Friday, November 21, 2014

What to Drink for Thanksgiving, Part 4

Whether you're planning the dinner at your home, or whether you're a guest in need of something to bring, or whether you're eating out and you want to be knowledgeable when ordering, today's final "What to Drink" installment is all about craft beer. At the end of this post, we'll link to the earlier installments.

Certainly, craft beer pairs perfectly with all of the the Thanksgiving Day football games. But beer is often an afterthought when it comes to the dinner itself, and we'll argue that beer has earned its place at the table. And if you want to make the beer menu as varied as the food, here's a quick guide: start with something lighter (like a Pilsner), move to something more bitter and/or acidic with the meal, before moving to a stout or a porter. Beer with caramel or malty notes are also great companions to the varied dishes that are part of a traditional Thanksgiving.

Here are several beer recommendations that will fit nicely on your holiday table:
Thanksgiving can be a marathon of eating, whether you're preparing the meal or not. It's best to start out with something light and easy-drinking, Victory Golden Monkey is an excellent choice, with its richness of imported malts and Belgian yeast that are tempered by a sparkling approach and overall light body. If you're looking for something with a slightly more assertive and hoppy character, the Victory Prima Pils is a good beer to enjoy with football and appetizers.

It's a love/hate thing. Cranberry sauce can be one of the usual sources of disagreement with your relatives, but there's little arguing the virtues of the seasonal Grateful Harvest Ale, from Harpoon Brewery. The cranberries are harvested from the local bogs of AD Makepeace, mere miles from where the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock! But this beer is about more than history. Harpoon donates $1 per six-pack to the local food bank in the area in which it was purchased.

Harpoon Grateful Harvest combines rich malt character with the subtle sweetness of those locally harvested cranberries, giving a tart, fruity, slightly acidic finish.

Then there's The Bruery Autumn Maple. Brewed with 17 lbs. of yams per barrel (in other words, a lot of yams!), this autumn seasonal is a different take on the pumpkin beer style. Brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, molasses, and maple syrup, and fermented with The Bruery's traditional Belgian yeast strain, this bold and spicy beer is perfect on a cold autumn evening. And we've already had our share of cold November nights.

Finally, we recommend Southern Tier Pumking. This king among pumpkin beers makes a welcome addition to a meal that celebrates the bounty and flavors of fall. Sweet, with a bevy of spice notes that include cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, it achieves that pie-in-a-glass quality if you're looking for more of a liquid dessert.
The earlier installments of "What to Drink for Thanksgiving":
Part 1: Cocktails
Part 2: Red Wine
Part 3: White wine

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What to Drink for Thanksgiving, Part 3

Whether you're planning the dinner at your home, or whether you're a guest in need of something to bring, or whether you're eating out and you want to be knowledgeable when ordering, today's "What to Drink" installment is all about white wine. We'll also have beer recommendations, so come on back for that.

Certainly, we support the notion of "drink what you like." If you prefer a Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio to what we're recommending today, our wine team in the stores will be happy to help. Our suggestions are based on our experience with pairings, as well as our own palates.

We have found that a lightly sweet Riesling or a spicy-sweet Gewurztraminer to be the optimal white wines for Thanksgiving. They are not too light in body, so they hold up against the bold flavors of a Thanksgiving table, with the sweetness and spiciness playing nicely opposite the various traditional dishes.

Gewurztraminer is difficult to pronounce, but its complex character is why it's great for Thanksgiving. We suggest the Trimbach Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace region of France.

Gewurztraminer is at once the fruitiest and the spiciest of the white varietals; it's a unique wine. It reaches the height of perfection at Trimbach in Alsace.

Trimbach's dry personality makes it ideal as an aperitif and it pairs extremely well with specialty cuisine with pronounced flavors like you find on the Thanksgiving table. It's also a fine accompaniment for fish or seasoned meats, spicy and exotic dishes, soft cheeses (think Munster), and an assortment of desserts.

Available for only $16.99 in the Bottle Club®.

When it comes to Rieslings, we're very partial to wines produced by Josef Leitz. Generally, their vineyards face 100% south. The steeply sloped vineyards have very good drainage and are perfectly adapted for complexly structured, mineral driven wines. The more vigorous vineyards are those with high loess and loam. These vineyards bring forth the juicy, fruit backed Riesling. You'll find these to be nicely balanced wines that have a light, fruit-driven sweetness.

