On Saturday, 13 March 2004, I visited three quite different wineries in the Napa Valley that are quite close to each other on the map. At Joseph Phelps, which produces about 100,000 cases of wine annually, my friends and I attended an "educational seminar," tasted six wines, and ate a leisurely picnic lunch. This is an extremely slick place with a very corporate feel. Though I was prepared to loathe the goateed French fellow who showed us a promotioanl video, talked us through the wines, and described Burgundian chaptalization as essential, his deep understanding of terroir, of Napa, of the differences between French and American viticultural conditions and the techniques developed to suit those differences, as well as the restrained descriptors he applied to the Phelps wines, won me over. The wines were excellent: for a ten dollar fee that also covered the seminar and a Riedl glass with no advertising on it, we tried the 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (crisp, fruity, simple, an unobjectionable but hardly memorable version that includes 5% Viognier), the 2001 Ovation (a Burgundy style Chardonnay I thought delicious: quite fruity, with discreet oak notes), the 2001 Merlot (made from grapes grown in Carneros, this has very vell integrated tannins and a long finish), the 2001 Le Mistral (a Rhone blend, very nice, not at all tannic, not designed for long aging), the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (not the Backus Vineyard wine, this had some licorice, lots of tannins, terrific), and the 2000 Insignia (not, in my opinion, ready to be drunk: it has not come together at all). I'd have liked to try the 1989 Late Harvest Riesling and the Phelps "Icerebe," but these were not poured. We ate our lunch at a shady picnic table overlooking some of Phelps's many, many vineyards. A wonderful experience.
Frogs Leap, which does not charge for tours and tastings, could not have been more different. An enthusiastic young woman who does not know very much about wine led a ragtag group through the winery's beautiful organic vegetable garden, past trees in stunning flower, through the barrel building, and up the stairs of a handsome restored barn, dispensing tastes of the winery's drinkable but far from memorable wines at various points. The emphasis at this winery is on a holistic approach to viticulture that avoids the dangers of a Napa grape monoculture, on reasonably priced organically grown wines that go well with food, on fun rather than seriousness.
Grgich Hills Winery was the low point. Just off the parking lot was a crowded tasting room, the wines not bad (except the dessert wine, Violetta, which is insipid), but the experience utterly charmless. There is a charge for tasting but I've forgotten how much it is.
I called a few weeks ago and made reservations at both Phelps and Frogs Leap.