Saturday, April 24, 2010

A taste of Napa's '98 vintage

It’s rare – even for those of us in the business – to taste a large number of older Napa Valley wines in one sitting. One might get the occasional chance to try something with a little age at a restaurant or a winery event, but it’s an infrequent treat to get a look at a broad swath of producers. Given the opportunity, I jumped at the chance to attend the St. Helena Star’s tasting of the ’98 vintage organized in conjunction with the Napa Valley Vintners at the Rudd Center of the Culinary Institute of America. Along with about 20 other winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and journalists, we undertook a 21-wine tasting of the much maligned 1998 vintage to see if really deserved its bad rap.

The vintage was a challenging one, no doubt. It was the year I moved to Napa from the East Coast and I have vivid memories of rain well into late of April and thinking, “this is California weather?” It wasn’t just a sprinkle here and there either. We’re talking days on end of serious storms. Basically, it postponed the start of spring and added another challenge to what would be a cool, wet growing season overall (one tasting panelist recalled seeing grapes on vines with no leaves in early November still trying to fully ripen). Conventional wisdom would point to green, vegetal wines in instances where the farming wasn’t properly managed.

Critics being critics, they saw weakness in Napa and pounced, all but declaring the ’98 wines undrinkable. What we learned, surprisingly, was that underripe fruit wasn’t the issue… but brettanomyces, the yeast present in cellars around the world, certainly was. In minute quantities, it gives a distinctive “funk” to a wine which some wine drinkers find appealing, but most winemakers do everything in their power to drive it out of their cellars and barrels as it is often ruinously destructive. It was apparent that “brett” was a lot more prevalent in Napa cellars a mere 12 years ago than it is today.

Overall, the group felt the wines to be enjoyable if not spectacular. We were nearly unanimous in the belief that most had hit their peak and that further cellaring wouldn’t add much to them. However, this was certainly not the display of liquefied asparagus foretold by the critics – they just tasted like older Napa wines. It demonstrated once again that a “bad” vintage in California is a very relative term.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Classic Dining in San Francisco

This weekend we took a break from our regular wine outings and headed to San Francisco for the first ever San Francisco Vintners Market. The event was packed with over 150 wineries showing off their latest wines to a roomful of patrons with the opportunity to purchase any of the wines they like. It was the first ever event of it’s kind in San Francisco and it was a huge success. It was great to see some of you face to face and to meet a lot of new folks who, like all of you, are looking for “great stuff” in the world of wine. Since we were all gathered in the city for the weekend, we thought it would be good to visit a restaurant classic that stands as one of the nation’s greatest steakhouses. The House of Prime Rib is everything you could imagine it to be by reading the name alone. It’s old school white table cloth, club service cocktails, waiters in starched white shirts and bow-ties with the simplest fare ever conceived. I mean, the menu is rather unnecessary as the only choice you have to make is how much prime rib do you want, how would you like it cooked, do you want your potatoes baked or mashed and do you want creamed corn or creamed spinach. You may be saying to yourself, really? That’s it? Yes, and how great “it” is! We sat down to our table after a healthy dose of gin at the bar to knock the dust off the palate with fourteen people total on two tables and were graciously catered to by Bartholomew. A man with a young face, an unfortunate name, but a classically trained captain of his profession which is something you see less and less of in restaurants today. From start to finish our meal and service was as impeccable as the wines (2004 Waypoint Weiss Vineyard Cabernet, 2005 Caymus Special Selection and 2007 PlumpJack Estate Cabernet to name a few) and made for one of the better evenings the Bounty Hunter crew has shared in recent memory. It’s almost unimaginable that the same city that is on the forefront of molecular gastronomy, culinary deconstruction, foams, frills and the signature Nike swoosh of vegetable puree also gave birth to this palace of culinary lucidity. Don’t get me wrong, I like all that fancy stuff, but when it’s all said and done the restaurants that survive the test of time are the ones who do something really simple and they do it very well. After this weekends experience the House of Prime Rib has my vote for one of America’s greatest restaurants. What’s your best “classic” restaurant experience in recent memory?

--Stefan Matulich, Sales Director