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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 2)

Phelps was the first in Napa's modern era to bottle a Syrah. "When he started poking around, he said, 'I really love the wines of the Rhône,'" Bill says. "'Isn't it unusual that nobody has grabbed hold of this?'" Phelps found one vineyard growing Syrah and bought all the fruit. More than three decades later, his winery has phased out varietal Rieslings, Merlots, Semillons and—beginning with the 2005 vintage—even Napa Chardonnays. But the Syrah is going strong.

Being a forward thinker is helpful. "But the real success," says Williams, "was taking those innovations and putting legs on them." Of the hundreds of Bordeaux blends and other proprietary wines made in California each year, Insignia arguably remains the best. Witness the 2002, named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2005. As smooth and powerful as a Ferrari, it leaves the sense—as every great wine should—that it is far more than the sum of its component parts. The creation of the Insignia brand may have been an accident, but wines as distinguished as that aren't made accidentally.

Lewis Cellars: Taking the Wheel
Randy Lewis had a career racing cars. He wanted a second one producing wine, which he'd discovered on the European Formula III circuit in the 1970s. "I would just camp out in those little wine villages between races," he says.

That he landed in Napa is no surprise. Somehow, you can't imagine a man this competitive, who made the starting grid for five Indianapolis 500s, launching a winery in Mendocino or Monterrey or even Sonoma. "There's nowhere for Cabernet like Napa," Lewis says. "The wines are thicker, richer, if you do it right."

Napa attracts people like Lewis, who've made the upper echelon in one field or another. And Lewis himself is proof that the idea of making world-class wine when you've barely ever mixed a cocktail isn't just a fantasy. "When you've raced cars for 23 years, your attitude is one of winning," Lewis says. "It wasn't like we arrived saying, 'We're going to blow everyone's socks off.' But we wanted to be good."

He didn't do it with money. You'd have to be a Mario Andretti, now a Napa neighbor with a winery of his own, to come away from racing in the '70s and '80s with the savings to be set for life. "We didn't have a huge bank account, so this wasn't about having fun," says Debbie Lewis, Randy's wife. "We needed to be serious."

"There's two ways you do it," Randy adds. "The more exciting way is, you come in and really do it. I'd only raced cars my whole life, so the learning curve was almost straight up. We thought, 'How will we catch up?' But we caught it at a time when things were changing so much, doing different stuff in the vineyards and the winery. We hadn't really missed anything."

Lewis dipped a toe in the water by helping the late Bob Miner start Oakville Ranch in 1989. In 1991, with Joe Cafaro as the winemaker, he released his own Chardonnay and Cabernet under Miner's label. Two years later, following his retirement from racing at age 46, he started Lewis Cellars with Cafaro as enologist. Then he hired Helen Turley for a year, and Paul Hobbs followed for three. By the end of 1999, he realized that he was making most of the important decisions. Since then, with help from several trainees, he has made the wine.

Now he turns out 9,000 cases a year of well-oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. In the best vintages, that includes about 150 cases designed to compete with the best Cabernets around. The 2001 Cuvee L looks as dark as prune juice, and it's almost as viscous. In a valley that values bigger as better, this is one of the best. Lewis pours a glass in the tasting room of his small winery and beams with pride. "I never won the Indy 500," Lewis says. "Now our whole life is in these barrels. This is the Indy 500."

Colgin: State of the Art
Ann Colgin is showing off the view from the picture window of her new winery, which is up a winding road overlooking Lake Hennessy, Napa Valley's back door. Then she turns to face a view inside that is nearly as stunning. A WPA mural from1939 dominates a sitting room, which is filled with antiques and art from around the world.

It isn't exactly the room that cult wine built because Colgin's husband, Joe Wender, is a former partner of the Goldman Sachs Financial Institutions Group. Still, those coveted bottles didn't hurt.

The cult-Cabernet phenomenon is not only native to Napa Valley, but has helped define it as well. Even if you've never tasted a Colgin, Bryant Family, Harlan or Screaming Eagle, just knowing that the valley can produce such wines—which usually cost more than Bordeaux's first-growths, and score just as high or higher—alters your mind-set about the region. "All are about the essence of this special place," Colgin says. "I don't think it could have happened anywhere else."