The Leitz Rudesheimer Riesling Kabinett is one excellent choice. It has a ripe aroma leads into flavors of apple and ripe citrus, with notes of guava and sage honey. The well-spiced finish is long. And it's only $13.96 in the Bottle Club®.

We're also partial to the Leitz Dragonstone. Dragonstone is translated from "Dracheinstein". The name goes back to the rock with this mythological name and also possibly to the form of a dragon. The soil consists of loess-loam sand stone and quartzite and in some parts also of chalk. The wines are amazingly elegant with a delicately spicy note.

The usual kirsch and lime flavors are now in the finest conceivable form: barely perceptibly sweet. Pointed yet creamy, salty and minty; animated and seductive. Only $14.99 in the Bottle Club®.

In case you missed them, click for Part 1 and Part 2 of "What to Drink for Thanksgiving."Next up: Beer for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What to Drink for Thanksgiving, Part 2: Red Wine

Whether you're planning the dinner at your home, or whether you're a guest in need of something to bring, or whether you're eating out and you want to be knowledgeable when ordering, today's "What to Drink" installment is all about red wine. Come back here tomorrow for our white wine recommendations.

We're of the opinion that wine will enhance most any meal, and there aren't many meals that are more special than Thanksgiving. So to assist you in your selection process, our wine team got together to recommend a few wines that will please every palate and budget.

Thanksgiving can be a challenging meal when it comes to wine pairing. There is a range of flavors and aromas that are unique to this holiday. Tart cranberry, savory stuffing, creamy green beans and, of course, the turkey itself, combine for a flavor explosion.

Pinot Noir is one of the two most recommended red wines at Thanksgiving. Its subtle flavors and light character make for a natural pairing to most of the flavors found during the Thanksgiving meal. Pinot Noir is considered the most difficult grape to grow, due to its thin skin, but a well made Pinot can be sublime.

That leads us to our first recommendation, Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir. Meiomi comes from the Wagner Family of Wine, the producers of Caymus. It's classified as a California Pinot Noir, as the grapes used in Meiomi come from Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Monterey counties.

Meiomi is a high style Pinot Noir that is shaped, more than anything else, by the fruit sources that lay the foundation of the blend.  A pure bred enjoyment wine, built to accommodate any pairing from food to friends.  Unifying California’s most noteworthy coastal areas opens the door for a dynamic and opulent wine that is ready to enjoy whenever you are.

From the winery: "From our first Pinot Noir vintage in 2002, we set out with a single goal for Meiomi:  To craft a vibrant, food-friendly wine that is approachable and ready to drink upon release.  Being grown and produced with all the bells and whistles available, Meiomi is known for its quality and consistency at a reasonable price.  By blending top-notch parcels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from three great areas, Meiomi has become known as an approachable wine for any occasion – and at an affordable price it offers up the luxury of reliability year in and year out."

Meiomi Pinot Noir is available for only $19.99 in the Bottle Club®.

Another highly recommended Pinot Noir is The Pinot Project. In fact, your blogger had recently recommended this for an event where we were a guest. Other guests knew that we had recommended the wines, and this was a big hit.

The Pinot Project is one of the greatest red wine values coming out of California. It is hand-crafted from grapes grown in notable AVA’s, such as Sonoma County, Carneros and Monterey. The Pinot Project has a full and silky mouth feel, with just the right amount of acidity to complement a variety of dishes. The wine is 100% stainless steel fermented with the caps receiving periodic punchdowns, before finishing dry with just a kiss of oak.

Enjoy pure PINOT aromas and flavors -- black cherries kissed by oak and complimented by just the right amount of Asian spice. An incredible bargain at only $9.96 in the Bottle Club®.

Zinfandel is considered the quintessential American red, making it a natural pairing for the quintessential American celebration. Genetically, Zinfandel is nearly identical to Italy's Primitivo, with Zin's typically more fruit-forward, while finishing with a peppery touch.

One of our favorites is the Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel, from Lodi, CA, in the Central Valley. The most rich, intense and multi-dimensional zinfandel tends to be produced from “Old Vines”, vines that are at least 50 years old. “Old Vines”, also known as Ancient Vines, Gnarly vines, Old Timer Vines, Old World Vines or Old Twisted Vines are in decline, mature in age, with low vigor. They tend to have fewer clusters of grapes with smaller berry size, yielding more intense sugars, color and concentration of flavors typically producing wines that are generally better balanced with more body and structure.

