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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 08:00

Sniff the Cap: Big Wines and Big Bucks on a Road Trip to Napa

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Tasting wine at Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead in St. Helena, Napa Valley. Tasting wine at Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead in St. Helena, Napa Valley.

Merryvale Vineyards tasting room, Napa Valley, Calif. Noon on a Sunday.

Cars jammed Highway 29, filled with California-wine-lovers who’d flown in from Asia and Europe, Australia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Mexico and points beyond. We walked into Merryvale’s St. Helena tasting room about the same time as a group of around 30 people from Vallejo.

We had an hour to taste before our reserved tour at another winery up the road. No big deal. I had downloaded a two-for-one tasting coupon. So yay.

Before last weekend, the Napa experience had never been our thing. Big and crowded. Pretentious and expensive. I’d been there twice, years ago. Not impressed.

And yet we gave Napa Valley another try Saturday and Sunday, armed with coupons on the Winery Finder iPhone app. We were prepared for heavy traffic and pricey wines.

We weren’t disappointed.

At the same time, we met friendly, knowledgeable people who work in the wine industry. We learned stuff. We didn’t buy many bottles of wine to bring home. We invested in flavor memories.

The Merryvale visit was a happy accident.

Because of our work situations, the Significant Libertarian and I live in different states. My husband of 30 years makes the drive from Nevada to California once a month or so. I go the other way once a month as well. The rest of the time, we chat on Google.

Last weekend in Napa marked the end of my spring break and a celebration of my birthday (48, thanks). It was also our last day together for a couple of weeks.

We were feeling that. Not talking about it. Long looks, deep swallows.

“I already miss you.”

“Please don’t.”

“I know, I know.”

“Just enjoy what’s in this glass.”

“I’m going to cry.”

“No, you’re going to sneeze.”

And, in fact, he was right: I sneezed, loudly. Allergies. Blah. I dug in my pocket for a tissue, which was, in fact, wadded up toilet paper harvested from the bathroom at another winery.

Then we enjoyed what was in the glass. And then we enjoyed what was in the next glass. The SL liked the 2011 chardonnay ($35). Unusual. We are red people who tend to pass on “whites”—unless a wine-tasting costs $15, and a white’s on the list.

Merryvale’s chardonnay walks that fine line between oak and crispy citrus, between vanilla and pears.

At the other end of the wine bar, a couple dozen glasses held tiny sips. Clusters of drinkers posed for photos. This place was getting loud.

The next wine was a 2011 pinot noir ($35), made with Carneros region grapes. “Red cherry, cranberry, baking spices, toasted hazelnut, and crushed stone.” Crushed stone! We enjoyed this pinot, too, so different in character from some of the lighter fruit juice pinots we’ve tasted. You drink ’em. They disappear. But this pinot lingered. I credit those minerals.

The woman pouring our wine overheard our discussion and asked what wines we like. We mentioned some of the places and wines we’d tasted, Mendocino pinots, Mendoza (Argentina) malbecs and Sierra Foothills syrahs.

Turned out we were tasting with Sierra Foothills wine aficionados.

“We love Amador!” interjected another employee. We traded notes on favorite places to taste on Shenandoah Road in Plymouth, Calif.

Would we like to try another pinot noir? Does a salmon like to swim upstream to spawn?

A striking departure from the 2011 pinot, the 2010 Stanly Ranch ($65) came our way next. "Ripe fresh dark red and black cherry, wild strawberry, cranberry, cola berry, rose petal, herbal tea, cardamom, dried citrus rind, fresh earth and toasted marshmallow.” Also yummy, but we preferred the less-expensive 2011.

And that’s OK. The good wine is the wine you like, no matter the price on the bottle. (Unless the wine you like is the expensive one—and you have bills to pay at the end of the month.)

Speaking of fiduciary concerns, we had pulled our tent out of storage so that we could save money on Napa accommodations. Another lovely surprise! A state park in Napa with $35 tent sites, reasonably secluded in the trees, and hot showers. Saturday night, a friend who now works in the area joined us for dinner. We built a cooking fire and grilled New York steaks with gorgonzola sweet-onion butter.

