Monday, December 19, 2011

Napa Valley Film Festival Wine Tasting

The inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival  was in November of this year, starting on November 9 and ending Sunday, November 13. Despite being called a "film festival", there is a lot more going on than just watching movies and mingling with famous and semi-famous people. The Festival weekend is packed with concerts, sponsor events, meetings, food/wine demonstrations, and more.

Obviously wine is an integral part of the Festival, and this year the people at TasteLive, CellarPass, and the NVFF teamed up to bring a group of 12 bloggers "to" the event. The 12 of us selected were sent a very expensive (and in most cases, very good) selection of wines from all over the Napa Valley to taste and tweet about using the TasteLive platform. During these live tastings, which coincided with the Napa Valley Film Festival, representatives from each winery would come to a booth or table and discuss the wines with Alan Kropf, the Chief Mutineer behind Mutineer Magazine. These chats were streamed live to us bloggers, and we tweeted thoughts, questions, and general chit chat about each wine.

The events and their paired wines are listed below, along with tasting notes and my thoughts:

Thursday, November 10: Opening Night Gala.
Winery: Robert Mondavi Winery

2009 Robert Mondavi Reserve Fume Blanc To Kalon: Sauvignon blanc aged in oak, 25% new. Previous experience with the non-reserve bottling of the Mondavi Fume Blanc have been disappointing. This was a very pleasant surprise though. I liked the bright citrus and apple aromas tinged with a hint of oak. There's a nice sense of depth to the bouquet. Upon tasting, the oak treatment is evident, as is the dash of semillon added for texture and aromatics. I liked the weighty feel of this wine, and it had a pleasing depth of stone fruit, green apple, and a hint of lychee. Solid minerality for a Napa wine, and at a real-world price of about $30, it's a nice alternative to chardonnay. B+. BUY recommendation.

2008 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: On the opposite side of the spectrum, I've had some amazing cabernets from Robert Mondavi. This was not one of them. I found this cabernet aromatically interesting, with notes of blackberry, cocoa, black dusty earth, and black currant. Unfortunately that beautiful bouquet dies on the palate, where all that's left is firm tannin, dust, bittersweet chocolate, and a hollow finish. While this could just be a function of the lack of age, I tasted a friend on this one and he came to a similar conclusion. How this scored a 93 points from Wine Spectator is beyond me. How the other bloggers salivated over this overpriced cabernet is also beyond me. At $135, it's just not worth the money. B. PASS.

Friday, November 11: Noon: MountainView Hotel, Calistoga.
Wineries: Merryvale Vineyards, Tedeschi Family Winery, Mumm Napa

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Rosé NV: A blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, this was a great way to start the morning off. The pink hue is beautiful in the glass, and the bubbles flow upwards in beautiful pearl chains. The bouquet is a nice mix of tart raspberry, bread dough, and Granny Smith apple. I enjoyed the mouthfeel immensely, a lot of the raspberry flavors gave way to a dry, yeasty note on the mid-palate. The finish was clean and precise, hints of apple and pear trailed off gently. It's not cheap at $36, but it's also very high quality sparkling wine and worth buying for the upcoming New Year's Eve celebrations. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation.

Merryvale Winery 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Merryvale's 2007 cab is 99% cabernet sauvignon and 1% cabernet franc. What that cabernet franc adds, in such a small quantity, is beyond me. This wine spent 19 months in French oak barrels, the breakdown being 70% new, 30% used oak. I like Merryvale as a consistent producer but they've never wowed me. This 2007 echoes that theme. It's a beautiful ruby-brick pour with thin, well spaced legs. 14.5% alcohol by volume is normal for Napa cabernets. Aromatically it's a nice mix of currant, oak, mint leaf, black cherry, and a touch of dried herb. The palate opens with a black cherry and currant mix before transitioning into a tannic mid-palate of earth and campfire smoke. The finish is good, a smooth tapering effect ending with a minty dark chocolate thing. It's good wine, nothing more, nothing less. Expensive at $65, but available at $45 and then it becomes a solid value. B+.

Tedeschi Family Winery 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: I'm somewhat in the minority among most of my California cabernet-loving friends, but I really enjoy the 2005's. The best wines of this vintage take an "old school" approach, revealing bouquets of black cherry, leather, olive, and dried herb. This 2005 Tedeschi is hitting its stride right now, drinking beautifully. There's touch of oak yet it's very nicely integrated and gives the wine a nice tannic structure from the mid-palate back. Those firm tannin and lively acid hark back to the great Napa cabernets of the 70's and 80's, wines which are drinking beautifully right now.  Along with the ripe fruit and leathery flavors, a touch of baking chocolate comes out. The finish is dried herb and a little fleur du sel, very interesting. At $58, I feel it's fairly priced wine. A-, BUY recommendation.

