I was looking forward to my latest trip to Napa Valley, a fresh start on a place that had been too expensive in the past to even contemplate a visit. A lot had transpired since my first time tasting in Napa; I became a buyer and had successfully delved deeper into the industry unscathed. I was no longer impressed by high price points or influenced by Parker scores… I was my own man. I was also in need of cracking a few bottles for my countdown as the tension was mounting. And then there was Sonoma, my home away from home, replete with charming locals, providing a friendlier atmosphere in the tasting rooms that was a catalyst in propelling my wine career. I was clamoring to go back to Alexander Valley where it had all started. Between the two regions it was my plan to taste upwards of eighty bottles, paying more attention to Napa Cab than I had in the past, and trying a lot of the big hitters on my store’s shelves, to speak with aplomb when customers inquired. I was gearing up for a big trip.

I made the excursion up from Brentwood to San Francisco in about six hours on a Wednesday evening drive. I stayed with a friend who would be accompanying me on my trade-centered sojourn through wine country. On Thursday morning we were headed to St. Helena to begin the day tasting at Merryvale, a beautiful and big space that was all but deserted on the cool December morning. I had an appointment to meet with the Southern California Sales rep and he made our visit a good one, setting us up with a charismatic tasting room manager at the bar. We went through an entire flight of wines (ten in total) beginning with a crash course on Chardonnay and ending sweetly on the Antigua—a solera method Muscat wine that had been fortified with Brandy. The tasting started with the Hyde Vineyards Chardonnay that was lean with pear, minerals and vanilla combining on the palate that wiped clean the notion of buttery Chardonnays from Napa. The Carneros Chardonnay was fuller in style while the Silhouette Chardonnay had brioche like characteristics with a richer palate of fruit and toast. It’s Champagne nose was one of my favorites for the olfactory buffet being served. On the palate of the Silhouette there was a little too much mlf (malolactic fermentation) for my taste but what a bouquet. After the lesson in Chardonnay we moved through the reds, weaving between Starmont and Merryvale wines, tasting Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and a few different expressions of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon before tasting the 2008 Profile. The Profile was a big Bordeaux blend and the benchmark for the winery. It lived up to its name. It was opulent with ripe black cherry, blackberry, baking spices coating the palate with elegantly supple tannins. The wines finish was insane and I could only see this wine being a trophy in the cellar in a decade as it developed.

Our first stop was incredible, the best treatment I had personally received in a tasting room in Napa and will not be forgotten.

We had learned of another worthwhile destination while we were north of our appointments in the Stags Leap district, namely Ehlers Estate. We pulled up to the property that sported ‘organically grown’ for its mantra and moseyed into the renovated historic winery. We were greeted cordially, despite not having an appointment, trading business cards to open up the tasting. Small talk ensued with our Spanish host, telling us the history of the estate and philanthropic nature—donating all proceeds to the Leducq Cardiovascular Research Center—of the winery. As we talked, we rolled through a flight of wines, sipping and spitting a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc all the way through to the decadently packaged1886 (not the year but the signature bottling) pewter-embossed bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. A few other wines were poured for us, like the 2008 Estate Merlot that had nice spice and plum flavors. The petit verdot was a rarity on its own and an equally fun talking piece but not a wine one would go to after work. The Cabernet Franc however was, laced with bell pepper and black currants and provided a great chalky tannin structure that I prize in best examples of the varietal. After I set up some photos of the five wines it was off to enjoy a Duck burger at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and a respite for our palates.

