Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Wine Geek's Dream - VGS Blending Experience at Chateau Potelle: Part I

Intro

On our very first trip to Napa, probably 15 years ago, Wino4Life wife and I each took one of our wine tasting days and picked out the wineries for us to visit.  One that my wife picked was on a long, winding road up Mount Veeder. I picked wineries all nicely accessible on Highway 29 or on the Silverado Trail, what was she thinking!!!  That winery was Chateau Potelle, and unlike the almost bar like scenes at wineries I had picked like V. Sattui, this was fairly small, with a wonderful host named Tony, a “mascot” dog lounging on the front porch, and the relaxed vibe of mountain air, trees, and oh yeah… wine grapes!  We tasted some unbelievable “VGS” Zinfandel, “VGS” Cabernet Sauvignon, and a dessert late harvest Zinfandel called “Zinne.”  This great experience helped define the type of wine tasting experience we would seek out – instead of the hustle and bustle of the well-known and overcrowded tasting rooms around Yountville and St. Helena.   A few months later while attending a tasting at our favorite Phoenix wine shop (The Wine Merchant, now closed… RIP!), one of the wines poured was none other than the Chateau Potelle VGS Zinfandel.  We didn’t think to ask when we visited the winery, but part of the wine’s story presented at the tasting was that the VGS acronym was for the highly technical wine term… Very Good Shit!  We knew this wine was made for people like us (although we didn’t know if the story was true or not!).


The VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House

Chateau Potelle was also our first wine club membership, and although we took a short break from getting shipments, we have been receiving great wine for many many years.  Based on our “old timer” status with the winery, back in April we received an invitation to attend the first ever VGS Originals Wine Blending Experience.  The weekend of festivities included the following:

  • Friday – Welcome Reception at the new VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House in St. Helena
  • Saturday – In the a.m., make your own wine blend and take home 5 cases of your creation. In the p.m., a cooking demonstration by Chef Ken Frank of the La Toque Restaurant in the City of Napa. Oh yeah, and lunch from C Casa as well!
  • Sunday – Brunch in the VGS Vineyard.

What an incredible opportunity for this wine geek, and his wine lover wife! I was just a bit apprehensive though – wondering what type of people would be attending this type of event. Would they be total wine snoots, or totally cool winos like us?  Being trapped with the wrong type of person can ruin even a potentially once in a lifetime event.  For the same reason that cruises we take are not the traditional here’s some strangers that you will be sharing the intimate act of dining together with for the next 7 (or 14 or more) days.  Have you seen the NCL commercials  - this is what I fear!!!  


Kill Me Now!!!

Ultimately we decided that it was worth the risk to be able to blend our very own concoction, and to be able to bring home a few cases of our handy work.  So, often preferring the flexibility of a car trip, we headed out on the road for a 12 hour drive to beautiful Napa!

Thursday

We arrived a day early to be able to check out a couple of sites and to have a day to recover from our road trip before starting our VGS adventure.   Our day ended up with three great surprises, and one total dud – not too bad for a chillax type of day.  Our first activity of the day was a by appointment tasting at Bravante Vineyards. I had never tried their wines, but had read very positive reviews of others visiting, and have wanted to try a winery on Howell Mountain, so we arrived at 11 a.m. (never too early to start tasting wine in Napa!).  We were promptly greeted by Dave, our host and treated to a fantastic and down to earth wine tasting.  Plus, our timing was perfect in that they had just picked a batch of Merlot grapes, so we got to see the de-stemming, sorting, and crushing process. 


Bravante's Selection of Wines for Our Tasting


The Batch of Freshly Picked Merlot After the De-Stemming

Mmmm... Merlot!