The 2012 Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel is a blend of 16 different vineyard blocks of old vine zinfandel vineyards with an average age of 85 years. With berries and spice on the nose, dark, sweet fruit fills the palate with just a hint of black pepper. This wine has a long, lingering finish.

Here's what our team said about Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel: "A full-bodied and ripe Zin offering flavors of sweet red fruits, licorice and spice with a black pepper infused finish. Lush and jammy style."

Since today is National Zin Day (we're not making that up), we'd suggest enjoying one today, and another on Thanksgiving. Only $15.99 in the Bottle Club®.

Since Zin and Primitivo are basically the same grape, we're also recommending a Primitivo this year. The 2010 Feudo di Santa Croce Primitivo di Manduria LXXIV scored 91 points from Wine Spectator, and finished as #69 on their just-released 2014 Top 100.

The Wine Spectator review: "A burly, brambly red, underscored by tarry smoke and underbrush notes, offering flavors of blackberry coulis, herb-marinated black olive, grilled mushroom and ground spice. This shows muscle that recommends it to short-term cellaring, made accessible by integration and balance. Drink now through 2024."

Our wine team's review: "Very enticing aromas of vanilla, stewed fruit, blackberry, cedar and prunes. The flavors are silky and lush with bold vanilla, blackberry, licorice, blueberry and chocolate with black pepper on the finish."

Finally, from the winery: This has a ruby red color, enriched with garnet reflections. It offers a generous perfume, which recalls plums and ripe red fruits. This wine has a velvety texture, dry and spicy. Only $19.96 in the Bottle Club®.

Our last red wine recommendation will not be available for sale until tomorrow. The third Thursday in November is the traditional sale date for Beaujolais Nouveau from Georges Duboeuf, which is the first wine released from the most recent harvest.

Because the wine is officially embargoed until tomorrow, there are no reviews currently available. But because of its release date, many people will enjoy this wine from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Typically, the Beaujolais Nouveau is a light and fruity wine, best enjoyed with a slight chill, rather than room or cellar temperature. It will be priced at $8.09 in the Bottle Club®.

Monday was Part 1 of What to Drink for Thanksgiving. Click here to review that post. And come back tomorrow for the final installment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

This Spirit Moved Us

Throughout our spirits aisles, you'll see products marked "Canal's Family Selection". These products are brought to you in cooperation with other New Jersey retailers, so that we can bring you some amazing Single Barrel offerings at reasonable prices.

(If you're still learning about whiskey, a Single Barrel bottling means that every bottle in that series comes from one particular barrel. Normally, a number of barrels, often of different ages, are blended before bottling. This blending process typically assures a consistent taste profile, regardless of when or where you buy the whiskey. With a Single Barrel bottling, there likely will be differences in the taste profile of one barrel compared to another.)

Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is masterfully crafted and carefully aged for no less than ten years. The rareness of this great breed of bourbon is evident in its complex aroma, as well as the smooth and lingering taste. Eagle Rare is a bourbon that lives up to its name with its lofty, distinctive taste experience.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Complex aromas of toffee, hints of orange peel, herbs, honey, leather and oak.

Taste: Bold, dry, oaky flavors with notes of candied almonds and very rich cocoa.

Finish: Dry and lingering

Monday, November 17, 2014

What to Drink for Thanksgiving, Part 1

Our wine team gets the challenge every year: what's the best wine to have on Thanksgiving? We're assembling their answers, and we'll have their wine suggestions for you later this week. For today, we're playing host and offering a few Thanksgiving-oriented cocktail suggestions.

Hard Cider Sangria

1 cup quartered and thinly sliced unpeeled green, yellow and red apples
1 navel orange—quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
1 cup apple juice, chilled
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup Laird's Applejack
1 500ML bottle Sam Smith Organic Cider

In a pitcher, combine the apples with the orange, apple juice, lemon juice and brandy. Just before serving, add the hard cider. Serve in tall glasses over ice.

