California’s Napa Valley is the heart of America’s wine country. Visitors who enter Napa Valley drive past a sign that reads “And the Wine is Bottled Poetry,” and it’s true. Napa’s rolling hills, miles of beautiful vineyards and friendly locals make the Valley heaven on Earth for many first-time visitors. This tasting introduces you and your guests to some value-priced wines from some well-known Napa producers, and it features the grapes that have made California famous. If it’s your first trip to Napa, we bet it won’t be your last.
This is a relaxed, “horizontal” tasting of a broad variety of white and red wines from Napa Valley. We’ve selected a few of Napa’s better-known producers and concentrated on the grapes that put Napa Valley – and indeed, California wines – on the map. By the end your guests will have tried a nice variety of wines and acquainted themselves with some well-known winemakers that could become staples in their wine rack.
- Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
- Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Chardonnay ($17)
- Merryvale ‘Starmont’ Napa Valley Chardonnay ($15)
- Trefethen Estate Napa Valley Dry Riesling ($17)
- Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot ($17)
- Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
- Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($16)
- Wall Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel ($14)
Start with a Sauvignon Blanc – racy, zesty, great with food. Frog’s Leap is a whimsical winery – note the “Ribbit” on the cork – but they make serious wine, including one of the best Napa Sauvignon Blancs for the money. But Napa is more known for Chardonnay. We’d try two – one (like the Heitz) made in a more fruit-forward, Burgundian style, and one (like the Merryvale) that undergoes secondary malolactic fermentation to achieve a more buttery taste. Riesling occasionally pops up in Napa Valley, and one of the best is the one we recommend from Trefethen, one of Napa’s stalwart winemakers.
Onto the reds – start with a Merlot, which for decades was the most popular red wine in America, renowned for its smooth, rich style. Rutherford Hill makes a great one for the money, and if you’re ever in Napa Valley you should drive up there just for the view alone. But Napa Valley made its name with great Cabernet Sauvignon, so we’d try two in this tasting. The Avalon is a new one recommended for great value-for-money by our friends at K&L Wine Merchants. The Twenty Bench has been around a little longer and again, is a fantastic value for a wine that can be quite expensive. Finish with a red Zinfandel, a uniquely American grape with a big, jammy, spicy style.
This will be an elegant, yet relaxed and fun event. We’d recommend you play the kind of music that you’re likely to hear in the tasting rooms of Napa Valley’s wineries – crossover jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall. The compilation album “The Very Best of Diana Krall” will transport you to California wine country, led by standards such as “S’Wonderful,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” And of course, don’t miss her song from that album that was made to be enjoyed over a glass of wine: “Peel Me a Grape.”
From there, segue into an American classic with a similar sound: Tony Bennett. “The Ultimate Tony Bennett” is a perfect album for your tasting, with twenty great songs including “Rags to Riches,” “Smile,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and of course “I Left My Heart from San Francisco.” The city by the bay is just an hour or so by car from California wine country…frankly, we left our heart in Napa Valley, so we know how Tony feels.
For your cheese board, pick a nice array of American cheeses that will complement your California wines. We recommend Humboldt Fog, Mt. Tam, Dry Jack and Cheddar. You’ll want a goat’s cheese to pair with your Sauvignon Blanc, and our favorite is “Humboldt Fog,” the crumbly, cake-like goat’s cheese with the signature middle line of gray ash from Cypress Grove in California. If you can find it, another great American cheese from artisanal cheese maker Cowgirl Creamery is “Mt. Tam,” named after a small mountain between San Francisco and Napa Valley. It’s a triple cream cheese like Brie (except not French!) and it will go perfectly with your Chardonnay. We feel obliged to recommend two more American cheeses for your reds, just to keep it in the family – Dry Jack and Cheddar. But we have to admit we’re torn, because a nice aged Parmigiano-Reggiano pairs so well with both Chardonnay and Cabernet that your guests would forgive you for picking one Italian cheese!