Birdseye View from the Top of the Tank After the Crush

I have never travelled to any wine country during harvest time, so getting an up-close look at the process was fantastic. Also, I had always read that wine grapes didn’t necessarily taste that great – but these merlot grapes direct from the vine were delicious!  Before this trip to Napa I had vowed to resist joining any more wine clubs, but I’m afraid my vow was quickly broken on this day that I met Bravante wines.  There were three main reasons I went ahead and joined their wine club - 1) the wines were amazing (but there are a lot of other amazing wines, so there had to be more!), 2) the wine club get wines at a 30% discount (most others offer 20%, 30% is not common at all from what I’ve seen), and 3) perhaps the clincher – Bravante doesn’t release wines until they are almost ready to drink. While others are releasing their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons, Bravante is releasing their 2007. This makes a huge difference to me to get wines that I could drink soon, rather than wines I need to wait a few years to even think about drinking. The journey up Howell Mountain for a visit is a twisty, turny road – but definitely worth the trip.  They do require appointments, so plan ahead and visit this spot on your next Napa journey.

Lunch was surprise number two of the day. We had less than one hour before our next scheduled wine tasting at Frank Family Vineyards, so needed to grab a quick lunch. We headed to Calistoga so we would not have far to travel after lunch to get to the winery, but after four or five laps of the town, we couldn’t find a single parking spot, never mind that we would never be able to get in a sub 1 hour lunch.  My wife noticed a local spot that looked like a convenience store, but also had a sign reading “Tacos and Carniceria.” There was quite a steady trail of people entering and exiting with bags of food, so we decided to give it a try. Puerto Vallarta Market was the place - a pink building that you just can't miss. I had a Pastor is roasted pork typically marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote. This was a burrito that I would be happy to have every day for the rest of my life.  This spot will be our go-to lunch spot in the future I can guarantee!  Trust the locals!



The Puerto Vallarta Market in Calistoga

Although I could have used a nap after my monster burrito, it was time to head off to our Frank Family Vineyards tasting. I had planned to visit this winery on previous visits, but never made it. I have had their wine at our local steak place, and really enjoyed it. We arrived and were offered a regular or reserve tasting, and opted to try the good stuff… or so I thought. The tasting was one of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had in Napa. Yup – now’s the time in our story when we talk about the total dud. We were directed into the Reserve Tasting area – which was a room with lots and lots of windows. Great to see the grounds of the winery, which were very nice, but the temperature of the room was easily 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the main room we entered.  The wine at the tasting bar was not cooled in any way, so the wine was way too warm.  Our first wine was their red sparkling wine, and it was very warm, nearly flat and completely unappealing. It was a weekday, not during peak visitor time I know – but this is a wineries opportunity to reel in some wine club members, but that wasn’t going to happen for us!  Wino4Life wife asked when the bottle had been opened, and the reply was first thing this morning so it may be little flat. Then after a long…long… long pause, our host offered to open a fresh bottle, but one of those requests that just didn’t come off sincere. We continued on with tasting of some more way too warm wine, and instead of then arguing about if the tasting was worth the $30 charge, I instead bought two bottles of wine (which I knew were good from other experience, certainly not from this visit), so the tasting charge was waived. Overall our host was very nice, no complaints there, but the overall experience was a complete bummer. I will make sure and provide the winery some feedback, but right in the moment sometimes is not the best time to provide that feedback.
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Frank Family Tasting - Swing and a Miss!

For dinner on Thursday night I had made reservations at Carpe Diem a wine bar in Napa’s riverfront/downtown area knowing that Tapas/Small Plate restaurants were plentiful, but good ones not always easy to find.  The place is fairly small, but we were given a nice corner table and set out trying to decide what delicacies to try.  For food we decided on this menagerie:

  • Truffled Popcorn – I need to contact my local movie theatre about offering this stuff!
  • Sausage and Cheese, including a Greek Sausage and Brillat Savarin á la Truffe – a triple crème cheese that had just the right punch from black truffles.
  • Avocado Tacos – Wino4Life wife picked these, I probably would not have (some Mother-In-Law avocado trauma… long story), but they turned out to be excellent.
  • Fig and Pig Flatbread – absolutely awesome, I love figs when used correctly on a pizza type creation.