Champagne Mojito

3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups packed mint leaves, plus 12 mint sprigs, for garnish
6 limes, cut into wedges
2 cups Bacardi rum
Cracked ice
3 cups Duc de Romet Champagne or Gruet Brut (if you prefer a domestic sparkling wine)

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and cook over high heat just until the sugar has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

In a large pitcher, combine the sugar syrup with the mint leaves and lime wedges and muddle well with a wooden spoon. Add the rum and stir well. Strain the drink into another pitcher.

Fill tall glasses with cracked ice and pour in the drink, filling them about two-thirds full. Top with Champagne, garnish with the mint sprigs and serve.

Cameron's Cooler

12 ounces Stag's Head Scotch
4 ounces dry white wine, such as Santa Rita 120 Sauvignon Blanc
4 ounces fresh lemon juice
4 ounces Simple Syrup
8 ounces chilled ginger beer (Gosling's or Crabbie's)
Angostura bitters, for garnish

In a large resealable container, combine the first four ingredients; refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Cover and shake, then pour into an ice-filled pitcher. Strain into ice-filled Collins glasses, stir in the ginger beer and garnish with dashes of bitters.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mid-November Grab Bag

We're going to pretend that last night's little snow episode never happened, ok? We made it to the Grab Bag Blog Post, so the weather wasn't really an issue. The Grab Bag edition of our blog is a look ahead (events, new products) and a look back (reviews, highlights) at what's been happening at Joe Canal's in Lawrenceville and Woodbridge.

Joe Canal's has partnered with other local businesses on a Holiday Toy Drive. We're accepting donations of new, unwrapped toys that will brighten a child's holiday.

And if you're looking for gift ideas in our stores, we have some suggestions. Click here for Lawrenceville, and click here for Woodbridge.

Events at Joe Canal's in Lawrenceville

We have three tastings lined up for you this weekend. Today, from 2-4pm (please note the early starting time), we're tasting St. Francis wines. Tomorrow, in the regular 2-4pm time slot, we're tasting Acacia wines. After the Acacia tasting, we're offering a sampling of Glenfiddich single malt Scotch.

We will have extended store hours for Thanksgiving week, starting Sunday, 11/23. Click here for the full schedule. 

Joe Canal's has partnered with other local businesses on a Holiday Toy Drive. We're accepting donations of new, unwrapped toys that will brighten a child's holiday.

Events at Joe Canal's in Woodbridge

Look for our regular wine tasting today, from 4-6pm. Click here for the menu. The Kane Brewing Co. Small Plates dinner starts at 6:30pm tonight. As of a couple of days ago, the event was sold out. We are maintaining a waiting list; call 732-726-0077 for more information. Tomorrow is the Dewar's Higher Marques tasting/gift packaging. Click here for more information.

Next week, we're tasting Glutenberg Beer on Wednesday, 11/19, from 5-7pm, and Schoefferhofer Beer on Thursday, 11/20, from 6-8pm.

We will also have extended store hours for Thanksgiving week. Click here for the full schedule.

New Products

We can't list every new item, so please ask a store team member if you're looking for something in particular.

Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select, 1 Liter.  Bottled at 90 proof, and made with unique “Sinatra Barrels”, Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select pays tribute to Jack’s biggest fan: Mr. Frank Sinatra. These Sinatra barrels have deep grooves on the inside of the staves — which exposes the whiskey to extra layers of oak. This imparts a rich amber color, bold character and a pleasant smokiness, followed by an incredibly smooth vanilla finish. Much like Frank himself, this whiskey is one of a kind.

Extremely limited availability-makes a great gift item!

Lillet Reserve Jean de Lillet 2009. Lillet has released a limited edition, Reserve Jean de Lillet 2009, which is the first of its kind since 1982. The cuvée is named for the earliest known ancestor of the Lillet family, who lived in Podensac, France in the late 17th century. It is comprised of a single vintage Sauternes (80% Sémillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle) that is only produced during quality Bordeaux seasons, blended with orange liqueur (made from both sweet and bitter oranges), a secret mixture of fruit liqueurs and a touch of quinine. Unique to this release is further aging for 12 months in French oak barrels, with new oak. Suitable for aging, this Lillet is also available in very limited quantities.

Georges Duboeuf 2014 Beaujolias Nouveau. The first wine of the 2014 harvest is the Beaujolais Nouveau, and it's available for sale on the third Thursday of November each year, so we'll have this ready at opening on Thursday, November 20. Even though it's a French wine, Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau has become an American holiday tradition.

