I recently jumped on a plane on a last minute notice to San Francisco to meet up with my best friends Nunzio & Joanne Alioto. Despite landing & getting settled around midnight, Nunzio & I headed for the Napa Valley at 6:30 the next morning to visit with some of Napa Valley’s true icons. It was a very short visit I will certainly treasure forever.
Our first visit was with Ric Forman. I remember tasting what I thought was his first wine, the 1969 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon, back in the late 70’s. (he corrected me…..apparently 1966 was his first vintage, though not at Sterling). Sterling was definitely a hot California wine ticket back then & one that escalated under his reign with the 1974 being a most highly acclaimed crown jewel. Rick went on to Newton & later in the mid 80’s founded his own label–Forman Vineyard. On each visit to the Napa Valley, I make it a point to stop by & see his vineyard. It really is something special–a pushed up river bed, surrounded by solid rock on each side. The gravelly soils is what his Cabernets clearly showcase, especially with some bottle age. Who better to talk story with about all of the different clones & selections of Cabernet Sauvignon in our effort to better understand where it all lies today? Ric has always been a very straightforward man, who is an incredibly skilled & gifted technician & uber focused & dedicated. By the way, I was also surprised to see he now produces an Atlas Peak grown Pinot Noir with his wife Cheryl under the Rossi Wallace label.
As we headed back to St Helena for our next appointment, we stopped for a cup of coffee & ran into long time, iconic Howell Mountain Cabernet meister (subsequent Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir standout), Bill Smith. Bill, almost unassumingly so, helped change the Napa Valley Cabernet category with his inky, massive, powerful, intensely structured Howell Mountain Cabernets under his La Jota label (which he later sold off to Kendall Jackson back in 2002 or 03). In addition, he was instrumental in championing the Viognier & Cabernet Franc grape varieties through his stellar bottlings. In speaking to him, I was clearly reminded how humble & unassuming he really is. I just hope that the newer generations remember Bill’s remarkable ground breaking contributions made over the years to further the Napa Valley to the world class position it has today.
We then met up with the venerable Bruce Neyers. We were anxious to meet with Bruce because of his long tenure in the Napa Valley where I first met him in the late 70’s early 80’s when he was running Jospeh Phelps. Secondly, since 1992 when he left Phelps, he worked with iconic wine importer Kermit Lynch creating quite an understanding & niche for all of their artisan French (& now Italian) producers across the country. Thirdly, Bruce & his lovely wife Barbara launched their own wines under the Neyers label, which they purchased from Joe Phelps back in the 90’s. Bruce made the most memorable 1992 Merlot from their estate vineyard in Conn Valley. I knew Bruce would be a wealth of information, not only on Cabernet & the Napa Valley, but on even more critical wine growing topics such as sustainability, cover crops, clones versus heirloom/heritage vines AND a much more practical perspective on “hands off” winemaking. He certainly delivered on all topics & then some. Imagine speaking about what his friend, the truly iconic Joe Swan did way back when to help change the wine game in California & then 2 minutes later, talk about what Noel Verset & August Clape did in Cornas to change the game there. I truly admire how Bruce is able to sift through all of the jargon, innovations, trends & understand & apply what makes the most sense in pursuit of a living vineyard & timeless wines. When asked, for instance the pros & cons of rootstocks St George & the en vogue 3309 & 420A, Bruce said something simple like “St georges has been here for 40 or so years. It wants to be here”. To put it another way, here is a man who helped create Insignia & usher it on the world wine stage with all of its subsequent accolades, yet grow & make his own wine from a VERY different slant. I can’t remember the last time, we bought an Insignia, awards, accolades & all, but we buy the Neyers Cabernet every vintage.
Our final appointment in the Napa Valley on this day was with superstar Mia Klein. She consulted on many star projects such as Dalla Valle, Viader, Araujo, Spottswoode & Etude just to name a few. Her own label is Selene. I remember how thrilled I was when in 2003, Mia was selected as “Winemaker of the Year”. It was one of those rare occasions, when someone received an award they really deserved. My vote, if I had one, would have been won many years before, when a group of us were invited up to Dalla Valle to taste a vertical of their wines. This meant tasting the early on ones made by Heidi Peterson Barrett & the 1994, 95 & 96 crafted by Mia Klein & Tony Soter. It was a night & day comparison & I have been a believer since. Mia’s wines have such elegance, grace, refinement, textured & balance, all masterfully done. In addition, she has much aloha & is a REALLY good person, which makes it all a complete package. Because Mia has consulted for projects sourcing grapes from up & down the valley, we knew we would get a very different perpsective on the topic. She also pulled some barrel samples from various vineyards to illustrate her thoughts on site over vine. (By the way, each of the wines were truly superb–inspiring & soulful core with an already charismatic, classy personality.) I would love to go on & on about all of the wine highlights she crafted which I have been fortunate to taste over the years, but let me instead just say–She is a Master!
We headed home to shower & freshen up and then on to the City for dinner at Nostra Spaghetteria. (It is a restaurant located in the Mission district which is a must to dine at if you are looking for great pasta, good wine & reasonable prices). Anyway, who pops in–Fred Dame, the legendary Master Sommelier. Just so every knows, Fred was the one who got the MS Program to come here to America back in 1986. He gave us the opportunity AND he has been championing the whole program to more & more generations since. Thankfully, Fred also came with a magnum of 1996 Chapoutier Hermitage “Le Meal” in hand to share. Next to him on the right is Nunzio Alioto, another one of the iconic, old time Master Sommeliers. TWO game changers to say the least!!!!
What a phenomenol 1 1/2 day trip, wouldn’t you say?