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examination napa, w/ dr. 2b--chapter one

by Jon Rusciano

My med-student son informed me in early summer that he would have the month of July off before returning to his 4th (and final) year of school.  Thus by the spring of 2010, he will have achieved his goal and commence with Residency.   And, I will have completed my self-imposed obligation of “footing the bill.”   The finish line is in sight, just down the home-stretch.   Yet, since the process remains grueling for him and (moreover) since I needed an excuse to return to my beloved Napa Valley, I invited him to come with me for another extended weekend at the mid-point of the month.

I acquired both of our tickets by using mileage points (these days a much more depleting process to the stash I had accumulated over the years).  The only available flights (for points), at the time of booking, required a morning departure with arrival at SFO by noon.   I also decided to change our “base camp” from the thrifty Travelodge, to a vacation rental house that I spotted on VRBO.com (Listing #190935).  The two bedroom house was only about a mile farther away from my “steady-Freddy” breakfast haunt in downtown Napa.   I contacted the Owner (Roseanne Kirby) and negotiated a deal for the stay.   We were almost at an impasse over her contract’s wording, until I decided to investigate her background through a Google search.   After discovering (from a local business magazine article) that she ran a Napa gift shop, that she had recently returned to Las Vegas to renew her wedding vows with her husband at the Little White Chapel Tunnel of Vows and that her favorite movie was To Kill a Mockingbird, I became comforted that I was dealing with a respectable person and not some “stealth-intending shark.”   The place proved delightful and everything went smoothly.

I had confirmed with Magid (my wine connection at Ludwig’s Fine Wines) that he was available to have dinner with us (as usual) that Thursday evening in San Anselmo.  Yet, this left us with the entire afternoon free.   All my Napa visits had long since been scheduled, so I decided to be bold and venture into “the unknown.”   Previously, at a 4th of July party of our wine-collector-neighbor that my wife and I attended, I savored some memorable glasses of 1984 and 1987 Dunn Cabernet.  This wine aged wonderfully over 20 plus years.   My own 2004 bottle has a long way to go.   Properly stored, the wine will last, and I hope that I do as well.   There was a bottle of 1999 Verite (pronounced “ver-eh-tay”) Cabernet, from Alexander Valley, which followed.   Most of the participants in that bottle raved about its flavor and Bordeaux-like attributes.   My little “taster” had been overwhelmed by the Dunn, so I felt like I missed out on the finer points of that wine’s character.  With that still fresh in my mind, I decided the open Thursday afternoon would be spent driving to Healdsburg  (Sonoma’s Alexander Valley) where Verite wine was produced.   Here a wonderful new world was opened up to this “Napa snob.”

The drive into this region was quite beautiful, and much less traveled than the often congested roadways in Napa.   Ms. Garmin (my trusty GPS guide) took us right to the winery’s entrance.   It was an inviting, newly constructed (or extremely well- maintained) facility.   We were the only participants at the 2:30 pm. appointment.   The Cabernet did indeed have a smooth Bordeaux-like taste, somewhat refined and not as “fruit-forward” as many.  (I am progressing in my education.)  It might have been a “buy” for me, except for the fact that the price per bottle was $200… Yikes!   Yet, since the host offered to deduct the two $35 tasting fees from the price, I went ahead and purchased a bottle of the 2005 vintage.  Better yet, the three bottles that she had just opened for our visit were re-corked and given to us for “taking home.”  That indeed was worth the “price of admission.”  Additionally, before we left, we were told that with our visit, we would be “comped” for tasting fees at their affiliated winery called Stonestreet, farther up the Valley.   We had the time, so “what-the-hey.”

On the way to our next stop, I spotted the stately entrance to Lancaster Estate Winery (home of a Cabernet that Magid had highly recommended a year earlier to me).  As we drove by, I told my son to connect into the internet off of his “does- everything” phone, find their number and request a visit around 4 pm.  Bing.. this took place before we reached the next stop’s entrance.   The wineries in these parts obviously did not have the clogged bookings that many of Napa’s usually do.

Stonestreet’s facility was a large, very well landscaped metal building.   It too looked as if it was constructed in recent years.   The tasting room was located right in the middle part of this long structure.   Walking inside we discovered they already knew our names, having received a call from Verite, minutes earlier.   The Cabernet offerings at this facility were not (in my opinion) noteworthy.   Yet, somehow our host talked me into sampling their new 2008 Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Upper Barn Chardonnay.  Both were delightful.   They only produced 95 cases of the stunning S/B.  Fearful that this find might escape my grasp, I purchased (and shipped home) 6 bottles.   The nose of this “puppy” was “fresh peach.”  The taste was of light, crisp fruit. Southern boy that I am, that combination of aroma and flavor in a white cinched the sale.   My son was again falling into the trap so many of these places set for their patrons.   They lined up multiple glasses and he drained them all.   Of course, again… I was driving, so he was not obligated to responsible consumption.

We returned to Lancaster Estate right in time for the appointment.  What a lovely facility and vineyard this was.  And, up at the top of the hill was the fabulous residence of the owners.   It was close to being as compelling as a waterfront property overlooking the blue Ocean.  This was, instead, a cresting hilltop “wave” of terraced green vines and young grapes.   Breathtaking.   We entered the tasting room, and again were the only visitors in that time slot.   I sampled the ‘05 Estate Cabernet.   My son went the distance with all of their offerings.   This Cabernet has the rich nose, flavorful complexity and wonderful balance of tannins which justifies its high ratings with Robert Parker.   I did not purchase any there, but by the time this article is printed, Magid will be reserving a case of this wine for my late October shipment.

We arrived in San Anselmo about an hour earlier than I had arranged with Magid.   His girlfriend Barbara was in Colorado at a wedding, so it was just three guys for the evening.  Magid had not tasted any of Verite’s wines, so we went over to a nearby restaurant (whose owner was a friend of Magid’s) to allow him to sample them.   We all took tastes and had a nice visit in the hour before our reservation at Sushi 69, the great spot we hit back in March.  

Dinner again was a sumptuous event.   I purchased all the Sushi, and Magid supplied the “liquids.”   I let Magid order, because he was the one who expertly paired the wines and Sake with each course of fish.   Dinner and great conversation lasted late into the evening.  By its conclusion, my son’s eyes were noticeably red and his speech stumbled.   We successfully made it back into the car, got him “buckled-in” with the passenger seat cranked back and headed for our Napa house.  I was tired, mostly from the time change and extended length of the day, but still in shape for the drive.   When it is my life and those that I love on the line, I religiously ration my alcohol consumption.

Upon arrival, my son was unaware that we had even made the trip.   It was like we just “magically” appeared at “The Highland House,” (official name of our new residence for the next few days).   I assisted him up the stairway and got his “intoxicated butt” into bed, dealing with all of the luggage and other things later.   Somehow I knew that the next morning’s early start would be quite a painful challenge for the young man.   However, I also had a hunch that there would be a different perspective on his wine intake for the balance of the trip.

The day had proven more impressive than I had ever imagined, wandering outside the realm of Napa Valley’s limits.  With such enlightenment, I am now compelled to accept that “the world is round” and “there may be life on other planets.”   The official commencement of our Napa adventure was scheduled to start Friday morning, 7:30 am. sharp, at the front door of Gillwood’s in Napa Town Center.   In Chapter Two of this account, my faithful readers will find out if it did.


Ludwig’s Fine Wines

Verite Wines

Stonestreet Vineyards and Winery

Lancaster Estate Winery

Sushi 69

Gillwood’s Café



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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