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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Kindness of (Most) Napa Strangers

A stop at the annual Food & Wine party on our second night made me realize that regardless of the open-armed, accessible experiences in Sonoma, the snooty wine mentality still exists in some circles.  A nameless editrix bedecked in ill-chosen animal print boots shook my hand with, gasp, two fingers when introduced through a mutual friend.  Wow.  As if full contact might have sullied her bony, manicured hand.  Maybe she’s a germ-a-phobe and I’m speaking out of turn, I thought to myself as I sized her up.  Then, I snapped out of making excuses, and went back for more free cheese in consolation.

Though the party was stuffy, the location was divine.  Held at the absolutely stunning Carneros Inn, the night was my intro to the fabled terrain of Napa Valley.  First stop the next morning: Robert Sinskey Vineyard.  An organic and biodynamic operation, Sinskey works with nature to create their wine, employing solar panels, trucks and tractors on biodiesel, and an electric ATV to get around the property.  An organic grower since 1991, Sinskey isn’t the usual stop on the Napa circuit, and I was thrilled that I heeded the repeated recommendation to make the stop.

At Sinskey, we participated in the Farm to Table pairing, a concept developed by Maria Sinskey—part of the husband (winemaker) and wife (chef) team that makes up this innovative label.  The Sinskeys emphasize the interaction between food and wine, preferring to focus on the enjoyment of both, rather than the commercialization of their brand.  In literature that accompanies each wine, Maria offers food pairings (and corresponding recipes) for each label.  At the Farm to Table flight, we popped some of those very recipes: tomato and basil, zucchini and Parmesan tartlets, herbed almonds, and soft cheese crostinis.  The very receptive Kaine, who took us on a tour of the property—a beautiful spot off Silverado Trail—furthered our education by letting us sample each and every wine that Sinskey bottles.  By noon, having not mastered the art of spitting, I admit that I was thoroughly (and happily) blitzed.  Kristen, thankfully a more conscientious spitter, drove.

After lunch in Napa town at ZuZu, a tapas joint that Kaine recommended, we arrived for our blending seminar at the mighty Franciscan.  Here, we would get the chance to play winemaker.  A choose-your-own-Bordeaux-varietal experiment—and a very cool wine activity—we mixed and matched Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc in an attempt to replicate Francisan’s marquee label: Magnificat.  Bottom line: my blend sucked.  Literally, it tasted like dirt juice, which seriously bummed me out.  I had made such wine strides over the past few days, but clearly, winemaking was not my second calling.  Our very serious wine educator tried to make me feel better with lame jokes, but as I saw Darryl struggling to keep her bloodshot eyes open, I knew we had hit our wall.  I finally understood why we were advised to stick to two wine stops per day.  And, I now concur.

Kristen left us to our own devices in our little cottage at Franciscan.  Bigger than my apartment by hundreds of square feet, we needed a nap.  Three days of being winos-in-training had begun to take its toll.   But when, at 9 PM, our internal body clocks woke us up for another drink, we obliged and headed up the road to Farmstead for dinner, wondering just how many alcoholics resided in the Napa Valley.  For the week, we upped that number by two.

Napa is glossy and polished compared to Healdsburg but we soon learned that all you have to do is scratch the surface, and the rest will fall into place.  Sitting at the Farmstead bar—the restaurant associated with Long Meadow Ranch—Doreen the bartender chatted us up.  Dotted around the bar were a bunch of folks drinking from the same bottle: Wicker Vineyards Cabernet.  “Tell us about Wicker,” we prodded Doreen.  “Well, Ron could probably do better than me,” Doreen said as she pointed across the bar to an older gentleman with soft features and bright eyes.  “That there’s Ron Wicker himself” 

Next thing you know, we’re knee deep in a conversation with Mr. Wicker—the man on the label.  Retailing for about $150, Wicker was wickedly out of our price range, but we tasted this glorious wine and got his story during some complimentary tastes from his bottle.  Ron had been in the wine business for 40 years, growing and delivering fruit to other vineyards.  The culmination of a career, in 2001, he debuted his own Cab to stellar reception.   A mailing list only distribution, Wicker was already sold out of the upcoming vintage.  Ron Wicker embodied the persona of the types we had come to Napa to meet.  A true gentleman, he invited us to his home for lunch in the coming days to sample a Chardonnay he and his wife had been saving for “just the right occasion.”  As we closed down Farmstead, we promised we would try to fit in the stop.

Two-fingered handshakes?  Animal print boots?  Puh-lease.

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