On a related note, Old New England Egg Nog is now in stock. The PA Dutch Pumpkin Cream Liqueur is sold out, so we suggest grabbing the Egg Nog while you can.

Ripped from the Headlines

Wine Spectator has been rolling out their Top 10 wines this week, with #1 to be announced shortly. The full 2014 Wine Spectator Top 100 will be unveiled this coming Monday, 11/17.

Have we reached the end of craft brewing? Click here for the story.

Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Closing the California Chapter

On occasion, Joe Canal’s staff members are able to go on trips to meet the producers of the items that we sell. Whether we travel to the great wine regions, or any other location, the trips are educational, great for team-building, and, of course, they’re fun.

Tom Broderick, Store Manager at Woodbridge, recently visited California on just such a trip with other Joe Canal's team members. Here's his report:

Monday October 13th: Beringer Vineyards

Our first winery visit was to Beringer Vineyards. Our guide took us to the Hudson House for a quick background on the winery and to taste through some of their portfolio. The house is about 150 years old and was on the property even before the Beringer brothers purchased the land. It was filled with antique pictures – my favorite being a picture of a Beringer family dinner so long ago that the men were sat on one end of the table and the women at the other. It was interesting hearing that the winery made ends meet during Prohibition by selling their wine for sacramental purposes, which was perfectly legal if the right license was obtained. Clark Gable also had a private parking spot at the winery.
Tasting table at Beringer
We also tasted some wine in the basement of the Hudson House, a dimly lit room decorated with more antique photos of the Beringer vineyard. The most interesting “antique” we came across was a wine room filled with vintage bottles from (almost) every year the winery has been in business. It was incredible seeing bottles decades and decades old.
Beringer barrel room
Since I entered the industry, I have become accustomed to the reds Beringer offers, and their Knights Valley Cabernet is one of my favorites year to year. We tasted their Quantum red blend – a Bordeaux blend showcasing blackberry and cedar notes with just enough Merlot included in the blend that its mouth feel was extremely well-rounded. The true highlights of the tasting were the whites, however. Their Private Reserve Chardonnay is a complex, flavorful treat with balanced offerings of fruit and smoky oak. The mouth feel was creamy but not overly so. My favorite of the night was their Luminus Chardonnay, a Burgundian wine featuring sharp acidity and a perfect balance of nutty and fruity notes.

We perused the property a bit before dinner and checked out the decades old Redwoods, their garden (which caused our group to start an interesting habit of smelling every plant we came across all week), and the Rhine house – which was truly a sight to behold. Our dinner was excellent; we enjoyed a soup made from tomatoes picked right from their garden 25 feet away and a lemon cake that paired absolutely perfectly with their Nightingale Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine. The creamy and sweet mouth feel of the wine contrasted with the zippiness of the lemon cake so well. This meal showcased the fresh ingredients used at every winery and restaurant we ate at during this trip – no ingredient served was out of season, everything was fresh and delicious.

Tuesday October 14th: Franciscan Estate

The next morning, we visited Franciscan Estate, a relatively new winery founded in 1973 (new, compared to Beringer, anyway). Franciscan is situated on a beautiful piece of property in Oakville. The tasting room was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday morning, and there were several groups and couples tasting wine. Our tour guide greeted us with a sample of their Napa Rose, made from Syrah that I imagined would pair perfectly with a summer fruit salad. We made our way down to the production area of the winery and saw the workers harvesting the last of their Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyards. Our tour guide told us that most 2014 varietals had ripened quicker than usual and were already harvested, so I was happy to be able to see the machinery at work with the Cab fruit. Here, for the first time in my life, I ate a wine grape right off the vine, and it was funny thinking that the wine produced from these grapes wouldn’t be released for another 3 years.

We also sampled some Sauvignon Blanc directly from the fermenter, another first for me. While obviously unfinished, it was delicious and I’m excited to try the final result when it's finally released. The Franciscan building was beautiful and showcased “decades” displays, featuring wines from every year since 1975. The most interesting part of this was seeing the evolution of Franciscan’s bottle labels and subsequently seeing the laws and regulations in regards to bottle labels change over time. For example, Franciscan’s 1974 red blend was simply called “Burgundy.” Their 1979 Riesling was “Johannisberg Riesling.”
Library wines at Franciscan
We sat down for a quick tasting before our lunch at the winery. Once again, the whites took me by surprise. I have been familiar with Franciscan’s Cabernet Sauvignon and their flagship wine, Magnificat, but their Equilibrium white blend was my favorite of the tasting. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Muscat, Equilibrium offers crisp lemon/lime flavors with a slight sweetness and no detectable oak flavors. This will definitely be on my wine rack all next summer. Their Merlot was also surprisingly good. It is a full-bodied, heavier Merlot with a plus mouth feel and flavors of oak and dark berry. Our tour guide said it was a Merlot for the Cab drinker and I agree 100%.