That it happened to her was unexpected. With her master's degree in art administration, the Texas-born Colgin moved to New York in 1985 as an art and antiques dealer. She started spending five weeks a year in Napa Valley, living in a farmhouse on the valley floor. By the time she met Turley in the early 1990s, she thought a small winery of her own might be an enjoyable sideline. Turley made Colgin's first vintage in 1992 from purchased grapes.

The timing was perfect. A new generation of Napa Valley producers, as different from those that had gone before as the Impressionists were from traditional painters, were starting boutique wineries almost simultaneously. "You had a number of energetic people who were willing to do whatever it took to make the best wine they could from the best land," Colgin says. "I was part of a fantastic pledge class."

Such wines were, by necessity, made in tiny quantities. And as the boom years of the 1990s created wine-savvy millionaires eager to try the best of everything, such rarity made these the most coveted wines in the world. "Small, handcrafted bottles of things," Colgin says. "It was a perfect fit for me, coming from the art world." For the first time, too, wine auctions had become legal in New York. "That changed the market dramatically," Colgin says. "The auction clientele appreciates quality and rarity." And a case of Colgin cost far less than, say, a modest Modigliani.

The phenomenon created an international reappraisal of Napa wines. "People began to take notice," Colgin says. "All of the attention caused people to say, 'I'd better try these.'" That served to push prices higher throughout the valley. If a Colgin or Bryant was worth $150 on release, wineries figured, their own top Cabernet should be at least $75.

Colgin has taken advantage of her success by buying vineyards. The IX, planted with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties, may be the most important. It produces almost 1,500 cases a year, a not-insignificant amount that gives a new wave of consumers access to Colgin for the first time with no loss of quality.

But Tychson Hill, tiny and historic, is the most compelling. The 2003 Tychson Hill Cabernet Sauvignon has an exotic cardamom nose reminiscent of Bordeaux's Cos d'Estournel, but a purple-gone-to-black color that could only mean Napa. Smoky, plummy and absolutely delicious, it will doubtless be seen by auctiongoers as the equivalent of rare art, to be displayed as the ultimate sign of good taste. That said, it would be a shame not to drink it.

Spottswoode Vineyard & Winery: Keeping the Faith
A vineyard fills 40 acres of downtown St. Helena, where Madrona Avenue meets Hudson. Adjacent is a gabled house, framed by pine trees that could have emerged intact from the 1890s. Its gardens are immaculate, tended with an ingenuity and a care seldom seen today. This property belongs to Spottswoode, a throwback of a Napa winery that makes Cabernet Sauvignons so restrained and elegant as to seem like royalty among commoners.

Jack Novak was a 38-year-old San Diego doctor in 1971 when he decided he didn't want to practice medicine anymore, nor raise his five children in San Diego. During a rainstorm, he fell in love with Napa and sunk his savings into 45 acres. The vineyard had been planted after Prohibition with Gamay, Petite Sirah, Chenin Blanc and French Colombard, grapes that sold at the local co-op for $300 a ton. With no knowledge of the business, Novak decided to replant with Cabernet Sauvignon and start a winery.

The family hated the idea. They hated Napa. "It was very, very rural and far less prosperous than today," says his daughter Beth Novak Milliken, now 46. "And he didn't have an appreciation for fine wine." Unlike many of his generation, Novak hadn't traveled in the Navy, hadn't spent time in Europe. He knew nothing about wine-drinking culture. He also didn't have enough money; the $270,000 he'd paid used up his savings. "It was utterly spontaneous, not well thought out," Novak Milliken says. Before long, he'd returned to doctoring.

In November 1977, Novak died of a heart attack at age 44. His wife, Mary, the heroine of this story, inherited the property. With five children between sixth grade and college, she could have cashed out, but chose instead to implement a vision that was never hers. In 1982, at the urging of local wine families such as the Duckhorns and the Shafers, she decided to release a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. She also hired Tony Soter as her winemaker. That started one of the more improbable runs of great wine California has seen.