Friday, November 11: 3:30pm: St. Helena Pavilion, Carnegie Building.
Wineries: Ramian, Clif Family Winery, Raymond Vineyards

Savour St. Helena 2008 Ramian Canard Merlot: Conceived as an offering from the Savour St. Helena tasting room, this merlot was made by Brian Graham of Ramian Winery. It pours a dark ruby, indicating a still-young wine. The aromatic palette was straightforward with oak, dark chocolate, ripe red cherry, and a touch of spiced vanilla. Some bloggers went crazy for this wine but I felt it lacked some structure. Merlot can be a beautiful wine, equal parts rich, velvety fruit and firm, embracing texture. While this merlot is good, it's definitely not worth $45 a bottle. B. PASS recommendation.

Clif Family Winery 2008 Kit's Killer Cab Napa Valley: Yes, this is the same family that makes those energy bars, powders, pastes, and whatnot. They got into wine a few years back (2004) and make a nice variety of reds and whites. If you're in St. Helena, you can visit Velo Vino and check out the Clif Family Winery selection. This 2008 red blend is primarily cabernet sauvignon with the balance of 8% merlot, 8% malbec, and 6% cabernet franc. The final blend spent 18 months in French oak barrels. The bouquet is impressive, at once fruit-forward - think blackberry, cherry, currant notes - and yet restrained by a peppery, earthy streak. The tannin is firm throughout, building a structurally sound wine across the palate. More of the ripe fruit balanced by oak, earth, and a touch of leathery character. At around $38, it's a steal. B+, STRONG BUY.

Raymond Vineyards 2008 Reserve Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: According to the tech sheet, this 08 Raymond is 85% cabernet sauvignon, 12% merlot, and 3% petite sirah. Raymond Vineyards is widely distributed and somewhat of a generic, supermarket type brand. Or at least, it was, now a new owner and complete renovation has (hopefully) steered this winery onto a different track. I looked forward to tasting this cabernet in the hopes that it showed a glimpse of what is to come. In the glass it's a bright ruby-purple, a color indicative of youth. A straightforward bouquet of black cherry, cassis, plum, and toasty oak. On the palate, more of the ripe fruit elements woven throughout with some oak and a fine grained tannin. I picked up some heat too, and found that this is 15% alcohol by volume. The 2008 Raymond is drinkable but also falls into the "just another overpriced/oaked/alcoholic Napa cab"category. B. PASS recommendation. $35 SRP.

Saturday, November 12: Noon: Yountville Wine Pavilion, V Marketplace.
Wineries: Chiarello Family Vineyards, Jessup Cellars, John Anthony Vineyards

John Anthony Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc: From another relatively small producer, we bloggers were sent a sauvignon blanc and a cabernet to sample for the NVFF. My own sauvignon blanc preferences lie with Sancerre and Bordeaux blanc, but California is perfectly capable of producing delightful examples too. The 2010 John Anthony version pours a pale straw into the glass. Aromatically it's powerful, with notes of tropical fruit, lemon, pineapple, and limestone. On the palate, a lively acid bolt cuts through the massive weight of 15.3% alcohol, rendering this one almost palatable. Problem is, this doesn't feel like sauvignon blanc, rather, un-wooded, hot-vintage chardonnay/semillon blends. It's the kind of texture I expect from a crappy Australian white wine, not a Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. C+, PASS recommendation. $20 SRP.

John Anthony Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: I was gun shy after that sauvignon blanc, but this cabernet sauvignon impressed me. While it's still young, as evidenced by the clear ruby-purple it pours, there is a lot to be hopeful for. I liked the aromas of wood smoke, leather, ripe blackberry and cherry, as well as the dusty earth. The bouquet was very well balanced with each flavor complementing the next. This '07 had a nice palate presence too, with lots of ripe berry fruit up front that segued into the firm tannin, leather, and dust notes I was hoping to find. Again the balance was impeccable and this is a great example of a lush, rich, layered Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It hits the price point fairly and is worth seeking out. A-, STRONG BUY recommendation. $56 via the winery, as low as $45 on

Jessup Cellars 2009 Juel Napa Valley Estate Grown: Another red blend from Napa Valley, this time from the talented hands of Rob Lloyd, winemaker at Jessup Cellars. This one is 52% merlot, 28% cabernet franc, 13% cabernet sauvignon, 5% petite sirah and then 1% petit verdot. While this 2009, bottled in August, isn't released yet, I suggest you get in line. This wine is fantastic, full of black cherry, smoke, ripe berries, dusty earth, and in a nicely integrated if somewhat strong package. Given 10-15 years, this wine will sing. Right now it's bold and dark, I picked up the green herbal note of the cabernet franc right away, along with a dose of tea-soaked leather, chocolate, and ripe blackberries. The finish was long and lingering, like taking a ride down a dusty dirt road full of spices, vanilla, and firm tannin. As the 2009 Jessup Juel ages, those flavors will continue to integrate into a delicious package. A-BUY recommendation. $90 suggested retail.

