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Tasting Report: Napa Valley Road Trip, 2019

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Winter is a wonderful time to visit Napa Valley. Even though the vines are bare and the weather is often wet, the crowds are at a minimum and it’s easy to get dinner and room reservations just about anywhere (except for the French Laundry, of course).

We recently took a chilly weekend to visit four Napa properties, taste their current and library releases, and snap some photos. Thoughts follow.

The Hess Collection

I’d never been to Hess, situated on the top of Mount Veeder on the southwestern side of Napa, having long associated it with boring supermarket wines. What a surprise to find not only premium bottlings available on this mountaintop retreat but also a world-class art collection that’s open to visitors to the facility. Here you can wander through artwork by Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter along with new and upcoming artists. Don’t miss the crushed wine tank, either, badly damaged after the recent Napa earthquake.

2017 The Hess Collection Small Block Albarino – The Small Block wines are very limited production bottlings, typically around 400 cases and sold only to club members. This wine features a bold body, with mild floral aromatics; slightly green but a bit buttery, Chardonnay-like in some respects. B /$30
2016 The Hess Collection The Lioness Estate Chardonnay – Intensely woody and buttery, lots of spice; overwhelming at times. Nutty on the finish, with a slight green note. B+ / $65
2016 The Hess Collection Small Block Holiday Cuvee
– A blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot, and petite sirah. Minor spice notes, violets, and blackberries; slightly peppery, with some chocolate, too. A- / $75
2014 The Hess Collection Small Block Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
– Bold and plummy, black pepper and mild tannins; a slight vanilla note. A- / $125
2014 The Hess Collection The Lion Cabernet Sauvignon – Bold but easily approachable, chocolate and currant notes dominating; gentle florals, slightly nutty. A- / $185
2017 The Hess Collection Lion Tamer White Blend
– Primarily pinot gris, plus albarino and viognier. Quite peachy, some apricot and almond notes showing through; a bit of a mutt at times, but built for summer drinking. B+ / $NA
2017 The Hess Collection Mount Veeder Gruner Veltliner – A virtually unheard of varietal in these parts, this expression of gruner is a bit thin and a touch green; some honey and lemon peel notes. B / $30
2015 The Hess Collection Small Block Ferrington Pinot Noir
– Toasty and peppery; really big body with some BBQ smoke peeking through. B / $60
2016 The Hess Collection Small Block Rockpile Zinfandel
– Lighly peppered, plenty spicy; heavy on the alcohol but overall quite lovely with a finish of chocolate and blueberry notes. B+ / $NA
2017 The Hess Collection Small Block Orange Muscat
– Surprisingly light body, ample florals; light spice, less sugar than expected. B / $28

Bennett Lane Winery

This tiny spot in northern Napa, purchased by Randy and Lisa Lynch in 2003, doesn’t look like much, but inside the winery you’ll find a cozy tasting room and a spacious warehouse with a wide range of wines sleeping away.

NV Bennett Lane Winery Blanc de Noir – 70% pinot noir, 30% chardonnay. Quite nutty, toasty, slight green tint. B / $60
2011
Bennett Lane Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – From a tough year; a bit chewy, spicy and somewhat musty, oddly balsamic. B+ / $105
2012 Bennett Lane Winery Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 
– Very lush, dark chocolate and anise notes, blackberry, currants galore; elegant and nicely structured. A- / $62
2015 Bennett Lane Winery Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
– Straightforward, plummy, slightly green in its youth; promising. B+ / $65
2016 Bennett Lane Winery Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
– Feels dialed back a bit; white pepper notes, lightly brambly; a bit of honey on the back. B+ / $65
2016 Bennett Lane Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
– Nicely floral, blueberry and cassis, plus spice, vanilla, and sugar cookie notes. Significant chocolate overtones. A / $107
2016 Bennett Lane Winery Lynch Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
– Lush and fruity, huge chocolate notes plus vanilla. Cassis endures alongside strawberry notes; floral on the finish. A- / $135

Chateau Montelena

The story of Montelena is, like Mondavi, the story of California wine, having played a pivotal role in the iconic Judgment of Paris in 1976. Today, this pioneering producer continues to put out top-shelf wines while managing to stay relatively under the radar, with a focus on cabernet sauvignon but with side interests in myriad other wines, much of which is grown on its expansive Calistoga estate. At a private tasting we walked through a number of current and library wines, including one particularly bizarre offering from the 1990s.

