In the 1976 "Judgement of Paris," which pitted California wines against the French stalwarts in a blind taste test, Napa was put on the world stage when the French judges selected two California wines over their French rivals. It was Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay that won the white wine tasting. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that tasting. Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant hosted the original event, is currently organizing the anniversary celebrations on May 24. The winemaker for that winning bottle was Miljenko ("Mike") Grgich, who left Chateau Montelena in 1976 to found his own vineyard, Grgich Hills. Chateau Montelena is owned by James Barrett, whose daughter-in-law is Heidi Peterson Barrett, the respected and admired winemaker for cult wines Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle among others.
We started our day at the top of Napa Valley at Chateau Montelena, where we had one of our more interesting tasting room encounters. Our pourer had been at a Giants game earlier in the week, and in addition to looking as though he'd been boiled in a lobster tank, functioned as though his brain had suffered third degree burns as well.
Example: "This is our Chardonnay. It's well known. I could tell you more. But I don't want to."
Of course he would then share stats and fermentation information by rote but repeated the joke three more times, with an explanation the last time: "I'm just trying to shake things up and make it more interesting." (For whom? You or me?)
So, the irrepressible smartass in me: "Well do it in Klingon then."
He paused, nonplussed. "I don't know Klingon."
"Oh that's okay. There's a website that'll teach you. Although I don't think there are words in Klingon for 'fragrant,' 'sweet,' or 'delicate nose.'"
Hab SoSlI' Quch! A case of Chardonnay and three bottles of their reserve Cabernets later, we headed south.
Our next stop was Flora Springs. Kellie and I went in for a tasting and left unimpressed. I think this is my last time at Flora Springs. It's been operating on the fringes of sentiment for a while. Their Zinfandel, which they no longer make, was served at our rehearsal dinner at Brix, and was unanimously loved by our families. When we went to buy a case of Zinfandel after the wedding, we were informed that they would no longer be making Zinfandel, and they were focusing more on their Trilogy brand. The best part of Flora Springs that day was their parking lot, where we situated ourselves to wolf down our bread and cheese.
Whitehall Lane provided much happier taste buds and a confident, very sweet and very helpful pourer assisted us to a half case of their Cabernets.
Niebaum-Coppola recently changed its name to Rubicon Estate. This happened earlier this year, which would explain why I drove past it repeatedly looking for (and never finding) Niebaum-Coppola. I enjoy their Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine; it's a good weekend bubbly to share with girlfriends. Depth, no. Thought-provoking, no. Sweet and easy to drink, yes. Think of it as hanging out with a very effervescent girlfriend with whom you shop and do fun things, but who is not your primary (or even secondary) confidante. Kellie and I decided to pick up a couple of bottles of sparkling wine and when it became apparent that I had no idea what happened to Niebaum-Coppola, called the information line. It should have occurred to me, after listening to the recorded message, that perhaps I did not want to go to the former Niebaum-Coppola winery: the recorded voice spoke with a British accent, proclaiming that we had called Rubicon Estate, America's grand wine estate, formerly known as Niebaum-Coppola and indicated that there were 4 different tours and a concierge. If ever a moment invited me to subdue my delight in the ridiculous, this would have been it. However, I lack willpower.
So we drove up to the Rubicon Estate and hit our first checkpoint. Yes, you read that right. A security checkpoint of valets met us at the entrance and asked if we had appointments. We explained that we were there to purchase some wine. Our secret agent wannabe valet nodded and pointed down the road.
"Please go to the next checkpoint."
The second checkpoint was halfway up the drive and seemed redundant. Once again, met by valets longing to be Secret Service. Once again, being asked if I had an appointment. Hello? Do those walkie talkies you're holding work? Did you not talk to the guy who waved us through? Once again, I explained we wanted to purchase some wine.
"Please go to the valet stand."
The valet stand was located at the end of the road, guarding the entrance to the hallowed grounds of Rubicon Estate. Another phalanx of youthful valets. And another re-enactment of our previous two checkpoint experiences. I'm sorry. Does this look as much like overkill to you as to me? It's wine, not the Manhattan Project!!
"We just want to purchase wine," I said, for the third time.
He pointed to the curb. "Please pull over there."
I pulled over and got out of the car, thinking I was to be escorted to the wine shop. Not so. A valet with a clipboard came towards me.
"These are our wines. Please let me know your selections and I will be happy to go fetch them for you."
I am not kidding. Cross my heart. Hope to die.
Kellie: "Is this normal?"
Valet: "What do you mean?"
Me: "Um, when did you change from being a winery to a destination site?"
Valet (not understanding, or perhaps ignoring, sarcasm): "Earlier this year. Mr. Coppola wanted to focus more on the wine so he changed the name of the estate and took steps to reduce...ah..."
Visitors. Say it, man. Visitors who come to check out the homage to the Coppola museum. Visitors intrigued by the juncture of Hollywood and Vine(s). (Heh. Sorry. Um...very bad LA geographic pun) Visitors who come by tour bus.
He couldn't find the word. Kellie helped him. "Were there concerns about too many people?"
"Yes, that was something that had been raised."
We gave him money for two bottles of Sofia. He ran off -- ran, I tell you, not walked. We got back into the car and Kellie opened the Wolloomooloo bar, handing me a chocolate square. I munched on it, working myself into a frenzy.
"This is bull!@#$%^&*! It's a !@#$%^&*( winery, not Disneyland! What the hell? We're here to buy wine, not have an (wave fingers in quotations marks) 'experience.' What a load of crap. $25 for a tour? I don't want a tour! I want to buy wine!" Noting two parked tour buses, I continued. "Keep out visitors? That's crap! Look! There are two tour buses there. Those fit what, thirty, forty people? This is just a @#$%^&* money racket."
Kellie: "On the other, we are getting the personalized service of having our wine delivered to us while we sit on our fat asses eating chocolate."
I couldn't stop laughing, even when our delivery boy came back with our wine.
Dinner was at Cole's Chop House that night. A purely unapologetic steak house. I had the peekytoe crab cocktail. Kellie had an old school Caesar salad, complete with anchovies. The flat iron steak caught my eye -- but Kellie went straight for the Kobe filet.
Two highly hilarious incidents took place there. The first was the gentleman whose artificial hairline made me think of the villain from "Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit," who, losing his toupee, puts a black rabbit on his head unwittingly. The second was a conversation between two friends. To protect the innocent, names are omitted in the following conversation:
Friend 1: "Let me see that brochure on the wine club we joined."
Friend 2 handed over a slip of paper. Friend 1 noted aloud the high points.
Friend 1: "This is great. Look, we get to buy an extra case of wine of any new release. Hmm.. Oh yeah, and listen to this: 'Priority notice and seating for the vineyard's culinary events...dinners, cooking classes, and release parties.' We should do that next time."
Friend 1 continued to peruse the brochure and frowned. "What is this? 'Special invites to club members-only events like -- who the hell is Ca Vé Raider?''
"Ca Vé?" Friend 2 read the brochure upside down and deadpanned: "You mean Cave Raider?"
Friend 1 flushed. Friend 2 choked. Thirty minutes later, holding their sides, they were still laughing.