Friday, March 6, 2009

Hidden Gems

Being a winemaker in Napa Valley certainly has its privileges. By propinquity alone you get to taste some really terrific wines made by friends and colleagues, sometimes before the rest of the world even knows they exist. Yet we’ve all heard a variation on the refrain, ‘Wines like those are often made in such minuscule quantities you need deep pockets or a guy on the inside to get your hands on some!’ I believe this lament is more often about advertising than scarcity. There are many hidden gems made by small producers laboring in the shadows of the palatial wineries dotting Napa Valley, making wines from fantastic vineyards and appellations with voices that just aren’t loud enough to travel very far. So here’s my attempt to turn up the volume, the inside scoop of some wines that recently sent my taste buds soaring.

Ever wonder where the next really great rock star Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will come from? It wouldn’t hurt a bit to check out these three exceptionally good cab-makers. They’re my picks--and all happen to be single vineyard cabs. So no blending or added varietals, just the grapes from a single source and the barrel choices the winemakers deemed worthy.


Greg Lawson owner of Valley Legend is a third generation Napa Valley winemaker. His grandfather was the first, who over forty years ago had vineyards in Yountville and Knights Valley and in 1971 was made the first president of Beringer when the winery was sold to Nestle. Greg’s father followed later in dad’s footsteps (or is it grape-stomps?) making pinot noir wines in the 80’s and 90’s, which no doubt had a great influence on Greg and his brother Rob Lawson as they were growing up. Winemaking was obviously in the family DNA, so they followed suit.

Brother Rob has certainly garnered his fair share of praise recently with wines like Ghost Block landing in the Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year, and it doesn’t hurt to have a mentor of Rob’s talents lending a hand on your maiden voyage. “I tell everyone my wine just got 104 in the Wine Spectator,” Greg jokes, tongue firmly in cheek. The Spectator only scores wines on the 100-point scale, which makes Greg’s quip a really funny comment on many levels. It also tells you where Greg’s ultimate ambitions might actually reside.

“I got into the wine business less for the money and more for the love of wine,” Greg says. “If you want to make wine in Napa Valley you must enjoy writing checks. Lots and lots of checks.”Like the added costs of meticulously hand-sorting the fruit as it comes in from the vineyard – every single berry is closely scrutinized. “Nothing goes into the wine except perfectly ripe fruit. I want everything to be pristine clean all the way through fermentation, barrel aging and finally bottling.” And it really shows. The 2006 Valley Legend, Narsai David Vineyard, Conn Valley $85 is amazingly focused. Upon first sip you can feel the wine go into a whole new gear as the flavors move through the mid-palette and cruise on for a lengthy finish.

Valley Legend, with its map-like label, shows a swoop across the top that mimics the ridge line of Mount St. Helena. “It’s the physical legend of the area –looming on the horizon from anyplace you happen to be in Napa Valley.” Greg then smiles, “And to excite those wine geeks like me out there, I also put Google Earth coordinates on every bottle showing exactly where the grapes came from, down to the very block. Shows how anal I am.”

This is Greg’s first vintage, but he has two more wines still in barrel coming out soon, a 2007 Narsai David, Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a new one, a 2007 Rock Cairn Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are 100% Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He’s adding a third wine to this line up when the 2008 are ready. If they’re as good as his first effort, and I have no doubt they will be, watch out!

“Only hand touched fruit, pride and passion. Years from now when I’m dead,” Greg says in all earnestness, “someone’ll crack open a bottle--I want it to still tell my story.”

Valley Legend 4239 Maher Street Napa, CA 94558


I’ve written about J. Moss wines before in (Smokin’ Wines), but the work he’s doing in the cellar is so darn good I thought he needed another plug. Case in point--recently I was invited to a book club discussion of my novel The Good Life, which was a really fun evening hanging out and drinking wine with a charming group of book-loving women and talking about my favorite subject, me. I had brought along a bottle of J. Moss as a gift and was reminded of that classic Marx Brothers movie, when Groucho playing a doctor puts a thermometer in Harpo’s mouth, and Harpo promptly chews and swallows it like it was candy. Groucho reacts, “Wow, I never saw someone’s temperature go down so fast.” Well, I never saw a bottle of wine go down so fast as that bottle of J. Moss. Doesn’t that say it all?