The Menu at Carpe Diem Wine Bar in Napa

I had ordered a Keenan Merlot as something that I thought would pair nicely with the widely varied dishes, and although I haven’t had a bottle for quite some time, Keenan ranks as one of my all-time favorite Merlot’s.  The Sommelier recommended another Merlot, and even after I told him I was a big fan of Keenan, he stuck to the recommendation – a Mt Brave.    What a great wine – I’ll admit sometimes I am suspicious if I am being recommended a wine or sold a wine.  


A New Find - Mt Brave Merlot

Being sold a wine to me means being pointed toward something that needs to be sold, versus a recommendation of a wine based on price, food selection, and any other info I provide. I decided to trust this Somm, and I’m glad I did! 


Mmmm... Beeramisu!

Although too full to take another bite, I had to relent for a dessert when I saw on the menu – Beeramisu – made with Stout beer. It was very good, and likely would have tasted even better if I was actually hungry.  After a great dinner, we called it a day and headed back to our hotel.

Friday

Friday evening was the first of our VGS Chateau Potelle events, but we decided to make the most of the time before that and had scheduled a tour with wine and cheese pairing at one of our favorite wineries - Darioush.  We have been wine club members for quite some time, so when we arrived we were taken to the members lounge – basically decorated as a den with only about a billion dollars of great wine decorating the shelves.

Our host from Darioush, Ingrid told us an in-depth version of the story of the Darioush winery. We had bits and pieces from visiting at the wine tasting bar, but the whole story was very interesting to hear.  Mr. Darioush is from Iran, and first went into business running grocery stores in South Central and East Los Angeles. He thrived in his business there because he hired and listen to people from the neighborhoods – so provided the type of store and type of products that his customers wanted.  I told Ingrid she should be a professional story teller, because as we sipped a glass of Darioush Viognier I was mesmerized by the tale.  Next we toured the vineyard, where Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were nice and ripe, ready to be harvested in the next few weeks. We also saw the outdoor amphitheater (small but acoustically perfect), and ended up in the cellar for our wine and cheese pairing.  



Our Wonderful Host and Story Teller from Daroiush Winery

A really nice way to start our Friday, not only a great tour and tasting, but I finally got an answer to one of my nagging questions about Darioush (you can amaze your friends with this knowledge). Darioush makes a WONDERFUL Syrah, but bottles it as Shiraz. I have been told in the past (at their tasting bar actually) that this was because they wanted to emulate the Australian style… but their wine really isn’t all that Australian in style. Shiraz is actually a city in Iran that has winemaking history back to the 9th century.  Now that’s a story a wine geek really likes! 

Finally, Friday evening arrived and the first of the VGS events!  We had arranged a cab from our hotel in Napa to the tasting room in St. Helena.  I was sure it was going to be $150 or so each way, but we wanted to enjoy the event and not worry about a designated driver, so we decided it would be worth it. To our surprise – it was only $65 each way! Not cheap I know, but worth the price for a worry free wine and dine evening. 


Chateau Potelle Tasting House

We arrived at the new VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House.  The Winery Owner wanted to make this wine tasting venue different so many of the others in Napa, from the décor – which is bright and modern (vs. dark wood and dimly lit) and the tasting experience, which involves trying the VGS wines each with a food pairing, vs. just sipping the wine.  Really a beautiful spot. After suffering through yet another Arizona summer, it was great to hang around outdoors, eat some good food – and get to know our new wino friends. As a special treat, the winery owner Jean-Noel Fourmeaux found a ginormous 5 liter bottle of 1983 VGS Cabernet.  My kind of group, as we managed to polish it off!

The Bright & Beautiful Inside of the Tasting Room

Our Host and Chateau Potelle Owner, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux

Our Excellent Spread for Friday Night - You Can Just See the Monster 5 L Bottle of Wine at the End of the Table

Please come back next week for the story of our wine blending experience, and the rest of an amazing wine country weekend!

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