Tasting at the home office

I work at Starmont winery, which is located in Carneros at the southern end of the Napa Valley. Starmont is owned by Merryvale Vineyards located in St. Helena in northern Napa Valley. Merryvale is the home office of the company and it’s also the public face of the winery. While most of the wine is made in Starmont that winery is closed to the public.

The Merryvale Vineyards tasting room in St. Helena.

The Merryvale Vineyards tasting room in St. Helena.

Christine and I made a recent trip up to St. Helena for a tasting at Merryvale. Some of my few readers may know I’ve been working at the cellar in Starmont this past harvest but may be curious about the wine I’ve been helping to make. The upshot is that Merryvale makes some excellent wine. Now, of course, I’m not going to be bashing my employer on this blog, but I can say that in all honesty everything Merryvale makes is good. Christine especially enjoyed the Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc. Both of us loved Profile, Merryvale’s premier wine. This is a Cabernet based blend featuring Merlot, Petit Verdot and some Cabernet Franc. It is just delicious with layers of dark fruit, a wonderful mouth feel and a long, pleasant finish. I also really enjoyed Silhouette, Merryvale’s top Chardonny. This wine is unfiltered and a solid, traditional California Chardonny. An unexpected treasure was the winery’s Antigua dessert wine, which is a Muscat de Frontignan that has a complex taste followed by an almost dry finish. I really don’t often like dessert wines because of the lingering sweetness that coats your palate, but because of its different finish I loved the Antigua.

The tasting room is large and has a relaxing feel to it. Merryvale is also open until 6:30 p.m. making it one of the last wineries in Napa to close for the day. This means it’s the last stop for many tasting parties and so you may see some folks, as we did, who have gone way past wine tasting and have moved on to wine guzzling. But that’s something you’ll see at any winery’s tasting room and sometimes you’ll even see it early in the day rather than later.

The tasting bar at Merryvale Vineyards.

The tasting bar at Merryvale Vineyards.

As one of the older wineries in Napa, Merryvale has a historic feel, which is emphasized by the cask room. This gorgeous banquet hall has as an old world, European feel and while I don’t believe it has any winemaking purpose any more it’s very popular for special occasions and is used by the winery for events for wine club members.

It was great to take a moment and sample the finished wines because it gave me a better sense into what I’m doing at the winery these days. The staff member who served us at the bar was friendly and it was great talking to someone in the company who worked up in St. Helena. (And you got to love the 50 percent off employee discount!)

Even if I wasn’t employed by Merryvale, I think our visit would still prompt a whole-hearted recommendation to include Merryvale on a Napa tasting itinerary.

Merryvale's cask room.

Merryvale's cask room.

A sparkling flight

One of the more impress front doors in Napa.

One of the more impressive front doors in Napa.

Sometimes you just don’t appreciate a place because you see it damn near every day. Growing up in Sonoma but having close ties in Napa I would drive by the Domaine Carneros winery on an almost daily basis. I watched it get built when I was a small child and I noticed every little change in the landscaping or exterior of the French style chateux. Some days, as I made the run over from Sonoma to Napa, or vice versa, I would see this place three or four times a day.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a beautiful, stylish winery, but to be honest its “in your face” location right on Highway 121 and the countless tour buses I would see in its parking lot always gave me the impression it was a tourist trap. Then a few years ago while picking out a sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve I snagged a bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut for a steal at Safeway. Later that evening I was struck by the sophistication and elegance of the wine as well as its reasonable price. I also noticed that the label read “Domaine Carneros by Taittinger,” and before then I had no idea that this Carneros winery was owned by one of the premier French Champagne houses.

Christine and I found ourselves with some time on the recent Sunday afternoon and decided we should pay this winery in our backyard a visit. We were in Napa for the weekend and Domaine Carneros is about a five minute drive from the cottage. Walking up the 80 odd steps from the parking lot, I paused at a plaque that informed me the chateaux design is based upon a 17th century abbey press that is now the country home of the Taittinger family. After we made our way to the summit, Christine and I were greeted by a friendly host who informed us tastings were offered by table service and we were welcome to sit inside or on the expansive patio.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

The view from the patio at Domaine Carneros.

I was a little disappointed  by the main lobby. After the magnificent entrance, I found it to be rather small and uninspiring, but I reminded myself this is a working winery and not a real chateaux. There is also a tour that Christine and I missed and that could very well offer peeks into Domaine’s hidden elegance.

The patio is a real stunner. Even though the temperature was pushing 96 degrees, Christine and I opted for a shady table on the patio. Table service wine tasting was new for me. We were presented with a menu that offered a selection of the sparkling flight or a red wine flight featuring Domaine’s well regarded Pinot Noirs. We opted for the sparkling flight that included the Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brut Rosé. I was familiar with the Brut and enjoyed it as much as I had in the past. The Blanc de Blancs I found to be bit yeasty and heavy, yet this could be because it was paired in the middle with the other wines. The Brut Rosé was simply delicious. I do think the hot weather had something to do with it, but this was a wine that was just well made, exhibiting notes of strawberry and peach but with a minerality in the finish that is emblematic of wines from the Carneros region. Christine and I opted for a glass of the Rosé after our flight and Christine flirted with the idea of purchasing a bottle but we knew we’d probably be back soon.

The main lobby.

The main lobby.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

The sparkling tasting includes, from left, the Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs and the Brute Rosé.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

Ripening Chardonnay grapes in a Carneros vineyard.

A wind machine at sunset.

A wind machine at sunset.