March 31 was Cesar Chavez Day, and I figured what better way to celebrate the life of a great farm labor organizer than via a trip to Napa to taste the fruit of so many farm workers’ labors? Accordingly, I set out around 9AM with my pal Gino to meet up with our friend Howard and hit a couple of iconoclastic little wineries along with whatever others might look promising.
We met Howard at the Robert Craig tasting room in the town of Napa. This is an appointment-only place off of Main and Vallejo, not far from Copia. It was staffed by Rachel, a very friendly and knowledgeable woman who poured us the following:
’04 Durrell Chardonnay – Big dose of ripe fruit and a dollop of oak, but no malo make for a somewhat more-balanced-than-usual take on Napa Chard. Not bad for what it is, but not something I’d buy.
’02 Central Coast Syrah – I believe she said this is made from eastside fruit from Paso along with some fairly cool climate Syrah from Los Olivos. It makes for a somewhat anonymous syrah, to my taste. Plenty of dark fruit with a touch of smoke and earth, but nothing real distinctive.
’03 Amador County Zin – From the Bowman vineyard. Pretty nice zin. Good ripe fruit, but not overly porty or alcoholic, some spicy-peppery character. Nicely made. I think this is the last year they’ll be making wine from this source.
’02 Affinity – A Bordeaux blend from valley floor fruit. Didn’t write the blend down, but I believe it contains all 5 varietals. Tasted like very good Napa cab to me, with plenty of dark cabernet fruit, not overripe, backed with good acidity and firm tannins. Nicely balanced, and I think at least a few years of age will result in a really nice bottle of wine.
I like the Mt. Veeder and the Howell Mountain wines from Robert Craig a lot, but these were sold out and were not being poured. The Affinity is in that ballpark. I’d have to say I was a touch disappointed with the others.
Then it was on to our next appointment of the day. This was at T-Vine. For anyone who believes the tasting experience in Napa has completely gone the way of giant souvenir-store-tasting-rooms with fees for tasting and busloads of drunken tourists elbowing their way through to get their ounce of 92-point “Juice of the Billionaire Cabernet”, I’d prescribe a trip to T-Vine. There’s no charge, no fancy bar, and no rack of $75 denim shirts with the “T-Vine” logo on them. Instead, there’s a blind but very sweet yellow lab who meets you at the door of the barrel room. There’s also Rachel (is it the in thing there now to have people named “Rachel” pour for you?) who pulls barrel samples, explains the wines, and has great stories from her years growing up in Napa. The only finished wine we had was their ’03 Monte Rosso Cabernet, a big potent cab that reminded me a lot of some of the Martini Monte Rossos of years past. It was great stuff, maybe a bit over-the-top for me but still very tasty wine. Everything else we tasted was in barrel, including grenache, a couple of zins, and a couple of syrahs. All were showing like barrel samples – lean, tannic, with a lot of developing to do. All showed great potential.
The wines at T-Vine are made by Greg Brown. Although Greg wasn’t there for us to talk to, his personality came through in the back labels of the bottles, their mailers, etc. On their order form, Greg is listed as “owner, winemaker, fly fisherman, yoga dude”and he most certainly runs this business on his own terms. Rachel mentioned that the one time the Spectator rated one of his wines, Greg wrote them a polite letter asking them to never do that again. I don’t know whether the rating was a good one or not, but either way it’s nice to run across a winemaker who isn’t interested in scoring points.
While at T-Vine, we mentioned that our next stop was in Calistoga to see Vince Tofanelli. Rachel laughed and told us that as a child, she used to jump off the roof of his garden shed. She also mentioned that the garden shed is now his winery. That sounded intriguing, so without further ado, we took off into a pounding rainstorm and headed for downtown Calistoga.
We followed the directions Howard had received from Vince and ended up in a neighborhood of small, neatly tended homes that looked as though they might have been built in the thirties or forties. We parked in front of one of them, hopped the swollen gutters onto the sidewalk, and walked up to the enclosed front porch of Vince Tofanelli’s house. The porch serves as both office and tasting room, judging from the desk, filing cabinets, and alcohol license. Vince had a bottle of his Charbono out and poured us each a good 4 oz. of it. (I’m sure he’d have a “Rachel” do it if he could afford to hire one.) The charbono was dark and lean, with some good bright fruit and chalky tannins. It would be echoed somewhat by a Baudry Chinon that we’d have at supper that evening. We moved into his living room, sat down, and spent the next half hour or so sipping his charbono, petting Buster the dog, and discussing the state of viticulture and enology in the Napa Valley. Vince is a lean, outdoorsy-looking guy with a long gray ponytail and the happy look of an aging hippie whose lifestyle suits him perfectly. He’s helped tend the family’s vineyards for decades, selling grapes to a number of well-known wineries, including Turley (which has done well with Tofanelli Vineyard zin). He started making wine in the seventies, strictly for family and friends. As he got better at it, he started getting some attention from a couple of professional winemakers who helped him refine his techniques. He was ready to go commercial in the late ‘90s, but was initially stymied by the $100K or so that Napa County would charge just to begin the process of maybe getting permitted for a winery on his vineyard land. He finally figured out that his house in Calistoga was outside of county jurisdiction and was able to get things set up through the city. And that’s why his front porch is a tasting room and his old garden shed (that Rachel once jumped off of) is a barrel room.
After taking care of most of the bottle of charbono, we headed out to that shed to try some barrel samples. I get the feeling that Vince is in a stage of exploring his options. There was a barrel of carignane in there that I thought was pretty good – balanced, not vegetal – but Vince indicated that it was not likely to get into his bottles. There was a barrel of grenache that I thought tasted quite good, although a bit light. Vince indicated that he’s trying to get a Southern Rhone type of thing going with it. Seems like it will need more stuffing to get there, but I have little experience with barrel samples of grenache – it may just be appropriately young. Either way, it was very sound and quite good. Then there was a barrel of mondeuse that was all firm acid and chewy tannins with a bit of bright fruit. It would seem like a valuable blender, and I think that’s likely what will happen to it. There was also a barrel of charbono “port” that was delicious – again, well balanced with complex flavors and some nice tannins in the finish. I think he hit the nail on the head with that one; it won’t make you give up your vintage port but it was excellent for a ruby-styled California version.
And then we grabbed a couple of bottles (cash or check only, no cards), thanked Vince for his hospitality, and headed down the road for a stop at Dean and Deluca’s. We shamelessly camped out in front of the cured meats and had our appetizers there via free samples. I’d highly recommend the prosciutto and the coppa. The lamb prosciutto was a bit controversial – Gino and I didn’t mind the salty-gamy flavor but Howard had it in the DNPIM category. The guy behind the counter agreed with Howard. And after that, we hit Terra for supper and then a short ride home to Sacto.
All in all, I think a bit of my faith in Napa has been restored. It’s still a place where you’ll find a lot of players with a lot of money hiring companies to run their vineyards and top-gun winemakers to ferment their fruit to high-point specifications. But it’s heartening to know that there’s still room for a Greg Brown or a Vince Tofanelli. These guys only make it via their lifelong connections in Napa, but at least you can still find them if you look hard enough.
Letterman asked Zevon if his condition had taught him anything about life and death. ''How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich,'' Zevon answered. (From a 2003 NYTimes article on Zevon by Jon Pareles.)