There is no debate that the best known wine country in America has been under a lot of stress due to the economy, challenging grape growing weather, price cutting and carpetbagger-discounters. It’s been a struggle the past five years for the famed Napa Valley. What a difference a year has made. 2012 will be forever known as the great turn around year for this small place with the big reputation, that produces just 4 percent of California’s wine grapes but sells some 80 percent of its wines.I have come to be convinced that “mountain wines” in the Napa Valley are in many ways, the most intense and flavorful. Three appellations stand out, so let’s start with Mt. Veeder to the south, and Hess Collection, founded by Swiss born Donald Hess in 1978.
Hess now has 310 acres under vine on Mt. Veeder plus two other Napa vineyards and one in Monterey, and sustainably farmed according to the Hess philosophy: “nurture the land, return what you take.”
The wine name to know at Hess is the 2008 Mt. Veeder 19 Block Cuvee, a Cabernet based blend, with Malbec, Merlot and Syrah ($36 at the winery.)
At the northern edge of Napa Valley, way up on Howell Mountain, sits Robert Craig Winery.
This area begins at 1,400 feet above the fog, meaning warmer mornings and cooler afternoon breezes. Cabernets rule here and Zinfandels do well also. Rocky, volcanic soil allows porous conditions with superior drainage for deep roots. Robert Craig grows great Cabs at 2,400 feet on just 9 acres, planting only where nature allowed.
He has 34 acres at neighboring Spring Mountain. He was with Hess Collection when he founded his vineyard in 1978, then started the Robert Craig name in 1992.
He makes only mountain Cabernet and calls it the “Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove.” Try his flagship 2009 Affinity, a delicious splash of dark berry flavor with hints of espresso and anisette ($45 at the winery.)
November’s San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival brought in Michael Keenan of the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley, winemaker and owner of Robert Keenan Winery. The winery is known worldwide for its brilliantly crafted Merlots, harvested from Keenan’s three vineyards.
“We’re in a big turn around on price and quality,” he asserted. “My favorite wine is Merlot. It goes with almost everything I eat; it’s round and elegant with a sensual taste. It is an uphill struggle only because it doesn’t get the publicity other reds get, and too many wineries were making bad Merlot. The best thing that ever happened to Merlot was the movie ‘Sideways’ because it forced a lot of wineries to get rid of their mediocre Merlot. Women love it as an alternative to the tannic Cabernets.”
This year was excellent for the Merlot crop and gave it powerful flavor enhancement. I recommend the 2009 Keenan Napa Valley Merlot, a big tasting Merlot mostly from Spring Mountain ($36 at the winery.)
Wine Spectator has just revealed its No. 1 wine in the world and I am happy to announce, it’s a Napa Valley wine: the 2008 Shafer “Relentless” Blend, a combination of Syrah and Petite Syrah, made on a hill in the Stags Leap District. ($60 at the winery.)
Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas has an Italian Face-off Tour of the Boot tasting Dec. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. for $20. Details at (760) 479-2500.
A High End Bordeaux wine tasting happens at Bacchus Wine Market, downtown San Diego Dec. 8 from 2 to 8:30 p.m. Try world class Cabernet, Merlot and Meritage blends. Cost is $35. Call (619) 236-0005.
Dolce Pane E Vino in Rancho Santa Fe presents a B Cellars Wine Dinner Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. Some of the best from Napa Valley will be paired with the cuisine of two chefs. RSVP at (858) 832-1518.
Firefly Grill & Wine Bar in Encinitas is planning A Roth Estate Sonoma Wine Dinner Dec. 13 from 6:30 to 9 p.m., featuring Alexander Valley Cabernet 2009 with pan roasted Flat Iron Steak. $60. Call (760) 635-1066.