napa trip log: monday
August 26, 2002

« trip log: sunday | Main | napa trip log: french laundry »

"Um...what time is our first appointment this morning?" The voice on the other end of the phone was the voice of a man who could barely hold it together.

"We have an 11 a.m. at Cardinale." I said.

"Uh...I don't think we're going to make it," said Eman.

No problem. You sleep in. Rebecca and I will persevere.


I first tasted Cardinale and Lokoya at my favorite wine shop in the world: Vin, Vino, and Wine in Palo Alto (I'd link to it, but if they have a website, I can't find it.) It's my favorite wine store because they did tastings every day, and it wasn't rare to walk into the store and find them tasting wines that cost $120/bottle, like Cardinale or Lokoya. No one else tastes stuff like that. I learned more about what I like in high-end wines -- and medium-cost wines, for that matter -- tasting there for six months than I did before or since, I'll wager. Vin, Vino, and Wine is one of the few things I miss from my days on the Peninsula.

Of course, they weren't tasting Lokoya at the winery. They do occasionally, I am told, but production is just too low to do it consistently. But they were tasting their second label, Atalon, which ranged in price from $25 to $80. Atalon was comprised this year of three Cabernets and three Merlots. Rebecca and I tried the three Cabs, one Merlot, and the Cardinale.

One thing I liked about the lineup is that for both the Merlots and the Cabs it pitted Valley fruit against Mountain fruit, allowing you to compare the two.

[You can read more about the relationship between Cardinale, Lokoya, and Atalon here.]

1998 Atalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Dark, strong Cab. Nice astringency. Dark fruit, gravel, and lead pencil. $35 ****
1998 Atalon Mountain Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Brighter in flavor, but has a similarly refined, even tone. Redder, tarter fruit. $45 ****
1998 Atalon Beckstoffer Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon I take it from the taste that we're back down in the valley for this. Lush, ripe, dark fruit. Nice, even, controlled structure; not thick but strong. $80 *****
1999 Atalon Keyes Vineyard Merlot This is very respectable. Dark, ripe plums. I may like Merlot after all. $60 **** 1/2

Like the Opus, I didn't take any notes on the Cardinale; just drank it and enjoyed it.

The lower scores on the first few wines don't accurately reflect what I think about them. They're low only because it's such a strong field. They're clearly better than any other Cab or Merlot-based wines that we tasted this weekend, with the possible exception of the Oakville Ranch label; I'd have to taste those again with a fresh palate to see. I was tempted to go back through and re-normalize all of my scores to show that more clearly, but, well, I'm lazy and I haven't done it.

These are very classy wines, and I wouldn't be ashamed to serve these to anybody -- not the most shameless Bordeaux Nazi or Old-world wine bigot. I'm not saying they're better than Bordeaux, by any stretch -- just that this is wine that can't be ignored or wished away. Californians can make wine too, dammit, and even if it's a bit more expensive than it should be, it's often good wine, and it's here to stay. Avoid it to your own detriment.


Eman and Yolanda caught up with us around noon-thirty. We had an appointment at Truchard at two o'clock, but decided to drop by Artesa, which is also in the Carneros area, before heading over there.


Artesa first came to my attention when I ran into Brian at some restaurant in San Francisco. He made me try the wine he was having -- an Artesa Pinot Noir. It was a thick, meaty, oderiferous wine replete with anise and olives. Very strange, I thought, for a Pinot Noir. I bought a bottle or two, and have since had it at a couple of restaurants. I've also had a Chardonnay of theirs that I liked. It had been awhile since I thought about them, but if the quality of their offerings is consistent with my memories of those two wines, I figured the winery would be worth a visit.

The woman at Cardinale had explained the origin of Artesa to us: sparkling winemakers in Napa had plateaued in the late 1990's and were looking to "still" wines as possible areas for financial growth. In some cases they supplemented their line with still wines; in other cases they switched completely over to the production of still offerings.

Such is the case of Artesa, which until 1999 was the Napa Valley branch of the Spanish sparkling winemaker Codorniu. They did extensive remodeling of the facility and did a lot of work to refocus the winery on making high-quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other varietals.

(You can read an interesting account of the Artesa's transformation here . Other sparkling winemakers that have faced challenges adapting to the U.S. market include Domaine Chandon and S. Anderson , which we visited on Saturday.)

2000 Napa Valley Chardonnay Pretty fruit smell, but also a nice stink to it. No malolactic, and that suits it. $23 *** 1/2
2000 Carneros Chardonnay The buttery flavors from the malolactic fermentation seem to undermine the pleasant stink that this wine has going for it. $23 ***
2000 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Strawberry and a little oak. A bit thin. This is not what I'm looking for. $23 **
2000 Reserve Chardonnay Butter, butterscotch, a little funkiness on the mid-palate. Pretty concentrated. This is a good wine. $? ****
2000 Reserve Pinot Noir This has a great, silky mouthfeel. I'd like to have this again sometime, see how I feel about it. But it's not like the Pinot I'm looking for. $? ****


Truchard is iconic for my wine-drinking friends and I. We "discovered" them on our trip to Napa together last year. While at dinner at Domaine Chandon, one of our number asked for a Pinot Noir. The waiter recommended the Domaine Chandon Pinot, but we'd all had that already as part of the tasting menu. "You know what?" he said. "Here's something you'll like." He brought her a glass of Truchard's Pinot Noir.

Most of us thought we didn't like Pinot Noir. In particular, we'd decided we didn't like California Pinot Noir. (So young, so inexperienced...) But we took the glass away from her and tasted it anyway, if only to put an end to the gratuitous lip-smacking noises she was making.

It was a revelation to us. Rich and complex, with layers of spice, vanilla, berries, and many other flavors that we couldn't identify. It was creamy, not thin and tinny like the Pinots that I'd come to dislike.

The next day, while Rebecca and I were at a spa in Calistoga and Eman had gone back to San Francisco to go to work, the rest of the group made a day trip to Truchard. They made friends with the family and have since gone back several times. Eman, Rebecca, and I, left out of the loop the first time, have never visited the winery.

It was a great thing to finally get to go. We took the full tour (and we rarely do tours anymore) and tasting, and it was time well spent. The tasting was good, but since I drink their wines with some regularity and had tasted most of what we were served on previous occasions, I didn't take any notes.

The Truchard Family and staff are exceedingly friendly and very generous, and their wines are very, very good. We left Truchard grudgingly, but we needed the time to prepare for the ordeal to come: our meal at the French Laundry.

August 26, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site, wine | Permalink