by Adam Denno
Autumn is celebrated throughout the country in various ways: in New England the rolling Green and White Mountains are draped in oranges, reds and yellows, the air turns cool and the sweet smell of fresh maple syrup makes even the most patient of souls, wrench with desire for that first buttermilk pancake. In the jagged steeps of the Rocky Mountains, seas of aspen gold switch on your internal instinct to sharpen your edges and renew your annual pass. The appellations and valleys of Northern California are no exception, as well maintained canopies of merlot, cabernet and chardonnay change to shades of bright yellow and orange providing a beautiful backdrop to your wine country experience.
By the middle of September, vineyards spring to life and the “Crush” is in full swing. Grapes are harvested by the ton and shipments of French Oak barrels begin accepting the juices that will one day help bring together family, friends and strangers alike. This time of year, the Napa Valley locals stay off of the Silverado Trail and stick to the winding arterial roads of the surrounding appellations. For Napa, the fall harvest is homage to the established and budding wineophile alike.
Napa is a traditionally temperate region and the autumn is no different. The evenings are reasonably cool and the mornings are simply enjoyed with a cup of coffee and a light sweatshirt. The people of Napa are welcoming and hospitable, offering insights and suggestions on everything from which of the 400 plus vineyards to visit, how to get into exclusive dining and how to best get around the region. This was, as we grew to expect, the standard hospitality at our B&B.
With its informal Queen Anne Style and intricate handcrafted gables, The Hennesy House provided a sanctuary to unwind each evening with a glass of wine from one of the local vineyards, which is exactly what we needed after San Francisco’s traffic, $4/gallon gas and a few misguided turns. After setting our bags down in our room, we needed to start “sampling” as soon as possible. Kevin and Lorri Walsh, the innkeepers, were beginning their evening wine and cheese offering for the inn’s guests. There are times in life were you just feel the stress melt away from your body. This was one of them. 2005V. Sattui Cabernet blended with a sultry mix of Diana Krall will most certainly lower your blood pressure. I’ve always believed that if scientists studied the effects of flavonoids mixed with fervent jazz, the pharmaceutical industry would be out of business! Until then however, my wife and I shall continue conducting our own tests.
Each day brought with it new sites, scents and of course tastes. Cherries, smoke, vanilla, grass, wood, the list goes on and on. There are flavors so complex from vine to vine and year-to-year, that it truly makes the consumer appreciate all the complexity involved in each glass of wine. The timing, temperature, and even the altitude can affect the flavor. Of the many vineyards we experienced several will forever be indelibly etched into our memories: Mayacamas Vineyards and their beautifully simple yet undeniable wines, Frogs Leap with their attention to detail and terrific love affair with the land, the “family” and their grapes and Far Niente, which I will elaborate on later.
Mayacamas Vineyards is an amazingly romantic, old, stone winery near the top of Mt. Veeder in the Mayacamas Mountains. Having spent the morning battling for a spot at tasting counters on the valley floor, my wife and I decided to stop by the Oakville Grocer, pick up some lunch and escape the chaotic tendencies of a slightly inebriated rental car populous.
The winding roads carved into the sides of the western appellations leading up to Mayacamas Vineyards are reminiscent to the foothill areas of Colorado. There are no longer lines or traffic to deal with and the road becomes rocky as you ascend the unpaved road to the entrance of Mayacamas Vineyards. Pulling up to the old stone winery you get the strong sense of tradition, and this feeling is undoubtedly well deserved! Mayacamas was established prior to the 18th amendment, survived those 14 years of prohibition, a hardship which saw most of its county members cease operations, and has once again gained recognition for its established fruit from the vine: all while remaining true to a generational approach of making wine.
After a magnificent tour of the remarkably enduring fundamental operation, we decided to purchase a not yet released 2000 Chardonnay. The sweet vanilla, and a slightly buttery, toasted flavor created a perfect union with the lavender goat cheese, prosciutto and fresh almonds early purchased in Oakville. As we sat overlooking the valley with the cool early autumn breezes, the sounds of James Taylor contributed to an enduring muse. The lyrics and sounds of Taylor’s October Road epitomized the crisp air and seasonal changes resulting in an eternal cerebral memento.
Having finished our Mayacamas delights, we drove on to the next vineyard, Frogs Leap. Frogs Leap Vineyards is the realization of a dream, literally and figuratively. Anyone who’s ever visited the valley has dreamt of finding baron land or befriending a wealthy owner who partners with you to create recognizable wine that people will undoubtedly seek out. The owner of Frogs Leap, John Williams, did just that and in doing so he’s created a sensational operation.
Frogs leaps’ signature red barn can be seen well before arriving. However, when you set foot in this refurbished 1880’s farmhouse, the impeccably manicured gardens of lavender, herbs and vegetables mix with the crush to make an unrivaled aromatic experience. The tasting takes place as you enjoy the gardens and listen to the story of Mr. Williams. How with his strong perseverance and a little luck he was able to acquire the once pre-eminent frog-leg farm for San Franciscan resterauntiers and turn it into a revered producer of some of the regions most sought after wines.
After we enjoyed the cherry, currant, earthy, and herbal flavors of the ’05 Cabernet on our tour, we decided that we must bring some back. Now with its beautiful characteristics, this renowned “Big Red” could develop over the next several years into a wonderfully, full-boded wine, however anyone who knows my wife and I would be amazed if it lasted even several days! So needless to say, on the ride back to our B&B we plotted an evening of decanting. Later, as the cool night set in we reacquainted ourselves with the ’05 Cab and its amazingly smooth tannic structure and delicious cherry and oak finish. Although we had no accompanying music, we wondered aloud how a crackling fire and the sounds of Miles Davis, Stan Kenton or Duke Ellington would have been finishing brush strokes in an otherwise masterpiece of a day.
Our trip originated from a chance happening months before we even set foot on the volcanic soils of Napa Valley. We were in the middle of America when a 1990 Far Niente Chardonnay was shared amongst friends. The discussion immediately turned from one of botched politics and failed investment strategies to the vineyards of Northern California. The smooth aromas of melon, hazelnut, citrus, fig and spice made us begin our relentless research into the experiences of Napa Valley.
Although there are many vineyards to familiarize yourself with in the Napa Valley region, Far Niente is the epitome of the Napa Valley wine experience. Far Niente’s revitalized estate spans ornate gardens, darkened, chilled catacombs and a carriage house, which is home to a marvelous collection of historical, classic and vintage automobiles. Originally established in the late 1800’s, the vineyard closed like others in the valley during prohibition. In 1979, however, Gil Nickel was determined to resurrect the estate and awaken the dormant vineyards. During the exhausting three-year restoration, the original name, Far Niente, was found carved in stone on the front of the building where it remains to this day.
My wife and I were introduced to our guide who seemed so alive and passionate about this place. He recounted days of his youth climbing in and out of the dormant estate, watching owls nest in the rafters of the now impressive main building. The estate is laden with beautifully tailored bridges and fragrant gardens of lavender, alyssum and Miscanthus. As we descended to the end of the flagstone stairs, we were led into the chilled catacombs beneath the stoned estate. Rows of French Oak barrels lined the arched tunnels, each displaying the year and varietal of the particular fermentation. Some of the barrels were a light, pure French-oak-caramel hue, while others had a distinct hand rubbed red band indicating the juices held inside the puncheon. Towards the end of the hallway stood an enviable library of vintage bottles. A ’79 Chardonnay, a ’92 Dolce, an ’85 Cabernet and yes, that ’90 Chardonnay that started this trip months ago.
After admiring this historically voluminous vintage collection we were led out into the piercing light of day and into an adjoining carriage house. The building is impeccably well kept and maintains a sense of housing something cherished. Inside the heavy oak and steel doors lay Gil Nickel’s prized collection of automotive triumphs. Even those who may not be an admirer of vintage, exotic automobiles the collection is undeniably attractive. From Nickel’s ’54 Bentley Continental R, to his ’66 Ferrari 500 Superfast and the ’51 Chevy Panel Truck the collection is truly special.
Our experience wound down at the stone estate house, where we were introduced to select pairings of fresh cheeses and perfectly selected wines; ’00 Chardonnay with Abbaye de Belloc; ’03 Cabernet Cave Collection with Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold and finally the ’05 Late Harvest Dolce with Emperor Blue Auberge. The soul of each wine sprung to life on our tongues, and the scents carried on the warm breezes only moments ago were now being savored fully as the finish lingered. The delicate blue-note rhythms of Art Blakely played in the background, loud enough to feel, but soft enough to hear our guide describe the tannic and malolactic characteristics of the wines.
As others in our group mingled, my wife and I walked past the large farm style oak table and out on the Juliet Balcony overlooking the canopies of cabernet and zinfandel. The gentle autumn winds brought with them the scents from the valley below; sweet and savory, earthy and smooth. We each took several long draws of the warm scented air and turned back to enter inside. As we did we looked skyward back towards the stone face and saw the Italian namesake: Far niente a phrase that romantically translated means “without a care.”
My wife and I met winemakers and workers alike who were passionate about their craft as well as their resulting vintage. However, the enthusiasm and fervor from each member of the Far Niente team was unrivaled. Every detail was met with the utmost care from the skillfully resurrected gardens to the meticulously maintained cellars nothing is left to chance and everything is to be savored.
Autumn in Napa is a season of many enduring cerebral and sensual memories. There are few things in life that move in perfect concert when blended together; an ensemble of classically trained cellist with an equally skilled pianist, a delicately presented caddis met with the eager interest of a green back cuthrought and the pairing of a sharp stilton with its perfectly opposing sweet soul-mate: an ’05 Late Harvest Dolce. So we raise our glass in hopes that we may find periods in life where it can truly be lived Far Niente.