To impress our pal, we opened Markham Winery’s “The Philanthropist,” a 2008 Yountville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($55). Nicknamed “Phil,” the wine is billed as a “dark dangerous stranger” with “a sense of intrigue in his demeanor with aromas that touch on chocolate, smoke, licorice and hints of mint, or is that whiskey?”

I love wine writing.

And yes, we drank a $55 bottle of wine by our campfire. We drank it out of our stainless-steel backpacking wine goblets from REI. For us, that’s a giant sum. Before Saturday, the most we’d spent (outside of restaurants) on a bottle of wine was $50. That’s what we paid for a 2007 estate cabernet at Wofford Acres Vineyards in Camino, Calif., a couple of years ago. (I remember a sign on the winery’s wall: “Napa makes auto parts; El Dorado makes wine. Ouch!)

We still possess that bottle. It pains us to think of drinking it, expending the glory. A few sips and swishes. Then she’s gone.

To pair with the wine and beef, I sizzled up some taters with summer squash, mushrooms and sweet onions over the camp stove. I was thankful for the moonlit night, because batteries were dying in our Coleman lantern.

After The Philanthropist and during the steaks, we moved on to the bottle my friend brought—a 2009 Ladera High Plateau cabernet sauvignon ($65). “Intense aromas of ripe blackberries and black currants with layered notes of anise and nutmeg spice.” Perfect with our charred and cheese-encrusted entrée.

Drinking two pricey bottles of wine at the picnic table should have made my jaw drop. I’m the “sniff the cap” girl. Zero pretensions and blissful bargains, right?

As it turns out, it didn’t take me long to become inured to Napa pricing. Which takes me back to Merryvale. And the most expensive wine, to date, that I’ve put in my mouth. Let me set the scene.

Sunday. Crowded tasting room. Glossy wood bar and long shelves of elegantly labeled wines.

Taste. The SL sips slowly, letting the wine caress his every oral crevasse. After the pinots, we taste the merlot ($48), rolling the liquid around the center of our mouths, finally swallowing and waiting for the long, long finish to, well, finish. I can feel this wine in my mouth for what seems like ever. The wine is practically a blend, with 75 percent merlot, mixed with those bitchin’ Bordeaux varietals: cabernet sauvignon (20 percent), malbec (3), and smidges of cab franc (1) and petit verdot (1).

The finish on the 2009 cab sauvignon, Napa grown grapes, is even longer.

Finally, the Party of Huge moves on up or down the road, and the room’s volume lulls. We realize we won’t have time for lunch, but that’s OK, because Merryvale sells designer pork jerky. We try the black cherry BBQ Krave ($7.95) and buy two pouches.

I’m taking notes and collecting tips on places to visit. Our server pours us another wine, saying nothing about it, really, except, “What do you think of this?”

I won’t cheapen the experience by trying to describe the 2009 Profile ($165), a perfectly executed blend of the above-mentioned Bordeaux grapes.

The Pixies are playing. “Where Is My Mind?” And in the much-quieter room, I can hear the lyrics. “With your feet in the air and your head on the ground.” I have finished my last slurp of heaven, gargling the goodness. I never spit.

The SL takes his time. As if he wants to stretch this moment into forever. There’s about an ounce of Profile left in his glass, and he’s not touching it. He’s just being here. Saturated by now. Making it last.

“Take this trick and spin it.”

I reach for his glass. I can help him finish this wine. Maybe he feels he’s had too much.

My hand gets within an inch of the stem. He stops me.

“This is mine,” Dave says. “I am drinking the last of the $165 wine.”

Strange. He’s usually such a sharing kind of guy.

We walked out with the jerky and the $35 pinot noir. We couldn’t justify buying the Profile, but later that afternoon, I bought a bottle of Ladera High Plateau. To go.

I’m going to put it away for a couple of years, and open it for a special occasion. Like steak and gorg butter grilled over glowing embers in the moonlight.

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