Soter was one of Napa's first enologists to understand that if he wasn't intimately involved in the grapegrowing, he was losing his primary weapon for making the wine he wanted. He started employing organic practices in 1985, and added the brightness of Cabernet Franc to the mix. "Tony set the style," says Novak Milliken, "and we've stayed to it in the main. We've been true to our vineyard, and refined our focus on that piece of land." The philosophy, in simplistic terms, was to make a Napa Bordeaux. That's what Soter did through 1991, and what winemakers Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and—beginning with the 2006 vintage—Jennifer Williams have continued.

"We're not about hit-you-over-the-head power," says Novak Milliken. "These are wines of elegance and, hopefully, of grace." Even wines such as their 1997 Cabernet show the raspberries and cherries, the milky Cabernet Sauvignon texture and the lack of evident alcohol that identify it as a different manifestation of Napa Valley. This is a wine with dignity, less a commercial product than a piece of craftsmanship that happens to have appeal in the marketplace.

Mary Novak still tends her own gardens. And she still presides over the rambling house of a winery down the street from the vineyard. Her bravery of more than three decades ago has become just another well-told story now that Spottswoode is a success, both critically and financially, but you still can spot it in the shine of her eyes. And taste it in the wine.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


Dining out—Napa and Sonoma style

Perhaps nowhere in North America is accomplished food served in such inviting settings as in Napa Valley. Consider Richard Reddington's year-old Redd in the heart of Yountville, where a spare space of hardwood floors and light colors is matched by clean, precise cooking—honed by Reddington at San Francisco's Rubicon, Paris's Arpege, New York's Daniel, Beverly Hills's Spago and beyond—to delightful effect.

Out on the patio, beneath a violet midsummer sky, a group that includes wine educator and author Karen MacNeil and her vintner husband, Dennis Fife, are eating grilled quail, scallops on caramelized cauliflower puree, and sauteed skatewing with warm potato salad. Inside, Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus and Dominus sits at one table, Napa luminary Janet Trefethen at another. For every local who has brought in his own wine, a wide-eyed visitor is choosing from the 15,000-bottle cellar.

Down the street is America's most prestigious restaurant, but certainly not its stuffiest. Despite its acclaim, The French Laundry never seems reverential or self-congratulatory. The biggest surprise is that employees are unabashedly nice. And as mainstream America has grown to accept tasting menus, unexpected juxtapositions of flavors and textures, and chef/owner Thomas Keller's philosophy that the first bite of each dish is the best, the restaurant now seems far less revolutionary than comfortably excellent. Wine service is impeccable, and certain dishes, such as sea urchin atop apple granita, remain as startlingly good as cooking gets

Keller's approach has impacted restaurants nationwide, so it's no surprise to see poached egg atop hamachi sashimi at Auberge de Soleil, where the view over the valley is unparalleled. But the most innovative food in Napa may be at Terra, which has been open 18 years but still feels fresh. Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone met as line cooks at Spago, and what they do in the old stone building on St. Helena's Railroad Avenue is as daring in its way as Wolfgang Puck was in the 1980s.

Terra features Asian flavors, so it's not always red-wine friendly. Accordingly, the restaurant doesn't get the big-spending weekenders in to "do" wine country with trophy bottles and slabs of meat. Peruse the handwritten menu and rhapsodize about hamachi carpaccio with daikon sprouts and hijiki; capellini with trout and tobiko caviar; or spaghettini with tripe and butter beans.

These days, the best lunch in Napa Valley is down the block. If you've eaten at Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustard's, you know the quality and range of her cooking. But with Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, she shows a different side of her virtuosity. The food, best enjoyed al fresco beneath a century-old fig tree or rubbing elbows with local winemakers at the bar, is earthy and down-home, European-influenced but Mexican-inspired, and painstakingly executed. That means rabbit tostadas, stuffed piquillo peppers, mushroom tamales, duck burgers and perhaps the finest rendition of the Cobb salad available anywhere. A wide selection of interesting wines are served by the glass. Prices are modest. As one winery owner, a frequent customer, quipped, "It almost feels like Sonoma."

Sonoma can't compete with Napa's star power. But with Cyrus, inside the fancy Les Mars Hôtel, it finally has a restaurant that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco. Billed as Sonoma's French Laundry, Cyrus serves Japanese sea bream with pickled watermelon rind, and caramel soup with kettle-corn sorbet. Ice cubes are even customized for different Bourbons. Yet polo shirts work fine at dinner, and service seems effortless, as casual as a stroll in the square.


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