Chiarello Family Vineyards 2008 Roux Old Vine Petite Sirah: I am still in the awkward phase of my relationship with petite sirah and it feels like middle school. I like it, I want to get to know petite sirah better, but I am shy and unsure of myself. Do I shake it's hand? Furtive glances have confirmed it's interest in me, I think. Maybe this '08 Chiarello Family Vineyards example will be my first kiss. It's pouring a dark garnet, opaque purple juice, into my glass. As my buddy Chas says, this is purple drank! Beautifully intense aromas of plum skin, cracked peppercorn, dark, loamy soil, and mint. I was worried that this petite sirah would be all tannin, but it's got so much dense ripe fruit and rich, layered texture that it balances the intense tannins extremely well. I'd love this Chiarello wine with something meaty, a t-bone steak. B+, STRONG BUY. $46 suggested retail price.

Saturday, November 12: 4:00pm: Oxbow Napa Wine Pavillion, Napa.
Wineries: Swanson Vineyards & Winery, Saintsbury, Pine Ridge Winery

Swanson Vineyards & Winery 2009 Napa Valley Pinot Grigio: The series of tastings so far have had two other white wines, the rest being reds. I was pleased to see Swanson throw in their 2009 pinot grigio. In my opinion, if you're gonna drink California pinot grigio, this one is the best out there. The 2009 comes in at 13.6% abv, not at all bad. It's fermented dry and sees no oak or malo-lactic fermentation, rendering this as pure as you can get. I was impressed with the bouquet, think lime peel, summer flowers, white peach, and a little melon. On the palate the texture comes from vibrant acidity, flowing along the lines of citrus and floral notes. The melon picks up on the mid-palate, continuing through the finish, lending some weight to a nice, clean closing. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation. $21 suggested retail but I found it as low as $15.

Saintsbury 2009 Lee Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir: I hear a lot of people knocking Carneros pinot, saying that it cannot express the grape properly. I think in this case, Saintsbury proves them wrong. This pinot spent ten months in French oak with only 29% of the wine in new barrels. I like the color, it's a clear ruby that reflects the light very nicely. In what I would term a traditional Careneros pinot noir bouquet, I detected strawberry, cola, raspberry, baking spices, and just a hint of oak. This procession of aromas carried over very nicely on the palate, ending with a burst of red fruit and tobacco that I thoroughly enjoyed. 2009 has been heralded as a standout year for California pinot noir and this is no exception. The price point is about what I'd expect to pay. A-, BUY recommendation.- $45

Swanson Vineyards & Winery 2007 Oakville Merlot: I'm not even sure it's worth putting up this review, the winery has just released their 2008 vintage Oakville merlot. However, someone took the time to ship me a bottle so I may as well share my thoughts. I have always been a fan of Swanson wines and this is no exception. It's got all the things you want in a merlot, namely ripeness AND structure, and none of that overly-ripe fruit taste that so many poorly made California merlots have. Aromatically it's all plum, blackberry,  red cherry, and oak. The oak isn't overwhelming though, and on the palate it contributes a balancing effect versus the firm tannin. Everything is nicely integrated, from the blackberry and cherry notes, the oak, a touch of dusty earth, and the fine-grained tannin keeping it all together. A wonderful wine and at a real world price of $26, one excellent deal. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation. Suggested retail price: $38

Pine Ridge Winery 2007 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon: Seventeen wines into this series of tastings, we hit the end, with a cabernet-based blend from the iconic Stag's Leap district. Pine Ridge has been around for a while and consistently makes excellent, if expensive wines. The 2007 is a blend of cabernet, merlot, petite verdot, and malbec. It's a wine to sit on for a long, long time. I think 15+ years isn't out of the question. The aromas rushing out of the glass are gorgeous, cassis, plum, blackberry, sour cherry, spicy oak, and textbook dry earth. Each taste seems to bring a new flavor, be it ripe berries, subtle oak notes, earth, old baseball glove, or even a hint of eucalyptus.This is a marvelous wine that will only get better with time. It's not cheap, with a suggested retail of $80, but a little digging will find it for $50 or less. A-, STRONG BUY recommendation.

I was happy to get the invite and participate in this series of tastings, we got to try some average wines but also some fantastic bottles that I would gladly purchase at my local wine store. Tasting along with eleven other bloggers was a good experience too, because being able to see what others taste in a wine can only help your own palate develop. While I wasn't ecstatic over seemingly every bottle we were sent, I think that out of the small sampling we tasted, it's clear that Napa Valley continues to produce outstanding wines every single year.

These wines were blogger samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel


  1. That's a nice collection of notes. I was particularly interested in reading your opinions on the Pine Ridge and the Mumm Reserve Rose, as they're both wines that I'd consider if I saw them on a wine list somewhere.

  2. Beau, thanks for the honest, thorough reviews of our Pinot Grigio and Merlot. The 08 is tasting really nice -- hope you can taste it soon!

  3. Dan, thanks for commenting. As you can see, I can heartily recommend both of those wines. At restaurant markup, they both become expensive but the quality is there, no doubt about it.

    Logan, thanks for participating. I am a big fan of Swanson and happy to keep recommending your wines. I was happy you all participated in the NVFF and sent us bloggers the samples. I hope to try the 08 soon as well!