For establishing intimacy and focus, there’s nothing like sitting down to a meal and tasting with a vintner when you want to catch a glimpse of the vision and inspiration behind their wines. I recently had the chance to do just that with several local winemakers in Napa and Sonoma — and don’t worry, I took good notes.
Kapcsándy may not be the easiest name to pronounce, but take note if you love complex, balanced wines. Though there is a blessedly steady (if slow), trend toward lower alcohol, old world-style wines in the Wine Country lately, this Yountville vineyard — helmed by Lou Kapcsándy, his wife Roberta, and their son Louis Jr. — has been making these types of pours since 2000.
Lou, with winemaker Rob Lawson, lets Napa’s terroir fully express itself while staying close to old world principles — a philosophy that is apparent in his acclaimed State Lane Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. A Hungarian native, Lou’s roots manifest in his wines and his rustic tasting room centered around an 1800s wooden wine press from Hungary. I found the 2009 rosé (a cab-merlot blend with touch of petit verdot and cab franc) a unique beauty: more full and dense than many rosés yet managing to retain a crisp acidity. Roberta’s Reserve is a memorable wine, an homage to Pomerol and Bordeaux. The 2007 and 2008 are both understandably lauded vintages of Roberta’s, but I found the 2009, young as it is, to hold intriguing promise. It’s already drinking beautifully, with hints of cassis, blossoms, cherries, and earthy cocoa.
1001 State, Yountville. (707) 948-3100, www.kapcsandywines.com
The transformations at Raymond Vineyards have to be seen to be believed. Although it has been a historic St. Helena vineyard since 1970 known primarily for its cabernet, it’s not the vineyard’s rich heritage — or even its wines — that stand out most today: it’s the changes wrought to its grounds by Boisset Family Estates, a global company with Burgundy roots that now owns the vineyard.
Delightfully eccentric Jean-Charles Boisset is the spirit behind the new era at Raymond. “I love personally the word[s] sexy and voluptuous,” he tells me after we’ve descended into the Crystal Cellar (where cabernet tastings go for $25), a room that has been lined with steel to give the effect of being inside a wine vat. An explosion of Baccarat crystal shimmers off its walls, vats, and giant mirrors glinting around us. Encased vintage crystal decanters are inscribed with wine descriptors — in lipstick.
From the moment you glimpse the interactive art exhibits on the lawn, you know something unusual is afoot here. A “Theatre of Nature” self-guided tour of the grounds — which include a pool and midcentury house — is in the works, as is a fashion show on the Crystal Cellar’s catwalk.
We were the first to taste in the vineyard’s newly unveiled guest room (now available for group tastings and private parties). It housed gold and white leather couches covered in fur throws, a stuffed leopard standing guard in the corner, a dining table set with black and gold plates featuring each of the seven deadly sins (perhaps prophetically, I got “gluttony”). The pièce de résistance: a giant flat-screen rimmed in gold — of course! — playing Jackson 5 music videos.
I’ve never had another wine tasting experience like it. Boisset is currently working on a red room (in “all red — and velvet”) and releasing two bubblies, including a rosé, to taste there this summer.
All this flair naturally leaves one wondering: are the wines any good? In fact, the new French pours are far better than their predecessors, even if the new Raymond is about the one-of-a-kind tasting experience.
Boisset’s JCB wines do have their pleasures. They’re playful and more balanced than many Napa wines, the No. 81 Chardonnay and No. 7 pinot noir allowing for nice acidity. He and Raymond winemaker Stephanie Putnam teamed up to make the No. 1 cabernet, which reflects both Napa and French sensibilities.
Boisset clearly leads in innovation, and he has a passion to bring California wines to the world. The man’s on a mission to make wine hip, approachable, and, yes, sexy.
849 Zinfandel, St. Helena. (707) 963-3141, www.raymondvineyards.com
Richard Arrowood — a Sonoma winemaker for 45 years — and wife Alis are charmers. Over lunch at Wayfare Tavern, we spent hours talking and tasting wines from his young Glen Ellen boutique winery Amapola Creek.
This is Arrowood’s passion project. He produces wines typifying the robust grapes of the Mayacamas Mountains located near the town of Sonoma. After decades of creating wines for major players like Chateau St. Jean and his own Arrowood Winery, he’s having fun with small batches — his current operation produces a maximum of 3,000 cases annually.
Though lush, Arrowood’s 2008 zinfandel — and original 2005 zin — shows restraint, with enough tannins and acidity to keep it food-friendly (ideal paired with Wayfare’s medium-rare steak). The zin benefits from a rare asset: 115-year-old vines located in a tiny lot at neighboring Monte Rosso Vineyards. His 2007 syrah and cabernet sauvignon are bold and black, fruit-heavy yet balanced with tannins and delicate spice accents (the cab is CCOF certified organic). He’s also working on a grenache-syrah blend, so watch for more Amapola Creek wines on the way.
(707) 938-3783, www.amapolacreek.com
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article was incorrectly edited to say Miller thought Raymond Vineyard’s current batch of wines were inferior to those produced when the vineyard was family-run; she actually thinks the reverse is true. The Guardian regrets the error, and promises to drink less wine while editing our contributing writers.