Category Archives: Napa Valley

60 Second Wine Review — 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Mark Herold got his start in the wine industry as a research enologist for Joseph Phelps before founding Merus in 1998 in his garage with his then wife, Erika Gottl. Jim Gordon notes in Opus Vino, that over the next 10 years Herold turned his small 1500 case production of Merus into one of the most acclaimed wines in Napa. In 2007, Merus was sold to Foley Wine Group with Herold leaving the following year as Camille Benitah and Paul Hobbs took over winemaking.

After leaving Merus, Herold continued consulting at estates like Bucella, Celani Family, Kamen, Kobalt, Harris, Hestan and Maze. As part of a divorce settlement and non-compete, he agreed not to make any Cabernet Sauvignon under his own label until 2010.

According to Barnivore, Mark Herold Wines are vegan-friendly. The 2012 Brown Label is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with around 575 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of sweet oak spices and vanilla. Rich dark fruit–currants, blackberries. There is also a smokey, roasted coffee element to the nose as well.

On the palate, the wine is very big and full-bodied with medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. The dark fruits carry through but the oak still dominants with the vanilla adding a lushness that rounds out the tannic edge. I wished the coffee note carried through with the smokey element instead being more toasted wood on the palate instead of roasted coffee. Moderate length finished.

Photo by Paolo Neo. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain

Rich dark fruits like black currant and oak are abundant in this Cab.

The Verdict

The 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label falls in line with your classic big, bold Napa Cabs that have noticeable oak. Though while it does have rich dark fruit and vanilla lusciousness, it is a bit better balanced than most of its peers with the tannins keeping it from being sweet and the acidity bringing freshness.

At around $95-110, it is very much in line with wines from estates like Cakebread, Silver Oak, Frank Family and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

60 Second Wine Review — Ceja Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2011 Ceja Vineyards Pinot noir from Carneros.

The Geekery

Ceja was founded in 1999 by first generation Mexican-Americans Amelia Ceja, her husband Pedro, Pedro’s brother Armando (the winemaker) and his wife Martha. The roots of Ceja Vineyards dates back to 1983 when the Cejas purchased 15 acres in Carneros, planting them with vines in 1986 and eventually expanding to 115 acres. For years, the Cejas sold their fruit to local wineries. Even after establishing their winery, Ceja still sells around 85% of their fruit, keeping their choice plots for use in their 10,000 case production.

They practice sustainable viticulture with Ceja Vineyards winning a California Green Business Award in 2017. Also in 2017, Amelia Ceja was honored as the first and only Mexican-American woman to own a winery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Winemakers Dinner.

Located on the Napa side of the Los Carneros AVA, Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy in American Wine describe Ceja as one of the “Steady Hands” in Carneros, along with Truchard Vineyards, Schug and Gloria Ferrer, producing consistently reliable wines.

While the topic of high alcohol in California Pinot noir is contentious, Ceja regularly keeps their wines under 14% with this 2011 Pinot clocking in at 13.9%

The Wine

Photo by Iain Thompson. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The fresh forest floor notes adds lots of complexity to this Pinot.

High intensity nose. Rose petals, red cherries, spice and fresh forest floor earthiness. Not that dissimilar from a Beaune Pinot noir.

On the palate, the red fruit and spice carries through with the medium-plus acidity adding mouthwatering juiciness. The earthiness is also present but takes a back seat to the still fresh fruit though it re-emerges on the long finish. Medium tannins and medium body add nice balance and structure.

The Verdict

Very beautiful Pinot noir that is quite enjoyable on its own but would truly shine on the table. The combination of balance, mouthwatering acidity and complex flavors gives it flexibility to pair with a variety of dishes.

This Ceja Pinot is well worth the $35-45 retail and definitely shines among its Carneros peers.

60 Second Wine Review — Emmolo Sauvignon blanc

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Emmolo Sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Emmolo is made by Jenny Wagner, daughter of Chuck Wagner of Caymus fame. The winery was founded by her mother, Cheryl Emmolo, in 1994 where she got the “pick of the litter” from her parent’s vineyard on Mee Lane in Rutherford. For years the Emmolos sold most of this fruit to wineries like The Hess Collection, Robert Mondavi Winery and Villa Mt. Eden.

