Two Days in Napa

One of the things I enjoy about wine is its strong connection to place. There’s an old saying that when you taste cider, you taste apples and when you taste cherry wine, you taste cherries but when you taste wine made from grapes, you taste the soil and the sun and the rain. This concept is called terroir, and while it is often over emphasized there is a strong element of truth to it. Different varies of grape grow in differently in different places and the same variety or even an identical clone of the same plant will produce a wine that tastes very differently from vineyard to vineyard. That’s to say nothing of the different traditions and techniques of the world’s vineyards.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a wine lover is visiting these places where grapes are grown and wine is produced. Last year when I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Fremont, California the little hamster wheel inside my brain started turning. My wife and I went to Sonoma years ago when my sister and her husband lived in Northern California so it seemed natural that the next area to visit would be Napa.

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When we left Royal Oak in the morning, our backyard looked like this.

When we left our hotel in the morning, we saw this.

When we left our hotel in the morning of the next day, we saw this.

We arrived in San Jose late at night so we just stayed at an airport hotel and drove to Calistoga to Rivers-Marie HQ in the morning. The most harrowing part of the drive was the final leg driving up and down mountains on two lane roads with no shoulders. Luckily my wife was behind the wheel so I could just close my eyes for the most alarming parts.

The office for Rivers-Marie is in a beautiful, fairly large craftsman style house in Calistoga itself. After meeting with friend-of-the-blog Will (R-M’s employee, as he described himself), we hopped in the truck and went to the associated winery, Tamber Bey. They make wine for a variety of labels and from a variety of vineyards, but Rivers-Marie is the house brand. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is their specialty but they also do a Cab and a Chard under that label.

When we arrived they were racking the wine and Will showed us around the equipment.IMG_20140327_121951

We then got a chance to visit the wines resting in the barrels and taste a few. With most of them, I took a sip and thought, “This isn’t so bad” and then got smacked in the mouth with a big burst of sulphur. Not good drinking but educational.

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We then went back to the office for a great tasting and great conversation with Will. I learned a lot about Napa and Sonoma and wine in general from the conversation. My thinking was even changed on a few things, like being overly tough on certain Michigan wineries whose wine I haven’t liked.

We ended up ordering four bottles from them. Since they don’t have a Michigan distributor, we were able to have them shipped.

RM Wines

Nothing could really compare to that experience, but we visited a few more wineries over the next two days.

There was scenic and pricey Alpha Omega.

There was scenic and pricey Alpha Omega.

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And Mumm, specializing in sparklers.

We also visited a couple “Judgement of Paris” wineries, Grgich Hills and Stag’s Leap. Both were nice, but Stag’s Leap was an especially nice experience and the wines were amazing. Thanks to the advice of friends of the blog Jessica & Brian we also stopped at Elyse winery, a small family-owned winery. It’s not particularly scenic but the wines were very good and it’s always nice to be able to talk to the people who helped make the wine while you’re tasting it. This was our haul, at least all that we could carry on the plane:

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We had heard horror stories about how Napa was a wine-themed Disney World, but it didn’t strike me as Disneyesque at all. Yes, there are plenty of touristy wineries, especially the big or famous ones, but the ones we saw didn’t seem any more touristy than ones we’ve seen in Michigan, Indiana or New York. Our experience with Will and at Elyse was anything but touristy. So, like most places, it’s all about expectations. If you go to Mondavi expecting Robert to look up from picking grapes to wave to you from the vineyard as you roll up on the gravel driveway, you’ll be disappointed. Especially since Robert Mondavi has been dead for several years now. If you plan your visit carefully and know what you’re in for you’ll be able to have a good time.

Napa isn’t just wine of course, but lots of good food too. Oenotri in downtown Napa was a standout, but we hit a couple nice little bistros along the way.

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The wedding was a blast. The ceremony was a shortened version of the traditional Hindu ceremony, but instead of a horse, the groom rode in on a Ford Mustang. That summed up the festivities pretty well. The reception (on the next day) was even better. Best Indian food I have ever had and best beer list I have ever seen at a wedding reception. My cousin is a big craft beer fan, and she especially loves sour beers. I think we clean up well, too.

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It was a wonderful time, and it’s all thanks to my brilliant cousin Rhiannon (aka Rachel) and her brilliant husband Ashish, who is already living up to his name. May you have many more blessings in the years to come!

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Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout

Maker: Anderson Valley, Boonville, California, USAAnderson Val BBS

Style: Dry stout aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels.

