The Best Things I Drank in Napa

An incomplete list.

In Wine
on 31 Jan 15

My trip to Napa for my WSET course last week was pretty incredible, not just for the scenery or weather but for the very passionate and accomplished wine industry folks I met. Best of all, I spent five days drinking things I can't find at home: small-production California wines, examples in my course from the best wines of the world, and a few cocktails and beers to round it out. Here are the highlights in no particular order.

Life in Napa

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc and Neethlingshof Pinotage

Each of us had our chance to lend personal perspective, linguistic help, or industry knowledge to a particular unit, and you can bet I took full advantage of our study of South Africa. I was excited to see Mulderbosch and winemaker Adam Mason represented in our class tasting, and though I don't think pinotage needs to be the representative red wine of South Africa, this one from Neethlingshof was a very nice example that both showed the meaty, spicy, black cherry character of pinotage with none of the unappealing flavors my classmates tend to associate with it. Everyone enjoyed the chenin blanc, and a classmate from New York even mentioned being a fan of Raats Family Wines.

Château Coutet à Barsac 1964 Sauternes 1er Grand Cru

Well, this is the oldest thing I've ever had. Our instructor said he thought we could use a treat, and so when we came back from lunch we found this and a 1997 example in our glasses. It tasted like the top of ginger creme brûlée: brown sugar, molasses, toffee, and almond extract, and just enough citrus to add a beautiful fruity zing. By contrast the 1997 was incredibly youthful. I was humbled once again by the aging power of Bordeaux wines.

Montes 2010 Carmenère

I love carmenère but don't drink as much of it as I should these days, and this was a good reminder to stop that trend immediately. We tasted this during our discussion of Chile, and its purple lusciousness, green-bell-pepper finish, and unctuous tannins reminded me why I fell in love with this Chilean speciality in the first place: it's like a more curvy cabernet franc.

Every sauvignon blanc I tried from Sonoma

I love a good sauvignon blanc, with South African examples at the top of my list (of course) and Loire versions a close second. I haven't had much California sauvignon blanc, though, and each one I tried was absolutely glorious, with a fuller body and abundant fruit to match its characteristic green, vegetal acidity.

The Fogcutter

When it was time to leave Napa, the only thing keeping me from bursting into tears was the knowledge that I was on my way to San Francisco to visit my friend Anne Sauer, who writes on cocktails and food at Mad Art Lab on the Skepchick Network, and explore San Francisco before seeing the great Tim Minchin live for the very first time. Anne took me to a legendary San Francisco bar called Smuggler's Cove. It specializes in rum drinks, and after days of studying sherry production I was ready for some closure in the form of an oloroso-based cocktail. This was an incredibly refreshing way to end a long week and kick off a night on the town in one of the most entertaining cities I've ever visited.

Julia Burke reviews South African wine and writes about social justice, the South African wine industry, and her own adventures in winemaking.