Emmolo’s roots in Napa Valley date back to the 1920s when Salvatore Emmolo started a rootstock nursery in Rutherford. He built a winery on the property in 1934 which Jenny uses to make Emmolo wines today. The first vintages were made by Cheryl with the help of Ric Forman. Jenny took over in 2014, however, she had been working with her mother for several vintages so the 2011 Merlot and 2012 Sauvignon blanc are considered her first releases.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. A bit surprised at how fragrant it is for 5 year California Sauvignon blanc. A mix of floral and tree fruits like apple and peaches.

On the palate, those tree fruit notes come through, particularly the apple but you can tell the age as the fruit taste more rich than fresh. The wine has medium acidity with weight on the palate, almost like a Chardonnay that has spent time in a neutral oak barrel. Not quite creamy but heavy. On the finish some citrus notes like pomelo pop out.

Photo by High Contrast. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Apple fruit dominants but the pomelo note on the finish adds complexity


The Verdict

It’s clear that this Sauvignon blanc is on the wane of its life but it was still quite enjoyable. As noted in the review above, the aromatics are inviting and impressive.

At around $20, I’m quite satisfied with this Emmolo Sauvignon blanc and would certainly be open to trying newer vintages. If you have a bottle of the 2012, it’s worth opening up and enjoying now but I probably wouldn’t hold onto it for more than another year or two.

60 Second Wine Review — Titus Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2010 Titus Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Titus Vineyards is a family owned winery located in St. Helena that was founded in 1968 by Lee & Ruth Titus and is ran today by their sons Phillip and Eric.

Early in their history, the Titus family sold their grapes to other Napa Valley wineries, most notably Charles Krug, but in 1990 they started commercial wine production from their own grapes with Phillip as winemaker.

Phillip cut his teeth working at Quail Ridge before joining Chappellet winery on Pritchard Hill in 1981. There he served as an assistant to legendary winemaker Cathy Corison. Eventually Phillip left Chappellet for stints at Stratford and Cartlidge & Brown before returning in 1990 to be head winemaker–joining an esteemed lineage that includes not only Corison but also Phillip Togni and Tony Soter.

Today, Phillip does the winemaking for both Chappellet and their second label, Sonoma Loeb, and his family’s Titus wines.

The 2010 Titus Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from the family’s estate vineyard in St. Helena and the Ehlers Lane Vineyard located just a few miles north. Around 2370 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. Rich dark fruit (cassis, blackbery) mixed with tobacco and a little Christmas fruitcake spice.

On the palate the dark fruit carries through. Surprising with how rich it is for a 7+ year Cab. The medium-plus acidity is still fresh with the medium-plus tannins having a velvety texture to them at this point. The spice notes linger on the 30+ second finish.

By Dwight Sipler from Stow, MA, USA - BlackberriesUploaded by Jacopo Werther, CC BY 2.0, on Wikimedia Commons

The blackberry notes on this wine are rich but very fresh.


The Verdict

I’m usually very skeptical of how well high alcohol Cabs age but I would have never guessed this one was a 2010 at 14.9% ABV.

The acidity and freshness, coupled with the seamless elegance balances the full-bodied weight of the ripe fruit very well. In a blind tasting, I would have pegged this as something that was 4 years old at max.

At around $50-55, this is a scrumptious Napa Cab that is punching well above it weight.

60 Second Wine Review — Groth Oakville Cabernet


A few quick thoughts on the 2002 Groth Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

In his 1989 book California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube of Wine Spectator ranks Groth’s estate Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the “Third Growths” of California–putting it on par with other great wines like Shafer’s Hillside Select, Louis Martini’s Monte Rosso and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ SLV and above Laube’s “Fourth Growths” of Silver Oak Napa Valley, Joseph Phelps’ Backus Vineyard and Rombauer’s Le Meilleur du Chai.

Founded in 1982 by Dennis Groth, a former executive of Atari, and his wife Judy, the winery owns a little over 136 sustainably farmed acres between their Oakville Estate Vineyard and Hillview Vineyard in Yountville. Usually Groth produces a reserve Cabernet (which Laube ranked as a “Second Growth” on par with Dominus and Grace Family Vineyards) but because of vineyard replanting no reserve Cab was produced between the 2000 and 2004 vintages.

The 2002 vintage of the Oakville Cab was 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot. The wine saw 23 months in 50% new French oak.

The Wine

Medium plus intensity nose. Rich roasted coffee aromas with savory black tea notes. You would expect this to be served by a barista.

