Napa Valley, CA, USA

Greetings from California ! I had a nice long weekend in Northern California, and there’s no better way to start a weekend than with a day in Napa Valley… where taking time to enjoy good food, wine and company while surrounded by the gorgeous valley hills is the only thing on the agenda.

Chardonnay grapes

This is actually my second time to Napa; my first visit was ten years ago with my family when I was a few months shy of legal drinking age. And that was okay, because it was fun going to wineries like Sterling where I could ride the gondola and learn about winemaking. And of course I was still in beautiful country. BUT, well, obviously it’s better when you can sample some of the best wine in the world all day long.

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Tasting the Chardonnay at Grgich Hills Estate

We started at Grgich Hills Estates, founded in 1977 by Mike Grgich. Grgich put Napa on the map during the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, when California Chardonnays topped their French competition in a blind tasting contest. No one previously thought wines from the US could hold a candle to French wines, and it shocked the world and changed much of the landscape of wine around the world. Grgich (then working at Chateau Montelena) opened up his own operation and the rest is history.

I personally really appreciated Grgich for the fact that their estate is certified organic and bio-dynamic, powered by solar,  and committed to producing wines naturally. All without sacrificing quality.

We sampled a Chardonnay, Fumé Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Fumé Blanc was my favorite, and it’s essentially a Sauvignon Blanc with a marketing name update to increase sales. Apparently no one likes Sauvignon Blancs? I actually really liked it and walked away with a bottle. The Fumé (smoked) comes from the toasted French oak barrels… which is the closest thing to whiskey I’ll probably ever claim to like. 😀

Keith in the Grgich Hills Estate vineyards

Actually, I should back up. Prior to even starting our day, we had no planned tour or schedule to keep (surprise !). So, we grabbed a map from the visitor’s center and headed over to Oxbow Public Market for coffee and breakfast to make a rough plan for the day. It was a busy place, full of people standing in lines for Ritual coffee (ourselves included) and C Casa breakfast tacos (ourselves included). We found a table, spread the map out and not knowing much, plotted out a flexible itinerary throughout the valley. Our decisions were based on pure randomness coupled with some recommendations from the visitor’s center and internet searches for what was actually open. Which is a lot like how I usually buy wine: mostly randomness with minor regard for recommendations and logistics.

And we all know randomness just equals what the label looks like.

Breakfast tacos and coffee while mapping out Napa
So, after Oxbow and then Grgich, we meandered over the PlumpJack winery. It was a good choice, despite the fact that they are known for their quality Cabernet Sauvignon. (I’m not the biggest fan of red wine, but I’m slowly getting back into it.) We tasted:

Tasting a 2013 syrah at PlumpJack

You may notice that three of the wines had points, which in theory, relates to their quality…according to the wine critics that score them on the 100-point scale introduced by Robert Parker, Jr. A score of 90+ is considered “outstanding.” The scale has its advantages and disadvantages as any rating system does, but I like what Parker had to say about the rating system overall:

Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine’s style, personality, and potential. No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional’s judgment. However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.

Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.

And to that point, the most fun part of tasting the wines at PlumpJack was to take a sip and then describe the wine the way a winemaker would: The wine has notes of blackberries and just-picked cherries. This one is reminiscent of a well-worn piece of leather. As the wine opens, a firey dragon emerges and sweeps you off your feet. The aroma reminds me of a lazy day at the beach… We took our judgement very seriously. Some of our impressions were really ridiculous. And laughably way off. And though it all seems arbitrary, sometimes I swear I could really taste leather. But maybe that was because I was four or five wines deep… 🙂

By the way, my favorite PJ wine was the Syrah at 94 points, the highest we tasted there. The description talked of “concentrated fruit aromas of blackberry, boysenberry, and huckleberry pie.” Coincidence? Ha, probably completely.

And of course, I enjoyed PlumpJack because I liked walking around the grounds with its typical rustic, Napa Valley charm. Put up string lights anywhere, and I’m sold.

