Part 1: Wining.

Fruit of the Vine
Keith Hoffman, in his two-part Napa Valley series, road-maps through sinewy vines and imbibes during delectable times on a recent tour through Napa’s wonderland. They don’t call it the Golden State for nothing.


hen I see them I feel like I’ve arrived in my own personal Garden of Eden. Their heights are almost as inexplicable as their presence over the unassuming fields they loom. They are weird. They are sentinels. They are the giant, mysterious trees that mark the southern entrance into the great Valley of Napa, California. To me, they symbolise my own growing appreciation of the rich introspections, gastronomic raptures, sensual charms and just plain delight that Napa has to offer. They, as my Napa knowledge, grow with each visit. I hope to never catch up. The foundation of Napa wines is comprised, to no surprise, of grapes.

all else, it may just be that you love oak. Perhaps you might want to plant an oak tree and milk its sap over your morning crumpets. But those made with care have almost no resemblance to the ubiquitous, oaked-up masses. As you can tell, I’m not generally a fan. However, Napa, France and other global locales do make some stunning works. In Napa, try Far Niente, who make a sublime version. Other Napa whites include Sauvignon-Blanc, Semillon and Viognier, and if it’s white you’re after, you must try Robert Sinskey’s Abraxas, and Conundrum Wines Conundrum (with a heritage from Caymus Winery). But here, we’ll focus on the reds.

• Pinot Noir is the master of elegance. She

can be an aromatic vixen, complex, inviting, thin-skinned, often fleeting, but always thought-provoking. Incredible to drink, yes, but make sure to spend more time breathing her in than you would for any other Napa varietal. Watch her perfumes change over time. Like a great cigar, Pinot can trigger deep, needed introspection. Or she can be boring as hell. Choose wisely. Try the Vandal Vineyard Pinot from Robert Sinskey. So good it actually hurts. Many of the vineyards listed in the Cab section also produce good Pinots.

• Cabernet is the thick-skinned red heavyweight

• Merlot is the red equaliser used as a single

• Chardonnay, in the white column, is by

volume the world’s favourite wine. Many of her versions are fairly neutral in smell, taste and soul. Not really much to delve into, or reflect upon. A vodka among white wines, unless done right. If you choose generic Chard over

and undisputed champion of the world. Cab is the main ingredient in both Napa reds and the blends that make Bordeaux a global household name and produces a wine of multi-layered and varied fruit, spice and earth flavours. Try Far Niente, Malk Family Vineyards, Spottswoode, Mondavi, Franciscan, Stag’s Leap, and Van der Hayden.

varietal or a blending buddy that brings a smoothness, roundness, jamminess and a backstage pass to both Napa and Bordeaux blends. When medically prescribed as a pure varietal, it may sometimes lack the complex, ‘layered’, flavours of great Cabs and Pinots. However, Merlots can also be among the most enjoyable and drinkable wines in existence. Examples

from France like Chateau Petrus prove that Merlot can be king. In Napa try Duckhorn, Van der Hayden, Provenance, and Beaulieu.

• Even bigger than Cab in skin thickness and

smack factor is Syrah. Gorgeous purple to downright black wines can be made from this grape, so it can sometimes compete with Cab for complexity and intrigue. As a result, it needs big, flavourful foods as a pairing as it decimates fluff. Try Sequoia Grove and Laird. Where the Magic happens From the entrance, the grounds, to the classy first human contact, Far Niente states loud and clear that you’ve arrived somewhere special. The confidence isn’t smug; it actually rings of genuine entitlement. They make some of the world’s finest Cabernets, Chardonnays and a sweet wine called ‘Dolce’. All three will magnetise your senses. Far Niente has an astounding 40,000 square feet of caves—tangible evidence that cave-aging is the way to go. Their ‘cave collections’ of vintage wines are stored here,

which is a great service for people wanting to buy older bottles. Plus, you can rest assured the wine was stored properly and didn’t suffer a summer sweating in someone’s lorry. FN Chardonnays involve no malolactic fermentation, and the very highest standards for grape selection are stuck to. And the end result? The 2006 Estate Chard has the weight to seemingly coat your entire mouth for minutes; so round, full and unreal when compared to most Chards. The 2004 ‘cave collection’ Chard was even deeper. These are must-try Chardonnays. Regarding FN Cabernets, the process includes spending a week ‘on skins’ to extract more flavours, and aging occurs only in French oak barrels, with about 80 percent of them being new. The chestnut wraps you will see on the aging barrels on tour historically were used as a ‘sentinel’ for wood-boring beetles, but now are just a pleasant decorative touch. With the 2001 vintage, they began using only fruit from their Oakville plots, and they add in small, varying amounts of Petit Verdot. The 2005 is magnificent—a complex, meaningful drink with about 91 percent Cab, 4 percent


superb Far Niente varietal is a must-taste.

