Last weekend I took a whirlwind trip out to the Bay area to visit my brother Matt and his family, including my brand-new nephew Rafael and my niece Isabel. My sister-in-law Lisa is a gem for many reasons – she’s an incredible artist, a great cook and an excellent mom, and her calm demeanor is a much-needed counterpoint to our neurotic Smith family tendencies. This weekend I discovered yet another thing to recommend Lisa: her brother Dan and his family have an incredible house in the middle of St. Helena, right in the middle of Napa.
They invited us to St. Helena for the annual harvest festival. This being Napa, I was expecting a little wine country glam: Ralph Lauren-bedecked tourists, locals walking their designer dogs around a faux-Italian plaza, tastings of $40 olive oils, and an extravagant wine auction. Instead, it was pure small-town awesomeness. Dan and friends served up smoked tri-tip sandwiches at the Boy Scout booth, while the Girl Scouts countered with Sno-Kones. Entertainment was provided by a local college theater troupe performing the finale of Mamma Mia!, and everyone was relentlessly friendly.
After downing a few sublime tri-tip sandwiches, my brother Matt and I headed out of town up Spring Mountain Road for some tasting. Spring Mountain is home to some of my favorite Napa reds. Because of the altitude, it gets much cooler here at night than it does on the valley floor. That day/night temperature variation means that the grapes mature more slowly, giving them time to develop more complex flavors. The coolness also helps preserve the acidity, which is a nice counterpoint to the richness of the fruit flavors.
The altitude also makes it a pretty spectacular drive. This wasn’t my first time up here – last July, Paul and I visited Pride, one of the flagship producers in the area, but this time was even more beautiful. The weather was cooler, some of the leaves were turning reddish gold, and the pungent smell of fermenting grapes was everywhere.
After an unsuccessful attempt to visit Behrens & Hitchcock (disregarding my own advice, I neglected to call ahead and they were booked up), we pulled into Sherwin Family Vineyards. The name sounded vaguely familiar to me, but that was all I knew. A friendly greeting from the vineyard dog, Levi, and the spectacular view was enough to convince me. Even if the wine sucked, we could still while away a very pleasant hour on the terrace, which, with its luxe, oversized patio furniture and towering fireplace had a slight “Real Housewives of Orange County Do Wine Country” feel.
The wines most definitely did not suck. We started out with the whimsically named (and, at $55, non-whimsically priced) Cellar Scraps, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from their 16-acre estate, as well as some Syrah from Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma. The nose of blackberry, vanilla, coconut, and chocolate was incredibly seductive, and the wine was a rich, mouth-filling crowd-pleaser. The acidity that’s so characteristic of Spring Mountain fruit kept it from veering off into excess.
Next up was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Made from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remaining 20% divided between Cabernet Franc and Merlot, it was a bit more suave than the Scraps, but still cut from a similar cloth – think Clive Owen vs. Gerald Butler. It was utterly delicious, with notes of bitter chocolate and earth along with some great black fruit flavors. Again, the acidity pulled it back from the brink of total hedonism.
Only the Syrah disappointed – the alcohol was too high and seemed out of whack. When a wine’s alcohol is too high, it does a few unpleasant things. First, it creates a distinct “hot” sensation in the back of your throat, which distracts from the actual wine. Second, the alcohol cuts off the finish and you don’t get that lovely, shadowy taste of the wine that lingers after you swallow it.
The Cellar Scraps and the Cabernet Sauvignon, though, were hard to resist, and I didn’t – even at $90, I decided I needed to bring the Cabernet Sauvignon home with me. Comparatively, the Scraps seemed like a bargain, and I picked up a bottle of that, too.
I was kicking myself a little bit as we wound our way back down the mountain. $145 is more than I would usually spend on two bottles of wine. Like, a lot more. It also occurred to me that I had broken most, if not all, of my vineyard-visiting advice: we hadn’t called ahead to make an appointment, we were visiting late in the day, I hadn’t done any homework, and I was most definitely not spitting. (Matt, who doesn’t drink very much, was doing the driving. It’s nice to have older brothers.) I was too vulnerable to the easy charms of Spring Mountain and I paid the price. Still, when you look at this scenery – can you blame me?