2017 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc – Quite tropical, melon notes are heavy and lychee character is evident; quite grassy after a while. B+ / $35
2017 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley Riesling
– Potter Valley is quite a ways north of Napa, adjacent to Mendocino. This riesling offers lightly sweet, honey-fueled notes, spiced nuts, and some florals that include a bit of elderflower character. Toasted marshmallow sweetness on the finish. A- / $NA
2015 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay – Creamy coconut, guava, and baked apple notes; lots of vanilla; silky texture. A- / $58
2013 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Zinfandel
– Intense chocolate and raspberry notes; minty edge. A touch of coffee bean and cherry notes emerges later. B+ / $39
2012 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Zinfandel – This older zin seems off, stylistically, with notes of buttered popcorn amidst the candied fruit notes. Quite a contrast. B- / $NA
2012 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Petite Sirah
– Very dry and tannic, lots of graphite and leather; still tight after 7 years. B / $35
2006 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Montelena Estate – Montelena’s flagship wine, and the subject of the above-linked Dream Tasting retrospective; this bottling wasn’t in that lineup, so it was fun to try. The wine is lightening up a bit, showing a touch of balsamic alongside licorice, bold strawberry, and some citrus notes. Lively body. A- / $175
2009 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Montelena Estate – A slightly younger version of the above, showcasing touches of licorice, cloves, and some floral notes giving it a light freshness. Almost drinking at its peak. A- / $NA
1998 Chateau Montelena Saint Vincent – This is a wild blend of sangiovese, primitivo, and zinfandel, and you will probably never see it on the market. Crazy funky, the wine is still going gangbusters with notes of mushroom, black pepper, and chocolate all mixed together, making for an exotic and unusual experience. A- / $NA

Quintessa

Quintessa has grown since its 1989 founding to become one of the bluest of blue chip wineries in the Napa Valley. The California outpost of a former Concha y Toro vice president, the operation has grown to include a number of other properities, including Flowers and Faust. The winery’s small tasting room is one of the more brooding in the region, and it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. (We also toured the hilly estate in an ATV, an adventure unto itself.)

2017 Illumination – This is Quintessa’s white blend (bottled without “Quintessa” on the label), a mix of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon blanc musque, and semillon. Super fragrant and floral, it’s loaded with orange blossoms and a mix of fresh fruit overtones. A palate-cleansing way to start the day. B+ / $50
2015 Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon – Most of Quintessa’s reds are cab-heavy blends that include cabernet franc and carmenere in the mix (the latter a nod to the company’s Chilean roots). This is the current release, and it could use some more time in the bottle. Today it’s a toasty, meaty, and robust wine, offering a density that keeps its fruit at bay. The chocolate-heavy finish is brooding and enticing. A- / $175
2013 Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon
– Brighter fruit and darker chocolate come together on a palate that offers notes of graphite, some light meat notes, and a spicy vanilla character that grows over time. Toasty with wood, it’s a real powerhouse of a wine that nonetheless offers a superb balance. A / $185
2011 Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon
– A bit weedy, with mushroom notes heavy on the nose. Beginning to oxidize, it shows barnyard notes on top of its overly soft body. Fruit emerges late in the game, but it’s a bit too little, too late at this price level. B / $195
2016 Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon
– Not yet released, it’s a wine with mild earth and a huge chocolate component. Clearly quite young at this point, its massive cassis component counterbalances a big tannic core. Early rating: B+ / $NA

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Christopher Null

Christopher Null is the founder and editor in chief of Drinkhacker. A veteran writer and journalist, he also operates Null Media, a bespoke content company.

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