark : "as a fyi, don't call them Paso Robles unless you want to make them upset" - like Belgian don't call Henniken a beer.LOL

 

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 10, 2010.

No, cigarman, I enjoy Ausone very much, esp. when I don't have to pay for it. I also know more than a few people with massive wine experience and whose opinions I respect who claim to have had epiphanies when drinking it (in a couple of cases it was the wine that got them motivated to make wine their career; since then, though, their opinions have swung more in the direction of mine). I just think there are plenty of other wines in its league, and some I like better. Plus I don't quite see the nexus between massive California fruit and the right bank of Bordeaux (even with RParker-and-cohort's attempts to bring them closer together)....

Mark, I grew up in the Santa Barbara area, and my family was in large acreage agriculture, amongst other things, on ranches and farms from Moorpark to Cayucos, and all sorts of places inbetween . So I know Santa Ynez very well. Used to race the San Marcos Pass in sports and stock cars we'd souped up as a teenager, amongst many other foolish things.

Paso Robles is a whole different area entirely. Am currently in Ojai on family business, though my home now is in Tokyo. After taking care of a few more things I'll probably make some time for Santa Ynez, but not bother with Paso on this trip, other than maybe a coffee and service station break during the drive north to the Bay. Unless I skip 101 entirely and take 33 through Cuyama over to I-5. I hate the I-5 drive for its monotony, but love the backcountry of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. However even I-5 must be pretty now with all the green and wildflowers. Great time of year in California... ;-)

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 10, 2010.

Hey, I even posted a photo of a vineyard in Santa Ynez here.

 

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