Summer Wines and Summer Evenings

Our long-awaited summer is here, with its see-saw temperatures of hot days and cool nights. In the hills above Napa Valley, where almost every evening the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean sweep away the day’s heat (making it an ideal place to ripen grapes), we rarely get to enjoy ourselves outside at nighttime without a sweater. I have come to adore the handful of evenings we get every summer when the day’s hot air remains trapped in the valley, the onshore breezes carrying the coastal fog stalled out at sea for a short time. Those evenings—warm, balmy and virtually insect-free—are the best part of summer. When it looks like one is coming, I try to rearrange our schedule so we can fire up the grill, invite a few friends over and enjoy ourselves in the warm night air with some summer wine.

This summer the wines on our table are the 2010 Olema Chardonnay and the 2011 Amici Sauvignon Blanc. I reach for the Chard when I’m in the mood for something with good acidity, balanced by round, tropical notes that the wine gets from being 50/50 barrel and stainless fermented, and 75% malolactic. It’s superb with cedar plank wild salmon fresh off the grill.

The Sauv Blanc is my choice when I’m looking for a complex wine that has hints of minerality alongside the fruit flavors. I love the elegance of its layers of honeysuckle, guava and melon offset by its clean, wet stone minerality. To create all these complexities Joel blended 80% Sauvignon Musque and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, and barrel fermented 25%.

When plans change at the last minute and we have an impromptu gathering to take advantage of one of those lovely warm evenings outside, I need to keep dinner plans super simple. We like to grill some halibut steaks, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and finish them with this super simple but wonderfully flavorful Lime Butter Sauce, which I adapted from Gourmet magazine years ago. Serve with Amici Sauvignon Blanc and a balmy evening, and it’s a summer match made in heaven.

Lime Butter Sauce
1/2 large garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsated butter, melted

Puree garlic with lime juice, salt, and pepper in a blender until smooth. With the motor running, add melted butter and blend until emulsified, about 30 seconds.

The Quieter Side of Napa Valley

A friend of mine recently referred to St. Helena as the “land of the right hand turn.” I got good laugh out of that one because we both knew, from his shorthand reference, exactly what he meant: that God forbid you find yourself, on a weekend afternoon during the summer, on Highway 29 in St. Helena having to make a left hand turn. As you sit there in the your car, stranded in the center of the road, blinker clicking endlessly as the cars full of irritated people back up behind you and the line of cars coming towards you extends into the horizon, your blood pressure tends to rise and your patience fray. We love our visitors in the Napa Valley and we certainly recognize where our bread is buttered, but the fact of the matter is the valley can get a bit crowded around this time of year. It helps to have some strategies to cope.

It’s a great idea for visitors to consider using Calistoga as their home base during their stay in the wine country. Calistoga, by virtue of its location in the north tip of the Napa Valley, stays a bit quieter throughout the busy season, which allows visitors to decide how much of the crowds and bustling nature of the valley you want to bite off. You may want to throw yourself into the thick of it one day, do some shopping, dining, and of course wine tasting along with the crowds, but it’s also really nice to have the ability to decide the next day that you want a quieter day, maybe a day to poke around Calistoga which retains its small farming town charm.

A perfect day for those who want a quieter Napa Valley experience is to start your day with one of the excellent cappuccinos at Calistoga Roastery or, for those who like a little more fuel to power them, breakfast at our down-home favorite, Café Sarafornia. After breakfast, explore the variety of shops on Lincoln Avenue, which meld a level of sophistication with a folksy lack of pretension. Along with art galleries, boutique clothing shops, and wine stores, you’ll find an independent bookstore filled with local favorites, my kids’ favorite candy shop, and a hardware store full of hardworking people with dirt under their fingernails. After shopping, pick up some sandwiches from Palisades Deli and visit one or two of the small, family-owned wineries in the area. For visitors whose only experience of Napa Valley wine tasting is at the large wineries along 29 that are open to the public, it is surprising to find that it is a completely different experience to go to small winery where visitors often get to sit and chat with the owner, hearing the ins and outs of winemaking and vineyards from someone on the ground floor. That personal connection makes the wine come alive in your glass in a whole new way.

Finish up your day with dinner at any one of the fantastically reviewed restaurants in Calistoga, perhaps accompanied by a bottle of the wine you tasted earlier that day at a local winery. All in all, I’d say that’s a perfect day for those in search of the quieter side of Napa Valley.

2012 – A Blockbuster Vintage in the Making?

I know, I should have my wrist slapped for writing a title like that in June, with the entire summer growing season and the fall harvest still ahead of us. It’s just that, after two consecutive vintages of unpredictable weather, everyone around Napa Valley is looking for a perfectly predictable season, something that we sometimes take for granted growing grapes here in California compared to, say, France.

 With an assortment of odd weather phenomena during 2010 and 2011, from June rains to cool summers to early fall rains (all interspersed by periods of our typical beautiful warm weather) those vintages truly tested the mettle of winemakers here in the valley. Those with experience were successful when making the gut calls on when to pull in the grapes and when to let them hang to further ripening. We felt fortunate in 2010 and 2011 to have a winemaker with 27 consecutive harvests in Napa Valley under his belt, but let’s just say Joel had a bit more hair in 2009.

 If grape growers and winemakers are ready for a good harvest, it seems that the vines are in agreement. One look at the clusters on the vines today, and you can see something noticeably different from the years past: huge clusters point towards yields significantly greater than those of recent years. Having produced low yields for several successive vintages, the vines have extra energy stored and look like they want to use it.

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So far, Mother Nature is cooperating for Vintage 2012. We started off with a dry winter, but thanks to several drenching rainstorms in March and April, the vines got a deep soak and reservoirs are full. The summer growing season is progressing as it should, with sunny skies and warm but not hot weather (a primary indicator of this year’s normalcy is that Auction Napa Valley, held the first week of June, was warm and sunny, not wet and muddy like 2011).

Sometimes “typical” and “predictable” are welcome terms. Here’s to 2012, and the hopes that it goes down in the books as one boring year. So far, so good.

Auction Napa Valley 2012

The gray clouds and rain moved in at just the right time on Monday morning, as out of town attendees for this year’s Auction Napa Valley were loading their bags into cars destined for the airport, and vintners were getting little extra sleep after another successful auction. The weather had been warm and beautiful during the weekend festivities, and everyone’s spirits around the valley are bouyed by the fact that the total auction proceeds this year are a whopping $8.1 million, up from last year’s $7.3 million.

At Amici we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly over this annual weekend of fun, wine and friends. At Friday’s barrel auction, Joel poured his 2010 Amici Cellars Gary Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This single-vineyard wine from the famed Morisoli Vineyard on Napa’s Rutherford Bench was a huge hit with attendees and bidding on case lots from the barrel was active. The ten lucky top bidders will be receiving their cases next summer after the wine is bottled.

Bidding was also heated for our e-auction lot, featuring a weekend stay at the Amici guest house for three couples, private vineyard tour and barrel tasting, gourmet wine-pairing lunch prepared by our chef, and two cases of Amici single-vineyard reserve wines. The e-auction bidding was open for seven days, and reached its peak just before close on Sunday night as several bidders competed for the lot. We’re excited to host the winning bidders soon, and show them the time of their lives!

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Fun was had by all at the barrel auction on Friday, held this year in the beautiful caves at Jarvis Winery.