On the palate you can find some fruit but it is more dried red cranberry and currants. The coffee and tea notes carry through and are met with more savory notes of leather and meatiness. Medium acidity still gives the wine life and balances well with the soft medium tannins.

The Verdict

By François Bianco - Freshly roasted coffee, CC BY-SA 2.0, on Wikimedia Commons

If you’re needing a Starbucks fix, the huge roasted coffee aromas in this Groth Oakville Cab will get you jonesing even more for the java.

It’s clear that this wine is on the waning side of maturity but it still had immense character with a lot of story left to tell. This is a wine worth savoring over a couple hours with good friends as each sniff and sip reveals something different.

Being an older vintage, the price will vary but at between $75-95 it is a solid bet for someone who likes elegant and savory Cabernet Sauvignons.

60 Second Wine Reviews — Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon

Some quick thoughts on the 2013 Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Back in 2004, Matt Kramer pegged Darioush Winery as “One to Watch” in his book New California Wine, and his words have proven apt as Darioush has become one of the “must visit” estates in Napa Valley.

Located in the Stags Leap District, the winery was founded in 1997 by Iranian immigrants Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi. The site of their winery on the Silverado Trail used to belong to Altamura Winery before the later moved down to Wooden Valley near the city of Napa.

The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from estate fruit in Mount Veeder and Oak Knoll District AVAs and from hillsides vineyards in the greater Napa Valley AVA. The wine is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot that spent 22 months aging in 85% new French oak. Around 9,155 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Dark fruit (blackberry, black plum) with noticeable vanilla and oak spice.

The mouthfeel is huge! Very full bodied and almost thick with high tannins and dense dark fruit. I felt like I was chewing this wine more than I was chewing my steak. The wine did have medium plus acidity that added a saving grace of juiciness to keep my palate from wearing out. Long finish brought some spice.

The Verdict

Photo by Jim Gateley. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

The Darioush Winery in Napa Valley. Like the wine they make, it’s BIG!

Big, big, big wine. It has a lot of character and probably would benefit from a good 2 hour decant which my dinner didn’t afford.

Still, it paired well with my steak and was worth the restaurant mark up. At around $95-110 retail, it is worth the money for someone who wants a huge, brooding red wine that is almost a meal in itself.

60 Second Wine Reviews – Stags’ Leap Merlot


A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Stags’ Leap Winery Merlot from Napa Valley.

The Geekery
Often known as The Other Stags Leap, Stags’ Leap Winery has a long history dating back to 1872 when grapes were first planted on the property by T.L. Grigsby (who also founded Occidental Winery that is now part of Regusci Winery).

The first wine was released in 1893 by then owner Horace Chase with wine production continuing to 1908. After more than six decades of stagnation the estate was purchased by Carl Doumani with 1972 marking the first modern-era release of Stags’ Leap Winery. In 1997, the estate was sold to what is now Treasury Wine Estates.

Among the many other brands in Treasury’s portfolio with Stags’ Leap include 19 Crimes, Acacia, Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Gabbiano, Lindeman’s, Matua, Penfolds, Sterling Vineyards and Wolf Blass.

While the winery does have around 6.5 acres of Merlot planted on their estate vineyard in the Stags Leap District (which goes into their $60+ bottle), most of the fruit for this wine comes from purchased grapes sourced throughout Napa Valley.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose. Very light red fruit notes like cherry and raspberry. There is a slight herbal note that is not very defined. On the palate the wine has medium acidity and medium tannins that contributes to a round mouthfeel but one that is a bit flabby. A little more acidity would have helped to liven it up. The fruit is still very light but seems more of a mix of dark fruit than the red fruit on the nose. The herbal note becomes a bit greener and makes me think of capers.

Photo by Bi-frie released under CC by 3.0

The capers add a little bit of complexity but not much more.


The Verdict
At around $30 this would be a pass for me. It’s easy drinking and fruity but so are many red blends in the $10-20 range.

Maybe it would work as a $7-9 glass pour at a restaurant paired with a burger, but there is really nothing of interest here that is worth splurging for a whole bottle.

Tripping into Wine’s Loopholes

What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it? What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend, but not necessarily a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it. Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine that you ordered at a restaurant in Texas which was actually made in Texas?

By W.carter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The red pill pairs with Albarino while the blue one pairs with Pinot grigio

Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine and while it would make a boring blog post (and movie), everyone is welcome to take it. But if you want to know the truth and be a little bit more dangerous as a wine consumer, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.