Lunch was incredible. Again, all fresh ingredients and perfect pairings. We were lucky enough to enjoy a 2008 Magnificat that was an absolute delight. The aging opened the full-bodied wine up to reveal rich and elegant flavors of mocha and blackberry with silky tannins. The next time you come across this wine, buy two bottles. The aged product was really a wine to savor.

Franciscan has just now started to get the true recognition they deserve. It will be interesting to see what heights they will go to in the upcoming years.

Stags’ Leap Winery

Stags’ Leap is an absolutely beautiful piece of property, and probably had the most interesting history of all the wineries we visited. The property dates back to 1893 but didn’t produce wine until 1913. The wine production then was on a very small scale. At that time, the property was used more as a ranch and hotel (and bordello). Once Prohibition hit, the basement of the Manor House was used as a speakeasy. Our tour guide explained that this period of history is saturated with tales of ghosts, illegal activity, and various types of debauchery. Stags’ Leap Winery came to fruition in the 1970’s when new owners purchased the property.

The tour began in the Manor House, which has stood for well over 100 years and has a very gothic, spooky feel to it. It even had a Godfather-type toilet that I found amusing. We enjoyed a sample of their 2012 Napa Rose while our tour guide gave us a brief history on the house and property. I’m normally not a fan of roses but this had very bright acidity and a lot of pleasing strawberry flavors that I really enjoyed. Our guide then took us down to the basement that was used as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It had that speakeasy feel to it, right down to the heavy, black door you usually see in the movies. While our guide told us more stories about the history of the place, we enjoyed some 2012 Viognier that had a very nice minerality that backed up the pear and stone fruit flavors.

We then walked around the property, before sitting down to the main tasting. The best view, by far, was the Stags' Leap Palisades. When it’s raining, the water falls down from the mountain at twelve different spots. They even named their red blend after the falls. Our guide told us a little story about their neighbors, Shafer Vineyards, who planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines on the side of the mountain by using dynamite to blow holes in the rocky, volcanic soil. This wine has become Shafer’s Hillside Select, one of the more sought after Cabernets in the entire world. It was very interesting to see the respect a Stags’ Leap employee gave Shafer Vineyards. One thing I noticed was that most wineries were situated practically on top of each other but none were enemies – they all spoke very well of one another and even encouraged us to check out their tours and tastings rooms.

We sat down to the tasting on the porch of the Manor House, and I was blown away by the quality of the wines. Their Petite Sirah, which is their incredible flagship wine, was surprisingly more fruit-forward than I had expected it to be. Flavors of blueberry, cherry and blackberry were held together by a nice spiciness and smooth tannins. Once it opened up, an herbal element came to the forefront that reminded me of an offering from the Rhone. Stags’ Leap also produces The Leap – a Cabernet Sauvignon that was as powerful as it was smooth. Dense, intense flavors of cassis and cherry preceded silky tannins with a vanilla finish. The highlight of the tasting was their 2011 Napa Valley Winemaker’s Muse. Each year the winemaker changes the varietal and chose Malbec for their 2011 release, which I found very interesting since straight Malbecs are usually from South America. The wine was huge yet smooth and had flavors of black cherry, mocha, and blueberry. The Leap may have been a better structured, more flavorful wine but the fact that this was Malbec just took it to the top of my list. My previous knowledge told me Malbec from California was only used for blending but this offering showed the quality is certainly there to stand by itself.

The Hess Collection

We finished our second day in Napa by visiting the Hess Collection, which is located all the way up Mount Veeder. The views on top of the mountain, looking over the valleys and rolling mountains, were incredible. Hess suffered significantly from the recent earthquake and lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of product. The earthquake decimated one tank of wine that not only led to the destruction of their gift shop but stained the front steps and landscaping purple. It was terrible to see but, luckily, no one at the winery was injured since it happened in the middle of the night.

