California’s Classics

California’s Classics

Our tasting last week centered on classic wines from Napa & Sonoma, an event driven by one of our members who is also a long-time wine collector.


It was a special treat to be guided by the insight from someone who has observed the trends in California wines, and has been able to taste them, for decades.


With California top of mind, I thought immediately of all of the recent fires—the loss of property, vineyards, wineries, and homes—and my heart felt heavy. I thought not only about the devastation from the fires, but also of the recent findings in my wine community of rampant sexism, racism and misogyny that has been accepted and tolerated for far too long. My heart goes out to all affected, and today I am writing about California’s wine country from a different perspective—while I wish to give respect to those that have paved the way and led us to this powerhouse of a wine region, I also wish to emphasize that we all must push our industry forward to an equitable future.


Napa’s wine region started two hundred years ago, not without several false starts due to phylloxera that arrived at the turn of the century and devastated vines, and then Prohibition in 1920. Most vineyards and wineries spent fourteen years abandoned, except for a few that produced holy wine. But the region bounced back, and its reputation today is stellar—wine production there thrives due to the Mediterranean weather and a diverse mix of soils, and the thoughtful way the wines are constructed to age for decades appeals to collectors. You can credit people like Robert Mondavi, who was a fierce marketer, and the Paris Tasting of 1976 for really putting Napa Valley on the map. The famous blind tasting saw French Bordeauxs and Burgundies tasted against California’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnays. Top honors were given to two Napa wines—Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon—historically changing how the world perceives wine from this region.


As we tasted, I recalled visiting Napa, and how perfectly manicured and expensive it looked—not in an old-fashioned way, but in a very specific new California kind of way. The food seemed so obvious, with the bounty of produce always available, but it always had a new interpretation or flair. Chilled pea soup with pate and country bread for an afternoon picnic, poached peach floating atop the most perfectly seared piece of foie gras, and Ridge Geyserville with a bit of age. From then on, I loved wine country. I had been exposed to California wine early in my career, when I was working at Larry Forgione’s An American Place in the 90s. We carried an exclusively American wine list, and during that time, the focus and obsession was on big California Cabernets and Big Oaky California Chardonnays. That is actually when I first started tasting wine, and I loved tasting it all. It was like something had opened inside of me—a new way of expression, a new language. I recall wine from Sean Thackrey “Pleiades,” (considered a red table wine—a blend of many different grapes whose  recipe changed every year based on intuition and the harvest) and Lang and Reed, who focused on making 100% Cabernet Franc wines for an early release. I was just starting on my wine journey, but I could tell these wines boasted different expressions than what everyone else was focusing on. Wines from Robert Mondavi and Ridge were on every table during this time—this was still during the two martini lunch days. It was an exciting time in our culinary history, when restaurant chefs started appearing on TV, and a certain celebrity status followed them. It was a celebration of American food and wine culture, and I am so glad I was there to see it. So although I lean more towards old world wine, I like to remind myself that I first fell in love with wine here.


Wines from our tasting:


Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Napa, California, 2018:

Robert Mondavi created the term “Fumé Blanc” in the 1960s to describe a richer style of Sauvignon Blanc he was creating. It was a huge marketing success, and this wine is still cherished today. The 2018 vintage is a blend of 87% Sauvignon Blanc and 13% Semillon. The juice is fermented in oak—about 5% new French oak, and then it’s transferred to 60 gallon French oak The wine has extended lees contact for about 6 months to add richness.


It had been possibly a decade since I had last tasted a white from Robert Mondavi, but it was pleasant on the palate. This wine stands out because of the roundness that you usually don’t associate with Sauvignon Blanc. I would say it had some tropical fruit like mango, and a hint of lime with some acidity, but it was the texture that really stood out to me. I could see this being served at a cocktail party to go along with a cheese plate.


Ridge Geyserville, Alexander Valley, California, 2018:

The History of Ridge started in 1885, when Dr. Osea Perrone bought 180 acres on Monte Bello, planted vines, and built a stone winery. The winery sat abandoned throughout Prohibition, and it wasn’t until 1949 that William Short purchased the winery and started to replant several parcels. In 1966, the first Geyserville Zinfandel was produced, and in 1969, Paul Draper joined the partnership and the expansion of Ridge began. Draper was a practical winemaker, not an enologist, and his knowledge of fine led to the “hands off” culture pioneered at Ridge. I love these wines, and they have followed me since I first tried them in the 90s. I make sure to buy them when I’m working with a domestic wine list, because they are truly masterful expressions of California’s diversity of soils and sites. The 2018 blend is 68% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 10% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet. The grapes are estate fruit, all hand harvested and aged in American oak 11% new oak for thirteen months. When I put my nose in the glass, it was like a warm hug—familiar and inviting. On the palate I got leather, plum, cocoa powder, and a beautiful balance of structure and precision. For me, it recalls a happy moment of the building blocks from my past that have set up my love of wine for the future.



If you would like to buy these two wines please contact Shiraz Noor at Acker Wines. LBV Social Club members get a discount through our partnership!


Claire Paparazzo is an LBV Social Club member who also leads some of the Club's wine tastings. This is her reflection on the tasting that took place on October 28th, 2020. Find her on Instagram at @clairepaparazzo and @wineifyouwantto.


First photo by Maria Apostolopoulou


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