A NIGHT IN NAPA (BY WAY OF OAKLAND)

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Last week, I attended a workshop at Bay Grape in Oakland titled, “Napa Valley Terroir and the Evolution of Napa Style.” This event featured producers Jill Matthiasson of Matthiasson wines and Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone wines who shared their stories. The common themes that threaded their story were challenging the norms, finding their own style, and committing to wines that do “have a sense of place.”

A few memorable takeaways/reminders:

  • In the 70s, Napa was hot but starting in the 80s it began to lose its way
  • Don’t let labels fool or mislead you
  • Wine should be fun and challenging (and certainly should not always taste the same)
  • The better the grapes, the less you have to do (and you can cannot make good wine from bad grapes)
  • Merlot can be the most sublime grape and also the worst stuff on earth
  • Overripe wines will get your attention on that first date but they don’t have what it takes for a long-term relationship (a.k.a., aging)
  • There is a connection between wine and food and, just like the food movement of the 70’s provided fuel for the wine movement then, our current food movement is sparking change in in wine today

And now for the line-up:

Smith-Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain, 2013

Key lime and lychee on the nose; burst of fruit balanced by good acidity. The more I drank it, the more I liked it and it was a great way to refresh my palate between tastings of the reds! One of my 2 favorites for the night.

Matthiasson White Wine, Napa Valley 2003

Fascinating white that blends Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Ribolla Gialla, and Tocai Fruilano. Nose got my attention with a little earthly funk that was appealing. Definitely had a touch of oak and concentrated fruit flavors but also good acidity and a touch of minerality.

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain 2012

As Stuart Smith said himself, there are years where the Chardonnay is leaning French and other times, when it is leaning California and the 2012 vintage was definitely the latter. It was made in a big style designed to please red wine drinkers.

Matthiasson Red Hen Vineyard Merlot, Napa Valley

Finding the “best Merlot grapes ever tasted” was an impetus for the Matthiassons’ wine journey. Dark purple fruit of blackberries and cassis on the nose but tinged with a warm earthy quality. Velvety smooth but not boring – unfolds in your glass over time in a testament to its complexity. It is not a one-note wine – to the contrary. It was my other favorite of the night.

Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain 2011

Wine from what Stuart called a “harrowing year.” The wine is blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Nose stuck me as almost medicinal but maybe that was just the brambly dark fruit. Touch of cocoa on the silky and long finish.

So what was my BIG takeaway? As long as there are people who love wine, care about the earth and commit to creating wines that express their place and vintage, there is hope for Napa and hope for California. The days of the over-manipulated boozy fruit bombs are numbered and the future looks tasty – fun and challenging. I thanked both producers for not going the “lowest common denominator” route and for making wines that honor the earth and give true expression to a grape, creating wines of balance, harmony, complexity, and elegance. This must be another gratitude post because I am feeling it for the people who “buck the system” in pursuit of a vision that is aligned with my values and of wine. Wine keeps me hooked: you can never know all there is to know and you will always be surprised – just remain curious and an adventurous spirit.

Last but not least, much gratitude to Bay Grape for creating such a warm and welcoming community space for wine lovers of all stripes.

Bay Area Wine Lover Alert!:  I found out that there is going to be the first-ever Oakland Wine Festival this summer and this tasting was one of the pre-festival events.

Bay Grape store pup, Napoleon - I did not capture his absolute adorableness!

Bay Grape store pup, Napoleon – I did not capture his absolute adorableness!

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