Fortunately for us, we arrived to the winery way ahead of schedule and we were able to check out Donald Hess’ stunning art collection. He started collecting decades ago, and now has three floors worth of art to display. One piece that really caught my eye was “The Laughing Man” by Yue Minjun. The piece has a couple dozen drawings of the same (or very similar) man on his knees, arms in front, seemingly laughing. It was very interesting since some of our group saw the expression on his face as joy and some of us saw despair and pain. My words don’t really do the art justice so check out the pictures. Donald Hess’ process for purchasing artwork was very interesting as well. He didn’t deal with any art dealings, agents, or anything like that. He would see a piece, leave, and if he couldn’t stop thinking about the artwork days later he would meet with the artist. Very cool.

Before dinner, we toured the vineyards and ate some more grapes right off the vines. Our tour guide was intent on making us compare berries from old vines and more recently-planted vines. The berries right off a newer vine that were crisp, delicious and sweet while the old vines were more dense, concentrated, and raisiny. It was interesting to see the significant difference even before harvest. I was also surprised, for the third winery in a row, at how much Malbec was being produced here.

We ate dinner in a private room, surrounded by Donald Hess’ impressive book collection. Our first course was a watercress and red endive-based salad with prosciutto, apple cider vinaigrette and the freshest goat cheese I have ever tasted. We paired it with their 2012 Napa Chardonnay, which was a perfect accompaniment. The acidity of the Chardonnay complimented the vinaigrette while the apple and slight butter flavors contrasted with the prosciutto. The wine made the flavors in the salad burst. Our second course was a grilled skirt steak with kale, eggplant, mushrooms and a leek jus. It was paired with two wines – their 2012 Select Pinot Noir and their 2010 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee. I had never thought any Pinot Noir would pair well with such a heavy dish as a steak, but the earthiness really made it work. The 2010 Block Cuvee was truly a home run, though. It had a nice herbal tinge to it that made the char on the steak delicious, while the chocolate/plum finish complimented the jus and mushrooms. We commented on how fresh and delicious everything was again and our tour guide put it in perspective. He asked us how many tomatoes we had eaten since we arrived in Napa. The answer: Zero. “That’s because they’re not in season.”
Wednesday October 15th: Chateau St. Jean

Chateau St. Jean is a huge property, set amongst the rolling hills of Sonoma and boasting a very pretty garden in front of the buildings. The gardens were filled with trimmed hedges and an array of exotic flowers, all surrounding a statue of St. Jean herself. There were a bunch of pretty white and red rose hybrids that really struck me. Our guide would later tell us the property is Mediterranean style, and looking back I would agree with that. The tasting rooms were separated, with one offering their everyday wines and the other offering their reserve series.

Our tour was short but sweet. Our guide brought us out to the tasting lawn, out back of the reserve tasting room and building. The lawn led right to the vines and our guide pointed out which lot was growing which specific varietal. Chateau St. Jean is widely known for their Chardonnay and, not surprisingly, that was the grape being grown the most. There was Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon as well.

The tasting was very impressive, as we sampled some of their everyday wines and a bunch of their limited offerings. Their Sonoma Chardonnay is a perfect summer wine that’s crisp and buttery, offering typical (but extremely well done) Chardonnay flavors like apple and pear. Their 2011 Sonoma Merlot was also typical of its varietal, but was flawlessly put together. Silky tannins and a medium mouth feel, along with flavors of raspberry and blackberry, made this wine very enjoyable. I had been waiting for an opportunity to try their flagship Cinq Cepages for years, and the wait was more than worth it. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a sprinkling of other red grapes, this wine is something to seek out. The nose smells of oak, dark fruit and spice while the palate confirms the nose and adds a cedar element that really brings this wine together. It’s certainly more “old school” than fruit forward, but it was easily the most enjoyable wine of the tasting.

Clos du Bois

As soon as you drive up to Clos du Bois, it is obvious that they are a massive operation. The size of their property is tremendous, and while they had more of a “mass marketed” feel, it was clear how hands-on their winemakers are by the quality of their product. Including vineyards outside of their home base in Sonoma, Clos du Bois farms about 800 acres. It is also clear that they are very respectful of their environment. There were solar panels that (we were later told) provided nearly all of the power used at the winery. The winery also uses the leftover grape skins to form a compost that feeds their vines.

