A trip to Napa usually entails hitting some of the big wineries for tours and tastings. Robert Mondavi is a crowd-pleaser, ditto Beringer, Gallo, and Krug. But for me, it was the smaller vineyards, and the lesser-distributed labels that blew my palate wide open. These are not wineries with glossy, souped-up tasting rooms. These are wineries that merely go about the business of producing small quantities of really terrific wines. Visiting these places and talking with their winemakers makes me want to pass on these gems as a service to my fellow wine aficionados. Hence, my three choices for Napa's best kept secrets.
It was 1995. Peter Molnar was tending to his family's grapes; winemaker Michael Terrien had just come out of UC Davis' wine program. Friends, they started crafting wine from Primo's Hill, a seven-acre block on the Molnar family's Poseidon's Vineyard lot. An intense high altitude Pinot Noir resulted, and Kasmer & Blaise -- labeled after their relatively odd middle names: Kasmer (Peter's) and Blaise (Michael's) -- caught on. K&B is sold in micro-quantities which means you better get on the mailing list fast, as it's pretty much good as gone. Tricycle has grown to encompass two other single vineyard labels from Carneros and the North Coast: Molnar Family and Obsidian Ridge. Molnar Family seemed a natural evolution of the Molnar business, utilizing the grapes being sold to other wineries for their own Pinots and Chardonnays. Last came Obsidian Ridge, a label named for a piece of unused land that begged a chance. Similar in feel to the Molnar discovery of Poseidon's Vineyard in 1973, Obsidian Ridge differed in that the rocky soil was a breeding ground for Cabernet and Syrah, two varietals that Tricycle wasn't yet making. This year's Half Mile, a new Obsidian offering that is produced on half-mile high grounds in Carneros (2,640' elevation), is already sold out. www.tricyclewineco.com
Bruce and Barbara Neyers have been making Napa Valley wine since 1992. With a 25% production of Cabernet and Merlot made from their organically farmed Conn Valley ranch, Chardonnays, Syrahs, Zinfandels, and a Pinot Noir round out the Neyers list. Reasonably priced -- all but the AME Cabernet fall between $29 and $48 -- Neyers is a bottle you want to get to know. In addition to his extensive knowledge of California wine, Bruce brings his role as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Imports to the table in crafting his own wines. Kermit Lynch works with over a hundred French vintners, many of which farm organically, make their wines without use of cultured yeast, and bottle their wines without fining or filtration. Consulting winemaker Ehren Jordan has also honed his craft in the regions of Northern Rhone. Adopting some of these French techniques has set Neyers apart in both practice and taste. But, you should decide for yourself. Signing up for the Neyers mailing list offers a 15% discount on orders. I highly recommend the Pato Vineyard Zinfandel ($30) and the Carneros District Chardonnay ($29). Go ahead, pair it with a baguette. www.neyersvineyards.com
We wouldn't have stumbled upon the wines of Wicker Vineyards had we not cancelled our reservation at the renowned Redd and strolled into St. Helena's Farmstead for a casual meal at the bar instead. Across from us sat a kind looking gentleman with a close-cropped beard and salt and pepper hair. He was drinking from his own bottle. With the help of Doreen the bartender, we found out that the gentleman was Ron Wicker, a 40-year veteran in vineyard management who recently added winemaker to his resume. Wicker had been growing and distributing grapes for decades; he was even named Napa Valley Grapegrowers 2010 Grower of the Year. When he purchased some property on Howell Mountain in 2000, he began to till his own grapes. Out of that came the 2001 Wicker Cabernet, a $120 bottle. 2002, 2003, and 2005 vintages followed, and now, Wicker is waiting on his upcoming release. Aged 18 to 20 months in French oak, Wicker's Cabernet is full of deep, rich fruit flavors, and a balanced finish. Wicker sells 80% of his wines off his mailing list, and you're in luck because the upcoming vintage has not yet been released. Out of my price range, but oh-so-glorious, I highly advise a Wicker investment. www.wickervineyards.com
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