Fighting Varietals (or not)

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a nice brochure with a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Here we’ll note some key details.

To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape- This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only Cabernet Sauvignon” and think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” or would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one. The truth is that most of the red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically always been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.

My personal favorite of Ginny's wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her "Peanut butter & Chocolate" pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

My personal favorite of Ginny’s wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her “Peanut butter & Chocolate” pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

Why? Because blending helps them make potentially better wines. I remember listening to winemaker Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin because the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice marries so well with the similar (but sometimes uneven with its ripening habits) flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But, as Ginny described, putting the two together is like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.

No one can discount that Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates with blending in the white wine grapes of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay to add sweetness and make the wine more soft. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth yet I don’t know if anyone can credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.

By Steph Laing CC BY 2.0

Only a true confectionery snob would say that the flour alone taste better than this blended creation.

Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label yet every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making but you better believe that they are still making the business decision that they are going to sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.

That is my personal gripe about this loophole. I’m very pro-blend but disheartened that the reality of the wine business is that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding the fact that what they are truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.

Now, of course, we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws so, hey, a loophole to a loophole!

Napa with a Twang

Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:

To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region— Napa grapes are expensive with the average price of a ton being over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20. Unless……

You turn some corners. With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.

When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton with Lake County clocking in at around $1600 a ton. And in the southern Central Valley around Fresno, you can get a ton of grapes for around $300. So clearly there is some financial incentive in offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” with that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.

But is it really still “Napa” or, at least, what a consumer would expect from a Napa Valley wine? That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.

Big Tex portion of pic from By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Picasa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

To be fair, I think Napa stole the idea of erecting big signs from Texas first.

The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole that allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from as long as they only sell it within their home state. So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit and potentially blend in 15% of Texas fruit and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.

The comment period for discussion over this particular loophole will run till December 7th, 2016. For those who like to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the diverse perspectives of people who are both for closing the loophole and against it.

I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole closed, if only because of the big money involved with the Napa brand itself. But, as we’ve learned, there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over. Maybe its best for all of us to sit back and chase down the blue pills while enjoying our $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

This is Napa

Forbes contributor Cathy Huyghe recently did a lovely write up on Cain Vineyard & Winery and described why she feels that the Spring Mountain estate is the “ultimate movie location in the Napa Valley”. While I’ve not had the privilege of visiting Cain, I was recently at Spring Mountain in August for a work trip and got to experience the majesty of the fog from nearby Barnett Vineyards on Spring Mountain. I took a video as I was walking through the vineyard and about 15 seconds in you can see my “WOW” moment with the fog.

Seeing the fog and watching it slowly burn off over the course of an hour as it crept back towards San Pablo Bay had me feeling like Neo from The Matrix the first time he had programs, like martial arts, uploaded directly into his brain. It really clicked what made Napa so unique. I’ve read about it. I’ve tasted a lot. I’ve visited the area before (just not this early in the day) but all that stuff I thought I knew became more vivid and real at that moment.

Probably had the same dumb look on my face as well

Probably had the same dumb look on my face as well

This is Napa
This is how such a warm, beautiful Mediterranean climate can still produce wines with such lively acidity that allows them to still taste fresh and then age for decades. This is why, contrary to what is the norm in the Northern Hemisphere, AVAs to the north like Calistoga and St. Helena are so much warmer and can grow Zinfandel while AVAs to the south like Carneros and Oak Knoll District are more Pinot and Chardonnay country. This is why with the vineyards planted in the Mountain AVAs that your elevation and placement above or below the fogline can be the difference between wines with chewy but ripe tannins or wines with more intense and firmer tannins.

Taken from roughly the same location at Barnett Vineyards

Taken from roughly the same location at Barnett Vineyards

It truly is an incredible sight and experience that no amount of pictures, videos or descriptions would ever do justice. I would encourage any Napa Valley wine lover to make it a point, at least once in their life, to book an early morning appointment with a producer on one of the mountain AVAs. Not only are there several terrific ones on Spring Mountain like Barnett, Cain, Philip Togni, Newton, Pride, etc but there are usually tourist options on Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder as well. It might take a bit of cajoling to convince them to open the gates that early for an appointment but it’s worth the effort.

But be forewarn, if the wine is even half as awesome as Barnett’s was, it will be incredibly difficult to want to spit. So just enjoy your early morning boozing with a view. We won’t tell anyone.