With bellies comfortably full, we finished lunch and headed down the 39 to the Stags Leap District, lining up the remaining winery appointments. Winding down the road, we saw our first stop on the second leg: Pine Ridge… to taste ten more. That tasting room was oppressive, fostering a track house feel with elevator music; luckily the tasting room guide was a good guy. He pulled me some Forefront wines to start; he told me that they like to keep this working label separate. The Sauvignon Blanc had fresh notes of citrus and a moderate finish and was serviceable. The Forefront Pinot Noir and Cabernet were much the same. The Viognier and Chenin Blanc combination was off-dry and apparently all the rage in terms of production and brought to mind some of those demi-sec Vouvrays that don’t really appeal to me. The latter stages, segueing into the Pine Ridge line, is where the story changes. The Pine Ridge Chardonnay had aromas of pear, caramel and squirt of citrus. On the palate the golden wine showed lots of golden delicious apple and vanilla. The 2008 Merlot from Carneros and 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon both showed favorably but were eclipsed by the Appellation designated wines. The Howell Mountain Cabernet was dark and intense and the Stags Leap District Cabernet was texturally striking displaying sophisticated tannins and replete with an endless belly of dark fruit lingering on the finish. We concluded with the 2007 Fortis that possessed a softer nose of licorice, blackberry and leather. On the palate it was rich and loaded with mineral. The tannins were poised; the wine had structure and finesse and was definitely a crowning moment in the tasting. We thanked our host and pressed on.

I had an appointment at Robert Sinskey and that went awry, the tasting room representative was not aware and his service was barely passable… but what a dullard. I was literally pulling teeth with this guy to tell me about the wines and the history. I was not able to pry much from our laconic pouring guide but I gathered that he was not sure of me and I was getting the much-feared Napa service that had haunted me four years ago. We tasted through some nice Pinot Noir from Carneros as well as some balanced red blends (five wines in total) before calling it quits. Being a sucker for Alsatian whites, I purchased their Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc and noticed that I did not receive a trade discount. It was the final straw to ruin what the wines had earned. ‘Grin and bear it’, I thought, before I ran out of there trading deprecatory remarks with my friend about our shoddy service. And I had an appointment for God’s sake!

We stopped by next door at Baldacci where everything changed for the better. The tasting room was tiny and vivacious, club members were inside picking up their winter shipments and the mood was festive. It was homey and they were more than happy to accommodate my friend and me, unlike our previous appointment (still disappointed about that). We set up on the granite countertop, with two large glasses being filled with eight different wines. It was primarily a red affair at the Baldacci winery but we did begin with our only white wine of the flight, a Chardonnay from Carneros that was big and buttery. Changing gears quickly and trading in glasses, we had the 2009 Pinot Noir from Carneros poured for us. The Pinot showed some strawberry and raspberry notes and was pleasant on the palate, serving as a transition before we proceeded into the thesis of the tasting—Cabernet. We shuffled between vintages, finding the sweet spot on the mineral rich 2006 vintage despite the “goldilocks” year of 2007 showing a classic canvas of flavors. The 2008 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap did me in; my palate officially cried uncle and my teeth were stained to defeat. It was so big and needed more time than we had to soften up. The structure was immense and tough for me to support however I could see the merit and the age-ability of yet another Stags Leap Cabernet.

Finally, as we came to the end of the tasting, I summoned up all I had left of my palate—palate fatigue was a gross understatement by this point—to try one more producer: Stags Leap Wine Cellars. We saddled up at the bar, next to a sommelier, a winemaker, another winemaker’s wife and two buyers (it was a crowded house), but we put in for our standard flight. We tasted the Sauvignon Blanc that surprised me thoroughly, tropically inclined flavors that stayed with me while I ran out to my car to fetch my camera. The Karia Chardonnay was next and crossed that fine line between too much creaminess for my palate, not to say it wasn’t sensitive or smooth but that style was really wearing on me. The 2007 Merlot and 2008 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon were next in line before we finished with a treat—the 2008 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite the rough treatment at Robert Sinskey Winery and the repercussions of tasting too much Cabernet Sauvignon (sore palate), I was genuinely elated by my second time spent in Napa Valley. I learned a lot about the various styles of Chardonnay and began to appreciate the underdog Napa Valley Merlot. We ended the night having tasted forty-three wines and capping the evening with my first ever Michelin dining experience in San Francisco at Quince. I was living it up and the next day I would be having a homecoming of sorts in Alexander Valley.