Napa is always a fantastic wine destination (particularly in fall), and there is always something new to see there no matter how many times one visits. Our latest visit was no exception with the great finds of Moone Tsai, Hoopes, and Copper Cane wineries. We also saw Peju, Continuum, and had lunch with Michael Mondavi’s Animo team. Due to a lot of rain (this is a good thing for Napa), we weren’t out in the vineyards much but still saw lots of glorious color.
We started at Continuum which I saw a few years ago when it first broke ground on Pritchard Hill. Now sporting cellars and tasting rooms along with that still-stunning view to the Pacific Ocean, we tried the 2013 Continuum (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 9% Petit Verdot) as well as the 2014 Novicium (74% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot, and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon). Novicium means “new or fresh wine” in Latin. The Continuum is meant for the long haul and is a dark dense beauty of all things black – cherry, earth, coffee, and cassis notes. The Novicium is drinking well now with floral, vegetal, and inky notes backed by firm acidity and smooth tannins. Tim Mondavi and his very accommodating family were most gracious as always and continue to produce knockout wines of elegance and balance.
Our next stop was Hoopes which I’d not heard of but was thrilled to discover. We spent a scintillating lunch with Lindsay Hoopes and Tim Gaiser (Master Sommelier) learning about the estate as well as how to be better tasters. Try this trick the next time you drink wine: roll your eyes to the top of your head and try to smell at the same time. It doesn’t work so well as one apparently loses their sense of smell while doing this. Tim spent a lot of time tasting with a behavioral scientist and came away with all sorts of interesting findings including that good tasters move their eyes in the same pattern (usually to the left versus right) when in a groove tasting.
Lindsay got thrown into running the winery when her father became ill and has done a stellar job by the looks of things. She has an all-female staff and is working on building a proper tasting room although we got to experience her mother’s warm and welcoming house which will be hard to beat. The wines were among the most exciting from Napa that I’ve had in awhile. The 2013 Hoopes Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon was lush with violets, graphite, and blueberry pie notes amid finely-grained tannins. The 2013 Hoopes Dante’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon was also excellent tasting of black currant, mint, violets, and blackberry. Both are full-bodied powerhouses yet also elegant. I thought the Oakville Cabernet was a little more approachable now but hard to go wrong with either. Lindsay and her team are also dabbling in Napa wine travel and possibly in-home wine tasting around the country.
We ended the day at Copper Cane which is the new brainchild of Joe Wagner. Joe also created Meiomi which Constellation Brands recently bought for $315 million. In his new venture, Joe is making Oregon Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and sparkling wine among his other California wine offerings. There is a reason Joe has gotten so much press – he is an unusual visionary and wise far beyond his years. Every detail counts even down to the well-chosen names of his wines, all which have particular meaning attributed to the wine itself. His Steorra (sparkling wine) means “star” in old English and is on the California flag, Beran (Zinfandel) means “bear” for the bear in the California flag, and Elouan (Pinot Noir) means “good light”. Not only is he fascinating to listen to, his wines are also intriguing.
Among the many wines we tried were a flight of 3 Pinot Noirs; a single-vineyard from Santa Maria Valley, CA (2015 Belle Glos Clark and Telephone), one from Russian River Valley, Sonoma (2015 Boen), and the last from Oregon (2014 Elouan). The Elouan was higher in acid and the lowest in alcohol, being from a cooler climate, while the Russian River Valley Pinot had notes of cola and cherry. The Santa Maria Pinot had the fullest body of the three, with the highest alcohol (14.9%) from the warmest growing site and notes of baking spice, blackberry, cranberry, and caramel. This is a great exercise if you’re trying to determine what style of Pinot Noir you like as the spectrum moves from more savory and lighter-bodied to fruit-forward and full-bodied. His Steorra sparkling wine was also terrific.
The next day we set out for a tasting with Moone-Tsai amidst dense Napa fog which only added to the mystique and allure of these beautiful wines. Moone-Tsai’s vineyards are on Howell Mountain which has always been one of my favorite Napa appellations since my first visit to White Cottage Vineyards in 2011. I fell in love with it then and have remained enamored with wines from this AVA ever since. Howell Mountain wines are like the yin and yang. They are lush yet restrained, exuberant yet shy. It’s no surprise then that Howell Mountain was actually the first AVA in California based on these unique growing traits.
Moone-Tsai is perched right on the edge of this historic mountain. We spent an awe-inspiring morning with Mary Ann and Larry Tsai tasting through some of their wines. Their 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay was almost Burgundian-like in style with apple, white pepper, and lemon zest notes. Despite 17 months of aging in 50% new French oak barrels, the oak was remarkably subtle with a creamy palate and long, elegant finish. This is a special Chardonnay and that’s saying a lot coming from me as Chardonnay is not my favorite variety.
We moved on to several Cabernet Sauvignon blends after that. All of them were exceptional however my favorites were the 2013 Howell Mountain Hillside Blend (71% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon) and the 2012 Cor Leonis Cabernet Sauvignon. Howell Mountain does Merlot exceptionally well and that’s evident in the Hillside Blend which tasted of plum, roses, mint, and brambly black fruit. The 2012 Cor Leonis (means “heart of the lion”) was more garnet in color and tasted of black currant, cocoa powder, and wet stone with sweet vanilla notes (from the 24 months in 90% new French oak). Both of these wines will age another 12-15 years with the Cor Leonis easily lasting another decade.
There is something unique about the Howell Mountain tannins that always stick out for me as they are so finely- grained and almost sandy on the tongue. This quality, along with the deep concentration and firm structure that are also trademarks of Howell Mountain, makes these wines among the best of Napa.
Our next stop was with Michael Mondavi and his Animo team at a Napa restaurant due to the heavy rain. We also got to meet his new assistant winemaker, Sabrina Massola, who is a transplant from Mendoza, Argentina. We tasted their 2013 and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignons which was interesting as the 2014 was the first vintage made by Sabrina. Her style was evident as the 2014 was unfined and a bit more savory, earthy, and restrained which I really liked. Fining makes a wine more clear and bright and the 2014 was a bit more opaque and cloudy as a result of being unfined. Fining is more of an aethestic thing as most consumers want clear wine but the process can also strip a wine of some flavor and color so winemakers differ in their opinions around this topic. Both wines were fantastic; they just differed in style.
Sabrina brings a wealth of knowledge (and infectious enthusiasm) from her winemaking days in Mendoza and combined with Michael Mondavi’s long-running excellence, it should be a great partnership for years to come. It’s always impressive when a company so well-established continues to try to innovate and change even with wines that are working well.
Our last winery of the trip was at Peju. This idyllic spot is located in Rutherford Valley within Napa. The winery sports a beautiful tower, stunning tasting room with Australian stone, and a nostalgic stained- glass window wall from Germany. It’s a lovely and tranquil place to visit and taste wine. Peju owns several other vineyards which allows them to make a wide variety of wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Muscat, Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, several sparkling and rosé wines, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of my favorites here was the 2013 Sketches I wine which was a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot aged in equal parts French and American oak for 16 months. This is a full bodied lush wine tasting of blackberry, cherry, cedar, and cocoa with another decade in front of it. The sparkling wines were also very nice as were the 2013 Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.