ABV: 6.9%

Price: $10 (Binny’s)/22 oz bottle

Appearance: Chocolate bown with a big tan head.

Nose: Roasted malt, soy sauce.

Palate: Mildly sweet and bitter with some butterscotch and salted caramel.

Finish: Mildly sweet and a little fruity, then a touch of bitterness.

Parting words: My first encounter with an Anderson Valley beer was not a very positive one. This is much better. It’s not particularly ambitious or edgy. It’s just a stout that has spent some time in a bourbon barrel. But it’s tasty. The barrel contributes some very nice sweet butterscotch flavors without making it too boozy or sappy. One might even call this a session bourbon barrel stout. Maybe.

 

The price isn’t too bad for a product like this, but it is near the upper limit of what I would be willing to pay. Knowing the origin of the barrel is a nice bonus too. Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout is recommended.

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Fighting Cock

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USAFighting Cock

Age: 6 y/o

Proof: 103 (51.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $18.50

Appearance: Dark copper with long thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, jalapeno, caramel. Water brings out butterscotch and basil.

Palate: Hot and sweet with a touch of oak. Softer with water but still spicy. Caramel and cayenne.

Finish: Hot and spicy with caramel and a hit of oak. Finish is basically the same with water, but a little less hot.

Mixed: Does very well in all applications I tried. Stands up to Coke and does well with Benedictine. Shines in a Manhattan and an old fashioned. Gets a little lost in a boulevardier but almost everything does. Performs nicely on the rocks.

Parting words: Like most chickens Fighting Cock is delicious but flies under the radar. It’s Heaven Hill’s answer to Wild Turkey. It has a high, odd numbered proof (mine goes to 11!), a bird on the label and a spicy, aggressive taste and aroma. It originally was aged stated at 8 y/o too, just like Wild Turkey used to be.

I like it better than Wild Turkey. It’s hard to find an age stated bourbon at that proof for under $20 these days. The closest cousin to FC is Old Ezra at 101 proof and 7 y/o. It’s probably also distilled by Heaven Hill and it’s a little cheaper. It tends to be grassy which can be off putting to some. I’d probably rank FC above Old Ezra but both are very good. If you like bold, spicy flavors in your bourbon and the name doesn’t make you blush, Fighting Cock is recommended.

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Arcturos Pinot Noir, 2011

Maker: Black Star Farms, Traverse City/Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USAArc Pinot 2011

Place of origin: Michigan (60% Leelanau Co., 40% Grand Traverse Co.), USA

ABV: 12% ABV

Price: $22.50 (website)

Appearance: Ruby red,

Nose: Lightly toasted oak, white pepper, strawberry jam.

Palate: Medium bodied and medium dry. Black raspberries, very ripe blueberries, pinch of pink peppercorns.

Finish: Light oak with a bit of fruit. Fades slowly.

Parting words: I was originally planning to let this one sit for longer but after tasting a 2010 Pinot Noir from a neighboring winery that had fallen apart last week I panicked and decided that now was the time to open my 2011 Michigan Pinots. I’m glad I did. This one was very tasty. It was fruity but the oak rounds it off nicely. There could have been more depth and integration of flavor but there’s nothing to complain about. Does fine with food or on its own. 2011 Arcturos Pinot Noir is recommended.

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New Orphan Barrel Project release

I received a press release from Diageo in my mailbox this morning and as I don’t receive many of these so I thought I’d pass the highlights along to you. It’s about the latest new release in Diageo’s orphan barrel series of premium, very old bourbons.

 

TULLAHOMA, Tenn., April 1, 2014 – From Tennessee to Kentucky to Ireland, stories of old whiskies forgotten in the back of rickhouses and warehouses drift among distillers the world over.  From lunch breaks to happy hours, their debates over which whiskey would taste best has become the stuff of legend.  To offer resolution and expand a new line of rare spirits to a growing base of whiskey aficionados, DIAGEO (NYSE: DEO) today announced the latest project of  the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company, Very Old Beaver Straight Bourbon Whiskey to be joining Old Blowhard and Barterhouse Bourbons this spring.Very Old Beaver is expected to begin appearing on select shelves throughout the U.S. in April 2014 under strict allocation due to limited supply of approximately 1,000,000 cases worldwide.  Very Old Beaver won’t disclose her age but enthusiasts will be able to tell that she’s been around the block a few times.

Very Old Beaver stocks were discovered in old warehouses at the Stitzel-Weller facility in Louisville, Ky.  Rumor has it warehouse workers have already begun lining up for a taste of Very Old Beaver with a soft aroma reminiscent of buttercream and smoked halibut.  The whiskey’s mellow taste includes notes of old leather box, salt cod, and aged gorgonzola cheese.  Very Old Beaver is filled in Tullahoma, Tenn. and will be expected to sell for a suggested retail price of $50,000.

Like the rickhouse and warehouse workers who uncover them and the consumers who drink them, Orphan Barrel Whiskies have distinctive personalities in taste and packaging.  Very Old Beaver packaging nods to the inspiration behind the whiskey’s name.  A vintage pink and brown label features a furry beaver after she’s been lightly groomed and stuffed.  Because when you’re tired of youth and immaturity, nothing is better than the warm comfort of Very Old Beaver.

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Glenfarclas 12 y/o

Maker: Glenfarclas, Ballindalloch, Scotland, UK (J & G Grant)Glenfarcas 12

Region: Speyside, although the label describes it as “Highland”

Michigan State Minimum: $52

Appearance: Light gold (natural color) with long thin legs.

Nose: Sherry, barley bread, dried flowers, crème brûlée.

Palate: Medium bodied and desserty. Butterscotch, French lavender, oak, mace (the spice not the chemical weapon).

Finish: Fairly hot but sweet. Lingers on the lips for a short time.

Parting Words: Glenfarclas is one of the few truely independent malt distilleries left in Scotland. The Grant family (not to be confused with many other Grants making Scotch whisky) has owned Glenfarclas since the nineteenth century and they have continued to do things their own old fashioned way. They refer to their whisky as Highland on the label although most would refer to them as Speyside these days given their proximity to the Spey river. Their labels are simple, their bottles are butch and their range of malts is based primarily on age. In the U.S. a 10, 12, 17, 21, 25, 40 and a 105 proof cask strength NAS version. Also available (but very expensive) are the Family Cask series of vintage bottlings.

The 12 y/o Glenfarclas is a very good whisky.The packaging and marketing may be spartan, but the whisky is not. The distinctive earthy aromas of the older expressions are muted in the 12 , but are still there faintly in the sherry and oak. The result is a classic sherried Speyside profile of the heavier sort, like Balvenie or Mortlach. It’s an excellent after dinner sipper well suited to books and back porches. I don’t smoke cigars, but I have been told that it goes well with them as well.

$52 is a steal for a mature, quality single malt from anywhere these days. Nothing not to like about Glenfarclas 12. It is recommended.

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Half Moon Orchard Gin

Maker: Tuthilltown, Gardiner, New York, USAHalf Moon

ABV: 46%

Notes: Made from wheat and apples. No. 1316, Batch 3

Appearance: Clear.

Michigan State Minimum: $40/1 liter

Nose: Juniper, cedar, lime zest, bourbon “white dog”.

On the palate: Full bodied. Unaged whiskey, cedar, maybe a little citrus. Unbalanced and crude.

Finish: A bitter note, then nothing but alcohol.

Mixed: The strong raw spirit flavors overwhelm and ruin tonic, dry martinis and white ladies. It’s adequate to good in drinks using red vermouth like perfect martinis (made using equal parts dry and red vermouth), Negronis and Princetons.

Parting words: This is an unusual gin. It seems to be something of an experiment based upon the question of what a gin would be like if its flavor was driven by what the spirit was made from instead of the botanicals infused into it. St. George’s Dry Rye gin seems to be a similar experiment, one which I think also fails miserably. St. George luckily has two other excellent botantical-driven gins for it to fall back on. Tuthilltown does not have that luxury, unfortunately. They also have a vodka made from apples which I have not tried. Given my “no vodka reviews” rule and my distaste for Half Moon, don’t expect a notes on that any time soon.

One of the many puzzling aspects of Tuthilltown’s operation is why they have a gin and a vodka made from apples but no apple brandy. Maybe they don’t have access to cider made with the proper varieties of apples for brandy or there’s some other good reason. It could be that they have already made some and are waiting for it to age but given Tuthilltown’s love for small barrels and underaged whiskey that seems unlikely.

Half Moon comes only in liter bottles, at least in Michigan, which would be nice if the product were better. If it were $10-$20 cheaper I might be more inclined to be more generous, but at $40 I expect something much better than this half baked gin. Half Moon is not recommended.

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Baker’s

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USABaker's

Age: 7 y/o

Proof: 107 (53.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $47

Appearance: Dark Copper with thick legs.

Nose: Leather, alcohol, caramel. Water brings out a weird rotten vegetable smell.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Cotton candy, plum, oak, oregano, clove. Goes down a little easier with water and brings butterscotch into the mix.