We’d probably keep this as a wine-and-cheese rather than introducing too many heavy appetizers to your party. An assortment of tapenades will go great – perhaps olive, eggplant and artichoke dips, along with crackers and/or baguette slices. Put out some grapes, strawberries and dried apricots as well. Also, whole roasted almonds make a great accompaniment to your Chardonnay, while whole or pitted olives go great with Cabernet. If you want to do something heavier, Chardonnay actually isn’t so food-friendly, but all of your red wines will gladly stand up to meat dishes like meatballs, sliced bratwurst, or grilled steak sliced into bite-size portions and served on sliced baguette. But while it’s tempting given the California angle, we’d stay away from guacamole and chips (and would definitely avoid salsa).
Napa wines can be expensive, so we’ve focused here on big-name producers’ less expensive white wines, as well as value-priced reds from lesser-known producers. In recent years, prices for top Chardonnays and Cabernets have soared; you can literally spend as much as you want on a Napa Valley wine. We’ve focused on wines in the $15 range to introduce you to the region.
Frog’s Leap is a really fun winery to visit, but if you can’t make a trip to California, the wines are a worthy consolation prize. The winery has gone totally organic, including running its own electric company for sustainable power (a friend of ours has a “Frog’s Leap Electric Company” T-shirt). They make a range of great wines from a setting featuring a beautiful old-fashioned red farmhouse, and most of their wines still have corks that say “Ribbit” on them. We picked their Sauvignon Blanc, but a close second would have been Robert Mondavi Winery’s Fume Blanc. After all, Robert Mondavi decided to rename Sauvignon Blanc as “Fume Blanc” in a stroke of marketing genius several decades ago, and the wine’s popularity soared.
Napa Valley was put on the map in 1976, in the “Judgment of Paris” winetasting immortalized by George Taber’s excellent book of the same name. A British wine shop owner named Steven Spurrier living in Paris at the time thought it would be interesting to commemorate the American bicentennial with a blind tasting of France’s great white and red wines against then-unknown, upstart new wines from California. It was a bad day for France; Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the white wine tasting against the best Burgundies, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon beat out some top Bordeaux to capture the prize for best red wine. As they say, the rest is history. Napa Valley’s wine reputation still rests on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon today, though many other wonderful wines are made there today.
California Chardonnay is often known by its buttery, creamy quality. This effect comes from a process called malolactic fermentation, the chemical reaction during winemaking by which the mallic (fruity) acids in the grapes are converted to lactic (milky) acids in the end-product wine. This is part of the natural evolution of any Chardonnay; however, many California winemakers then have their wines undergo a secondary, artificial malolactic fermentation that further accentuates this buttery character. Winemakers often discuss the flavor contrast between a “Burgundian” style Chardonnay – one with clean, crisp fruit flavors – and the “California” style that tastes more buttery. It’s worth mentioning to your guests that while many wine drinkers in the U.S. love this buttery Chardonnay character, many do not like it. In fact, there are more and more California winemakers proudly making their Chardonnays these days in the more traditional, fruit-forward Burgundian style that does not feature secondary malolactic fermentation.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape that forms the backbone of many of the great (and wildly expensive) red wines of Bordeaux, France. It’s known for its structure, richness, depth and “tannins” (the mild dry-mouth effect you notice when drinking it standalone), and it’s known as a wine that can age well. The grape thrives on its own in Napa, both in 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines as well as Bordeaux-style blends that are based largely on Cabernet. The better “Napa Cabs” start in the $25 range with wines like Clos du Val (which we recommend) and can cost as much as several thousand (!) dollars a bottle for “cult wines” like Screaming Eagle.
Merlot is also a big Bordeaux grape, but is smoother than Cabernet, if perhaps lacking in some of the flavor depth & intensity. Merlot remains a wildly popular wine, though the 2004 movie Sideways single-handedly branded Merlot as the uncool cousin to Pinot Noir, a wine its protagonist believed was more worthy of admiration. Overnight, Merlot sales plummeted, Pinot Noir sales (and prices) soared, and many wine snobs decided Merlot was uncool. This is perhaps unfair; many great Bordeaux wines are made largely from Merlot, and the top Napa winemakers produce delicious, flavorful Merlots that are lush, rich and smooth.
Red Zinfandel is a quintessentially American wine (the grape does not grow outside the U.S., though some trace it to Italy’s little-known primitivo grape). It’s a big, bold, spicy, jammy wine that goes great with red meat or – inside tip – with your Thanksgiving dinner, since it can stand up to the creamy flavors & foods most Americans include in their Turkey Day feast. We think it’s a fun one to include in your tasting.