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Beautiful, rustic tasting seats at PlumpJack Winery

We did not just spend our time at wineries in Napa Valley. Of course not. We had to eat. And I knew exactly where to go. Napa Valley is home to one of the most celebrated chefs in the world: Thomas Keller. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a disappointing meal in Napa, I’ve admired Keller’s meticulous approach to food and cooking, incredibly high standards, and most of all, his overall philosophy to eating:

A great meal is not one that just fills you up. A great meal is a journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven’t been before.

Outside of Addendum on a beautiful autumn day

Future visits will mandate trips to the French Laundry and Bouchon, because we were in the mood for a boxed lunch of fried chicken at Keller’s Ad Hoc + Addendum. We sat outside at picnic tables on a beautiful November day, enjoying the best fried chicken (honestly) that I’ve ever had, enjoying sides of comfort food done just right, and of course a glass of rosé. Spectacular.

Fried chicken, macaroni salad, coleslaw and rosé at Thomas Keller’s Addendum

Our last stop in Napa was up north in Calistoga at the Castello di Amorosa. The welcome center volunteer, after asking us if we liked castles (yes) and if we wanted to do a tour (yes), recommended it to us and we took her up on it. And in all honestly, in the end, I had mixed feelings about it. The castle was painstakingly recreated to recreate/imitate a 13th century Tuscan castle. Everything—meaning everything, from the rivets in the doors to the stones in the building—was brought over from Italy and other parts of Europe, recreated using the same production techniques that would have been used hundreds years ago. It’s impressive and committed to the Italian fantasy, definitely, and it took a long time to build. I also think it was trying too hard. The tour felt like it was more about the owner rather than the product. (It reminded me a lot of the tour we took at Bulleit in Louisville for similar reasons.) Perhaps I was expected more of an education like I got at Sterling ten years ago (which was actually located next door), but nonetheless it was a fun tour. Plus, you cannot beat those views.

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View from Castello di Amorosa
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Outside of Castello di Amorosa

I was happy with the fact that I got to pick which wines I wanted to taste at Castello di Amorosa. Which meant I got more than one white and more than Chardonnay. Of the eleven total wines we sampled, I tasted a few Gewürztraminer including one that was a late harvest dessert style, and a nice rosé. The reds I tried were my least favorite of the day, and really made me appreciate the ones we tried earlier. Maybe I’m slowly (very slowly) become a connoisseur. Probably not.

Tasting some cabernet sauvignon futures at Castello di Amorosa and a peek in the cellars

We also got the chance to try a future Cabernet Sauvignon from the barrel. [We could have bought a barrel and become wine speculators ! We didn’t, we’re not that savvy.] It was interesting to think about the age of wine and the whole production process. Wine can sit in its barrel up to ~18-months and then in the bottle for up to ~18-months, and if you buy it en primeur (or wine futures, which are fancy ways of saying pre-bottled wine), you can purchase it as a discount. The closer to bottling wine gets, the higher the price gets. And everywhere we went, we kept hearing about the 2012-present drought. And how amazing it is for wine.

At least to a point. Droughts are good for wine; the lack of water concentrates the flavor of the grape and the resulting wine is enhanced. And most grape varietals like dry weather too, which is why people are saying that vintages from 2012 onward, many wines are going to be very, very good. But again, at least to a point. We learned at Grgich that grape plants are resilient; they’ll send their roots down looking the necessary water. They can weather the drought. But they are still living plants, and they still need water. Which is drying up at all levels, groundwater included. While some drought is good, prolonged drought is detrimental to viticulture, especially because the buildup of salt in the soil during a drought can wreck havoc on the vines. If you’re curious, check out these vintage notes provided by Grgich about the last several years’ wines.

Basically, if you want to sound knowledgeable about wine at a party all you need to exclaim is: Ahhh, 2012, what a great year for wine !


Clearly, it was a full, fun day of learning about and drinking wine, beautiful views and good food. And our time in NorCal is just beginning ! (Though I’m sure it’ll end too soon.)

Beautiful Napa Valley at sunset
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In the beautiful Napa Valley

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