We met our tour guide and sat down to taste through a portion of their portfolio. One of the highlights was their 2012 Sonoma Reserve Russian River Valley Chardonnay. It was very well balanced between fruit and oak – flavors of butter and vanilla were under layers of honey and pear. The mouth feel was the most impressive aspect of this wine. It was rich and coating but not overly so. My favorite of the tasting was their 2011 Marlstone Red Blend. This is a Cabernet-based blend that was very firm and structured but opened up to wonderful flavors. This wine was delicious now and should be stunning after cellaring it for a few years.

Before dinner, our guide took us outside to look at some of the heavy duty machinery used to harvest and produce the wine. It was interesting to see how many working parts there are just to accomplish something as little as separating the grapes from the stems. We made our way into the warehouse, where thousands and thousands of casks of wine were being stored. It was incredible to see casks in such massive numbers. Our guide gave us a neat demonstration where we tasted their Sauvignon Blanc in different stages of wood aging. It was interested to see the difference between no oak, some time in oak, and a long time in oak. The same wine tasted completely different each time.

Dinner was excellent. My favorite dish of the entire trip was a bean and carrot soup with bacon and homemade crème fraiche, paired with their 2012 Russian River Valley Calcaire. Calcaire is a Chardonnay, showcasing rich and buttery flavors, that went extremely well with the soup. The soup was absolutely delicious and, keeping true to the ideals out there, probably the freshest tasting dish I’ve ever had. Our second course was a roasted pork loin with a potato and butternut squash gratin paired with 2011 Alexander Valley Reserve Cabernet. The wine was very powerful, with concentrated flavors of blackberry and oak that not only went well with the pork but really shined with the richness of the gratin. We didn’t taste a wine with dessert but the crepe had a delicious sauce that was made from their Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thursday October 16th: Ferrari-Carano Vineyards

Ferrari-Carano’s owners intended their vineyard to resemble a Tuscan villa and, as a result, have built the most remarkable winery of our visit. It also didn’t hurt that it was the most beautiful day weather-wise during the trip. The landscaping alone was breathtaking. When we arrived, our guide took us down into their garden filled with flowers, trees, waterfalls, and stone walkways that generated such an air of romance. I cannot imagine the amount of time that’s spent to keep the winery looking so great. It was funny how we all kept commenting it looks like Italy even before our guide told us that was the point. Again, my words do it no justice.
Our guide took us into the gift shop/tasting room and we enjoyed several of their offerings. Ferrari-Carano is known for its white wines, specifically their Chardonnay and Fume Blanc, and they delivered. The 2013 Fume Blanc had intense flavors of pear, bright acidity, and a tiny bit of oak to round the whole thing out. I found out later on only 35% of the wine was aged in French oak, the rest in stainless steel. Their 2009 Eldorado Gold (a 100% Semillon dessert wine) was also a treat – not cloyingly sweet but still showcasing that vanilla/honey combination that I love in white dessert wines. The highlight of the whites, however, was their 2012 Reserve Napa Chardonnay. Buttery and lemony, with the perfect amount of oak, this Chardonnay might be worth double its price point. This wine was actually one of my favorite of the trip. Carano’s reds were nothing to sneeze at, either. Their 2012 SIENA, a super Tuscan-esque red blend, was so wonderfully put together I couldn’t get enough. It holds flavors of mocha and vanilla that had a long, satisfying finish. I definitely want to try this wine with my next home-cooked Italian dinner.

Our guide then took us downstairs, and that’s when the time and attention to detail the owners of this winery put into this property really came to light. Beneath the tasting room/gift shop lies another, more upscale tasting room right alongside their barrel room. If Italy was personified upstairs and outside, France was personified in the basement. The whole area screamed old world Chateau, right down to the barrels aging next to each other all the way down a tremendous corridor. We sat down to taste some of Ferrari-Carano’s extremely limited PreVail line. The Back Forty was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and the West Face was Cab based and blended with Syrah. Surprisingly, the West Face was huge and in-your-face while the Back Forty was a little more tamed. Both were delicious, especially since they are so limited.

Overall, wine country is a beautiful place that has tremendous history and tradition. Each tour guide, winery employee and winemaker we met was extremely generous and warm. Between the winery tours, the fresh food, and the incredible wine, it was truly the experience of a lifetime.