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Napa Valley Boot Camp
By Jim Clarke
Jan 26, 2016
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When did the term “Boot Camp” take on a positive connotation?  In most contexts it sounds like a slog, at best, and one that involves a lot of sweat and work.  I’m not adverse to some exercise, but it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.

But an invitation to join a group of New York sommeliers for a trip to Napa Valley was not to be turned down, despite the name:  The Napa Valley Boot Camp.  I was one of the few writers invited; the rest were mostly sommeliers.  Having been part of that community not long ago, I expected to see a lot of familiar faces.  Given the attitude most of New York City’s have about New World wines, about Napa in particular, about ripeness, and about already-famous grape varieties, I was excited not just to taste and learn myself, but to see how these sommeliers reacted to the experience.  Quite frankly, I expected to see some revelations, some grudging admiration, some qualifications, and, in the evenings when we were left to our own devices, some snide dismissals from my former colleagues.  Which would have been interesting…a sort of anthropological study of the New York sommelier in action.

As it happens, the group was composed a bit differently than I had expected.  Few of the attendees were from New York City proper (we could say they were from “the Tri-state area, and some from further afield), and while all were in the wine industry, not all were sommeliers in the strictest sense.  Some worked in retail, and almost all were quite young.  Our host told me this choice of participants was deliberate:  Teach them about Napa before they get jaded, essentially.  I think it’s a smart move.  For many, this was their first visit to a wine region, professionally or otherwise.

The experience was not unlike training servers, watching as the complexities and variety of wine dawns on them.  But this was accelerated, and compressed into three intense days.  Strangely, the clearest example comes from what we ate rather than what we drank.  One assistant manager from a shop on Long Island made the transformation from a self-described “meat-and-potatoes” man who pushed aside the proffered salad at the beginning of the trip to enthusing about asparagus at our final lunch together.  Similarly, on that last morning, he had reluctantly tried a peach in the orchards that abut St. Supery’s Dollarhide Vineyard in Pope Valley, but then ended up stuffing more peaches and nectarines into his pockets as we left.  “My girlfriend’s going to be so amazed I’m eating fruit!”

It’s not that they were wholly inexperienced; opinions on the wines were varied and perceptive.  But it certainly showed how vital it is to taste with an open mind.  I’d like to think I would have experienced the wines with the same interest, openness, and analytical focus in different company, but to get the most out of these experiences, it’s very useful to be able to talk about them and share observations without fear of seeming unfashionable.  There is a “groupthink” to many tightly knit groups, and it can shut down, diminish, or drain the pleasure out of some things when they fall outside the group’s accepted priorities.

The itinerary, for starters, put the lie to the idea that Napa is all over-the-top, modern architecture and ascot ties.  Those qualities weren’t lacking; Davis Family’s new cellars are impressive, and how often does one hear an owner extoll at length the virtues of caves for maintaining that ideal, cool cellar temperature and then go on to explain the lengths he went to installing a heated, glass-enclosed tasting area inside these same caves because his wife found them too chilly?  But there was much more to be had, such as the biodynamic boudoir that is Raymond Cellars.  After a lecture on wholesome biodynamic practices in the vineyards, one enters the winery to find mannequins in lingerie scattered among the barrels and stainless steel tanks, and then finishes with a tasting in the parlor, which sports an unnerving amount of red velvet (and owner Charles Boisset sporting quite natty slippers--and, it must be admitted--an ascot).  It’s a bit jarring, but certainly adds variety.  And then there’s Robert Biale’s Aldo’s Vineyard, sporting beautiful head-pruned old vine Zinfandel hidden behind a suburban facade, and more besides.

The tastings held at these wineries went to lengths to show the Valley’s range, trying to put to rest the notion that its wines are, 1) all expensive; 2) all Cabernet Sauvignon 3) all the same, stylistically.  While none of the more esoteric varieties we encountered had me crusading for wholesale planting of say, Albariño, Viognier, or Grenache in the Valley, there were some good wines to be had.  Among the more classic white varieties, we tasted many excellent Chardonnays, and perhaps more surprisingly, some top-notch Sauvignon Blancs.  In the past I’ve often found Napa’s Sauvignons to be white Bordeaux wannabes, lacking the density, power, and freshness of their Old World counterparts; many of these opted instead for freshness and fruit.

But the real achievement of the trip was in demonstrating Napa Valley’s range of expression within the variety it’s most associated with, Cabernet Sauvignon, on its own or in blends.  I’d say the contrast of mountain fruit to that of the valley floor was the most readily apparent; Viader’s 1,300-foot elevation and volcanic soils clearly brought something different to the wine than the alluvial soils of Cathy Corison’s valley floor vineyards, but the latter did still show its own contrast to other valley floor producers like Textbook, whose “Mise en Place” Cabernet Sauvignon grows on predominantly gravel soils.  As I suspect Napa Valley’s vintners know, stripping away the monolithic image of “Napa Cab” and replacing it with one of diversity and variety might be one of the best things Napa Valley could do for itself.  And for these young sommeliers.  And--for that matter,--wine drinkers in general.

Ten Highlights:

Davis Sauvignon Blanc Estate 2013:  Green pepper, grapefruit, and honey blossoms.  Medium-bodied and fresh.

White Rock Chardonnay Reserve 2013:  Elegant and smooth, with brioche notes supporting fruit notes of pear and nectarine.

Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2013:  With no oak and no malolactic fermentation.  Medium-bodied and fresh, with floral and nectarine aromas.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2012:   Quite savory and floral, with touches of cigar box.

Viader Red Blend 2012:  Lots of red fruit and herbal notes.  Firm and structured.

Textbook “Mise en Place” 2012:  Graphite, licorice, and dark chocolate.  Big, ripe tannins.

Schweiger Cabernet Sauvignon 1994:  Schweiger’s first vintage, still firm, and generous with its notes of licorice, earth, cassis, and flowers.

Spring Mountain “Elivette” 2010:  A mix of dark fruit and earth, with a soft, supple texture.

Conn Creek Cabernet Franc 2013:  Plum and mint, with a pleasant, dusty finish.

Robert Biale Aldo Vineyard 2013:  A Zinfandel-based field blend, a bit juicy, but full and dense.