James Moss somehow makes it all look easy. But it wasn’t always so. “I could make a movie about what not to do making wine,” James says, a Texas drawl still flavoring his words. James was born and raised in a small community outside Dallas before coming to Napa Valley over fifteen years ago to be in the wine business. When I ask for an example, James tells about the time early on when they forgot to pre soak the barrels before filling them with wine. “We were so happy to have finished pressing and had decided to soak our tired bodies in the hot tub instead of soaking the barrels. It was an oversight. Wine started leaking out, more like pouring out through the staves and you know like in a cartoon, when people are running around in circles in a panic, that’s what we were doing, trying desperately to think what to do! Talk about funny… When finally I just grabbed a barrel and lifted it into an empty bin single-handedly. It wasn’t completely full, thank God, but with the rush of adrenalin, I never stopped to think how heavy that bad boy was gonna be.” Things have come a long way since then.

What I admire most about J. Moss wines is how they always stands up so well in comparison with the best wines Napa Valley has to offer, and more often than not surpasses them. James attributes this to his palette, trained for fifteen years working in wine distribution before starting the winery. “I got to taste a lot of wines, with a lot of different people and got to learn what the public at large really likes.” I ask what that is, and James blurts, “Fruit, baby, fruit!” He has watched blind tastings where price and brand are hidden and invariably people gravitate toward the wines with the most fruit expression. “It all comes down to great fruit from great appellations.”

J. Moss currently offers three wines, the 2005 Spicer Vineyard Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon $60, a 2005 Puerta Dorada Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60, and a 2005 Galleron Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60. All are 100% cabs, all impeccably made, and for those terroir purists out there, all amazingly different. James’ extensive experience understanding the American palette has helped him make wines that are true crowd pleasers. All are an explosion of fruit, amazingly balanced, with beautiful integration of oak--in a word, yummy.

J.Moss Wines P.O. Box 5783 Napa, CA 94581
TEL: (707) 647-3388


Rollie Heitz owner and winemaker of Midsummer Cellars (yes, one of those Heitz, if you happen to recognize the name--the Heitz name being one of the half dozen most famous wine families in the Napa Valley firmament) invited me recently to go on a mushroom hunting expedition. Well, actually it was more of an enjoyable stroll through the woods on a seasonally crisp winter afternoon. Before we set out, Rollie cautioned, “Now I better not find you out here in my secret spots without me. Just remember I have access to firearms –one with a scope.”

Duly warned I follow Rollie into the woods. He tells me that when he was a kid, his dad, Joe Heitz, often before Thanksgiving dinner would get the whole family out to these selective forest gardens and hunt wild mushrooms. “Some years we’d find large baskets full of Boletes,” he says like discovering found money.

The process is a little like Easter egg hunting. Rollie points out what to look for, small moundings on the forest floor, as if gophers are pushing up the leafy matter. He carefully lifts one such mount that I would have missed entirely--some decomposing leaves, and low and behold there are the mushrooms. You’d never know it if you didn’t know where to look. Unfortunately, these are not the kind you want to eat.

Rollie tells me the ironic part of his hobby is that his wife Sally is sadly allergic to mushrooms. Most of them that he finds he ends up giving away to friends. Luckily, he’s expert at what to pick, “There are certain families of mushrooms that are safe to pick. I only pick a few types, you have to be very careful or you can end up with mushrooms that can kill you.” Always good thinking.

We talk on about many different subjects, growing up in Napa Valley as a kid, firing potato cannons with the Mondavi clan, notes on a different time and place. Greg Lawson pointed out to me, that he and Rollie are both Carpy Gang football alumni. Rollie says, “My Pop Warner coach happened to be Walt Raymond” (yes, of Raymond Vineyards, another legendary Napa wine family) and a really nice guy, too.”

Inevitably, as all talk in Napa finally does, the subject turns to wine. After breaking away from the family wine business, Rollie could have chosen something completely different to do with his life, but wine gets in the blood so he decided to start his own label. Taking a cue from his many visits to Sweden (his family summers there every year) with the festivals and traditional dancing around the maypole (midsommarstången), Midsummer Cellars was born (The Smallest Winery in Napa Valley). His first few vintages nearly a decade ago were Zinfandels, but he has settled into making single vineyard cabs and for good reason. He’s a master at it. Give a look. They presented Midsummer Cellars 2006 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena $48 --95 points! I guess the word is starting to get out there.

Midsummer Cellars has two other single vineyard cabs, a 2006 Cañon Creek Vineyard, Napa Valley $48 which is one of my personal favorites, and a 2006 Fowler Vineyard, Knights Valley $30, which at that price is a heck of a value.

All of Rollie’s wines have one thing in common --they are always elegant. When I drink them, I feel as if I should be wearing a tuxedo. I don’t own a tux, but if I keep drinking Midsummer Cellars wines I better get one.

Midsummer Cellars 771 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
TEL: (707) 225-4367

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Headed to Napa in a month or so. will try these three out.