Finish: Hot and sweet. Peppermint cotton candy. I don’t know if such a thing exists but if it does, it tastes like this. Milder and sweeter with H2O.

Parting words: Baker’s is named after Baker Beam, grandson of Jim’s brother “Park” Beam (not to be confused with Parker Beam, Heaven Hill master distiller) and thus second cousin to Booker Noe. For further confusion, consult the interactive Beam family tree here.

It’s is a part of Beam’s Small Batch collection. The other members are Knob Creek, Booker’s and Basil Hayden. Basil is the whipping boy of the group, being no more than Old Grand Dad in a fancier bottle. Knob Creek is very popular and rightly so. It’s the oldest and the only one with line extensions (Rye, Single Barrel, Smoked Maple). Booker’s is barrel strength and is the sort of flagship of the group, with a 25th anniversary, 10 y/o edition being released soon. Baker’s is 7 y/o and 107 proof and unfortunately occupies the “ignored middle child” spot in the Small Batch family.

I bought this bottle when I learned that Baker’s price was going up substantially in Michigan. I hadn’t had it in a very long time and I was pleasantly surprised. I reviewed the now dusty Beam Distiller’s Series last year. It was also 7 y/o and tasty, but Baker’s has a depth of flavor and weight that the DS lacked. This is probably because of the lower barrel entry proof used for Baker’s and Booker’s. It also fares well compared to Booker’s. Booker’s is higher proof but its age has been creeping down as its price has been creeping up. Booker’s currently sells for close to $60 in Michigan, which in my opinion is absurdly expensive for a 6 y/o bourbon, barrel strength or not. Baker’s price has risen in tandem with Booker’s, but it has stayed 7 y/o which gives it the edge over its cousin.

The only flaw is the inexplicable rotten garbage smell that came out with water. That problem is easily solved by not adding  water or using it very sparingly. Overall Baker’s is a very good bourbon at a decent price. That earns it a recommendation.

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Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout

Maker: Short’s, Bellaire/Elk Rapids, Michigan, USUncle Steve's Irish Stout

ABV: 5.5%

Purchased for $9

Appearance: Black with a foamy chocolate head

Nose: Dark toast, molasses, malt.

On the palate: Medium bodied, dry and effervescent. Dark roasted malt and a little sourness. A little sweetness at the end.

Finish: More dark toast and bubbles. Fades fairly quickly.

Parting words: It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out what brand of beer a craft “Irish Stout” is aimed at. If you like Guinness, you’ll like this. It’s a bit of an improvement on Guinness, but not enough to make it a repeat buy for me since I’m not a fan of that style of stout in the first place. I prefer my stouts more flavorful and chocolaty. Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout is mildly recommended.

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Redbreast 12 y/o, Cask Strength

Maker: Irish Distillers, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland (Pernod-Ricard)Redbreast 12 CS

Style: Single Pot Still (distilled in a pot still using malted and unmalted barley)

ABV: 59.9%

Notes: Unchillfiltered.

Michigan State Minimum: $65

Appearance: Dark copper (color probably added) with long, thick legs.

Nose: Rich and powerful. Caramel, butterscotch, old fashioned bourbon, leather, alcohol. Water opens it up a little and dials down the alcohol burn.

On the palate: Full bodied and sweet. Vanilla nougat, homemade caramels, chocolate covered toffee bars and bourbon with a big hit of alcohol on the tail end. Again, a splash of water tones down the burn but here it also obliterates the chocolate notes.

Finish: Classic Irish finish. Sweet cereal with a little bit of rubber and a lot of tingle all around the mouth as it fades slowly. Water opens it up and brings the cereal notes to the fore.

Parting words: Irish Distillers is the largest producer of whiskey in Ireland, producing two of the biggest brands of Irish whiskey worldwide, Jameson’s and Power’s. Redbreast is their high-end line of Single Pot Still (as opposed to blended) whiskey. The other expressions are the the standard Redbreast 12 y/o which I reviewed back in 2011, the 15 y/o and the new 21 y/o.

I loved the standard 12 y/o. This is even better, and at just $5 more it’s a fantastic bargain. The one off note I detected was the rubbery note, but it only shows up in the finish and dissipates quickly. Rubber or not, Cask Strength Redbreast is a truly great whiskey. It is exquisitely balanced but powerful and full of Irish character. It’s the best Irish whiskey I’ve ever had and one of my favorite spirits of any type. Redbreast Cask Strength is highly recommended.

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