A Tour of Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma Wines
Last February, I had the good fortune of visiting the wine mecca of the New World – Napa and Sonoma Counties, located in Northern California. The two-day trip was an incentive travel reward offered by my employer, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, for passing the Introductory Sommelier Course for Court of Master Sommeliers. During the first day of my trip, I visited three wineries in Napa Valley: Foley Johnson, Kuleto Estate, and Merus Wines.
The Foley Johnson winery, an estate winery nestled on the valley floor in the renowned Rutherford AVA, was my first stop. It neighbors the well-known wineries Sequoia Grove and Cakebread Cellars; however, unlike the large producers next door, Foley Johnson is a quaint farmhouse boutique winery. Situated off Highway 29, the estate provides a beautiful view of the two mountain ranges bordering the west and east of Napa Valley, the Mayacamas Mountains and the Vaca Range, respectively.
Foley Johnson sits on 50 acres of premium Rutherford vineyards stretching from Highway 29 to the Napa River. Divided into 29 growing blocks, the vineyard includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc vines as well as several other wine grapes. There is a gravity flow winery behind the tasting room that houses stainless-steel fermentation tanks and concrete fermentation eggs as well as a storage facility for barrel aging.
The focus of the estate tasting was Bordeaux grape varietals grown, fermented, and aged on-site. The tasting consisted of five different wines including a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, 2014 Merlot, 2015 Meritage (a Bordeaux blend), 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2014 Petit Verdot. Although the wines were fantastic, three wines stood head and shoulders above the rest: 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2015 Meritage.
The 2016 Foley Johnson Estate Sauvignon Blanc is a delightful white wine with a refreshing, bright, crisp taste featuring notes of citrus-like grapefruit and hints of racy, green herbs. I found the unique minerality and smooth texture, a result of the use of concrete fermentation vessels, intriguing. A notation about recent California vintages – the years 2012 through 2016 were “drought years” resulting in excellent growing conditions, and yielding fantastic wines.
The 2012 Foley Johnson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a fantastic representation of a valley floor Cabernet from a great vintage year. This Cab benefited from a wet year, followed by a hot and dry growing season. The result is an elegant and concentrated Cabernet that fills the glass with classic aromas of black fruits, baking spices, clove, and touches of oak. On the palate, it is a balanced and structured full-bodied red wine leading to a nice, long finish.
The 2015 Foley Johnson Estate Meritage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a small amount of Petit Verdot. The culmination is an excellent medium-bodied wine that displays notes of black cherry, cassis, plum, and mocha. The Merlot provides softer tannins and a smoother texture to the blend.
My next stop was the Kuleto Estate winery; a winery entirely opposite of the Foley Johnson winery in terms of size and altitude. Kuleto Estate is situated on 761 acres of land reaching 1,500 feet in elevation. The drive to the top was intense! The narrow, one-car-width, one-way, dirt passageway wound along a very steep mountain. A sheer drop-off to the immediate right made it especially unnerving given I am not a fan of heights. The view of the winery and its delights, in addition to the stunning panoramic view over Lake Hennessey, made it worth the hair-raising journey.
The winery boasts a natural stone architecture and wooden pergolas giving the appearance of a vineyard plucked directly from Tuscany. Vines span 82.9 acres of three very distinct soil types across an altitude range between 800 and 1,500 feet. These variables, along with the numerous natural mountainside nooks, creates more than 100 micro-climates allowing for a full, distinctive range of grape varieties. The tasting menu included Kuleto Estate’s dry Moscato, Homestead Block Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Syrah, and several Cabernets. Although each a wonderful mountain top wine, only a few captivated me.
The 2015 Kuleto Sangiovese is a wine reminiscent of central Italy, which nicely aligns with Kuleto Estate’s Tuscan-inspired mountain top winery theme. This garnet, medium-bodied Sangiovese has aromas of dark red fruits with melted caramel and slight hints of leather. The palate reveals a warm and ripe mouthfeel with higher than average acidity making it a perfect wine to pair with a myriad of foods.
The 2011 Lone Acre Cabernet Sauvignon surprised me with a combination of Bordeaux on the nose with a California palate. The nose has subdued notes of cassis and black licorice but a rich and expressive palate. The tannins, alcohol, and acidity are perfectly balanced, resulting in a fantastic mountain wine.
The 2012 Kuleto Danielli Red Wine is a classic California blend with blue and black fruit aromas jumping out of the glass and complementary notes of baking spice. This is a great full-bodied blend with a juicy fruitiness and a nice lingering finish.
I concluded the first day of my trip nestled between St. Helena and Howell Mountain AVAs at Merus Wines. Merus Wines is a posh, ultra-luxury winery producing fantastic Cabernets and Chardonnays using hand-selected grapes from the up-and-coming Coombsville AVA. The Merus winery is a fully updated winery including custom, state-of-the-art concrete and stainless-steel temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and 7,000 square feet of caves for barrel aging. The winery also features two beautiful tasting rooms: one elegantly designed within the caves and the other seated above the winery providing a beautiful view of the entire property.
While touring the winery, I tasted the Altvs Chardonnay, which is an excellent California Chardonnay. It balances tropical and tree fruits with well-integrated oak and a rich, buttery mouthfeel. While the Chardonnay was wonderful, it is the Merus Cabernet Sauvignons that elevate Merus Wines to an elite level.
The Cabs consist of two product lines: Altvs, which is Merus’ most recent addition to their portfolio, and Merus, which is their high-end, signature brand. The 2014 Altvs Cabernet Sauvignon displays traditional aromas of black currant, blackberry, and boysenberry. The perfectly ripened grapes create a well-balanced, ready-to-drink-now, wine.
The 2015 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon has a deep opaque ruby-purple appearance and showcases the classic aromas of dark blue and black fruits. The rustic, secondary aromas are what really sets it apart. Think dark cocoa, coffee, cedar, and tobacco – almost like taking a big whiff of a cigar box. In the mouth, this wine is big, opulent, intense, and complex with all the characteristics of a genuinely great Cabernet. This is a cellar-worthy wine; one that would greatly benefit from decanting before enjoying. The Merus Cabernet Sauvignon is allocated in limited quantities and found exclusively in upscale dining establishments.
My first day in Napa Valley was a fantastic initial experience. It is indeed a place I will revisit. I would like to thank my employer, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, as well as Kim with Foley Family Wines and Jordan with Republic National Distributors. Keep an eye out for my next article about the second day of my trip exploring Sonoma County.
IMAGES COURTESY MERUS WINES AND KULETO ESTATE
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