Petit Verdot, and 5 percent Cab Franc. At my tasting, the 1998 ‘cave collection’ was brought out to wow and to teach. It also served as an example of FN’s previous blending styles, with Cab accounting for just 76 percent of the blend. Most wineries would never showcase a wine from a ‘tough’ year for the valley, like 1998. Incredible wines can be made in ‘off’ years, no question, and Niente achieved
Í Inner light. A magnificent-looking cellar stocked full of Far Niente treats.

that in spades. That FN brings out a 1998, and wallops you with it, well, that just reminds you, yet again, that you are bearing witness to truly superb winemaking. Dolce, FN’s sweet wine, is essentially America’s Château d’Yquem. Dolce grapes are grown on a Western-facing (i.e. ocean) slope where early morning fog laces the fruit (right) with the moisture that the fungus botrytis loves. The shriveled fruit is all tediously handharvested in November of each year. The resultant wine is aged in French oak for up to two and a half years in a special ‘Dolce’ cave, which is even cooler than FN’s regular cave system. I usually attempt to not wax on with hazy vinobabble but this beast makes me break down. First, her golden hues appear alive and

otherworldly. The wine dipped low in my mouth, and then ascended up, with elegant force, to unload a basket full of dripping, crushed peaches. A ripe pause, and then my tongue began a ride on a slip-n-slide lubricated with a warm pear reduction explosion. Finally, she lingers, all the while unleashing gossamer flavours that dart to and fro like benevolent ghosts. Another big proponent of cave aging is Pine Ridge. I did a barrelto-bottle tasting across a wide range, and it was excellent. This is a truly great vineyard, and some of their aged wines can rival the first growths of Bordeaux. Also, a very attractive cave and tour. The 2007 in-barrel Rutherford Cab was only ‘on wood’ for six months, and it was almost beefy with a massively tannic after-bite that,

tasting room tips
First, look at a winery map of Napa. Figure out a trajectory that passes by, in order, the wineries you’d like to visit. This is especially important when the valley is crowded. I’d suggest no more than four wineries in one day. Second, call ahead and make a tasting and/or tour reservation. If you don’t, many places that say ‘appointment only’ can actually accommodate you on the spot. Third, buy a cooler, ice and plenty of water before hitting the Valley. You will buy some wine; it’s unavoidable, even if you don’t intend to, and it will die in your car in the heat. The water is so you don’t end up with a headache at 5pm and ruin the great night of dining ahead. Many like to go to tasting rooms early to beat the crowds. Fine if that suits you and your taste buds, but be sure to ask for a fresh pour as some tasting rooms have been known to pawn off yesterday’s long-opened and oxidised bottles to unsuspecting people. Be polite. The people pouring for you, well, wine is their life. Learn from them. Ask what your pourer likes. Ask for help at any time and about any wine topic. As you taste, keep notes on what kind of grapes you prefer, fruit levels, regions, blends, vintage years, the type of winemaking, barreling preferences, etc. Various winemakers will no doubt have selections that are akin to your ‘personal recipe’. Ask for samples that might meet those characteristics, but also make sure to constantly test your assumptions. Try styles,


Hoffman and varietal grazer Zach Roberts.

blends, and varietals you’ve never had before. As you and your wine knowledge grow, certain tastes may fall in and out of flavour. Also see if they have wines that are only available at the winery. The wines, sadly, may never taste as good at home as they do when you had them at the winery. That’s okay. A winery is usually a gorgeous, lively place where the romance of making wine, coupled with proper serving temperatures, dashes of relevant tasting info, etc. synergise to make any vintage seem that much better. Don’t taste to get drunk. There are great places to get hammered and have fun in Napa Valley. Do not plan this as an option for an afternoon of tasting.

thankfully, rapidly subsided. This will be one to watch as it mellows. The 2005 was much softer, but still similar to the 2007. The 2007 Oakville Cab in barrel was creamy, and didn’t have the tannic monster of the Rutherford in barrel. The 2004 Oakville was excellent, but the 2007 Stag’s Leap Cab, in barrel, already tasted like a premier Bordeaux, except for a jamminess that surely will subside with the persuasions of time. The 2005 Stag’s Leap was simply astounding. The 2004 Howell was 89 percent Cab with a 4-percent contribution from the Tannat grape. Robert Sinskey Vineyard had a Pinot that rocked my socks off. It’s as hip as it is good. It feels like a mini vacation when you are at RSV. We had an especially famous time with Toby, whose card reads “I’m a pretty big deal around here”. He, like so many in this valley, loves his job, that it obvious. RSV does a lot of voodooy, organic ‘stuff’. Their results, however, make it hard to poke any fun. Further, on the science side, they completely appreciate that their dirt is where the action is. They are proud ‘dirt farmers’ and studied aficionados of the soil. Their spectacular wines reflect, and benefit, from this marriage of calculated witchcraft and mud. The 2004 Vandal Vineyard Pinot is a bomb among firecrackers and their Cabs are also excellent. And their white blend, Abraxas, is a treat and can be purchased in tall magnum format. Malk Family Vineyards is not yet open to the public, but is accessible once a year during the ‘Vineyard to Vintner’ weekend in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa, which happens every April. Just two small acres in front of the MFV home site form the backbone of one of the world’s greatest Cabs. Their vines are just metres away from a legendary block of Cask 23 from the Stag’s Leap Cellars. You might not be able to get a visit, but you can drink the nectar, available via their website only ( Remember this name, fame is soon coming for them.

È Matchmaker:

“For every hole, there is a bung.”