Our Sommelier’s Picks for March: a West Coast Wines Special
Having just returned from a whirlwind trip to the Napa Valley and a quick stop off in Willamette Valley wine country, I have some excellent West Coast wines on the brain. Many people forget that Napa has had vineyards planted for more than 200 years now and many winery buildings reflect that, with stone stamps with 1800s dates and timber beams of old redwood standing firm even as the world changes around them. California has been subject to some absolutely brutal wildfires, so it's important to mention it when they're out of the news cycle. People are still replanting lost vineyards and rebuilding lost winery buildings even now. They need all of our support to keep doing the good work of supplying amazing wine and guarding their wine. It's history in liquid form and history needs stewards to keep it from being forgotten. We steward in our drinking and enjoyment, they steward through their own stress and sweat. Let's celebrate the winemakers, vineyard hands and winery staff who make some of the world's most coveted juice.
Jackson's Somm Picks
I had the absolutely life-altering opportunity to stand in the middle of this vineyard four days ago and smell the fresh petrichor from the morning's rain. This is one of a handful of special vineyards on the Diamond Creek property and this is the one that becomes drinkable and approachable the soonest. Think lush red fruit, spiced apples, blackberries, mint, sandalwood and bay leaves. Diamond Creek was planted by Al Brounstein in the 1960s. Even though he was a lover of West Coast wines, at heart he was a Francophile and spent time in Bordeaux learning from the vineyard hands and tasting some of the greatest wines of the left bank. The vine cuttings for the Diamond Creek property were brought by Al in a suitcase to Mexico (not directly to the US) and then flown by him in his own light plane into California. He propagated an entire estate off of these cuttings and many of the original plantings are still thriving and going into this incredible Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon.
If it's good enough for François Pinault - the owner of Château Latour - it's good enough for us. This iconic Calistoga estate has been making inspiring Cabernet Sauvignon and blends for many decades. One of the wines grown here placed in the top three at the 1976 Judgement of Paris competition where French wines were defeated by American wines - predominantly West Coast wines - in a blind tasting. It was the 1971 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made by Paul Draper at Ridge. Since those days, the wines have been produced under their own label, Araujo, and now they carry the Eisele name front and center on their label after the Pinault family purchased the estate. It's an important property that commands hushed reverence and the wines have the stuffing to show it. These aren't inky and overblown wines at all – they display tremendous ageability and elegance, especially when vinified as a blend. Consider this 2013 Altagracia red blend with its notes of ripe red currants, black plum, fresh mint, pipe tobacco and cedar wood. This can drink now but will reward even more with further aging.
Kongsgaard is synonymous with excellent Napa Valley Chardonnay. John Kongsgaard learned his craft at Newton, where the great Ric Forman had planted and built the vineyards and then started his own winery in 1996. Their West Coast wines are made with low-intervention, Old World winemaking techniques and this produces some of the greatest Chardonnay in all of California. Sure these wines are broad and rich, but they never lack focus. There's always a gorgeous note of lemon curd and tart yellow apple beneath all the rich tropical fruit and very subtle oak tones. If you haven't broached the subject of refined Napa Chardonnay in a while, let this wine be your re-entry point.
Does the name Mondavi ring a bell? Although the classic Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley was sold off long ago, there is still a boutique winery with a Mondavi at the helm and that is Continuum. Tim Mondavi has been making red blends with tremendous structure and concentration since Continuum's first vintage in 2005. They're based high on Pritchard Hill overlooking Lake Hennessy on the east side of Napa Valley and this slightly elevated vineyard land produces wine with great intensity. The famous Chappellet winery sits not too far away. The fruit of wine from this area always has a wonderfully brooding, dark quality to it and can age in bottle for a long time. This would be a good one to lay down for a couple years, as they are most certainly not making shy wines at Continuum.
I hope there's something here in these West Coast wines that allows you to rediscover the wonder of Napa Valley, as I just did. It's often surprising just how passionate and engaged every person in the valley is with their work. Wine is not an industrial product in this venue. It takes hands, heart and hard work to produce and bring into the world. And it's easy to forget that. Many of my favorite wines I've ever had have been aged Napa Cabernets. Not the raisiny, overly-wrought kind, but the soulful and honest wines you see presented here, made by passionate winemakers from hallowed vineyards.
View more of Jackson’s hand-picked wine selections here: