Tasting a wine from a much-loved region is, for me, a kind of virtual travel. A wine bottle contains an area’s essence. Pull the cork and the spirit of the place emerges like a genie. Unable to visit the Napa Valley, I have been tasting wines that remind me of the many sun-soaked and carefree days I have spent there over the years. Despite COVID-19, I’m told that a small number of private winery tours are still taking place under stringent health protocols, but in the main the winemakers are like the rest of us, in suspended animation, waiting for normality to return. So I asked our Wine Concierge, Hal Oates, to describe his three top wineries to visit when the valley reopens. Oates has also provided tasting notes for six outstanding wines that members can purchase to enjoy now. At least we can travel to Napa in our imaginations.
Colgin Cellars wins my vote for Napa’s grandest hilltop estate, with a spectacular outlook across Lake Hennessey and distant Mount St. Helena. Scaling Napa’s famous Pritchard Hill to experience the Colgin Cabernets is to ascend to the pinnacle of American wine. Robert Parker described Colgin Cellars as a “magnificent estate with Shangri-La like beauty” and has awarded its Cabernets more 100-point ratings than those of any other winery in Napa.
The Pritchard Hill appellation is home to several of California’s most spectacular wineries. Colgin’s neighbor Tim Mondavi once told me that the concentration of elite vineyards here is likely a result of a distinctive terroir that contributes to the remarkable complexity of the wines. A rugged upland, Pritchard Hill has volcanic soils strewn with boulders and rocks that tumbled down the slopes of an ancient crater more than 4 million years ago.
For wine connoisseurs, tasting with Ann Colgin is akin to meeting their favorite film star on a Hollywood studio’s
Proprietor Ann Colgin introduced her eponymous Cabernet-based blends to wine collectors three decades ago. Since then, Colgin reds have seen a steady rise in stature, becoming some of the world’s most coveted wines. The acclaimed IX Estate Vineyard comprises 20 acres of terrain, on which the slopes range from gentle to steep, at elevations from 1,150 to 1,350 feet. The winery is built on a palatial scale and even has built-in speakers to play arias to the grapes during the first days after harvest!
For wine connoisseurs, tasting with Ann Colgin is akin to meeting their favorite film star on a Hollywood studio’s back lot. Yet she is a delightful and vivacious person who is remarkably down-to-earth considering her fame. Colgin’s IX Estate Cabernet vineyard delivers wines with a sense of place and a soulfulness reminiscent of venerable first-growth Bordeaux. We were also dazzled by the IX Estate Syrah, as it reminded us of favorite Hermitage bottlings from France’s Rhône Valley.
Ann Colgin’s perseverance has resulted in a portfolio of wines that are worthy of their cult status, and her team’s gracious hospitality makes this tasting a truly remarkable experience.
Colgin IX Estate 2016
Many aficionados consider Colgin IX Estate 2016 ($695/bottle) the “Wine of the Vintage,” as Robert Parker awarded it 100 points and the Wine Spectator gave it the top rating for Napa. Colgin’s newest release is supremely satisfying with a cashmere-like texture and depth of glorious flavors. This Cabernet-based blend feels tightly wound for now but promises to mature gracefully for at least a decade. A bouquet of violets and chocolate-covered espresso beans lead to a symphony of black currants and black cherries, and hints of Toblerone chocolate. The statuesque finish includes notes of olive tapenade and truffles.
Colgin IX Estate Syrah 2016
The first impression of the Colgin IX Estate Syrah 2016 ($375/bottle) is a harmony of deftly balanced tannins, cassis-style fruit and deeply complex spices (anise, vanilla, potpourri) reminiscent of Chave Hermitage or Guigal “La Turque” Côte-Rôtie. This vintage boasts a profound perfume of smoked meat, lightly toasted oak, graphite, violets, leather, licorice and blackberry liqueur. A velvety texture leads to layer upon layer of spicy blue and black fruits, and a finish lasting more than a minute. Words can hardly do justice to the tension between its semisweet and savory flavors, such as grilled fig and jamón serrano. Savor every sip now — after decanting for 30 minutes — or, better yet, bury it in the cellar to enjoy a decade hence.
Napa’s most ambitious new winery of the past decade is Kenzo. It is owned by a Japanese entrepreneur, Kenzo Tsujimoto, CEO of Capcom, an Osaka-based video game developer and publisher. Kenzo became a wine enthusiast on trips to France and, later, Napa Valley.
Visiting the estate feels like entering a hidden kingdom, as it encompasses Napa’s largest single property at almost 4,000 acres (or five times the size of New York’s Central Park). As well as vineyards, it contains streams, spring-fed reservoirs and abundant wildlife. Our visit began at the imposing, mountaintop entrance gates, after which the trip to the actual winery and private tasting room entailed a 20-minute journey through forests of conifer, oak and manzanita.
Visiting the estate feels like entering a hidden kingdom, as it encompasses Napa’s largest single property at almost 4,000 acres.
The wines are highly sought after by collectors but remain virtually unattainable, as the majority of bottles are reserved for the owner’s Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan and, more recently, downtown Napa. Collectors clamor for these wines because they are a historic collaboration between two of the most revered practitioners in Napa Valley: original Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Barrett and “cult” Cabernet viticulturalist David Abreu. When Kenzo secured the property, he had the great foresight to enlist their talents.
During the winery tasting, we savored the hospitality in a sampling suite overlooking the groomed vineyards. The elegant and well-structured Cabernets mesmerized us, as did the incredibly refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, plus the finest rosé I’ve discovered outside Provence.
Kenzo Estate “Rindo” 2017
Kenzo Estate “Rindo” 2017 ($155/bottle) is an early contender for the Bordeaux-style blend of the vintage in this price category. Its texture is ultra-silky smooth, preparing your palate for the excitement to come. This dazzling new release begins with a flashy bouquet that includes lavender, sultry dark fruit notes and fresh oak from the French barrels. Hints of baking spices and Swiss milk chocolate on the mid-palate evolve gracefully, boding well for enjoyment over the next decade.
Kenzo Estate “Yui” Rosé 2019
Kenzo Estate “Yui” Rosé 2019 ($95/bottle) is a particularly vibrant new vintage. It has hints of spring flowers in its aroma, but flexes a bit of muscle on the palate, displaying classic notes of ripe strawberry and crisp cherry, plus a refreshing brightness that culminates in a memorable finish. This is a perfect spring and summer sipper that will delight now or age for at least two more years.
The Eisele Vineyard was originally planted in the 1880s and over the years has become one of America’s most highly prized — and highly priced — sources for grapes. It is located in the northernmost region of Napa Valley, near Calistoga, and benefits from cool morning breezes flowing down from the nearby Vaca mountain range, followed by extended afternoon heat. Eisele’s most cherished plots are adjacent to a seasonal riverbed that adds incalculable complexity and diversity of flavors to the grapes. The vineyard’s list of clients since the 1970s features a who’s who of Napa luminaries such as Paul Draper and Joseph Phelps.
Each bottling represents a sublime combination of Napa terroir with centuries of French winemaking artistry.
Bart and Daphne Araujo acquired the property just prior to the birth of Napa’s “cult Cabernet” revolution in the early 1990s, and the Araujo brand went on to gain worldwide fame. More recently, the Eisele Vineyard caught the eye of French billionaire businessman François-Henri Pinault. It became part of his Groupe Artémis, which owns several of the world’s most coveted wines, including Château Latour in Bordeaux, as well as Christie’s auction house and luxury brands Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga. Shortly after the sale in 2013, Robert Parker described the transaction as a “seminal moment” that would, once and for all, confirm Napa’s reputation as the source of some of the most consistently high-quality wines on earth.
As our guide escorted us through the hallowed grounds of the estate, the sense of history was palpable, and we felt privileged to be able to tour vineyards that have played a leading role in establishing the reputation of Napa Valley wines. Having strolled through the groomed gardens and explored the vast network of caves, we headed to the estate house.
Our affable host explained that Eisele Vineyard has followed organic and biodynamic practices for the last two decades. The vines are clearly flourishing, and this is reflected in the superb quality of every wine we sampled. Each bottling represents a sublime combination of Napa terroir with centuries of French winemaking artistry. Thanks to substantial investment and the ownership’s long-term vision, the wines are now being crafted at an incomparable level of taste and complexity. One example of the Latour influence was a decision to reduce the scale of production of the winery’s flagship estate bottling in order to focus on the vineyard rows closest to the aforementioned riverbed. Wine critics have taken note, awarding multiple 100-point ratings. After sampling a portfolio of current and library vintages, we concur wholeheartedly.
Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2012 (Library)
Positively awe-inspiring after years spent in the winery’s private library, the Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2012 (Library) ($395/bottle) offers a distinguished experience now and will continue to dazzle throughout this decade. The supple texture introduces notes of dark fruit, baking spices and hints of espresso, deftly balanced by refined tannins and perfectly integrated oak. The majestic finish lasts a full minute with sultry notes of black truffles and exotic herbs. This is one of the most handsomely aged Napa reds we’ve sampled in years, and it should continue to age beautifully through 2030.
Eisele Estate Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2018
Eisele Estate Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($109/bottle) delivers a flawlessly balanced blend of ultra-fresh citrus fruit and a sumptuous and silky texture. Ethereal aromas of lemon zest and honeysuckle lead to delightful notes of caramelized grapefruit slices, crème brûlée and freshly baked apple pie. This voluptuous white wine delivers tremendous purity of fruit with an elegant minerality to add a layer of sophistication infrequently achieved in Sauvignon Blanc. Enjoy over the next four to five years.
Andrew Harper's Wine Concierge, Hal Oates of Porthos, provides personalized recommendations to members, helping longtime collectors expand their cellars and more-casual wine lovers explore new bottlings. He can also arrange visits to top wineries ordinarily not open to the public. Visit Porthos for details on private tours this fall, as well as to gain special access to the rare wines highlighted in this story.